Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutics – Part 2

(November 2006 – Volume 12, Issue 10) 

In our last issue we began a study of William Webb’s disturbing new interpretative approach to Scripture, what he calls “Redemptive — Movement Hermeneutics.” We were in the midst of discussing detailed problems with this view as we concluded that article. In this issue we will pick up where we left off and draw our study to a close.

An Impossible System

Still there remains the problem of how to know what was cultural and what is directly applicable today. In response to this problem Webb offers his eighteen criteria, along with the following warning and admission:

Assessing redemptive-movement has its complications. Without going into an elaborate explanation, I will simply suggest a number of guidelines: 1) the ANE/GR [Ancient Near East/Greco-Roman] real world must be examined along with its legal world, (2) the biblical subject on the whole must be examined along with its parts, (3) the biblical text must be compared to a number of other ANE/GR cultures which themselves must be compared with each other and (4) any portrait of the movement must be composed of broad input from all three streams of assessments – foreign, domestic, and canonical (emphasis his).[1]

We are most grateful that Webb decided not to give us an “elaborate explanation;” his simplified version quite proves the point – actually two points. First, who could pull off this type of exegesis? The complication of the system is immense. Professor Wayne Grudem, who has spent his entire adult life in the world of theological academia, confesses that not one percent of seminary-trained pastors in the world could follow Webb’s system. He goes even further and states that not one percent of seminary professors who have academic doctorates in OT or NT could do the same.[2] This precipitates the next problem: Webb’s system takes the Bible out of the hands of common people who are now hopelessly lost without a tiny group of experts to tell them what portions of the Bible are applicable today and which should receive an upgrade.

A Failure to Recognize the Difference Between the OT and NT

One thing that would simplify Webb’s system immensely, not to mention answer many of his own questions and shorten his book by two-thirds, would be the simple recognition of the difference between the Old and New Testament eras. No one needs to labor through eighteen complicated criteria to know whether or not commands such as not combining two kinds of cloth, not charging interest to countrymen and the necessity of circumcision are incumbent on the Christian today. The fact that Christians are no longer bound by the laws of the Old Covenant is a standard understanding found in almost all hermeneutical systems, even if it is not always properly applied. Webb seems to ignore this commonly-held fact. Grudem goes so far as to say,

Yet this fundamental omission is pervasive in Webb’s book. If someone were to go through his book and remove all the examples he takes from the OT, and all the implications that he draws from those examples, we would be left not with a book but with a small pamphlet. Webb’s failure to adequately take into account the fact that Christians are no longer bound by Mosaic covenant legislation is an omission of such magnitude as to nullify the value of this book as a guide for hermeneutics.[3]

Final Authority is Found Beyond the Realm of Scripture

Perhaps this is the most serious ramification in redemptive-movement hermeneutics. If Webb is correct we are left with two big problems: Which statements and commands did God intend to be static and which did He intend a redemptive-movement? I have tried to show that attempting to use Webb’s eighteen-criteria system is an exegetical nightmare. But even if a tiny group of geniuses could unravel all the mysteries at hand it would still be left with the question of how it is that we can decide where God would take us next. If we must move beyond the written revelation of Scripture to discover God’s ultimate ethic for any given society at any given time, just how are we to do this? How will we know when we have arrived, since we have concluded that we can construct an ethic that is superior to New Testament revelation? Bruce Baker laments,

The near complete loss of controls over the exegetical process…. One must remember that this is not merely finding principles in the text – a practice that is still very text bound. Instead, one is to leave the text behind. Thus, there is no limit upon the ultimate conclusions other than the fallen imagination of the interpreter. [And] this hermeneutic places the interpreter as judge over the text rather than the text as judge over the interpreter. In other words, it is the value system of the interpretive community that is seen as normative rather than the revealed Word of God…. Man [rather than God] is made the final arbiter of what is right and wrong.[4]

Webb has rejected the New Testament as God’s final and ultimate ethic and is challenging us to go beyond the New Testament to discover God’s ideal ethic. And since that ethic has not been revealed in God’s Word we are left by our own devices to decide where God would have us land on any given issue. Webb’s hermeneutics have greased the already slippery slope of subjectivism that permeates modern Christianity. And as Grudem points out, “Webb’s trajectory hermeneutic nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire New Testament and thus contradicts the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura.”[5]

