WHERE WILL “THE SPIRIT” LEAD US? AN ANALYSIS OF WILLIAM WEBB'S HERMENEUTIC
Updated: Dec 12, 2018
1. The Problem of “Scriptural Support”
In the late 1980's I took several Greek exegesis courses at London Baptist Seminary taught by Dr. William Webb. He stressed that in our argumentation we needed facts not simply assertions. For almost two decades I have been following the debate on the role of women and it is my opinion that that the assertions of egalitarians have been constantly refuted by the facts. Let me briefly give three recent examples. There are two women in the NT that egalitarians particularly appeal to in support for their position, Phoebe (Rom 16:2) and Junia (Rom 16:7). Phoebe it has been argued was a leader or the president of the congregation in Cenchreae but the use of the Greek word, "prostatis" doesn't support this, since she is the "prostatis" not of the congregation but of individuals. Ng argues that the best explanation of Paul's use of the word "prostatis" is to understand it to refer Phoebe's role of providing hospitality to Paul and others in her role as a deacon in the church in Cenchreae. A number of egalitarians have also argued that Junia [a woman] was an apostle since she is stated to be “outstanding among the apostles” (NIV translation). Wallace and Burer argue convincingly that the Greek phrase can only mean, “well-known to the apostles” and thus doesn't indicate that Junia was an apostle. Philip Payne published an article implying that 1 Cor 14:34-35 was not part of the original manuscript written by Paul to the Corinthians. He proposed this on the basis of the “bar-umlaut” above the text in the early manuscript, Codex Vaticanus. This argument has been overturned by a recent study that shows the umlaut was placed next to not above a textual variant in Codex Vaticanus, thus confirming the genuineness of 1 Cor 14:34-35 in the early manuscript history.
Thomas Schreiner began his review of William Webb's book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis with this comment,
Sometimes I wonder if egalitarians hope to triumph in the debate on the role of women by publishing book after book on the subject. Each work propounds a new thesis which explains why the traditional interpretation is flawed. Complementarians could easily give in from sheer exhaustion, thinking that so many books written by such a diversity of different authors could scarcely be wrong.
Dr. Webb's book doesn't provide any new exegetical interpretations that point the biblical evidence toward the egalitarian position rather he hopes to do so by advancing a “new” hermeneutical approach. It is my opinion that since the biblical “facts” can't support egalitarianism they have often resorted to dangerous hermeneutical approaches in support of their position. This article will briefly focus on some implications of Webb's hermeneutic pertaining to the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, rather than present a detailed critique of his book, since such critiques are already available. Webb's approach can be summarized as “going beyond the words on the page to the redemptive spirit behind the text.”
2. The Problem of the “Slippery Slope”
Dr. William Webb, is Professor of New Testament at Heritage Theological Seminary in Ontario, a Fellowship Baptist (FEBCC) approved training institution. When Dr. Webb came to teach at London Baptist Seminary, after graduating from Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1980's, he embraced the complementarian position, but has reconsidered his position and besides this book he has also published articles promoting the egalitarian position. Webb has provided a brief summary of the thesis of his book in the Evangelical Baptist magazine [an FEBCC publication].
I believe there is an unsettling inclination on the part of many who embrace egalitarianism to move away from or begin to undermine the authority of Scripture. Many reject this “slippery slope” argument as a scare tactic to undermine serious argumentation, but it is my conviction that there is considerable evidence to support this argument and there are serious issues raised by Webb's book as to where the “redemptive spirit” of the biblical texts will lead. John Woodbridge doesn't use the term “slippery slope” but speaks of the movement of the “hinge theory” to the “domino theory”. He uses the analogy of a door where the doctrine of inerrancy is likened to the pins that hold the door to the frame. Once the pins are removed [inerrancy denied] the door of Christian beliefs swings on inadequate and insecure hinges. Thus individuals, institutions or denominations that “remove the pin of inerrancy” take high risks.
