part of

(Chapter 6 section B)

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

The singularity and complexity of Fiorenza's closely argued position which privileges women's experience as authoritative over text and tradition makes evaluation difficult, not least because of the potential for misunderstanding.  Even other liberation theologians are not exempt from her critical scrutiny on this score.  In But She Said she tries to correct some of the "misunderstandings" of other interpreters about her writing. In a note in the Introduction she accuses Rosemary Radford Ruether of "misreading", "overlooking carefully argued distinctions" and "appropriating" key notions of "prototype" and "women-church".[1]  Elsewhere she is critical of others who have misinterpreted her reconstruction of early Christian origins in terms of the criterion of "the earliest apostolic witness"[2] and those who have failed to appreciate the tension between "already" and "not yet" in her conception of the ekklesia of women.[3]

Furthermore, her use of terms, while carefully defined is sometimes idiosyncratic and not always consistent.  For example "women-church" is declared a "political oppositional" term to patriarchy and this in turn depends on her Aristotelian definition of patriarchy.[4]  However later, on the same page, she describes women church in terms of "empowered by the Holy Spirit", "inspired by the biblical vision".  This example gives a clue to "misunderstandings".  Her language moves freely between the "political" and the "spiritual" because for Fiorenza the two agendas are one.  Her readers however are likely to find their inspiration - the "bread" for the journey - in one set of images and discount the others.  Because her position cannot be appreciated without its "political valence" the use of "ekklesia" with its political connotations would seem less open to misinterpretation, and in fact in But She Said
she does use it more often than the "misappropriated" women-church.

Although Fiorenza must accept some responsibility for these difficulties, especially when the language is too academy-directed, she is not always at fault.  Another area where she feels she has been misunderstood is the labelling of women-church as a new or alternative magisterium.  Pamela Dickey-Young describes her as appealing to "the alternative magisterium of women-church as the norm for Christian theology".[5]  Is this a fair description?  For Dickey-Young it is predominantly Roman Catholic women who have established "women's experience as the court of last appeal", in Christian theology, thus trading "an oppressive magisterium for one that has the possibility of offering liberation."[6]  Fiorenza is concerned that "the attempt to construe an individualistic 'Protestant' reader as an alternative to the 'Catholic' conception of women church is not only caught up in the Western paradigm of the 'logic of identity'", but also "turns the ekklesia gynaikon into a site of competing confessional discourses, rather than understanding it as a rhetorical space from where to assert women's theological authority"[7]

In fact Fiorenza's conception of women-church as "the intersection of multiple public feminist discourses and the site of contested socio-political contradictions, feminist alternatives and unrealised possibilities"[8] bears no resemblance to the traditional Roman Catholic understanding of a body of bishops with the pope, determining a normative final authority to be imposed on the church.  In her work of biblical interpretation she is contesting the oppressive influence on the text of both fundamentalist and hierarchical Protestantism as well as the Catholic magisterium.  Also she repeatedly rejects attempts to impose universalistic principles or norms.

Even if the designation of "magisterium" is rejected Dickey-Young is concerned also, by the criterion of women's experience, refusing to "be normed by anything within the tradition itself."  In short she is concerned with the Christian-ness of feminist theology.  Her judgement is that women's experience is "necessary but not sufficient as the norm for a Christian feminist theology", and she adds Jesus as "sacramentum" as a complementary norm.[9]  As we have seen in looking at the work of Ruether and Russell this finding of a norm within the tradition is a more common feminist position than Fiorenza's for feminist theologians who wish to consider themselves Christian.  Yet all share a primary commitment and accountability "not to the church as a male institution but to women in the churches, not to the tradition as such but to a feminist transformation of Christian traditions, not to the Bible as a whole but to the liberating Word of God finding expression in the biblical writings."[10]

For all feminist hermeneutics these commitments produce a tension that is "profoundly paradoxical".[11]  Each interpreter is engaged in a process of trying to resolve this tension between "certain pivotal experiences in the Christian tradition" and the "truly revolutionary character of categories of women's experience and praxis".[12]  But it must always be remembered that all those willing to engage in the struggle to resolve this tension do so because the inspiration of their Christian heritage is an essential part of their experience. When Fiorenza proposes that women must judge what is oppressive and what is liberating in the Bible, it is reasonable to suppose that the outcome may be a selection or "canon" that is just as Christian as that produced by those who adopt a principle from within the Bible to determine a canon within the canon.  Also, even those mainstream scholars who are most insistent that the Bible as a whole must be the norm, acknowledge that in practice "Everyone has a 'working canon'"[13] while history and personal experience suggest that churches through time and in different places select what seems relevant and functional.

