By Fr. Mark Perkins
Editor’s Note: In this four-part series, Fr. Mark Perkins evaluates the debate around women’s ordination in conversation with William G. Witt’s Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Baylor UP, 2020). Unless otherwise specified, parenthetical citations refer to Witt’s book and biblical citations to the Authorized Version.
Part 1: Clearing Ground
Whether we like it or not, the practice of ordaining only men to the three-fold ministry of deacon, priest, and bishop constitutes a definite challenge to gospel preaching in contemporary America. Excluding women from ordained ministry is incomprehensible to most outside the Church today — but not only to outsiders. Our primary challenge concerns internal conversion: the evangelism and retention of those already within the bounds of the Church. We must articulate a beautiful vision of the Body of Christ in which all may flourish and in which all are called to serve. It must be persuasive and attractive — not so much to the world out there, as to our own selves, each other, and our children.
Those who oppose the ordination of women do not always or even often succeed at this task. By definition, opponents of women’s ordination all agree on the presenting issue, but they often do so for radically different reasons. Sometimes the opposition is not even coherent, much less compelling. At a popular level, many laity and clergy express ill-formed views, combining “unbaptized ‘natural theology,’” as William G. Witt puts it (277), with half-realized sacramental iconography and a superficial reading of a few biblical texts — sometimes with a great deal of genuine misogyny thrown in the mix.
These weaknesses are understandable. Sex difference as it relates to ordination has not been a central focus of the Church’s theologizing throughout her history. Only in the last century have the socio-economic and cultural changes of late modernity compelled the Church to consider the question in new and unprecedented ways. Prior to that, as E. L. Mascall says, “the masculinity of the Christian priesthood has been accepted by a kind of general intuitional consensus;” consequently, “discussion of the reasons for this limitation has tended to be sketchy and superficial” (Mascall, “Sexuality and God” 143; see also comments by Kallistos Ware 1999, 31-33; and Thomas Hopko 1983, 190). Traditionalists need not fear admitting that the various explanations given thus far do not necessarily constitute a complete answer. This does not mean they are wrong — though some are — only that the Church is still in the process of explaining the meaning of her practice of male-only ordination.
Thoughtfully engaging with William G. Witt’s Icons of Christ: A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination (Baylor UP, 2020) offers us an opportunity to further this project. This is not because Witt persuades on the topic at hand — he does not — but because his book presses us to clarify our theological understanding of sex difference and ordination. Doing so may be the most pressing challenge that confronts the Church in the twenty-first century.
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When I saw that Witt’s book was being published, I joked that the man was custom designed in a laboratory specifically to persuade me. I immensely enjoyed his ‘Anglican Way of Theology’ course in seminary and particularly appreciated his deft hand in navigating contentious waters with a theologically diverse set of students. That personal experience, along with Witt’s background — a Ph.D. from Notre Dame in systematic theology, with background interests in historical theology, Mascall, and St. Thomas Aquinas — led me to believe that Icons of Christ would offer the best possible argument for women’s ordination. I am not sure if it is in fact the best possible argument, but, as we will see, its fundamental weaknesses lie not in the skill or erudition with which Witt argues but rather in the impossibility of his task — of reconciling the Church to the late-modern innovation of women’s ordination.
Exposing the book’s flaws, however, is not enough. We must offer a positive vision. Thus, in conversation with Witt’s book, this four-part series proposes an Anglican and Catholic vision of embodied sexuality in relation to ordination. This first and least overtly theological part considers the foundations and premises of Witt’s argument and finds them wanting. In the second and third essays, I examine Witt’s biblical arguments in order to illuminate the Church’s understanding of sexuality and ordination. In the fourth and final installment, I gesture towards a positive vision of the significance of embodied sexuality as it relates to the restriction of ordination to (some) men.
This debate is merely a symptom of deeper confusion about sex difference, human flesh, and all creation. Whatever we decide about the presenting issue, we will never be at peace with our embodied sexuality until we are at peace with the givenness of creation. We will never live out our corporate calling as the Mystical Body and Bride of Jesus Christ — nor our personal callings and vocations within that sacramental organism — until we can reconcile ourselves to our original creaturely blessing:
“Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
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Witt divides his book into four sections: an “Introduction” which attempts to clear ground upon which a genuine debate over women’s ordination can be had, a section refuting “Protestant Arguments,” another refuting “Catholic Arguments,” and finally a set of chapters asserting a positive case for women’s ordination on the basis of “The Ministry of Women in the New Testament.” This first essay primarily addresses his introductory chapters.
