The development of biblical criticism
Biblical criticism in reform Protestantism. Traditionally, only Latin translations of the Bible were allowed. After the reformation, translations of the Bible into ordinary languages other than Latin became more widespread. This allowed greater study of the Bible, including studying it in its original languages of Hebrew and ancient Greek. Reform protestants developed biblical criticism to figure out the true meaning of the Bible. This involves studying the possible translations, the form (e.g. letters or gospels) and the historical and cultural context.
Plenary verb inspiration is an example of this approach. It regards all of the Bible as the perfect word of God, but thinks that nonetheless the language is not all meant to be taken literally.
Literalism would be opposed to biblical criticism, claiming that we should just take the words of the Bible literally. Most notably in America, Literalism takes the view that the Bible is literally true. Ken Ham is a literalist and he makes the argument that the Bible is all or nothing; you can’t say some parts are true and others are not, you either think it’s all true or it’s all false.
Biblical criticism in liberal Christianity. Liberal Christians claim that the Bible is not the perfect word of God. It is at most a human record of divine events. Biblical criticism is thus more about making the words of ancient humans relevant to modern times than figuring out the true meaning of those words.
Liberal subjective views of inspiration
This began during the enlightenment period and accepted the scientific, historical and literary evidence of human influence on the Bible, which is concluded to be a product of the human mind, not the perfect word of God. This suggests that the scriptures were written by witnesses of God’s divine events in history like the incarnation, or times when God communicated or revealed himself. What came to be written down as a result however was merely what those people took away from such events, or from hearing about such events from the testimony of those who witnessed them. The words of the Bible are therefore just human interpretations of what the authors felt and understood of God’s revelation. The bible thus reflects the cultural and historical context of its human authors and requires continual re-interpretation to ensure its relevance. Liberal Christians will point out that Jesus himself seemed to be progressive in that in the sermon on the mount he modified some of the old testament laws. Christians should follow this example and continually update and improve Christian theology and ethics.
Liberal inspiration leads to a crisis of authority. The problem with liberal views of inspiration is that it’s difficult to see how it could grant authority to the Bible if it derives from human minds. Furthermore, it opens up the Bible to interpretation and every person will have their own interpretation. This cannot provide the kind of stable consistent theology that a religion needs for it to persist. This is why traditional Christians criticise liberal Christianity for allowing people too much freedom to believe whatever feels right to them and their opinion, which results in the disunified chaos of everyone believing in their own God and the interpretation of the Bible which suits them.
Feminist biblical criticism
Feminist biblical criticism is a typically a variety of the liberal view of inspiration, especially focused on the issue of gender. Biblical Patriarchy is a key concept in feminist biblical criticism. It is the idea that the Bible is man-made for the purpose of subjugating women. The idea is that if a man tells a woman to submit to a certain gender role, that’s not persuasive, but if that man tells the woman that the creator of the universe wants her to, that is quite persuasive, especially if both the man and woman actually believe in that God.
Reformist feminist theologians would point to examples patriarchial passages as those which require either removing (Ruether’s golden thread argument) or re-interpreting to make them relevant to modern times (standard liberal Christian feminists).
The post-Christian feminist theologians however would regard the patriarchy in the Bible as evidence that the Christian God doesn’t exist because it’s man-made, which you can tell by the fact that the Bible gives men what is in their view a superior position to women. God did not make man, men made God.
1 Timothy 2:8-15
- dress modestly
- learn in quietness and submission
“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one who was deceived, it was the woman … But women will be saved through childbearing”.
Application of types of biblical criticism to this passage:
Reform protestant biblical criticism:
Reformist Feminist biblical criticism:
Post-Christian feminist biblical criticism:
Ordination is the ritual whereby someone becomes a church leader. It involves the laying on of hands, prayer and the invocation of the Spirit of God.
The history of female ordination
In early church there were many women in leadership positions; In the new testament ‘Junia’ is a female apostle (Romans 16:7). There were Female deacons (I Timothy 3:11) and prophetesses (Acts 21:9). There were stories of female apostles such as Thecla, Nino and Junia. Early translations of the Bible altered the name Junia to the male form Junias as it was said to be a ‘mistranslation’ and apostles, all 12 were men.
