Monday, December 01, 2008

Head Coverings: Part 1 Geneva Bible

I was asked by someone recently where the current emphasis on head coverings for women in Reformed churches is coming from. For those who don't know, head coverings for women were standard in Catholicism until Vatican II. I remember as a child most women in our UPCUSA church wore hats. What I don't know is whether that was more because of theology, or because of style. I suspect the latter, but cannot prove it. After all, those were also the days when men wore hats all the time outdoors, but always took them off indoors, unlike today when the "gimme" ball cap is ubiquitous. But I had always mentally associated the "head coverings for women" with certain of the more sectarian fundamentalist groups than with Reformed churches. So over the next few posts, I'm going to attempt an unscientific examination of the issue through various Reformed commentaries. I'll start with the notes of the Geneva Bible, which has recently been reprinted, thanks to the commitment of the folks at Tolle Lege Press.

The Geneva notes on 1 Cor 11:4-5 read as follows: Hereof he gathereth that if men do either pray or preach in public assemblies having their heads covered (which was then a sign of subjection) they did as it were spoil themselves of their dignity, against God's ordinance. It appeareth that this was a political law serving only for the circumstances of the time that Paul lived in , by this reason, because in these our days for a man to speak bareheaded in an assembly, is a sign of subjection. And in the like sort he concludeth, that women which show themselves in public and ecclesiastical assemblies without the sign and token of their subjection, that is to say, uncovered, shame themselves.

Interpreting these terse notes, I think the following may be fairly said. First, the signs of subjection were a part of the political economy of the day, and these signs may change, and in fact have changed. In Paul's day, a man wearing a head covering in a public assembly showed himself to be in subjection. In the days of the Geneva Bible, a man appearing in a public assembly without a head covering showed himself to be in subjection. Hence, women ought to appear in public assembly in such a manner as to show themselves in subjection, consistent with whatever the common practice is at the time. It does not appear that the Geneva notes can be read in such a way as to argue for a perpetual necessity for women to wear head coverings in public worship.


SJU said...

Thanks for this Dr. Shaw. For future personal use, I've edited your posts together into one list. Here it is in case anyone wants them all in one place:

2nd Century
Against Heresies by Ireneaus

A number of reasons went into the choice. The work is fairly easy reading. It is fairly short. It also makes the point that even in the early history of the church there was a significant concern for orthodoxy. In our day, there are many scholars, such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, who consider the rise of orthodoxy in the West to be a primarily political movement, motivated by desire for power and control. Ireneaus is a nice little corrective to that line of thinking. The work is also readily available, either in the Ante-Nicene Fathers set, or online through Google Books, or

3rd Century
On Prayer by Origen

This is a relatively short work. It gives a more positive side of Origen than we are used to seeing. And it is considered one of the classic treatises on the subject. It is available in a variety of forms, some of which are: Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, published by Paulist Press in their Classics of Western Spirituality series. This seems to be an abridgement. There is also the unabridged form in Prayer; Exhortation to Martyrdom in the Ancient Christian Writers series, also from Paulist Press. It can also be read online at

4th Century
On the Incarnation by Athanasius

As with the other works from the fathers, it is available in a variety of formats, both in print and online. One edition, reprinted by St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, has a nice introduction by C. S. Lewis.

5th Century
The City of God by Augustine

Augustine was the giant of the late fourth and early fifth century. He was a voluminous writer and had a towering intellect. Most people recommend people to read his Confessions. I don't disregard them, but The City of God was written as the Roman Empire was falling apart. It is part apologetics, part systematic theology, part ethics, part biblical theology, part theology of history. It is available in abridged form, but I really think that any minister ought to work through the whole thing. Though many editions are available, my recommendation is the edition published by Penguin Classics and translated by Henry Bettenson.

6th Century
Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

As we move into the 6th century, we start moving into difficult territory. The names are much less familiar, as are the works. Here, I would suggest Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. The most accessible edition is probably that published by Penguin Classics and edited by Victor Watts. It is also available online at Google Books in an 18th-century translation by Philip Ridpath, or an early 20th century version by W. V. Cooper at Boethius is late-5th, early-6th centuries, having died in 525 or so. But the book was written in the 6th century.

7th Century
De Ecclesiasticis Officiis by Isidore of Seville (570-636)

It is available in the Ancient Christian Writers series from Paulist Press. It is an important early work on church offices, both liturgical and ministerial. His best-known work is the Etymologies, which became a standard textbook for the Middle Ages, but I think the smaller work may be of more interest.

