How refreshing it is to find an author who respects your intelligence! Sadly, these authors today seem to be few and far between. But at last, here in Jen Wilkin we have a female writer with a mature, articulate style–free of the silly, girly chit-chat others today are using in abundance, often to emotionally manipulate their audience (as we saw in Unglued). While I may not agree with her on some things (more on that later), I commend her for expressing her points loud and clear, with frequent biblical support, rather than drowning them out with slang, excessive humor or exaggeration. So if you’re reading this, Mrs. Wilkin, thank you!
I first learned about Women of the Word through a mere Amazon search, but since then, I’ve seen many of the Christian ladies in my circles picking up a copy. Though I’d never read her books, I had recognized Jen Wilkin’s name through her contributions to blogs like The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God. I also knew that, compared with some of the other books I had ordered for reviewing, hers would be much more solid and biblically founded.
And so it is. Although I have some significant questions and criticisms to raise, I want to save those for last, and first explore the best wheat I reaped from reading Women of the Word.
CHRIST AT THE CENTER
Most people can accurately answer the simple question, “Does the Sun revolve around the earth, or does the earth revolve around the Sun?” The vast majority of us know that the solar system we live in is heliocentric–with the Sun at the center, and the other planets, including earth, circling it in their orbits around it.
Does it matter that we know this scientific fact? Yes, at least to some degree. But there is another question far more important: “Does the Bible revolve around me and you, or does the Bible revolve around Christ?”
I’d guess most professing Christians would agree, verbally, that the Bible is about God first and foremost. But judging by the bad theology in bookstores, the false teachings on televisions, and the unbiblical practices in churches, something isn’t lining up. Rather than going to the holy Word to truly seek Christ and His ways, many are using the Bible selfishly to pacify their consciences and continue in ungodly living. They twist and turn verses to fit what their itching ears want to hear, things that puff them up and feed their own sinful desires. This is a sad reality indeed.
But even those of us who do seek Christ still need to evaluate how we study the Bible, to make sure we are honoring Him in it. That’s where Wilkin’s emphasis on Christ-centered study is so helpful–especially for those new to the faith, but also for seasoned believers who need to remember where to put their focus.
We can all be tempted to employ one of the six bad Bible studying methods Wilkin covers in chapter 2, which range from unwise to dangerous and mystical. She creatively names each method, ones like “the Xanax approach” (picking and choosing passages that suit you and skipping the rest) and “Magic 8 Ball” (flipping open the Bible to find an answer). After describing them, Wilkin deftly demonstrates, in just a few words, why each method is unbiblical and should be avoided. I can see this being especially beneficial for women new to the faith and unsure how to handle the Word rightly.
If I could craft a thesis statement for this book, it would be something like this: that as we submit ourselves to God and His Word, we are transformed into the likeness of Christ. The same Christ we strive to see in every page of the Bible.
For women to grasp Christ-centeredness and put it into practice is clearly the desire of Wilkin’s heart. And what an honorable desire it is.
THE BIBLE’S TOPOGRAPHY AND WHY IT MATTERS
Surely it must have been a little daunting for Wilkin to narrow down as complex a topic as how to study the Bible into something relatively simple. But she seems to do so with ease. As she flows smoothly through each section, she draws on her effective storytelling and analogies to map out the Bible for us–each time ensuring Christ is central.
Again and again, she demonstrates the need to see the Word as a whole, its overarching themes and messages, in order to understand how the smaller parts fit. The creation-fall-redemption-restoration outline is simple, yet all-encompassing. Biblical basics for understanding the Word are fleshed out, including grasping the continuity between Old and New Testaments, differences between genres, historical and cultural perspectives, the author’s intentions, and more. Without these foundational principles, no one could read the Word while honoring the text and what it truly means. Eisegesis would abound. (And it does, when people don’t follow these rules for interpretation.)
I appreciate the vital tools Wilkin gives her readers here, and how she broaches such a vast subject in an inviting, intelligent, yet uncomplicated way. It is refreshing.
INVESTING IN A LIFETIME
The Bible is unlike any other book. One way it’s unique is that, in contrast to the likes of Shakespeare and Homer, the Word is alive, active, and endlessly deep. We could read Genesis through Revelation a million times, and yet always find ourselves growing in our experience and understanding of the Lord.