In 1992, the Church of England voted to ordain women but in 1993 the Church voted to allow individual congregations to opt out of accepting women priests.
12 March 1994, 32 women were ordained in the Church of England but over 400 male clergy protested by leaving the church.
Women currently cannot be ordained as deacons, bishops or priests in the Roman Catholic Church
In 2014 Pope Francis affirmed the traditions of not ordaining women within the church but showed a willingness to women being deacons.
In 2016 the Roman Catholic Church commissioned a study to look into the issue
Arguments about female ordination
Scriptures forbid the leadership of women. 1 Corinthians 14:34 “The women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says”. St Paul here clearly seems to be against female priests, since they cannot be priests if they cannot speak to perform services.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians, however, in 11:4-5, it says women should cover their head when they prophesise. This implies they do speak in Church. This contradiction leads some to think that the 14:34 quote was added later and is not Paul’s writing.
The Liberal view of the Bible, or Ruether’s golden thread argument would reject this ‘Biblical evidence’ as just biblical patriarchy, written by human beings, not the word of God.
Christ appointed men as his apostles. The Catholic Church points out that priests are descended from the ‘line of peter’ – from Jesus’ disciples. Since Jesus has no female disciples, it follows that there should be no female priests.
Arguably Jesus only chose male disciples because that was the tradition of the time and no one would have followed him otherwise.
Jesus went against the tradition of his time on many occasions, including when it comes to the treatment of women.
The issue of the role of a priest in religious services. Catholics claim that women should not have a role where they represent Christ – which means they cannot perform certain priestly duties in religious services where that is required. Catholic Conservative MP Anne Widdicome said ‘A woman can no more be expected to represent Christ than a man could represent the Virgin Mary’
Karl Rahner argues that Jesus’ gender was insignificant when it comes to priestly sacramental representation since It’s Christ’s spiritual qualities that matter. So, a female could represent him. Rahner claimed it was heretical to suggest otherwise. Daly would argue that the fact that the Church chooses to have such a superficial criteria shows they are actually motivated by sexism.
Daphne Hampson argues that because Christianity is a historical religion, its commitments are inevitably anchored to a past tradition which she claims is patriarchal. This makes Christianity irredeemably sexist and the only solution is to abandon it.
Christianity as a historical religion. Hampson claims that Christianity is “a patriarchal and evidently untrue myth” and thus we need to “move beyond” it. The historical claims about the uniqueness of Jesus and his resurrection that Christianity is founded on were shown to be unjustified during the enlightenment period due to the advent of scientific, historical and literary/textual criticism.
The nature of Christianity’s claims make is a historical religion, Hampson argues. This inevitably anchors Christianity in its traditional beliefs. In other moral areas, we are free to get rid of what was traditionally believed if good cause for doing so arises. However, for Christianity, such freedom does not exist because its founding principles and traditions are seen as divinely ordained.
Christianity as patriarchal. The problem is that the paradigms and themes of Christianity are patriarchal. Hampson highlights two kinds of arguments.
The first is the explicit sexism of the depiction of women in the biblical stories. Women are depicted as secondary persons who conform to the roles open to them in that society. If we are to progress towards equality, we cannot see the past as ethically relevant to us.
The second is that the underlying themes and principles of Christian theology derive from the mind-set of men living under patriarchy. Fundamental to Christianity is a “bi-polar” view of reality, where a transcendent God is good and humanity is lower and opposite to God. This division is then gendered; God is described with male language while humanity is conceptualised with feminine language (e.g. Israel and the Church being the bride of Christ). God is traditionally thought of as self-sufficient, all-powerful and a judge, which Hampson argues reflects a patriarchal outlook.
Hampson claims that these themes are “at best” irrelevant to women and reflect the “power relations of a bygone age”. At worst, these themes serve to legitimise patriarchy, making the subordinate position of women appear natural and divinely mandated.
Hampson argues that there are three places that women are given in the “male construction”:
- Placed on a pedestal (e.g. the Virgin Mary). Hampson claims that the role of Mary in Christianity is a “fanciful projection of the male imagination, based perhaps on his desire for his mother”.
