Ideological criticism is a method of examining a text for “big picture” ideas and understanding how the intended audience will react to those concepts. This is a form of rhetorical criticism, which more broadly examines the way literary or spoken techniques affect an audience’s interpretations. As used in this case, ideology refers to “concepts or ideas,” and criticism means “examination and understanding,” not “complaint.” Ideological criticism is useful when gauging the overall intent of a work, and it gives insight into specific phrases used by the writer.
Ideological criticism starts from the assumption that a culture will perceive certain ideas—and the words used to describe them—in relatively consistent ways. Those perceptions might be different from one culture to the next, but, within a given society, most people will have the same “response” to certain ideas. Knowing something about the intended audience of a Bible text, for instance, can give insight into why certain ideas are used by the writers of Scripture.
Ideological criticism is best explained by example. If the hopes and dreams of American culture could be summarized in a single word, it would be “freedom.” In the United States, freedom is associated with all things noble, good, and worth fighting for. When looking to promote an idea, it’s common for Americans to discuss it in terms of freedom; when dismissing an idea, it is frequently associated with a lack of freedom. From the perspective of ideological criticism, references to “freedom” in works written by those in the USA can be interpreted with that perspective in mind.
In the Bible, the most common parallel to this is the Hebrew concept of “light.” For the Jewish people, “light” represented everything good, ideal, and positive. To lift something up, it would often be described in terms of light, brilliance, radiance, and so forth (Psalm 27:1; Acts 13:47; Malachi 4:2). To disparage something, it would be referred to in terms of darkness, shadow, night, and other opposing vocabulary (Psalm 23:4; Proverbs 4:19; Luke 11:34–36; Romans 1:21). Ideological criticism is a method of understanding biblical texts by finding and understanding those techniques.
Paul engages in an adept use of ideology by combining the cultural ideals of three dominant cultures in 2 Corinthians 4:6. Just as “freedom” is the ultimate ideal of American culture, “light” is the ideal for the Hebrews, “knowledge” for the Greeks, and “glory” for the Romans. In stating how the truth of the gospel transcends human limitations, Paul references all three, writing of “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory,” made real in the person—“displayed in the face”—of Jesus.
Ideological criticism is useful when interpreting Scripture. It can help explain why certain symbols, descriptions, or terms are used and how the writer intended the reader to respond. As with any approach to the Bible, ideological criticism has to be used in the context of discipleship (Matthew 28:19–20)—a teaching relationship with mature believers—to be fully utilized.