Is the Meaning of Scripture in Motion?

Reprinted with permission from Faith Pulpit (July-September, 2010).

An Evaluation of the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic

In the summer of 2007 I had the privilege of leading a group of teens from my church on a missions trip to France. A few weeks before the trip, one of the French missionaries we would be visiting (Denise Nelsen, a 1989 FBBC grad), was stateside and was able to come to our youth group to meet the missions team. Before the meeting, I asked her to greet the teens like she would greet French teens at her church—with a kiss! One by one the teens filed into youth group and were greeted by this strange woman with a holy kiss on each cheek. The shocked and surprised faces of the teens were truly a sight to behold!

Whether this humorous exercise helped prepare the teens for France or not may be debated, but it certainly awakened their understanding of the cultural differences between France and Iowa. In many respects this anecdote represents something at the heart of Biblical hermeneutics—the contextualization of Biblical truth. Contextualization is applying or appropriating Biblical truth into a contemporary setting and culture.1

Each time we modern believers apply the Bible, we consciously or unconsciously contextualize its meaning. For example, the command to greet fellow believers with a holy kiss is found five times in the New Testament.2 These five passages all contain the same direct imperative (aspasasthe), yet I know of no Bible-believing church in the United States that greets people with a kiss at the front door. Are American Christians living in disobedience? Are French Christians applying the Bible more accurately? The answer to both of these questions is “No,” because we intuitively understand that greetings change from culture to culture. The Biblical principle at stake is loving hospitality, not the cultural custom of kissing. While this example of contextualization is fairly straight forward, a multitude of controversial issues faces today’s church.

Two Important Perspectives

Two hermeneutical perspectives related to contextualization need to be addressed. First, believers have to discern what elements in Scripture are cultural, or time-bound, and what elements are supracultural, or eternal. For example, in 2 Timothy 4 Paul commanded Timothy in verse 2 to “preach the word” and in verse 13 to “bring the cloak.” Obviously preaching the Word is a timeless command that we carry on today, whereas bringing Paul his cloak was a time-bound, situational directive. Second, believers have to determine how to apply the Bible to contemporary issues that the Bible does not speak to directly. For example, how do we apply the Bible to ethical questions such as cloning and genetic engineering?

A growing number of evangelical scholars have attempted to answer these contextualization issues with an innovative and sophisticated approach called a redemptive-movement hermeneutic (RMH).3 Perhaps the most outspoken advocate of RMH is William J. Webb, Professor of New Testament Studies at Heritage Seminary in Ontario, Canada. His 2001 book, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (IVP), sparked the attention of evangelical scholars, drawing both support and criticism.4

Over the last decade, a flurry of articles and books has been written on RMH, and authors are treating it in standard texts on hermeneutics.5 More recently, Zondervan published Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology (2009), in which Webb presents the “Redemptive-Movement Model.”

Understanding the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic

RMH is an attempt to find the redemptive-movement, or redemptive-spirit, underlying the Biblical text. Advocates propose that the redemptive-spirit moves beyond the historical meaning and original application of a given passage toward an ultimate ethic. Webb writes, “Scripture seems to give us an ethic that needs in some ways to be developed and worked out over time. It would appear that many biblical texts were written within a cultural framework with limited or incremental movement toward an ultimate ethic.”6

Once a person discerns this redemptive trajectory, or logical extension, of Scripture, he then can correctly appropriate it into today’s culture. Essential to RMH is the assumption that the Biblical ethic is less-than-ultimate since it is relative to ancient Biblical cultures and to canonical development. Webb writes,

The idea of a RM hermeneutic is not that God himself had somehow “moved” in his thinking or that Scripture is in any way less than God’s Word. Rather, it means that God in a pastoral sense accommodates himself to meeting people and society where they are in their existing social ethic, and (from there) he gently moves them with incremental steps toward something better…. Incremental movement within Scripture reveals a God who is willing to live with the tension between an absolute ethic in theory and the reality of guiding real people in practice toward such a goal.7

Advocates of RMH are not against the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, but they contend that the grammatical-historical method alone is deficient. Webb describes interpreters employing traditional hermeneutics like someone doing an archaeological dig. He uses phrases such as “concrete specificity,” “time-restricted elements,” “isolated or static understanding of the text,” and “frozen-in-time aspects of Biblical ethics” to express the Bible’s historic meaning as uncovered through the exegetical process (i.e., the uncovered bones of the dig).

