part of

(Chapter 2, section A)

For the full contents of "Authority in Feminist Biblical Interpretation" by Beryl Donnan, and other online sections see here.

esf2aRosemary Radford Ruether suggests that "every great religious idea begins in revelatory experience"[1] and she goes on to describe the process by which individual insight or vision becomes communal and appropriated by a formative group.  Later this becomes an historical community which begins to interpret and control the original revelation, often by defining an authoritative body of writings.  This process during which the "winners" marginalise and suppress deviant traditions, results in the establishment of a canon of Scripture.[2]  However the historical tradition only remains vital as long as each succeeding generation of the community experiences it as meaningful and appropriates the foundational paradigm for itself.[3]

This emphasis on the process of religious formation illuminates the conflict between the traditional interpreters who consider the biblical text the revealed "Word of God" and the critical evaluative approach of Schüssler Fiorenza.  Traditional interpreters take the text as a "given", denying or ignoring the importance of the human element in its composition, but Fiorenza states quite uncompromisingly, "A feminist hermeneutics cannot trust or accept Bible and tradition simply as divine revelation".[4]  She is following the insight of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others that "biblical texts are not the words of God but the words of men".[5]  In formulating her alternative norm she is drawing on women's historical experience of both the oppressive effects of patriarchy and of God's grace in the midst of the struggle to survive.  So for her "the locus of divine revelation and grace is therefore not simply the Bible or the tradition of a patriarchal church but the "church of women" in the past and in the present.[6]

It is worth noting that she is not always so explicit about locating revelation outside the text.  In an early article she stated that "Biblical revelation and truth about women are found, I would suggest in those texts which transcend and criticise their patriarchal culture and religion"[7] and this idea of biblical revelation and truth being found in selected texts is repeated in In Memory of Her
.  In this case it is the texts, which allow for a vision of Christian women as historical and theological subjects and actors, which are revelatory.[8]

She is able to find revelation in both selected biblical texts and "women church" at the same time because of the connection she perceives between the latter and the earliest Christian community.  So she also says "the locus of revelation is not the androcentric text but the life and ministry of Jesus and the movement of women and men called forth by him".[9]  When she finds revelation in the community of "women church" it is not only because of her contemporary feminist experience.  Rather it is also consistent with the outcomes of her traditional but creative historical-critical research, struggling to restore women to their place in Christian history. 

If we go back to a very traditional Catholic definition of revelation as "an act of God by which he communicates himself and the mystery of his will to human beings"[10] we can see how helpful Ruether's description of what happens to the "revelatory experience" is for understanding the conflict between those who wish to locate revelation in the text alone and those who like Fiorenza locate it primarily in a believing community.  For the former whom she describes as seeing the Bible's truth claims in "ahistorical", "dogmatic" terms "the Bible not only communicates the Word of God but is the Word of God" and "is not simply a record of revelation but revelation itself".[11]

Against this she argues that the biblical texts were written to serve the needs of the community of faith and not to reveal timeless principles, so they "do not locate revelation only in the past but also in their own present, thereby revealing a dialectical understanding between present and past".[12]  It is on the basis of this understanding that she goes on to formulate a "pastoral-theological" paradigm for interpretation now, with its criterion "drawn from Christian communities to which these texts speak to-day"[13]  and not biblical texts alone.

She claims in support of this position the Vatican II declaration that Scripture "contains revelation ... but not all of Scripture is revelation".[14]  Also she understands the criterion of the Fathers that Scripture contains what "God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation" in "the biblical sense of total human salvation and wholeness".[15]  It is on this basis that she suggests a critical criterion of evaluation for biblical texts to determine whether they contribute to the "salvation" or "oppression" of women.[16]

[1]R. R. Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, S.C.M. Press, London, 1983, p 13

[2]Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, p 14

[3]Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, p 16

[4]E. Schüssler Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, Beacon Press, Boston, 1984, p x

[5]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p x

[6]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p xv

[7]E. Schüssler Fiorenza, 'Interpreting Patriarchal Traditions', in L.M. Russell editor, The Liberating Word, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1976, p 61

[8]E. Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, S.C.M. Press, London, 1983, p 30

[9]Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p 40

[10]F. Martin, The Feminist Question, T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1994, p 2

[11]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 25

[12]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 35

[13]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 40

[14]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 40

[15]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 40

[16]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 40

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