The early chapters of Witt’s book implicitly acknowledge the difficulty of getting a hearing for A Biblical and Systematic Theology for Women’s Ordination, as the subtitle has it. Witt must clarify why women’s ordination only emerged very recently in Church history, dismiss concerns that it functions as part of a broader constellation of heterodox beliefs and practices, and explain why the apparently universal practice of the Church for the past two millennia does not foreclose this innovation.
Women’s Ordination and Liberalism?
Witt begins by rejecting the apparent connection between women’s ordination and broader cultural shifts against biblical teachings on sexuality. This particular objection means nothing to those in favor of same-sex marriage. (If that describes you, you may wish to skip this section — although if you would like material to bludgeon your women’s-ordination-affirming, same-sex-marriage-opposing friends for their inconsistency and selectivity, do read on!) Proponents of women’s ordination in otherwise conservative circles, however, tend to make a minimalist case: that the ordination of women requires no significant shift in one’s understanding of Scripture, the Church, and the sacraments. Things can stay exactly the same, except for the (minor) addition of (some) women to the ranks of the ordained.
Though Witt does ultimately propose radical theological and ecclesiological changes, he argues that there is no theological connection between women’s ordination and liberalism: “Christian freedom and equality” constitute “the impetus for a properly orthodox case for women’s ordination, and not a secularist notion of egalitarianism” (14). He associates this Christian vision with the anti-slavery and abolition movements of the nineteenth century, as well as the Civil Rights movement of the twentieth century. (He does not acknowledge that progressive innovators make the exact same rhetorical moves.)
Witt likewise rejects what he calls “The Argument from ‘Consequences’: [the claim that] the ordination of women leads inevitably to the collapse of orthodox theology” (14). Inductively speaking, the argument from consequences is powerful: virtually all denominations which embraced women’s ordination in the mid-twentieth-century soon followed that with a wide array of novel and unbiblical positions on sexuality and other issues. By and large, they have all embraced nearly every shift in our ongoing sexual revolution, and they have often treated basic elements of creedal orthodoxy — the virgin birth, the resurrection, the Trinity — as optional. In addition to these contemporary examples, it is perhaps noteworthy that all of the women who are known to have acted as clergy in early American history were heretical by any definition. Anne Hutchinson (d. 1643) was an Antinomian (among other heresies); Ann Lee (d. 1784) founded the Shakers; Emma Smith (d. 1879), wife of Joseph Smith, was “ordained to expound the Scriptures” under the hand of her husband, the Mormon founder; Mary Baker Eddy (d. 1910) founded the Christian Scientists; Antoinette Brown Blackwell (ordained 1851, d. 1921), the first woman ordained within a mainstream Protestant denomination, was a Congregationalist but became a Unitarian; Olympia Brown (ordained 1863, d. 1926) was the first woman to be ordained by a denomination (rather than a local congregation) — the Universalist Council, which has since become the Unitarian Universalist Association. Until the late nineteenth century, one strives in vain to find an example of an ordained woman who was not an unambiguous heretic. (Clarissa Danforth [d. 1855], a Free Will Baptist, seems the best candidate for the exception that proves the rule.)
According to Witt, all this proves nothing. The mere fact of correlation does not tell us anything about the actual relation between heresy and women’s ordination (12-15). Witt, however, does not offer an alternative explanation for this correlation. Rather, he suggests that, if we want to consider the true impact of women’s ordination, we should not look at all of these heretical examples but instead ask, “has the ordination of women of orthodox theological convictions been (on the whole) a blessing or curse for the church?” (15, emphasis added). This is an impressively brazen exercise in changing the subject. Given the consistent connections between women’s ordination and heterodoxy in actual historical reality, it is irresponsible of Witt to wave off the connection as not his problem. Imagine a drug manufacturer claiming that it is someone else’s responsibility to prove that an experimental drug is not responsible for consistently correlated side effects. Even if it were true that the apparent connection was simply an arbitrary correlation, Witt’s argument would be insufficient.
