This article hopes to contribute to the question on how feminists can make critiques of the ideological distortions (e.g. patriarchal ideologies) in texts of Scripture, while affirming the normativity of Scripture for Christian life. It builds on Sandra Schneiders’ solidly argued response to this question, a response that appropriates elements from the hermeneutical approaches of Paul Ricoeur and Hans Georg Gadamer. Her hermeneutical model, however, is limited by her failure to elaborate on the role of the community as context of theological validation and on the need to regulate this community mediation. This article tries to fill this lacuna by dialoguing with Helen Longino, a feminist philosopher of science and critically appropriating her conditions for effective ideology criticism for Scriptural hermeneutics.
Exposition and Critique of Schneiders’ Model
The developments in feminist hermeneutics revolve basically around the question of how feminists can deal with the Bible, considered normative for the life of the Christian community, when the biblical texts themselves contain ideological distortions. The Bible has been used to legitimize not only the continued subordination of women but also anti-Semitism, slavery, war and apartheid. In many of these scriptural appropriations, the oppressiveness of the text is not merely a case of misinterpretation, which can be easily debunked by an adequate historical-critical exegesis, but an oppressiveness that is within the text itself. Feminist ideological critique, for instance, points out that the Bible has been written by men from the perspective of men, and the final list of books that were included in the canon was likewise decided by men (Johnson, 130-31). It is therefore not surprising if the Bible itself reflects the patriarchal worldview of biblical and post-apostolic times. The feminist concern as regards the normativity of the Bible therefore grapples seriously with the question of its moral integrity also. This “implies the concession that human sinfulness has touched in some way the core of the biblical text” (Bieringer, 61, n. 35).
The Normativity of the World in Front of the Text
In the specific field of biblical hermeneutics, there are currently two basic understandings of texts (Schneiders 1989, 5-6). The first regards a text as some sort of a semantic container whose meaning content has been defined by the author and the conditions of its production (e.g. author, socio-cultural context, etc.). It sees the text as separate from and independent of the reader. The meaning of the text is thereby fixed throughout history, and one cannot derive anything more from it than what has been put there by the author.
A second way of conceiving the text views the text not as a semantic container but as a medium through which the subject matter is communicated. Meaning is not found in the text itself, but is viewed as an event of understanding that happens in the encounter between the text and the reader. As product of the fusion of the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader, the meaning of the text therefore can vary depending on the reading community. We can classify Schneiders’ hermeneutical model under this second model of understanding the text.
This view of the text as dynamic medium, by itself, does not necessarily permit us to analyze critically and transcend the patriarchal worldview embedded in the text. Following Paul Ricoeur, Schneiders distinguishes between the world behind the text, the world of the text, and the world in front of the text. The world behind the text refers to the factors decisive in the formation of the text (especially the audience and historical context). The world of the text refers to the accounts of the original participants which have been incorporated in the text. The world in front of the text pertains to the truth claim of the text or what the text is saying about reality, to the contemporary reader.
While the world behind the text is important for Schneiders, it is not what ultimately determines the meaning of the text for the contemporary readers. For Schneiders, we cannot reduce the message of Scripture simply to the meaning intended by the biblical authors (original referent). In the case of the Second Testament, the world behind the text, which influenced the perspectives of its writers, was a patriarchal world.
In line with Ricoeur (1981, 131-41), Schneiders argues that a threefold distanciation is effected when discourse is written and transformed into a text, and such a distanciation allows one to go beyond the ideological obstacles in the text. First, there occurs the distanciation of the text from its author. In a written discourse, the author loses control of the meaning that can be attributed to the text, which assumes a life of its own (semantic autonomy) and acquires a relative independence from the intended meaning of the author. Even if the author is still literally alive and can try to qualify what he or she means, the interpreter can point out unconscious intentions that come out in the structure of the text. This semantic autonomy of the text sets the foundation for the possibility of a surplus of meaning. The meaning of the text will always surpass the intended meaning of the author. The text possesses a surplus of meaning that permits more than one legitimate interpretation of the text.
