RMH Overview

OVERVIEW.  A redemptive-movement hermeneutic (RMH) functions as a much-needed addition to a classic grammatical-historical hermeneutic (GHH).  In short, it is simply grammatical-historical hermeneutics (GHH) done better!  Beyond simply reading texts within their literary context (up and down the page) and within their genre context (the kind of literature), Christians ought to champion the redemptive-movement meaning of the text, which is discerned through reading biblical texts in at least five different ways (see below).  One can often sense incremental movement (a step or two) by God’s Spirit towards an ultimate ethical application–it is our responsibility as Christians to move towards a greater fulfillment of that redemptive element within our contemporary world.

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DIAGRAM.  The Bible often represents an incremental ethic (not always an ultimate ethic) in its concrete-specific instructions.  We should not be surprised at this because Jesus himself points out that certain instructions were an accomodation to the fallenness of this world–the hardness of human hearts (Mark 10:45).

In the diagram  “X” represents the ancient cultural norms or practices.  Read within this ancient historical context, Scripture’s concrete-specific instructions “Y” often (some exceptions here) reflect a limited redemptive movement towards something better.  One must learn to read Scripture redemptively–i.e., to understand its underlying redemptive spirit or redemptive trend even if that trend within the Bible’s on-the-page articulation is not fully realized.  Once Christians understand the redemptive spirit of Scripture, a logical and theological extension of that spirit enables us to move with God’s Spirit towards an ultimate ethical application “Z”.

TYPES OF REDEMPTIVE-MOVEMENT MEANING.  There are various kinds or types of redemptive movement in Scripture.  (1) Foreign movement–in relation to ANE/GR/2TJ.  Sometimes we can assertain redemptive movement by reading the biblical text within its ancient-world context.  Often by reading Scripture from this ancient horizon, we discover an element of its redemptive spirit or heartbeat that is easily missed because we intuitively assume our modern-day context as the horizon.  Exceptions exist.  And, the ancient world is by no means monolythic.  But a general picture of the ancient world can often help in seeing the redemptive elements in Scripture through through highlighting its distintive character or emphasis.  (2) Common/shared movement–in relation to shared perspectives on ancient-world evils or wrongs.  God’s common grace extends to all human beings.  Even so, ANE/GR law codes were often intended to bring some semblence of order to ancient-world communities despite the degree to which their laws did (or did not) accomplish those ends.  So sometimes a comparative analysis is helpful where the redemptive movement is based upon a shared movement away from the “lowest common denominator” evil that nearly all communities were interested in moving away from (regardless of how far any one culture took this movement).  At times it is good to look at these mutual concerns and see the shared movement away from chaos and moral evil.  There is a sense in which God’s general revelation and common grace to some extent impacted all law makers in the ancient world.  Of course, it would be helpful to assess whether these shared concerns could in some measure be developed further in our present-day context.  (3) Domestic movement–in relation to Israel’s “in house” traditions at the time.  God comes to Israel and takes them from where they are at–their existing traditions and practices–and introduces changes.  Sometimes we get a glimpse of domestic movement away from typical practices within Israel to something different (e.g., the daughters of Zelophehad and land inheritance for women).  Even if this movement is limited, circumstantial and seemingly minor to us, such movement within Israel’s context was indeed significant and offers a clue that perhaps enculturated issues are at stake and not stronger, permenant values.  (4) Canonical movement–in relation to the OT or former epochs in savaltion history.  A classic case of canonical movement is where Jesus critiques certain short-comings of OT law and points out how its underlying spirit can be taken to an even better fulfillment  (e.g., sermon on the mount, Matt. 5:1-48; cf. Matt. 19:1-12).  Jesus teaches us to read Scripture with an understanding of its incremental ethic and with a view to its accomodation to our fallen-world context and to the pragmatics of an ancient-world context.  Contrary to what some Christians think, the biblical text is not a-temporal.  Christians need to do this kind of “rigorous reflection” upon what we find within the biblical text.  Rigorous reflection provides a constructively critical or redemptively critical approach in order to see where God’s Spirit wants us to journey in our ultimate ethical application of Scripture.  Fortunately, we get some samples of this kind of redemptively critical thinking in the canonical movement in the teaching of Jesus.  (5)  Love movement–in relation to a “new law” (the law of Christ).  The final way to discover (needed) movement is simply to think of whether the concrete particulars found in the text could possibly move towards a greater expression of love.  Mind you, one must establish an understanding of love as Jesus reveals it to us, namely, God honoring, other-person oriented, sacrificial, servant-oriented, etc.  But as we develop the mind of Christ in humility and community, it provides a reading of the text to reflect upon where further redemptive movement might be possible.  Subjective?  Yes, somewhat.  But it is better than staying “stuck” in a less-than-ultimate ethic or in a partially realized expression of love, which is sometimes evident within in the biblical text.  How do we offset this subjectivity?  A case for rethinking and moving ahead in contemporary Christian application of the Bible is obviously stonger when three, four or even five types of redemptive movement come together in a complementary fashion.

