part of
(Chapter 3, section C)

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

esf3cFiorenza perceives the "apologetic" attempts of other feminist interpreters as caught up in the modern "anxiety of identity and influence" characteristic of "whitemale" biblical hermeneutics and therefore remaining "focused on the normativity and authority of the androcentric sacred text."[1]  This in turn shares the Western philosophical "logic of identity" where the "Man of Reason" eliminates "otherness" in an unrelenting urge to think things together, in a unity.[2]  She rightly points out the contradiction between "the search for a normative canon ... that brings the concrete particulars of diverse biblical texts into theological units,"[3] when biblical criticism with its exposure of the diversity and conflicting nature of various biblical texts "has underlined the fact that taken as a whole the canon cannot constitute an effective theological norm."[4]

Such a critique however does not answer the question of whether she is right to adopt a "praxis" norm as an alternative.  Nor does it address the real anxiety of a number of interpreters, expressed very clearly by Dickey-Young that it is possible "to lose sight of what might be said to constitute the Christian tradition."[5]  How does one judge the "Christian-ness of Fiorenza's position when she denies the normativity of anything within that tradition and says effectively "What liberates women is Christian."?[6]  This is a question to which we will return when "questioning the magisterium" in the conclusion.  The essential conundrum of her position for the critic is her passionate desire to claim the heritage and her unrelenting efforts to reconstruct the text while resolutely denying it any authority in itself.

Fiorenza does not only criticise more conservative feminist interpreters who have taken a frankly apologetic stand, but also those who seek to identify an "authoritative essence or central principle that biblically authorises equal rights and liberation struggles."[7]  She considers that the effort to identify a "canon within the canon" as a norm derived from scripture itself is a strategy inherited from "whitemale" biblical scholarship,[8] while a "hermeneutics of correlation" reduces particularity and diversity to an "abstract, formalised principle or norm."[9]  Both of these positions are worthy of comparison with Fiorenza's and we will look at Letty Russell and Rosemary Radford Ruether respectively as representatives of them.

Underlying Letty Russell's practice of biblical interpretation is the understanding that feminist theologies articulate a paradigm shift that brings into question "what has been understood as authoritative in every aspect of biblical religion including the use of scripture in academic and faith communities."[10]  In practice she finds that authority (which she defines as legitimated power)[11] consists in a faith community's willingness to accept and receive texts of the Bible as from God.  Fiorenza describes this as a "functional" hermeneutic based on a pragmatic understanding of scripture and producing "de facto" authority.[12]  Of course women-church is also a community making pragmatic choices; the difference seems to be the narrow criteria that are applied in judgement.  What Russell has in mind is in fact the same sort of process that Barr and others describe as taking place in the reception and formation of the canon.

Russell herself agrees with David Kelsey's functional view of how authority functions in a religious community's interpretation of scripture.  He observes a process of "imaginative construal" that takes account of both scripture and God's presence among the faithful.  The three limits to these "imaginative" judgements are intelligibility, reflection of the tradition and being "seriously imaginable."[13]  She thinks that "theological imagination" that does not take account of Fiorenza's women-church Ñ that is communities of oppression where women and men are struggling for equality and mutuality Ñ in the "mending of creation" cannot be considered seriously imaginable.[14]

This reveals her own hermeneutical key which determines her "canon within the canon".  It is the promise of God for "the mending of creation."[15]  She does not picture authority in terms of the founding events of faith, but appeals to the "authority of the future".[16]  Because this implies keeping open "the possibility that God is doing a new thing"[17] she see it as consistent with Fiorenza's concept of scripture as prototype.  She also understands Fiorenza's work on Jesus and the discipleship of equals as "a process of reconstruction of women's place in man's world" which "requires a utopian faith that understands God's future as an impulse for change in the present."[18]

The paradigm shift in authority which feminist theology introduces is for Russell a move from "authority as domination" figured as an hierarchical pyramid of authorities, to "authority as partnership" imaged as a "rainbow spectrum" and exercised in interdependent community.[19]  She acknowledges the importance of Fiorenza's position with its critical perspective, its basis in women's experience, its political stance and emphasis on liberating praxis, but her own criteria are less precise and more inclusive.  The fact that Fiorenza is "no longer willing to play the authority game", is not a problem for Russell's community paradigm of authority because "it is no longer necessary to argue that one feminist principle must exclude or dominate another in 'hit parade' fashion."[20]

Ruether originally identified the "prophetic" principle as her "canon within the canon"; the normative principle of biblical faith by which it was possible for feminist readings to criticise the Bible.  "To the extent to which Biblical texts reflect this normative principle they are regarded as authoritative.  On this basis many aspects of the Bible are to be frankly set aside and rejected."[21]  This sounds like Fiorenza's "choosing" and "rejecting" but the difference is the basis for selection; in Ruether's case the criterion is a biblical one, in Fiorenza's liberating praxis.