A second form of distanciation that occurs when a discourse is written down is the alienation of the text from its original audience. A written text is accessible to anybody who can read it. This greatly expands the context of “hearing,” from the original audience contemporaneous to the speaker, to readers of different eras. The expansion and divergence of possible readers also allow the text to have meanings that the author could not have conceived. This is so because readers, when reading the text, bring with them their background assumptions, pre-understandings, values and interests.
A third form of distanciation brought about by writing is the alienation of discourse from its originating situation and, consequently, from the reality to which it is pointing. In a speech, the speaker can directly identify or point to its subject matter as present. In a written discourse, there no longer exists a common “here and now” situation for the act of pointing to occur. Indeed, in a text, it is still possible to identify who or what the referent is, but this need no longer be confined to the original referent.
The distanciation of the text from its originating situation makes possible the “decontextualization and recontextualization of meaning” so that a significant text can continue to be meaningful in different contexts. Furthermore, distanciation allows the reader to extract meaning from a significant text beyond its original time, place and audience. The meaning of the text can be understood differently when read in the light of more humanizing contextual values or interests.
For Schneiders, what is normative is not the world behind the text but the world in front of the text or the truth claims of the text for the contemporary Christian readers. The real or ultimate referent of the Second Testament is not really the world of the first-century Christians, a world that some interpreters then try to transpose to modern times. The ultimate referent is the contemporary Christian readers’ understanding of discipleship which has developed not only from the insights of the first and succeeding generations of Christians of what discipleship means for their times, but also from the challenges of the contemporary situation. Transformative understanding of the subject matter of the text, does not require uncritical assent to the text but a dialogue with its truth claims in the light of the expanded consciousness of the contemporary Christian within the community of faith.
The past or the world behind the text, for Schneiders, can still constrain interpretation, but this has to be the past that is interpreted as a whole and in the light of current perception of what Christian discipleship means (the world in front of the Second Testament). In comparison with judicial adjudications, she writes:
As the judge interprets the earlier ruling in the light both of the social past as a whole and of current perceptions of justice, the hermeneut interprets the Second Testament witness to the Christ-event in terms of the whole of that mystery, the whole experience of the Church and current perceptions of Christian discipleship (Schneiders 1989, 6).
In relation to this, although she acknowledges the importance of Schüssler Fiorenza’s project to historically reconstruct the role of Christian women in early Christianity and bring to the surface the subjugated faith experiences of these women, Schneiders does not see this task as central in relation to the question of how Scripture can play a role in the lives of Christian women today. Within Schneiders’ hermeneutical model, the locus of revelation is not the world behind the text but the world in front of the text. It is always possible to go beyond the patriarchal worldview of the text when one reads it from the contemporary feminist perspective. For instance, Paul’s restriction on women in the liturgical assembly need not be interpreted as a justification for women’s subordinate role in the Church today, but rather as a “warning of how deleterious it is to sacrifice the good of some members of the community to a fear of offending the powerful” (Schneiders 1993, 50).
This dialogue that the critical reader engages with the text leads to a transformation of both the reader and the text (Gadamer, 387-89). In the very transformation that happens to the text in the process of its continued interpretation through the centuries, Scripture, according to Schneiders, is able to purify tradition, including the oppressive traditions within itself. The world of Christian discipleship and liberation which is projected by the Second Testament assumes a surplus of meaning that goes beyond the original intentions of the biblical authors. The history of the interpretation of Scripture generates a notion of discipleship that is richer than what the original authors could have conceived. Ideologies within the Second Testament itself and in the history of the text’s interpretation can be subject to critical analysis in the light of this more profound reading of Christian discipleship. In this sense, the text can produce the optic by means of which the text itself is judged. Schneiders thus concludes: “The world projected by the text for us is both in continuity with the world of discipleship in which the first Christians lived and different from it. The text [as a dynamic medium] mediates the continuity and enables the discontinuity” (Schneiders 1989, 9).
Who Interprets the World in Front of the Text?
Schneiders provides us with a convincing account of how ideology criticisms (e.g. feminist criticism) and the Christian community’s moral ideals can influence the interpretation of the Bible so that it can still function as a liberating text for Christians. She, however, has not elaborated clearly on the role of the ethical criteria of Christian communities in assessing the different possible interpretations of the world in front of the text (e.g. the concept of Christian discipleship). For instance, the world in front of the text, the world that Schneiders regards as the locus of revelation, can be interpreted both from androcentric and feminist perspectives.
