Hermeneutics is the study of how we interpret or exegete biblical texts. As an examination thereof, it is also a question of how we can — and do — access the Word of God as Christians. Must we become professionals, either within a church structure like the Catholic Church or by means of a full-time occupation as an exegete, in order to hear God’s Word for us today? Or has God graciously given all Christians, regardless of educational or economic context, the ability to hear and welcome the Word, incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth?
To explore these questions, I will compare two different perspectives on hermeneutics: that of my undergraduate thesis advisor Jack Crabtree, who advocates for radical biblicism; and a liberation theologian, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who is one of the founding thinkers of mujerista theology. Crabtree and Isasi-Diaz create a productive conversation when placed side by side, as they have sharply contrasting goals and approaches to accessing God’s Word today.
Radical Biblicism’s Hermeneutics: Limiting the Word
“One can be saved without being a radical biblicist; but one cannot be truly Christian.”[i]
Jack Crabtree labels his hermeneutical approach “Radical Biblicism.” Radical biblicism is seen most clearly in Gutenberg College’s “Biblical Foundation Statement: Statement of Methodological Commitment.” Written to encapsulate Crabtree’s concept of radical biblicism, Gutenberg’s statement of methodology argues the following:
1. Truth is knowable.
2. Human rationality is the ultimate epistemological authority.
3. The Bible is the only objective spiritual authority against which all else must be judged.
4. The Bible should be interpreted according to the Bible itself, and nothing else.
5. One must understand what the Bible says only by means of rational exegesis of the Bible.
6. The Bible has absolute authority over everything in reality and everything within it is true and binding on reality.
Crabtree believes that biblical texts alone determine reality. “Scriptures are the only objective spiritual authority that we should allow to dictate our understanding of ultimate realities.”[ii] There should be no mitigating factors — church authorities, orthodox traditions, scientific evidence, and so forth. “We believe that no creed, no orthodoxy, no consensus, no tradition, nor any other extra-biblical source of teaching that attempts to claim what the Bible teaches should ever dictate how we understand and interpret the Bible.”[iii] A Christian should use “reason” and “common sense” alone to figure out the meaning of biblical texts: “For radical biblicism, the fundamental task is to use reason and commonsense to grasp the meaning of the biblical text that its author intended.”[iv]
Radical biblicism views the Word of God as a closed system. God’s Word is revealed in the contemporary Protestant biblical canon and only the contemporary Protestant biblical canon. That canon is without error. “God has left the record of His disclosure about Himself and His will in the Holy Scriptures of sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments. These Scriptures we hold to be fully, and uniquely, inspired by God in every aspect of what their authors intend and to be an unerring and true testimony of what God has objectively disclosed to His people through word and act.”[v] God has not spoken outside of this canon and evidently has not spoken since the last book of the canon was written millennia ago.
To Crabtree, one can obtain unmitigated, objective access to the meaning of the contemporary Protestant biblical canon apart from one’s communal, historical, and personal context. “The real issue is not whether a doctrine is affirmed by every Christian everywhere, nor whether it is officially orthodox according to the historical creeds, nor whether it is unofficially orthodox according to the fashions of contemporary Christian thought. The only real issue is whether a doctrine is BIBLICAL–as a radical biblicist means ‘biblical.’”[vi] Thus to correctly exegete a passage means one must transcend one’s communal, historical, and personal contexts in order to truly understand biblical texts. One understands biblical texts in spite of rather than in light of one’s status as a human being embodied in the center of interlocking relationships.
Crabtree admits that obtaining unmitigated, objective access to the meaning of a biblical text is an ideal goal, a goal not always obtainable. One can easily allow one’s communal, historical, and personal contexts to color one’s interpretation. Crabtree labels this coloring as sin. “Radical biblicism is an ideal attitude. Any actual person will repeatedly sin against the radical biblicism he embraces. Being a fallible human being, he may not always adopt that attitude toward the text, even though he knows that attitude to be right.” Whereas a neo-biblicist (one who does not believe in radical biblicism) will not care about this fact, a radical biblicist will be dismayed and try better, harder. “We can distinguish between a radical biblicist who is transgressing his own convictions and a bona fide neo-biblicist. Neo-biblicism is not merely a failure to put one’s radical biblicism into practice; it is an approach to the Bible that the neo-biblicist would defend. The radical biblicist who transgresses his radical biblicism in practice does not ultimately believe that his inappropriate use of the Bible is defensible.”[vii] (Crabtree calls any form of biblical interpretation that does not hold to these 6 elements of Radical Biblicism a form of “neo-niblicism.”)
