As something of a preamble, I asked two of my adult children and some church friends if they would be willing to start a book club with me. ”Edgy Christian books,” I told them, “Books that make you think.” They all readily agreed, and as we talked through what book to begin with, one of them said, “You know, what I’d really like to read is a strong defense of the traditional Christian apologetic on the LGBTQ+ topic.”
None of us really knew how to find that, whole forests have gone to the mill to provide pages for the volumes of books published on that issue. So we prayed. And God provided!
Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, by William J. Webb, first came out in 2001, so a lot of water has traveled under the proverbial bridge since he sent this manuscript off for final approval. Nevertheless, we found ourselves instantly drawn in by Webb’s hermeneutic of redemptive movement.
The above is Chapter 2’s title, and is perhaps our favorite chapter of the whole book.
Webb begins by describing the redemptive spirit that runs through the entire Bible, both the Hebrew scriptures and the Greek scriptures, with a movement that goes beyond “the original application of the text” – in other words what the original audience would have read and understood – to what you and I would read and understand today and how we would apply that understanding.
Here is Webb’s model: He calls it the X -> Y -> Z principle, where X leads to Y leads to Z. In the model he has
- “Y” as the central position, where, in his words, “the isolated words of the Bible are in their development of a subject.”
- “X,” which comes before “Y,” describes the perspective of the original culture. On the other side is
- “Z,” which describes the ultimate ethic the scriptures are leading to, the redemptive spirit which creates a trajectory from those in culture “X” to those who have matured to the ultimate ethic of “Z.”
Web’s contention is that people in the “X” culture, the original readers of scripture, would not be able to move to the ultimate ethic, “Z”, because they simply did not have that capacity. So, God moved them one step closer, leaving room in the scriptures for time to do its work. Each subsequent generation of Bible-readers, God-lovers, and particularly Spirit-filled believers, applied what they understood not only from the text, but also from the context of a culture that has been inching every generation towards the ultimate ethic.
Webb warns there are those who want to use a static hermeneutic in reading the scriptures and call that position the “historic” or “traditional” reading of the Bible. His contention is that the scriptures themselves rather prefer the redemptive hermeneutic, particularly as history shows how Bible readers’ cultures have changed over time in a redemptive way.
In order to prove his point, Webb came up with five criterion to show this movement in what he felt were persuasive criteria.
- Preliminary Movement: God meets people where they are and gives them a redemptive step forward that also takes them further away from the damage caused by sinful principles and practices.
- Seed Ideas: Then come the seed ideas for redemptive change, thoughts that open the way to go farther than the text initially seems to indicate.
- Breakouts: Stories particularly of God’s interaction with human beings and in human events, seem to “break out” entirely of what the Bible might otherwise seem to indicate. Such stories include God’s interactions with Hagar, God’s selection of Deborah as Judge of Israel, Jesus’s inclusion of “sinners” among His followers, particularly the tax-collector Matthew, and so on.
- Purpose/Intent Statements: Many instructions in the Bible include the purpose and then the intent of the instruction. Not all instructions are culturally viable in a given situation—what works in one culture may not even exist in other cultures. For example, the levirate law which was intended to preserve a man’s name after his death so that his inheritance would continue in his line is no longer culturally viable pretty much anywhere. But there is a redemptive intent in that law which seeks to preserve, and that intent informs how we approach the way we live.
- Basis in Fall or Curse: Webb ‘s final criterion has to do with Genesis 3, and the fall of humankind. If the text seems to be a condition that comes as a result of sin, then we may guess that there is redemptive movement there.
Moderately Persuasive Criteria:
There are also, according to Webb, only Moderately Persuasive Criteria:
- Basis in Original Creation, Section 1 Patterns: Webb works entirely from Genesis 1-2 for these next two criteria. Are there any patterns for right living offered in these foundational texts? Webb says yes, but how we understand them, or what we think they might be can be debatable.
- Basis in Original Creation, Section 2 Primogeniture: Did God establish the code of eldest first? Perhaps, but there are plenty of examples where God expressly upends tradition.
- Basis in New Creation: having been reborn, made into new creations through Christ by faith by grace, changes how we relate to God’s law, particularly in the Hebrew scriptures. But in what way? Web contends there are a variety of ways to understand what this means.
- Competing Options: There are examples of applicable text providing an option which competes with the options existing in the surrounding cultures. On occasion there is only one option possible.
- Opposition to Original Culture: More so, there are times when the text opposes the original culture. In other words, when God forbids something that is allowable in the surrounding godless cultures, then we should consider that forbidden to us as well today.
- Closely Related Issues: a text may be cultural, according to Webb, if the issue it addresses is culturally bound.
- Penal Code: “The less severe the penalty for a particular action, the more likely it is of having culturally bound components.”
- Specific Instructions Versus General Principles: Sometimes, a specific text will seem to be in opposition with the general principles of scripture. On those occasions, it is possible that that text is culturally confined in some way.
Finally, Webb considers three Criteria as Inconclusive.
- Basis in Theological Analogy: it is possible that at least a part of the text may be transcultural if it is talking about and is rooted in the character of God or of Christ.
- Contextual Comparisons: the text may be transcultural, or culturally bound, depending on how specialized the context is of the passage itself.
- Appeal to The Old Testament: when a passage in the New Testament calls on something from the Old Testament to support it, that text is culturally bound. When something in the New Testament is new, that is transcultural.
Using his “XYZ Model,” and using each of the above criterion as a sift, Webb meticulously explores what redemptive movement might be in the issues of slavery, women’s roles in life and the church, and the LGBTQ+ issue.
You’ll have to read the book to find out where he lands!
Suffice it to say, we all of us love his redemptive-movement hermeneutic, and feel empowered to use it ourselves as we read the Bible. We trust God to guide us to right conclusions, and grace-filled applications.