Ideology Criticism and the Need to Explicate the Community’s Ethical Criteria
Furthermore, Schneiders only identifies what are traditionally called scientific criteria as indices for adjudicating between conflicting interpretations. These criteria focus solely on evaluating the internal and external coherence of the scriptural interpretation and its adequacy vis-à-vis historical and literary exegesis. Ideology criticism of a text, however, demands much more than scientific criteria. Ideology criticism depends, more specifically, on the contemporary community’s moral judgments and ideals.
Because Schneiders initially recognized only scientific norms as criteria for valid interpretation, an androcentric interpretation and a feminist interpretation that are shown to be equally adequate in relation to historical and literary exegesis (scientific criteria) can demand equal hearing in her model (Martin, 209-10). There is no mechanism provided as to how to adjudicate further between these two interpretations.
In a later article, Schneiders affirms the need for developing (ethical) criteria that can help us to precisely identify the oppressive traditions in Scripture. She recognizes the contribution of Schüssler Fiorenza who proposes a dual-track justification of theological theory: adequacy vis-à-vis the historical and literary critical methods of interpretation (scientific criterion), and appropriateness in relation to the struggle of the oppressed, especially women, for liberation (ethical criterion). (Schüssler Fiorenza 1981, 100, 107). Schneiders has conceded that, from a feminist perspective, “the experience of the oppressed (especially women) struggling for liberation is the privileged hermeneutical standpoint from which we can discern the emancipatory and the oppressive in the biblical text” (Schneiders 1992, 307).
Need to Regulate the Community Mediation
One cannot however stop at simply recognizing the role of the ethical criteria or moral ideals of the community in the justification of a scriptural interpretation. The Christian community (even a feminist community), as context of validation of a scriptural interpretation/theological assertion, should not be construed as a homogeneous community freed from the dynamics of power relations. Women, for instance, assume different social and power locations in a society hierarchized racially or economically. There is the bourgeois white woman, the poor white woman, the middle class Filipina, the poor Filipina and more. There is not just one Christian ethical perspective, as Schneiders likewise acknowledges, but a plurality depending on the Christians’ social and cultural locations. There exist also not just one (feminist) Christian community but multiple (feminist) theological communities based on geographic/cultural groupings (regional, national or ethnic) or on levels of theologizing (professional, pastoral and popular). What we have is a plurality of perspectives from which a feminist hermeneutics can be done, perspectives that may not necessarily agree with one another in reading Scripture or which can challenge or broaden their respective interpretations. Providing a forum for the discussion of the varying concerns of different feminist communities can bring to light the potential or actual ideological misuse of Scripture. In the case of Schüssler Fiorenza, she has identified the ekklesia gunaikon as a “forum where the conflicts between divergent interests of women can be dealt with though she does not make explicit the way this forum works”(Troch, 283).
It is necessary to regulate this forum or mediation of Christian communities in order that effective ideology criticism will occur within and between these communities. For this, we shall draw insights from the discussions of Helen Longino, a feminist philosopher of science, on the relationship between knowledge and intersubjective criticism.
Knowledge and Intersubjective Criticism
In the context of the natural sciences, Longino points out that science is a social knowledge that is constructed “not by individuals applying a method but by individuals in interaction with one another in ways that modify their observations, theories and hypotheses, and patterns of reasoning” (Longino 1991, 670). This social nature of knowledge provides a system of checks or controls on individual subjective preferences in the very process of the production of (theological) knowledge. One such control is the requirement for knowledge to be intersubjectively verifiable. Observations and reasoning are not just the perceptions of an individual but need to be validated by others. Reasoning is involved in a scientific inquiry when one establishes evidential relations, and when one evaluates a hypothesis or a theory based on these evidential relations. In both of these cases, background assumptions are involved. The basic assumptions that underlie these processes become normally a function of the consensus (explicit or implicit) within a scientific community, where the individual learns the trade of becoming a scientist. The scientific community itself may not be conscious of these assumptions, but they are articulable and thus, in principle, public. This makes it possible to critically examine, modify, reinforce or reject them.
