Larry Kirkpatrick

A Positive Place on the Web for the Third Angel's Message

Rightly Dividing the Word, part 3: Interpretation and the Current Emergency

kirkpatrick-sm2013-handout3.pdf (Post Historical-critical hermeneutical developments)


This presentation traces the key developments in Liberation Theological interpretation we did not address in our first meeting. It also outlines something of the movement to today's postmodern situation. In other words, we look briefly at Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, Queer Theology, then the shift to Postmodern thought and some theological effects. Most of the first half of this presentation is a condensation of my eight article series "Foundations of Women's Ordination" published last month and available on There is, by the way, a morphing, a reshaping of these ideas along the way until many parts of them are embraced in postmodern theology. So this will bear very much on the Emerging Church in our next presentation.

Feminist Theology (First Wave)

The earliest Feminist Theology comes from Elizabeth Cady-Stanton in the 1800s. She accepted the basic conclusions of the historical-critical method. She embraced Genesis one but rejected Genesis two, judging the Bible on the basis of her own assumptions about what it should and should not teach about women. This was first wave Feminism.

Remember, in the background the historical-critical method is already in substantial use in much of Protestantism. Recall also that it gels/originates in the Protestant wing of Christianity. But a startling development comes in 1943. The pope issues an encyclical titled Divino Afflante Spiritu, authorizing the use of the historical-critical method by Roman Catholic theologians. This triggers a development that will be called Liberation Theology.

Few North American Seventh-day Adventists know anything of Liberation Theology. Feminist Theology and Queer Theology are undisputed subcategories of Liberation Theology.

Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology springs up in South America in the mid 1950s. We shall only summarize. You have to understand that this is what is called an "advocacy criticism." That is, it is not neutral and does not pretend to be neutral.

  • First, the practitioner of a "Liberation Theology" of whatever form is asked to identify with the oppressed. If the "poor" are the oppressed, you must begin by identifying with the poor. If the "woman" is oppressed or the "homosexual" person is oppressed, you identify with them.
  • Next, we have the "preferential option for the poor/oppressed," the idea that God is automatically for the oppressed.
  • Another key point is Marxist class theory, a means for categorizing people. There are the "workers," i.e., the "proletariat," and the "bourgeoisie," those who hold wealth or power and said to be exploiting the proletariat. For example, if we use this analysis in terms of the homosexuality question and the SDA Church, here is how it will work. The proletariat are the exploited homosexuals and the bourgeoisie is the church, in particular its clergy, officers, and administrators. The bourgeoise are withholding the privilege of church membership and leadership from those acingt-out their homosexuality. These bourgeoise refuse to accept homosexual "marriages" as being legitimate and refuse to ordain such persons. Who is the bad guy? The church is. It is withholding; it is oppressing.
  • Reading the Bible through a liberation lens means to read selectively, especially focusing on certain passages only, to the exclusion of others. That is, it means to habitually highlight a certain subset of Scripture.
  • The next aspect is to read the Bible politically. The Bible, and theology, is seen as merely a tool. First, there is a purpose. That purpose is brought to the Bible. The Bible is not approached with any attempt to be dispassionate, fair-minded, or subject to the fullness of its self-testimony. Rather, one comes having certain ideas already and these are coercive. What one thinks or does with reference to Scripture is driven by these external ideas. In Liberation Theology then, the result is not a Word about God but a word from man claiming God is aligned with a certain position.
  • The next point is that Liberation Theologies have an explicit orientation to action. If you embrace Liberation Theology on a particular issue, it is anticipated that you will be active in advocacy for change with reference to that issue. This imperative makes the practioner of any Liberation Theology a change agent for that idea.

There are a variety of Liberation Theologies. There is Black Theology, Womanist Theology (black women), and Mujerista Theology (Hispanic women), just as there is Queer Theology (GLBTQ or Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender/Queer) and so on.

Feminist Theology (Second Wave)

We turn now, if only briefly, to Feminist Theology, the primary Theology that has been pounding on the door of the Adventist Church for several decades. Feminist Theology (skipping secular variations) sorts itself theologically into Radical, Mainstream, and Evangelical categories. We'll skip Radical Feminist Theology here, which to some envisions a future without any males, and throws out the Bible as completely unusable because it is claimed that it is tainted by male-centeredness. Instead, we will consider the less radical versions.

The root is found in what we shall call Mainstream Feminist Theology. This view is especially represented by writers including Rosemary Radford Ruether, and Elisabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza.

