Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part IV: Addressing the Issues (Hermeneutical and Cultural Perspectives)
Chapter 22 – A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic: The Slavery Analogy. William J. Webb.
Webb opens his essay with this observation:
There are two ways of approaching the Bible: (1) with a redemptive-movement or redemptive-spirit appropriation of Scripture, which encourages movement beyond the original application of the text in the ancient world, or (2) with a more static or stationary appropriation. A static approach understands the words of the text in isolation from their ancient historical-cultural context and with minimal – or no – emphasis on the underlying spirit. This restricts contemporary application to how the words of the text were applied in their original setting. But to do so actually can lead to a misappropriation of the text, precisely because one has failed to apply the redemptive spirit of the text in a later cultural setting. (382)
Webb uses what he calls the X>Y>Z principle where the letters stand for the following:
X = particular culture context a Scripture passage was written in.
Y = concrete words of Scripture and the ethic they teach in contrast to culture.
Z = ultimate ethic the God intends for eternity.
By examining Y in relation to X we see the trajectory God has set his people on away from the surrounding culture. By examining Z in relation to the trajectory established by X and Y we can get a sense of what God ultimately intends. Understanding that trajectory is what shapes our application of scripture for today. (Webb in includes a diagram that illustrates this on page 383 which you can see by clicking here.)
To demonstrate how this works, Webb walks us through an analysis of two issues: Slavery and Women's status. He begins by identifying those passages that fall short of an ultimate ethic:
- Attitude/perspective of ownership/property. (i.e., people owning people)
- Release of Hebrew slave versus foreign slaves (i.e., enslavement of foreigners allowed)
- Using slaves for reproductive purposes.
- Sexual violation of a slave versus a free woman. (i.e., violation of a slave only resulted in a fine)
- Physical beating of a slave.
- Value of a slave’s life versus a free person’s life.
- Attitude/perspective of ownership/property
- Less-than-adult, closer-to-a-child status.
- Inheritance/ownership of property
- Virginity expectations
- Adultery and extramarital sex legislation
- Divorce legislation
- Other features of biblical patriarchy (i.e., polygamy, inheritance to sons, etc.)
Webb writes that, "To speak of this portrait of women as 'sexist' would be anachronistic; indeed, relative to its culture the biblical treatment of women as whole was redemptive.” (387) The key is not in comparing the treatment of women by the standards of our day but rather comparing the biblical standards to the standards of the day in which they were given. When we look at it this way we see the following.
Slave Redemptive movement (388-389):
- Generous number of days off work
- Elevated status in worship setting
- Release of Hebrew slaves after six years
- Provisions given to slaves upon release
- Limitations on physical beatings; freedom of damaged slaves
- Admonitions of genuine care.
- Condemnation of trading stolen slaves/people.
- Refuge and safety for runaway slaves.
Women Redemptive movement (389-392):
- Improved rights for female slaves and concubines
- No bodily punishment of a wife
- Women gain inheritance rights
- The right of women to initiate divorce
- Grounds for divorce favor Judeo-Christian women
- Fairer treatment of women suspected of adultery
- Elevation of female sexuality
- Improved rape laws
- Softening the husband side of household codes
- Seed ideas and breakouts (i.e., God unexpectedly blessing women, mutuality statements in NT, etc.)
Some fear Webb is denying that Scripture is the definitive Word of God. Webb insists that, “…the New Testament is the “final and definitive revelation.’” That is not the issue. He writes:
Rather here is the crux of the matter: How does one relate the New Testament as final revelation with a further realization of it social ethic? Some authors unfortunately merge those two concepts into one affirmation, assuming that the New Testament revelation contains a fully realized ethic in all of its concrete “frozen-in-time” particulars. (393)
The Old Testament showed a redemptive movement compared to the surrounding culture and the New Testament showed a redemptive movement compared to the Old Testament and Greco-Roman culture. The challenge becomes how to apply God’s revelation in our own context and, as Webb points out, “Unless one embraces the redemptive spirit of Scripture there is no biblically based rationale for championing an abolitionist perspective,” or any other perspective that goes beyond New Testament ethical practices. (395)
On page 399, Webb offers a diagram he calls the “ladder of abstraction.” At the top of the ladder is the transcultural principle of “Love your neighbor” based in the “character and will of God” and “value of people created in God’s image.” That leads to ethical imperatives like “Help/feed the poor.” Expression of that ethical imperative takes on a “cultural form” as in the Old Testament with “Leave the corners of your fields unharvested” based on the “high percentage of population involved in farming” and “close proximity between population and farms.” As the cultural context changes, we have to move back up the ladder to the ethical imperative and possibly abandoned the cultural form of expressing that imperative in favor of a more culturally suitable expression that moves us closer the to ultimate ethic that God has revealed.
Webb closes with these three observations:
- We must make an important distinction between the New Testament as final revelation and the ethical realization of its redemptive spirit.
- There are three significant pieces of evidence that support an incremental (not absolute) ethic within the New Testament and thus commend a redemptive-movement hermeneutic withing the New Testament. (1) Old Testament precendent within a cursed and culturally defined world should affect out social ethic expectations for the New Testament. (2) The New Testament slavery texts do not provide us with an ultimate social ethic in their concrete particulars, nor can one get to an abolitionist position based on a static “on the page” understanding of the words in these texts. (3) New Testament women tests show us – as seen in four brief examples – how we should permit the Bibles redemptive spirit to carry us beyond certain culture-based components of the New Testament’s depiction and treatment of women.
- Christians need to ponder the Bible’s underlying spirit and its redemptive movement meaning to make good contemporary applications of the New Testament texts. (400)
I first read Webb’s Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis when it was released in 2001. It is one of the most helpful books I have read in years. All my adult life I had been operating on the basis of something that approaches Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic but was hard pressed to coherently and concisely articulate it. I don’t come to every precise conclusion that Webb does on each ethical issue but his articulation of this hermeneutic has been a great contribution for those trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian in the early 21st Century.
William J. Webb received his Ph.D. from Dallas Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister with the Fellowship of Evangelical Baptists in Canada and currently serves as professor of New Testament at Heritage Seminary (Cambridge, Ontario). His writings include Returning Home: New Covenant and Second Exodus as the Context for 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:11; Slaves Women and Homosexuals; and several articles in journals. Bill, his wife, Marilyn, and their three children live in Waterloo, Ontario.
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