However as Ruether's thinking developed she came to feel that the Bible could not simply be used in this way.  Rather it is only liberating "if it can be seen that there is a correlation between the feminist critical principle and that critical principle by which biblical thought critiques itself and renews its vision as the authentic Word of God."[22]  She asserts that there is this correlation between her assertion of the feminist critical principle "the full humanity of women" and the biblical "prophetic-messianic" tradition.  She finds the parallels in the way both examine and denounce structures of injustice, and engage in constant restatement of these issues in new contexts.

Fiorenza points out that "such an approach fails to see that biblical texts and interpretations are the site of competing discursive practices and struggles which should not be reduced to an abstract norm."[23]  Like comparable male neo-orthodox critical correlation which follows the "logic of identity" it "obfuscates its own socio-political location, intellectual agency, and dependency on contemporary frameworks in formulating the norms or principles to be correlated."[24]

Fiorenza articulates her praxis norm of authority in contrast to both the above feminist approaches because she "suspects" them of being too concerned with establishing the authority of certain texts, while overlooking "the authoritative-oppressive impact these texts (for example, the Household Codes) still have in the lives of Christian women."[25]  She rejects universalist norms and principles because it is only a hermeneutics that "derives its canon from the struggle of women and other oppressed peoples for liberation from patriarchal structures" that can "call scholarly interpretations and evaluations to account" and "analyse their theological-political presuppositions and social ecclesial interests."[26]

The proposal by Fiorenza to locate authority for biblical interpretation in an ekklesia also invites comparison with other traditions, where scriptural interpretation is "traditionally communal".  For example, even in a tradition like the Mennonite, lacking the hierarchical and magisterial overtones of major denominational churches, feminist writers also need to struggle to reverse their exclusion and bring in experiences of liberation.  Lydia Harder says "Communal tradition will not stay untouched when women are fully included in the hermeneutic community."[27]  Diane McDonald uses Gadamer's concept of the "positive prejudice" and "effective history" of texts to argue that "truth" and "objectivity" cannot be presumed to reside in the text.  She argues that the horizons of meaning of the original context are neither univocal nor normative and that by attempting to locate "truth" in the biblical text we are avoiding responsibility for our basic convictions and orienting ethic."[28]  Because the text has been used to support both racism and sexism in the past, and cannot anticipate and resolve modern problems, she perceives the hermeneutical challenge to find another criterion for evaluation to lie with the dynamic of text and interpreter, taking account of current "world constructs and our orienting ethic".[29]

This approach also picks up naturally on the communal tradition of reception and interpretation of the text noted in the process of the formation of the biblical canon.  Because the Mennonite tradition itself values the communal approach rather than a magisterium or elite scholarship, it would seem potentially to be more open to the challenge of including women's experience.

[1]Fiorenza, But She Said, pp 138-139

[2]Fiorenza, But She Said, pp 139-140

[3]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 140

[4]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 139

[5]Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology, p 75

[6]Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology, p 74

[7]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 146

[8]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 147

[9]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 148

[10]L. M. Russell, 'Authority and the Challenge of Feminist Interpretation', in L. M. Russell editor, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985, p 140

[11]L. M. Russell, Household of Freedom, Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1987, p 21

[12]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 143

[13]Kelsey, The Uses of Scripture, p 175

[14]Russell, Authority and the Challenge, p 143

[15]Russell, Authority and the Challenge, p 139

[16]Russell, Household of Freedom, p 18

[17]Russell, Household of Freedom, p 25

[18]Russell, Household of Freedom, p 18

[19]Russell, Authority and the Challenge, pp 143-144

[20]Russell, Authority and the Challenge, p 145

[21]R. R. Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk, S.C.M. Press, London, 1983, p 23

[22]R. R. Ruether, 'Feminist Interpretation: a Method of Correlation' in L.M. Russell editor, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985, p 117

[23]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 148

[24]Fiorenza, But She Said, p 142

[25]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 87

[26]Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 88

[27]G. G. Koontz & W. Swartley editors, Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics, Occasional Papers No 10, Institute of Mennonite Studies, Elkhart, 1987, p 48

[28]Koontz & Swartley, Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics, p 42

[29]Koontz & Swartley, Perspectives on Feminist Hermeneutics, p 44

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