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Feminist approaches to the Bible: Part 1

In my post about some African feminist theology I briefly mentioned the issue of feminist hermeneutics and I want to revisit that here. Just what is a feminist approach to reading the Bible? Katharine Sakenfeld says it’s one of the most common questions she is asked: how can feminists use the Bible, if at all? I love that Sakenfeld asks the difficult question of her own camp here. She identifies three feminist approaches to reading the Bible and critiques them.

Option 1: looking to texts about women to counteract famous texts used “against” women.

This approach takes the ‘women passages’ of the Bible and tries to show how they’ve been read wrongly. It re-interprets them to show that the Bible is not oppressive to women. So, for example, taking Gal 3:28 as the paradigm by which to read the rest of the NT or reading the rest of Eph 5 in the light of Eph 5:21 about mutual submission. “Forgotten” texts are also a part of this: calling attention to the lesser known parts of the Bible that show the breadth of women’s experiences or provide a revolutionary, albeit brief, attitude towards women.

Option 2: Looking to the Bible generally for a theological perspective offering a critique of patriarchy.

Unlike Option 1, this isn’t confined to texts about women. It’s looking for a more general theme, like partnership for Letty Russell, or liberation for Rosemary Radford Ruether, which shape the reading of other texts. It’s trying to get behind the patriarchy of the text to see the message which is really shaping it. Taking liberation, for example, you’d say that freedom from oppression is the message of the Bible, but the Bible writers were so blinded by their own culture that they didn’t apply it to women. But those of us who can see that oppression need to take that Bible theme and apply it to women.

Option 3: The Bible as a resource of stories about women that we can learn from.

This approach doesn’t see the Bible as building a particular point about women but as highlighting the condition of women and giving them a better vision. So Phyllis Trible’s work on women as victims is primarily negative; Fiorenza’s work on women in the early church suggests a positive role for women. The Bible is a book of solidarity with other women and inspiration.

Obviously there’s overlap between the three areas. Also, feminists aren’t the only people to use these approaches: while they describe feminist readings, reading the Bible like this doesn’t necessarily make you a feminist.

Sakenfeld’s critique

Sakenfeld feels that none of these options adequately come to terms with the Bible. Because they are all in some way suspicious of the Bible, she says they end up asking the question ‘Why would God let such a book become the church’s book?’ It’s not a big step to lose trust in God and give up the Christian faith as well.

She says that Option 1 is problematic because she believes that even if you can re-interpret some passages, other are less easy to work out. So you either privilege some passages over others or have to sit with a Bible that is inconsistent. In any case, she says, you can’t take the Bible as normative.

Option 2, according to Sakenfeld sees patriarchy as the stumbling block to the Bible, so you need to take the patriarchy out to get to the message behind. The problem is, culture and message are so tied up together that this becomes like unwrapping an onion: layer after layer peels off, but there’s no core in the middle.

Sakenfeld rejects Option 3 because it doesn’t have an unifying theme. While it highlights oppression and the church’s oppression, it fails to characterize Christianity as liberating. If there are texts that speak to that, they are just the undercurrent, not the mainstream of Christianity.

I thought her critique was excellent but it left me (and her, she admits) asking questions about whether a feminist hermeneutic is sustainable at all. In part two of this post, I’ll look at some hermeneutical approaches that other feminists have suggested.

Categories: Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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