19 Responses to RMH Overview

  1. Wow. I just stumbled across this today and I’m a bit stunned. God has lead me to this same understanding and has been helping me learn to actually see this inherent growth happening and being testified to by all of creation itself. When you stay true to scripture an then add in the never ceasing work of God’s hand pulling us closer to himself, it’s amazing how much deeper and richer all of life becomes, imo. It’s allowing reality to be reality rather than trying to warp reality into something that fits our own notions of how God works.

    What is missing from our understanding of what God is about is the facet of growth. We’re not just supposed to be growing as individuals, humanity – Adam – is supposed to be growing altogether. And the goal isn’t simply to get to heaven. The goal is use your life to help Adam grow up until we Christ followers altogether are worthy brides of Christ. It’s all about growing ourselves, the church and all of creation up! Growth and change is an integral part of all creation and yet we somehow think it’s not also integral to every spiritual truth. We think the goal is to get as close to the one right answer as we can and sit on it until Jesus returns again. No! Remember the story about the servants and the talents? God’s currency is spiritual and we are supposed to be taking what He has been able to give us according to what we were able to receive at the time and make it grow!

    Yes, we need to go back to the culture and look at the language and all the rest because we need to be sure we’re not wandering off into crazy land, but without the process of growth and change we’re missing the whole point. Anyhow, I hope I don’t sound like a crazy person, but I was beginning to think I was out here all on my lonesome, so it’s good to see that not only are there others who are starting to “get it” too, but that this way of understanding scripture and God even has a name!

    Be blessed!
    -Rebecca

  2. Pingback: William J. Webb – A Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic | Christian Conversations Now

  3. G says:

    It’s clear that your hermeneutic has some major flaws. The biggest problem with the XYZ approach is that Z is completely subjective, so your 18 criteria become the moral authority rather than scripture itself. Not to mention the fact that it changes the canon of scripture, that some texts have higher ‘ethics’ than others. This goes against the grain of numerous theologians both present and past.

    • admin says:

      Hi G. Howard,

      Thanks for you interaction. Here are a few blog-type replies:

      1. No, the 18 criteria are not “completely subjective”. First, if you read through the 18 criteria within Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, you will discover that many of them (the greater majority) are reflective of examples that we find within Scripture itself. Second, your comments reveal the need to come to grips with the degree to which all of us–yourself included G. Howard (I would respectfully submit)–have to work with many texts in order to figure out what are the cultural vs transcultural elements within them. So, we are all doing this sort of application-type analysis.

      2. Within the canon there are (according to Jesus, let alone good ethical reflection) levels of greater and lesser ethical fulfillment of Scripture’s redemptive spirit. One only has to read the sermon on the mount (Matt. 5-7) or Jesus’ discussion on divorce (Matt. 18) to figure out that not everything is on the same ethical level.

      3. Many theologians historically have been on both sides of various issues. The real question is, Where are you?

      For a more lengthy Q & A response to the redemptive-movement approach, check out the Zondervan Four Views book. Cf. the “books” page.

      Blessings,

      WJW

  4. Dave says:

    You concede in the description of your diagram that there are some exceptions to your rule of thumb that RM from X to Y leads to something better. Please provide some examples to illustrate when there is no ethical improvement, and furthermore when there is ethical downgrade? I might be wrong; it just seems like you’re expecting the norm to be positive movement from foreign (X) to biblical (Y) to beyond-biblical (Z), and ironically your Z ends up to be what’s in vogue at this moment, at least here in the West (e.g. non-corporeal punishment, egalitarianism – both of which I agree with by the way). Maybe that was unfair to say, because you are an abolitionist, but I’m just worried about how you determine Z because surely our present culture isn’t or shouldn’t be determinative. So what criteria do you use to justify why Z is a better ethic than the on-the-page Y, and what criteria guarantee that ultimate ethics aren’t simply a default to what’s acceptable in a given contemporary society in the world at a given moment in time? How does the canon of Scripture regulate the redemptive movement?…through theology no doubt, but what kind of theology?

