THE PROTESTANT REFORMERS of the 16th century proclaimed that God's word in scripture must serve as the final judge of all human tradition and experience. Left to our own devices we are capable of infinite self-deception, confusion and evil. We therefore must turn to scripture and submit ourselves to it, the Reformers insisted, in order to find our disorders rightly diagnosed and healed. Only through the biblical writers' testimony do we encounter the message of God's grace; only the revelation of Jesus Christ, disclosed uniquely and irreplaceably through the testimony of the evangelists and apostles, tells us the truth about the merciful God and our relationship to that God. Without this word which comes to us from outside ourselves, we are lost.
Clearly, the climate in which we read the Bible has changed drastically since Luther and Calvin put pen to paper. Living as we do on this side of the Enlightenment, we cannot escape the intellectual impact of the great "masters of suspicion": Nietzsche, Freud, Marx and more recently Foucault, along with other purveyors of "critical theory." These thinkers have sought to demystify language and to expose the ways in which our linguistic and cultural systems are constructed by ideologies that further the interests of those who hold power.
The Bible has not been exempt from such suspicious scrutiny. One need only consider the book display at the annual American Academy of Religion convention. Anyone who spends time browsing there will find the stalls flooded with books that apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to biblical texts. Some portray the apostolic witnesses less as revelatory witnesses to God's mercy than as oppressive promulgators of abusive images of God. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, for example, writes that "a feminist critical hermeneutics of suspicion places a warning label on all biblical texts: Caution! Could be dangerous to your health and survival" (in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, edited by Letty Russell).
I'm not suggesting that suspicious interpreters categorically reject the Bible; most of them believe it can contain both liberating and oppressive messages. They insist, nonetheless, that the Bible be subjected to ideological critique. Elsewhere, Schussler Fiorenza explains:
No biblical patriarchal text that perpetuates violence
against women, children, or "slaves" should be accorded
the status of divine revelation if we do not want to turn
the God of the Bible into a God of violence. That does
not mean that we cannot preach . . . on the household
code texts of the New Testament. It only means that we
must preach them critically in order to unmask them as
texts promoting patriarchal violence (Bread Not Stone:
The Challenge of Feminist Biblical Interpretation).
I welcome the moral passion of statements like Schussler Fiorenza's. Sadly, our common history is marked by epidemic violence, including violence against women, children and the powerless. Certainly this violence is to be condemned, and interpreters of the Bible have good grounds for proclaiming such condemnation. The difficulty in which we find ourselves, however, is this: If the Bible itself, the revelatory, identity-defining text of the Christian community, is portrayed as oppressive, on what basis do we know God or relate to God? A corollary question has crucial implications for biblical interpretation: If the Bible is dangerous, on what ground do we stand in conducting a critique of scripture that will render it less harmful?
For Schussler Fiorenza the answer to the latter question is clear a feminist critical hermeneutic "does not appeal to the Bible as its primary source but begins with women's own experience and vision of liberation." Experience (of a certain sort) is treated as unambiguously revelatory, and the Bible is critically scrutinized in its light. …