Scriptural Authority, Normativity, and Hermeneutics: Women and the Priesthood

Introduction [1]

The Bible often privileges men as normative for what it means to be human, frequently considers women as inferior to men, and presents God in overwhelmingly male terms. For the contemporary believer who is committed to the full equality of men and women the problem is not simply one of reconciling isolated patriarchal, sexist, or misogynistic biblical passages with an egalitarian or feminist perspective, but the revelatory nature of the biblical text itself.  “How can a text that contains so much that is damaging to women function authoritatively in the Christian community as normative of faith and life?” (36). A theology of Scripture that takes this problem seriously must reject the traditional understanding of Scripture as divinely revealed in verbal form to its ancient authors lest the pervasive androcentrism, patriarchalism, and sexism of the biblical text be understood as divinely revealed.  1) What then does it mean for Scripture to be the “Word of God”? 2) How can the Bible function authoritatively for the Church? 3) And is the Bible materially normative for modern faith and practice?


1) The concretizing of the metaphor “Word of God” in reference to the Bible entails a fundamentalist notion of inerrancy that “falsely imagine[s] the Bible as God’s actual speech.” (39) However, a more theologically satisfactory understanding of this traditional phrase sees it as pointing to “the entire domain of reality that we call divine revelation, that is, the self-disclosure of God as it is perceived and received by human beings” (39). Not only Scripture, then, but even nature and history can be seen as the word of God because of their revelatory character. Thus revelation is not propositionally formulated (or formulatable) divine information, as though God were literally speaking, but rather “the loving encounter of God and humans in which the self-disclosure of God invites the responding self-gift of the believer resulting in shared life . . .” (40). The only sense in which the term “word” literally applies to Scripture is in the human sense of a linguistic artifact.

2) Canonization refers to the Church’s recognition of a text or texts as its Sacred scripture.  Inspiration, on the other hand, describes the divine influence behind the production of a book, the resulting text, and the ongoing process of its interpretation.  Inspiration is a mechanism for talking about the authoritativeness and normativity of canonical texts. The fundamentalist understanding of Scripture that sees the Bible as literally the “Word of God” is indebted historically and theologically to the prophetic model of inspiration that sees the authors of Scripture as God’s instruments or tools in the production of the text.  This model of inspiration essentially equates the words of a prophet with divine revelation.  Besides the fact that this model is thoroughly undermined both by recent advances in biblical scholarship concerning the origins of the biblical texts as well as discrepancies between biblical content and modern science, it should also be noted that “[w]omen have an interest in maintaining the distinction between biblical inspiration and revelation because the fact that the biblical canon is regarded as inspired does not necessarily entail that all and everything in these texts is revealed by God as authoritative and normative . . .” (43). The Bible is neither the sum total of divine revelation nor its only manifestation.

3) Many groups of Christians have viewed New Testament teaching and practice as materially normative for later faith and practice.  However, this perspective is fundamentally flawed.  For instance, slavery is accepted throughout the Bible.  The Christian church “has and must continue to modify its teaching and practice in terms of its developing insights into what is good, true, and just . . . even if the early church had not yet arrived at such realizations or Jesus did not explicitly teach them.  Consequently, establishing that women did or did not play certain roles in the early church does not settle the question of what roles they may play today”  (45).  As Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza has argued, “[t]he feminist reconstruction of Christian origins has as its purpose, not the  legitimation of current inclusion of women in church life, but the restoration of their Christian history to women and of women to Christian history” (46).

Returning to question number 2 posed above, Schneiders argues that “First, the biblical text is an authoritative testimony to the Christ event in Jesus of Nazereth . . . [but] all testimony is [subject] to the limitations of the human witness and process of testifying.  Acceptance of the testimony entails both an acceptance of its substantial authority in regard to the proclamation of salvation in Jesus and a recognition of its fallibility in the offering of that testimony.  Second, accepting the authority of the Bible does not entail material imitation or replication of the arrangements of first-century Christianity any more than the imitation of Christ entails being a carpenter, a Jew, a male, or an itinerant preacher” (46).  How then can the Bible be used as authoritative Scripture?

