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Authority and the Challenge of Feminist Interpretation by Letty M. Russell. From 'Feminist Interpretation of the Bible'

Authority and the Challenge of Feminist Interpretation

Letty M. Russell
From Feminist Interpretation of the Bible
Edited by Letty M. Russell
Westminster Press, Philadelphia 1985

Feminists of the Jewish and Christian faiths are faced with a basic dilemma. Are they to be faithful to the teachings of the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures, or are they to be faithful to their own integrity as whole human beings? This dilemma is underlined by Margaret Farley in her analysis of feminist consciousness . It surfaces in Katharine Sakenfeld's description of feminist uses of biblical materials. Rosemary Ruether's proposal for a feminist principle as "the affirmation of and promotion of the full humanity of women" again underlines this dilemma . In fact, authority is a theme that surfaces constantly in this book, either by the intention of the authors or by the reactions of their readers!

Whether or not feminists choose to discuss this issue, it is pressed upon them every time they propose an interpretation or perspective that challenges a dominant view of scriptural authority and interpretation. Among those who consider the Bible to be literally the Word of God, efforts to provide more inclusive translation and interpretation of texts evoke anger and fear of losing the ground of faith. Among those who consider historical critical scholarship as the norm for what is to be accepted in biblical interpretation, feminist interpretations are considered biased and unfounded and dismissed with little self-examination of white male academic bias. Even among the contributors to this volume, there is a great deal of disagreement about the particular mix of religious tradition, experience, and academic research that leads to feminist critical principles.

In this chapter I would like to take up this question of biblical authority. I will begin from the perspective of my own life experience as a Christian, white, middle-class, Protestant woman in inner-city ministry. Questions of authority are ultimately understood in terms of our own religious, social, political, and economic setting or context. It is important to make that context clear and invite others to share their own contexts and how these shape their views of authority. Readers who have missed this connection in their own lives may have explored the influence of history on feminist consciousness with Barbara Zikmund in chapter 1 or seen the impact of context in Katie Cannon's description of the way biblical interpretation in the Black church "dealt with contingencies in the real-lived context After discussing the biblical basis of my theology, I want to examine here what it means to speak of the Bible as authoritative and then suggest how a feminist paradigm of authority might help to address the dilemma of the "hit parade of authority."

The Biblical Basis of My Theology

In spite of the patriarchal nature of the biblical texts, I myself have no intention of giving up the biblical basis of my theology. With Rosemary Ruether I would argue that the Bible has a critical or liberating tradition embodied in its "prophetic-messianic" message of continuing self-critique. The evidence for a biblical message of liberation for women, as for other marginalized groups, is not found just in particular stories about women or particular female images of God. It is found in God's intention for the mending of all creation. The Bible has authority in my life because it makes sense of my experience and speaks to me about the meaning and purpose of my humanity in Jesus Christ. In spite of its ancient and patriarchal world views, in spite of its inconsistencies and mixed messages, the story of God's love affair with the world leads me to a vision of New Creation that impels my life.

Scripture and Script

I am one of those for whom the Bible continues to be a liberating word as I hear it together with others and struggle to live out its story. For me the Bible is "scripture," or sacred writing, because it functions as "script," or prompting for life. Its authority in my life stems from its story of God's invitation to participation in the restoration of wholeness, peace, and justice in the world. Responding to this invitation has made it my own story, or script, through the power of the Spirit at work in communities of struggle and faith. In the same way I could say with Elisabeth Fiorenza that the Bible provides a "prototype" for my own story that "sets experiences in motion and invites transformation".

My particular story is one shaped by seventeen years with a poor, racially mixed community of struggle and witness in the East Harlem Protestant Parish in New York City. In such a context the Bible did not have all the answers, but it provided a source of meaning and hope for our lives. Somehow the texts we really lived with, and struggled with, seemed to speak in ever new ways on our road toward freedom. In East Harlem the story of God's concern for humanity showed us that "nobodies" in the eyes of the dominant society could be "somebodies." I still believe this, believe that in God's sight I am not marginal but that, like my Black and Hispanic sisters and brothers in East Harlem, I came created by God and called by the biblical word of promise to become what God intends me to become: a partner in the mending of creation.