The connection, however, is not arbitrary. Like Witt, the so-called “inclusive orthodoxy” movement seeks to revise long-standing Christian practices. They too would suggest that we have misunderstood the meaning, intent, and trajectory of many biblical passages. Indeed, as one of Witt’s critics notes, they make the exact same exegetical and hermeneutical moves to justify their innovation. They could cite the exact same passages as Witt to argue that the Church really has failed to honor the nature of sexuality, and they would therefore conclude that heterosexual marriage is no less based on a misogynistic view of male-female difference than is male-only ordination. Most significantly, they too would suggest that, since male-female marriage, like male-only ordination, is not explicitly creedal, we can alter marriage while remaining creedally orthodox.
In response, Witt does not actually refute or explain any of these associations. Instead, Witt emphasizes that his reading is animated by cruciformity and Trinitarian personalism, not liberalism. I am not sure whether this amounts to changing the subject or missing the point. The critique is not about Witt’s animating purposes but rather his methods — how his specific exegetical moves and rhetorical strategies tend to produce heterodoxy. Put differently, the question is not whether Witt actually opposes same-sex marriage (he does), but whether he can coherently do so — and whether we can expect that those who come to share his views will generally do so themselves.
Despite vehement protests to the contrary, Witt’s book really does reduce “male” and “female” to bare signifiers of difference as such — and the way in which Witt denies the charge actually proves it. “Only men can be fathers,” he says; “only women can give birth to and provide breast milk for children. And certainly, these biological differences account for some differences in how men and women will be partners and parents even in a postindustrial age” (72). He never suggests what “some differences” might be, aside from an equally ambiguous reference to unspecified “biologically determined” tasks (410n4). And, as we will shortly see, his entire argument is premised upon the post-industrial suppression of sex difference and an attendant transformation of parenthood: the steadily sharpening decline in the per capita number of children born, as well as the substitution of professionalized childcare and technological know-how for the traditional demands of childrearing — all of which are wedded to an economic system in which bodily difference is increasingly insignificant. Still, Witt sticks to his guns. His repeated affirmations of the reality of sex difference eventually become something of a mantra: “Only men can be husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers. Only women can be wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters” (120). He repeats this or something almost identical to it at least four times in the final chapter alone (410n4, 337, 338, 351), never adding actual descriptive content to these naked nouns, as if by mere repetition they will be clothed in meaning.
Consequently, Witt’s implicit objection to same-sex marriage begins to sound a bit like special pleading. There seems little reason why a faithful same-sex couple could not also reflect “relationship to another who is both other than the self, but also equal to the self,” as he puts it in response to his previously cited critic, Matthew Colvin. [Note: Colvin has pointed out that, as written, this essay leaves a "general impression... that you think my review was unfair, and you agree with Witt's responses to it." I stand by everything written herein but do want to clarify that I fundamentally agree with Colvin, as will be clear to anyone who reads Colvin's own review series.] Perhaps male-female marriage is particularly apt at displaying this Trinitarian unity-in-difference, but why this should prevent other forms of union-in-difference from analogically honoring that same principle is not clear. If, outside procreation, the sexes are functionally interchangeable — and since procreation’s significance is greatly diminished in the post-industrial world — then we might well suggest that a man and a woman with similar personalities and gifts are more alike than two men with different gifts and personalities. Indeed, it seems to me — and here I am no longer playing devil’s advocate — it seems to me that the difference between any two individuals — that unbridgeable existential gap between “I” and “thou” — is far greater than the generic differences between men and women. Given this, why can’t the faithful lifelong union of any two persons model Trinitarian unity-in-difference?
Even from within Witt’s diminished view of sexuality, there remain some reasons to draw distinctions between women’s ordination and same-sex marriage. I am not saying that his position is groundless, but I am saying that it is broadly untenable. Support for same-sex marriage does not automatically follow from Witt’s argument as a logically necessary corollary — but it does generally follow. If we wish to combat sexual liberalism, we should abandon our unprecedented experimental trial with women’s ordination and return to the old paths.
Women’s Ordination and Church History
The unbroken practice of the Church — and of Israel, into which she was grafted — constitutes one of the strongest bulwarks against both sexual liberalism and women’s ordination. Witt’s second introductory task, then, is to argue that, despite appearances, women’s ordination is not a radical experiment but is the natural outcome of biblical data — albeit data which has not been properly understood until quite recently. This is a tall order. If, in fact, the grounds for the ordination of women have always been present in the Bible, how did the Church miss this until the day before yesterday, historically speaking? How is it that only the affluent late-modern West has seen what was always there, hiding in plain sight?