    • admin says:

      Some excellent questions Dave. Let me respond in two parts.

      Illustrations. (a) No ethical improvement. An example of where there is no ethical improvement would be in terms of the raw existance of slavery, polygamy, war, etc. in the Bible (each of which also is found in the ANE). So, the examples in this area are many. (b) Ethical downgrade. In Egypt at one point in its history it required debt slaves to be released after three years (not seven years as in the Bible). Now the motive for the release was not humanitarian as in Scripture but because of the population in Egypt was becoming proportionally far too large and creating “overthrow” threats. But motives aside, one has to look at a portrait which compares ANE slavery to OT slavery across a wide range of ANE countries and also across a broad range of issues within the treatment of slaves. Scott McKnight uses the expression “redemptive trend” of Scripture–I like that because it says the same thing as redemptive movement but gives a larger sense of collective whole.

      The “West” or Scripture? Several points. (a) Read through my discussion of homosexuality in SW&H or in Discovering Biblical Equality. I do not think you will find that I am “in vogue” with our culture here. (b) In Canada and the US the spanking issue is somewhat split both among Christians and among the general populous. So what exactly is “in vogue” in our culture? (c) What Scripture actually teaches with repect to CP is not being practiced by any Canadian Christians (I have a hunch you are Canadian)–even the 2SmacksMax sort–and violates the detailed parental limits to CP that the Supreme Court of Canada has spelled out. How does a Christian respond to this sub-CP issue? I.e., is the Dobson-type Christian pro-spanking movement which limits its CP to two smacks on the behind (maximum) with no marks doing what is “in vogue” or are they actually doing Scripture in terms of its concrete instructions? (d) Historically, the abolition of slavery was not an “in vogue” stance two hunderd years ago but it still was a good action by abolitionist Christians to read their Bibles differently than pro-slavery Christians.

      Blessings,

      WJW

  5. Sylvia says:

    Do you believe in the Reformer’s notion of the perspicuity of Scripture? How necessary are extra-biblical materials for arriving at clear meaning? I’m wondering if your RMH requires from the church, the interpretive community, what it doesn’t have – complete historical information. There have been and still are huge blind spots in our knowledge about various foreign cultures that handicap us from discerning the foreign movement your system seems to require. So are there ethical texts in Scripture completely unclear because the redemptive spirit is so heavily dependent on historical knowledge we don’t possess? Or am I mistakenly assuming that the historical knowledge you advocate is nothing more than is required to do grammatical-historical interpretation?

    • admin says:

      Very insightful questions. Yes, I believe in the notion of perspicuity (clarity) of Scripture when it comes to the primary storyline of the Bible, namely, the salvation and redemption of humanity (those who chose faith) through Christ. I teach at a master’s level (Tyndale Seminary) and it does not take students long to figure out that there are major interpretive issues in almost every passage of Scripture. So, I think it is helpful to limit the concept of the perspicuity to the core or central aspects of what Scripture is telling us; otherwise it is a rather nonesensical idea when you actually get into the nitty gritty of the biblical text. E.g., what about the ethics of slavery? We might say it is prety clear today (most Christians are abolitionists) but it sure took the church a long time to figure it out. Why? Simply because the ethic in the text is often “incremental” and not fully realized. Thus in areas like this it would have been rather arragant for either side of the historical slavery debate in the church to invoke the notion of the clarity of Scripture.

      Just as it is very important to wrestle with Greek and Hebrew in understand the biblical text, so also it is important to think about what those words mean within the actual ancient world in which they were written. For instance, our understanding of the various sacrifices of Leviticus and its rather peculiar food laws have come a long way by studying similar notions in the ANE world. In fact, it is essential to do this sort of rigorous work in terms of making sense of a lot of areas of Scripture that were probably more clear to the orginal audience than to us. Or, think about the book of Revelation. I teach that course at Tyndale and love doing so. Along with reading the biblical text and an excellent commentary (Mounce, Beale or Osborne) my students are required to read a 300+ book which is a collection of extra-biblical Apocalyptic texts from second Temple Judaism to the 2nd centuray (both Jewish and Christian). [BTW, 1 Enoch is cited in the NT over a half dozen times.] Figuring out the genre of apocalytic requires that we go back on a facinating journey to a different kind of literature than we are used to. Most contemporary Christians simply read Revelation as “tomorrow’s newspaper slid under the door today”. Ouch! What utter nonesense. I hope you see what I’m saying. Clarity in terms of the main message.