In other words: it’s inexhaustible.
In chapter 5, “Studying with Patience,” Wilkin uses this truth about God’s Word to encourage her readers to resist the temptation to seek instant gratification. She gently identifies the frustrations we face when we study, and spurs us on to keep persevering by remembering what we gain through the journey.
By struggling through the Word and sometimes feeling confused and lost, we are humbled by God–a position in which we can truly learn without pride getting in the way. With compassion and deep insight, Wilkin reminds us to keep our focus on the prize and know that it’s worth it to continue on. Though we can never completely master the Bible in our lifetimes, we can be faithful to learn what the Holy Spirit teaches us through it–day by day, despite all the chaos around us–and apply it to our lives. That is what God desires of us. And every time we reap what we’ve sown in seeking Christ through His Word, we have reason to rejoice.
You can tell while reading that Wilkin has learned these lessons personally. Her soft yet confident tone is a perfect match for the beautiful truths she shares.
THROWING SOME WRENCHES IN THE PROCESS
So far, I’ve explored some (not all) of the best aspects of this book. The majority of it was very encouraging to me as a Christian woman who always needs to grow in her desire for God and His Word.
However, I did disagree with Wilkin on a few significant points. None of these points are salvation issues or “deal-breakers” in the least, but I also wouldn’t call them minor. Keep in mind that you, my reader, may disagree with me, and that is completely fine as well.
It was in chapter 6, “Studying with Process,” that I began to find myself at odds with some of Wilkin’s teachings. In this section, she explains her detailed process for studying the Bible. The basic procedure she uses is nothing new to me–a three-step outline, consisting of comprehension, interpretation, and application. I essentially use the same process when I read the Word. It is something I learned in college as a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and as a new believer. It is a good, standard process. No issue there.
But Wilkin takes it another step further by suggesting that we print out the Bible text we are studying so we can write our notes and highlight all over it. I’ve done this before–again, as part of InterVarsity, where we called it manuscripting.
At the time it seemed helpful, especially since I was a new believer, but looking back, I recall that we sometimes strayed from the text because we literally wrote over it with our own ideas. While I wouldn’t say this method should completely be avoided, I would issue caution. I just don’t believe that studying the Bible requires us to do that level of analysis, especially for studying entire books, which Wilkin suggests.
I’m certainly not saying we should just read through a passage quickly and move on. But not many of us have the time or the knowledge to correctly explicate each passage of the Bible–at least to that degree. Or even to print out the pages every time. (I don’t even have a working printer.) I do journal as I study, making observations, interpreting symbols, etc., but I don’t make a note about every word. I try to read it as it would have been originally heard and understood.
Speaking of tools, Wilkin offers several to supplement our studies, including dictionaries, translations, paraphrases, commentaries, and cross references. Allow me to share my personal evaluations of each…
English dictionary: While this can be helpful for those not well-versed in “Christianese,” I think a Hebrew-Greek lexicon is even more beneficial. I don’t believe using a lexicon is as difficult as Wilkin makes it seem. It may seem hard at first, but like anything, it just takes a little exploring. The website Bible Hub allows you to simply type in the verse or passage, click a button, and see it in its original language. You can even look up the meanings of the original words and see where else they occur throughout the Bible. Nothing is more reliable than that.
Translations: There are many, many translations available to us as English readers. Too many, perhaps? Wilkin tells her readers to look at multiple translations of a passage and compare them. She says it will “expand your understanding of its meaning” (94). I don’t necessarily agree. Instead, I would suggest to study the accuracy of each translation, and then stick to the one you think you can trust the most. That way it’s easier to avoid the pitfall of picking the translation that sounds the best, instead of the one that translates the best. No translation is perfect, but some translations are better than others.
Paraphrases: Interestingly, Wilkin brings up the extremely inaccurate NLT and Message and identifies them as paraphrases (not translations). Yet instead of avoiding them, she suggests using them as Bible commentary. But why? The Message masquerades itself as the “Bible,” but it tramples all over the original text. Let’s be honest: it’s a joke. Especially for young Christians, it could be somewhat dangerous to suggest that they find usefulness in these “paraphrases” which seek to please the ear of the reader instead of faithfully representing the Word of God.