This “hinge theory” has been proven true with regards to the gender issue in the past. Mary Kassian provides a valuable historical overview of the feminist movement and shows how the movement has gone through three stages of naming self, the world and more recently God. Some branches of the feminist movement have moved dramatically away from Christianity altogether, repudiating anything perceived to be related to the masculine gender. Invariably, they have rejected the Bible because it was perceived to be so patriarchal in its background (read: male biased), and because its God was portrayed as Father and Son, which was interpreted as male.
3. The Problem of “sola Scriptura”
A common hermeneutical practice among egalitarians has been to argue that the epistles are ad hoc documents that addressed specific cultural and historical situations that are no longer relevant or universally applicable to our current situation. This has also been the practice of those, who deny that the Bible condemns homosexuality. They argue that Scripture passages raised in opposition to their lifestyle addressed a totally different cultural situation or practice, which no longer applies. This same hermeneutical approach of “cultural deletions” from Scripture used by homosexuals has been employed by egalitarians in their handling of gender texts to support women as pastors. Webb's book seeks to argue for a hermeneutic that can maintain a critique of homosexuality as sin, while arriving at an egalitarian conclusion in the gender debate. Interestingly, he manages to arrive at his egalitarian viewpoint by arguing that certain gender texts contain cultural aspects that one must not embrace in all of their “concrete” particulars anymore. Thus, I would argue that ironically there are hermeneutical parallels in the arguments for homosexuality and egalitarianism.
Thus, Webb argues that women in the church in Ephesus were uneducated and other cultural factors made them more gullible (1 Tim 2:14) and this explains Paul's prohibition to teach or exercise authority over a man (1 Tim 2:12). Consequently, Webb maintains we should “lighten up on the concrete expression of hierarchy in this passage” or “give a little or soften in the prohibitions of 2:11-12 if the basis for the prohibitions has changed” [namely, women are now educated and not as gullible]. Of course, if the whole support (1 Tim 2:13-15) for the prohibitions (1 Tim 2:11-12) is built on Paul's understanding of God's pattern for gender roles given at creation (Genesis 2-3) and not cultural circumstances, then the prohibitions should remain in effect.
Webb also argues that the commands for women to “obey and submit” to their husbands must be softened today since the commands reflected a cultural situation where women were at a great disadvantage to men. This is because women were much younger than men when they married, did not have an equivalent formal education, or financial opportunities, or social exposure or informational resources in the home. What is interesting about Webb's argument is that none of these cultural conditions are ever listed anywhere in Scripture as reasons why wives should submit to their husbands!
Gordon Fee wrote that one must obey the “spirit” [his emphasis] of the passage even if the specifics are not always followed to the letter. Webb now speaks of the “redemptive spirit” of texts, while seeking to move away from some of the “specifics” of the gender texts. Webb even lists as Criterion 13 “Specific Instructions Versus General Prinicples” stating that general principles like justice and equality [chosen arbitrarily] can override the specifics of biblical texts. What Webb doesn't focus on, as Schreiner notes, is the “redemptive history” of the text, by which, many of the cultural examples Webb uses can easily be explained. The Bible as a historical document is of necessity also a cultural document and reflects redemptive movement or progress. Nevertheless, it speaks God's unchanging truth to all cultures. Thus, a wife's submission to her husband will certainly look somewhat different in its cultural expression in an Islamic country than in a democratic country such as Canada. In one culture, clothing may continue to be used as a symbol of submission while another culture won't use that type of cultural symbol. The problem with Webb's approach is that he seeks to remove the underlying truth (gender roles) by arguing from the fact that there were some cultural factors involved in the church situations that address the gender roles. Not only are these cultural factors never part of the argument for the assigning of gender roles, but the NT writers appeal to a foundation for gender roles prior to the Fall (Genesis 2). This negates the argument of egalitarians, like Webb, that the Fall (Genesis 3) introduces gender roles and therefore we must move beyond such hierarchy to egalitarianism now in Christ.