Mending Creation

The particular interpretive key that assists me in continuing to give assent is the witness of scripture to God's promise (for the mending of creation) on its way to fulfillment. That which denies this intention of God for the liberation of groaning creation in all its parts does not compel or evoke my assent (i.e., it is not authoritative). Although I arrived at this interpretive key through my own life story, it is not unlike the interpretive key proposed by Ruether as God's affirmation of the full humanity of women and all persons seen in the prophetic witness of scripture against injustice and dehumanization. Nor is it very dissimilar to Fiorenza's interpretive key of Jesus and the discipleship of equals, even though she arrives at the key through a very different process of careful biblical reconstruction in her book In Memory of Her.(1)

As a feminist I look to the horizon of expectation of the Bible as the source of my own expectation of justice and liberation. In this way the Bible is not only prototype, it is also "a memory of the future" that constantly opens up the possibility of new life through the small glimpses and anticipations of God's partnership at work in the biblical story and in our own lives. In God's action of New Creation, women and men are already set free to develop new ways of relating to one another, to the world, and to God. This freedom of living in the "already, but not yet" of the New Creation is key to those who are struggling with structures of oppression and with biblical texts that are used to justify and even to bless these structures in ways such as those described by Susan Thistlethwaite in chapter 8 on the oppressive (or liberating) role of scripture in the lives of battered women. We are not left with stories of the past in the biblical witness. The stories themselves are open-ended. There is more to come. And this anticipation of New Creation can be the source of actions to bring this vision of new life into the present struggles for human dignity.(2)

Perhaps it would seem more useful to give up on the Bible as a normative source of my theology, but I don't seem to be able to do that. The biblical witness continues to evoke my consent, even as I reject many of its teachings as well as its patriarchal context. And, as Mary Ann Tolbert has pointed out in her article in The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics, I am not alone in this. She claims that feminist biblical scholarship is profoundly paradoxical because "one must struggle against God as enemy assisted by God as helper, or one must defeat the Bible as patriarchal authority by using the Bible as liberator."(3) I continue to live with this paradox because the Bible still helps to make sense of who I am, and because the biblical witness opens the way to a future that will be so radically different from the present that it will be called new! (Rom. 8:31-32).

Authoritative Use of Scripture

The issue of authority is not an easy one, for it is basic to the way we see and interpret the world in which we live. As Sallie McFague has shown in her book Metaphorical Theology, paradigms or interpretive frameworks for understanding reality provide total contexts for interpretation or meaning and are very slow to change.(4) Each time there is a paradigm shift in the field of theology, much of the prior theological understanding continues, yet there is a new understanding of that which evokes consent of faith and action. Each theological shift involves a change in what counts as authoritative in the tradition. Feminist theologies, in articulating such a paradigm shift, bring into question what has been understood as authoritative in every aspect of biblical religion, including the use of scripture in academic and faith communities.

Interpretive Framework

The discussions of feminist interpretation among those who helped shape this volume of essays seemed to move to a consensus that the authority of the Bible has to be understood in a way that accounts for the fact that, frequently, the texts are not only contradictory but also sexist, racist, and triumphalist. No interpretation of authority that reinforces patriarchal structures of domination would be acceptable for feminist interpretation. The Bible is understood to be a "dangerous book" that has often been used to teach slaves and women to be subservient to masters and to provide God's blessing for warfare. It is not surprising to note that some Black Christians refuse to read sections of Paul's letters in church,(5) or that some women have added the subtitle, This book may be dangerous to your health. We know that everything the Bible says is not equally helpful to us as women of faith and that there are false interpretations and misuses of the scriptures. The Bible is especially dangerous if we call it "the Word of God" and think that divine inspiration means that everything we read is right.(6) But divine inspiration means that God's Spirit has the power to make the story speak to us from faith to faith. 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.

