Last week I posted a basic summary of Grudem’s response to the redemptive trend hermeneutic or the redemptive movement hermeneutic (RMH). This week I want to offer a response to Grudem, and I welcome your comments.
Overall I think Grudem fairly describes Webb’s RMH; I wouldn’t describe him always the same way and at times Grudem uses language that is a bit slanted, but I think Grudem has been fair-minded. But, I have serious concerns about Grudem’s response.
My overall comment is this: instead of saying Webb’s “principles cast all of the NT’s ethical commands into doubt” (65), I would contend that Webb has actually articulated an understanding of how Christians have sought to apply the Bible in changing contexts. Webb’s proposal is a first offer; he’s a pioneer in articulating these things. What we need is folks to walk with him, talk with him, and converse on this very subject so we can refine, support, eliminate, and add to his criteria. I would contend that this is a very good evangelical book and one that the evangelical community needs to engage with serious rigor. I’m not saying I agree with everything. I’m saying Webb has sought to articulate the strategies we all use as we seek to bring the Bible into our world. To accuse this book of sliding down the slippery slope to liberalism is to label it instead of engaging it.
First, it is a well-known fact that Webb and Grudem have gone toe-to-toe about this and Webb, I think, has reasonably argued that his “ultimate ethic” is derived from the Bible and it is not a “not-yet-revealed” ethic that Webb fashions in his own mind. So, when Grudem speaks of Webb’s “better ethic” I think Webb has shown that his “better” is drawn from the Bible. Webb’s RMH, in other words, stops with the Bible in Webb’s own understanding.
Second, Grudem has narrowed the meaning of “evangelical.” I know many evangelicals who do not agree with what Grudem says all evangelicals have believed in this chp. His definition of “evangelical” is part of the current trend to narrow that meaning to something other than the quadrilateral of evangelicalism: Bible, cross, conversion, and activism (see David Bebbington’s book The Dominance of Evangelicalism).
Third, most importantly, Webb is not asking ethical statements in the Bible to go through his 18 criteria system and only those that survive will be practiced by Christians today. This must be understood, and I don’t think Grudem accepts this: Webb’s 18 criteria are an attempt to make explicit what Christians, in one way or another, in some ages more than others, do when they attempt to live the Bible out in our world.
It is unfair to Webb to think everyone has to master the 18 criteria in order to know how to live. Instead, Webb is making explicit what Christians do. Webb’s 18 criteria are the sorts of moves Christians make when they deal with texts like Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and to a lesser extent the NT.
This means Grudem’s scare tactics on pp. 70-71, when he plays out just how many will be qualified to tell us how to live as Christians today — almost no one — is unfair to Webb’s intent. I haven’t talked to William Webb about this, but I suspect he would say that his 18 criteria are actual moves made by lay folks who are untrained. Even if they are not conscious of the moves they are making, they do these things themselves. If Webb wouldn’t say that, I will: in my experience I have heard nearly every one of these moves as the way Christians think when they think about whether or not to follow some of the Bible’s statements.
Open up pp. 14-15 of this book, give it to a Sunday School class, ask folks if they follow these things, ask why and why not, and then start recording answers. If you listen hard enough and to enough folks, you just might get all 18 criteria.
Fourth, Grudem opens the door to each of the 18 criteria on p. 73. On that page, Grudem posits two criteria of his own, and I argue they are too general to be useful and really do open to each of the 18 criteria Webb articulates:
“Most evangelicals (including me) believe we are under the moral authority of the NT and are obligated to obey its commands when we are in the same situation as that addressed in the NT command (such as a parent, a child, a person contemplating a divorce, a church selecting elders or deacons, a church preparing to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, a husband, a wife, and so forth).”
“When there is no exact modern equivalent to some aspect of a command (such as ‘honor the emperor’ in 1 Pet. 2:17), we are still obligated to obey the command, but we do so by applying it to situations that are essentially similar.”