By contrast, Webb advocates adding RMH to grammatical-historical exegesis. He argues that we must go beyond the static, historic meaning of the Bible to properly apply Scripture to our contemporary culture. He explains the redemptive movement as “crucial meaning within the biblical text.” “This RM meaning or redemptive-spirit meaning must profoundly shape the course of our contemporary appropriation of the Bible in a way that often carries us beyond the bound-in-time components of meaning within the Biblical text.”8

A New Model

To help explain RMH, Webb uses an X-Y-Z model. “X” represents someone interpreting the Bible from the perspective of the Ancient Near Eastern, Greco-Roman, and/or Second Temple Jewish cultures. “Y” represents the Bible—that is, the isolated words of the text and its frozen-in-time ethic. “Z” represents the ultimate ethic a contemporary interpreter can discern from Scripture when filtered through his or her own relatively “better” culture.

Basically Webb argues that contemporary readers cannot properly understand the Bible when it is read from today’s perspective, especially when one’s present day cultural “ethic happens to have advanced beyond the static forms of the biblical text to something better.”9 Only when the interpreter looks at the Bible within its historical and cultural contexts will the “frozen-in-time” ethic of the Bible make sense.

Next Webb contends that the interpreter needs to look for redemptive movement from ancient culture to the Bible (comparing X to Y). The Bible often demonstrates “a kinder and gentler administration of justice that underscores the dignity” of people in comparison to its ancient cultural setting.10 This is the “redemptive spirit” that Webb claims underlies the text. Further, Webb proposes that the interpreter look within the Bible itself for canonical redemptive-movement between the Testaments (within Y). Finally the interpreter is to follow the redemptive-movement, or trajectory, to his or her own culture to appropriate it into the current context. This step might represent an ultimate ethic or at least further incremental movement toward it (Y to Z).

Applying the RMH Model to Ethical Topics

Webb employs RMH with a number of ethical topics.11 As the title of his 2001 book suggests, he deals with slaves, women, and homosexuals together as disadvantaged groups within society. Concerning slavery, Webb demonstrates how cruel and inhumane ancient cultures treated slaves. Next he builds a case that the Biblical ethic concerning slavery is much more humane and fair, but it is not complete since it fails to abolish the institution outright. Finally he argues that using RMH Christians can now adopt abolitionism as the ultimate ethic based on the redemptive-spirit of the Bible.

Concerning homosexuality, Webb argues that even though ancient and contemporary cultures variously accept homosexuality, the Bible consistently forbids the practice and therefore perceives no redemptive trajectory. Concerning women, Webb contends that the patriarchal societies of Bible times treated women as second class citizens, marginally better than cattle. Then he argues that the Bible tempers the treatment of women and incrementally improves their place in society, though it does not overturn patriarchy. Finally, at the heart of his argument, Webb makes the case cautiously for “complementary egalitarianism” as the ultimate ethic for society and the church.

Evaluating the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic

Webb’s proposal deserves a book-length response. While he is to be commended for tackling the important issue of contextualization, I fear that RMH raises more questions than it answers. Good exegetes need Biblical discernment to sift through RMH. For this article I offer three basic critiques.

Trajectory and the Sufficiency of Scripture

Webb admits that in order to discover the redemptive-spirit of the Bible, we must compare the Bible to ancient cultures and then follow the redemptive trajectory to contemporary culture. Two points of critique are offered. First, without this trajectory through culture RMH is certainly crippled and perhaps even untenable. Is it wise to adopt a hermeneutic that is so dependent on cultural contexts? This critical dependence on culture cuts against the sufficiency of the Scriptures. Webb’s proposal would mean that Christians without access to these cultural contexts (both ancient and contemporary) are essentially incapable of properly interpreting the Scriptures.

Second, interpreting the Bible within its historical and cultural backgrounds is simply doing good exegesis and not RMH. Webb’s claims that the historical-grammatical method produces only “static” and “isolated meaning” are misguided. Interpretations that neglect the historical and cultural background are simply examples of bad exegesis.