The short answer, for Witt, is that the Church was blinded by cultural misogyny rooted in the sexually inequitable realities of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing in pre-industrial societies. When industrialism freed us from these constraints, we were finally able to see “that there was nothing innate about women’s once limited role in society, church and family” (Carrie A. Miles 54, quoted in Witt 70). As a result, the whole Church — including opponents of women’s ordination — has now embraced the full equality of men and women. And since, according to Witt, misogyny was always the traditional rationale for male-only ordination, no sides of the debate — Protestant or Catholic, for or against women’s ordination — can lay claim to the Church’s tradition. Rather ingeniously, Witt proposes that the weight of two thousand years of Church history is entirely irrelevant.
Putting aside deeper problems with this argument for the moment, we should note that his historical narrative is quite dubious. Historically speaking, no good explanation exists for how the early Church could have completely reversed the teaching and practices of a supposedly egalitarian New Testament without leaving behind any record of this change. It would be surprising to find that the early Church had overturned the teachings and practices of Jesus Christ and of St. Paul. That she could have done so without leaving behind even a hint of controversy or dispute is impossible to believe.
Hence some resort to a Da-Vinci-Code-style conspiracy theory: all records of women serving in the post-New-Testament Church — as well as any debate over the total reinterpretation of New Testament polity, practice, and teaching — were ruthlessly eliminated, with the complete lack of evidence (outside ribald jokes and ambiguous fragments of texts) serving as further proof of just how successful this conspiracy was. Witt reproduces every conceivable piece of evidence in favor of women’s ordination, including multiple mutually exclusive options for supporting it. That he does not lower himself to deploying such non-evidence as the urban legend of female bishops existing into the Middle Ages tells us how much weight these arguments should be assigned. Nor, as far as I can tell, did Witt resort to conspiratorial thinking, despite Colvin’s accusations to the contrary. As with the inductive correlations between women’s ordination and heterodoxy, Witt simply leaves the rupture unaddressed and unexplained — a yawning historical lacuna between his egalitarian New Testament and an apparently patriarchal post-apostolic Church.
Rather than positing a secretly egalitarian New Testament hiding in plain sight for two thousand years, the more historically reasonable explanation is that the New Testament does not quite teach what Witt would like it to teach — and, further, that the post-New-Testament Church may not have been the stew of misogyny that Colvin (somewhat unfairly) accuses Witt of portraying.
Liberation via the Machine
In addition to doubting the historical plausibility of Witt’s narrative of the early Church, one rightly suspects a story in which the Industrial Revolution is cast as (partially) restoring the prelapsarian innocence of Eden — as though we travailed under the curse of unmitigated sexual oppression from Genesis 3 right up to the advent of electric lights and the invention of the internal combustion engine (Machinae gratias). Witt’s narrative perfectly fits into what David Bentley Hart describes as “the story the modern world tells of itself now… the story of how we Westerners finally learned to be free, for the first time ever” (Hart 25).
To be precise, Witt does not claim that the emergence of modern science and the attendant rise in wealth generally transformed our understanding of gender. He locates the changes quite specifically:
“In the United States and in Western Europe, the number of children produced by the average family has dropped from over seven to less than two. Farming, which was once the occupation of most people, is now done by few, and most people now live in towns and cities where they work away from home. Many of the household tasks that used to be the role of women have now been industrialized or taken outside the home… At the same time, as many of the household tasks done by men have been replaced by automation as well, men have been pushed more and more outside the home to find work…. Moreover, in modern industrial cultures, children are no longer an economic asset, but rather an economic cost… In addition, the kinds of work that are now available outside the home are largely the kinds of work both sexes can do [because it] does not necessarily require greater strength… ‘Social change has thus made it apparent that there was nothing innate about women’s once limited role in society, church, and family’” (69-70).
The late modern collapse in fertility, the alienation from the land brought about by the Industrial and Market Revolutions, the loss of the home as a place of economic productivity, the disembodiment of modern work — these are not unfortunate ancillary consequences of an otherwise positive shift. To the contrary, in Witt’s own telling, these constitute the specific and necessary preconditions for the plausibility of women’s ordination.
