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“Slaves, Women & Homosexuals”: Some Thought’s on Webb’s Book

July 10th, 2006 by Jason · 6 Comments

Webb's BookI’ve been reading through Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (who knew you could pack so much controversy into a title?) by William J. Webb with a friend. Though a book about hermeneutics, Webb is primarily interested in showing how his specific hermeneutic, which he dubbs the “Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic,” can be applied to the ethical issues of patriarchy/women in leadership and homosexuality. He seems particularly concerned to counter an argument made by some patriarchalists that since egalitarians claim many of the passages relating to the submission of women are culture-bound then any softening of “biblical patriarchy” necessarily entails an acceptance of homosexaulity (a kind of “we can see where this road is leading you tricky non-patriarchalists, and it’s not back to Kansas!” argument). Webb rightly argues that all Christians, even the most literal readers of Scripture, dismiss certain passages as culture-bound. Here he uses slavery as an example to prove his point, though you could add a host of others such as the enemy love passages (i.e. Matt. 5:38) which many dismiss as impractical. Webb then lays out his hermeneutic which is a method for scientifically determinning which (ethical) passages are culture-bound and which are transcultural. While there is much that is interesting, such as his discussion on primogeniture and 1 Tim. 2:13 or his comparison of penal codes in Israel and the Ancient Near East) I am ultimately unconvinced of his hermeneutic.

At the heart of the Webb’s Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic is, as the name implies, a search for movement in a redemptive direction, both within the whole canon of Scripture and in relation to the surrounding culture. So, for example, you have slavery as a widespread and pretty abusive institution in much of the Ancient Near East, then you have passages in the Old Testament which treat slaves better than the surrounding culture (c.f. giving slaves the Sabbath off, Ex. 23:12), and finally you have Paul advocating for Onesimus, a runaway slave, to be treated as a brother by his owner, Philemon. This movement within Scripture and away from the local culture lets us know that certain passages such as Col. 3:22—“You slaves must obey your earthly masters in everything you do”—are an accommodation to the surrounding culture. But wait, why is that Colossians passage culture-bound, it’s part of the New Testament isn’t it? The answer, says Webb, is that it has not yet reached the ultimate ethic that we detect in the redemptive movement of Scripture which is that “slavery is eliminated, improved working conditions, wages maximized for all….” (p. 37).

When Webb reaches this idea of an ultimate ethic I balk. It’s one thing to detect movement in Scripture—I think if you’re going to do something sane with some of the Old Testament war passages or the Levitical laws that basically treat women as property (c.f. Ex. 20:17 where women are listed along with servants and cattle or Deut. 22:28-29 where a man that rapes a woman must pay her father 50 shekels) you have to recognize a progressive revelation and an accomodation to a sinful culture—but it’s another to try and determine some sort of rarefied ethical principle that tells us the goal we’re trying to reach. Heck, why not just sift through Scripture to discover all these great ultimate ethical principals and discard all the messy stories?! Moreover, it always worries me when an ethical system can be formulated without reference to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith and the clearest revelation of who God is. Finally, whenever there is talk of systematically determining transcultural principles my Modernism alert goes off, for such an idea sounds too much like the endeavor of the Enlightenment era.

All that to say, my real beef with the book is Webb’s attempt to come up with a system that will tell you whether any Scripture passage is culture-bound.  Like I said, I do see movement in Scripture, but I don’t see any reason to try and determine which of the Levitical laws or what parts of Paul’s household code are cultural or transcultural.  They’re all formulated in a culture and for a culture.  The better way to do ethics is to start and end with Jesus and the Kingdom he brings.  This is an alternaive to this sort of “separate the wheat from the chaff” type hermeneutic.  For an example of a Jesus-centered, Kingdom-oriented ethic I would point you to Richard Hayes’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament which argues that the themes of Creation, Cross, and New Creation are the axis around which the New Testament revolves. The reason those three things are not three new “universal ethical principles” is that they are themes not ethical principles, and, more importantly, because they have meaning and content only as they arise out of Scripture and the life of Jesus.

Tags: reading corner · theology

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // Jul 10, 2006 at 6:47 pm

    Jason, great book review. I guess I won’t read the book. It doesn’t sound too helpful. To be honest, the book doesn’t really register on my radar screen. But, I just checked out the reviews on Amazon.com for this book, and yours is a whole lot more interesting then those posted. I think you should post this (with some minor revisions) on Amazon.com.

  • 2 dave // Jan 28, 2007 at 7:16 am

    Hi Jason (I think?)

