II. Framing a Memory: Presuppositions

The framework for building a hermeneutic is already a major clue of where the hermeneutic will be leading. As opinionated human beings we find ourselves trying to impose our opinions upon the texts that we read, be they biblical or otherwise. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza is no different in that respect, owing that she brings her own presuppositions which are to guide her in her reading and exposition of the text.

The first and foremost of her presuppositions is stated in the introduction to her book:

Biblical texts are not verbally inspired revelation nor doctrinal principles but historical formulations within the context of a religious community.5

With this declaration she gives herself a carte blanche to place her own views as authoritative over the Scripture, her views which in her own admission are born of liberation theology, as she calls her view a “feminist liberation theology.”6 reason she views the historical-critical method (HCM) as the way to exposit the Scriptures correctly — while consciously keeping her liberation theological presuppositions in mind as she dissects the Word.

Interestingly her second major presupposition has to do with how she views men and women. It is not until the very end of the first section of her book that she mentions it, but it would be fair to extrapolate that she views the only difference between men and women as being biological. In other words, just because of the fact that men have one type of genital system and women have another type, they are different. Other than that they are equal in worth and for that reason in intellect, in roles that they can take.

Third, she believes that women during Christianity and all ages have been increasingly oppressed by the “patriarchy” and to this day are only beginning to decisively throw off those bonds. Though there are examples of women having tremendous freedoms in the past, she believes that these were only precursors to today and so displays a definite victim mentality7

Her fourth presupposition is that Christianity is in and of itself an egalitarian religion in the radical sense, in that everyone is equal in every respect (gifting, intellect, wealth) and that those who presume to not be so must be pulled down and corrected.8 In a like vein of this she seems to suppose that family and “God-given” order of the Bible are patriarchal and imposed on Christianity by the “patriarchy.”9 One of her conclusions underlines this egalitarian view of Christianity:

Finally, they [feminist sociological models] show that the definitions of sexual role and gender dimorphism are the outcome of the social-economic interactions between men and women but that they are not ordained either by nature or by God.10

Thus she presupposes that the Christianity of today is a tainted version of what “God intended” that cries out to be purged, something that Dr. Schüssler Fiorenza and her compatriots will gladly do, since it will further their own aims. Or, to put it in a more positive light, she sees Christianity as essentially a social, historical and cultural process that is to be adapted to our time and culture.

Finally she quotes Gordon Leff, who summarizes her view of what she supposes “historical objectivity” to be, namely the interrelation of the facts and data with the “unifying vision” of the interpreter!11 From the context, “unifying vision” appears to be the views that the interpreter holds, thus making the interpreter the final authority and not the Bible itself or even God authority.

These presuppositions are the ones that are very clear in her writing. She does seem to think that God as revealed as male is something imposed by the patriarchy as well, though she doesn’t directly come out and say it. Her words are: “a biblical feminist hermeneutics ... must learn from them [i.e. post biblical feminist views] in order to come to a fuller understanding of the liberating biblical impulses for women’s struggle against patriarchal biblical sexism.”12 In the passage beforehand she deals extensively with the theory of the post biblical feministic view that “Goddess” worship, the symbol of female power, was suppressed by the Bible.

Perhaps a better, more fair rephrasing of this presupposition is that she will keep an open mind to anything liberationist and / or feminist that will support her views.

The final and perhaps most far reaching presupposition that she has is that in early Christianity women have been in leadership roles in the church, which she tries to substantiate. She postulates that they were then pushed out of this role.

  • 5. Ibid., p xv.
  • 6. Liberation theology is a subset of a sociological interpretation of the Bible. It is mainly political in nature and tries to interpret the teaching of Jesus in merely temporal views, such as emphasizing the “kingdom of God” aspect, “by which he meant an age of happiness and freedom when the bondage of the past would be forgotten” (G. Bray, ibid., p 518) according to liberation theologists. Bray writes that “Liberation theology is rooted in a particular situation which calls for social action on the church's part.” (Bray, ibid, p 518)

    Feminist Theology is a nuanced version of liberation theology, which has taken the “language of oppression” of the liberation theologians and “has adapted [it] to feminist concerns, sometimes in a way that is rather incongruous.” (Bray, ibid., p 519) Their outset is the fact that women's roles in the church have been “undervalued”, and – even we must honestly admit – that women have been discriminated against in the past. In their approach many feminists try not only to change the church but also the Bible while they are at it. Dr. Schüssler Fiorenza is a prime example of such an approach.

    “From a feminist perspective, biblical history should be read as two great moments – creation and redemption – at which women and men were fully equal. Following each of these, however, women lost their equality with men and declined in status.”(Bray, ibid., p 520)

  • 7. Fiorenza, ibid., p xvi.
  • 8. Judge Robert H. Bork describes how this radical egalitarianism affects all venues of American life in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 1996). Because radical egalitarians think in terms of groups and not in terms of individuals, they tend to view a whole group, which is supposedly discriminated against, as those who are the victims and who must to be lifted up. Feminist theologians are no different in this respect, making women out to be that group.
  • 9. What must be noted here is that the patriarchy is not the honorary term that Christian scholars have titled Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Job with, but “a socilogical term meaning 'male domination.'“ (Bray, ibid., p 520).
  • 10. Fiorenza, ibid., p 91.
  • 11. Ibid, p 69.
  • 12. Ibid., p 18.