Mujerista Theology’s Hermeneutics: Expanding the Word
“All that about reading the Bible is very American.”[viii]
In Chapter 8 of her seminal book Mujerista Thelogy: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz articulates how mujerista theology approaches biblical interpretation.[ix] The chapter is entitled “La Palabra de Dios en Nosotras: The Word of God in Us,” and speaks to how “The Word of God” is not limited to and transcends biblical texts. As opposed to Crabtree’s radical Biblicism, which aims to limit what should be considered the Word of God, Isasi-Diaz desires to expand the meaning of the Word of God.
Isasi-Diaz begins with Hispanic women’s experiences and struggles for survival. These, rather than biblical texts, are the foundation of mujerista theology’s hermeneutics. “Hispanic women’s experience and our struggle for survival, not the Bible, are the source of our theology and the starting point for how we should interpret, appropriate, and use the Bible.” One reason for this is that, “A great number of Latinas do not consult the Bible in our daily lives.” If Latinas are to have access to God and God’s truth, then, there must be additional ways to access them beyond the biblical texts. Limiting access to Truth to access to written texts excludes many people. “The complexity of the biblical writings, the variety of messages, and the differences in sociohistorical and political-economic context make it difficult for us to use the Bible.”[x]
Someone like Crabtree might argue that trying to find ways around these difficulties are laziness or cop-outs. However, for Latinas whose lives consist in simply fighting to survive or supporting their families, expanding the meaning of the Word of God involves anything but laziness. Having the luxury to do nothing but read in a middle-class, air-conditioned suburban home would be the very definition of privilege to such Latinas. There are two reasons for this: First, the act of reading itself indicates privilege. “The majority of Latinas know the Bible…through oral tradition rather than through reading and studying the biblical text.”[xi] Second, having time to read means that one doesn’t have to exert all one’s energy simply on survival. “It is not that the integrity of the text is not important; it is that the need to survive takes precedence.”[xii]
When one does not have these luxuries or privileges, one must find the Word of God in one’s present contexts. Thus, “When we need help we find it not in the Bible but in praying to God and the saints: God, Mary, the saints — all part of the divine — to whom Hispanic women have the direct access they do not have to the Bible, which needs interpretation.”[xiii]
When Latinas do approach biblical texts, Isasi-Diaz believes that what leads to liberation for Latinas should be the standard by which the texts are judged, rather than abstract ideas of rationality or the texts themselves. If a text decreases, rather than increases, liberation for Latinas, then it ought to be rejected. “A mujerista biblical hermeneutic submits the Bible to a Latinas’ liberative canon. This means that the Bible is to be accepted as part of divine revelation and becomes authoritative for us only insofar as it contributes to our struggle for liberation.”[xiv] Because Isasi-Diaz believes that the gospel — and thus the message of the Bible as a whole — is liberation, liberation should be “the only objective spiritual authority against which all else must be judged,” rather than this or that text. Jesus is Lord, not a text about Jesus or his history. Making a text more binding on human reality than liberation would be a form of idolatry to Isasi-Diaz.
This does not mean that biblical texts are unimportant to mujerista theology. “We do not reject the Bible,” Isasi-Diaz clarifies. Rather, “we simply do not use it or use it very sparingly and selectively.” This is because Latinas have often experienced texts — and an over-emphasis on texts — as a way to control and oppress them. Demanding submission to texts — which the everyday Latina finds mystifying due to many social, political, economic, and linguistic barriers — furthers the marginalization of Latinas. “The mystification of the sacred is a control mechanism used by ‘religious professionals.’” Wresting control of the sacred from the grasp of such professionals gives Latinas the freedom and right to experience God on their own terms. “If we believe God become human in the person of Jesus, all of us, not only priests and pastors, participate in the divine.”[xv]
Mujerista theology views the Word of God as an open system. The Word of God is not limited to any biblical canon; such limitations are a form of idolatry to mujerista theology. God continues to reveal Themself and Their Truth to human beings today. Mujerista theology takes seriously Jesus’s claim that, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). This is particularly true where two or more are gathered in Jesus’s name to fight injustice — to fight the separation of neighbor from neighbor. One finds and encounters God when one finds and loves one’s neighbor. Thus to love one’s neighbor, to fight against those social and political structures that alienate neighbor from neighbor and create neighborly hate, is to find and encounter God and God’s continual revelation. The Word of God is living and moving each and every day through neighborly love and efforts to create justice among communities. To engage in exegesis, then, is a necessarily communal activity, one that embraces one’s contexts rather than tries to overcome them. “We must…insist on theology, biblical exegesis included, as a communal task. The values and needs of the community must play a central role in mujerista biblical hermeneutics, and the only way to make sure this is so is by doing theology as a community of faith and struggle.”[xvi]
Limiting vs. Expanding: A Comparison and Implications
The hermeneutics of radical biblicism — as articulated by Jack Crabtree — and the hermeneutics of mujerista theology — as articulated by Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz — have several important points of contact and conflict.
