Below is a hermeneutical approach to the gender debate. Since this was a hot topic I thought it prudent to include a living scholar. Enjoy.
Chapter 21 HERMENEUTICS AND THE GENDER DEBATE
by Gordon D. Fee (get the book)
It is of some interest that the present gender debate is primarily an event taking place among evangelical Christians. For fundamentalists, this is a closed issue. Their selective and literalistic approach to Scripture has won the day for eternal patriarchy. For more moderate or liberal Christians it is also a closed issue, with patriarchy dismissed as culturally outdated. At the end of the day, the primary differences among the three forms of Protestant faith are hermeneutical, having to do with both the meaning of texts (exegesis) and their application, but it is especially so among evangelicals involved in the debate over patriarchy and gender equality. Unfortunately, on this issue there is often a tendency on both sides to dismiss by name calling. But it is also common among patriarchalists to argue that egalitarian hermeneutics resort to a “special hermeneutic” to arrive at their conclusions. In some cases it has been further argued that this “special hermeneutic” opens the floodgates to an assortment of evils, such as rejection of biblical authority and acceptance of homosexual practices.’
This chapter 2 addresses these matters by examining some fundamental hermeneutical issues that divide the two sides,as well as by articulating a hermeneutic that leads to genuine obedience to Christ and is at the same time consonant with the gospel of grace and gifting-and with Paul’s own rejection of law keeping. Such a hermeneutic is preferred to one that tends to turn questions of gender relationships into a form of law in which “roles” and “structures” are placed on the same level as the ethical obligation to love one’s neighbor. In order to get there we need to go back to the beginning: why hermeneutics at all? And what does it mean for us to speak hermeneutically from a particular in this case, evangelical) doctrine of Scripture?
By its very nature, human speech-the use of symbols (words) to convey meaning-requires hermeneutics. When we speak we tend to think of it rather straightforwardly: my thoughts, expressed in words common to both of us, heard by your ears and recorded and deciphered by your mind. Unfortunately, however, between the mind of the speaker and that of the hearer are symbols-chiefly words, sometimes inflections or body language-so that what is intended as straightforward speech is commonly misunderstood.
Brief dialogue between two people who know each other well usually has a high degree of understanding, especially since dialogue allows for clarification. But the possibility of misunderstanding is increased as one is distanced from his or her hearer or reader-when, for example, monologue replaces dialogue, or the speaker is unknown to the hearer(s), or writing replaces speaking. When one adds other distancing factors-especially time, culture and a second language-the possibility of misunderstanding is heightened all the more, unless the writer has tried to be particularly sensitive to such distancing factors. But even then the degree of understanding is predicated very much on the degree of common experience
It is this factor-our distance from the biblical writers in time and culture-that demands that we be good exegetes, if we are truly to hear Scripture as God’s eternal Word. We must wrestle with their use of words, syntax and literary forms, which express their ideas, and we must hear those ideas within both the author’s and the readers’ cultural contexts and presuppositions, if ever we are adequately to understand what they intended by their words
But that is only one part of the task, and it is one that we can engage in with a relative degree of objectivity-although it is also true that any interpreter always brings to a text a considerable amount of cultural baggage and personal bias. The other side of the task, however, and for the interpretation of Scripture the urgent
one, is relevance. What does the biblical author’s intended meaning, as expressed in these ancient texts, mean for us today? At this point very much depends on the presuppositions of the interpreter. Here is where evangelical and liberal divide, where Pentecostal and dispensationalist, or Baptist and Presbyterian, part company.
Many evangelicals, of course, tend to think the answer lies in finding the meaning of the text itself,, and sometimes that is true. But very often it is not so. After all, there are a large number of evangelicals who claim to take Paul’s prohibition regarding women’s speaking in the assembly (I Cor I4:34-35) at face value, yet they reject altogether the prohibition six verses later in I Corinthians 14:39 (“do not forbid speaking in tongues”). By what kind of tortured hermeneutics does such a thing happen, one wonders.
