part of

(Chapter 2, section B)

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

esf 2bHowever to present the debate about revelation in terms of text versus community is to run the risk of obscuring the agent and substance of revelation: God himself.  As James Barr succinctly puts it "God does not reveal books, chapters, sentences and verses, but reveals himself. ... the Bible ... is only witness to revelation."[1]  On the basis of recent theoretical claims about texts and textuality, Anthony Thistleton questions the traditional assumptions of textual revelation as interpersonal address, "given" not "made".  Such "communication" models of revelation fit theologically with the idea that the word is primarily enfleshed in Jesus Christ as the Word of God, and secondarily embodied in the action of the apostolic community and the history of Israel.[2]  He concludes that it is not the "disembodied text" but the way it is woven at certain key points with life and history, that validates it as a revelation of God.[3]  Even then he seems to agree with Ricoeur's "strict qualifications" that God remains hidden "infinitely above human thought and speech".[4] 

For Francis Martin also it is the understanding of God's action among believers, in the historical Jesus Christ, that is the "touchstone of revelation".[5]  For him the "'place' of revelation is always in an ekklesia that is apostolic and not in a text or tradition".[6]  But the key word there is "apostolic".  He does not accept the distinction Fiorenza draws between "ekklesia of women" and "the Bible or tradition of a patriarchal church", and he simply assumes that the biblical text is "privileged expression and transmitting instrument of revelation".[7]

The complexities and theoretical character of such arguments makes it easy to understand why Kwok Pui Lan asserts that "people of the Third World are not interested in the revelational truth of the Bible."  They ask whether it can help in the global struggle for liberation.[8]  She is a sympathetic commentator on Fiorenza through cautious Third World eyes and for her the critical principle for interpretation lies not in the Bible itself but in the community of women and men who read the Bible and through their "dialogical imagination" appropriate it for their own liberation.[9]  Her description of Asian theologians using their "dialogical imagination" to see how biblical tradition can address burning questions of today is an application of Fiorenza's model of Bible as "prototype".  This means that Fiorenza does not only interpret the text in its original context, but opens the possibility of examining the meaning for today in different contexts.  For example, Kwok finds the root model of the "discipleship of equals" an empowering perspective in the conservative Asian climate where "proof texts" are influential in oppressing women in church and society.[10]

Kwok's position also shows that when Fiorenza treats the interpretation of the Bible in the light of reconstructed history as revelatory she is adopting a praxis model of revelation rather than a propositional one.  This is a consistent position for a liberation theologian but puts the emphasis on the goal of revelation rather than the origin and content.  Martin rightly points out that Fiorenza does seem to restrict revelation to "an experience of God's sustaining presence in the struggle present and past of women for liberation."[11]

However it does not necessarily follow from this, as he suggests, that "To restrict revelation to a prototype for action or to an awareness of divine presence in struggle is to risk trivialising the human person."[12]  Martin seems to misunderstand it as somehow excluding the transformation of the mind of the knowing subject, when in fact the experience of struggle is likely to result in exactly that.  What is more of a problem is that Fiorenza concentrates in her reconstruction on one aspect of the life of Jesus and the early church for her model of liberation, to the exclusion of the arguably more liberating model of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.[13]

The theological category of general revelation is not addressed by Fiorenza.  Her preoccupation is the exegesis of the patriarchal text, and subverting the limitations of the biblical canon.  However in an article pointing out the imbalance of thinking among evangelicals in favour of special biblical revelation David Diehl asserts the "epistemological priority" of general revelation based in creation.  This implies that "we must give the empirical and personal aspect of reality their proper place".[14]  Even more important for the position of the feminist theologian, he says that this priority of general revelation implies "a place of authority for the world of empirical personal experience."[15]  Presumably Diehl simply has in mind scientific/sense experience, rather than political/feminist experience, but his statement opens up the possibility of application to the latter as well.

The concept of special revelation is confined to the record of the biblical canon and culminates in its witness to Jesus Christ.  It coincides with the "archetype" view of the Bible which Fiorenza rejects.  But it is obvious that general revelation which continues throughout human history is fundamental to her conception of the Bible as a "prototype" and her perception of revelation in the present struggle as well as the past.