FYI, some will be quick to say that those desiring women's ordination in the Adventist Church have quite a different basis; that it arises not from Feminists ideas brought into the church from outside, but biblical imperatives. That simply is not true. Women's ordination may or may not be biblical, but you should know that the push for it within the SDA Church has its indisputable origin-point in the ideas next described. Now, to some original sources.

First, the primary idea behind Feminist Theology: From Rosemary Radford Ruether:

The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as not redemptive. Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption (Rosemary Radford Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, pp. 18, 19).

How is "the full humanity of women" defined? By an idea from outside the Bible. The Scriptures are evaluated against an external pre-understanding, a non-biblical measure. The most basic impulse of this theology is to judge sections of Scripture as either useful or not usable by means of this human measure. Shüssler-Fiorenza agrees:

A feminist theological hermeneutics having as its canon the liberation of women from oppressive patriarchal texts, structures, institutions, and values maintains that--if the Bible is not to continue as a tool for the patriarchal oppression of women--only those traditions and texts that critically break through patriarchal culture and 'plausibility structures' have the theological authority of revelation. The 'advocacy stance' of liberation theologies cannot accord revelatory authority to any oppressive and destructive biblical text or tradition (Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p. 33).

The Bible is judged by an external idea. Anything written in the Bible deemed as being out of harmony with that idea, is placed on theological death-row. The means of execution will be chosen from among a variety of arguments (Paul did not write it, someone modified Paul's writing, Paul wrote unclearly, Paul was temporarily regressing, Paul was trapped in Rabbinic thinking, Paul was in error, Paul was dealing with local issues in that congregation only, etc.). Bottom-line: you can be assured that if a passage in the Bible has anything to say about women which is understood as not fitting the predetermined goal of virtually complete role-interchangability, complete egalitarianism, that passage will in some way be annulled.

Only a subset of the Bible is retained--exactly as in NEO-PROTESTANT interpretation (the "historical-critical method"). Other parts are ruled out, surgically removed or have their authority neutralized.

All of this is another way of talking about the operation of what is called the "hermeneutic of suspicion." In terms then of one's approach to the Bible, the proposed starting point here is not faith but doubt. The idea is that the male authors of the Bible suppressed the stories of women. It is functionally the same as if they had tampered with the text. Men are thought intentionally to have edited-out most of the references to women. This is all unprovable speculation of course. It is posing an idea and arguing from silence.

Feminist Theology grants authority to female experience alongside the Bible, nay, int truth is made superior in authority to what the Bible says.

Feminist Theology, as with Liberation Theology, uses theology as a political tool:

The basic insight of all liberation theologies, including feminist theology, is the recognition that all theology, willingly or not, is by definition always engaged for or against the oppressed (Elizabeth Shüssler-Fiorenza, In Memory of Her, p. 6).

In the attempt to make the past intelligible the historian must go beyond the events in an act of 'intellectual re-creation' (Ibid., pp. 69, 70).

Theology is made a means of reexplaining what the Bible teaches. It comes as an external influence. Do you recall the activist aspect, the change-agent idea we found in Liberation Theology? Ruether explains its application in Feminist Theology:

Feminist liberation theology starts with the understanding of church as liberating community as the context for understanding questions of ministry, creed, worship, or mission. Without a community committed to liberation from sexism, all questions such as the forms of ministry or mission are meaningless. Conversion from sexism means both freeing oneself from the ideologies and roles of patriarchy and also struggling to liberate social structures from these patterns. A feminist liberation church must see itself as engaged in both of these struggles as the center of its identity as Church. . . . Can the historical churches be transformed by new leadership and theology to become vehicles for this way of being church? (Ruether, p. 201).

In this view, in our Seventh-day Adventist context, church would no longer be about living and giving the Third Angel's Message sent by Jesus. Rather, it would be about eliminating anything perceived as being male-centered. It would mean freeing whichever groups are currently viewed as oppressed. These things would become "the center of [our] identity as a church."

Queer Theology

Hastening onward, we move to Queer Theology. This is what its own advocates proudly call it today: Queer or LGBTQ Theology.

By now you understand something of how Liberation Theology works. It works the same way with homosexual activism. There is an oppressed group and there is an oppressing group. What the Bible says is incidental; the text of the Bible is to be wax-nosed in whichever way it must be bent in order to neutralize or remove the offending revelation.