First, the two approaches to hermeneutics think about the importance of personal status and context to biblical exegesis in significantly different ways.
Crabtree believes one must transcend one’s embodied status and relational contexts in order to correctly exegete the Bible. These are challenges to, not helpers of, exegesis. In contrast, Isasi-Diaz believes one must put this status and those contexts at the very center of one’s exegesis. They should be front and center. They should be the lens through which one reads everything. They are an aid and key to Isasi-Diaz, whereas to Crabtree they are a crutch and a distraction.
Second, both Crabtree and Isasi-Diaz believe their perspectives to be anti-elitist.
Crabtree embraces — and takes to an extreme — Martin Luther’s sola scriptura. In fact, Gutenberg College’s “Biblical Foundations Statement” begins with Luther’s famous quotation: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”[xvii] Luther’s ideology of sola scriptura was originally a move against the elitism of the Catholic Church’s “professionals” interpreting the Bible for the masses. To Crabtree, radical biblicism is the ultimate democratization of access to the divine. It means each and every individual can and does have unmitigated access to God and God’s message through the Bible alone. One does not need to have a “professional” interpret the Bible for you.
However, to Isasi-Diaz, radical biblicism would be the height of elitism. Implementing it requires immense privilege — the privilege to have significant education such that one can translate texts, the privilege to have time to translate texts, the privilege of having an air-conditioned, comfortable environment in which to translate texts, and so forth. Labeling those who do not have these luxuries as “sinners” (or “Neo-Biblicists) is one of the most privileged, elitist actions one can take, Isasi-Diaz would argue. Thus to Isasi-Diaz, allowing less privileged and marginalized people groups various ways to access God and God’s message (beyond just biblical texts) is the right and only way to strike against religious elitism.
To Isasi-Diaz, expanding access to the divine is anti-elitist; to Crabtree, limiting access is, instead.
Third, the two approaches to hermeneutics have starkly different goals.
To Crabtree, the point of hermeneutics is to restore exactly what a biblical author meant to communicate to his audience. Whether or not the message of the author is a helpful or harmful to humanity’s contemporary condition is irrelevant to Crabtree. Or, at least, if the biblical author says x is helpful to humanity, Crabtree dares not question that. Biblical texts are the sole standard of reality; what they say goes, whether or not it seems to match reality. Reality must be made to match the biblical message, not the other way around.
Isasi-Diaz, on the other hand, believes the point of hermeneutics is to find and redeem messages from biblical authors that lead to the contemporary liberation of humanity. If a particular message from a biblical author leads to oppression rather than liberation, the message should be rejected. Isasi-Diaz believes the narrative arc of the Bible as a whole is one of liberation, and and it is on that basis — instead of the basis of supernatural inspiration — that one should view the Bible as authoritative.
In summary, Jack Crabtree believes that we access the Word of God when we limit our attention to the inspired words of God’s followers as written in the Bible. In contrast, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz believes that we access the Word of God when we expand our horizons and join in the daily struggle to liberate human beings from oppression.
Crabtree wants to know what “neighbor” means in the original Greek; Isasi-Diaz wants to find her neighbor and free her.
[i] Jack Crabtree, “Appeal for Radical Biblicism,” Gutenberg College, August, 1997, http://msc.gutenberg.edu/2001/02/appeal-for-radical-biblicism/, accessed on July 10, 2015.
[ii] Gutenberg College, “Biblical Foundation Statement: Doctrinal Statement,” http://gutenberg.edu/about_gutenberg/biblical_foundation-statement/, accessed on July 10, 2015.
[v] Gutenberg College.
[viii] Words of a Cuban woman living in Miami, cited in Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz and Yolanda Tarango, Hispanic Women: Prophetic Voice in the Church, Harper and Row, Fortress Press, 1992, p. 27-28.
[ix] For a general summary of mujerista theology, see my previous post, “Has Yahweh Spoken Only Through Moses?: An Introduction to Mujerista Theology,” July 5, 2015, https://rlstollar.wordpress.com/2015/07/05/has-yahweh-spoken-only-through-moses-an-introduction-to-mujerista-theology/, accessed on July 19, 2015.
[x] Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century, Orbis Books, 1996, p. 148.
[xi] Ibid, p. 151.
[xii] Ibid, p. 152.
[xiii] Ibid, p. 148.
[xiv] Ibid, p. 150.
[xv] Ibid, p. 188-9.
[xvi] Ibid, p. 155.
[xvii] Gutenberg College.