As promised, I have another response to Mark Jones' review of Rachel Miller's book Beyond Authority and Submission, by another endorser of the book, since he seemed bothered by all the warm endorsements. Also, I saw an additional great response by a fellow endorser, Kerry Balwin, posted yesterday that you might want to take a look at. But first please turn your attention to this response by Valerie Hobb's:
As far I can tell (well, based on about 10 minutes of looking), Mark Jones has published online reviews of a total of three books by women, specifically books by Aimee Byrd and Barbara Duguid (in 2014) and now Rachel Green Miller’s recent book Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in the Church. To accompany his review on Mere Orthodoxy of Rachel’s book, he wrote his first ever book review (as far as I can tell) on Amazon and gave it 2 stars. Normally, I wouldn’t pay attention to someone who shows so little regard for the scholarship of women. But I endorsed Rachel’s book, and she is a close friend. So I read Mark’s reviews, and I looked at how he and his friends talked about her book on Facebook.
As an academic linguist, I found that several aspects of Mark’s review prevented me from engaging fully with his critique upon the first reading. First, there was the proliferation of scare quotes at odd places in his Mere Orthodoxy review. Consider these, for example:
● In part one she offers a “lens”
● Submission is only “one aspect” of the husband-wife relationship
● This is part of her “thesis”
● In her mind they are more “Victorian” than Biblical
● It is convenient for Miller to find a few bad “groups” at certain stages in history but what if the “problems” she finds in the church today are “problems” that were very much present throughout all of church history?
Why the scare quotes, Mark, I thought? Lens isn’t a problematic word, Mark. Groups is a pretty non-controversial word that most people use, Mark. Having a thesis is something books do. When put around words like these, scare quotes are a signal that you, Mark Jones, wish to distance yourself from that language because you consider it inappropriate in some way. It signals ironic, non-standard, or otherwise “special” use. See what I did there? Does Mark Jones have some problem with Rachel offering a lens or putting forward a thesis? Is he making fun of her?
To help me try to get to grips with what he was doing with all those scare quotes, I looked up a few of his other book reviews. I discovered that scare quotes seems to be a fairly typical feature of his writing style. But whatever his intention, it reads like he is making fun of Rachel because that’s how scare quotes work. And that really put me off.
Second, in the Amazon review, there was possibly the most over-the-top criteria for scholarship that I have ever come across. And I’m from academia, land of harsh critique! Mark writes [emphasis mine],
For a book like this to work it needs to have impeccable exegetical treatments of the key texts, a proper analysis and understanding of competing positions, a robust Reformed ontology (and the theological and philosophical work necessary for that), and a positive statement of what the NT data actually teaches. This book, sadly, does not meet these requirements and, as such, cannot be commended as a serious treatment of male-female relations. A contribution may be needed to tackle some of the weird Patriarchal views out there - a point I am in agreement with Miller - but because of her jaundiced reading of a number of complementarians it will be hard for this book to do the very thing she hoped it would.
I look forward to encountering Mark Jones’ faultless exegesis of the Bible and will of course expect him to show complete mastery of my own field of expertise, linguistics, in any book he writes that touches on language in any way. Otherwise, sadly, his work cannot be commended as in any way serious, though I may recommend it with great reservations as light-hearted reading.
Now, all of that may seem a bit harsh in tone, but as I said, Mark’s use of scare quotes and his impossible criteria for scholarship quite frankly pissed me off. Especially since this was written about my good friend Rachel, a woman who has courageously confronted problematic theology that has victimized women in the church and, for her efforts, endured no little amount of abuse. What are you saying to the world, Mark, through your participation in this pile-on? Where does your theology of women lead? To this? Really? Duly noted.
But setting that aside, something else was bugging me about Mark’s review. Why was he citing John Calvin so uncritically, for example? Why emphasize the secular authors that Augustine and Bavinck drew from? And it hit me after I saw a quote from him in a post he wrote for Calvinist International in 2017, entitled ‘Reformed Theologians Using Pagan Sources.’ Mark writes,
Reformed theologians in Britain and on the Continent in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not afraid to quote pagans. All truth is God’s truth, and certain pagans possessed a certain special endowment of natural knowledge that Christian theologians were happy to make use of them if it enabled them to make a point more forcefully. “Catholicity” then really does have a universal flavour in the writings of Reformed theologians.
“All truth is God’s truth.” This is a phrase you’ve probably come across in contemporary Christianity. And it is distinctly Dutch Reformed. What this tells me is that Mark Jones is Bavinckian and Kuyperian in his view of common grace, certainly not Van Tilian. And that’s something that makes me pause.
One of the things I really love about Rachel’s book is that she critiques the foundational premises of our modern day concepts of men and women. Her work is inherently Van Tilian in this respect, and I noted this in my endorsement of her book. She pushes us to peel back the layers of our beliefs and practices and consider their origins. Her aim wasn’t to do some impeccable exegesis of the Bible (as if that is possible), though she is faithful to God’s Word. Her aim wasn’t to provide definitive answers about our ontology. Her aim was to ask questions about the source of our theology about men and women and to consider the extent to which we have been influenced by extra-Biblical anthropology and philosophy. The answers are, yes, our sources are compromised and yes, we have been so influenced. And if you’re Van Tilian in your approach to common grace, that’s a problem, friends.
Mark Jones, on the other hand, says in his review that he wants Rachel to engage more fully with ontology by way of natural theology, which involves inquiry into who God is and what He is like (and who we are and what we are like) without referring or appealing to divine revelation. But in his book Common Grace and the Gospel, Van Til argues for a very different approach when it comes to common grace:
Going off to the right by denying common grace or going off to the left by affirming a theory of common grace patterned after the natural theology of Rome is to fail, to this extent, to challenge the wisdom of the world (p. 148).
The issue I take with Mark Jones, beyond his (quite frankly) arrogant writing style is that he does not grasp just how thoroughly Biblical Rachel is encouraging us to think. In this sense, his attempt at scholarly engagement is poor.
But nor does he grasp the context in which Rachel is writing, a context where women have far fewer opportunities to achieve advanced theological degrees, to write books, or even to be treated with respect and dignity, a context where men hold most of the cards and call nearly all the shots. Mark nods at this in his reviews but heavily qualifies it, which is rather revealing. “Reformed writers may need some pushback.” “A contribution may be needed…”
The content of this discussion matters. So does the context and the tone. Far too many ordained men check their pastoral instincts at the door when engaging with ideas that challenge them. Worse still, few have the courage to hold their peers to account. All of this results in scholarly and pastoral compromise. I’ll end with something Mark himself wrote a few years ago. It’s a good reminder.
I think we need really good pastors and we need really good scholars. I just wonder if the “pastor-scholar” doesn’t end up compromising in one of those “arenas”. God forbid it should be the pastor among his sheep.
Dr. Valerie Hobbs is Senior Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the University of Sheffield. She is currently writing a book on religious language for Bloomsbury.