Witt justly accuses Colvin of painting an “almost idyllic picture of traditional pre-industrial societies,” and he rightly highlights the very real dangers, indignities, and injustices of pre-modern society. But one need not indulge in Romantic sentimentality about the pre-modern era to find Witt’s argument deeply troubling. A clear-eyed understanding of pre-modern brutality does not necessitate Witt’s own rather idyllic picture of modernity. Witt does acknowledge that modernism has led to “some negative consequences” (70) — a rather understated description of our civilization’s impending demographic and ecological collapse. This attitude is rather startling, given that what Witt himself narrates about the modern world constitutes an explicit rebellion against our original creaturely blessing in Genesis 1:28. As I will argue in my next essay, that blessing sums up God’s creative purposes in Genesis 1-2 and provides a template for understanding the effects of the curse in Genesis 3. Instead of being fruitful and multiplying, the modern West stands on the precipice of demographic collapse — a hopeless society slowly fading into oblivion. Instead of subduing the earth — which fundamentally means cultivating it as a garden — we have systematically consumed it on behalf of the privileged few.
Increasingly few of these privileged few have any children at all, and those who do are having fewer children than at any previous point in human history. Artificial contraceptives divorce sex from procreation. Abortifacients and abortion extinguish inconveniently conceived children. The relatively few children permitted to live are increasingly created by artificial means and then birthed artificially — through scheduled caesarean sections of convenience — after which the feeding of these children is accomplished via industrially produced formula, while their care and education is outsourced to a less privileged underclass. These privileged few have little connection to the land. They may pay a premium on groceries to feel better about their “environmental impact” but are otherwise insulated from the means by which their food is grown and produced. They may pay for gym memberships or participate in the exploding industries of extreme sports and endurance competition — a reaction to and expression of acedia — but they most certainly do not rely on the muscular labor of their physical bodies in order to feed themselves.
To be clear, what I am describing is a collective social system. Viewed in isolation, any number of these specific decisions may be acceptable, good, or even morally necessary. But to the extent that they become normal rather than exceptional — as equivalent to and interchangeable with the natural means of procreation and childrearing — then to that extent we have become a culture of industrial reproduction rather than creaturely procreation. Taken as a whole, these shifts describe a culture that has utterly rejected the divine blessing of Genesis 1:28. In Witt’s own telling, however, it is precisely the distance that modern society places between the privileged and the earth — between the privileged and their own bodies — that has enabled us finally to see what God always intended for us in Eden, in Jesus Christ, and in the eschaton.
If Witt were to read this piece, I suspect he would be annoyed that I have spent so much time on this point, given that it forms a very minor part of his argument — just a few pages in his very long tome — but it is extraordinarily revealing. As Witt points out, “It is not remotely likely that the social and economic changes that have created modern society… are going to be reversed,” nor would even the most sentimental among us really “wish to return to… preindustrial society” (70). Indeed, returning to pre-industrial society is neither possible nor desirable. But we need not choose between antiquarian fantasy and contemporary complacency. We can simultaneously reject naivete about the past and blindness to the present. We must do so if we are to find ways, here and now, to restore a holistic understanding of ourselves as embodied beings, to bring greater purpose and meaning to our homes and communities, and to heal our broken relation with the land.
In short, if we wish to escape the sexual, ecological, and cosmic catastrophes of our day, we will need to find new ways not to escape but rather to embrace and restore our primeval calling as embodied, sexual creatures.
The Argument from Tradition
Neither the historical implausibility of Witt’s argument nor even his devastatingly naive view of modernism is ultimately as significant as the theological and ecclesiological implications of Witt’s position — specifically his dismissal of Church history and tradition. The significance of the argument about tradition cannot be overstated. Witt, like all advocates of women’s ordination, must brush aside the universal practice of the historic Church, because only from the starting point of a blank slate — only from the God-like vantage of choosing ex nihilo — do his arguments stand any chance of success. If one allows the staggering weight of thousands of years of Church practice to influence the debate, Witt’s argument will collapse before it is even made.
