Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Shelob's Web: the New Hermeneutic Approach

When I lost my teaching job, this opened an exciting opportunity for me to study theology.  That summer I took Biblical Greek courses in Toronto, and in September I enrolled in a M.Div. program at Heritage Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Ontario.  The first day I felt oddly out of place there.  Not only was I significantly older than most students, I had to get used to the idea that I was surrounded by Baptists.  What was I doing there?  At a welcome BBQ, I chatted with Dr. Bill Webb, a very amiable professor.  He made me feel at home, as he showed real interest in my background.  He told me that he, too, was preparing to publish a book, and he realized that this could make or break his professional reputation.  Later, in Greek Grammar class, I discovered that he was a true scholar with strong analytical skills. As a Math-Science major, I could certainly respect his academic approach.  On his office door he had a quote from Erasmus, "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes."  As I loved books, I could relate to that as well.

In the second semester (?) I took Dr. Webb’s course on Hermeneutics. 
Years earlier I had talked with somebody, who asked me about our church (denomination).  I told him that it was very orthodox.  He was not convinced.  He said, “But what is their response to the New Hermeneutics?  Most churches are destroyed by this dangerous development!”  At the time I had no idea what Hermeneutics was or how it was changing or threatening the churches.  Perhaps it made me a little suspicious as we started in this course.
In the first lecture I learned that Hermeneutics seeks to provide a structured methodology by which we can decide how to interpret biblical instructions.  Do women need to wear hats (in church)?  Do we need to greet each other with a holy kiss? (Or would a holy hug or even a hearty handshake do the job?) Is it shameful or ungodly for a man to have long hair?  (When I was a teenager, it was popular for boys to have long hair.  At that time all Dutch banknotes showed men with long hair, yet we were assured that such would go against the will of God!)  It gets even more complex if we want to consider all the Old Testament instructions; in fact some of those rules (particularly about sex slaves) are disgusting for most of us today.  Hermeneutics aims to provide us with a tool for deciding how biblical instructions ought to be followed by the church today.  This should help us to avoid personal and cultural biases.

At the start of the course, Dr. Webb drew a diagram on the board, as shown.  He clarified, “Look, when we deal with ancient scriptures, we must consider these aspects: First there is the author -say Paul- and the cultural context in which he wrote (left).  Now, centuries later (right) we have somebody trying to understand this text.  The reader, too, is affected by his cultural context.”  He wanted to go on, but I asked, “Where is God?  When we are dealing with the Bible, God is ultimately the author, right?  He wants to relate a message to the people then and the people now!  So, where is He?” Dr. Webb replied, “Oh!  He will come later!”  Well, I may have missed Him, but as far as I could tell, God was kept outside this course.  Later, it made sense, though; the whole methodology seemed based on scientific thinking.  God rarely fits into such rigid schemes, and in such an approach there can be no room for guidance by His Spirit.  After the first lecture, I paid careful attention in class: something seemed fundamentally wrong.

For much of the course Dr. Webb lectured on his forthcoming publication, “Slaves, women, and homosexuals” (published in 2009).  In his book he introduces a “Redemptive hermeneutic” or “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutic” to argue that the Bible often shows a movement from a rather primitive or dark ethic to an increasingly just and bright one.  So, when we read Paul’s instructions, we should not take these at face value.  Rather, we should see in which direction Paul is going, compared to the Old Testament teaching.  Perhaps because the slavery passages in the Old Testament are so repulsive, Webb starts with this theme to build his case.  New Testament instructions regarding slavery are less repulsive, and although slavery is still an accepted practice at the time, we can see a movement to a better world where slavery will be abolished.  When Paul writes to Philemon about his run-away slave, Onesimus, he recommends Phil to set him free. Webb considers this a bright spot, like a skylight to a better future. Today, we are to continue in Paul’s footsteps, not by literally following his instructions, but by taking the next steps in the same direction, for surely- that’s what Paul would have done.
Once the students would accept the emotionally charged slavery example, they could buy into Webb’s hermeneutic and be prepared to adopt it for other issues too. Yet, I objected.  I had taken anthropology courses and seen examples where slavery can exist in a mutually beneficial -rather than an abusive- way.  Even Kevin Bales, who writes about modern slavery in his book “Disposable People” shows some examples where this is true today.  Therefore, it is not an indisputable fact, but rather a subjective view for the western world of modern times that “slavery is inherently evil”.*

The diagram is mine.  In it I try to sketch the idea of Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic model.  Horizontal: time.  The dots reflect “slavery passages” in the Bible; a low dot suggests an embarrassing passage whereas a high level dot would be much more acceptable in today’s culture.  The red line suggests the movement that Webb discerns or imposes on the evolution of our treatment of slaves.

