1 Timothy 2:15: How Can One Not Dissent?

In a recent post in First Things, Elizabeth Scalia, in trying to position the dissent of Cardinal John Henry Newman, offers that there ought not to be a gulf in Catholic thinking between faith and reason, or, in her words, “intellectual rigor and loyalty are not mutually exclusive.” There are other ways to put it. Alasdair McIntyre stated that theism “invites ruthless and systematic questioning,” but also “requires devoted and unquestioning obedience” (God, Philosophy, Universities, p.8).

The example Scalia gives of how to balance “intellectual rigor and loyalty” is her interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:15.  The verse in the NRSV is as follows: “Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” She writes,


“This openness {to both intellectual rigor and loyalty} is the difference between reading Paul’s words to Timothy that women ‘will be saved in childbearing, provided [they continue] in faith, love and holiness’ and either rejecting them as the discriminatory and archaic utterances of a misogynist, or grimly trying to conform to the stricture without question, which may also mean without understanding, and possibly without charity.”

While I am in agreement with her basic principle of the necessary balance between “intellectual rigor and loyalty,” the citation above suggests that “intellectual rigor” at root seeks to reject, which in this case is the rejection of “discriminatory and archaic utterances of a misogynist.”  On the other hand, the one who seeks to be loyal is seen to be “grimly trying to conform to the stricture without question, which may also mean without understanding, and possibly without charity.” Each of these positions is a caricature, of course, the extreme end of each position, but Scalia proposes a basic orientation for each position: one is hell-bent on destruction and rejection; the other is a naïve refusal to consider questions or objections regardless of their merit.  I think these caricatures, to be fair, are rarely met and what both Progressive and Traditionalist Christians seek, quite genuinely, is the understanding that Scalia proposes: “When intellectualism and loyalty are open {to}each other, all understanding is enlarged.” This is the point Scalia is driving at, that faith and reason must be kept in balance, that understanding must emerge from both questioning and obedience. With respect to this, it is hard to raise an objection.

Yet, when we get to the hard case of the actual passage under consideration, issues arise which make muddy a clear and clearly stated principle. With respect to 1 Timothy 2:15, there is a genuine debate about how to translate this verse. The NAB has “but she will be saved through motherhood, provided women persevere in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.” In the NAB translation, the assumption is that the plural verb refers to women, even though the preceding verb is singular, and even though the word “women” does not occur in the verse. The RSV has “yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” This translation, however, has the problem of taking a plural verb and bringing it into agreement with a singular verb when such agreement does not exist in the Greek and adding "woman" where it is not found in the original. The best translation is the NRSV, “yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty,” which translates the Greek simply and straightforwardly (as does the KJV by the way), but leaves open room for the interpretation of “they” as the children of women and not the women themselves.

When Scalia writes, “This openness is the difference between reading Paul’s words to Timothy that women ‘will be saved in childbearing, provided [they continue] in faith, love and holiness’,” she enters into the basic issue of translation. Scalia has “women,” plural, outside of the translation in quotation marks, but the Greek verb is a future passive, third person singular of sozo, to save. This is literally “she will be saved,” as the NRSV has it. Scalia places “they continue” in brackets, but there is nothing bracketed about these words in Greek. The third person plural verb, meno, means “they remain,” or “they continue.” It is preceded by the conditional conjunction ean, which means “if.” The question is whether the verb in the conditional clause refers to “women,” plural, or the children of woman, as the initial verb refers only to one woman. Naturally, the singular verb, “she will be saved,” could refer corporately to all women in the following clause, but in this case it is not certain that it does. Why does this matter? It matters because proper understanding arises from proper reading, of a text and of a tradition.

Scalia writes the following about this passage:

“Believing that nothing in Scripture is accidental, Catholics are obliged not to sneer, but to wonder about the theology behind Paul’s words and to discern what in that surprising verse is worth pondering, in an era where human life is held cheap. Can we discern within the verse a notion that women are, in God’s sublime and mysterious mercy, privileged in their ability to assist God in his continual re-entering into our world, disguised as he is within that helpless, vulnerable, and unconditional love that instantly forms between mother and child, father and child, siblings, and grandparents and child?”

Nothing in Scripture is accidental, which is why careful attention to detail is so significant and one does not have to be in the mode or mood to sneer, to recognize that this passage raises numerous and profound questions which are not solved simply by suggesting that “women are, in God’s sublime and mysterious mercy, privileged in their ability to assist God in his continual re-entering into our world.” Women might be privileged in this way, yet it is not clear that this is what the verse is getting at. It might be saying that “woman” will be saved by childbearing, reversing the curse of Eve in childbearing, if a woman’s children remain faithful, loving and holy. This, however, raises profound questions: why should a woman’s children be the key by which she is saved, especially in light of Ezekiel 18?  In what way is a woman “saved by childbearing,” especially women who cannot have children or women who have chosen the celibate life, which Paul states in 1 Corinthians 7 is a better path? What of Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians, in which it is clear that justification is by faith through Christ for man and woman, Jew and Gentile, slave and free (cf. Gal. 3:25-29)? The singular woman of 1 Timothy 2:15 might stand for all women, it is true, as Eve, who is discussed in verses prior stands for all women, but why is salvation even discussed in the context of childbearing, unless there has been a shift in the notion of what salvation itself means?