A Practical Application — Egalitarianism

Is redemptive-movement hermeneutics merely a shell game for egalitarianism? A good case could be made for such. Webb frankly admits that complimentarianism is taught both in the New Testament[6] and has been the interpretation of the church throughout history.[7] But while the highest ethic in biblical times might have been male leadership, a higher ethic is possible today. Webb says, “The best solution, then, is not to discount the historical teaching of the church but to say that the social data has changed from Paul’s day to ours.”[8] For example, 1 Timothy 2:12 in fact forbids women teaching or exercising authority over men in the church, but that was because, Webb says, women during that time were largely uneducated and thus more easily deceived. Times have changed and women now have the same access to education as do males. “In our culture… gender is simply not a viable explanation for this ‘greater deception’ phenomenon [Today, rather than taking Paul’s instruction literally we should] seek teachers and leaders who are not easily deceived.”[9] Actually Webb believes if Paul were writing today he most likely would have modified such passages as 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 11 to reflect our society. “If Paul had been addressing an egalitarian culture, he may have used the very same Christological analogy (with its transcultural component) and reapplied it to an egalitarian relationship between husband and wife.”[10] He goes further, “Given the changes between the original culture and our modern culture, the submit-and-obey framework is no longer defensible as a prescriptive form for husband-and-wife relationships.”[11]

Where Webb struggles the most in attempting to force his hermeneutic to support egalitarianism is in the area of the primogeniture. In 1 Timothy 2:13, Webb admits, “Paul relates the creation order to the subordinate role of women…. [And] it seems fair to say that this element of creation order supplies one of the strongest pieces of patriarchal data.”[12] Later Webb concedes stating, “It is entirely likely that Paul uses primogeniture logic in 1 Timothy 2:13 in order to establish his point about the status of men over women. Having made this concession, however, it does not mean that a contemporary Christian should necessarily utilize or endorse this kind of logic and its subsequent practices today.”[13] (emphasis mine)

Why not? Why is the clear teaching of the New Testament (indisputable instruction) not applicable to the twenty-first century? While Webb weaves and bobs his way around the issue, he ultimately claims that it is because society has changed. “The pragmatic factors that drove primogeniture customs were part of the ancient setting but they are no longer part of our world.”[14] So, if Webb is to be taken seriously, our theology is to be culturally driven, not scripturally driven.

A careful look at the context of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 reveals that Paul is not basing his teachings concerning men and women in ministry on cultural factors. He takes his readers straight back to the Genesis account, to creation of the first human beings (Genesis 2:7, 22). The role of men and women in the church (Paul argues here) is built into God’s original design – and this before the Fall. How does Webb dance around this? By basically claiming that although God had factored in the consequences of the Fall at the time of the creation, apparently it was not His ultimate ethic. Adam was ordained the leader of his wife in the sin-free Garden of Eden; men were to lead their homes throughout the Old Testament; they were to do the same in the New Testament, as well as the church, but somehow God intends a higher ethic than revealed in Scripture, higher than even in Paradise. Webb writes,

In sum, the patriarchy within the original creation narrative can be accounted for as a literary anticipation of the curse, as a backwards projection of patriarchy into protology or as a practical and gracious anticipation of the agrarian setting into which Adam and Eve were headed. The garden’s patriarchy can be explained through any of these possibilities or a combination of them.[15]

Said more simply, “The whispers of patriarchy in the garden may have been placed there in order to anticipate the curse.”[16] This kind of reasoning would naturally lead to disobedience to scriptural teaching in any area which we believe is culturally inappropriate. Take 1 Peter 3:1-2 for example, in which wives are told to be submissive to their husbands in order to win them to obedience to the Word. Webb believes that in the first-century culture, where submission by wives was expected, this instruction was a form of evangelism. Today, however, compliance to the command to submit would likely backfire and repulse the husband, and therefore it can be safely ignored in the modern era of higher ethics.

For today’s unbelieving husband who values his wife as a completely equal partner and who happily functions within a mutual-deference and mutual-honor framework, this kind of unilateral, patriarchy-type submission may actually repulse him and prevent him from being won to Christ…. By actually doing the text (the literal imperative), we no longer be doing (sic) the intent of the text (the purpose statement) (emphasis his).[17]

So, according to Webb, if a given command in Scripture is not likely to produce its intended result because of cultural changes, we are free to make a redemptive-movement choice to upgrade the biblical command to fit with societal standards. Of course, in a more primitive society submission would still be pragmatic and could be retained. It doesn’t take much thinking to realize adopting this model leads to a Christian life controlled, not by the Spirit-inspired Word, but by whims and opinions of fallen culture. On the table at this point for Webb are the women issues. But what will keep others from applying this principle to whatever issues culture finds odious? Bottom line: redemptive-movement hermeneutics untethers us from Scripture and chains us to the imaginations of sin-corrupted society. I believe Webb’s system to be a flawed and highly dangerous invention.


[1] Webb, Slaves, p. 82.

[2] Grudem, p. 319.

[3] Ibid., p. 309.

[4] Bruce Baker, Voice, “Redemptive Hermeneutics, Rejecting the ‘Regressive Ethics’ of the Bible,” November/December, 2005, p. 15.

[5] Grudem, p. 301.

[6] Webb, Slaves, pp. 188, 225.

[7] Ibid., p. 230.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 188.

[11] Ibid., p. 239.

[12] Ibid., p. 130.

[13] Ibid., p. 136.

[14] Ibid., p. 141.

[15] Ibid., p. 145.

[16] Ibid., pp. 142-143.

[17] Ibid., pp. 107-108.


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