What the text means as an eternal word for us is the crucial hermeneutical question. Since one’s presuppositions determine so much at this point, we need to examine the basic presupposition common to all evangelicals that will distinguish us both from other expressions of Christianity and from other religious expressions: the nature of Scripture.
SCRIPTURE AND RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY
Evangelical Protestantism identifies itself by its adherence to the biblical documents as inspired Scripture and therefore as the basis of religious authority for its theology and life in the world. But what does it mean for us to name as Scripture these documents that were written in recognizable human language, in largely recoverable historical contexts of a roughly fifteen-hundred-year span some nineteen-hundred-plus years ago? To answer that requires us to articulate a few presuppositions about the nature of religious authority in general, before particularizing our understanding of religious authority.
Let’s begin with three preliminary observations.
- The question of religious authority is an ultimate one, and ultimately we are dealing with the triune God. The problems lie with the penultimates-how God communicates or reveals himself, or what authoritatively mediates God and God’s will to humankind.
- 2. A person’s basic authority is ultimately a matter of faith; that is, one makes a faith commitment of some kind that says “This plus this,” or “This not that,” has authority in my life or church. This is so even if one does not articulate it.
- Related to this is the reality that one cannot finally prove one’s authority to be the correct one. What one can hope to show is the reasonableness of it. Thus, for
example, just as a historian cannot prove the resurrection of Jesus but can nonetheless show how the resurrection seems to make the best sense of all the available historical data, so we cannot prove the Bible to be God’s Word, but we can show by a variety of evidence that it makes good sense to believe it to be so.
Religious authority itself is of two kinds: either (I) it is external to oneself (so-called objective authority), or (2) it is internal (so-called subjective). External authority is of three kinds: (a) a sacred book, (b) an authoritative person(s) (sometimes = the founder) or (c) a community of persons (sometimes = tradition). Internal authority is of two kinds: reason and experience.
Each of these has its problem areas. For external authority there is always the question of authentication: why this one and not another. The problem with internal authority is that it lacks any means of verification or absoluteness. People with similar religious experience or a common view of reason may find support in one another, but the ultimate authority lies with oneself-it is my experience, after all, or my reason-and the result is the autonomy of the individual. This idolatry, the autonomy of reason and the individual-which reflects a failure to take the Fall seriously enough-divides the Christian from most Western non-Christians
as well as the evangelical from the liberal.
The evangelical stance on the question of religious authority is that our basic authority is external. This is predicated on the prior theological grounds (which we find eminently reasonable) of the nature of God and the reality of the Fall. We believe that our vision of God was distorted by the Fall and therefore that God cannot be discovered through our reason or experience; that is, God cannot be known from below, as it were. God must reveal himself if he is to be known at all. We further believe that God has so revealed himself: by deeds, in a Person and through a book that both reports and interprets those deeds and that Person. Because ultimately we know the Person, or hear the gospel, through the book, we take the book to be our primary penultimate authority. That is, we believe that this is the way God chose to reveal and to communicate. The other forms of authority (tradition, reason, experience) in various ways authenticate, verify or support, but all must themselves finally be authenticated by Scripture.
The church has traditionally tried to find ways to verbalize this conviction regarding the ultimate revelatory nature of Scripture so as to safeguard it from being watered down, either by one of the other kinds of authority on the one hand or by the drifts of culture or collective fallenness on the other. Out of such concern arose various attempts to articulate the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. By this articulation we were first of all affirming that because Scripture is ultimately inspired by the Spirit of God, it is self-authenticating. In the final analysis, we believe that the authority is intrinsic. God has spoken-and will continue to speak-here. Let the lion out of the cage; it will defend itself. At the same time we were articulating our conviction that God himself is the ultimate source of the Christian faith, as it is revealed or defined in our sacred book.
