Many decades ago, while I was still a young and brash student, I happened to read about a book being assembled analyzing a variety of interpretive approaches to literature. With all the gall of a neophyte, I contacted the editors, pointed out they were missing a chapter on “Christian interpretation,” suggested I could supply that need, and they agreed (with great reluctance) to let me submit an idea for it. I took the Christological approach (an emphasis on identifying Christ-types), ladled in some exegetical method, peppered it with what I thought would be centrist Christian doctrinally dogmatic elements, and sailed it out onto their waters. It subsequently sank. Obviously unimpressed, they sent me back a form letter thanking me so much for my efforts and essentially telling me to get lost.
I did, but the idea did not. I shipped it to a back tier of that boatyard in the back alley of our minds where such ideas get their decks cleared, their hulls hammered, their sails trimmed by the subconscious, and reappear eventually to race again, in a new re-customized form in our more cautious mature years.
In this case, it was trucked out to the dock of my consciousness by a persistently growing suggestion that I rethink the old idea as I try to figure out how best to serve our movement as I edit our journal. The idea refurbished was that, if egalitarian scholarship is ever going to mature as a discipline, it will have to develop its own consistent interpretive approach to issues in a far more intentional way than simply agreeing to critique texts from the basis of equality. That, certainly, is the starting point, but where do we go from there?
Biblical studies, for example, has been critiqued through numerous lenses. In no special order, it has been form criticized, history of religioned, sociologized, quested within for the historical Jesus, structuralized, deconstructed, reader responded, new perspectived, liberated (including feminized, Latinized, African Americanized, Male Angloized, and, to a lesser extent, Native Americaned, Eastern Europeaned, Indianed, Africaned, etc.), etc.
Most opponents of egalitarianism, I notice, seem to subsume our view under the liberal feminist approach to biblical, theological, historical, sociological, cultural, anthropological studies. To do so is a mistake. Current liberal feminist hermeneutics (by which we mean interpretive approaches) seem to be largely Bultmannian and form critical, some emphasizing the “texts of terror” approach to the Scriptures, while others search in the Bible for a female deity (sometimes Sofia [Wisdom] being posited as her presence peeking through Proverbs 8:22–31), identifying a canon within the canon they consider nonoppressive to women.
In point of fact, evangelical egalitarian studies are not that at all. They are exactly as the name indicates, historically orthodox in theology, with a high view of Scripture and an appreciation of the distribution of gifts and the equal sharing of authority and duties between the sexes in the Bible. I believe God is supra-genderal, a term I use to mean above gender, God being spirit, not material (see Deut. 4:15–16), but creating two genders to complete humanity and teach us to love one another so we can learn to love One who is Wholly Other.
If we are ever going to see chairs of evangelical egalitarian thinking in our institutions of higher learning, we will have to identify what would be the distinctives of an egalitarian hermeneutic and what would comprise its central questions and its approaches to texts and issues. Obviously, the focus of equality and nonoppression would be its starting point, but we also regularly explore such topics as: Does God have gender? Are equality in essence and rank inseparable in the Trinity? Does equality among the co-eternal persons of the Trinity dictate equality in the mirroring halves of humanity—is this a non-negotiable of the imago Dei? What is the relationship of biblical authority and experience? And our purview of interest also regularly covers the fall as the unbalancing of equality between the sexes and its restoration in the redemption in Christ—an action that looks both ways in history; the plight of equality within post-fallen patriarchy; the Bible as the record of equality given, lost, restored; eschatological equality as the framework in which to live in the present; equality of clines (or racial equality), social classes, the sharing of authority and duties between the sexes in the Bible, and on. Essentially, what we need clearly is a radical definition (which will be a redefinition for some minds), wherein our hermeneutic and field of questions are demarcated to form a clear and distinctive approach to disciplines that has its own integrity and is not simply subsumed under another criticism (such as Bultmannian feminist criticism).
Toward that end, this issue of Priscilla Papers, which has been building over several years, explores the kinds of topics needed to create a more unified, intentional, and recognizable methodology. Milligan College professor J. David Miller begins by asking what are the wrong questions we should be avoiding and the right ones we should be positing in formulating our methodology for interpretation. McMaster Divinity College professor Cynthia Long Westfall explores developing a consistent approach to the application of general Scriptures. Eastern University professor Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen broadens our focus to the question of gender studies and then assesses the way conservative Christians treat and apply the Bible in regard to our understanding of gender, and Bethel College’s (Mishawaka, Ind.) David C. Cramer wrestles with the questions of biblical authority versus personal evidence in authenticating truth claims and the frequent failure of egalitarians operating within hierarchical structures to present a clear egalitarian structural alternative. The significance of the practical effect of our scholarship is demonstrated in the free-verse reflection of our poet Denver Seminary’s Mary A. Hanson. Four book reviews complete the issue: by Philip B. Payne, Virginia Gray, Arbutus Sider, and Timothy Paul Erdel.
While our approach and emphasis is hardly new, it is very timely, as its ultimate end is to look at life and thought from the perspective set for us by our Lord Jesus Christ’s “golden rule”: to analyze what we think and value and the actions that we do with our focus on honoring God by according to every other human being the same respect, deference, and honor that we ourselves wish to receive.