Scalia says that “suddenly ‘misogyny’ looks like an expedient and human explanation, and blind obedience looks so unsatisfyingly empty; the whole verse is suddenly fraught with a deeper, holier and ultimately more idealistic meaning than either the intellectualist or the unquestioning loyalist could have imagined.” But while agreeing with the rejection of both a “misogynist” reading of this passage and “blind obedience” to some purported meaning, I am left confused: what “more idealistic meaning” does Scalia ascribe to this passage?  All I can discern as a possible reading is “that women are, in God’s sublime and mysterious mercy, privileged in their ability to assist God in his continual re-entering into our world.” But does this explanation solve the questions that truly take us deeper into solving the mystery of this passage? How does it aid our understanding of the notion of “salvation” at play here? Are all women saved by childbearing or only those who choose to have them? Is it childbearing itself that saves, or does salvation come from raising children in faith, love and holiness?

My point is simple: one can agree with the general principle that “intellectual rigor and loyalty are not mutually exclusive” easily, but dissent takes place not when one does not take the Bible seriously as the Word of God, but precisely when one does take the Bible seriously. It is not dissent one is seeking to find, but the true understanding of this passage, yet dissent might come knocking. It is not an easy passage to understand and much in the Bible is similar. It is not clear either what being “loyal” or what being in “dissent” means in the interpretation of this passage, since the understanding of women and childbearing found here rubs against Catholic understandings of the meaning of salvation in Christ and the preferred role of celibacy for men and women in Paul’s letters themselves. Scalia says later that understanding is not always clear: “if we are open, we (very reasonably) throw our hands up to heaven and submit to it, because we know mystery for a good adventure, and we are loyal to it.” Yet, when understanding is not present, or when what seems to be the meaning of a passage is found to be at odds with other passages in the biblical corpus and the teachings of the Church itself, to what are we submitting and to what mystery are we loyal?

What this means to me is that the interpretation of difficult biblical passages, of which this is simply one of many, is an ongoing process and one in which we must be open to surprising answers with which others might disagree and disagree vehemently. We should not give up trying to understand this passage, and we should not give up trying to understand this passage in the context of the teachings of the Church, but we must be aware that one need not consider this passage evidence of “misogyny” to wonder at its point and relevance today. If we, following John Henry Newman, model “a willingness to apply one’s own intellect to any question with enough openness as to leave room to be surprised at one’s own conclusions,” what if one’s conclusions lead one to reject the whole notion of salvation for women either through childbearing or childrearing? Is that dissent? It seems to be dissent from the clear meaning of the passage.  And to those who choose “blind obedience” to the teachings of this passage, to what precisely are they being obedient? Are they being obedient to the Church’s teaching that women are saved through childbearing? Or the teaching that women are saved according to the faithfulness of their children?

There are, of course, other possible interpretations of this passage. One possible interpretation is that the passage is a response to an ancient heresy, whether it is the heresy later known as Encratism, or some form of Gnosticism, or some other unknown teaching. In 1 Timothy 4:3-4, we find that those opposed to the Church “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving.” Perhaps opponents of the Church have stated that women who have children may not be saved; if that is the case, 1 Timothy 2:15 makes the case for the goodness of procreation and the raising of children. Is this culturally located meaning sufficient to make sense of the passage? Is it dissent to say, though, that this passage simply has nothing to do with the salvation of women, not because it is “misogynist,” not just because it is “culturally conditioned,” but because women are saved just as men are, by faith in Jesus Christ? Or is that “blind obedience” to the teachings of the Church? And what precisely is the official teaching of the Church on 1 Timothy 2:15? In practice, and in the particular, it is difficult to be loyal when it is not exactly clear to what one should be loyal and easy to fall into dissent when a biblical passage seems to propose something different from the clear teaching of the Church: “By his glorious Cross Christ has won salvation for all men. He redeemed them from the sin that held them in bondage” (CCC 1741).

 John W. Martens

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
we vnornm
8 years 3 months ago
Hi John,

Thanks for the link to the Scalia blog. It reminded me of how both the Vincentians and Jesuits helped my faith journey in college nd graduate school. When I found myself doubting something, I always found it reassuring to see that right in front of me were men much smarter than I who had wrestled with the same quandries and still were able to make the great leap of faith. I remember with particular fondness Father John B. Weisengoff, with whom I studied the Old Testament. It was not until a few years ago that I saw his name as one of the translators of the New American Bible. So it is good to have role models such as Newman or Dulles or Merton or Elizabeth Scalia who have put their prodigious intellects to work and remain faithful to the Lord and His message.

