TGC again, this time where a book by a woman doesn't get the benefit of the doubt like a book by a man
Amy Peeler's *The Gender of God*, a mean-spirited review, and how it ties into the Josh Butler business
I would be hesitant to talk about this publicly, if it weren’t already public. As such, it seems to me to be such an egregious and painful example of a bigger problem as to merit a post.
(Church Blogmatics normally posts on Thursdays, but I’m pushing this post early. There will be no new post this coming Thursday. Look for your next letter from Church Blogmatics on Monday.)
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In February, I interviewed my friend and former colleague, Episcopalian priest and New Testament scholar Amy Peeler, about her book Women and the Gender of God (Eerdmans, 2022). Peeler summarized her book this way:
“The title really does describe it well. It concerns the place of women in Christianity, by paying close attention to the life of Mary as revealed in the New Testament. It also investigates gendered Scriptural and traditional language for God, namely, Father and Son. Right in line with the tradition, I support the claim that God the Father is not embodied and is therefore not gendered, but the Son came as a human male, Jesus of Nazareth.”
Read the whole of my interview with Peeler, at the link below:
Yesterday, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) published a review of Peeler’s book by Marcus Johnson, also an Episcopalian priest. What the review does not disclose is that Johnson serves alongside Peeler in the same local congregation, where both hold the title associate rector.
The review is unkind. It calls Peeler’s book “disturbing” and “bizarre and disquieting.” The substance of the review is weak, leaving me wondering what kind of editorial oversight was involved. It gives a chapter by chapter summary of Peeler’s book, some of those summaries showing better understanding of the book than others, peppered with jabs at Peeler for claiming that “God values women” and for writing what Johnson identifies as “quite obviously a feminist theology.” This latter claim is assumed to condemn the book without need for further explanation, without, say, any interrogation of the ways feminism grew from Christian faith, the wide variety of feminist theologies—some orthodox, others not—out there, and whether Peeler herself identifies her project that way.
Johnson equates having a thesis with having biased motivation, which may be, in some ways, true of every thesis, but which Johnson seems unable to notice in terms of his own thesis that nothing good can come from Peeler.
Johnson tells us that Peeler argues that it is “important not to project merely humanly conceived notions of masculinity onto God...” Does Johnson believe it’s a good idea to project humanly conceived notions of masculinity onto God? Does Johnson believe that God the Father is male? He doesn’t say so, but his implied condemnation of Peeler suggests that he might, and both beliefs would involve deeply problematic readings Scripture, long regarded as heretical and certainly as sub-Protestant, inasmuch as Protestant theology wants us all to be quite alert to the ways we may be projecting human, sinful ideas onto God (we could call that alert a summary of Calvin’s theology).
Well known anthropomorphic art depicting God as a bearded old man in the sky. This is the kind of art Calvin rejects as idolatrous. Creation of Adam, Michelangelo, circa 1511.
Johnson objects to Peeler’s exegesis which shows us Mary as consenting to God’s invitation to become the mother of Jesus, but that exegesis is firmly in line with scripture and with the great Christian Tradition. Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther, for instance, both agree with Peeler. Luther sees Mary’s “yes” as the prototype of all of our faith in Christ.
And Peeler is working here against certain strands of theological critique which would mis-read the Christian God as a Zeus-like figure who would impose his will on a human woman. Johnson’s tenor in this example, regarding Mary’s “yes” to God, is repeated throughout the review, as Johnson shows either an ignorance of or a rejection of quite traditional Christian claims.
Because Peeler is, in fact, quite traditional. Her book does the good work of bringing many traditional Christian claims to Christians who have never heard of them and of bringing those claims into our contemporary context in important ways, but Peeler is not making stuff up here. She is a classic, orthodox Christian who assumes the authority of Scripture and the goodness of God.
The fact that God is not male is not contestable. At least it is not contestable in recognizable, historical Christian theology, which takes the otherness of God seriously and recognizes the sinful temptation of “anthropomorphism,” our tendency to try to shape God in our own image instead of knowing God as revealed in Scripture and Jesus Christ.
Imagine being a priest in the Episcopal Church, seeing oneself as an embattled traditionalist, and relating to a female colleague in ministry. Imagine that colleague is orthodox, affirms the authority of Scripture, and dedicates her life to studying and teaching the gospel. Imagine seeing that woman, not as a welcome co-laborer for the gospel, but as a threat. The threat isn’t her imagined lack of orthodoxy. The threat is her female body.
Imagine reading the work of a colleague and fellow minister and choosing to write a public review condemning her work, without speaking first to that colleague? Imagine printing that review in an outlet well-known for denying the callings God places on the lives of women? Imagine being an editor at that venue, and publishing that review, despite weak argumentation and claims?
(TGC did publish an earlier, legitimate review of Peeler’s book, from Patrick Schreiner, who makes complementarian objections to certain aspects of Peeler’s argument but reads the book with integrity and understanding. Schreiner says; “Peeler is right to argue God is not male. He is spirit. Pastors need to teach their congregations about God’s nature and even address topics like this. These misconceptions easily slip into our thinking, and they can have destructive consequences.” If Johnson read the Schreiner review, he did not leave with any of Schreiner’s understanding of Peeler’s work).
Why publish an inferior review? Why not vet the author or disclose the reviewer’s relationship with Peeler, in light of which the review can only look worse?
Just weeks ago, defenders of TGC and TGC’s publication of a theologically disastrous piece by pastor Josh Butler argued that criticism of Butler was mob thinking, or cancel culture, or the dismissable nonsense of egalitarian ideologues, or a lack of respect for Butler’s status as pastor, or a failure to understand the man’s words in context (though the context was, first, not available, and later, indicative of even deeper problems than those in the first published words). Defenders of TGC and of Butler called for charity and the ability to disagree well, though I have not seen any of them respond to the legitimate theological concerns raised. (I wrote a long response to Butler here, in which I only had space to begin to name my concerns). And, if any recent writing proves the need for Peeler’s book on why God is not male, Butler’s writing is that proof.1
And yet—presented with a book by a respected, faithful Christian scholar who happens to be female—charity, benefit of doubt, decent argumentation, and even the common courtesy owed a colleague are allowed to fly out the window. Did that TGC editor scratch his head and wonder about the proper respect for Matthew 18?
Jesus hanging out with his beloved friends, Mary and Martha. Johannes Vermeer - Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.
TGC should publish a retraction. Reasonable Christians should stop viewing TGC as a legitimate source. Johnson, I hope, will be subject to appropriate ecclesial discipline.
I suppose that Johnson imagines himself an embattled traditionalist, fighting the good fight against … a sister in Christ. But “embattled” is no identity for a Christian, friends, because the victory has been won. It is finished. We’re a resurrection people, and we can put our weapons down, secure in the Lordship and reign of Christ. Jesus isn’t threatened by women. He talked to us, ate with us, and let us anoint his feet, and he incorporates us into his very body through baptism, making our female flesh his own.
We women who are doing this work are tired. Tired of spending years trying to prove our faithfulness only to be ignored or maligned. We’re tired of being seen as threats. Tired of being misheard. Tired of the church of the Jesus we love turning on us. We’re tired. And we could use your support and your prayers.
But we can take comfort in the fact that, crazy though it may seem, Peeler is correct that God values women.
Grace & peace,
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