Theology and the Unfolding of Scripture

Webb contends that RMH is meant to complement and not replace systems of discontinuity and continuity. Many of his exegetical examples, however, reveal little or no consideration of the distinction between national Israel and the church. Even an elemental understanding of dispensationalism would resolve many of the ethical tensions Webb tackles.

In addition, seeing canonical development between the Testaments need not be part of a “redemptive-spirit” but rather a dimension of sound Biblical theology. Trajectories between the Testaments and different dispensations are normal when we understand the progressive nature of revelation.

Culture and the Authority of Scripture

My greatest criticism of RMH is how it potentially undermines the authority of Scripture. Webb’s contention that the Bible’s ethic is in some way deficient combined with his attempt to develop an ultimate ethic outside the bounds of Scripture is alarming. His assertion that today’s cultural ethics are better than the Bible’s “frozen-in-time” ethic is dangerous. Is today’s culture really better than the Biblical ethic? Would it not be better to attribute positive cultural developments directly to the Bible’s influence in society? In addition, his embrace of culture and “persuasive” scientific data can easily strip Scripture of its authority. Ultimately, RMH appears to be too subjective in its application and should be rejected as a hermeneutical tool.

Notes

1 See e.g., G. R. Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. ed. (Downers Grove: IVP, 2006), 410-33.

2 Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 16:20, 2 Corinthians 13:12, 1 Thessalonians 5:26, and 1 Peter 5:14.1 Peter 5:14 says, “kiss of love” (philēmati agapēs) instead of “holy kiss” (philēmati hagioi).

3 William J. Webb includes the following scholars: Darrell Bock, Craig Blomberg, Mark Strauss, I. Howard Marshall, Craig Keener, Linda Belleville, R. T. France, Glen Scorgie, John Stackhouse and, of course, Webb himself (“A Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic: Encouraging Dialogue among Four Evangelical Views,” JETS 44 [2005]: 345-49).

4 Two notable critics of RMH are Wayne Grudem, “Should We Move beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic? An Analysis of William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis,” JETS 47 (2004): 299-346, and Thomas R. Schreiner, “William J. Webb’s Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: A Review Article,” SBJT 6 (2002): 46-64.

5 See e.g., W. W. Klein, C. L. Blomberg, R. L. Hubbard, Jr., Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 497-98; H. A. Virkler and K. Gerber Ayayo, Hermeneutics: Principles and Processes of Biblical Interpretation, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 202-04.

6 William J. Webb, “A Redemptive-Movement Model,” in Four Views on Moving Beyond the Bible to Theology, ed. Gary T. Meadors (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 217.

7 Webb, 226.

8 Webb, 226.

9 Webb, 218.

10 Webb, 240.

11 Webb has forthcoming books on war and on corporal punishment in which he argues against spanking.

[node:bio/doug-brown body]

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There are 12 Comments

Ted Bigelow's picture

Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

Sheesh. How can a interpretation of another's writing include the reader's own trajectories? That requires the author to make himself a factor in the interpretive process though he neither wrote nor edited the original writing. Hello, Captain U-Planet!

Worse, when the writing is God's, the idolatry is revealed for all to see. Ought not self-love and admiration be slain by the holy text, not supported by it?

Thanks Doug. I look forward to the book I hope you writing!

JohnBrian's picture

This phrase caught my attention, as it seemed to presuppose evolution,

Quote:
“Z” represents the ultimate ethic a contemporary interpreter can discern from Scripture when filtered through his or her own relatively “better” culture.

and I appreciated Doug's response.

Quote:
His assertion that today’s cultural ethics are better than the Bible’s “frozen-in-time” ethic is dangerous. Is today’s culture really better than the Biblical ethic? Would it not be better to attribute positive cultural developments directly to the Bible’s influence in society?

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Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I actually think Webb is on to some things--though I too appreciate Doug's analysis.
To me there's clearly a subjectivity problem here, but what Webb describes seems to not be all that different from we normally do in the phase we typically call "application." That is, we try to determine first what the passage meant to the original audience in its original setting, what the enduring principles are, then we look for ways our own setting is similar/dissimilar from theirs in order to discern how the principles apply to us today.