I have a few Raymond Brown books here-so I couldn't resist meandering through some of the chapters to take a stab at other meanings of 1 Timothy 2:15. In "Introduction to the New Testament" Brown writes:

"The instructions for men and women are disproportionately corrective of women. A stress on modesty and decency in dress leads into a demand that women be quiet and submissive while they learn (2:9-12). 'I do not permit a woman to have authority over men' may refer primarily to a worship context but probably extends farther, as the reference to Eve suggests. Normally these verses are read as a general attitude toward women; and in today's context they will be heard as extremist in limiting women's roles, especially when combined with a reproving attitude toward young widows in 5:11-15. Yet there has been support recently for another way of interpreting this passage against the background of the letter's attack on false teaching. That these were WEALTHY women is suggested by the warning against gold, pearls, and costly attire (2:9); and this may be connected to the castigation of self-indulgent widows having the leisure to flit about from house to house (5:6,13); see also the attacks on wealth in 6:9,17. (italics added)

Is it possible this verse is referring only to these materialistic widows who have the leisure to flit about from house to house (gosh, sounds like we have a possible tv show here), rather than to ALL women when the letter was written? If so, can one make the leap that this refers to all women in all times, ages, and places?

Since Raymond Brown uses the word "may be" he is obviously giving his own speculation, but for me at least this added an interesting dimension that seems to underly many discussions and arguments in general: were these letters aimed at specifics in the NT culture or are they blueprints for all ages.

Thanks to you and Raymond Brown for undertaking what must be one of the most difficult but valuable tasks today, understanding Scripture and remaining faithful to its messsage in view of many scholars who approach the writings with an eye to deconsruct these documents into mere scholarly debates rather than the Word of God. Forgive me if my thoughts here are in left field, I will return to The Other Side. best, bill
Michelle Russell
8 years 3 months ago
John, I was the lector for Mass when 1Timothy 2:1-8 was the reading, and in my prep I read the passage you are discussing here.  Two thoughts went through my mind:  ''Whew! I'm glad it stopped at verse 8; I wouldn't want to touch the rest of this with a ten foot pole!'' and ''How did we miss this passage in 4 years of Jesuit college? I took a semester-long seminar on all things 'women/feminist'''. 

I do agree, that with all we read in both Old and New Testaments, we must take into account the historical times and cultural values, but think we do have to look directly at these words if we are to believe this to be the inspired Word of God.  To be sure, this is a letter, but it is a letter of teaching and was chosen to be part of the New Testament.  There are other equally shocking verses to be found throughout the Bible, and we can't just look the other way because they make us uncomfortable. 

To make it easier on ourselves, we can wave it away with the historical magic wand - this only applied to the women at that time, in that context, etc., and has no bearing on us in our ''enlightened'' age.  But as with all of these difficult passages, even if they have little to say ''with respect to the theological question of salvation'', can't we glean some insight from them which may help us along our own path to salvation? 

Historically, women had not previously been included in study of scripture, so including women was new territory at that time.  Should we then take from this passage the thought that we too should listen, ''be quiet'', and accept teaching (not dissent) that is given to us until we are sufficiently knowledgeable ourselves?  When are we sufficienlty knowledgeable? On the other hand, is there no value given to the moving of the Spirit within the ''uneducated'' and ''unsophisticated'' among us, then and now - why should women (or those ''uneducated'') not ''lift up holy hands'' in prayer?  And weren't many of us taught that it is through discussion, and disagreement, and bewilderment, and confusion, and finally prayer and surrender that many ''interpretations'' come about and begin to help us make sense of things that don't make sense? 

Or do these passages just create more questions, draw us further afield, further off the path toward salvation...should we just take them at face value in light of their historical context?  And why are there more questions than answers? :-)
Marie Rehbein
8 years 3 months ago
When I first read your article, John, I found myself agreeing with it because, obviously, there are compelling factors that Scalia did not consider in her interpretation of the verses in Timothy.  However, I believe her purpose in writing is to persuade readers (reassure the regular readers of First Things?) that Newman cannot be claimed as an innovative thinker within Catholicism by "progressives".

She more or less asserts that no matter how much thinking we do, at some point we will come to the truth as the Catholic Church sees it, and that Newman came to this point before his conversion.  While I think this was the true purpose of her writing, I also think that her article can be approached from other perspectives, just as you have done, and that it can be redeemed for more holy purposes. 

In contrast to her belief, and perhaps more in accord with yours, I feel that the Bible is alive in a sense and speaks to the reader in accord with the reader's needs and circumstances by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, I believe that the various ways in which the lectionary readings have been combined for any given day change the meaning of the individual passages to some degree and that the listener's needs and circumstances and the Holy Spirit change them even further. 

Therefore, I do not think anyone can lay claim to a definitive interpretation of troublesome biblical passages, but that the effort to find all the possible interpretations is an exercise that is bound to be fruitful.   


The latest from america

In cities across the country, local activists marched in support of a progressive agenda centered on economic justice, racial justice and immigrant rights.
Brandon SanchezJanuary 20, 2019
Screengrab from a viral video showcasing a confrontation between a Native American drummer and a group of Catholic high school students in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 18, 2019. Screenshot via YouTube.
Several clips of the encounter circulating on social media show a small group of Native American drummers, who were in Washington for the Indigenous People’s March, being surrounded by a much larger band of teenagers.
Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019