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No. 134: How Are Women Saved?

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 134
Copyright © 2000 Biblical Horizons
October, 2000

What had been reduced to ruin by this sex,

would by the selfsame sex be recovered to salvation.

As Eve believed the serpent,

so Mary believed the angel.

The delinquency which the one occasioned by believing,

the other by believing effaced.

—Tertullian

What is Paul saying about women and salvation in 1 Timothy 2:15? Is this a reference to a women’s preservation, as the translators of the NIV imply (“but women will be kept safe through childbirth”)? Other commentators argue that phrase should be translated “women will be saved through childbearing,” arguing that evangelical translators are prone to soften the wording because of their reluctance to accept that the Bible would say women were saved (from eternal death) through childbearing. Since this would seem to implicate Paul in a works-righteousness scheme, most Evangelical commentators opt for softening the meaning of the Greek verb sozo to signify “preserving” or “keeping safe,” which, it should be acknowledged, is indeed an appropriate use of the word. Any standard Greek lexicon will provide numerous examples of sozo being used to denote a “salvation” from something less than eternal death. Unfortunately, the debate often not only focuses on the wrong word, but fails to take the larger biblical-theological context into account.

First of all, consider the redemptive historical context of 1 Timothy 2:15. Paul is not discoursing on the fundamental nature and calling of man and woman in the abstract, but rather he is reviewing the history of the creation, fall, and the promise of salvation in Genesis 2 and 3. Moreover, Paul follows the flow of these two chapters in Genesis rather closely. He is giving an inspired commentary on that passage as it pertains to women’s role in church worship. Earlier in 1 Timothy 2 he gave instructions concerning the duties of men (v. 8). He then proceeds to discuss the function of women in the Church (vv. 9-15). After ruling that a woman may not “teach or have authority over a man; she must remain silent,” Paul seeks to justify this command by appealing to the Genesis narrative, especially the woman’s role in it. Both the creation order (“Adam was formed first then Eve”) and the way in which sin entered the world (“Adam was not deceived, it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner”) teach us that women are to be in submission to men in the Church.

Second, I believe that the Greek verb sothesetai (“will be saved”) denotes “salvation” in the strong sense and not merely “preservation.” Most commentators make the mistake of interpreting tes teknogonias (“the childbirth”) as a reference to “childbearing” in general, an activity which pertains to all women. But this should not be assumed. Is Paul referring to all women in general when he speaks of being saved dia tes teknogonias (“through the childbirth”)? Having pointed out that it was through the deception of the woman that sin entered into the world, and having said that the woman “became a sinner” (the very end of v. 14), Paul immediately feels constrained to remind his readers of the remedy for sin and the central role that Eve (in fulfillment of “the woman” theme in Old Covenant typology) played in this redemption. Verse 15a would be better translated: “But she will be saved through the childbirth. . . .” The plural “women,” is often inserted as the subject of the verb sothsetai. Nevertheless, in the Greek there is no stated subject. The verb sothesetai is feminine singular, not plural as many translations have inaccurately rendered it (singular: KJV, NKJV, NEB, etc.; plural: NIV, NAS, etc.). Who is the subject of this verb? It seems very likely from the context and all the explicit references to Genesis 3 that it is “the woman” (Gen. 3:15, fulfilled in Eve). Salvation will come through the childbearing of “the woman.” It is “the woman” who will be saved in this way.

But the text is even more specific than that. Not just generic “childbearing,” but “the childbirth” (tes teknogonias) saves the woman. In the history of the exegesis of this passage essentially two views have emerged as interpretations of dia tes teknogonias: 1) it has been understood as a reference to the birth of the Messiah, translated as “through the childbirth” or “by means of the childbearing,” and 2) the phrase has been interpreted to be a reference to the bearing of children in general, variously translated as “through childbearing” or “through the bearing of children.” I agree with George Knight, who notes in his Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles that many Bible scholars “have rejected the understanding of spiritual salvation through the birth of the Messiah (Alford, Bernard, Guthrie, Ward) and have done so virtually out of hand and without giving reasons for this view as unlikely.” (p. 369). The noun is definite, and surely refers to the childbirth of the Christ promised to Eve in Genesis 3:15.

Knight observes: “How is salvation promised in Genesis 3? In the protoevangelium of Gen. 3:15 which speaks of ‘her seed’ and says ‘He [the seed] shall bruise you [the serpent=Satan] on the head,’ salvation is announced in terms of a child to be born by the woman. Furthermore, this understanding fits the flow of the argument. Paul points out that Eve (he gune) brought herself into transgression by abandoning her role and taking on that of the man. But by fulfilling her role, difficult as it may be as a result of sin (‘To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth, in pain you shall bring forth children; yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”,’ Gen. 3:16), she gives birth to the Messiah, and thereby, ‘she’ (he gune, fulfilled of course in Mary; for this understanding on the part of Paul cf. Gal. 4:4, ‘God sent forth his Son, born of a woman’, genomenon ek gunaikos) brings into the world salvation” (Knight, Commentary, 369, 370).

Notice how closely Paul is following the text of Genesis 3:

1 Tim. 2:14 “It was the woman who was deceived

Gen. 3:13 “The serpent deceived me

1 Tim. 2:15 “She will be saved through the childbirth

Gen. 3:15 “I will put enmity between your seed and her seed.”

It would be Eve’s seed (the childbirth = Jesus) that would save men, by crushing the head of the deceiving serpent. Paul has shown how Eve has been instrumental in bringing about the fall into sin, but he does not stop there. He shows how indispensable she will be in the history of redemption. For from the fruit of her body will come the Messiah, who will save both her and all of mankind. In fact, this is how every woman in particular is saved, for Paul switches to the plural in the last half of verse 15 and makes application to women in general. There is then a definite transition from Eve (“The woman”: the singular he gune, Gal. 4:4) back to women in general (“women”: the plural meinosin, “if they continue”). They will be saved “if they continue in faith, love, and holiness with submission.” Women in general are not saved through bearing children, they are saved through faith in the fruit of “the childbirth,” Jesus Christ.

This Messianic interpretation can be found in some modern (Ellicott, Lock, Oden, von Soden, Wohlenberg) as well as ancient commentators (Ignatius, Eph., 19; Irenaeus, Haer., III.22, V.19; Justin, Dial., 100; Tertullian, De Car., XLCI, 17). Thomas Oden comments: “Eve is the referent of the phrase, ‘woman will be saved.’ In the pre-gospel (Protoevangelium) of Genesis 3:15, it was prophesied that the tempter’s temporary victory was ultimately to be thwarted. The Lord said to the serpent: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.’ The seed of Eve was understood by virtually all classic Christian exegetes as the coming Christ, who would crush the serpent’s head, bind up the demonic powers, and bring salvation to Eve’s descendants. Hence Paul was not referring to childbirth generally but to a particular Childbirth, that of the Lord, a man born of a woman, the promised seed. The woman (Eve) will be saved by the Childbearing (of Christ by Mary). Using Eve as a prototype for all women, the import is that all women are intended recipients of the salvation offered in the birth of Jesus” (Thomas C. Oden, First and Second Timothy and Titus [Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1989], 101; see also Thomas Oden, The Word of Life: Systematic Theology: Volume Two [San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989], 148ff.).

If this redemptive historical interpretation is correct, then First Timothy chapter two has nothing to do with the essential mothering role of women in general but rather assures us of the central place of “the woman” in God’s redemptive plan and reminds us that women in general are saved from eternal death through faith in the promised Child, if they persevere in the same.

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