THE NATURE OF EVANGELICAL HERMENEUTICS
It is the doctrine of inspiration-the tenet that God inspired not only the people who spoke but also the words they spoke-that distinguishes the evangelical view of Scripture and also forces us to wrestle with the issues of hermeneutics. Inspiration maintains that God indeed “spoke all these words and said . . .” But it does not maintain that God dictated all these words. To the contrary it recognizes, indeed argues, that the Bible is God’s Word spoken in human words in history.’ As Gods Word it has eternal relevance; God addresses us. It is ours to hear and obey. But as human words in history the eternal Word has historical particularity. None of the words was spoken in a vacuum. Rather they were all addressed to, and conditioned by, the specific historical context in which they were spoken.
Evangelical hermeneutics therefore, by its very understanding of the nature of Scripture, must always be interacting with the intersection of the human and divine in these words that are believed also to be the Word. Thus we must struggle against the tendency to come down on either side the human or the divine in such a way as effectively to negate the other.
For example, though sympathetic, an evangelical rejects the fundamentalist’s anxiety over the need for absolute authority, which tends thereby to replace the authority of the Word with the authority of the interpreter. To arrive at such an absolute the fundamentalist tends to see Scripture as a divine word on y, and thus merely pays lip service to its human authors. As with Docetists or Apollinarians in Christology, the Word may appear to be human, but in reality the divine has been so superimposed on the human as to eliminate its genuine humanity almost altogether.
On the other hand, the evangelical also sympathizes with, but finally rejects, the liberal’s fear of imposing on the church-in the name of God-rules that seem to be more arbitrary than loving, or dogmas that are difficult for moderns to swallow. Here, as with Arian Christology, the error lies in an affirmation of the human that diminishes-or negates altogether-the divine. All too often the emphasis on the human side of Scripture results in the hearing of a human word more than the Word of God. Scripture is therefore primarily “God-talk” by us rather than “thus says the Lord.”
well grounded, the evangelical response to such hermeneutics is still valid. Such an attitude toward Scripture tends to divest it of its divine authority. Rather than a powerful word from God that addresses us and sits in ultimate judgment on our impoverished human lives, what is left of Scripture is the meager results of Western rationalism with its pallid moralism and a historical criticism that sits in heavy judgment on the text itself. If we select only parts of Scripture as God’s Word or listen only to what is compatible with
contemporary broad-mindedness, how does the God who judged human wisdom as folly through the scandal of the cross speak his judgments on our fallenness and do it with any authority? In such case God speaks only what we think God should speak, only what is palatable to certain political oreconomic convictions, or finally only what we allow him to say. The final word and judgment are ours. That seems to us to be too great a price to pay to be contemporary or incarnational or “loving.” The scriptural view is that one must speak the truth in love.
So evangelicals feel compelled to reject those hermeneutical stances that see Scripture either as a divine word in such a way as to divest it of its truly human character or as a human word in such a way as to blunt or negate its also being God’s very Word. But to steer between these two polarities, to see Scripture as both human and divine, is not without its own difficulties and tensions.
First, the intersection of the eternal Word with historical particularity leaves us with far more ambiguities than some feel comfortable with. What do we do with the holy war and the slaughter of nations? How do we reconcile God’s abundant mercy with the lament that speaks of dashing Babylonian children’s heads against rocks? What do we do with the holy kiss, charismatic gifts, head coverings, the mode of baptism, the sovereignty of God and human freedom, to name but a few items where evangelicals who hold the same view of Scripture are deeply divided as to what it means for our lives at specific points?
The longing for absoluteness in all matters, which compels the fundamentalist mindset, is ever with the evangelical as well-precisely because of the conviction that Scripture is God’s Word above all. Since God is unseen and known only by revelation and faith, and must finally be trusted, the need for certainty is often vested in the penultimate that leads us to God. Such a need drove the Pharisee to put a hedge around the law and the legalist to put a hedge around certain behaviors, in order to keep people within the boundaries. For some, it is too much to trust in God without absolute certainty, which of course is its own form of idolatry.