How does the Bible come to make sense in communities of faith? Not through a literal reading of the text but through what David Kelsey calls an "imaginative construal" or configuration of criteria that evoke our consent and become normative for the way we would live the life of faith.

To say that the Biblical texts taken as scripture are "authority" for the church and theology is to say that they provide patterns determinate enough to function as basis for assessment of the Christian aptness of current churchly forms of life and speech and of theologians' proposals for reform of that life and speech,(7)

The particular pattern of criteria is an imaginative judgment concerning the use of scripture and the mode in which God is understood as present among the faithful.

According to Kelsey, the imaginative act of the theologian in creating a configuration of criteria that evoke consent is accountable to the common life of the religious community out of which she or he speaks. He lists three limits of theological imagination or claim to authoritative use of scripture: The claim must include intelligible discourse capable of consistent formulation and reasoned elaboration and justification; it must reflect the structure of tradition as scripture is used to nurture and reform the identity of a particular faith community; and it must be seriously imaginable in the particular cultural context where the interpretation takes place.(8) Kelsey's functional view of what it means that the Bible has authority in any given interpretation seems to be at least one way of recognizing the variety of approaches to authority that are present among feminists interpreting scripture. His concept of "imaginative construal" comes very close to what McFague and others have called an interpretive framework or paradigm: a common perspective on reality made up of a particular constellation of beliefs, values, and methods.(9) In addition, it seems to me that the suggested limits of interpretation point to a way that feminist and liberation critical perspective are beginning to shift the prevailing interpretive paradigms.

Feminist Interpretation

The imaginative configuration of feminist interpretation seeks to be a form of intelligible discourse, speaking in a logical, consistent, and documented way out of a variety of academic disciplines and religious traditions. Yet along with other liberation theologies, stress is placed on an inductive process of action and reflection in which a major criterion for consistency is the way that reflection is brought together with action. As we can see in Fiorenza's chapter, the method of interpretation is integrated with actions of advocacy.

Feminist interpretation most certainly makes use of the structure of tradition, but it raises radical questions about the oppressive ways that scripture and tradition have been used and about the unfaithfulness of church and synagogue as guardians of that tradition. An excellent example of the reconstruction of theological tradition is found in Rosemary Ruether's Sexism and God Talk, Here she takes up traditional subjects of Christian theology, such as God, Christ, the Spirit, and the Church, and not only critiques the previous sexist formulations but provides clues for reformulating Christian theology.

The third limit on imaginative configuration, speaking of what is seriously imaginable, has been transformed from a limit to a fundamental norm in feminist interpretation. As Margaret Farley has pointed out, speaking of what is seriously imaginable in the lives of women and other oppressed groups raises questions of whether a God who is sexist, racist, or classist is God at all.(10) This interpretation cannot imagine a God who does not seek to be partner with all humankind in the mending of creation. It therefore looks at the Bible from the perspective of women struggling for this human wholeness and finds many and unexpected echoes in stories of women, such as those presented by Sharon Ringe, Cheryl Exum, and Drorah Setel in this volume.(11)

Perhaps the most important limit on feminist imaginative configuration of scriptural authority is the community of struggle, or what Fiorenza calls "women-church". In this interpretation, communities of oppression, where women and men are struggling for equality and mutuality, become prisms through which God's actionin the mending of creation is to be understood. Theological imagination exercised apart from this prophetic voice is no longer to be considered "seriously imaginable." Along with liberation theologies, feminist theologies have thus signaled the beginning of a paradigm shift. This is what Sallie McFague has called a "theological revolution," and it includes a transformation of the meaning of authority(12)

A Feminist Paradigm of Authority

The feminist paradigm of authority is a shift in interpretive framework that affects all the authority structures in religion and society, including the claim that scripture evokes our consent to faith and action. The prevailing paradigm of authority in Christian and Jewish religion is one of authority as domination. In this framework, all questions of authority are settled with reference to the "hit parade of authority." But, as the feminist-liberation paradigm of authority in community begins to become the one most "seriously imaginable" to women and men of faith, a new framework emerges that allows for multiple authorities to enrich, rather than to outrank, one another.