The exposure to criticism does not erase altogether the role of subjective preferences in scientific practice (whether that of the individual or the group), but it affords a mechanism for monitoring their influence in the production of knowledge. “As long as background assumptions can be articulated and subjected to criticism from the scientific community, they can be defended, modified or abandoned in response to such criticism” (Longino 1993, 265).
Epistemological Advantage of Considering a Multiplicity of Perspectives
Longino’s account of knowledge presupposes the epistemological advantage of considering a plurality of perspectives (Longino 1991). When a group is homogeneous, it is possible that some background assumptions become invisible to them. It is only when an individual or a group with a different set of assumptions is able (and allowed) to offer another perspective on the matter, only then can the “hidden” assumptions of the “mainstream” group become apparent to themselves. The more points of view (not necessarily uniform) are represented within the scientific community, the less prone scientific theories are to “idiosyncratic individual subjective preferences” or morally objectionable group biases. This is the reason for Longino’s encouragement for epistemic or knowing communities to be composed of subjects from a variety of contextual-cultural perspectives. In Longino’s model, any difference in cultural perspective can have the potential to uncover the hidden assumptions of a particular group, for only in the presence of such conflicting points of view can these background assumptions be uncovered (Longino 1993, 270). This public discussion, however, should be governed by the following conditions to realize effective community criticism: 1) presence of public venues for criticism, 2) explication of the community’s set of shared standards, 3) responsiveness of the community to criticisms, and 4) equality of intellectual authority. We shall elaborate on these conditions in the next section particularly in relation to how we can appropriate them within the theological-hermeneutical process.
Adapting Longino’s Conditions for Effective Ideology Criticism
The following are the features that theological/ecclesial communities should ideally possess to enable freer discussion and critique in the community.
First, there should exist recognized channels for criticism within the community. In the case of the church, these channels include regular public forums like journals and symposia, which are the traditional venues for professional theologians to subject each other’s work to critical analysis. Aside from these, there is also the need to recognize other forums where scriptural interpretation and effective ideology criticism can occur on the pastoral and popular levels. These can include the base Christian communities and other forms of associations or sectoral groups in the parish where Scripture is read and interpreted.
Second, the different theological/ecclesial communities should explicate the shared standards they are using when they read Scripture, so that those whose readings are criticized would accept the criteria by which their works are being assessed. These criteria ideally comprise both the scientific norms and moral ideals of the community. With regard to the latter, feminist theological communities (theological communities that allow feminist sensibilities to shape their theologizing) can derive, from women’s experience of liberation and oppression, the standards for judging the liberating effect or oppressiveness of a particular scriptural appropriation.
The identified criteria, however, can be modified or changed when they no longer prove to be productive. At any given time, we need some usable criteria to guide our inquiry, but they can always be modified in the light of other experiences (particularly negative contrast experiences of marginalized communities) or other values revealed by different circumstances.
Third, it is necessary for the Christian community to be responsive to the ongoing critical discussion. The term “community” can be misleading. We might suppose that it refers to the universal church, composed of sub-communities, which are simply replicas of the global community. This view neglects the difference in social and historical locations of Christian communities and how they are differently constituted by divergent histories, orientations and interests. Instead, we propose a view of theological or ecclesial communities as “fluid entities” that have intersecting values, standards, and membership and conflicting interests (Longino 1994, 146). This view of communities as “fluid” recognizes not only the plurality of women but also the intersection of the interests of different women with the concerns of other liberational groups. For instance, a woman can be a member of both a feminist sub-community and an indigenous community. The political goal of an indigenous epistemic community (the liberation of an indigenous group) can have family resemblance with the thrust of a feminist sub-community. For an indigenous movement to be truly liberational for indigenous women, it should allow the feminist critique to permeate its concern. The feminist sub-community, in turn, should also make the concerns of the indigenous and other liberational movements part of its agenda.