Hence there is always pressure from this side of our fallenness to eliminate ambiguity. If God himself is infallible, then the text of his Word must be infallible. If the text is infallible, then there must be an infallible understanding of it. But that is not an evangelical syllogism. The text itself in its intent is infallible, we would argue, because of its character as God’s Word. And we insist on this, because even if we disagree on the meaning of the text, our hope lies in the text itself to have its inherent power as God’s Word to correct us.
But the buck stops there, at the text and its intent, as to what is infallible. God did not choose to give us a series of timeless, non-culture-bound theological propositions to be believed and imperatives to be obeyed. Rather he chose to speak his eternal Word this way, in historically particular circumstances and in every kind of literary genre. By the very way God gave us this Word, he locked in the ambiguity. So one should not fight God and insist that he give us his Word another way or, as we are more apt to do, rework his Word along theological or cultural prejudgments that turn it into a mine field of principles, propositions or imperatives but denude it of its ad hoc character as truly human. The ambiguity is a part of what God did in giving us his Word this way. Our task is to recognize and capitalize on what God has done.
Second, Scripture’s historical particularity-the fact that the eternal word was expressed in specific historical and cultural contexts-brings with it a degree of accommodation. At issue here is whether the vessel the cultural context is also somehow vested with a dimension of the eternal. Here too is an area of evangelical anxiety, since what some see as part of the cultural trappings others would contend for as having eternal value. That there is some accommodation is a matter on which all agree-even the fundamentalist, albeit usually unwittingly. But how much, and of what kind(s)-these are the burning questions. And here is where some sore spots among evangelicals are openly festering, especially on gender issues.
Third, inherent in the conviction that Scripture is both human and divine is the recognition that it has diversity within an essential unity. The diversity results from its historical particularities, the unity from its ultimately divine origin. But how to articulate this unity and diversity is another area in which evangelicals are not all agreed. The traditional hermeneutical principle here is the analogy of Scripture-Scripture interprets Scripture, because God is its ultimate author and therefore gives it unity. While I would argue vigorously for the validity of this principle, the problem arises at the point of working it out in practice. Sometimes, in the name of this hermeneutical principle, what appears to be a highly improbable meaning is superimposed on a text in order to make it conform to other texts for the sake of unity-which is often the result of a prior commitment to the shape of that unity as much as to the unity itself. Unity is often understood to mean uniformity. That Scripture might reveal a diverse witness on some matters is summarily ruled out before one even looks at the texts.
While it is certainly true that one can make a beautiful quilt out of whole cloth, it is also true that one can do so out of patchwork. Any two pieces of patchwork lying side by side in isolation could indeed appear to be discordant. But when those two become part of a whole, with pattern and design, the glory of the quilt’s unity lies precisely in the patterns of diversity.
Granted, to insist that the very nature of Scripture has locked into it a degree of ambiguity, accommodation and diversity causes some people to capitulate in despair-either toward the certainties of fundamentalism or toward the ambiguities of liberalism. Far better to opt for the radical middle. If God gave us his Word this way, then our task is to hold on to both realities-its eternality and historical particularity-with equal vigor. If we cannot always have absolute certainty as to meaning or application, we can certainly move toward a higher degree of common understanding.
The way toward that higher level of commonality, I would argue, is still to be found at the crucial point of authorial intentionality, which we would insist is also the Holy Spirit’s intentionality.4 After all, speech has intent; and if we are to hear God’s Word rightly for ourselves, we must begin with that original intent. If God did not speak timeless aphorisms, he did speak an eternal Word. That Word had specific intent in its historically particular moments. Our task is to discover and hear that Word in terms of God’s original intent as expressed by the biblical writer, and then hear that same Word again in our own historical setting, even when our particulars are quite different from those of the original setting.
But this does not mean we need to keep their historical particulars intact as well. For good or ill, history brings changes to culture, a fact that is especially so for Western culture. Instead of seeing this as a debility, we should recognize the greater glory of Scripture and praise God for it. That he would speak so directly to their contexts is what gives us hope that God will always through that same Word speak again and again to our own historical context as well as to all others.