The latter is always a somewhat subjective activity... sometimes not very, other times very much. And sometimes a "trajectory" is evident when we look at where a principle points in our situation today (I do think rejecting slavery is a valid example of that... I think abstaining from pornography would be another)

So I wonder if Webb's main mistakes here are 1) blurring the distinction between interp. and application and 2) having done that, assuming that there is usually (always?) a trajectory in the interpretation itself.
I don't think it's a good idea at all to confuse what the text means with the ever changing ways it is meaningful to us in our changing circumstances.

(Plus... it looks suspiciously like a convenient way to arrive at views on cultural issues that you've decided ahead of time you want to be "biblical teaching.")

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Charlie's picture

Before people come down too hard on RMH, it might be wise to consider how we do much the same thing. The slavery thing is a great example. In the Civil War era, Southern theologians argued that they took the Bible literally by defending a slave culture, while Northern theologians argued that although the Bible did not explicitly forbid the institution, the weight of NT teaching combined with our superior ethic of love should teach us to abolish it. In other words, we look at places like Philemon and catch the drift of Paul's argument, then push on to a supposed conclusion just beyond the horizon of the text. Most of us would agree with such a move.

I do agree with much of the critique -- although I'm not sure how Dispensationalism solves such problems -- but I also think we need to consider how we often approach biblical practices (polygamy, levirate marriage) in similar ways.

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Joseph's picture

Not having read Webb, I can only say what he's doing seems important and valuable, and how he's doing seems problematic, but I don't find that surprising. This is a profound and difficult issue, one most evangelicals (inclusive of Fundamentalists) simply don't deal with and, often, don't understand it.

Charlie's right, and the more one studies history and gains historical consciousness, the more complex these issues become. So much of the ethos, not just the commandments, in the Pentateuch we would today find barbaric, and no one denies that, it just makes us uncomfortable to mention and admit it. Not just obvious stuff that horrifies us (having sex with your brother's wife to continue his line (meaning as often as it takes to get her pregnant), though, happily, sex in the context of "marriage," i.e., polygamous marriage), but stuff that, I suspect, bothers women more quickly than most men, like the fact that they are impure twice as long as men, that their menstruation period puts them in the same category as touching a dead body, etc.

The "big" issues, of course, remain problematic because they violate our sense of natural law or ethics that we get from general revelation (e.g ask if you would concede that intentionally killing children and women in war is ever justified if one didn't have this in the Bible, or that ethnically based extermination is sometimes acceptable) and special revelation. The "smaller" issues, like the obviously (what we today find completely unacceptable) patriarchal character of ancient societies, including Israel, bother us because the violate current cultural norms that we endorse (usually by taking them for granted, e.g. that women have equal legal status, and affirming them in practice).

There are no ways around these issues except through historically conscious modes of thinking, but unfortunately the problems these issues pose are most problematic and least soluble to people who aren't historically conscious and thus can only experience the shock of norms and actions that conflict with their culture.

Slavery is, perhaps, the most apt example of this, because on most Fundamentalist and Evangelical criteria of hermeneutics Southern arguments for slave holding are much stronger, whereas trying to justify the idea that "owning people as property" is wrong (not just that the form of slavery practiced in the US was barbaric) is rather hard unless you appeal to historical arguments based on trajectories of development.

Thus it's not really honest to act as if our culture isn't, on the whole, better than other cultures, like the culture of ancient Israel or 1st C Graeco-Roman culture. You can't endorse most of our norms and they significance we ascribe to them and then consistently act as if you don't regard our culture as significantly better, even if with qualifications, than older cultures. (Here's just a short list of norms and sensibilities we endorse that run contrary to many other cultures: that people should not be property; that all people have equal dignity; that people deserve equality in legal and political representation; that corporal forms of punishment (e.g. stocks, cutting of hands) intended primarily to inflict pain, damage, and humiliation are not befitting our society, that instances of them in contemporary cultures strike us as barbaric; that sex with more than one person throughout a life is immoral, thus that adultery,that polygamy, etc. are all immoral.)