The thrust of Webb's argument is that the pertinent gender texts are so heavily affected by their culture that we must not take them at “face value” [my words] or in his words in their “concrete frozen in time aspects/particulars” or “time-locked components” or “bound-in-time components” His hermeneutic allows him to support an egalitarian position by denying the texts have any transcultural application in terms of women taking a subordinate role in the church or home. Thus in a somewhat subtle manner, he affirms inerrancy while virtually denying Scripture's authority in practice through the employment of his hermeneutics!
Webb's hermeneutic is not truly “new” in its basic approach of bringing together the combinations of slavery, egalitarianism, and a “progressive” [Webb's term is “redemptive-movement”] hermeneutical approach. Others, who argue from a similar hermeneutic have undermined the authority of Scripture and opened the door to the acceptance of homosexuality. Denominations which long ago embraced egalitarianism and women as pastors are now addressing the issue of homosexuals as pastors? Heimbach has argued that egalitarians in their denial of distinct gender roles open the door for the homosexual argument, whether they recognize it or not.
It might be helpful to give a few examples of others, who employ a similar hermeneutical approach and profess to be evangelicals but who have undermined the authority of Scripture. Thompson, like many egalitarians, is willing to speak in terms of a broad theme [read: an egalitarian view of Gal 3:28] overcoming the particulars of texts [read: 1 Tim 2:12 and its restrictions on women] as the Biblical authors move in a “trajectory” toward egalitarianism. He writes, “Foundational theological claims in Scripture...could well imply conclusions ultimately at odds with specific legal, narrative, and pastoral instructions, and could take priority over them on given issues.”
Webb's arguments have parallels with an article by Kevin Giles in which Giles argues that the Bible endorsed the institution and practice of slavery and this gives us insight as to how one should view the Bible's teaching on the subordination of women. Giles states, "We will have learnt that Scripture can endorse social structures no longer acceptable, just as we have learnt that the Bible can endorse scientific ideas no longer tenable. The Bible is authoritative in matters of faith and conduct but not necessarily in science, or on how to order social relations."
Recently, Glen Scorgie, who has embraced Webb's “trajectory of the Spirit” methodology, presented a defence of how this methodology could relate to inerrancy. Scorgie makes several statements that indicate [from my perspective] that he is trying “real hard” to give Paul the benefit of the doubt without calling his statements “errors”. He speaks of “some shifting and growing going on in the biblical author's grasp of the trajectory of the Spirit” and that “the authors of Scripture themselves may have been at the time of writing still in process of theological growth and formation” and of the biblical writers being permitted “to retain certain technically deficient world-view assumptions” Such statements it seems to me are treading on thin ice for one who affirms inerrancy.
At present, Webb continues to maintain that Paul was not “sexist” or “in error, but there are issues that raise concern in his presentation. Webb speaks of Paul's “minimalist-contribution argument” from 1 Corinthians 11:12b [with reference to the phrase “through women”] in light of scientific evidence on embryology. Also, Webb's arguments from scientific and social scientific evidence seem to give the impression that he implies the Bible has or promotes a culturally or scientifically mistaken worldview. Webb's understanding of Genesis 2-3 has been criticized by Grudem as entailing a denial of the historicity of the events as Webb tries [unsuccessfully I would argue] to address the force of Paul's argument from 1 Tim 2:13 based upon primogeniture.
Grudem also states that Webb undermines biblical authority by arguing that the Bible, including the NT, does not provide an ultimate ethic for Christians, but is rather an advanced stage on the hermeneutical trajectory. This ultimately makes Webb's hermeneutical system the real key to knowing God's ultimate ethic, which is determined in part by noting the changes from the ANE and Greco-Roman cultures. Grudem warns that this particular approach could lead to a new class of “priests” [biblical scholars], who will be required to tell us where the “spirit of the text” is moving from their studies of the ANE and Greco-Roman cultures. This too effectively undermines sola Scriptura. Webb maintains that we must move beyond Scripture in its cultural application if we truly understand its “redemptive spirit.” He uses slavery as an example and writes, “We are unable to argue cogently for a pro-active abolitionist position in today's world based upon a words-on-the page understanding of the NT. An isolated, stationary understanding of Paul's words simply does not reveal an abolitionist perspective.” Later in his argument, he says he challenges complementarians to “show me a NT text that calls for the abolition of slavery.” Webb has in view texts that command slaves to obey their masters rather than commands to the slave-owners to free their slaves (Eph 6:5, Col 3:22).