What is radical in Fiorenza's proposal is not only that the principle of selection is a praxis norm and that she acknowledges her clear political goals, but that the experience of women (including women-identified men) is for the first time set forth as authoritative for biblical faith.  For Osiek this "narrow criterion", amounting to an equation of "revelatory" and "authoritative", is seen as a potential weakness, limiting the influence of the liberationist perspective.[14]  It is certainly an issue which needs discussion but as yet these insights have not been integrated, and there is too little practical application to evaluate outcomes.  Because women have been excluded from the process of formation and interpretation of the biblical text and tradition in the Christian community a period of reversal when the community of women is not simply included but placed at the centre to determine the development and transformation of the tradition seems not only just, but necessary.  It is even suggested that because of the power of patriarchy in collective consciousness there may need to be an extended period of practical if not ideological withdrawal by women engaged in the task.[15]

Linda Hogan observes with respect to experience and theology, "One has to decide whether to accept traditional symbols as dictating the parameters of what may or may not be experienced or whether to reverse the relationship."[16]  Fiorenza is reversing the relationship but her engaged political stance safeguards against a relativistic fragmentation of diverse experience.  Her proposals embody the safeguards that Hogan suggests must put limits on the appeal to women's experience.  Firstly the criterion of "liberation" provides a "pragmatic ethical foundation".  Then the placing of authority with women-church in its struggle for liberation firmly places "community rather than individual experience" at the centre.  Finally the historical perspective which stresses the continuity of past and present experience emphasises the "embodied nature of all knowledge."[17]

A further safeguard is needed, one which Fiorenza acknowledges but perhaps does not repeat often enough, that "the church of women is always the ecclesia reformanda, the church on the way to and in need of conversion and 'revolutionary patience'."[18]  If she is to be convincing in her declaration of not seeking an anti-male separatist strategy, the "reconciliation" and "listening" she calls for in women-church must be extended to at least the sympathetic and less dogmatic elements in the traditional church.  As Phyllis Trible says, "Prophetic movements are not exempt from sin.  Even as feminism announces judgement on patriarchy and calls for repentance and change, it needs to be aware of its own potential for idolatry."[19]

[1]          E. Schüssler Fiorenza, But She Said, Beacon Press, Boston, 1992, p 219

[2]          Fiorenza, But She Said, p 141

[3]          Fiorenza, But She Said, p 6

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

[5]          P. Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology/Christian Theology, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1990, p 24

[6]          Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology, p 81

[7]          Fiorenza, But She Said, p 152

[8]          Fiorenza, But She Said, p 130

[9]          Dickey-Young, Feminist Theology, pp 81-82

[10]      Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 3

[11]      M. A. Tolbert, 'Defining the Problem: The Bible and Feminist Hermeneutics', in Semeia 28, 1983, Scholars Press, Chico, CA, p 129

[12]      L. Hogan, From Women's Experience to Feminist Theology, Sheffield Academic Press, 1995, pp117-119

[13]      J. Goldingay, Models for Interpretation of Scripture, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan/Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 1995, p 106

[14]      C. Osiek, 'The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives', in A.Y. Collins editor, Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, Scholars Press, Chico, CA, p 104

[15]      Hogan, From Women's Experience , p 116

[16]      Hogan, From Women's Experience , p 165

[17]      Hogan, From Women's Experience , p 170

[18]      Fiorenza, Bread not Stone, p 7

[19]      P. Trible, 'Jottings for the Journey' in L.M. Russell editor, Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1985, p 149

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