During the months of October and November I am having the pleasure of interacting with the Roy Branson Legacy Sabbath School at Loma Linda, Cal. It is a group of some 50 people which, since the beginning of the Corona-era, still meets every Saturday morning via Zoom. Because of the time difference it is already evening in Netherlands, when I sit down behind my laptop. I am giving a series of presentations, followed by intense discussions, about some men and women who, in past and present, have shaken their church with provocative ideas. In this series about “loyal dissenters” I focused last Saturday on the Roman Catholic, Rumanian-born, Elizabeth Schlussler-Fiorenza, a prominent feminist theologian (b. 1938) and dealt, more generally, with the main concerns of feminist theology. This eight-week project has required a lot of preparation, but it is proving to be a rich learning experience for myself.
One of the things that this current project has once again (and probably more forcefully than before) impressed upon me is that theology always operates from a particular perspective. Feminist theologians very consciously want to start from the experience of women and their struggle to find their place in the church. In her well-known book Bread Not Stone: The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation (1985), Professor Fiorenza argues that the Bible has often been used as a weapon against women. Instead, she wants to use it as “a resource for courage, hope, and commitment,” as she seeks to “understand and interpret it [the Bible] in such a way that its oppressive and liberating power is clearly recognized.”
One of the key points of Prof. Fiorenza and of other feminist theologians is their conviction that the Bible originated in a patriarchal context and that feminist theology must deliver it from its male bias. She states: “A feminist hermeneutic cannot trust or accept Bible and tradition simply as divine revelation. Rather it must critically evaluate them as patriarchal articulations since . . . biblical texts are not the words of God, but the words of men.” (pp x, xi).
In the days that have passed since my Zoom-talk last Saturday evening this particular statement has been milling around in my head. I have asked myself: Can one really say that the biblical texts are not the words of God, but the words of men, and that this fundamentally qualifies God’s revelation? Does this concept not go against the generally accepted orthodox definition of inspiration? Should we not attach value to the Bible precisely because it does not consist of the words of men, but of the infallible Word of God?
Inspiration is a miracle. It is a divine secret how any communication between heaven and earth can take place. It is one of the great paradoxes of our faith: the Bible is God’s Word but it is also a human product. We must give full credit to both elements. If we take away from the divine aspect, the Bible loses its power and authority, and ceases to be revelation. But if we undervalue the human aspect, we end up with an impossible theory of inspiration that goes against everything we know about the language, structure, and origin of the Bible. Prof. Fiorenza is right in claiming that the Bible is not the words of God but the words of men. Nonetheless, we must stress: it is the Word of God.
The miracle of inspiration is that God speaks to mankind with a human voice. That is the only way the divine Word can reach us. And this human voice is always heard in a particular historical setting, within a specific culture and in the language the addressee can understand. In a patriarchal society that voice has a male tone. In a pre-scientific world that voice does not offer information that will stand the criticism of twenty-first century science. In a Mediterranean world that voice will refer to customs and traditions that do not fit with our postmodern culture. That is why God wants human beings, in any time and at any place, to translate his Word into language that the people of a given time, culture or social category can relate to. Translating the biblical texts anew from time to time, to ensure that God’s Word continues to be available in a language that can be readily understood by the people who read it today, is a holy, God-given task. And translating or interpreting the Word in such a way that it not only reads as the words of men but also becomes the words of women is a genuine extension of the miracle of inspiration. God communicates with all of us. And his Spirit enables us to find the enduring message for all categories of people behind the inevitable dressings of time and culture.
From my reading in recent months, in preparation for the series of presentations for the RBLSS-group, I have gained a better appreciation of the fact that all theology, and thus all approaches to the interpretation of the Bible, happen from a particular perspective. We all read the Bible though our own glasses, which are cut by our background, our gender, our age, our education, and many other factors. We look at things from a particular perspective. It enriches me to try to read the Bible from different perspectives. But there is one important caveat: God’s revelation is so full and deep that all perspectives together do not exhaust the Word that God has for us in the words we read and study.