Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutics – Part 1

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(October 2006 – Volume 12, Issue 9) 

Since the beginning of the New Testament era students of Scripture have wrestled with the influences of culture on biblical interpretation. William Webb in his book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, defines this “cultural component” as “those aspects of the biblical text that ‘we leave behind’ as opposed to ‘take with us’ due to cultural differences between the text’s world and the interpreter’s world as we apply the text to subsequent generations.”[1] Said more simply, which mandates, commands and instructions found in Scripture are to be directly applied today and which are to be seen as cultural and thus of no real consequence to the modern believer, except perhaps in principle? Specifically, issues such as the following have to be addressed by the exegete: Are we still mandated to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28), even though the world is overpopulated? Should we greet one another with a holy kiss (1 Corinthians 16:20)? Are we still forbidden to wear the clothing of the opposite sex (Deuteronomy 22:5)? If so, are we also forbidden from wearing clothing woven from two kinds of material (Leviticus 19:19)? How about women wearing head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:6-7)? Are women still restricted from teaching and exercising authority over men in the church (1 Timothy 2:12)?

Determining what is cultural and what is transcultural within Scripture has been the quest of God’s people for generations – nothing new here. What is new is Webb’s approach. Webb has developed a system he entitles “redemptive-movement hermeneutics” in which he tries to weave a path somewhere between what he calls static hermeneutics (grammatical-historical) and radical hermeneutics (liberal and neo-orthodox). When using grammatical-historical hermeneutics, the reader takes the statements found in Scripture at face value unless compelling evidence would indicate otherwise. Liberal hermeneutics would dismiss large chunks of biblical instruction as purely cultural with no, or little, direct relevance for us today. With redemptive-movement interpretation the exegete will agree that statements, commands, etc., in Scripture can be taken at face “on-the-page” value. But when those statements are applied to a different time and culture they are to be interpreted through a redemptive-spirit lens which allows for change/adjustment to the original interpretation. In a sense the original instruction has been “up-graded” to reflect the status, changes and improvements of modern society.

As best I can discern, besides the attempt to understand Scripture, the motivations behind the development of this new interpretative system seem to be two. First, it promotes the egalitarian position of women’s equality in all things, including the home and the church. “On-the-page” instruction is rather clear in the New Testament–God has ordained men to be leaders in the church and the home. Egalitarians have attempted all forms of exegetical gymnastics to maneuver around the clear teaching of Scripture but have not been successful. Webb admits that in the culture of the first century God’s instructions on this matter were as the complementarians teach. So if we stay with the clear teaching of Scripture we must abandon the egalitarian position. What Webb is suggesting is that what was true of the New Testament era is no longer true, or at least applicable, in the twenty-first century due to changes in culture and society. Scripture, on this matter, can be given a redemptive-movement interpretation which provides for an egalitarian position that was not recognized in biblical times.

The second motive seems to be reconciliation among Christians. As stated in the forward by Darrel Bock, “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals not only advances the discussion beyond current literature, it takes a markedly new direction toward establishing common ground where possible, potentially breaking down certain walls of hostility within the evangelical community.”[2] In other words, if Webb is correct he may have found a way to forge a peace treaty between egalitarians and complementarians by providing a way for the complementarians to save face and yet admit that they have been wrong on the women issues. If so we can all lay down our arms and unite around the egalitarian position, thereby moving the church into the modern age.

While Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutics is both new and novel it comes with the backing of some rather conservative theologians. Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Eastern Seminary, writes an endorsement on the back cover, as do Darrell Bock and Stephen Spencer, both professors at Dallas Theological Seminary from which Webb received his ThD. Bock goes so far as to write the foreword, as noted above, and Spencer states, “The book is well-focused, thoroughly researched, carefully argued, meticulously fair to differing views and profoundly biblical. I find it very persuasive.” It has also received the backing of some within the emergent church movement, most notably Rob Bell. Bell, based on Webb’s writings, determined “that giftedness, not gender, determines one’s fitness to hold church office.”[3] As a result Bell changed his church’s constitution to reflect his new egalitarian views resulting from accepting redemptive-movement hermeneutics.

While I will agree with some of the comments of the endorsers, I take strong exception to the implication, stated most clearly by Spencer, that Webb’s views are “profoundly biblical.” I did not find them biblical or persuasive. In fact my opinion is the exact opposite on both fronts. Let me explain why.