Later on, as a method of interpretation, Wilkin also explains the benefits of paraphrasing verses of our own. But I don’t think it wise to try to take the Word of God and put it into our own words. I’m not inexperienced in this practice–when I taught 9th grade, I showed my students how to paraphrase Shakespeare’s works into their own words. While this helped them learn Shakespeare’s language, I wouldn’t do the same with the inspired Word. For that reason–it’s inspired by God. Don’t add to it or take away from it.
Commentaries: Here I agree with Wilkin wholeheartedly that good commentaries are helpful. I use at least one daily, and often go to John Calvin and Matthew Henry’s commentaries when I’m stuck on a passage. I like them because studying the Bible shouldn’t be in isolation. If we come up with an interpretation that no one in the history of the Church has seen in the text, that should raise a red flag for us. While Calvin, Henry and others are not infallible, they were some of the wisest, most studied men in the Church. They are trustworthy.
Just don’t pick a commentary willy-nilly. Look for commentaries from trusted men in history. The Reformers and the Puritans are two groups known for their solid, biblical counsel.
Cross references: I think nothing is as valuable as cross references. We want our minds to eventually be so filled with Scripture that we instantly cross-reference while reading. The Bible interprets the Bible. Here again, I am completely unified with Wilkin on this.
One last thought. I was hoping to see Wilkin bring up another very helpful tool that believers have used for centuries–confessions, canons, and other documents from faithful Reformed church history. These documents, based on the Bible, keep us grounded on central biblical truths and from straying into false teaching or heresy.
But overall, I am glad to see how Wilkin encourages the readers to study the Word deeply, and personally, not simply taking what others say at face value. This is very much needed at a time of celebrity pastors and their often blind followings.
ON WOMEN IN THE CHURCH
Let me begin this final section by saying that women teaching women is a beautiful thing. We need one another, and God has gifted us to edify, correct, and spur one another on to love and good deeds. I’m so thankful that Jen Wilkin embraces a biblical teaching so often abandoned today–that women are not to have authority over men or to teach men in the church. Especially now, at a time when so many other female authors have purposefully disobeyed this command in Scripture.
That said, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but question some of her views regarding women in the church. In particular, our role as teachers, and how that unfolds in the context of authority. Allow me to expound on this.
In chapter 9, Wilkin explains that one of the reasons female teachers are so valuable is that they can address issues with fellow women in a special way. Fair enough. But I think she goes too far when she writes, in a section about the “authority” of female teachers, “A woman can tell other women to stop making idols of their children or spouses in a way a man can’t” (p. 130, my emphasis). A man can’t? So a pastor or a husband somehow lacks a capacity in confronting women, just because they are male?
This brings up another issue. Do women even have biblical authority over other women in the church? We know as women we submit to our pastor and church government, and to our husbands, so long as they aren’t making us sin. But do other women have the same authority? I would say no. Yet, Wilkin teaches that they do.
Female teachers can encourage us and help us, and surrounding ourselves with other women who will disciple us is essential. I definitely believe in giving opportunities for women to teach us the Word, and the wisdom they offer when they speak into our lives is irreplaceable. I’m not saying men should be the only ones to have that role.
And yet… they are not equal to a pastor or husband in a woman’s life. That is something eerily missing from Women of the Word: she barely mentions the role of a husband or pastor in guiding and helping her readers. When she does, it is a brief suggestion that we go to our pastors if we need extra help.
But where does the bulk of our spiritual learning and guidance come from?
It should, providing that we have a biblical church and a believing spouse, come from them: not from another woman. That may seem harsh, but it can be dangerous to take something supplemental like the resources of a female teacher and make it primary–a fact that I wish Wilkin had emphasized more.
It may seem I’m making mountains out of molehills here, but I think these are significant issues–enough that I would caution her readers to think biblically about Wilkin’s teachings and compare them to the Word to see if they are true.
As I’ve hopefully made clear in this review, I respect Jen Wilkin and was edified by much of the book, especially the focus on seeking Christ in the Word. I would recommend it–but with caution, regarding some of the criticisms I addressed. However, I hope it will encourage good discussions on the role of women in the church, and help us work together to clarify what the Bible says on this difficult topic.
So despite my disagreements, I still rate this book: WHEAT.