Feminist Interpretations by Elise Edwards

Elise EdwardsI’ve written a few posts recently referencing biblical themes or stories. I’m not a biblical studies scholar; I’m an ethicist and theologian. So I know that ways I use the texts disturb some people who study them from a historical or biblical studies perspective. To say I don’t use the Bible as those scholars do, though, doesn’t mean I don’t have a disciplined approach. I aim to apply a consistent approach to scripture and to encourage my students to do the same.

I get really annoyed when someone proclaims a variation of “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it!” in moral debates. Obviously, people within a religious tradition are going to believe there is truth in the scriptures of their tradition. That’s simply how scripture functions. So I’m okay with “I believe it.” I have a problem with the two other parts of the statement – the Bible says it, and that settles it. The assertion that “the Bible says it” masks the task of interpretation that anyone encountering a text takes on. The statement “that settles it,” when adopted in moral debate, rejects the accountability and humility in sharing our interpretations with others.

Not all (or many) ethicists use the Bible as their foundational resource for debate. But I teach undergraduates and I’m at a university where many students see the Bible as an indispensable source of moral wisdom. Therefore, I use some class sessions in my Christian Ethics course for discussing various guidelines and approaches to the use of scripture in ethical formation and decisions. Last week, we discussed a way of reading and interpreting scripture that places a greater emphasis on the voices of the marginalized or less powerful than those that are consistent with the dominant values.* The presumption behind this interpretive strategy is that when voices in scripture (like those of the prophets or Jesus) are distinctive from the prevalent ideologies of their context, readers should take special notice.

Feminist interpreters tend to adopt this counter-cultural method, placing more weight on a scriptural witness that emphasizes the equality of women within a patriarchal context. In “The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives,” Carolyn Osiek provides a typology of feminist interpretive approaches. She identifies five types: rejectionist, loyalist, revisionist, sublimationist, and liberationist. I’ll refer you to her work for its fine analysis; I mention the types here because reflecting on them helped me clarify my own approach as both revisionist and liberationist.**

Feminist revisionists contend that the Bible and the Christian tradition more generally have been male-dominated and discriminatory towards women, but also assert that there is divine revelation or biblical truth that can be separated from this patriarchal pattern. There is a conviction behind this approach that God stands with those who are oppressed and against social structures and cultural systems that privilege some classes of people at the expense of others simply because of their association with that class (and by “class,” I’m referring to group classifications like race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or national origin).

Rosemary Radford Ruether states a perspective that fits within this revisionist typology in her groundbreaking work Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology:

Theologically speaking whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of thing, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption.

This negative principle also implies the positive principle: what does promote the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it does reflect true relation to the divine, it is the true nature of things, the authentic message of redemption.

This interpretive principle rests on a prophetic pattern in scripture more than particular statements or examples within scripture that affirm women’s humanity. This makes Ruether’s approach–which I adopt as my own–a liberationist approach, too. Liberation is freedom from oppression and a transformation of the systems and conditions that promote some people’s well being at the expense of others. As the title of the typology suggests, liberationists argue that God is for liberation; feminist liberationists believe God is in favor of women’s liberation and equality. Liberationists use a commitment to liberation of the oppressed as their primary interpretive principle.

Clearly, this is using a theological principle to interpret scripture, so there is a kind of circularity to it. (Scripture informs theology and then theological perspectives are used to inform interpretations of scripture, which then informs other theological principles and so on….) But circularity itself is no reason to discredit this type of interpretation. Contemporary Christians often interpret their Old Testament in light of the New Testament, which is informed by the Old Testament. Using liberation as an interpretive principle is completely appropriate for a feminist committed to liberation.

* I am paraphrasing the rule of countercultural witness presented in Charles H. Cosgrove’s 2002 book, Appealing to Scripture in Moral Debate: Five Hermeneutical Rules.

** Carolyn Osiek, “The Feminist and the Bible: Hermeneutical Alternatives,” in Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, ed. Adela Yarbro Collins (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985).


Elise M. Edwards, PhD is a Lecturer in Christian Ethics at Baylor University and a graduate of Claremont Graduate University. She is also a registered architect in the State of Florida. Her interdisciplinary work examines issues of civic engagement and how beliefs and commitments are expressed publicly. As a black feminist, she primarily focuses on cultural expressions by, for, and about women and marginalized communities. Follow her on twitter, google+ or academia.edu.

Categories: Academy, Bible, Christianity, Ethics, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Justice, Major Feminist Thinkers in Religion, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Scholarship, Social Justice, Textual Interpretation

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8 replies

  1. Excellent post, thank you for sharing. Reminds me of why I enjoy “Cloud Atlas” so much.


  2. Good for you! Be as loudly revisionist and liberationist as you can be! Teach your undergraduates to Question Authority. (Oh, gee, will that bring back the Sixties?? Sorry.) Teach them that just because a historical text says something, in the words of Ira Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.”


  3. Interesting how your post dovetails with the discussion of Gina’s post from day before yesterday–the point being that theological principles (standpoints) are always used to interpret scriptures. If we could all recognize this (including in the culture as a whole), discussions of the “real” or “correct” meaning of scriptures or traditions would become more nuanced.


    • Yes, I see the connection there, too. Theological principles were incorporated into the texts themselves and we read and interpret them with principles, too. There is a interdepency (or circularity) between interpretation and theology or ethics.


  4. Thanks, Elise, for sharing this with us. You make clear helpful frameworks to keep in mind regarding our varied engagements with the text. Loved it – and thanks for the resources!


  5. I took a course once (with a Jewish friend) on Islamic literature and thought. The teacher–it became clear rather quickly that she had an agenda–picked only certain passages from the Koran and refused to discuss others. People do the same thing with the Bible to prove whatever point they want. I am quite sure, however, that I could never do what you and others do to find anything positive for women in the Bible. It is so totally patriarchal and filled with so much cruelty, especially the Old Testament–passage after passage on how their patriarchal god literally killed off all the old matriarchies, in some cases destroying everyone and everything in their path.


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