Book Reviews: The Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic

Image of Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis
by William J. Webb
InterVarsity Press 2001
Paperback 301

This article is essentially two short book reviews; one about the redemptive movement approach to hermeneutics advocated by William Webb, and the other a review of one critical response to Webb’s proposal.

William Webb

Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis is a tour de force of individual insights that are somehow greater than the sum of their whole. He seeks to bring cultural analysis to bear on the Bible over against a “static” hermeneutic. Today, he argues, we must distinguish what is cultural and trans-cultural. That is, we must discern between cultural values and kingdom values.1 The basic approach of his “redemptive-movement” hermeneutic is to:2

  1. imagine the factors X (original culture), Y (the Bible) and Z (contemporary culture),
  2. discern movement (or lack thereof) in the Scriptures along a particular trajectory
  3. and be willing to continue the movement beyond the isolated words of the text along that same redemptive trajectory

Webb focuses on the spirit of the text.3 He proposes a cumbersome 18 criteria for his hermeneutic, organized into four categories; (1) persuasive, (2) moderately persuasive, (3) inconclusive, and (4) extra-biblical considerations. Webb has some truly remarkable big-picture insights, particularly on women, including:

  • Concept of movement. There are indications that Scripture moves in a particular direction through Biblical history (e.g. slaves and women). “On the whole, the biblical material is headed toward an elevation of women in status and rights.”4 Must this movement stop at Revelation?
  • Patterns in original creation. Is gender hierarchy part of original creation, or the Fall? Webb argues the latter, and his explanation is convincing.5 Should Christians seek to perpetuate a situation (e.g. Gen 3:16) that is arguably a result of the Fall, and not part of original creation?
  • Basis in new creation. What kind of status do women have in the New Covenant, what status do they have in eternity, and what are the implications for our relationships and roles in the church now, as New Covenant people?6

However, Webb’s work also has flaws:

  • Too much. His 18 criteria are cumbersome and redundant. The latter nine are arguably pointless and could have been condensed into a short “reminder” list in an appendix. An exegete with a theological framework already accounts for many of these criteria automatically.
  • Out of nowhere. Webb’s hermeneutical principles seemingly appear out of the ether. There are no overarching theological assumptions or framework; just a complicated series of seemingly random hermeneutical principles divorced from an interpretive grid.
  • Webb’s focus on cultural translation has the potential to make PlayDough of the text. He argues for gender-role equality in the Church, in part, because primogeniture is not practiced in Western society.7 What about other societies? Is meaning fluid depending on the receptor culture?
  • This approach works best on texts with more concrete expression, such as narrative, law-codes and perhaps some wisdom literature. It is difficult to see Webb’s criteria being relevant for prophesy or poetry.

Webb has produced an outstanding book. His redemptive-movement approach has much to commend it, but some of his criteria for analysis are redundant for trained pastors, lack trans-culturality (ironically enough!), and are subjective. However, other criteria are extremely powerful and merit serious consideration.

Benjamin Reaoch

Reaoch wrote a book-length response to the redemptive movement approach titled Women, Slaves and the Gender Debate. It examines the redemptive-movement’s approach to the gender complementarian/egalitarian debates. The book is a disappointment. It’s disappointing and frustrating because Reaoch excels at missing the point. Webb writes as a homiletical technician advocating a specific hermeneutical approach, whereas Reaoch writes as an exegete who atomizes texts and speaks of grammar and syntax. They frame their discussions differently, because they are writing for very different purposes.8

Reaoch begins by falsely claiming Webb believes the issue of gender roles are analogous to slavery.9 He then wastes 61 pages discussing slavery and gender. Webb wrote about hermeneutics using gender and slavery as a foil; a distinction Reaoch appears to miss. For example:

  • “ … if the New Testament simply regulates slavery and points toward its abolition, then the perceived need for the redemptive-movement hermeneutic evaporates.” 10 Reaoch misses Webb’s point; the text “points” forward along an implicit trajectory (i.e. redemptive-movement).
  • “In this way we should not assume that instructions to slaves are an implicit endorsement of slavery itself.”11 Again, he misses the point. Greco-Roman culture did positively endorse slavery. The New Testament did not. There is an implicit movement away from the institution; a trajectory.
  • “The instructions to these individuals would have challenged the cultural norms of the day and if heeded, would radically transform the master-slave relationship.”12 Yes, almost as if there is a redemptive movement toward an ethical good implicit in the text.

Reaoch’s approach is to argue against Webb’s applications of his criteria, while not explaining why the criteria itself is wrong. Indeed, nearly all his criticisms have to do with interpretations of individual texts:

  • He quibbles because Webb did not cite Jesus in a brief discussion on created order.13
  • He accuses Webb of over-simplifying a remark about the Sabbath, being wrong about similar examples of singleness and procreation.14
  • Reaoch then impugns Webb’s character and accuses him of making deliberately simplistic arguments for sinister reasons.15
  • He then criticizes another of Webb’s comments about created order related to homosexuality.16

The cycle repeats. Again, Reaoch wants to exegete, whereas Webb wrote a book to discuss hermeneutics. Their approaches are like water and oil, and Reaoch erred by not critiquing Webb’s framework. Instead, he contented himself with attacking one of Webb’s foils. In the end, Reaoch does not like the implications of Webb’s hermeneutic17 and he sees Webb’s work as an attack on complementarianism.18

This is a frustrating book, because Reaoch refuses to engage Webb fairly. He exegetes Webb’s applications, then invalidates them and thus dismisses the criteria. Is it true the trajectory of Scripture nudges us in a certain direction, even if it is not explicit in the text? Is it true that, insofar as we can, we should not make results of the Fall transcultural? Is it true that New Covenant status and new creation texts have implications for social status and role, today? Reaoch does not answer these questions; he wants to exegete gender texts. Therefore, his book’s main value is as an example of how to miss the point.