The issue isn't whether Christianity and Judaism contributed to these norms and sensibilities (they obviously did), the issue is the theological one of making sense of how this should affect our understanding of the cultures recorded in and directly addressed by Scripture. If any non-egalitarian would take on just, say, three of the above issues I through out as examples and provide serious treatments of them that are not justly perceived as ways of avoiding the full force of the issues, than they would be in a better position to critique Webb and others.

Until they, they can of course critique and their critiques (like this article) are valuable, but they'll certainly lack much force for anyone who sees the problems and finds them serious and troubling.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Charlie wrote:
Before people come down too hard on RMH, it might be wise to consider how we do much the same thing. The slavery thing is a great example. In the Civil War era, Southern theologians argued that they took the Bible literally by defending a slave culture, while Northern theologians argued that although the Bible did not explicitly forbid the institution, the weight of NT teaching combined with our superior ethic of love should teach us to abolish it. In other words, we look at places like Philemon and catch the drift of Paul's argument, then push on to a supposed conclusion just beyond the horizon of the text. Most of us would agree with such a move.

Hey Charlie,

Got to disagree, brother. The slavery allowed in the Bible is not the kind of slavery we had in America. Our American slavery was not slavery, but kidnapping (Exodus 21:16, Deut. 24:7, 1 Timothy 1:10). Those who defended it were defending a horrific sin by giving it a name that was allowed, and even instituted, in the OT. In the OT, a slave had to be treated with dignity (Deut 5:12-14), and could be released of his free will after 7 years. Please don't call the disgusting sin of kidnapping and unending enslavement "a great example" of a trajectory from the world of ancient Israel into our modern day. Slavery, as defined scripturally was not an evil institution. Hey, we are slaves of Jesus Christ. But slavery, as practiced in much of the modern world, and in our country's history, is extremely evil.

Quote:
I do agree with much of the critique -- although I'm not sure how Dispensationalism solves such problems -- but I also think we need to consider how we often approach biblical practices (polygamy, levirate marriage) in similar ways.

Doug's point was the value of progressive revelation, as developed systematically in Dispensationalism. The issue become one of thinking through who today's "covenant community" are: just those with a "valid" profession of faith in Christ, a local church, or all "covenant people and their children." That will effect a present day application of something like levirate marriage.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Joseph wrote:
There are no ways around these issues except through historically conscious modes of thinking, but unfortunately the problems these issues pose are most problematic and least soluble to people who aren't historically conscious and thus can only experience the shock of norms and actions that conflict with their culture.

Really? God Himself explains why He commanded the execution of women and children, and why it was judicious (Gen. 15:16, Exo 23:23, Exo 34:11, Num 21:21-34). I don't think such an explosive issue was any easier for folks living back in those days (Num 22:2, Jos 2:10).

Quote:
Slavery is, perhaps, the most apt example of this, because on most Fundamentalist and Evangelical criteria of hermeneutics Southern arguments for slave holding are much stronger, whereas trying to justify the idea that "owning people as property" is wrong (not just that the form of slavery practiced in the US was barbaric) is rather hard unless you appeal to historical arguments based on trajectories of development.

Couldn't disagree more, dear brother. See my entry on Charlie's post above.

So I have a question for you. Leaving aside the advances of technology (including modern medicine) would you rather live in modern America, or say, the Israel of David and Solomon's day? Which culture do you think was more compassionate on the poor, and on the aged?

Mike Durning's picture

As someone who has read Webb, I have to say that the arguments he gives are well-constructed and moderately compelling. The biggest problems with Trajectory Hermeneutics occur when we project the end-point beyond where Scripture speaks, or when we try to apply it in ways that defy the clearly spoken text of Scripture.

For instance, with slavery, I have little diffulty believing that God used the Old Testament Law to moderate the extremes of the form of slavery known to them at the time, because cancelling slavery (which was frequently an alternative to slaughtering prisoners of war) would cost still more lives. Later, in the New Testament, Philemon gives us the ultimate Christian attitude toward slavery, though Paul's teachings to slaves emphasize that we are supposed to be about testimony first and social justice trails somewhere behind.

