Webb's work on cultural analysis

Today as I was getting up here to Milwaukee for the ETS meetings, I finished reading a book I had been meaning to get to for quite some time. (Even professors like to take advantage of reading week!) Back in 2001 William Webb published Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis and in the process created quite a stir. In this book Webb advanced a particular hermeneutical stance that he calls a "redemptive-movement hermeneutic" as a way to sort out what is culturally bound in the biblical text and what is transcultural. This hermeneutic involves carefully analyzing the cultural clues in a biblical text to determine where the spirit of the text lies; if this process reveals redemptive movement, then Christians are justified in moving beyond a text in application, even if that goes beyond the actual words of the text.

Here's where the title fits in: Webb uses each of those groups to illustrate his thesis. Slaves are the control group, so to speak, as practically all Christians argue that it was right and good to abolish slavery and that Christians should not return to it. Because this interpretive conclusion goes beyond the actual words of the biblical text, which allow for slavery but imbue it with Christian response, it epitomizes the redemptive-movement hermeneutic. Women and homosexuals then become the test cases. Webb argues that the biblical texts concerning women follow a similar trajectory as those which concern slavery, that is, they show redemptive movement through different cultural contexts. Christians correctly apply these texts by observing their spirit, not their letter, moving beyond them to an egalitarian position (although he moderates this somewhat by appending the adjective "complementary," which to me is a bit confusing). In contrast with texts concerning slaves and women, Webb argues that texts concerning homosexuality do not exhibit that type of redemptive movement and should be regarded as largely transcultural in nature. Thus there is no place in contemporary Christian interpretation for covenant, committed homosexuality or any other expression of same-sex activity.

This is a thought-provoking read, especially in light of the recent brouhaha over Rachel Held Evans' new book on biblical womanhood. I did not agree with everything Webb argued, nor do I land in the same spot as he does on the gender issue, but I do think his thesis has merit and should be digested carefully by those seeking to understand the role of culture in the exegetical process.