Can You Read the Signs? Principles of Interpretation

Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 7

By Reta Halteman Finger

SignsWhether or not we drive a car, any of us can easily interpret what the above signs mean. Even without the lettering on the red octagon above, few people around the world today would miss its meaning. Yet before the age of the automobile, these signs would have been unintelligible.

On the other hand, a simple statement written and ratified in 1791 by members of the federal government of the United States has proved very difficult to interpret—at least according to the intentions of the original authors. The Second Amendment of our Constitution reads:  “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  In order to balance the power of the federal government with that of towns and colonies-becoming-states, these entities were allowed to keep a local militia so long as it was “well-regulated.” Often the rifles were stored in a nearby armory.

But most people today ignore the militia phrase and assume that any U. S. citizen has the (potential) “right to bear arms.”  Yet we know only too well the carnage this interpretation has caused, as every year an average of 30,000 people are killed by guns in our country.

Imagine, then, how necessary is proper interpretation of our biblical texts written thousands of years ago in foreign languages and cultures. Only those who read the Bible “on the flat”—as if it were written directly for our current situation—can assert that the text is plain, clear, and with no need for interpretation. This is a dangerous attitude.

Women as Victims of Misinterpretation

Detail of "Green Beauty" by Sondem

As women’s roles in secular society were shifting in the mid-20th century, it was inevitable that Christians would question past traditions of male dominance in church and home. As mentioned in lesson 6, one evangelical New Testament scholar, the late David M. Scholer, put his hermeneutical skills to work for the cause of biblical feminism. A longtime member of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (EWC), he developed six interpretive guidelines which he presented during a workshop at our 1984 EWC conference in Wellesley, Massachusetts.[1] Scholer was speaking to an audience of mainline and evangelical feminists with a high view of scripture, but his guidelines can be useful for any open-minded Christians who value our biblical texts.

Below, I will state each of Scholer’s principles in italics, with the main point bolded.  Where I wish to offer my own comments or examples after stating his, I’ll place them in regular font  after the particular principle.

1. “Our confession of scripture as God’s word means that revelation is bound to and found in historical particularity. Yet those particularities allow it to be free. Stories about specific events have more lasting ability to communicate than eternal but abstract truths.”

2. “Every text does not speak to every situation at all times and places. One must honestly confront issues of relativity, such as the command for women not to teach in 1 Timothy 2:8-15.”

3. “Scripture is pluriform, and one must use sound hermeneutical principles to decide which texts inform which other texts. For example, does Galatians 3:28 provide the window from which to view 1 Timothy 2, or is it the other way around?”

I might add that one sound principle is noting which texts are prescriptive and which are descriptive. 1 Timothy 2 may prescribe what a woman should not do, but we have various descriptive texts that tell us women were already leaders in the churches, such as the nine women mentioned in Romans 16.

4. “The early church was larger and broader than the New Testament, and thus we must make room for the reconstruction of its history.

Biblical texts come alive through archeological discoveries, as well as sociology and anthropology, which help modern people understand the different traditions and habits of ancient peoples. For example, male honor was more important than female honor. Read the stories of attempted rape at Sodom in Genesis 19:1-11 and the actual rape of the Levite’s concubine in Judges 19. In each case, men offered their women to the rapists while preserving the honor of the men within the house.

This fourth guideline calls to mind the historical reconstruction of the well-known feminist biblical scholar, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Unlike her, however, Scholer stops short of placing the authority either on the reconstruction itself or onto the current expression of “women-church.”

5. “Though scripture is to be accepted as authoritative, it always requires interpretation. All interpretations are subjective and can be skewed by the historical, cultural, and personal limitations of the interpreter.”

This statement might be challenged by people on either the theological left or right, but the next principle clarifies it.

6. “Thus evangelical feminist biblical hermeneutics can identify patriarchal and sexist texts and assumptions and understand them to be limited by cultural particularity, by canonical balance, and by particular authors’ intentions of limitation. Such texts are not polemicized against, not excluded, but understood from a particular vantage point.”

An example of two texts that are both sexist and anti-same-sex sexual expression, are laws in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 about a male lying with another male “as with a woman.” More will be said about this in later lessons, but, again, male honor is involved: “Do not treat a man the way you treat a woman.” Lesbian relations are never mentioned because honor among females does not concern males.

Questions for reflection or discussion:

1.  How do you respond to these principles? Are they more conservative or less conservative than your approach?

2.  Have your church leaders taught principles of biblical interpretation, or have they just told you how you should interpret critical texts?

[1] These hermeneutical principles were originally included in “Scripture as Friend and Enemy: Feminist Biblical Hermeneutics,” by Reta Halteman Finger. Update: Newsletter of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus 11.4 (Winter 1987-1988), pp. 1-4, 15. (back to text)

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.