Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part IV: Addressing the Issues (Hermeneutical and Cultural Perspectives)
Chapter 21 – Hermeneutics and the Gender Debate. Gordon D. Fee.
Gordon Fee observes that the debate over gender and patriarchy is settled among fundamentalist Christians. They take it as a given. There really is no debate for more moderate to liberal Christians either. Patriarchy is seen as culturally outdated. The debate is among conservative evangelicals. Patriarchalists frequently charge egalitarians with using a “special hermeneutic” to reach their conclusions. It is charged that this “…opens the floodgates to an assortment of evils, such as the rejection of biblical authority and acceptance of homosexual practice.” (364) Fee’s essay is intended to address the hermeneutical issues that divide the two sides.
Fee begins by reminding us that, “By its very nature, human speech – the use of symbols (words) to convey meaning – requires hermeneutics.” Spoken language, body language, context and a host of other issues affect our interpretations. Dialog between two people who know each other well is often quite effective because there are so many shared assumptions and interpretations. But as Fee observes, the opportunity for misunderstanding increases...
…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. (365)
Fee writes that many evangelicals tend to think the key hermeneutical questions is in finding the meaning of the text itself. While that is sometimes true, it requires more than this. For examples, those advocating the “plain reading” of the Word frequently forbid women teaching in assemblies yet also prohibit speaking tongues which is clearly affirmed in the “plain reading” of the Bible. They are using some hermeneutic other than plain reading to reach their conclusions.
Fee identifies two type of religious authority:
- External to oneself – This includes a sacred book, an authoritative person(s) (could be a founder) or a community of persons (sometimes this means traditions).
- Internal to oneself – This consists of reason and experience.
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 by authenticated by Scripture. (367)
Fee identifies the doctrine of divine inspiration as central to evangelical hermeneutics. The author’s were not only inspired but so were their words and yet “…the Bible is God’s Word spoken in human words in history.” (368)
Evangelicals reject both fundamentalism that craves an absolutism that denies the human character of the Bible and ironically ends up placing the interpreter over the authority of the Word as they contort it to achieve absolute consistency. It also rejects “…Western rationalism with its pallid moralism and a historical criticism that sits in heavy judgment on the text itself.” (369) Yet seeing Scripture as both human and divine creates challenges.
First, there is a tendency to think that because the Word is infallible that there must be some system of understanding the text that will yield and infallible understanding of the text. God did not choose to speak to us through “non-culture-bound theological propositions.” Rather he chose to speak to us “in historically particular circumstances and in every kind of literary genre.”
Second, because the Word was delivered into a historical context there is some degree of accommodation to that context in order for the Word to be heard and be apprehended.
Third, are the temptations of fundamentalist outlook that tries to make the diverse voices of scripture uniform in one voice and of liberalism that becomes paralyzed by amplification of ambiguities.
Fee writes that:
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. (371)
Fee writes about two primary tendencies that tend to divide evangelicals:
The two areas of concern are tendencies on the part of some evangelicals (1) to create “theology by way of implication” rather than on the basis of clear and explicit statements in Scripture, and (2) to turn some ad hoc biblical imperatives into a form of Christian law requiring obedience. (373)
Fee contends “…that what is absolutely basic to Christian theology is clearly and explicitly taught by intention in Scripture,” and yet this “…does not men that all Christian theology is explicitly set forth.” (373) Fee gives an analysis of the household codes to illustrate his ideas. He points out the peculiar emphasis by partriarchalists on the role of women in leadership when there is no explicit teaching about church structure, order, or worship in the first place. How could these restrictions and regulations have been so central when the very structure in which they are to operate isn’t even considered essential?
From his analysis Fee concludes,
…that a theology that articulates what all Christians in all places and at all times should believe needs to be drawn from texts that teach such a theology explicitly or from texts where the theology is implicitly embedded in what is being said. But in the latter instances, such theology should also reflect the universal perspective of Scripture, without ambiguity and diverse witness. Where there is ambiguity and diversity of witness, it would seem that what is being “taught” is Christian truth that is being accommodated to the culture and its structures. (378)
Fee notes that with regard to the household code in Ephesians, Partiarchalists mistake a description for a prescription. The householder had tremendous power over his household, including his wife. That was assumed, not mandated. The only command given to the householder, who was in a position ripe for abuse, was to love his wife. For the patriarchalist, that which is peripheral and descriptive in the passage becomes the central focus while the redemptive message passage of other centered love is all but lost.
When it comes to hermeneutics, Fee concludes that there two axioms that must be observed:
1. Only what is explicitly taught in Scripture by intention should be understood as obligatory for all believers, and what is merely implied in Scripture should accordingly be held in abeyance. (381)
2. Our hermeneutics of imperatives should be driven by the gospel of grace and Spirit gifting, not by a new form of pharisaic legalism that tries to find ways to put a hedge around a form of Christian law. (381)
Gordon D. Fee received his M.A. from Seattle Pacific University and Ph.D from the University of Southern California. He is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at Regent College as well as an ordained minister in the Assemblies of God. His publications include How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth; How to Read the Bible Book by Book; New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook; God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul; Listening to the Spirit in the Text; and commentaries on 1 Corinthians and Philippians (NICNT) and the Pastoral Epistles (NIBC). He and his wife, Maudline, have four married children and twelve grandchildren.
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