8th Century
Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede

It is by far the best known of his works, and perhaps the best-known work of the 8th century. It is also important for our history as English-speaking Christians. Again, I would recommend the Penguin Classics edition. Earlier translations are available online at Google Books, and at

The 9th and 10th centuries seem to have been difficult days for the church, at least as far as memorable works go. Theological and intellectual investigation had not died, but the published remains of that period seem not to have made it into English form. There are, of course, references to various authors and works from that period in the standard histories, and in secondary literature about the debates. But primary sources translated into English are in short supply. So I will hold off on these two centuries until I have solidified some selections.

11th Century
Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) by Anselm

I am tempted to suggest Abelard's Historia Calamitatum (The Story of My Misfortunes), which is available in paperback (you can find it at Amazon). Or you can read it online at But instead, I recommend Anselm's Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). It is a far more important work, and is probably not much read any more, nor required much in seminary curricula. It is available online, as well as in a variety of print forms. Of these, I recommend the Oxford World Classics edition, since it contains most of Anselm's major works.

12th Century
On Loving God by Bernard of Clairvaux

This can be found online as well as in print. Of the latter, I recommend the edition in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics series. This is devotional writing of the finest sort. It enables us to see a love for God through the eyes of a man from a world very different from ours. The reader of this column are mostly Reformed Protestants; Bernard was Catholic. We are not monks; he was. We live with all the advantages of modern technology; the technology of Bernard's day was little different from that of Jesus' day. But the love for God that we share with Bernard can break down those barriers, and draw us together as members of one church.

13th Century
Aquinas's Shorter Summa by Thomas Aquinas

For the 13th century, I cannot but recommend Aquinas. More vilified than read in our day, especially perhaps among Reformed types, he nonetheless deserves to be read. I cannot in good conscience recommend reading the entirety of Summa Theologica, but I do recommend a work titled Aquinas's Shorter Summa, published by Sophia Institue Press, and available at a very reasonable price. I think you will find Aquinas much different than you imagined him to be.

14th Century
Divine Comedy by Dante

We move from theology per se to theology and social criticism posing as poetry. That is the Divine Comedy of Dante. A great work of literature, thoroughly informed by the theology of the day. I recommend the Penguin Classics edition translated by Dorothy Sayers, but probably any annotated edition (and there are many available) would do.

15th Century
In Praise of Folly by Erasmus

Yes, I realize that technically this is 16th century, since it was published in 1511. However, it imbibes the spirit of the 15th century, since it shows forth all the various strains of revolt and protest that were beginning to bubble up in the 15th century. There are a number of editions available, both online and in print, and I don't have one to recommend above the others.

16th Century
Commentary on Galatians by Luther

For the 16th century there is an embarrassment of riches, and no choice I make will receive any universal approval. However, I recommend Luther's Commentary on Galatians. Kregel Classics has published a nice edition of it in paperback, or if you have Kindle, it is available for $3.19. I recommend this in part because it is the contrary to Erasmus. In part, I also recommend it because it reminds us, if we need reminding, of why there was a Reformation, and why it is still important. You will probably learn more about Luther than about Galatians, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

17th Century
On the Mortification of Sin, On Temptation, On Indwelling Sin in Believers, and Exposition of Psalm 130 (on forgiveness of sin) by Owen

Again, an embarrassment of riches, because this was the age of the Puritans. However, as an one who enjoys Tolkien, recognizing that that Lord of the Rings is really a tetralogy (including The Hobbit), I recommend what I call the "sin" tetralogy by John Owen. These are the four works that make up volume 6 of Owen's collected works: On the Mortification of Sin, On Temptation, On Indwelling Sin in Believers, and Exposition of Psalm 130 (on forgiveness of sin). In this day of both legalism and licentiousness, every minister ought to read these by Owen and put them into practice. He will grow in holiness, and avoid many dangers.

18th Century
History of the Work of Redemption by Jonathan Edwards

I would recommend that you buy the Yale University Press edition, but I also realize that it is out of reach for most of you. So read it in the Banner of Truth reprint, or read it online at or download it from Google Books. There is an edition on Google Books that is just the History of the Work of Redemption. I think any Reformed pastor should have read at least some of Edwards, and this work is more accessible than some of the more philosophically oriented works.

19th Century
Thoughts on Religious Experience by Archibald Alexander

It is a useful treatise, though not as penetrating as Edwards on religious affections. Nonetheless, it it well worth the time to read.

20th Century
Holiness of God by RC Sproul

20th century evangelicalism especially lacks much appreciation for this divine attribute, and Sproul does an excellent job of making clear its importance for the Christian life.

Arthur Sido said...

"I was asked by someone recently where the current emphasis on head coverings for women in Reformed churches is coming from. "

Maybe from the Bible? 1 Corinthians 11? Ought not those who claim the mantle of Refomed search the Scriptures to see how we should worship and not look to the culture around us to dictate to us?