Saturday, October 29, 2011

Navigating Cultures and Biblical Interpretation

Anyone who has read the Bible knows it’s weird. Some of the commands found in its pages are utterly foreign to contemporary readers. Some instructions sound ridiculous: injunctions against cooking an animal a certain way (Deut14.21), or avoiding pork as unclean to the touch (Deut 14.8; cf. Lev 11.26). Or consider this one: “You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed, nor shall you wear a garment of cloth made of two kinds of material” (Lev 19.19). Really?

Not only do most Christians ignore these commands, but they don’t even understand them. A typical Christian response to these passages is, “Ah yes, but these are Old Testament commands. So, clearly they don’t apply to us as Christians.” This response is woefully inadequate, not least because there are equally odd commands in the New Testament that contemporary Christians do not understand or practice either.

For example, when was the last time you entered a church service to “greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Cor 16.20)? Most churches follow, in some form or another, Jesus’ command to remember the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11.23-25; cf. Mt 26.26-29 || Mk 14.22-25 || Lk 22.18-20). Why, then, do they ignore the command recorded in John’s version of the story, “You ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 14.13; cf. 1 Tim 5.10)? The Apostle Paul commands women in worship to cover their heads (1 Cor 11.6-7), ignored every Sunday at my church. James said that if a man is sick he should, “call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (James 5.14). Both testaments contain commands and teachings that people, even self-proclaimed “Bible-followers,” ignore. No matter loudly or adamantly people claim to “just do what the Bible says,” they do not.

We all interpret the Bible to make sense of it. Indeed, for most people a large part of this has already been done for them since they read the Bible from a translation. One of the most important questions when reading scripture is evaluating how it should be applied. Why are some passages still applicable and others abrogated? It is precisely this question that William J. Webb attempts to answer in his brilliant book, Slaves Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Webb focuses on three issues that make the Bible distasteful in modern culture – slavery, women and homosexuality.

Webb describes his approach to application as a “redemptive-movement hermeneutic.” The redemptive-movement hermeneutic (RMH) endeavors to “engage the redemptive spirit of the text in a way that moves the contemporary appropriation of the text beyond its original-application framing” (30). Thus, passages that are culturally irrelevant today have to be read first in the framework of their original culture and then the spirit of that text must be translated. Some passages are enduring and require little to no cultural translation. Other texts, however, are actually misapplied if applied without cultural translation.

The RMH is set in contrast to what Webb calls a “static appropriation of scripture.” A static hermeneutic applies the words of a text without little concern for how the words of a text fit in their original cultural context (30-31). A static hermeneutic assumes that the best application of scripture is simply what the text says regardless of cultural context. A RMH, in contrast, tries to discover the original intent of a text before applying it in a new cultural context.

The book addresses three issues with his RMH. First, Webb analyzes the issue of slavery. The Bible does not condemn slavery in either testament (Lev 25.44; Eph 6.5-9; 1 Pet 2.18). Indeed, many Christians were slave-owners and attempted to defend their dehumanizing activity with the Bible. On the other hand, the abolitionist movement was spearheaded by Christians who also used the Bible to defend their cause. Second, Webb addresses the contentious issue of what role women ought to have in the church. The Bible reflects the patriarchal cultures in which it was produced (Gen 3.16; 1 Cor 11.2-16; Eph 5.22-24; etc.). This issue, unlike slavery, is still widely debated though the cultural trend in the western world is moving toward women gaining increased leadership. Third, Webb applies the same criteria of cultural analysis to homosexuality. It is condemned in both the Old and New Testament (Lev 18.22; 20.13; Rom 1.27; 1 Cor 6.9-10; 1 Tim 1.9-10), but is this just another example of a culturally relative teaching? Webb attempts to apply the same criteria to all three issues.

This nuanced approach has much to commend it. First, it allows for consistency in application. I remember teaching at a Bible Study when a man in attendance claimed, “If the Bible was written today, it probably wouldn’t command us to wait until marriage to have sex.” He assumed that sex within the confines of marriage was a cultural value of the ancient world, which is completely incorrect. But, to his credit he was trying to read the Bible with cultural awareness. The fact is, as Webb points out, “Most of us are oblivious to the culture around us. Like the air that we breathe, it is invisible and we simply take it for granted” (21). How do we discern what parts of the Bible are actually culturally relative and what parts we simply don’t like because of our own cultural assumptions? Webb’s consistency is one way to allow ourselves to be culturally aware and still submissive to the intent of scripture.

In addition to consistency, Webb’s approach reads the Bible appropriately as a product of culture. Indeed, “Not only were the authors [of the Bible] influenced by their own cultures, but the text itself was transmitted through various cultural forms, known as genres” (23). The Bible is written by people situated in specific cultures who, though divinely inspired, could not see outside of their cultures. Webb laments, however, “Many Christians, particularly at a popular level, read the Bible simply as a flat-surfaced, two-dimensional kind of text. They seek to understand what the words of the text say as if they were spoken in a vacuum” (83). This approach ignores the fact that the Bible did not fall out of the sky. A culturally-aware reading of the text is both historically disciplined interpreting the meaning of a text in its original context and intent on allowing the Spirit to speak through the text anew to challenge our own cultural values and assumptions.