When interpreting the Bible, sub-communities (e.g. feminist and black communities) that address a particular scriptural text can engage in a critical dialogue with one another. The aim of dialogue here is not primarily to come up with a general and universal consensus on the meaning of a text but to allow for the refinement, correction, rejection and ideological critique of interpretations.
Fourth, there should be equality of intellectual authority within a Christian community. This Habermasian criterion means that no set of assumptions should predominate because of the political power of its proponents. The lack of women and members of other racial or cultural groups within a theological community, a lack that consequently allows the white male paradigm to predominate, is a violation of this equality criterion. It protects the ideas stemming from the white male paradigm from the critical scrutiny by women and other racial groups.
To the above four conditions for effective ideology criticism, we add a fifth one, which is implicit in Longino’s framework. This fifth condition requires the granting of partial epistemological privilege to marginalized groups within the Christian communities. In Longino’s account of knowledge, if a theory is accepted within a scientific community where women or people of other cultural groups are subordinated, then that theory is most probably presupposing only the values of the dominant groups in society. It is more likely that these values are left unexamined and unchallenged. It is therefore necessary to assure the presence not only of critical perspectives in general, but especially the viewpoint of the “others” in society. Since women and other racial groups have been traditionally ignored within theological communities, they can be privileged for a time. This means that the theological communities should encourage and support the development of theories from the standpoints of the marginalized.
In the context of our reading of Scripture, granting partial epistemological privilege to oppressed groups also requires that one “reinvents one’s self as other.” This means considering already the perspective of the “others” in society even from the beginning of the process of studying and appropriating Scripture. This should be done, however, with the consciousness that a person’s perception of who are marginalized and in what way they are oppressed will be limited by one’s horizon. Thus, this condition should go hand in hand with the thrust of theologizing communities to organize and give voice to the marginalized groups themselves.
The epistemological privilege granted to the “others” is partial in the following senses. First, when a subordinated group has assumed a more dominant position, it no longer enjoys this privilege. Second, the interpretations from the perspective of “marginalized” groups still have to be subjected to critical analysis or to an evaluation vis-à-vis the publicly shared standards of the larger Christian community. These interpretations from the perspective of a particular oppressed group can either challenge, or still be challenged by, the standpoint especially of other marginalized groups within the Christian community.
The above conditions make sure that what passes as knowledge (valid scriptural appropriation) is neither just the result of individual subjective preference nor simply a dominant group’s bias. It is rather a function of the Christian community’s critical assessment.
Scripture can only function as norm if it is continuously reinterpreted in the light of changing contexts. Schneiders has demonstrated that it is possible, within the hermeneutic process that takes the world in front of the Scripture text as normative, to go beyond the ideological distortions within the biblical texts themselves. However, it has to be stressed that the meaning of the text, as product of the fusion of the horizon of the text (Scripture) and the readers, cannot be detached from the moral ideals of the interpreting/validating Christian communities. The process by which the Christian communities adjudicate between different interpretations of the world in front of the text should be further regulated to allow for more effective ideology criticism and thus a more faithful appropriation of Scripture’s message for us today.
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Agnes M. Brazal has worked as a full-time faculty member at the Maryhill School of Theology for the past six years and she has lectured at other theological institutes like the Institute for Formation in Religious Studies, the Inter Congregational Theological Center, East Asian Pastoral Institute, etc. She has an STD degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. She is lay, married, and has one child..
This abridged version is from EWA’s original website, geocities.com/ecclesiaofwomen. The unabridged version of the article can be found where it was first published, in MST Review: A Journal of Theological and Cultural Studies 2 no. 2 (1999): 97-117.
Bieringer, Reimund. “The Normativity of the Future: The Authority of the Bible for Theology.” Bulletin ET: Zeitschrift für Theologie in Europa 8, n. 1 (1997): 52-67.
Brazal, Agnes. “Recasting Liberation Theology’s Classic Methodological Mediations: A Proposed Way of Integrating Contextual-Cultural (Feminist) Values and Perspectives.” STD diss., Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, 1998.
EATWOT Women of Asia. Patriarchy in Asia and Asian Women’s Hermeneutical Principle. Quezon City: EATWOT, 1991.
Gadamer, Hans Georg. Truth and Method. 2nd rev. ed. Translation revised by A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1994.
