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“Feminist” Hermeneutics?

Man Reading Bible
On August 13, 2014

Recently I commented on a Facebook post that I disliked the word “feminist/feminism” when used to describe what I would brand an evangelical egalitarian position (that men and women may serve equally in the home, the church, and the world as God has so apportioned and enabled them). Even when adding the adjective “evangelical” in front of “feminism” (as some have done in their publication titles), negative connotations remain. Moreover, “feminist/feminism” is clearly gender-specific having to do with qualities associated with women only and hardly shows a balanced and “equal” treatment. If anything, “feminism” incites heated and rarely fruitful discussion in everyday parlance, at least according to my experiences.

And so, while reading through a few commentaries on 1 Peter 3:1-7, I came across Scot McKnight’s treatment (pp 192-194) where he lays out a spectrum of hermeneutical approaches that I think are helpful with respect to the relevant biblical texts. The table below is derived from his commentary (Note: McKnight admits dependence on A. C. Thiselton’s New Horizons in Hermeneutics. I’ve captured McKnight’s main points ipsissima vox rather than ipsissima verba.)

 Radical
 Feminist

  • suspicious of texts, ultimately repudiating the revelatory value because of an ideological agenda that drives the interpreter’s interests
  • chauvinistic world is inherent in texts that are used in manipulating and subjugating women
  • Only value of texts is pointing out the error in the texts

 Liberal
 Feminist

  • desire to retrieve what is good while rejecting what is unacceptable to modern feminist ideology
  • texts are influenced by a patriarchal world, yet some features can be sustained across time

 Evangelical  Feminist

  • need to understand the socio-critical aspects of the texts
  • mildly submissive to the texts
  • though heavily dominated by male culture, some reconstruction of the texts is required if modern women are to receive anything from them
  • a living dialectic results between authority of the texts and the modern world

 Evangelical
 Conservatives 

  • texts are timeless
  • God intends a patriarchal world
  • women are to be submissive
  • men are appointed as heads of authority
  • a minimal amount of text reconstruction may be required

McKnight concludes with some penetrating remarks that call for interpretive consistency, biblical fidelity, and cultural sensitivity.

I urge that each interpreter look long and hard at his or her own principles and see if consistency is achieved in the process of interpretation. It will simply not do for someone to dismiss slavery as outmoded, or to contend for civil disobedience to governmental authorities, or to argue for some kind of “Mr. Mom” theory, and then not be consistent in permitting to women the same freedom and change of application. Nor is it fair to argue without substantial reasoning for some things being cultural (like wearing jewelry or fancy clothing) and other things being transcultural. Above all, we must be biblically anchored and culturally reasonable if we are to let the gospel have its way of power today.

I could not agree more!

I find that the expression “Evangelical Egalitarian” best captures and communicates my position and significantly reduces the heat in discussions. As I read through and understand the mission and history of CBE, I do not find any “feminists” language or leanings but I do find a call for justice and equality across the genders. This is egalitarian!

Comments

Thanks for sharing this Paul, and for your honesty as you wrestle with this issue.

For anyone considering this question, I’d highly recommend the book "Living on the Boundaries: Evangelical Women, Feminism and the Theological Academy" by Nicola Hoggard Creegan and Christine D. Pohl. After reading this, I realized that I can embrace feminism without needing to fit neatly into one feminist category or another. There can be uncertainty and tension. I can at times be on the boundaries of feminism and be all right with that. Interestingly, this also applies to evangelicalism. Many of their respondents struggled with the term “evangelical” that they had been raised with.

Another resource I’d recommend is a recording of a workshop by Bettina Tate Pedersen called "Reading the Bible, Reading Literature: Becoming a Feminist Christian Reader of the Bible" from the 2013 CBE Conference held in Pittsburgh. She talks about how she’s benefitted from feminist scholarship. Both this recording and the Creegan and Pohl book are available from the CBE bookstore.

I’d also like to say that, in my recent research for my thesis, I was pleasantly surprised at what I found in feminist scholarship. Sharon Ringe sees God at work promoting the wholeness and well-being of all women and men. Cynthia Briggs Kittredge notes that women participating in the church benefits ALL in the community of Christ. Phyllis Trible endorses a close reading of the biblical text and highlights the “depatriarchilizing” she observes in Scripture. I also found much of value in the writings of Sandra Hack Polaski, Sheila McGinn, Letty Russell and Beverly Roberts Gaventa. I could go on and on. Although I don’t always land where these feminist scholars do, to dismiss them would be to miss out on some of the rich rewards of good scholarship. I’m proud to call myself a feminist and see feminism and feminist scholarship as in tune with God’s heart for all the marginalized.

(I posted some of the above comments on the Christians for Biblical Equality Facebook page under the post for this blog, which I noticed still has the old picture ;) )

pauldadams_1612's picture

Appreciate the reading recommendations. Academic writing versus what I would term the street language of an average conservative Christian reader are often universes apart; the former tends to speak past/beyond the latter in many cases. Given the scope and target reader of the NIV Application Commentary series (from which I quoted McKnight), I would think that he too might have spoken past the average conservative Christian reader who would buy from that series. Ergo, one angle of my thesis that "feminism" does not quite capture what best represents the egalitarian position, IMHO.

Note: I did have paragraphs in the comment I just posted but they didn't show up here.

Is this true? Are modern women requiring a reconstruction of the texts or rather a clear and honest translation of the Greek and Hebrew?

As for me the latter is the case...the word 'reconstruct' has an essence of re-writing or manipulating the texts...and is likely to bring more hostility onto the Biblical feminist who is simply seeking humble, servant honesty from both translators and leaders as well.

pauldadams_1612's picture

I see what you mean and too wondered the same. My take on "reconstruction," though understandably taken to mean changing or manipulating the text, could also entail an interpretive lens adjustment. Perhaps "reconstrue" would be better. However, from my reading of McKnight elsewhere, few are more committed to the inspired text than he. But I agree, it is not the best choice of words (just as with "feminism/ist"). Eye of the beholder, I suppose.

Perhaps this explains what McKnight meant by reconstructing texts:

"McKnight concludes with some penetrating remarks that call for interpretive consistency, biblical fidelity, and cultural sensitivity....etc." ....

i.e.the whole truth about what the Bible teaches.

That is closer to my own view...Sadly modern churches TEACH that we are to COMPARE SCRIPTURE WITH SCRIPTURE...ie. "the prophets are subject to the prophets"...BUT they just DON'T DO IT...in practice.

Reminds me of Christ's comment on the Pharisees..."FOR THEY SAY AND DO NOT".

If Paul's writings were compared with the rest of scripture, honestly, we would not put all our weight on 5 verses about female silence/subjection.

I agree that word is less than ideal. I realize many are in love with it, and some will instinctively be on guard toward you or me for not embracing it. I realize the word is often well intended. Even so, it carries unfortunate baggage. MORE IMPORTANTLY, it is INHERENTLY unbalanced, because by nature it focuses only on one sex. Some may complain that such is ok, because women are the ones who have been oppressed, and so we *should* focus on advancing them. But the fact is, patriarchalism harms men also (tho' not necessarily in the same ways). Moreover, "feminism," however subtly, perpetuates the idea of a competition.

I have no good use for the word.

pauldadams_1612's picture

Thanks for reading wayne777_1614. You rightly captured the spirit from which I wrote.

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