Some deny any linkage between the theology supporting Women's Ordination and the theology supporting homosexual practice. But listen to this. Roy Clements had been a prominent evangelical leader in Britain, pastoring the Eden Baptist Church in Cambridge, UK. In 1999 he left his wife and children and resigned his pastorate after revealing that he was in a homosexual relationship with a man. Clements later published the following statement on his website:

Christian homosexuals, who formerly would have remained 'in the closet' protected by a conspiracy of sympathetic silence, have little choice but to 'come out'. . . . For most this has been a profoundly liberating experience, in spite of the bullying hostility to which they have often been subjected. In many ways their experience has run parallel, if a little behind, that of Christian women in the last few decades. In the wake of the secular feminist movement, women have found a new confidence to claim a role for themselves within the church. They have developed a hermeneutic to deal with the biblical texts which had been used to deny them that role in the past. Of course, this was not achieved without resistance from a conservative rump mainly within the older ecclesiastical establishment, but the majority of evangelicals have now moved very substantially in the direction of welcoming women into Christian leadership. Gay Christians are using exactly the same kind of hermeneutic tools to challenge tradition in regard to homosexuality. If it is taking them rather longer to succeed than the Christian feminists did, this has more to do with the inferiority of their numerical strength than of the justice of their cause (Cited in Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?, p. 238, from, accessed July 18, 2006).

Advocates of "queer theology" agree. Consider the following sample:

Queer theology is, in many ways, a branch of Liberation theology, sharing much of the same methodology and seeing theology as a tool in addressing the oppression which many queer theologians believe is perpetrated on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people by wider society in general and, in particular, the religious establishment. A reader of feminist theology or womanist theology would recognise a similar approach in queer theology. . . . Argentinian Queer theologian Professor Marcella Althaus-Reid argued in a 2005 contribution to a work on Latin American Liberation Theology ("From Liberation Theology to Indecent Theology--the Trouble with Normality in Theology from Latin American Liberation Theology--The Next Generation," Ivan Petrella, editor) that mainline liberation theology was not being true to itself by ignoring the liberation of queer people (, accessed 2013-04-08).

Althaus-Reid argued that in order to be consistent, those embracing other liberation theologies must carry their principles forward to where they inevitably lead, meaning that advocates of Liberation and Feminist Theology should also support Queer Theology.

The pattern has recurred many times: a church decides that they shall embrace women in positions which the Bible reserves to males. Years later, that same theology, already embraced, leads--surely and inevitably--to the embrace of homosexual unions and clergy.

Evangelical Feminism

We ought to offer at least a brief word about Evangelical Feminism, which is a subset of Mainstream Feminism. This is the approach most often presented by Seventh-day Adventists interested in ordaining women. While Mainstream Feminism rejects the idea that the Bible as it is can be reconciled with Feminist principles, Evangelical Feminism insists that all the Bible be kept and that, rightly understood, rightly interpreted, the Bible teaches these concepts.

And so, Evangelical Feminism rejects the rejection of Scripture. It simply insists that the apparent contradictions between the ideas are resolvable. Since it keeps Feminist ideas and it keeps all the Scripture, it has only one possible means of achieving this. All problems will boil down to issues of interpretation and reinterpretation. Ways must be found to neutralize Paul's references to creation order, to statements that an elder must be the husband (ANHR) or one wife (GUNAIKA), and to make Galatians 3:28 say much more than it actually says (it presents nothing even remotely endorsing women's ordination). In other words, what we can all expect to see in the current push for Women's Ordination, is attempt after attempt to reinterpret such texts.

While Women's Ordination will likely be decided once and for all for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the next 24 months, an even larger issue looms. It is the issue of the so-called Emerging Church.

Postmodern Theology

Unfortunately and fortunately, in order to understand anything about the Emerging Church, we here give the 30 minute course on Postmodernism. Seeking to understand the Emerging Church without understanding something of the general shift in thought from modern to postmodern, is dooming oneself to fail. Regretably, postmodernism remains a difficult topic. Stanley Grenz discusses certain philosophers whose work contributed to the postmodern shift:

The work of Derrida, Foucault, and Rorty reflects what seems to have become the central dictum of postmodern philosophy: 'All is difference.' This view sweeps away the 'uni' of the 'universe' sought by the Enlightenment project. It abandons the quest for a unified grasp of objective reality. It asserts that the world has no center, only differing viewpoints and perspectives. In fact, even the concept of 'world' presupposes an objective unity or a coherent whole that does not exist 'out there.' In the end, the postmodern world is merely an arena of 'dueling' texts. . . . the postmodern worldview affirms that this relativity extends beyond our Perceptions of truth to its essence: there is no absolute truth; rather, truth is relative to the community in which we participate (Stanley J. Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism, pp. 7, 8, emphasis in original).