    I am new to this whole blog thing so forgive me if I got your name wrong. I use Dr. Webb’s book on the graduate level at a Seminary where I teach. I was scanning the web for reviews when I cam across yours’. You subordinated the thesis to a minor point and confused a discussion on ethics with one on hermeneutics. Also, as you conclude, you do the very same thing you point out Dr. Webb’s wrong for doing. You just choose a different standard for sifting. I guess this forum isn’t for thoughtful, nuanced communication. However, your Oprah-like approach to book review marginalized a ground-breaking book that crosses a number of disciplines. While Richard Hayes’ book is decent and worth reading, it isn’t the same kind of book.

  • 3 Eric // Mar 4, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    When writing “some thoughts on” there is no need to insert an apostrophe in there somewhere. “Some thought’s on” would mean “some thought is on” or “some on, belonging to thought”, neither of which make sense.

    I really like your portmanteau “alternaïve”. Just casually slipped it in with no fanfare. Very nice.

    Otherwise I think this is a very helpful review and can definitely side with you on the “we can see where this road is leading” issue.

  • 4 Zane // Feb 4, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Hey Jason! I enjoyed your post but must agree with Dave that you have missed the mark in regards to what Bill has done within his book. To echo Dave, his book is on hermeneutics, not ethics. He uses various ethical situations to show how the redemptive hermeneutic is applied.

    His ‘scientific’ approach is merely putting on paper exactly what each of us do when we read a historical document. He lays out the methodology or the hermeutical approach.

    I would challenge you to sit down and write out what criteria you utilize when reading the bible. What filters do you subconsciously and consciously have in place? How do you determine what applies to you today and what doesn’t? How do you establish that slavery is bad even though the bible allowed it?

    The ethical situations he uses as examples either have to have an ‘ultimate ethic’ to where they are heading or we have some serious issues that are hard to deal with. Genocide, the improper treatment of our neighbour, the beating of our wives, the mistreatment of our children with 40 lashes of a rod etc.

    All you have done is tried to simplify what he is saying by stating it’s simply about the kingdom etc. Bill is an exceptionally intellectual individual. He was my professor for many a course and his attention to detail and verocity for critical thought is unmatched by most.

    Hopefully, you can take a look at his book from a different perspective and see it for what it is, a reply to the problematic issues that plague thinking Christians, concerning the scripture we call the bible.

  • 5 Bob // Feb 12, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Thanks for your review. I’m reading through Webb’s book right now and I have been picking up on a similar vibe. Admittedly, I am still reading it, and am reading reviews-pro and con-as I go along. It’s been helpful. Webb is following the academic tradition of saying something with the most words possible. Your and other reviews prevent us from missing the forest for the trees. Thanks.

    I’m curious as to the comments made by others about this being a book on hermeneutics and not ethics. That seems disingenuous for two reasons. First, slavery, women’s issues and homosexuality are profoundly ethical issues. Yes, it’s approached from a hermeneutical vantage point, but to therefore not call it ethical in nature insults Webb. This book is not a primer on either hermeneutics or ethics. It’s a serious academic work and Webb is a serious academician that relates two disciplines

    Second, I have never known (with the exception of any number of doctoral theses) a work on biblical hermeneutics-be it the most simplistic or most dense-to not be concerned with the application of the interpretation. You cannot (or should not, IMHO) bother with a hermeneutical work that doesn’t mean you to come out of it without some application; something edifying and useful. Ethics is useful. Even if we classify Webb’s work as pure hermeneutics, your points are nevertheless pertinent to the discussion.

    I agree with your view that the “Kingdom-centered, Jesus-oriented” approach is a strong one-simplistic though it may be (why does that invalidate?). I think you’d find friends amongst Cullmann, Ladd and the entire Reformed worldview as well Are you sure you’re a Mennonite? :)

  • 6 Zane // Feb 12, 2011 at 7:15 pm

    Bob, how is it disengenuous to say the book is about hermeneutics when that is what the book is about LOL? The entire book is laying out a hermeneutical framework. The chapters are based around that framework etc.

    Of course it deal with ethics but it deals with ethical situations to show how the hermeneutic is applied. If he was going to write a book on the issue of corporal punishment then that is what his chapters would be based around.

    The view of a Kingdom centered is simplistic because it doesn’t set out what a person actually does when they read the bible. There are dozens of filters we use to interpret every passage and section. Bill, points out those filters and lays them out in a logical manner.

    It is an academic book lol. It is meant for academics. It was not written for the layperson. Hence why it is written….i know this is crazy….like an academic book!

    Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren would actually adhere to much of what Bill Webb ascribes in his book. In fact if you go into old time reform…so would they lol.