The prototype view of the scripture also presupposes a concept of revelation as ongoing.  Whereas an archetype view identifies the text with revelation and confines revelation to the past, the prototype sees scripture as opening from the past into the present so that there is a continuity between past and present revelation.[16]  Fiorenza's hermeneutics of remembrance is indicative of the importance she places on such continuity.  Her view is also more consistent with any concept of the Christian faith as a living tradition as well as an historical religion. 

James Barr points out in his discussion of revelation that the term is not commonly used in the Bible for the source of man's knowledge of God at all, but rather eschatologically.  This suggests to him that the relation of revelation to the Bible is not an "antecedent" one but that of a revelation which follows upon the existent tradition so that scripture provides the frame of reference within which new events have meaning and make sense.[17]  For him the particular revelation of Jesus does not mean that "revelation now ceases", but that the "tradition of him in its classic and received form becomes the framework within which events come to be perceived and understood", and leads to a "future directed" view of the Bible.[18]  There is clear commonality between this position and the concept of the Bible as prototype.

As an Old Testament scholar Barr writes elsewhere of finding the "dynamics" of revelation in the growth of the Israelite tradition and the "locus of revelation" in Israel and the people not the Old Testament the book.[19]  This statement of revelation being located in a community sounds very similar to Fiorenza's location of revelation in the community of "women church'.  But for Barr the "tradition in its classic and received form" referred to above is accepted even though he evaluates it critically.  Unlike Fiorenza, Barr does not "choose" and "reject" texts, so it is important in conclusion to recognise why she finds this necessary.

Ruether points out that patriarchal images are "so deeply embedded in our religious culture they come to be seen as divinely revealed and unchangeable"[20] which is detrimental to women.  In a similar vein Angela Pears says of the Bible, "because it has been and is used against women, the paradigm of interpretation must necessarily not accord it with revelatory significance as a whole".[21]  So Fiorenza's critical evaluation of texts is to avoid "turning the biblical God into a God of oppression".[22]  She quotes Barr's proposal that inspiration must be understood "as the inspiration of the people from whom the books came" and sees that its process is found in the believing community and its history as the people of God.[23]  But she adds the qualification that it is "those people, especially poor women struggling for human dignity and liberation from oppressive powers, because they believe in the biblical God of creation and salvation despite all experiences to the contrary"[24] who embody the reality of inspiration and revelation.

[1] J. A. Barr, The Bible in the Modern World, S.C.M. Press, London, 1973/1990, p 19

[2] A. C. Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, Harper Collins, London, 1992, p 56

[3] Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, p 72

[4] Thiselton, New Horizons in Hermeneutics, p 74

[5] Martin, The Feminist Question, p 218

[6] Martin, The Feminist Question, p 218

[7] Martin, The Feminist Question, p 215

[8] Kwok Pui Lan, 'Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World', in Semeia 47, 1989, Scholars Press, Atlanta, p 30

[9] Kwok, Discovering the Bible, p 37

[10] Kwok Pui Lan, 'The Feminist Hermeneutics of Elizabeth SchŸssler Fiorenza: An Asian Feminist Response', in East Asia Journal of Theology, Vol 3, No 2, 1985, p 148

[11] Martin, The Feminist Question, p 2

[12] Martin, The Feminist Question, p 219

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[13] Martin, The Feminist Question, pp 219-220

[14] D. W. Diehl, 'Evangelicalism and General Revelation: an Unfinished Agenda', in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol 30, No 4, 1987, p 451

[15] Diehl, Evangelicalism and General Revelation, p 451

[16] P. Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology/Christian Theology, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1990, p 27

[17] Barr, The Bible in the Modern World, pp 121-122

[18] Barr, The Bible in the Modern World, p 122

[19] J. A. Barr, The Scope and Authority of the Bible, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1980, p 16

[20] R. R. Ruether, 'Feminism and Patriarchal Religion: Principles of Ideological Critique of the Bible', in Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, No 22, Feb 1982, p 58

[21] A. Pears, Towards an Understanding of Feminist Method in Theology: Women's Experience and Authority, PhD Thesis, Nottingham University, 1993, p 209

[22] Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 140

[23] Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 140

[24] Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 40

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