She just wanted to learn. Well, to learn and to help thousands of women like her learn as well. When 28-year-old Mary Astell (1666-1731) of Newcastle, England wrote her groundbreaking work, A Serious Proposal to the Ladies, she envisioned a community of women who invested their lives in developing their character and their minds
Mary Astell’s Proposal
Astell lamented over those women who “trifled away” their existence with “unconcerning and unprofitable Matters,” and who preferred trivial amusements and secular activities over employing their “faculty of Thinking” on God Himself. Her solution was to establish an all-female seminary in which women who were dissatisfied with the “emptiness of earthly enjoyment,” might devote themselves to the intellectual study of the Christian beliefs.
At that time, women did not enjoy the same access to education–religious or classical–that men did, a societal disparity that, for Astell, had a spiritual significance. “Since God has given Women as well as Men intelligent Souls,” she asked, “why should they be forbidden to improve them?” She believed that, since God does nothing in vain, He intended for women to use the reason He gave them. Astell made an even bolder claim. She argued that insulting the equality and intelligence of women insulted God Himself: “[W]e pity their mistake, and can calmly bear their scoffs, for they do not express so much contempt of us as they do of our Maker.” Her Proposal was so provocative that she published the work anonymously.
But as revolutionary as those words were, her motive was even more remarkable.
Mary Astell’s Motive and Ours
For Mary Astell, theological education for women had nothing to do with what they might do. Instead, it had everything to do with who they might be. As if anticipating an objection, Astell assured her readers that she, and likeminded women with her, had no desire to overstep or usurp the boundaries of Scripture, but simply to understand and practice their faith in honor of their Creator: “[O]ur only Contention shall be that [men] not out-do us in promoting his Glory who is Lord both of them and us.” To promote God’s glory. To attain no other reward but honoring Him with her mind. This was her driving motivation.
Mary Astell never did get to establish an all-female seminary. But her vision calls out to a new generation of women. At the seminary where I serve, I get to meet countless women who love the Lord and want to serve Him with their whole lives. They are women of incredible gifts, skills, and vision. But there’s often one nagging question that makes women wonder whether theological education is worth their investment: “What are you going to do with it?” Sadly, many women believe theological education must not be for them because they don’t aspire to vocation, position, or task.
Perhaps Mary Astell’s words are just what women need to hear today. Of course, not every Christian woman needs to go to seminary–but every woman of God is called to love the Lord her God with all her mind, with all the intellect, reason, and “faculty of thinking” that He gave her as His image-bearer.
Our world is no less full of trifling and unprofitable matters than was Astell’s, and the need for women who devote themselves to the study of doctrine is no less great. May we not be out-done in promoting His glory.
Where Do You Start?
Wondering where to begin? Here are a few of my favorite theology texts:
Theology for the Church Daniel Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014).
This is a staple work for studying systematic theology both academically and approachably written.
Studies on the Sermon on the Mount, Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1984).
A beloved classic – at 500+ pages, this in-depth study of Jesus’ sermon will etch the familiar words of Matthew 5-7 into your heart in a fresh way.
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity, Nancy Pearcey (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).
An excellent introduction to worldview, philosophy, and the ideas that have influenced our culture – especially helpful for your personal ministry of evangelism.
Women of the Word: How to Study the Bible with Both Our Hearts and Our Minds, Jen Wilkin (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014).
If you want to learn how to study Scripture, this is a perfect place to start.