Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis

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Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. By William J. Webb. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001, 301 pp., $24.99 paper.

This groundbreaking study develops a hermeneutic for our transcultural interpretation and application of the ethical teachings of the Bible. As Webb argues, "Sometimes, by simply 'doing' the words of the text we automatically fulfill its spirit today"-a point some readers may miss because this is not the focus of his book. "At other times, however, living out the Bible's literal words in our modern context fails to fulfill its redemptive spirit" (p. 30). Here is the focus of his book: the need to note the "redemptive-movement" of the Bible's ethical teachings. Specifically, the Bible has "come a long way" relative to its contemporary cultural setting (criterion #1), but sometimes it still has a "long way to go" (criterion #11) toward God's ultimate ethical standard. To suggest a need to improve on the Bible's ethical teaching on some subjects sounds strange for those committed to the Bible's divine authority, as Webb is. This is not a reference to progressive revelation. It sounds more like Richard Hays's biblical "trajectories" concerning divorce.

To discern which biblical teachings are culture-bound and which are to be accepted as transculturally normative, Webb suggests a "redemptive-movement" hermeneutic of eighteen criteria and illustrates these by his analyses of the Bible's teachings on slaves, women, and homosexuals (and some fifty other issues, many of which we never preach but which nevertheless fuel secular ethicists' trashing of biblical ethics).

Webb introduces each of his eighteen criteria with an analysis of the "neutral," currently undisputed issue of slavery, which we agree ought to be abolished, though the Bible does not explicitly teach abolition. This illustrates his "X = Y = Z Principle," in which X indicates the perspective of the original culture at the time the biblical passage was written, Y indicates the teaching of the "isolated words" of the Bible on the subject, and Z indicates an ultimate ethic intended by God. From the perspective of X, the "isolated words" of the Bible (Y) may look (and be) redemptive. From a perspective closer to Z, the "isolated words" of the Bible may look (and be) regressive. …