Grenz elaborates further,

[P]ostmoderns are no longer convinced that their world has a center or that human reason can perceive any logical structure in the external universe. They live in a world in which the distinction between truth and fiction has evaporated. Consequently, they become collectors of experiences, repositories of transitory, fleeting images produced and fostered by the diversity of media forms endemic in postmodern society (Grenz, p. 38).

I have sought to offer some of this in a visual format for you. We are handing out a brief chart that in nine comparisons discusses premodern, modern, and postmodern thought. Most of you were raised in a late modern setting. Some younger members of this congregation have come to adulthood in the postmodern era. We now live on a major hinge-point. We are now settling in to what is becoming, rather than finishing what has been. Now a quick look at the chart.

STARTING POINT. In the premodern worldview, God is the starting point for everything, all knowledge, all purpose, and so on. A radical change comes at the shift to modernist thought. Rather than God being the starting point, with Modernist thought, knowing begins with the self, the "I." Later, in postmodern thought, knowing still begins with the "I," but there are many "I's," each one is different. There are now seven billion individual beginning points for knowledge on planet earth.

FOUNDATIONS. Foundationalism is the idea of absolute truth being directly available, the idea of discernable, bulletproof truth. Premoderns accepted the notion. Modernism took it to the farthest degree. Postmodern thought in contrast flips to the opposite, instead being suspicious of claims to have nailed-down truth. Think of the implications for yourself in giving Bible studies to others, or in trying to help your children or grandchildren navigate these ideas.

METHOD. The trend is in developing methods for understanding things. By the climax of the Modern period, methods have become detailed and exact. In Postmodern thinking, there is openness to many, methods, with great skepticism that any one method could be ultimately superior to another.

OBJECTIVE KNOWLEDGE. Obtaining objective knowledge is both doable and desirable. This is the way Premoderns and Moderns felt. Postmodernism doubts whether objective knowledge is even obtainable. Even trying to come up with it is frowned upon as impracticle, a waste of time and energy.

UNIVERSALITY OF TRUTH. Truth transcends the historical and is true everywhere; it is universal. But in Postmodern thought, all truth claims are only true for some people in some places some of the time.

UNIVERSE OPEN OR CLOSED. In Premodern thought, much has not yet been sorted out very far and God could work through any number of means. In the modern period things get "worked out" to where some are debating details about particle physics. Little room is left for God; He has been "written out" of His creation. In the Postmodern era, deep skepticism sets in about the power and conclusiveness of human reason. The way is opened for a wide range of subjective possibilities.

AUTHORITY. In Premodernity, authority was located in the church. The Modern era gave enormous authority to the state and also to reason and, therefore, the self. In Postmodernism, the value of reason is much diminished. Authority is reduced to the self and to personal experience.

COMMUNITY. Premodernity saw most people limited to their villages and to a smaller circle of people. Modernity connected the world and significantly depersonalized relationships. Postmodernism links everyone and, perhaps counterintuitively, brings depersonalization, while parodoxically creating renewed space for local community.

PERSONAL ROLES. Personal roles shift across the three periods from very traditional, to the Modern Period where the nation-state absorbs virtually all traditional roles, stripping away much that supports the nuclear family. The rise of Postmodernism opens the way to roles based solely on personal preference.

What we see in general in the move to Postmodernism is deep skepticism, rejection of institutions, amplification of the personal and experiential, societal fracturing, and in some respects, a return to openness while in others a flat rejection of even the possibility of absolute truth.

Trible describes the effect on biblical interpretation:

The orientation of the postmodern perspective focuses on the critic exploring the power and contradiction of texts. The assumptions posit that the modern industrial world uses symbolic constructs (texts) as forms of social control, that the critic must identify these constructs, that the critic functions as social activist, and that the connection of word-thought-thing is arbitrarily invented to support power relationships of domination and subordination. The consensus rejects universal meanings. . . (Phyllis Trible, Rhetorical Criticism, p. 61).

Carroll echoes this in certain respects:

New Historicist approaches to the Bible seek to redress history in favour of the silenced and repressed of (somebody else's) history, usually the wretched of the earth. For the Bible is now taken to represent a congeries of historiographical writings which isolate, exclude, repress and misrepresent as much as they may be deemed to advocate. New Historicism has as one of aims the reinscription of the repressed and excluded and the breaking of the silences which have lasted since the documents in the Bible were written and ultimately incorporated into the the various collections of books we now call the Bible (Robert P. Carroll, "Poststructuralist Approaches New Historicism and Postmodernism," in John Barton, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, p. 55).