Johnson, Elizabeth. “Feminist Hermeneutics.” Chicago Studies 27 (1988): 123-35.
Harding, Sandra. Whose Science? Whose Knowledge? Thinking from Women’s Lives. Milton Keynes: Open University, 1991.
Longino, Helen. “Multiplying Subjects and the Diffusion of Power.” Journal of Philosophy 88 (1991): 666-74.
________. “Essential Tensions – Phase Two: Feminist, Philosophical, and Social Studies of Science.” In A Mind of One’s Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity, ed. L. Antony and C. Witt, 257-72. Colorado: Westview, 1993.
________. “The Fate of Knowledge in Social Theories of Science.” In Socializing Epistemology, ed. Frederick Schmitt, 135-57. Lunham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1994.
Martin, Francis. The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition. Edinburgh: T& T Clark, 1994.
Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning. Texas: Fortworth, 1976.
________. “The Hermeneutical Function of Distanciation.” In Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences: Essays in Language, Action and Interpretation, 131-44. Cambridge: University Press, 1981.
________. “Hermeneutics and the Critique of Ideology.” In From Text to Action: Essays in Hermeneutics II, 270-307. Translated by Kathleen Blamey and John Thompson. London: Althone, 1991.
Schneiders, Sandra. “Feminist Ideology Criticism and Biblical Hermeneutics.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 19 (1989): 3-10.
________. The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
________. “Author’s Response [to four reviews of The Revelatory Text].” Horizons 19 (1992): 303-9.
________. “The Bible and Feminism.” In Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective. Edited by Catherine Mowery La Cugna, 31-57. San Francisco: Harper, 1993.
Schüssler Fiorenza, Elisabeth. “Toward a Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics: Biblical Interpretation and Liberation Theology.” In The Challenge of Liberation Theology: A First World Response, ed. Brian Mahan and L. Dale Richesin, 91-112. With a foreword by David Tracy. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1981.
Troch, Lieve. Verzet is het Geheim van de Vreugde: Fundamentaaltheologische thema’s in een feministische discussie. Zotermeer: Boekencentrum, 1996.
 This is an abridged version for the EWA website. The unabridged version of the article can be found in MST Review: A Journal of Theological and Cultural Studies 2 no. 2 (1999): 97-117. Dr. Agnes M. Brazal is a full-time faculty member at the Maryhill School of Theology, Philippines. She obtained an STD/ PhD in Theology from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.
 A text possesses different levels of referents. For example, there is the original referent of a text (meaning of a text in terms of its historical context) and its ultimate referent (implications for reader’s reality). At the level of ultimate referent, when we speak of the implications for the reader’s reality, we are already in the world in front of the text.
 Longino describes her account of knowledge as postmodern in spirit. Her version of postmodernism, however, provides a space for persuasion or discernment between competing claims.
 The following is an example of the hermeneutical principles (ethical criteria) drawn up by the Asian EATWOT women which take into consideration differences of women based on class, race, religion, and ethnicity. “The Asian Women’s hermeneutical principle interprets as in accordance with God’s design: whatever promotes genuine dialogue among people of different cultures, religions and ideologies; whatever fosters equality, unity, justice and peace in all personal and social relationships; whatever empowers women and other marginalized people in our cultures and societies; whatever promotes communities of men and women characterized by sharing and mutuality, joy and freedom; whatever respects and protects creation.” See EATWOT Women, 24.
Longino appropriated this equality criterion from Jürgen Habermas. For Habermas, an ideal speech situation exists when there is freedom and equal access for all the participants to discourse to put forward their interpretations, justifications, objections or refutations. Otherwise, the result or the consensus would be less than rational, meaning that it is not the product of the force of the better argument but of hidden or open manipulations.
 Longino is open to the notion of partial epistemological privilege. “Within any given community, some single perspective may be privileged over others for a time, but exclusive allegiance to this perspective in the face of (inevitable) criticism violates the second criterion of objectivity for communities.” See Longino 1993, 270.
 For a detailed discussion on the viability of using Sandra Harding’s concept of “reinventing one’s self as other” within Longino’s framework, see Brazal, 239-44.
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