Witt claims that the Church’s history of ordaining men is wholly reducible to a two-thousand-year tradition of misogyny — and he lays out a number of misogynistic quotations to prove his point. As noted above, Witt argues that, since no one accepts the misogyny anymore, no one can lay claim to the tradition. “Traditions are always based on reasons,” he says, “and traditions are only as valid as the reasons behind them” (20). And since, as he further claims, the arguments of complementarians and Catholics are new, they should not be given any more weight than those of advocates for women’s ordination (5, 29-35).
There are a number of problems with this view, starting from the fact that it represents the complete and total rejection of tradition as tradition. By definition, an argument from tradition cannot be the reason why a tradition was started in the first place. Rather, arguments from tradition arise as a practice is maintained over time. Arguments from tradition assume that long-held practices have a certain weight behind them — a prejudice in their favor based on their having “worked” for some significant period of time. Obviously respect for tradition can ossify into empty traditionalism, in which a prejudicial preference for the tried and true becomes absolute, but Witt’s premises militate not against dead traditionalism but against tradition as such. If all that matters about tradition is whether you agree with (your understanding of) a tradition’s rationale, then what you have is not tradition but precisely the absence of it. I am reminded of a colleague who once declared in a faculty meeting that she was perfectly fine with obeying rules, so long as she agreed with them — which is not obedience but its absence.
Reducing tradition to naked intellectual propositions devastates any cultural practice and any human institution, but the Church is not any institution. She is the Spirit-filled Mystical Body of Christ. Witt’s attitude towards tradition excludes even a bare minimum of respect for Christian tradition — a special regard for the way Christians have lived out their faith for two thousand years. In his haste to manufacture a rationale for women’s ordination, Witt has found himself with a view of tradition too low even for many Baptists. The most that one could say for tradition on this view is that long-held practices might have good reasons behind them, so we should investigate them more carefully than new practices — but Witt does not ever explicitly grant even this much.
Even if we were to accept Witt’s claim that “traditions are only as valid as the reasons behind them” — a claim I categorically reject — his argument would not matter unless we knew what the reasons were. Witt is confident that we do know the reason (singular) for male-only ordination: misogyny. While Matthew Colvin’s how-dare-he umbrage is not an especially helpful response, the confidence with which Witt presents his case really is breathtaking. His primary proof resides in a smattering of quotations from a dozen persons across the Church’s history (21-32). Four are from the early Church (contra Colvin, who describes them all as medieval and later) — though only two of these early figures, St. John Chrysostom and St. Epiphanius of Salamis, have been canonized. The other two, Origen and Tertullian, while deeply influential, are highly controversial, and each has had a mixed reception in the Church. Witt adds two medieval figures, St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas, and the two great Magisterial Reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin, as well as the Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger. He closes with a few British figures — Samuel Johnson, Richard Hooker, and John Knox. The quotations he reproduces are significant and cover a lot of ground, historically speaking. They do not quite add up to “exhaustive citations from primary sources in the history of the church,” as Witt characterizes them, but neither are they meaningless.
Still, as a sufficient and complete explanation for a long-standing cultural practice, Witt’s evidence does not measure up. His quotations are mostly undeveloped “asides” given in the course of developing some other point. Almost none of them amount to fully developed arguments about the sexual exclusivity of ordination. (The only partial exceptions are John Knox’s diatribe — though that is ultimately aimed at royal politics, not ecclesiastical polity — and St. Thomas’s question.) This does not reflect shortcomings in Witt’s research but rather the paucity of relevant material available to the historian. As Witt notes, the Church never has had to think deeply about the question of women’s ordination prior to the Industrial Revolution, and most of the time it was discussed, theologians tended to regurgitate standard cultural lines only superficially rooted in Scripture. But Witt’s conclusion — that we must choose between misogyny or a blank slate making any option equally plausible — does not follow.
Witt overreads his evidence and underestimates our ignorance. Note that his six citations from the pre-Reformation era amount to one quote for every two-hundred-fifty years of history! Even if we had more — and more developed — quotations consistently saying the same thing over the whole of Church history, we would have to retain at least some hesitation about whether these would in fact do full justice to the meaning of a longstanding practice of the Church. For the past fifty years or so, social (and then cultural) historians have rightly looked askance at the hubris of intellectual historians, who once assumed that the pronouncements of a few intellectual elites constituted sufficient data to explain a social system or cultural practice. One need not embrace the epistemological nihilism of contemporary academic history to acknowledge the point: what we know about the rationale for past practices is necessarily limited to those who could leave behind a meaningful record of their thoughts — which is to say a privileged minority — and we should not make the mistake of assuming that all the evidence we happen to have is all the evidence we need.
