"Legitimate Rape" and the Reformed Tradition: A Guest Post

As a response to Rod’s post last week on Akin, sexuality, and rape, the conservative Reformed theological tradition [calvinist], Jeremy McLellan, writer and member of the Presbyterian Church in America offered to write a response, that is posted here on Political Jesus. Here’s Rod’s post, as a reference, The Quest for the Historical Mary: Akin, Rape Culture, and Christianity. You can contact Jeremy at jeremy.mclellan@gmail.com or comment in the post below.

Oil painting of a young John Calvin.

Oil painting of a young John Calvin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a member of the PCA and a graduate of Covenant College, I want to address the characterizations and concerns that Rod put forward last Thursday about the connection between Todd Akin‘s comments and our shared theological and ecclesial tradition.

In brief, I want to defend Calvinism from these charges, yet end with how a Reformed member of the PCA might challenge and critique Akin’s statements. I am bracketing off Rod’s broader point about secular Mariologies, which I think are unaffected by what I’m challenging.

First, Rod asserts that the Reformed version of supercessionism separates theology and history, but offers no proof to back up this claim. It is true that like nearly all Christian traditions, we believe the Church to be the continuation of the promise to Israel and therefore reject a “dual covenant” that confers any special parallel status to contemporary Judaism. But this type of supercessionism has nothing to do with how the biblical scholar or theologian regards the Jewishness of Scripture or our own status as Gentiles. After all, Tom Wright and Jimmy Dunn have expressed surprise that members of the PCA (being the theological heirs of Calvin, Ridderbos, and Vos) have spent so much time opposing the New Perspectives on Paul and its cousin the Federal Vision, precisely because the Reformed tradition has always affirmed a much more positive view of the Law as a form of God’s self-disclosure (Jer. 22:16) that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Second, Rod writes that the leadership of the PCA “has worked to silence scholars mentioning anything positive about Second Temple Judaism.” It is true that recent scholarship challenges a common way of figuring the “works of the law,” and this might have implications for exegeting passages that mention justification (particularly Galatians and James). So if Jews weren’t trying to earn their way into heaven, then what is Paul using the doctrine of justification by faith to address?

The problem is that no position paper has been published or trial has ever been conducted against “saying anything positive about Second Temple Judaism.” Professors of history and theology at Reformed institutions would find that characterization puzzling. At issue is whether those who reject the common caricature of the Jews (especially the Galatians) as semi-Pelagians also reject the doctrines that were developed with that caricature assumed, such as justification by faith, imputation, sacraments mediated by the Holy Spirit, and the perseverance of the saints. Those in the Federal Vision (post-Shepherd) who have been re-examined or tried for heresy have been exonerated for this very reason.

Third, Rod says the Wesminster Confession of Faith “is THE standard for the PCA in interpreting Scripture,” but this is misleading. The WCF’s first chapter states “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” The Westminster Standards are not, strictly speaking, HOW we interpret Scripture, but what we believe results from our correct but fallible interpretation of Scripture.

This is important for his other claims, because it’s exactly why PCA Position Papers are not enough to convict anyone of heresy, such as denying the imputation of Christ’s active obedience or affirming that baptism unites (in a limited way) even the reprobate to Christ. It is also why Leithart, Meyers, and Wilkens were exonerated by their presbyteries even though they held those minority positions. While we are certainly to receive the reports as pious advice and they are in some limited sense “what the PCA believe,” we are free to consider them poorly written, cited, and argued.

Finally, Rod asserts that Akin “believes that the blame of rape falls solely on the victims” and that “rape victims are cast as liars in conservative Reformed traditions.” None of the citations he provided support this view. While it is true that Akin cited a pseudo-scientific theory that (if true) might imply that a rape victim who became pregnant was either complicit (as in Augustine) or lying (a possibility foolishly mentioned in the OPC report), neither Mr. Akin nor anyone else I have read has ever said that the guilt falls on the victim. Even if they did, it is inconceivable to me one could place the blame at the feet of John Calvin or the Westminster Divines, since our entire theology rests on our refusal to infer desert from outcome!