Notes

1 William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: IVP, 2001; Kindle ed.), pg. 36. 

2 “A redemptive-movement hermeneutic is characterized by several key components. At the heart of such an approach to the application of Scripture is its focus on (1) redemptive movement, (2) a multilevel ethic, (3) a balanced perspective, (4) cultural/ transcultural assessment and (5) the underlying spirit within a text,” (Webb, Hermeneutics, pg. 49).

3 “A static hermeneutic lacks power and relevance, while a secular or radical hermeneutic lacks direction. Only a view that utilizes the redemptive spirit within Scripture as its core can construct an enduring connection between the ancient and modern worlds. A redemptive-spirit approach honors the words of Scripture by not forcing them into modern molds that do not fit. The words of Scripture, as read against the ancient world, provide the Christian with an understanding of its spirit and direction. The redemptive spirit generates the power to invade a new generation; the words of Scripture as read within their broader social context provide the much-needed direction for guiding the invasion of that power within today’s world. Once upon modern soil, a redemptive-movement hermeneutic channels its renewing spirit into the modern world with power to change social structures and direction to guide the renewal process,” (Webb, Hermeneutics, pg. 74).

4 Webb, Hermeneutics, pg. 103. 

5 Webb, Hermeneutics, pgs. 147-159; 165-171.

6 Dispensationalism, as a movement, has a tortured hermeneutical relationship with the New Covenant. I assume the Church is a full participant in the New Covenant.

7 “One might ask if pragmatic factors like these should influence our cultural/ transcultural analysis of Scripture. In short, the answer is yes. The pragmatic factors that drove primogeniture customs were part of the ancient setting but they are no longer part of our world. Pragmatic factors tend to shape the formation of biblical text not so much at the upper abstracted levels of principle, but at the lower concrete expression of principle as it gets fleshed out within a particular cultural context,” (Webb, Hermeneutics, pg. 183).

8  Webb wrote his book to advocate a broad hermeneutical approach wherein one examines the pan-canonical drift of Scripture to discern movement (or lack thereof) along a trajectory, and carries that movement forward. Reaoch wrote his book to critique Webb’s position application of redemptive-movement hermeneutic to the gender issue.

9 “Pivotal to Webb’s conclusions are the following assumptions: (1) the issue of gender roles is closely analogous to the slavery issue, and (2) patriarchy’s basis in original creation does not conclusively differentiate the two,” (Benjamin Reaoch, Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate: A Complementarian Response to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2012; Kindle ed.), pg. 8.  

However, Webb explained: “This book attempts to provide a collection, in one volume, of the various criteria that can be used in cultural analysis. In order to make the process more objective, I have attempted to establish each criterion from neutral examples before moving to two of today’s more debated topics— women and homosexuals. In this respect, the book has been designed as a tool for the application process in hermeneutics. Although my focus has been primarily on slaves, women and homosexuals, the various criteria may be used as a grid to explore any aspect of Scripture where one might suspect or question the impact of culture. I have used this material in a hermeneutics course for several years. My students have utilized these criteria, along with a redemptive-movement hermeneutic, to explore the question of cultural assessment in a wide variety of issues, for example, war, clothing taboos, government, circumcision, alcohol, child rearing practices, dancing, transvestism, polygamy, church offices, reproductive technologies, capital punishment, Sabbath and animal rights,” (William J. Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis [Downers Grove: IVP, 2001; Kindle ed.], pgs. 197-298).

10 Reaoch, Complementarian, pg. 11. 

11 Reaoch, Complementarian, pg. 33. 

12 Reaoch, Complementarian, pgs. 36-37. 

13 Reaoch, Complementarian, pgs. 115-116.                  

14 Reaoch, Complementarian, pgs. 116-118. 

15 “Webb has assumed unlikely and hermeneutically simplistic interpretations of the creation account in an attempt to heighten the perceived tension between original creation and today’s culture. In this way he has set up reductionistic arguments that are easily dismantled,” (Reaoch, Complementarian, pg. 118). Reaoch does this repeatedly.

16 Reaoch, Complementarian, pgs. 122-124. 

17 “We are happy to find movement when we compare the New Testament commands with the first-century culture, and we must recognize this to be ‘absolute movement,’ not ‘preliminary movement,’” (Reaoch, Complementarian, pg. 114).

18 “The debate over gender roles has not diminished, and I do not see any end in sight. But we must not grow weary in defending the beautiful portrait of gender complementarity presented in the Bible,” (Reaoch, Complementarian, pg. 160).

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