Scripture functions salvifically within the believing community through its interpretation.  All texts require interpretation, and the Bible is no different.  “[I]nterpretation is a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning” (47). This means that 1) “a text does not have one right meaning,” 2) “meaning is not ‘in’ the text but occurs in the interaction between text and reader,” and 3) “meaning is not finally under the control of the author” (47-48).  The process of interpretation, then, is a matter of interacting with a text, an interaction that affects both reader and text.  This suggests the possibility that “the biblical text, in interaction with feminist readers, might be susceptible of a liberating interpretation, even of its patently patriarchal and sexist texts” (48). Indeed, the biblical texts themselves allows us at times to “call into question some of the material content of the Bible itself” (49). “Interpretation is the process of discerning what the text means in relation to the issues that exercise the contemporary community by interacting–from within the contemporary context–with what the text says in its own compositional context.  This means the community might experience a particular text as an object lesson in and warning against evil, rather than as a formulation of the divine will” (49-50). In this way the Bible may still serve as a revelatory and religiously authoritative text for modern religionists whose feminist consciousness have been pricked.


The implications of Sandra Schneiders’ analysis for Mormonism are potentially significant.  If we extend her discussion on Scripture for a Mormon audience to apply to all the LDS Christian Standard Works (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price), and broaden her arguments concerning the material normativity of New Testament and Early Christian practice to include also early Mormon history and practice, we could conclude that even if Joseph Smith did not ordain women to the priesthood, or even if there is no provision for the ordination of women in the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants, this should not be the only factor in deciding whether  women should or should not be ordained to the priesthood in contemporary LDS Church practice.

My questions for the reader are as follows: 1) Do you accept Sandra Schneiders’ overall analysis as it pertains to the Bible, its interpretation, and its ongoing authority for the contemporary believing community?  If not, why not.  But if so, can her arguments be extended to the Mormon situation (n.b., Schneider’s is writing from a Catholic perspective)?  2) Do you accept Schneiders’ definitions of such terms as Canon, Revelation, Inspiration, etc.? If not, how would you revise her discussion, especially within a Mormon context? Other questions and topics of discussion are open for exploration as well.


[1] The following Introduction and Analysis comes from Sandra Schneiders chapter “The Bible and Feminism” in Freeing Theology: The Essentials of Theology in Feminist Perspective (ed. Catherine Mowry LaCugna; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 31-57.

6 Replies to “Scriptural Authority, Normativity, and Hermeneutics: Women and the Priesthood”

  1. Great analysis! I think Schneider more or less works for LDS scriptural interpretation, with some key differences is how the nature of scripture and it’s normative authority are formulated in Mormon terms. They problem for women in LDS terms, however, has never been scripture per se, but living authorities. we need more than just a hermeneutics, but a theology and theory that makes women’s greater authority viable and necessary in LDS terms for the benefit of LDS authorties to reconsider.

  2. TT,

    True enough. I would add, however, that Scripture is still a problem inasmuch as it is viewed in fundamentalist or quasi-fundamentalist terms by both LDS Christian members and living ecclesiastical authorities. I agree that a more robust theology along the lines you are suggesting is crucial, but would that be enough if popular LDS Christian understanding of Scripture continues to see it as a textbook and not a (incomplete) source book?



  3. I was going to say that “normative” is one of the most irritating bloggernacle tics until I read farther and encountered “concretizing”.

  4. Great post, thanks!

    1) Do you accept Sandra Schneiders’ overall analysis as it pertains to the Bible, its interpretation, and its ongoing authority for the contemporary believing community?

    Yeah, I’m down. She phrases things well, things I’ve argued n different terms and for different reasons elsewhere (for instance, to explain changes in LDS scripture or racism in the BoM, etc.).

    2) Do you accept Schneiders’ definitions of such terms as Canon, Revelation, Inspiration, etc.?

    I think you’ve done a good job of situating her definitions in a way acceptable to many Mormons. In this direction I’d also make use of D&C 1:24 (“Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding”) and Joseph Smith’s lament about expressing himself from within the prison of an imperfect language.

  5. I agree that a more robust theology along the lines you are suggesting is crucial, but would that be enough if popular LDS Christian understanding of Scripture continues

    I would agree that this view is not explicitly embraced in Mormonism, and that generally we can tend to live mostly on the literalist side of the fence. At the same time, I think in the LDS practice of “likening”, and using Nephi as an example, it can be pretty easily demonstrated to an LDS audience that these ideas should be considered, and that in some instances they are implicitly already in play to some extent. IOW, I don’t see the potential for immediate resistance if one were to explain this stuff to an average American Mormon (can’t speak for other cultures as well on this one I’m afraid, out of ignorance).

    TT: Good point. Ironically, the issue of authority and its baggage of continuing revelation and a theoretically open canon are some of the biggest doors into this sort of understanding of scripture. The irony is that because it is invested largely in men it helps discourage the type of reading the circumstances make possible!

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