Gender Relations and the Biblical Drama

Article excerpt

The author, a Reformed academic psychologist, cites principles for the use of Scripture from her own theological tradition. These include acknowledging that there is no unmediated reading of Scripture, that Scripture should be read as a cosmic drama, and not just as isolated proof-texts, and that the 'rule of purpose' should be observed. These principles are then applied to the debate on male headship vs. gender mutuality, with special reference to the problem of over-reading gender-essentialist archetypes into Scripture.

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This article was given in an earlier form as an invited presentation at the 2004 Scripture and Disciplines conference held at Wheaton College. As a psychologist who also teaches in a gender studies program at a Christian university, I was asked to address how I "have approached gender studies from a view that is both psychologically and biblically informed." This article explains some principles I have taken, mostly from the broadly-Reformed theological tradition, about the appropriate use of scripture as a whole. It also illustrates--in a selective fashion--how such principles get worked out in the writing and teaching I do, especially in gender studies (Van Leeuwen, 1990; 1993, 2002; Fox-Genovese, Grenz, Keyes, and Van Leeuwen, 2000; Hinze and Van Leeuwen, 2002; Blankenhorn, Browning, and Van Leeuwen, 2004).

My first point has already been implicitly made in my reference to a theological tradition-namely, that there is no unmediated reading of scripture, notwithstanding the claims of primitivist-leaning Christian groups throughout church history. And one does not need to be a scholar of biblical hermeneutics in order to have a (usually unacknowledged) biblical hermeneutic. For example, it is still not unusual to find evangelieals who carry around only a New Testament, or who do carry around a full Bible, but with the words attributed to Jesus printed in red. Each of these practices embodies a hermeneutical assumption: the first to the effect that the Hebrew Scriptures are at best background to the doctrinally-authoritative New Testament, and the second to the effect that, in matters of doctrinal or ethical dispute, the words attributed to Jesus automatically trump other parts of scripture. Either of these assumptions may be defensible (although in the simplistic forms I have just described I don't think they are)--but my point is that they are assumptions with which certain readers approach scripture--not self-evident claims of scripture itself.

More troubling, given the legacy of the fundamentalist-modernist divide that characterized much of 20th century North America, is the residual tendency among evangelicals to reduce the Bible to a "flat book"--that is, to an encyclopedic collection of decontextualized, propositional statements, all of which are either historically or scientifically 'objective' (Swartley, 1983). Ironically, while claiming to confront 'godless science' with a high view of scripture, fundamentalists allowed the positivist epistemology of early 20th century science to dictate the terms of the debate: they presumed that truth, in scripture or anywhere else, can only come packaged as empirical or analytic statements. That too was a hermeneutic, more often than not an unacknowledged one. It is presumably the hermeneutic that was behind the question once asked in the 1960s of Wheaton English professor Clyde Kilby by one of the college's board members, who wanted to know why Kilby taught courses on novels, since "novels contain nothing but lies."

So one's hermeneutical assumptions about scripture will be more or less explicitly articulated on the basis of certain traditions--theological, philosophical, scientific and/or literary--or they will be denied while remaining covertly operative, often with far-reaching consequences both ethically and epistemologically. Charles Cosgrove (2002), a Baptist ethicist and New Testament scholar, calls these hermeneutical assumptions "shared but typically unexamined plausibility structures [which make] a given appeal to scripture appear valid. …