- A slut. Women as slut is a “prevalent theme” in Christianity, serving to associate women with earthliness, nature, human fallibility and sexuality, i.e. as the complete opposite to God’s transcendence.
- The compliment of man. Women are complimentary to men, never vice versa, which restricts women to roles assigned to them by men. (E.g. eve was said to be created to be a ‘helper’ for Adam).
The first two are what are often called “splitting”; men have a split projection of women as either good or evil according to the man’s desires, in either case “failing to see her as simply a person”.
After Christianity is the name of one of Hampson’s books. She suggests that the Christian myth has “inadequately” been a vehicle for “human awareness of God” and thus should be replaced. Its replacement, to count as an improvement, needs two changes:
- Theology should be grounded on human experience; human awareness of God.
- Our conceptualization of God must be at least compatible with our ethical ideals, since God is held to be good.
Hampson draws influence from Schleiermacher, who also claimed that human religious experience should be the foundation of theology.
Liberal Christian theology challenges views like Hampson’s; that Christianity is hopelessly tied to its ancient patriarchal teachings, because Liberal theology does not regard the Bible as the perfect word of God and thus is free to re-interpret Christian teachings to fit with progressive contemporary ethics and cultural norms. Liberal Christians would therefore regard the patriarchal quotes from the Bible as the irrelevant products of the ancient human culture. Arguably Liberal Christianity therefore is a defensible form of Christianity and so Hampton is wrong to think Christianity must be abandoned. Really it must be liberalised.
Hampson responds that her critique of Christianity as inevitably saddled with sexism “is true of all Christians, liberals as well as fundamentalists”. They are saddled with the weight of ancient tradition because despite their different approaches to the Bible, they all “read the bible as scripture”. They still view the bible as a book which has a unique value, even though they may take different approaches in their understanding of it. While liberals may attempt to take a different approach to the history and tradition of Christianity, Hampson argues that they cannot just ignore it. It still affects their outlook. Even at a subconscious level, the sexist paradigms and themes of the bible will affect them so long as they continue to read it.
Reuther’s golden thread might get around this issue – since it involves actually getting rid of sexist passages.
Women can be saved by Christ but it requires a re-evaluation of the view of Christ. Reuther points out that the Jesus of the synoptic Gospels is very different to the later doctrines of the Church which involved five centuries of ‘patriarchalization’. Jesus was very different to the expected male warrior type of Messiah. Instead, Jesus was a servant King. Old testament prophecy about the Messiah pictured him as a conquering warrior saving his people and Israel from its enemies through battle. On that view, says Ruether, the messiah is ‘expected to win, not suffer and die’ – which would be the patriarchal view of a spiritual leader. Yet, Jesus did suffer and die. He served his people rather than ruling over them. He washed their feet, spent time with the poor and criticised those in power.
Since Jesus didn’t act like a male warrior messiah as was expected, Ruether argues that Jesus is better understood as a self-sacrificing non-warrior Messiah, invoking female wisdom. This is a more gender-inclusive understanding of Jesus which could therefore be the basis for a redeemed Christianity. Ruether thinks this view which incorporates the female in the concept of God has been masked by the patriarchal interpretation of Jesus as only the male Messiah.
Daly argues that a male figure like Jesus cannot provide genuine spiritual salvation to women under conditions of patriarchy:
“exclusively masculine symbols for the ideal of ‘incarnation’ or for the ideal of the human search for fulfilment will not do.”
“The idea of a unique male savior may be seen as one more legitimation of male superiority.”
“it is most improbable that under the conditions of patriarchy a male symbol can function exclusively or adequately as a bearer of New Being. Inevitably such a symbol lends itself to a reinforcement of the prevailing hierarchies … Under the conditions of patriarchy the role of liberating the human race from the original sin of sexism would seem to be precisely the role that a male symbol cannot perform.”
Daly is arguing that it is simply irrelevant whether Jesus could be seen as being gender-inclusive. The idea that women can be saved spiritually by a male can simply never work in a patriarchal society. It is too legitimating and reinforcing of male superiority.
