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Feminist approaches to the Bible: Part 2

In part 1 of this post, I looked at Katharine Sakenfeld’s critique of feminist hermeneutics. Here I want to look more generally across a number of scholars at how they conceive of how to read the Bible. What are the keys that unlock the way they read the Bible?  

Experience as source and endpoint

Feminists bring their own experience to the Bible in order to gauge its usefulness. This might sounds like having an authority higher than the Bible but Ruether says we all do this. She says that religious traditions begin with breakthrough experiences, often of a revelatory nature. For example, the exodus experience or the resurrection experience are the primary data of religious tradition. However, these need to be interpreted and this brings a new revelatory aspect, that is, a new experience. Feminists use women’s experiences in particular and they don’t see a problem with this. Human experience is always the start and endpoint of religion.

I think Ruether’s got a point about human experience. To think that religion is somehow ‘delivered’ to us in an objective or bias free way is naive. And I like the honesty of feminism: at least they’re up front about what framework they’ll use to interpret the Bible. Nevertheless I don’t think this accounts adequately for the supernatural in revelation. The Bible is a product of human experience; certainly our interpretations of it are as well. But that’s not all there is. Human experience is in the mix but the start is the God who speaks and in the mix is his Spirit that illumines his words.

Religion as what is acceptable

One of the struggles that Christian feminists face is what to do when their feminist convictions seem to collide with the scriptures. Russell presents it as a dichotomy: to be truthful to scripture’s teaching or faithful to their own integrity as human beings? This is a terrible thing to be faced with for a feminist. A favourite feminist theme is the idea that to contradict your inmost conviction is violence to the soul or self. Thus, if the cross of Jesus is experienced by women as pointing them only toward victimization and not redemption, Ruether claims it would be perceived and false and demonic and women could no longer identify themselves as Christians. Fiorenza says that if the Bible is read as a weapon against women, this is an invalid reading.

There are lots of unacceptable ways to read the Bible and feminism helpfully points these out. But I’m suspicious of the idea that because I feel something violates my personal rights, it’s somehow inherently evil. That comes from my view of sin. Fallen humans love what is evil and resist what is good. Even those redeemed by Christ experience this struggle. So we ought not to necessarily expect that Christianity will be palatable to us. And the heart of Christianity is one who experienced such violence of self: he’s the one we’re called to follow. That doesn’t excuse abusive interpretations of the Bible but it does call us to self-examination.

The prophetic tradition

Feminist sees itself as a prophetic movement. Russell, Ruether and Sakenfeld all use this language. The prophetic is defined as seeking “faithful ways of recovering, reinterpreting and discerning God’s way in the tradition handed on by the Bible.” It’s not about usurping biblical authority because Russell argues that the word of God has authority as it is received. Thus the Bible is accepted as the Word of God when communities of faith understand God to be speaking to them in and through its message. Feminists here see themselves in the same place as Old Testament prophets, calling people to true religion as they expose injustice.

There are two questions here. The first is on whose authority feminists are prophets. The Old Testament prophets did not assume that authority: it was given to them by God. And woe betide prophets to whom God didn’t give that authority! The second issue is that it isn’t the act of being received as prophecy that makes the word of God the word of God. It’s the word of God because it comes from him, whether or not it is accepted! (see passages like Ezekiel 3)

Can feminism be critiqued?

Letty Russell wonders whether it would be more useful to feminists like herself to give up the Bible as a normative source of theology but finds herself unable to do so. The Bible still helps her to make sense of who she is, though she rejects its patriarchy. Thus she finds herself in Mary Ann Tolbert’s paradox: “one must defeat the Bible as patriarchal authority by using the Bible as liberator.” God is both the enemy of feminism and its helper. Herein I think, lies the greatest challenge for feminism. Phyllis Trible admits the shortcomings of feminism: Prophetic movements are not exempt from sin. No document, she says, teaches this lesson better than scripture. Feminism can become an idolatry in itself or an idolatry of the self. And so, the question continues to be, how we can receive a critique from scripture when feminist principles are the standard for it? Does it merely end up with God as enemy where it suits and helper where it’s expedient? Can feminism actually hear a biblical critique of itself?

Categories: Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

3 replies

  1. It’s a fascinating codnnurum this. I am committed to reasonable feminist ideals and regard myself as much a feminist as a male can be. I am committed to equality and the sharing of respect and trust. I abhor violence against women and the all too pervaisive climate of fear in which many women need to lead their lives. Yet, the over-zealous femmes who want to right the wrongs by use of the same mental attitudes they rail against really harm the cause. I can certainly understand their anger and sympathise with their frustration but recognise that their approach is not going to solve this most fundamental and complex of issues.

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