      So, here is my callenge to you, Sylvia, my “clarity” question friend. Read Corporal Punishment in the Bible (my recent IVP book) and see if the material from ANE sources helps your understanding both of the “beating” texts and the “mutilation” texts in Scripture. Then, come back and answer your question. Does it allow us to see perfectly? No. But does it help us see some things more clearly? Yes.

      Blessings,

      WJW

      • Jim says:

        Since perspicuity is a property of Scripture (not the reader) isn’t your approach to perspicuity over-selective? You argue for perspicuity only “when it comes to the primary story-line of the Bible, namely, the salvation and redemption of humanity.”

        I have two questions and one of them is this: Where do you find biblical warrant for restricting the clarity of Scripture to certain themes, topics or types of passages in the Bible? I’m a Presbyterian, so I know the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.7) seems to agree with you, but it got me wondering on what grounds are you restricting the doctrine of perspicuity for God’s people? And a secondary but related question occurs to me: how could God rightfully hold us morally accountable for difficult-to-understand, even confusing ethical teachings, characterized by non-perspicuity because they fall outside of the Bible’s “primary story-line”?

        Also, I’m almost finished a study of Matthew and it seems that in every case Jesus encountered those who misunderstood Scripture, he called for them to go back to Scripture itself (not extra-biblical resources) in order to read it understandably (e.g. Matt. 9:3; 12:3, 5; 19:4; 21:42; 22:31). So my second (ok maybe third) question is this: while archeological evidence and/or historical evidence from ancient texts helpfully enrich and deepen the meaning of Scripture (praise the Lord!), would you say that such background historical information is ever, in any case, a necessary condition for understanding the correct meaning of Scripture? It’s not a trick question, but I can’t think of any such case myself, and I figure if there is a single such case then the scope of perspicuity is indeed narrower than I had formally thought.

        • admin says:

          Hi Jim,

          Let me respond to two questions. Q1: Where does one find biblical warrant for restricting the clarity of Scripture in some fashion? Most doctrines about Scripture, if they are well thought out, will include both “deductive” (statements about the nature of Scripture by Scripture) and “inductive” (what we actually find within Scripture as we read it) input. For example, if you want to think through a statement about inerrancy or about the reliability of Scripture–whatever term you are more comfortable with–the starting place is a collection of terms that Scripture uses to describe itself, e.g., truthful, faithful, etc. Then, you have to look at all of the smaller pieces of evidence (inductively) in terms of what Scripture actually does. In other words, whatever inerrancy/reliability of Scripture means, it is does not mean: (a) exact numbers/figures [they often get rounded off], (b) everything within the Bible reflects an ultimate ethical statement about how human beings should relate [slavery texts, war texts, mutilation texts, etc.], (c) etc. Just as theologians work from deductive statements as a starting point, it is important to qualify these statement with inductive input. Same thing is true with respect to the clarity of Scripture.

          Q2: Is historical information [H.I.] every necessary for understanding the correct meaning of Scripture? I would like to say “No, it [H.I.] is never a necessary condition for understanding Scripture” but the situation is probably more complicated or nuanced than that. Here is what I mean. Often in wrestling with the meaning of Scripture there are several options that are possible. Choosing the most likely option of meaning from amongst 4 or 5 possible options is not always easy. Sometimes extrabiblical lexical, grammatical, genre, historical, cultural (etc.) input is extremely important in building a case for the most likely meaning amongst competing options. So the input in deciding meaning is a combination of biblical and extrabiblical information.

          Blessings,

          WJW

          • Jim says:

            Thanks for your reply Dr. Webb. Re. the (1st) question of the extent of perspicuity in the Bible, it seems to me you’re retreating from your original assertion that perspicuity is restricted to the soteriological story-line of Scripture. Am I reading you rightly? I found the distinction between deductive and inductive input for understanding perspicuity helpful. But are you still implying that the biblical material not integral to the the story-line of human redemption is non-perspicuous? Is the notion of perspicuity really delimited by the central theme of human redemption?