Shift in Paradigm

The paradigm that no longer makes sense to feminists is that of authority as domination. This constellation of beliefs, values, and methods shared as a common perspective tends to predominate in church and university and in most theological research and dialogue.(14) Consciously or unconsciously, reality is seen in the form of a hierarchy, or pyramid. Ordination and every other topic are viewed in terms of super—and sub—ordination. Things are assigned a divine order, with God at the top, men next, and so on down to dogs, plants, and "impersonal" nature. This paradigm reinforces ideas of authority over community and refuses to admit the ideas and persons that do not (wish to) fit into the established hierarchies of thought or social structures.

In this framework, theological "truth" is sought through ordering the hierarchy of doctrines, orders, and degrees. The difficulty for women and Third World groups is that their perspectives often do not fit in the pyramid structure of such a system of interpretation. The price of inclusion in the theological enterprise is loss of their own perspective and culture in order to do "good theology" as defined by "those at the top." Those who persist in raising questions and in affirming perspectives that do not fit in the paradigm pay the price of further marginalization. The extreme form of this is the emergence of "heretical groups" that are forced out of the theological conversation and thus lose the possibility of mutual development and critique.

This paradigm of reality is an inadequate theological perspective because it provides a religious rationale for the domination and oppression of the weak by the oppressive political, economic, and religious power elites. Such a view is clearly contrary to the prophetic-messianic promise of God's welcome to all the outsiders (Luke 4:16-30). It is also an inadequate paradigm of authority in a world so diverse that it no longer makes sense to try to fit people into such a rigid view of theological and social truth. Lastly, it discourages cooperation in the search for meaning because it frames discussion as a competition of ideas in which all participants aim at gaining the top spot and vanquishing the others.

The emerging feminist paradigm trying to make sense of biblical and theological truth claims is that of authority as partnership. In this view, reality is interpreted in the form of a circle of interdependence. Ordering is explored through inclusion of diversity in a rainbow spectrum that does not require that persons submit to the "top" but, rather, that they participate in the common task of creating an interdependent community of humanity and nature. Authority is exercised in community and tends to reinforce ideas of cooperation, with contributions from a wide diversity of persons enriching the whole. When difference is valued and respected, those who have found themselves marginal to church or society begin to discover their own worth as human beings.

This paradigm of reality is not just a romantic dream; many persons, including feminists, are trying to act out of this perspective. In fact, it is the most realistic alternative possible in a world bent on self-destruction so that some nation or group may claim "victory." Authority as partnership also begins to provide a theological perspective that seeks to discover a more inclusive consensus on theological issues. This is, perhaps, not unlike the meaning of consensus in the early Christian community, which was a consensus in the shared story of God's love in Jesus Christ rather than doctrinal consensus (Phil. 2:1-2). It no longer tries to get all persons to accept one neat priority system of theological truth but, rather, welcomes all who are willing to share in building a community of human wholeness that is inclusive of women and men. Very importantly, from the perspective of feminist interpretation, authority as partnership frames discussion in terms of communal search and sharing in which all can rejoice when anyone gains a new insight that can be shared together on the journey toward the New Creation. It is this theoretical framework that provides a new way of approaching issues of biblical authority.

A New Framework

This new framework is particularly important in the ongoing discussion of whether the interpretive key for feminists should be located within the biblical canonical tradition or outside of that tradition. Elisabeth Fiorenza has argued that the authority to evoke consent should come from "the experience of women (and all those oppressed) struggling for liberation from patriarchal oppression". She rejects the correlation of a biblical critical principle with a feminist critical principle that is key to both Rosemary Ruether's and my own understanding of biblical authority.

