The Natural Theology Behind Complementarianism

Recap Of What Is Going On Here
On Monday I wrote about the good things about the Tim and Kathy Keller book The Meaning of Marriage and yesterday I wrote about the veering off-course that happens towards the end where the Kellers advocate a strong “complementarian” position on the roles between the genders in marriage. What is interesting about this argument is how little is being argued. The complementarianism that they advocate is nuanced to the point of losing its vitality entirely. So even though the book’s argument leads to a sort of functional egalitarianism, this sensibility is won at the drastic cost of embracing a view on the roles between genders that speaks more to our culture than to the pattern of the Scriptures.

But as far as complementarian arguments go, this isn’t that offensive a version. So why am I writing all these words about it? I DON’T KNOW! SOMEBODY PLEASE SEND HELP!

Also, because the argument provides an unusually clear view of two elements of the contemporary complementarian arguments that are usually well hidden. Today we look at the role natural theology plays in the argument. Tomorrow, we get heavy with the Trinitarian theories espoused by the Kellers.

A brief definition of natural theology might be well placed here. Natural theology is the belief that you can look to the created world and build up arguments that lead to knowledge about God. Classically, this is summed up by William Paley’s “Blind Watchmaker” analogy. But my difficulty with it is deeper. Siding with Karl Barth, the desire to build arguments towards God without reference to God is a form of delusion that intends to keep us away from heeding God’s revelation. As the London-based theologian Lincoln Harvey quips, natural theology is plagiarism. It copies what can only be known by revelation, passes itself off as itself and therefore is a totally bogus form of theologising.

The “Natural” Slide Into Natural Theology
So I grant that the complementarianism of the Kellers is of a relatively benign variety, but I am still deeply troubled by it. What is my problem?

Well this is the problem I have with the book. It isn’t simply that it denies the egalitarian message of the New Testament. It is how it does it.

Firstly, this argument always appeals, explicitly or implicitly, to natural theology. Underneath the proof-texting, there is always a “plain” “common sense” reading of the created world that does the heavy lifting in the argument. So Kathy writes “even at the atomic level, all the universe is held together by the attraction of positive and negative forces. The embrace of the Other, as it turns out, really is what makes the world go around.” This is finely crafted and humourous sentence but it is also at base, an appeal to a deeply troubling authority. You can’t just leap from sub-atomic attractions to gender roles in modern western marriage and call it theology.

Everytime I hear arguments like this I think of Dr. Ian Malcolm flirting with Dr. Ellie Slater in Jurassic Park, talking about “strange attractions”.

What natural theologians remind me of

Natural theologians are rarely as cool as Jeff Goldblum however.

One of the best tells of natural theology doing lifting work in theological arguments is when you start noticing terms that haven’t been defined. So the Kellers are insistent that actual, concrete instructions about masculinity and femininity are not provided for in the Scriptures (which is true). But they are still able to deploy the terms masculine and feminine without defining them.

We fill in the definitions from our prevailing cultural mores and don’t even notice.

All that is said towards that is a brief (clear, and accurate) exposition of what it means in Genesis when Eve is created as a suitable ‘ezer. Woman is “like-opposite” to man. Notice though that all we have is a tension. The Scriptures put man and woman into an inter-defining relationship. But that tension can take different forms in different places. But 8 pages on we find discussion of “hyper-masculinity” and “rejection of masculinity”, “hyperfemininity” and “rejection of femininity”. Here, the argument has slid into terms left undefined. How does the chapter still work? It rests on the “natural” categories of masculine and feminine that the reader places into those word-containers.

What better response can there be to this sort of argument than: “Nein!”

Your Correspondent, Nature is a modern invention

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