One begins to see fascinating connections between the family of Liberation Theologies and transition to the Postmodern theological space. The following picture of our future should give pause. Robert Carroll describes this arriving age:

The future will be a paradise of different readings with none privileged and all equally valid: the modernistic lion will lie down with the postmodernist lamb, the Marxist bear will eat straw with the capitalist goat, the pre/postmodernist fundamentalist sheep will safely trade biblical proof-texts with the modernist wolf and the ecclesialistical dove will dwell in peace with the academic serpent. It will be a veritable paradise of (non)aggressive differing-but-equal biblical readings in which every man and every woman will sit under their own vine and fig tree undisturbed by any point of view alien to themselves. The Enlightenment rupture between medievalism and postmodernity will be healed by a return to a future of uncompetitive diverse readings. Readers of the Bible will also be able to move from community to community as and when they please, choosing the reading communities which suit their current needs best. A veritable reading utopia will have dawned and the old hierarchies and hegemonies of historical-critical biblical studies will have gone forever (Ibid., p. 62).

Coming to Postmodern Biblical interpretation then, we find A.K.M. Adam (What is Postmodern Biblical Criticism?) describing it as "a movement of resistance" (p. 1), suspicious ("any theory that claims to account for everything is suppressing counterexamples," p. 5), "not look[ing] for an absolute foundation, but for a starting point suitable for their purposes," p. 15), seeing the Bible as a cacophany of disharmonious, arguing voices (p. 18), not thinking it desirable or obtainable to determine the writer of a biblical text's meaning (p. 19, 20), saying that postmodern interpreters "rub texts together to see what sparks will fly," p. 22), are steeped in the philosophical ideas of Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault (pp. 29, 74), holding that "meaning is what we make of texts, not an ingredient in texts" (p. 33) and "we lend it whatever voice we will (p. 69), "playful" (pp. 41, 67), enjoying "transgressive readings," p. 61ff), and even encouraging a return to the manifold nonsense seen in ancient interpretation using the "fourfold sense," Rabbinic midrash, and allegorization (pp. 66-68). As Adam summarizes,

Where modern criticism is absolute, postmodern criticism is relative; where modern knowledge is universal, unified, and total, postmodern knowledge knowledge is local and particular; where modern knowledge rests on a mystified account of intellectual discourse, postmodern knowledge acknowledges that various forces that are ostensibly external to intellectual discourse nonetheless impinge on the entire process of perceiving, thinking, and of reaching and communicating one's conclusions. Nothing is pure; nothing is absolute; nothing is total, unified, or individual (pp. 15, 16).

Within postmodern interpretation is found "Ideological criticism," defined thus:

Biblical ideological critics aim at demystifying the 'religious' aura of the Bible and relocating the Bible as a site of and a tool in ideological conflict. They reveal the ideological cracks that have been plastered over with the facade of ideologically suspect spirituality; they uncover and stress the texts that may be useful in countering oppressive structures; and they attack the pervasive ideological bias of the discipline of biblical studies (p. 51).

Postmodern biblical interpretation develops, absorbs, and includes Feminist interpretation (Adam, pp. 49-57). Postmodern interpretation refuses to guarantee virtually anything.

Whereas the Historical-critical method brought modernist presuppositions to the text in order to disagree with it and strip out all the miracles and divine authority, Postmodern Biblical Interpretation enters doubting whether hardly anything can be drawn from the text. Authority shifts from text to interpreter; the text functions only as a launch-point into meanings generated by the reader.

Disciplines such as careful exegesis and the study of biblical languages are engaged in precisely based upon the anticipation that careful method will be helpful in diminishing personal bias and subjectivity and in recovering the author's meaning from the text of Scripture. Interpretation built upon postmodern presuppositions has but little interest in such things; its focus is on generating artful, emotionally and intellectually provocative rereadings of these texts which will be relevant for people today.

Closing Thoughts

We have but scratched the surface yet it is a start. The presentation tomorrow will use our whole time investigating the Emerging Church. You needed the background presented today because of the basic premise of the "Emerging Church," which is this:

The world is in the midst of an epoch-making change between Modern and Postmodern thought. The church is mired in the past and must change dramatically or cannot be successful in transforming persons who are the product of this changed way of thinking. One quick hint about this theory: the advocates for Emerging Church are largely right about this concern. However, most of the solutions they propose are much worse than the alleged disease.

I will see you tomorrow morning for "Scripture and the Emerging Church."


Republic WA Sheridan Meadows Camp Meeting Upper Columbia Conference 2013-07-25