Similarly, with regard to women, Webb's research seems to reflect a pattern of loosening restrictions on women as the Scriptures proceed across the revelation.

Nevertheless, if such trajectories do exist, they must not be projected beyond the Scripture's end-point. I must not, for instance, imagine that God intended to allow women to have the primary teaching/spiritual leadership role in the churches when clear revelation at the end of the New Testament "caps" the progress.

Furthermore, imaginging an entirely unscriptural trajectory -- such as a freeing of restrictions against homosexual activity -- is equally dangerous. This is where Webb's work shines. Webb reveals what he claims is a definite pattern of reducing restrictions on women across the time of the revelation of Scripture, and a definite pattern of reducing abuse of slaves across the revelation.
But there is absolutely no identifiable movement regarding homosexual activity. From beginning of the revelation to the end, homosexual activity is condemned as sinful activity.

Some may be uncomfortable with the underpinnings of Webb's work, but if one is debating one of the "gay theologians" who use Trajectory Hemerneutics to justify their activity, Webb's work is an incomparably elegant tool to prove them wrong.

Mike Durning's picture

Joseph wrote:
There are no ways around these issues except through historically conscious modes of thinking, but unfortunately the problems these issues pose are most problematic and least soluble to people who aren't historically conscious and thus can only experience the shock of norms and actions that conflict with their culture.

Joseph, I just posted above trying to give some balance on the issue of RMH, but I did want to respond to your post to make clear that we are not in agreement -- though I read into your statement based on previous posts over the years. This issue seems to crop up again and again in your interpretive processes, and I have a concern about it.

The issue is one of authority. It's where most modern hermeneutics has swallowed a poison pill that endangers orthodoxy, given sufficient time and development. The Scriptures provide their own historical setting in the text itself. The Scriptures' self-claims require us to believe in sufficiency and some level of perspicuity (I think I recall debating the extent of this before with you). Requiring outside historical knowledge to understand the core message of entire passages (Genesis 1 comes to mind, for some reason) lands us in a very dangerous place, because it cuts the meaning adrift from the text and makes it serve the latest discoveries -- or even theories -- of archeologists or other scholars. This is not inspiration as we have always understood it -- nor is it inspiration as the Scriptures themselves define it.

The claim that we read and interpret the Bible as we would any other book, so popular today, must have some limits. These limits are grounded in the nature of the communicator (God) and the nature of His revelation in Scripture. His specific claims for His Word are subtly undermined by those who take the "historically conscious" approach too far. Yes, yes, we all do it in some ways. But while our understanding of a passage can be enriched by outside information, it certainly must not be entirely determined by it. In the case of Scriptures, "ad fontes" must be first and foremost a direction to lead us back to other Scriptures.

Ted Bigelow's picture

Mike Durning wrote:
Nevertheless, if such trajectories do exist, they must not be projected beyond the Scripture's end-point. I must not, for instance, imagine that God intended to allow women to have the primary teaching/spiritual leadership role in the churches when clear revelation at the end of the New Testament "caps" the progress.

Bingo, thanks Mike.

Heb 1:2 requires an influence on our hermeneutic, no? "but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world."

The pinnacle of revelation was reached 2,000 years ago, and thus every trajectory from the time of his incarnation forwards bends a downward arc, for he came "in the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4).

hmmm, I wonder if one's eschatology can creep in to one's hermeneutic here too, whether it be pessimistic in the present age (dispie) or optimistic (post-mil)?

jus' wunderin.

Joseph's picture

Mike,

It's possible we disagree on this issue, but seeing as I don't know what issue it is you think we disagree on, I can't be sure. You quoted me but then went on to say something that worked at the level of a general assessment of my "position" based on your history of reading my posts. That's fine. But if you were actually disagreeing with what I said about the indispensability of historical consciousness for dealing with these issues (women, slaves, genocide, etc.), that's confusing, given what you said about Webb's book, which is precisely a way of dealing with these issues through historical awareness/consciousness. Thus I doubt we actually disagree at that point.

I think you rightly recognize we stand at very different points, and you (I'm not sure if you're right here) construe that difference as disagreement, which I gather you have a hard time putting your finger on, but you are sure it's significant.