Hampson agrees with Daly on this point. Hampson doesn’t think Jesus was a feminist, but ultimately that is irrelevant since the main issue with Jesus is his being a male representative of a male God and the harm that causes by enabling of male superiority.
If merely seen as a ‘male symbol’ as Daly presents him, Jesus would indeed seem unfit to provide genuine saving spirituality to women under patriarchy. However, If Jesus is properly understood as embodying female wisdom, as Reuther argued he did, then although he is technically male in appearance, nonetheless spiritually he is more inclusive. This fits with Reuther’s argument that Christianity underwent patriarchalization – Jesus was a gender inclusive figure which was corrupted by patriarchal reinterpretation. So Christianity can be reformed by this understanding of Jesus.
Nonetheless, Daly’s point is that it doesn’t matter whether Jesus was pro-feminist or not. The condition of patriarchy we are currently in makes it impossible for a male saviour to save women because it inevitably reinforces damaging patriarchal stereotypes and gender roles.
The golden thread
The golden thread is Reuther’s idea that there is a theme of liberation, including supporting feminist causes, in the Bible. This is a thread of validity, which we can disentangle from the patriarchal influences. However, the Bible also contains sexist patriarchal themes. These two themes – liberation and sexism – are inconsistent with each other. They cannot both be God’s authentic revelation. If we can find a way to separate the golden thread of authentic teachings which support feminism from the patriarchal threads, then Christianity might be redeemable.
Reuther describes this golden thread as the ‘prophetic-liberating tradition’. It includes:
- God’s defence the oppressed such freeing the Jews in Exodus.
- Jesus’ treatment of marginalised people (including the poor and women).
- Jesus’ criticism of the established religious views that serve to justify and sanctify the dominant, unjust social order.
- Jesus’ moral teachings like the golden rule.
This golden thread is the theme of liberation, which is God’s authentic revelation, the rest is influenced by patriarchal men. Identifying the golden thread gives us a standard by which to compare and judge other parts of the bible and ‘reject’ those that do not fit the liberation theme. The only way for the bible to be feminist is if it rejects the use of God to justify social domination or subjugation. Patriarchy is the idolizing of the male as representing the divine so it must be denounced as idolatry and blasphemy.
Reuther’s golden thread argument depends on her claim that a plausible reading of Jesus’ actions is that they were aimed at liberating of women from the unjust social order. Reuther claims Jesus supported feminist causes, which would suggest Christianity can be redeemed by living up to the example of Jesus. There are bible stories which seem to demonstrate this:
The woman at the well. There were racial, historical and religious tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans, yet Jesus began a conversation with a female Samaritan at a well by asking her for a drink, which was unheard of as the ancient Jewish view was that Samaritans were unclean. She responded by asking how he could ask her such a thing. The disciples are also shocked when they see Jesus doing this. Christian feminists interpret this story as showing Jesus’ willingness to challenge the discriminatory culture of the time.
The adulterous woman (John 8) is a biblical passage involving a woman who had committed adultery bring brought to Jesus by the Pharisees who asked Jesus if she should be stoned. Jesus said: “let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”. After the Pharisees leave, Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her, but that she should depart and sin no more. Control of the sexual behaviour of females through violence, imprisoning her within marriage and reproduction is often thought the most significantly destructive aspect of patriarchy by feminists, and it seems Jesus was in favour of the kind of progress that feminists want.
Jesus said to Martha (Luke 10) that she should not prepare food in the kitchen but join everyone else to listen to his sermon. This could suggest that Jesus was against the traditional social gender roles where women’s job is to prepare food in the kitchen.
Galatians. Probably the most significant pro-liberation & feminist Bible verse is from St Paul:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ”. Galatians 3:28.
The non-political reading of Jesus & the Bible. There are other ways of reading these passages which suggests they are not aimed at challenging or change social structures. If Jesus was the son of God, his actions and moral teachings might sometimes appear to challenge social order/structure, but that might just be because he treated everyone as spiritually equal.