That Witt finds his methods and evidence sufficient to fully explain the practices of the Spirit-bearing Body of Jesus Christ is downright bizarre. Throughout the Bible we are consistently shown that the practices of God’s people are rarely reducible to a single meaning, and that the most important meanings are often hidden from the practitioners themselves. One could almost describe the entire Old Testament as a series of divine interactions and divinely instituted practices whose deepest meanings are mostly obscure prior to the Advent of Jesus Christ.
God institutes marriage in Genesis 1 and 2, even before the curse of sin, but not until the dedication of Solomon’s Temple in 1 Kings do we get a hint of marriage’s symbolic connection to God’s relation with his people — and there the allusion may only be discernible in hindsight (Peter Leithart, 1 & 2 Kings 58). The metaphor is developed and deepened throughout the prophetic tradition, as Brant Pitre argues in Jesus the Bridegroom (Pitre 9-27), but not until the New Testament — and specifically, St. Paul’s epistles and the Revelation of St. John — does the true purpose of marriage burst fully into view. Marriage cannot be reduced to a single meaning and certainly is not reducible to what God’s people happened to know at any particular stage in salvation history. Indeed, there is every reason to suspect that, in the eschatological Marriage Supper of the Lamb, new and deeper understandings of marriage will be revealed.
We can see the same principle at work in the various Eucharistic foreshadowings of the Old Testament — most significantly, the Passover, manna from heaven, and the Bread of the Presence, as Pitre argues in Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist. Moving closer to our topic, the same holds true for the image-bearing function of Adam and Eve, the shadowy figure of Melchizedek, the role of the twelve tribal patriarchs of Israel, and indeed the whole priestly sacrificial system of the Old Covenant. All of them had particular meanings in their own day, but their ultimate christological orientation was hidden.
Witt’s confidence that we can know the one and only reason for the Church’s practice of male-only ordination — and that we can know it through a handful of quotations across two thousand years of Church history — and that on the basis of this shaky knowledge we can revise a means of sacramental grace is unsupportable, to put it very gently.
How Does the Church Change?
Unless I missed it, not once in the entire book — 351 densely packed pages of main text plus another sixty pages of endnotes — does Witt address the question of how the Church should have instituted or should go about instituting such a momentous change. (He gets into the vicinity of the question at least twice, the first time in an endnote discussing whether Roman Catholics consider male-only ordination to have been infallibly declared, or whether it remains open for debate [386n10]. In his concluding chapter, he briefly discusses sociological theories about how cultures respond to change [333-334].)
It may seem that I am complaining that Witt did not write a different book than the one he did. As the subtitle makes clear, Icons of Christ is dedicated to making a biblical and systematic case for women’s ordination. Others, presumably, can make the case for how to act upon these insights within their own ecclesial traditions. This silence, though, implies that this can be decided within the existing authority structures of various Christian traditions — that, in congregationalist traditions, individual congregations are free to make their own choices, as are presbyteries for Presbyterians and the pope for Roman Catholics. In the Anglican world, of which Witt is part, the change has generally been made ad hoc, by diocese, at the impulse of a particular bishop, and with general indifference to substantive ecclesiology. (Paul Avis, himself a supporter of women’s ordination, acknowledges as much in The Identity of Anglicanism [118-119].) That Witt does not deem the ecclesiastical process worthy of theological consideration suggests that the way it has happened in the past is sufficient, and that we can simply continue on that path moving forward.
To the contrary, the question we must ask is whether any tradition or jurisdiction, acting alone, has the right to alter Vincentian canon matters — especially ones that pertain to the sacraments. Despite the skepticism of many, we may with due care and nuance apply the Vincentian canon to at least a few things: the Bible as authoritative, Baptism using water, the Eucharist using bread and wine, the historic episcopacy, male-female marriage — and, despite the conspiracy theorizing of some and theological gaslighting of many, male-only ordination. Unless we wish to descend into a free-floating chaos in which each individual acts as a personal pope, we must consider who can make decisions about such matters, and how — a theme I have touched on many, many times.
