Geoffrey Kirk asks whether Scripture has a trajectory of increasing inclusion

I had, at the university, a friend who after the required amount of alcohol would announce that he could summarize the meaning of Hamlet in two sentences. Needless to say, the sentences invariably satisfied him and no one else, and when sobriety returned, even he would admit the absurdity of the project. If two sentences were enough, why write Hamlet?

The idea that the whole thrust or trajectory of Scripture leads inexorably to the present moment is a bold one. But, in one sense, it is perfectly understandable. Just as historians, for the most part, speak not about the past but to the present, so exegetes are under considerable pressure in modern Academe to make the text appear ‘relevant’. If what they suppose ‘matters’ in the ambient culture is the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, then – all evidence to the contrary aside – that is what Scripture must be ‘about’.

The notion that a scriptural trajectory leads directly to the present revolutionary moment depends crucially on three assertions: first, that the Genesis narrative of the creation of Adam and Eve is about the equality of the sexes and not about hierarchy between them; second, that Galatians 3.28 takes up the same theme; third, that Acts 15 is a debate about whether or not the Church ought to admit non-Jews. All three propositions – at the extremities, so to say, of the biblical narrative – are seriously questionable.

The Genesis account certainly affirms that men and women are equally made in the image of God (and so equally capable of the renewal of that image by incorporation into the body of Christ, the true imago Dei [John 14.9: ‘Philip. He who has seen me has seen the Father’]).

But the narrative nevertheless suggests a hierarchy of relationship between them. Adam is created first, and Eve from his side. Adam names Eve, with all that such naming implies in the Old Testament tradition.

The citation from the letter to the Galatians cannot and should not be read in isolation from its wider context in the Pauline corpus. In parallel passages, Paul makes no mention of male and female [cf. 1 Cor. 12.13; Col. 3.11]. Anyone in search of his last word on male/female relations would be wise to turn not to Galatians 3.28, but to Ephesians 5, which is a very different and, to those advocating male/female equivalence, less accommodating story.

Lastly, it is not at all clear that the ‘Council of Jerusalem’ involved a landmark decision about the ‘inclusion’ of Gentiles in the Church. More plausible is the conclusion that the earliest Christians were all equally eager to fulfil the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19 (‘Go, disciple all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’). The question was not whether this should be done, but how.

The Great Commission was consonant with current Jewish practice in incorporating God-fearers, and was in any case a fulfilment of prophecy (Isa. 2.2-4: ‘And it shall come to pass in the latter days the mountains of the Lord’s House shall be established in the top of the mountains… and all nations shall flow to it’, etc.).

The question they were considering was: is circumcision as well as baptism to be required of male Gentiles? It was concluded not. Paul summarizes the theological implications of the Jerusalem decision at Colossians 2.8ff.

The trajectory theory (like the Whig interpretation of history, from which it takes obvious inspiration) is deeply flawed. It is, as Roger Scruton has said of its secular equivalent, ‘an extremely biased view of the past: eager to hand out moral judgements, and distorted by teleology, anachronism and present-mindedness.’

Who, after all, could trust an exegetical technique whose principle tenet is that the past must inevitably bear out conclusions which the exegete herself has already embraced in the present?