On criteria one the problem is obvious: what does “same situation” require? There is very little today that is the “same” as the 1st Century Roman or Jewish context. How much the “same” does it have to be? What about “almost the same”? Who is going to tell us what is the “same” and what is not? I think this criteria is open to the same accusations Grudem levels against Webb.
On criteria two the problem is even more obvious: What does “applying” mean? Is not the application process one that requires knowledge of the Bible, its context, its historical contexts for each author and book, and then some awareness of those historical codes and how the Bible works in that historical context? And then some knowledge of our modern world so that we can find something that is the “same” or “essentially similar”? Are we not back to the same problem? And what does “essentially similar” mean? And how do we determine what is “essentially similar”? Is it not by using criteria not unlike those in Webb? I think so.
By not spelling out what “applying” actually involves, what we run the risk of doing is simply continuing on with what we are comfortable with and without ever reflecting seriously on what we are actually doing. Let me give an analogy: Grudem and I both taught syntax at Trinity; we spelled out all the kinds of genitives and aorists. Instead of saying “aorist,” we spelled them out. Webb, instead of saying “applying,” has spelled them all out.
On the matter of slavery and the RMH, Grudem says this: “Most evangelical interpreters say that the Bible does not command or encourage or endorse slavery, but rather tells Christians who were slaves how they should conduct themselves, and also gives principles that would modify and ultimately lead to the abolition of slavery (1 Cor. 7:21-22; Gal. 3:28; Philem. 16, 21…).” The italicized words (my own italics), as I read them, are precisely what Webb means by the RMH. (On slavery, Mark Noll’s book actually shows that the evangelical Christians of the 19th Century did not all agree; but I can’t tell if Grudem means evangelicals today or always. It sure makes a difference on this one.)
In other words, Grudem has in fact opened the door to some kind of redemptive movement hermeneutic with his two criteria, some kind of (refined) skill needed in moving the Bible from that world into our world.
Finally, I register my disagreement on Grudem’s “slippery slope” argument. I have said before on this blog that I think nearly always the slippery slope accusation is dangerous. It is rhetorically effective for many; it often successfully labels someone a liberal (or leaning in that direction); but it is rarely a logical course of action. It works like this for Grudem (p. 28):
1. Abandon inerrancy.
2. Endorse ordaining women.
3. Abandon headship of males.
4. Exclude clergy who are opposed to women’s ordination.
5. Approve homosexuality as morally valid in some cases.
6. Approve homosexual ordination.
7. Ordain homosexuals to high leadership in denominations.
This is a “predictable” sequence (28) though only the Epicopals have done so. (Which means to me it is not all that predicatable, since there are plenty in #1 who aren’t in #7.)
I do not dispute this is the case for the Episcopalian Church in the USA; I don’t know that it is a logical process so much as an entire cluster of commitments, one of which would be a view of the Bible quite different than that of Grudem. I think, however, there is a lack of appreciation for (1) the many Episcopals who do not follow most (even any) of this and (2) for the lack of logical necessity between these steps. In other words, some don’t believe in inerrancy and still don’t endorse women’s ordination; some don’t believe in inerrancy and still believe in male headship. Conversely, some believe in inerrancy and still believe in some of the other numbers. There is no slipperly slope here. Not all those in the Episcopal Church agree with women’s ordination. Some make these moves from step to step; some don’t. That the latter happens proves that this is actually not a slippery slope that once one gets on that person will fall headlong down the path into the pit.
This sort of slope is actually a mental construct that some choose to believe. I don’t. We could easily make one that leads from accepting male headship to male abuse of women — and I am loath to bring this up because I find it obnoxious and illogical. But, the slippery slope mentality needs to be debunked for what it is: at best a sometimes-slope, almost never slippery, never necessary, and always a path taken by people who have chosen to go down that road for any number of reasons.
I go on record here in saying I think Webb’s book is a good one, the kind of book we need more of and not one that deserves to be pushed aside by sticking the “liberal” label or the “slippery-slope-toward-liberalism” label on its cover, preventing those who most need it from a careful read.