I have perhaps become a little infamous for my negative theology and criticisms of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. If people think that my outright rejection of this statement makes me a heretic, then so be it. I could care less about that label anyhow.
It’s a shame that some of the best “defenders” of orthopraxis/orthodoxy and of evangelical orientation are ignored because they are either northerners, people of color, or women. In this case, Zilpha was all three (she was born in Philly in about 1790). As I was reading and re-reading through Zilpha Elaw’s Memoirs last week, I found some interesting and even new theological possibilities with her views. Although she claims at one point in the book that it was just the Lord and her doing it all alone; it is far from the truth, in fact, the very same page she makes such a claim, she goes on to tell the story of how she was discipled by the Methodist tradition. In fact, the noun Methodist appears every hundred words in her autobiography (that’ called an overexaggeration and a joke, people). Honestly, I found her allegorical interpretation Scripture re-freshing (she was living during the early 19th century). Concerning the Bible, she says,
“it is the high privilege of those who are begotten by the Word of truth [re:Christ] to read the Scriptures, not as the word of man, but as they are indeed, the Word of God, a sacred volume, the production of the infinite God […]”
Granted, given her stances of being pro-abolition of slavery and pro-women’s ordination (both issues I will deal with in later posts), for her to hold a definition of the Bible as the Word of God, with Jesus being the Word would be considered quite peculiar, especially in the Slave states of the U.S. where inerrantist Christians were both staunchly pro-African enslavement and anti-women’s ordination.
What to make of all of this? First, I would say that Zilpha Elaw has a superior definition of Scripture’s function compared to today’s run of the mill conservative evangelical in the United States. The key to the Bible for Zilpha Elaw was not human rationality (re: male/phallocentric reason) but the Holy Spirit who allows us to partake in the Intelligence of the Triune God. For Elaw, Scripture was not about lording our particular doctrines and traditions over each other (I am saving that for another post too), but for the purpose of becoming “increasingly assimilated to the same image, from one degree of glory to another, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (Ibid). Her doctrine of assimilation rings so much of Clement of Alexandria for me (I could not help it!). I think an appropriate, tentative phrasing of a definition of Zilpha Elaw’s view of the Scriptures, similar to John Calvin< and Zwingli/a> as trustworthy would be this, “That the Bible does not err in that it leads us to all things necessary for sanctification.” Close to Calvin, just replacing salvation with sanctification, since that was a big part of Elaw’s Holiness theology.
I know what you are thinking. What about women’s ordination? What about Elaw’s anti-slavery arguments? How did Zilpha Elaw feel about men who gossip too much? And just why did she consider the Founding Fathers to be apostates? I will get to them in the near future, but for now, I just wanted to introduce her to you.
For more, read Zilpha’s story in William L. Andrews’ Sisters of the Spirit.