Fiorenza's position is very important, as she calls for a critical perspective that is based in the concrete life experience of women, expressed in the political task of advocacy and liberating praxis . Fiorenza is no longer willing to play the authority game, submitting feminist norms to "higher" biblical authority and androcentric perceptions.( The canon and the rules about authority that come out of a patriarchal mind-set of domination must not decide the basis for feminist interpretation. Yet in the community paradigm of authority, it is no longer necessary to argue that one feminist principle must exclude or dominate another in "hit parade" fashion. All our insights come out of our particular life experience and expertise. For this reason, Ruether and I are far more likely to appeal to theological principles of interpretation than to historical critical reconstruction, because we are theologians, not New Testament scholars. But we share a common commitment to a feminist paradigm rooted in advocacy for women as the oppressed of every oppressed group.

In any case, authority exercised in community makes it possible for all of us to stand together in our search for critical principles of feminist interpretation. In this view there can be no one archetype of unchanging basis of authority. Like the power of God's love, authority as partnership does not coerce people into consent. The issue is no longer to be understood as a competition between feminist critical principles drawn from within and from outside of the canon, Rather, the issue is how stories and actions of faithfulness can help us to celebrate and live out signs of God's justice and shalom for all humanity. As prototype, the Bible is not a captive of any one group or principle. Experience, tradition,biblical witness, and intellectual research enrich each other in a rainbow of ordered (but not subordinated) diversity, in a synergetic perspective of authority in community.

When we take this shift in the paradigm of authority as a starting point for understanding the clues for feminist interpretation, we are moving toward what Bruce Birch has called "a de-absolutized canon which allows for the honoring of ancient witness to the degree that it reveals to us the basic truths of our faith, while at the same time honoring the power and authority of our own experience of God."(15) In the perspective of authority in community, the interpretive key is no longer one external or one internal biblical key but rather a configuration of sources of faith that seek to enrich the way God might be present with us.

The shift in feminist interpretive framework means that we no longer need to divide feminist experience and biblical witness. As Susan Thistlethwaite says in chapter 8, feminist method emerges as "a process of interrogation between text and experience" that "proceeds over time". The two belong together, as communities of struggle and faith in every age respond to the invitation to partnership with God in the mending of creation and discover that their lives and their understanding of the biblical witness have been changed.

In the light of this understanding of authority as partnership, it is no longer necessary to accept the dilemma of choice between faithfulness to the teaching of scripture or to our own integrity as human beings. For in a rainbow spectrum of faithful witness there will never be the possibility of such a choice. In the midst of shared feminist community, some will stress one thing and some another. But together we will continue to find our way through the thickets of patriarchal ideas and structures that challenge us to abandon the "hope that is in" us (1 Peter 3:15) for which we seek to give account.


1. Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p. 34.

2. See "Theology as Anticipation" in my Growth in Partnership, pp. 87-109.

3. Tolbert, "Defining the Problem," in The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics, p. 120.

4. Sallie McFague, Metaphorical Theology (Fortress Press, 1982), pp. 79-83.

5. Vincent L. Wimbush, " 'Rescue the Perishing': The Importance of Biblical Scholarship in Black Christianity," Reflection, 8(2):10 (January 1983).

6. See Phyllis Bird's discussion of how scripture is understood as Word of God in The Bible as the Church's Book (Westminster Press, 1982).

7. David H. Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture in Recent Theology (Fortress Press, 1975), p. 194. See also pages 167-175.

9. McFague is building on the work of Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed., enlarged (University of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 175.

10. From a panel presentation on Feminist Hermeneutics, American Academy of Religion, San Francisco, December 20, 1983 (unpublished).

11. See also Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror.

12. McFague, Metaphorical Theology, p. 82.

13. The problem of the paradigm of domination is discussed in L. Russell, "Women and Ministry: Problem or Possibility," Christian Feminism, Judith L. Weidman, ed. (Harper & Row, 1984), pp. 75-92.

14. Fiorenza, "Feminist Biblical Interpretation," Christian Feminism, p. 34.

15. Birch, "Response to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza," panel presentation on feminist herrmeneutics, American Academy of Religion, New York, December 20, 1982 (unpublished).

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