          • admin says:

            Hi Jim,

            Sorry, I do not want to suggest that the perspicuity of the Bible is related ONLY to the soteriological storyline. Rather, that is a good place to start and one that is most would accept. So, I was using it more as a sample or core-type example. However, one can find a lot of other materials that are in various genre of Scripture, which fall into “that which is pretty [darn] clear” in Scripture. E.g., the command to “love each other”; the ten commandments, etc. These are not directly storyline (though important elements). If you get a chance to read Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (I do not always agree with the author :) ), you will be able to figure out a few more things on the perpescuity and non-perpescuity list.

            One more proviso. I do not look at any one particular biblical text as “clear” or “not clear”. This would be far too simple. Rather, it is important to look at all bibiblical texts with certain ELEMENTS within them as clear and other ELEMENTS within them (same passage) as unclear.

            Cheers,

            WJW

  6. Sylvia says:

    Okay, thank you very much for your answer and being accessible. I am going to order your book to learn more about how the ANE sources shed light on Corporal Punishment. Appreciate it. Sylvia

  7. Fred says:

    For the sake of clarification, when you speak about the “redemptive spirit of the text” are you thinking of a trend or tendency of the text observed through objective analysis? Are you thinking of or implying authorial intent superintended by divine intent (i.e. the Spirit’s discourse)? Or are you thinking of something else altogether? Also, are you using the word “redemptive” simply in the sense of enhancement or improvement? Or do you mean for it to have a soteriological connotation? If so, in what sense?

    • admin says:

      Hi Fred,

      Thanks for your question. Read one chapter (just one chapter) within Corporal Punishment in the Bible. Please read chapter #2, “The Slavery Texts: A Redemptive-Movement Model”. This should clear up some of your questions. We can go from there.

      Blessings,

      Bill

      • Fred says:

        First, okay, I took you up on it and ordered your book and read chapter two (hope you get a royalty haha). I take it that the “spirit” in “redemptive spirit” refers to a trend (have you thought of changing terms; my dictionary has 25 meanings just for the noun form of “spirit”) and this trend is progressive moving towards improvement so you’re modifying it as “redemptive.”
        Secondly though, in ch. 2 you illustrated foreign redemptive movement in the OT’s war ethic by using Deut. 21:10-14; but wouldn’t you say there is regressive movement compared to surrounding nations in view of the genocide passages when God basically commands Israel to totally slaughter the Canaanites, men, women, kids, and animals? And/or do you see the OT genocide passages as examples of domestic movement because for some reason God doesn’t always mandate full-scale slaughter. It confuses me.

        • admin says:

          Hi Fred,

          Royalties? Yes, with academic books you get just enough money back on them to fund the research of your next book. Sometimes Marilyn, my wife, asks me to write something of a popular strain :) so it might actually pay something. Oh well, different strokes . . .

          On the matter of Genocide. You are absolutely right. Good call; good questions. I have been working on this area and reading ANE war texts for about 10 years now and I feel like I am just grazing the surface. Hey Fred, how would you like to do a one week summer course at Tyndale Seminary in July? I am teaching a holy war course there. Just google my name (William J. Webb) and Tyndale Seminary and you should get the course. The summer course is something of a “think tank” in the war-and-genocide and war-and-rape area. I do not have all the answers (that much I know for certain) but I am coming to grips with (a) what are really bad Christian answers in the genocide texts, (b) what are better answers, and (c) what are a lot of questions/further research that needs to explore that area. The whole subject is such a mess with 20 or so octopus-like tentacles reaching into all kinds of equally difficult areas. So, . . . come and help me work on this one.

          Cheers,

          WJW

  8. Kayla says:

    Hi, you seem to be willing to tackle old testament passages that are harsh ans shocking. Have you heard of the story of the man named Uzzah who got struck down totally killed just cause he tried to steady the ark when it almost fell. David was angry with God about it and i was too when i read it. why would lash out and toast someone like that. Isn’t God loving? Can you help if i’m missing something.

    • admin says:

      Hi Kayla,

      I am going to give you a “hook” here rather than an answer. Read David T. Lamb’s book God Behaving Badly and especially his chapter on “Angry or Loving?”. He does a nice job of answering your question your question about the ark and, bonus (!) the rest of the book is well worth reading as well.

      Blessings,

      WJW

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