Often I took Dr. Webb to task.  Usually he would then scribble a note to make an adjustment in his manuscript, but I never got satisfactory answers.  I don’t remember all the things I said in class, but here are some of my concerns: First, in my understanding, Dr. Webb has a different agenda than St. Paul.  Paul writes, “Whether you are a slave or free, transform your environment from within: by living as a Christian.” According to Webb, however, Paul seeks to change the structures themselves, i.e. abolish the practice of slavery, rather than transform the relationship by the love of God.**  Second, although there are numerous passages in the Bible showing a discontinuity between the testaments, there is no mention of an ongoing change over time.  A third serious concern is, “Who decides what is the better ethic?  If Scripture itself does not tell us, who will?” If Paul’s instructions are no longer normative, who or what is going to determine what we ought to aim for?  We may think it is obvious that abolition is always the godliest thing to do, but what would we base this on?  It seems to me that Dr. Webb derives his ideal scenarios from the common opinion in the enlightened western culture of today!  Ultimately that seems to be the standard to which Paul also must aspire!  Rather than transforming today’s culture through the apostolic teaching, we must re-interpret the apostolic teaching in the light of the secular culture of today?
In his publication Dr. Webb is using this same methodology to determine the proper status of women and homosexuals in the church.  He concludes that there is no biblical movement towards a greater acceptance of homosexuals, while he does detect such a trend on the position of women (in the church).  So, in the end his approach and publication serves to push the churches to open the offices to women. 

Dr. Webb told us that his redemptive hermeneutic had become non-negotiable for him; I guess that implies a full commitment.  I think that’s scary. We should anchor our lives in Christ alone, who comes to us by His Word and Spirit.  And Paul is his apostle; his words are also authoritative.  We may not cling to ‘Christ plus my hermeneutic’, not even ‘Christ and Calvin!’  I still respect Dr. Webb, even as a Brother, but I am convinced his hermeneutic is destructive.  Adopting it, one can no longer be a disciple of Paul, for one must always wonder, “Well, that’s what you write, Paul.  But what is it you are really after (or should be after)?” The new hermeneutic will prove to be of inferior construction that cannot stand the test of judgment.  1 Cor. 3: 12 – 15

I was surprised and disappointed that I seemed to be the only one (at that time and place) who publicly objected and challenged Dr. Webb’s hermeneutic.  Privately one professor agreed with me, but publicly I heard no challenge or condemnation.  Even though I fought this hermeneutic during my studies at Heritage, after my graduation I no longer saw it as my task to publicly address the issue… until now.

Behind Dr. Webb I now see a world-wide web, woven by the Evil One.  It entangles many church leaders and teachers, and in its deception the Enemy seeks to destroy the church.  According to Dr. J. van Bruggen, the new hermeneutics is now making strong inroads in the Reformed churches in The Netherlands.  This brings many pastors and elders to re-interpret Paul, for instance on the matter of female pastors and elders in the church.  Such a change has not yet been accepted, but the momentum exists and the common opinion seems to be that the acceptance of ‘women in office’ is just a matter of time.  However, it’s not the acceptance of women in office that will be the turning point. If the new hermeneutic is already embraced, the Horse of Troy is within the walls!  Apparently the same has happened in the CRC.

*Granted that slavery in practice brings out the worst in humankind, often leading to terrible abuses, I would in most cases fight for abolition myself. 

**In the Old Testament we may see an example in the Hebrew slave girl in Naaman’s house.  Naaman was a general in the enemy army, and the girl was taken captive in a raid.  Most Jews might have recommended the slave girl to poison her abusers.  Yet, the girl showed God’s love to the leprous general by recommending he visit the man of God. 

For a more professional review of Dr. Webb’s book:

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