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 firstname.lastname@example.org or comment in the post below.
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.