Overview

Webb provides a handy model for his system, which he calls the X>Y>Z Principle. X represents the original culture, Y the isolated words of the Bible (the ethic God was teaching during the time of the original culture), and Z would be the ultimate ethic – the ethic God would have us ultimately (or ideally) accept. The goal then would be to take the isolated words of Scripture, “an ethic frozen in time,” and move that ethic toward the ideal ethic that God intends for His people to ultimately achieve.[4] Webb explains,

Scripture does not present a “finalized ethic” in every area of human relationship…. To stop where the Bible stops (with its isolated words) ultimately fails to reapply the redemptive spirit of the text as it spoke to the original audience. It fails to see that further reformation is possible…. While Scripture had a positive influence in its time, we should take that redemptive spirit and move to an even better, more fully-realized ethic today.[5]

I will address this later in more detail, but for now it is important to note that most of Webb’s examples of less-than-ideal ethics are taken from the Old Testament. The position of conservative Bible students throughout time has been that God did in fact upgrade or improve many of the ethics of the Old Testament. This ultimate ethic is now found in the New Testament, God’s final authoritative word for today. Webb is saying that the New Testament was not God’s ideal ethic; we can improve New Testament teachings and head toward the ultimate ethic God intends. Of course, to do this we must move beyond the authority of the New Testament to some other authority. What that authority is I will discuss below.

Wayne Grudem captures the essence of redemptive-movement hermeneutics,

Webb’s entire system is based on an assumption that the moral commands of the NT represent only a temporary ethical system for that time, and that we should use Webb’s “redemptive-movement hermeneutics” to move beyond those ethical teachings to a “better ethic” (p. 32) that is closer to the “ultimate ethic” God wants us to adopt.[6]

The task of the interpreter of Scripture, as Webb sees it, is to “distinguish between kingdom values and cultural values within the biblical text.”[7] He is deeply concerned about what he calls the “cultural component” and how to determine what is cultural and what is transcultural within Scripture.[8] “Our quest,” he writes, “is to determine whether the church should move with our culture or against our culture on these two [women and homosexuality] issues. We need to ask the question which components within Scripture are cultural and which are transcultural.”[9] In order to make such determinations Webb offers (and this is where the system is both unique and impossibly complicated) eighteen criteria to enable us to decide which components within the biblical text have ongoing redemptive-spirit significance and which are limited to the original audience only. The criteria are divided into four types: persuasive, moderately persuasive, inconclusive and extrabiblical. Unpacking of these criteria takes up the bulk of Webb’s book.

Detailed Problems

Space does not allow a thorough critique of all the problems with the redemptive-movement system, but we will take the time to mention four.[10]

A questionable approach to Scripture

Webb writes,

We must make a crucial distinction between two ways of approaching the Bible. It is the distinction between (1) a redemptive-movement or redemptive-spirit appropriation of Scripture, which encourages movement beyond the original application of the text in the ancient world, and (2) a more static or stationary appropriation of Scripture…. What we should live out in our modern culture, however, is not the isolated or “on the page” words of the text, but the redemptive spirit that the text reflects as read against its original culture (emphasis his).[11]

Thomas Schreiner explains well what Webb is teaching,

Those who read the text according to its redemptive spirit recognize that we are not limited to the isolated words of the biblical text. God moves his people step by step towards what is more righteous and just…. We do not restrict ourselves to the isolated words of the text but discern the ‘spirit’ to which the redemptive movement points.[12]

What Webb terms “static appropriation” of Scripture is the grammatical-historical approach which teaches we must know the interpretation of the text before we can make proper application. Yet, and this is important, the application must always emerge from the accurate interpretation. No one teaches that Scripture was not written in a cultural context or that modern applications often differ from ones made in biblical times. But “static” hermeneutics understands we are not free to move beyond the text itself and make either interpretations or applications which are not drawn from the text. We are not free to go beyond the Scriptures to add a twenty-first century understanding that is foreign to the original text.

 


[1] William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals ( Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001), p. 24.

[2] Ibid., p. 9.

[3] Jeff Robinson, “Engaged by the Culture: Michigan Megachurch Goes Egalitarian,” www.gender-news.com/article.php?id=37, p.4.

[4] Webb, pp. 31-32.

[5] Ibid., p. 247.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, June 2004, “Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic,” p. 337.

[7] Webb, p. 23.

[8] Ibid., pp 24-25.

[9] Ibid., p. 29.

[10] See Wayne Grudem’s article listed in endnote #6 for more detail, especially on the eighteen criteria that Webb uses.

[11] William J. Webb, “A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic & Women Elders,” pp. 1, 3.

[12] Thomas R. Schreiner, Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Spring 2002, “Review of Slaves, Women and Homosexuals,” pp. 42, 46.

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