A Reformed Response to Todd Akin

What would a charitable yet critical response look like from within the Reformed tradition? What are we to make of Akin’s comments?

The most charitable interpretation of Mr. Akin’s comments would be that he was using the phrase “legitimate rape” within the context of his belief that the female reproductive system had fallible ways of preventing conception if exposed to rape. This is of course false, and its assertion exhibits the kind of motivated reasoning common in the American culture wars. But it does not imply desert any more than the existence of my immune system implies that, if I do catch a cold, I am either complicit in the infection or lying about it to get out of work.

On the other hand, not only was Akin’s assertion false, but what he said was a certain kind of false belief that’s “akin” to thinking blacks don’t take showers, mentally ill people are violent, or gays molest children. If someone repeated those falsehoods, I would obviously correct their facts, but I would also doubt that they knew or listened to anyone who was black, mentally ill, or gay. I would also question whether they possessed the habits necessary to discover such truths, such as proactively checking their facts, listening to opposition charitably, and being willing/eager to be corrected.

In other words, the question is not just whether a politician thinks things that are true or false, but whether they possess the intellectual virtues that lead to the discovery of truth. I don’t fault Akin for speaking untruth, but for a lack of concern for truth in the service of affirming an admirable moral conclusion. This is in some respects a graver problem than intentionally speaking what one knows to be false in order to deceive. Stanley Hauerwas once said, “Lying is actually a considerable moral achievement.”

This needn’t be the case. Our own Westminster Larger Catechism treats these issues in a grave manner. Rape and incest are specifically forbidden (Q139) and we have an affirmative duty to the preservation of others from rape (138). To everyone, including those who are victims of sexual assault, we owe “the preservation and promotion of their good name,” “charitable esteem,” “defending their innocence,” and “an unwillingness to admit of an evil report concerning them.” We are further prohibited from “giving false evidence,” “unnecessary discovering of infirmities,” “raising false rumors,” and “receiving and countenancing evil reports.” We are additionally prohibited from “giving false evidence, “unnecessary discovering of infirmities; raising false rumors, receiving and countenancing evil reports, and stopping our ears against just defense” and “evil suspicion.”

It is quite difficult to imagine anyone bound to that standard believing in good conscience that the victim of rape or incest deserves it or implying without proof that her allegation is false. If they do, the fault lies with them and those who are charged with holding them accountable, not the Reformed tradition or the Westminster Divines.

Still, all Reformed Christians–even the most traditional complementarians in the PCA/OPC–should work to foster the conditions, practices, discipline, and virtues through which knowledge of the truth can be produced. Our own Standards demand it.

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13 thoughts on “"Legitimate Rape" and the Reformed Tradition: A Guest Post

  1. Bill

    Excellent post, Jeremy! As someone who lives in Mr. Akin’s congressional district here in the suburbs of St. Louis, MO, I can say how personally horrified I was to hear of his comments even now weeks later. They were horrifying and hilarious at the same time, in a sick kind of way. Even though I never voted for the guy, I do feel like he is “one of us,” and plus, he and I both graduated from the same seminary with the same degree (decades apart). The best way to describe what he said, besides “offensive,” is just “bizarre.” And “superstitious,” the kind of superstition that shrouds the other in exotic-ness, like attributing super/demonic powers to an enemy. But that’s the problem here, isn’t it? Women have become the enemy in this culture-war that the PCA and so many other evangelical denominations (and non-denominations) have gotten sucked up into.

    1. RodtRDH

      “Women have become the enemy in this culture-war that the PCA and so many other evangelical denominations (and non-denominations) have gotten sucked up into.”

      Nicely put, Bill!

  2. Jennifer

    Your angle is incohesive and uncompelling.