To this end Webb develops 18 criteria for evaluating the cultural components of a passage of scripture. He also categorizes the criteria according to their relationship to the text of scripture and their persuasiveness. The first category consists of “persuasive intrascriptural” criteria (criteria 1-5, chpt. 4). The second category describes “moderately persuasive intrascriptural” criteria (criteria 6-13, chpt. 5). The third category refers to “inclusive criteria” (criteria 14-16, chpt. 6) which refers to theological analogy (does this reflect God’s character?), contextual comparison (do other commands in the same context have enduring cultural significance?) and continuity/discontinuity between testaments (is the command consistent in both the Old and New testaments?).  The fourth category of criteria is “persuasive extrascriptural criteria” (criteria 17-18, chpt 7) which refers to pragmatic comparison (does the command make sense in another culture?) and scientific/social scientific evidence (does cross-cultural analysis or modern science help explain features of this text as cultural relative or enduring?). The next chapter is intriguingly titled, “What if I Am Wrong?” Here Webb weighs the merits of his interpretive decisions on the women issue and concludes that while there is some “wiggle room” it is untenable to conclude with either an ultra-patriarchal or feminist view.

What are his conclusions on the three major issues? I would encourage anyone interested in these questions to read Webb’s book to see how he arrives at these conclusions based on each criteria, but these are the general conclusions:

Slavery: Though the Bible does not condemn slavery outright, there is a consistent movement away from its dehumanizing practices in both the OT (Deut 16.10-11; 15.12-18; 31.10-13; Exod 21.20-21; 23.12; Lev 25.39-43) and NT (Philemon; Gal 3.28; 1 Cor 12.13; Col 3.11). Culturally, slavery was an assumed institution in the ancient world. The early church did not oppose it structurally for the sake of the more urgent need to preach the gospel (Titus 2.9-10; 1 Tim 6.1). Ultimately, Webb concludes that slavery was a cultural reality that was not God’s desire.

Women: As we have already observed, the Bible was written in a patriarchal context. It was a common cultural assumption that women were not good leaders (cf. Isa 3.12). Still, Webb points out, “On the whole, the biblical material is headed toward an elevation of women in status and rights” (76). He notes that the Bible has numerous instances of women being protected, elevated in status or serving in leadership roles that are counter-cultural in their original contexts (i.e. Num 27.1-11; 36.1-13; Deut 20.10-14; 22.19;, 29; 24.1-4; Judg 5.8-16; Acts 18.26; Rom 16.1-2). This along with numerous other criteria, lead Webb to conclude that women were kept from leadership positions not because of some eternally enduring difference between men and women but because of cultural realities.

For example, in 1 Timothy women are prohibited from teaching in Ephesus in the first century (1 Tim 2.11-15). Webb’s RMH attempts to understand why Paul said this about women in leadership in that context, and then he applies the principle today. In this case, Webb thinks Paul is opposed to women serving in teaching leadership roles at Ephesus because in that culture they lacked education, experience and awareness of broader cultural nuances. Thus, a RMH application of 1 Tim 2.11-15 is that people who are easily deceived regardless of gender should not teach.

Homosexuality: Unlike slavery and women’s status/leadership, the Bible demonstrates a consistently negative view of homosexuality. In this discussion, it is important to define “homosexuality” because some interpreters claim that what the Bible actually condemns is rape or the ancient practice of pederasty – a culturally accepted practice in the ancient world (particularly Greece and Rome) wherein older men would have sex with younger boys. Webb argues that consensual homosexuality was practiced in the ancient world and is included in the negative commands in the Bible (39, 81-82, 156, 250). Webb maintains that homosexuality is consistently condemned in the Bible while the wider culture of the ancient world accepted the practice. In this instance the counter-cultural movement of the Bible is to condemn homosexual practice. For this and other reasons, therefore, Webb thinks injunctions against homosexuality are enduring commands not culturally relative. Webb also suggests, however, that “a redemptive focus to our lives means that we love homosexual people as ourselves. It means that we treat them with the same kind of grace, respect, care and compassion with which we want to be treated” (40).


Even if you do not agree with his conclusions, William Webb has given a gift to the church by creating a series of interpretive criteria whereby we can consistently interpret and apply the Bible in all its cultural nuances. The book is an attempt to provide, “a tool for the application process in hermeneutics.” While Webb has focused on only three very timely issues, he suggests “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” (246). Indeed, this is a fascinating prospect that I thought ought to be explored further. How might Webb’s criteria work out in relation to other issues?

Webb provides the answer as it relates to corporal punishment in his latest book, published just this year Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts. I have received a copy for review from the good people at IVP and as a new parent I’m glad to have it. The book is designed, like Slaves, Women and Homosexuals to be an exercise in cultural hermeneutics. In this instance Webb touches on a culturally relevant parenting issue. What does the Bible say about spanking? Having read the introduction and skimmed large portions of the book, Webb’s recent work looks to be a strong sequel. Whether you agree with his conclusions or not, I think Webb is exactly right to create a consistent hermeneutic to address the very different cultural realities in the Bible and how the text can still speak today.

2 comments:

jer said...

I value your educated opinions. Keep posting!

Justin said...

This is good. This contains many of the issues that Scot McKnight brings up in his book "The Blue Parakeet," which I use for students in PBS1. This seems much more developed and addressed, so I will have to check it out. Thanks!