I doubt whether any authority short of the undivided Church speaking in Ecumenical Council has a right to alter a universal practice of the Church — one that is indirectly necessary for salvation given that ordained ministers are stewards of the mysteries of God.
As I have written before,
'If the Church — and Israel, into which she was grafted — has since her institution mal-practiced ordination and misinterpreted marriage, then these errors can only be resolved by the universal voice of the undivided Church in Ecumenical Council. Until then, we must continue to hold true to that which was believed and practiced everywhere, always, and by all.'
How Does the Church Confront Challenges?
The Church has always had to confront new situations. The Ecumenical Councils often dealt with unprecedented questions about the nature of the Incarnation on the basis of fresh challenges by the heterodox. Today we likewise face new arguments about a long-existing practice of the Church. Witt is right that fully formed arguments supporting male-only ordination are new (though he downplays their continuities with previous theology in the Church). This is inevitably the case, given that the Church never had to address the issue with much depth until quite recently.
But the Church’s practices have their own weight.
In the disputes which led to the various Ecumenical Councils, the orthodox consistently looked to the existing apostolic practices of the Church for answers. The clarification of Trinitarian theology at the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea was a new theological formulation in light of a new challenge. In that sense, the Nicene fathers and the Arian heretics were both presenting new arguments. But, entirely apart from propositional theology and philosophical rationale, the Nicene fathers already had an insurmountable advantage over their heterodox opponents: the Church had an unbroken practice of worshipping Jesus as God. In the apostolic Scriptures and in the Church’s liturgies, they found evidence for this worship — namely, people falling to the feet of Jesus in worship, and Jesus accepting that worship. Likewise, as Richard Hays argues, we can perceive in St. Paul’s letters a Trinitarian experience despite the lack of an explicit Trinitarian doctrine (10, 140, 210, 266). The orthodox task was to draw out the theological implications of this practice.
This is not a perfect comparison. The Nicene fathers really were expressing what the Church had always explicitly believed but had never fully formulated, whereas the status of male-only ordination may be closer to Old Testament practices: the rationale has been largely obscure rather than underformulated. But our duty is the same as the Nicene fathers: to reason not on the basis of how we would organize Christ’s Church if it were entirely up to us, but to ask why the Spirit-bearing Body of Jesus Christ has done what she has always done.
Sexuality may be the most pressing theological difficulty of our era. The Church is in the process of clarifying the truth of these matters, and we have a genuine opportunity to discern how our status as embodied sexual creatures relates to ordination and the priesthood. Why has the Church ordained only men? Why did Israel have an exclusively male priesthood? Why did Jesus institute a male-only apostolate?
Of course, we should ask these questions and explore the reasons with care — and the rest of Witt’s book will aid us as we do so — but we do not demand satisfying answers in order to maintain the practices of the Church. And we certainly do not get to fiddle with received apostolic practices just because we are not satisfied with the answers that have thus far been proffered.
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Unfortunately, Witt’s argument never really gets out of the gates, as it were. It is dead on arrival. He has failed seriously to engage, much less effectively counter, the inductive and deductive evidence linking women’s ordination to the acids of liberalism. His historical explanation for the sudden plausibility of women’s ordination in the post-industrial West inadvertently reveals it to be a manifestation of our primeval parents’ rebellion against the divine blessing of Genesis 1:28. He has failed to offer any explanation for the historical record’s silence about the Church’s purported reversal of New Testament teachings. The threadbare historical evidence he summons does not support his claim to know the traditional rationale for male-only ordination, and his view of Christian tradition amounts to a total renunciation of tradition as such. If all you want is a simple “yes” or “no” to the question of whether to ordain women, then by now you should have your answer.
But rejecting women’s ordination no more resolves our contemporary malaise around embodied sexuality than does the embrace of it. The rest of Icons of Christ, while flawed and incapable of overcoming these obstacles, has its merits — the greatest of which is to help opponents of women’s ordination clarify their own positions and develop a compelling vision for human flourishing as embodied, sexual creatures. So long as we reject all of Witt’s premises and conclusions, we will find his book genuinely helpful for the task at hand.
Fr. Mark Perkins is Curate at St. Alban's Anglican Cathedral in Oviedo, Florida and Executive Editor of Earth & Altar.