    First off, Todd Akin was being disingenuous. He CLAIMS (sort of) to be against abortion in cases of rape, yet he and equally inconsistent Paul Ryan co-authored a bill prohibiting federal funding of abortions with the EXCEPTION of rape. (the wording is “forcible” rape though, not “legitimate” rape) — this violates Christian teaching for the sake of political expediency: typical: Biblical mandates take a backseat to Republican victories and worshipping at the altar of America.

    Secondly: Todd Akin revealed a man who was practically numb to the plight of rape victims. The very word “rape” should harness a reflex of both horror and compassion in our Christ and cross-centered consciences…But in typical Presbyterian fashion, (and I say this as a Reformed Presbyterian) to Akin, rape victims are just political positions on pieces of paper…the way many of his seminary peers minimize Jesus into a set of doctrinal points, facts, and statements. Hence the utter lack of Christlike heartfeltness in his answer.

    Not only that but complementarian fanaticism in churches leads one to be in denial of the plight of women and girls around the world. Instead, women are seen as threats and enemies in some brutal quest for domination, not as the victims of injustice throughout the globe deserving of our prayers and efforts to realize their full status as image bearers of the living God and co-stewards of the planet.

    To complementarians, rape and domestic violence are not problems in our communities and churches: NO evil career women are! And some will go so far as to blame Christian men’s addiction to hardcore porn ON “unsubmissive” wives!!!

    Akin revealed his shame for the name of Christ in a situation where one’s witness may inconvenience one’s ambitions. When answering the question, he avoided citing any of his personal spiritual convictions –even though this is the ultimate social issue that should be wholly undivorced from them. It’s easy to say “Praise God” to your constiuents after winning a primary, it’s not as easy to say to undecided voters Jesus and the Word of God is your moral compass (as it has been for many leaders before him.) That your Christian faith is why you believe the unborn should be proteced even in cases of rape…No, instead he tried to conjure up some scientific, legal, “rational” argument and look what happened. He probably would have WON votes had he just cited his faith and left it at that. Abortion is not a “rational” issue–Just like Jesus is not a “doctrinal” issue—He is a living person we are called to embody.

    Akin failed to do that and his careless words instead brought shame to many in the Christian community…The very community that should be known instead for our unconditional love and work on behalf of vulnerable women and children.

    I actually don’t doubt Todd Akin’s pro-life heart: but his party uses it as a talking point issue to win elections. And Christians (me included) need to ask if merely “voting” pro-life is really “living” pro-life and serving sacrificially. The Republican Party cares ultimately about serving mammon and the American Dream. Akin might be called to politics, but he needs to re-evaluate who is master is. You cannot serve two masters.

    1. Jeremy McLellan


      I’m sorry I was so uncompelling and uncohesive, because I agree with most of what you have to say. One of the limits of posts like this is that I couldn’t include everything I think about an issue. Considering I follow this blog, I hope you’d give me a little more credit! My main point was that being Reformed has very little to do with Akin’s comments, and he can be most effectively rebuked by appealing to the standards he has vowed to uphold. If someone in your church is an unrepentant sexist or racist, drag them before the Session! 

      A few more things:

      1. I do not defend Republicans or pro-lifers contorting language (“forcible” or “legitimate” rape) to effect policies that reduce the numbers of abortions. That’s exactly what I am objecting to when I say Akin violated the WLC 145. If they want to allow exceptions for rape or incest because they think that’s a compromise worth making to reduce the number of abortions, I wouldn’t fault them for that, but they are doing it badly if they do it by redefining rape (unless they are going to start defending “Romeo and Juliet” laws, cause that’d be great!)

      2. You say that “rape victims are just political positions on pieces of paper” in “typical Presbyterian fashion” but I would see that as a product of the culture wars beginning in the 1970s. What does Reformed theology or Presbyterian ecclesiology have to do with it? Surely the fact that you and I still identify as Reformed Presbyterians says something about whether these are necessary faults or just pernicious parasites on the best of our tradition. 