Treating people equally might give the appearance of challenging the social structures that are responsible for inequality, but arguably Jesus was only intending to bring his message to all humans equally, as the son of God would do. Regarding all being one in Christ according to Galatians, the idea that all are equal in Christ might seem pro-liberation, but arguably it only refers to spiritual equality ‘in Christ’, not social equality in society. Furthermore, consider God’s creating of humans in Genesis 1:27: “male and female he created them.”
Furthermore, there are passages where Jesus seemed explicitly anti-political. He spoke about the sin and forgiveness of individual people, not about society in general. When questioned whether Jews should pay an unjust tax, Jesus said yes: ‘give unto Caesar what is Caesers’. This suggests Jesus saw a fundamental disconnect between social injustice and religious matters. After arrest by the romans, to explain why he did not fight against his unjust arrest, Jesus said that his kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18), which suggests he sees a disconnect between human politics and the kingdom of God.
We could try to defend Reuther by arguing that these anti-political passages are simply not part of the golden thread of liberation.
However, the problem with that is, these passages aren’t explicitly patriarchal or pro-oppression passages. They are only suggesting that Jesus is not concerned with political or social engagement.
Celibacy & Marriage
In Christianity, celibacy is the choice to live without sex in order to live a more pure life in devotion of God.
Celibacy is require for priests in Catholicism. However, many Protestant Churches allow for marriage.
If not a priest, celibacy is required for those who are unmarried. Sex is only morally acceptable if done within a marriage for the purposes of having children.
The message of the Bible seems to be that humans have temptation to have sex. We are born with original sin and this causes us to desire all sorts of sinful action, including sinful sexual action.
“Each of you must learn to control his own body, as something holy and held in honour, not yielding to the promptings of passion, as the heathen do in their ignorance of God.” 1 Thessalonians 4
Galatians 5 calls sexual immorality “the works of the flesh”, indicating that it is the sinful state of our human bodily existence that causes our sinful desires.
The Bible is very clear that God has commanded that sex should be confined to within a marriage:
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” (10 commandments) Exodus 20:14.
1 Corinthians 7 claims that because we have a ‘temptation to sexual immorality’ people should pair off into husband and wife and satisfy each other ‘so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control’.
In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus goes as far as claiming that even having sexually impure thoughts/desires is wrong:
“everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” – Matthew 5:28
In Catholicism, marriage is a sacrament, whereas in protestanism it isn’t.
The liberal view would be more accepting of sex outside of marriage.
In 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, St Paul condemns “sodomites” as unrighteous and sinners.
In Romans, Paul is describing godless and wicked people who became idolators when he says this:
“Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Romans 1:26-27.
“If a man lies with a man as he does with a woman, both have committed an abomination. They shall surely be put to death, their blood is upon them”. Leviticus 20:13.
When discussing marriage, Jesus claims it is between a man and a woman. When combined with the claim that sex should be confined to marriage, that suggests homosexual sex is wrong:“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” Matthew 19:4-6.
The catechism of the catholic church claims that homosexuality is against the natural law as it divorces sex from the gift of life and is thus against God’s design.
Pope Benedict XVI (Ratzinger) argued that “Although the particular inclination of the homosexual person is not a sin, it is a more or less strong tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil; and thus the inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder.
The liberal view would be more accepting of homosexuality.
The Bible has nothing specific either against nor in support of transgenderism.
A Natural Law approach would be to regard all of God’s creation, including humans, as his design and that any alteration from his design would therefore be a violation of God’s will. This might be more against sex-change surgery. Merely wearing the clothes and adopting the appearance of the gender opposite to the sex you were assigned at birth arguably doesn’t go against God’s design.
However, Christians believe that God created us with a particular sex which they think is strongly linked to gender.
“God created man in his own image … male and female he created them”. So if we were created male, arguably it goes against God’s design to attempt to transition into female. If that’s how we are created by God, then it would be wrong to allow mere human desire to overrule God’s intention.
Some argue that since the Bible is against homosexuality, it must be against transgenderism too. If a woman transitions into a man and then has sex with a woman, that would techincally be homosexual sex according to the traditionalist view that their transition did not change their sex.
Liberal Christians would be more accepting of transgenderism.