You say it's authority, but that's vague because there is no mainstream, orthodox statement on Scripture or God's authority you would affirm and I wouldn't.

The fact is, for a long time (e.g during the middle ages) people were not historically conscious (e.g. lacked a sense of anachronism). This is a historical fact itself, something I've mentioned before and even cited a source for people to check out (Burke's The Renaissance Sense of the Past). That's partly (by no means wholly) explains a lot of medieval interpretation of Scripture, and it helps us understand why it is hard to now make use of their ways of reading, or even to make sense of them without acting as if the Medievals were stupid (far from it).

One can't really ignore this, at least not normatively speaking; obviously as a matter of fact plenty of people ignore, but that's to the detriment of their understanding. There is a significant difference between reading the OT when people are 1) not historically conscious or 2) completely unaware of the historical setting of the OT (which most people were until the 19C, when we started learning a lot about ancient Near Eastern cultures, including finding their texts and learning their languages). Both of those situations are quite different from someone who has a substantial knowledge of the cultures out of which ancient Israel came, with which it interacted, from which its language was likely developed, and in dialogue and tension with which its theology, cultic, and civic forms developed.

I don't think anyone who seriously affirms historical-grammatical exegesis can deny that the latter information is relevant for understanding the text in its historical context. Naturally one can ignore this data, as the vast majority of us blamelessly do, having no good reason, time, or sometimes even capacity to learn much about Israel's historical setting. Does that mean we can't read the Bible? No. Does it mean our reading will fail to be informed by lots of data that other people are aware of and rightly think they have to take account of in their interpretations? Yes, that's inevitable. Is that the end of Christianity, the death of perspicuity? No, it just complicates things. So we live with the complications and, if we're honest, acknowledge and try to deal with them.

That bothers a lot of people, and I understand why - among other things, complications at this level, with stuff this important, is highly uncomfortable. I have nothing to say to that - it's true, but that means you either deal with it or ignore stuff that, deep down, you know is important (incidentally, this is sometimes necessarily, psychologically, and sometimes justified, epistemologically, so I'm not dismissing it or being condescending; I have done this myself, and there are always a few issues floating around in my head that I more or less do this to, though I view it as shelving them until I have a bigger desk, as it were. Often, though, it's unjustified and makes us the legitimate target of criticisms, specifically that we are ignoring data that's relevant for our views).

Every parent says things to their kids that, if they repeated to their children twenty years later, would be viewed as, at worst a bald lie, at best a distorting and deceptive half-truth, but no one (who has kids or little siblings, at any rate) is foolish enough to even think twice about why this practice is necessary and justified. Why? Intuitively we all know the answer to this (in bald form: 3-year olds aren't adults). Making it explicit, then trying to make sense of it - that's another, much more complicated, story.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

One for those who have read Webb...
What do you see as the difference between these two?

Option 1: interpreting the text "in its time/setting," deriving principles, applying these to the moving target of life-as-we-know-it/culture
Option 2: interpreting the text "in its time/setting," identifying an ethical trajectory, applying the trajectory to our times

Seems to me have to acknowledge that where there is a trajectory, there is no difference. But is there always a "trajectory"? And if not, is that really what we should look for? There are always principles. I don't see how Webb's trajectory hunting solves anything.

And it does open some cans of worms.
Sure, we can see some cases where God has clearly dealt in a parent-like way toward His peoples (all humanity?) by sort of gradually tweaking our understanding of one thing or another ethically. And the whole movement of Scripture that some call "progressive revelation" is didactic: shadows come first, substance later... the Law is a schoolmaster, etc.
But Scripture also speaks of itself as the faith once delivered. The epistles repeatedly speak of Christian teaching/"sound doctrine" as something being handed down as a complete set of ideas.

I'm not sure I want to say that's a "cap" on progressive revelation. It's just the end of special revelation, period. So we really only have "what is written" and "what is beyond the written," and the latter is not revelation. It's human stuff. It doesn't give meaning to what's there, it only helps identify the meaning and figure out how to use the meaning in our times.
How can there be anything but trouble in blurring the distinction between inspired vs. not inspired, delivered vs. derived, revealed vs. applied? So whatever good there is in Webb it has to be within those confines.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

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