      3. You point out “the way many of his seminary peers minimize Jesus into a set of doctrinal points, facts, and statements.” What evidence do you have for this? I mean, I think that’d be true of any group of confessional Christians, but what makes CTS particularly bad? As far as “the utter lack of Christlike heartfeltness in his answer,” you’ll find no argument here. 

      4. How would you show that complementarianism “leads one to be in denial of the plight of women and girls around the world”? Even though my main point is that complementarianism needn’t lead to this (and if it does they are violating our standards by ), what evidence is there that the Reformed version of complementarianism (typically derived from federal headship) is lax in its fight against the plight of women around the world? Would we compare which denominations fund more battered women’s shelters or are most involved in third world struggles to stop the use of rape in war? (I’m genuinely interested in the answer, because if you include Catholics and non-US Anglicans in the numbers, I think you’d be surprised to find how much of the workload is born by complementarians.)

      5. Again, if you find someone (I assume the Wilsons?) blaming porn addiction on unsubmissive wives, would that not also violate several clauses in WLC 146? The Wilsons are in the CREC, but if someone in the PCA kept saying that after being rebuked, I’d certainly tell their Session. 

      6. I agree with the rest of what you say about Akin and Republicans, but it just wasn’t directly relevant to what I was trying to do: show how being Reformed has little to do with Akin’s behavior). I’m not a Republican (mostly for the reasons you cite), I won’t vote for one in November, I don’t vote exclusively pro-life, and I wouldn’t vote for Akin if I lived in Missouri for the reasons I stated in my piece. 

        1. Jeremy McLellan

          Thanks. I’m not sure what else to add, though. The burden of proving that the Reformed tradition is necessarily complicit in all this rests on y’all. I think the remarks y’all are pointing to can be much better explained as just coming from older conservative Southern white privileged males who are in churches that won’t discipline their members for shit like this. Since I’m all of those things except the last part, I’m not shifting the blame away from “my people” but I am showing how you can rebuke them with the standards they subscribe to.

  3. Jennifer

    I actually wanted to delete my sentence about the post being incohesive and uncompelling, ugh but it won’t allow me to edit it. SO sorry. I just meant I didn’t think Westminster catechism stuff played a role in Akin’s handling of the situation and veers discussion away from the real issues at hand (some of which do have to do with the PCA.)

    1. Jeremy McLellan

      We’re on the Internet so I didn’t take it personally. The reason I use the Westminster Standards wasn’t because I think Akin or the Wilsons followed it, but because they clearly didn’t when they said that stuff, so you can’t blame the whole system. I certainly wasn’t raised or taught to say anything resembling that shit and I’m in the freaking South Carolina Presbytery of the PCA! You would at least have to prove more than correlation.

  4. Jennifer

    Jeremy, agreed. You bring up a lot of great points both in your post and followup comments. As Bill touched on, too many PCA-ers seem more tied by their culture war-ness than the creeds we claim to espouse. What are your feelings about interdenominational, “Reformed” organizations like Gospel Coalition and the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood?

    1. Jeremy McLellan

      Jennifer, generally I’m skeptical of interdenominational coalition organizations, though I’m not sure I have a coherent reason why other than temperament. I will say that it’s very important to me to be embedded in a local church with a functioning hierarchy and standards that I am at least “answerable” to. I think coalitions that are self-selecting lack that authority. How do you criticize a writer if they are primarily answerable to a group they created?

      Because churches are mostly geographically constrained, you end up in a demographically pluralistic ecclesia that is generally non-voluntary. I didn’t pick any of the people who go to my church or any of my elders, and more importantly, they didn’t pick me and even though they may mostly be Republicans, they still have to figure out how to pastor me. Do coalitions have to figure out how to pastor or discipline their members? Or do they just kick them out if they disagree? Needless to say, I think this self-selection leads to extremism in a way that local church life does not. To use the example of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, I think a local church Session (even if it’s complementarian) pastoring a young married couple and helping them work through their issues would be FAR less abstract, and therefore FAR less extreme.

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