Why didn't the apostles call for slaves and masters to abandon their “roles”? Instead, they called them to live out their roles in a relationship that was to be transformed by Christ's redemption. The nub of the matter is they had a redemptive-historical perspective that recognized God's plans for his people in light of the “now/not yet” implications of the gospel. We live in this “end of the age” period with the eschatological tension of the now [a world affected by sin] and the not yet [the new heaven and earth], a time when the fullness of God's redemptive work and the realization of God's ultimate ethic will be completed. We have God's ultimate ethic now in the two great commandments, and we are to move toward the realization of this ultimate ethic in the world as we strive to be “salt and light” in our world (Mt 5:13-16).
Paul can say to slaves if you can gain your freedom, “use it” (1 Cor 7:21) and so the NT perspective isn't simply pro-slavery or anti-slavery. Yet, there is a NT verse that provided the basis for the abolitionist movement, Matthew 22:39 “And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'” This verse was used in the pursuit of the abolition of slavery and explains why Christians were at the fore of the endeavour to abolish slavery. All applications of the Christian ethic flow from “the two great commandments” (Mt 22:37-40). The Bible doesn't primarily address itself to social issues except from the context of the community of faith/Christ's church. The OT reflects God's covenant communication with Israel, while the NT reflects God's covenant communication with Christ's church. This explains why Paul does address slavery with Philemon but doesn't issue any challenges to Rome to abolish slavery. There are no “epistles” to the government of Rome but only to Christian churches, where ethical issues are addressed in light of the fullness of God's ethical directive that Jesus gave (Mt 22:37-40). That directive incorporates his ethical love directive to his disciples, to love one another (Jn 15:12-13), which under girds Paul's arguments against slavery in Philemon. The ethical foundation for the church, which is Christ-centred, is found in the NT and is complete and satisfactory (2 Pet 1:3-4).  Ultimately, to compare slavery with gender roles is a flawed argument that presupposes that gender roles were a result of the Fall (Gen 3), but gender roles were established in the creation account (cf. 1 Tim 2:13, Gen 2) before the advent of sin. Slavery was not a “creation institution” (mandated in Gen 2 before the Fall) but an economic system that arose in a sin-cursed world, that does not have to be preserved.
Why do egalitarians seem to be driven towards a denial of Scripture's authority? I would suggest it is because they are unable to support their argument from the “facts” of Scripture. This means that their authority for their egalitarian practice must be built upon something other than simply Scripture, whether it be the social sciences, cultural trends or new hermeneutical theories. It also means there is a tension toward denying Scripture as inerrant and authoritative since it doesn't support their practice, but forbids it. The trajectory approach of Webb and others is ingenious since it allows them to argue that “the spirit of Scripture” is “moving” toward their egalitarian conclusion, while still seeking to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. Yet, it is dangerous, because it is unhinged from the “facts” of Scripture [an implicit denial of inerrancy], which is like slowly removing the pins from the door, which can and has for some feminists resulted in the door swinging wildly and opening the way for many unbiblical practices. Webb's book is not a good or reliable hermeneutical guide. In fact, it would not be wise to use it in refuting the gay agenda and their lifestyle. Only time will tell “where the spirit leads” for those who choose to follow Webb's approach, but I believe there are reasons to be concerned.
 This article appeared in, Sovereign Grace Journal 7:3 (Sept 2004) 7-16.
An example is the thesis of R & C Kroeger, I Suffer Not a Woman: Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 In Light Of Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992). See the sources cited in my book review in Baptist Review of Theology 7/1-2 (Spring/Fall 1997) 114-118.
Lynn Cohick, “Romans” in The IVP Women's Bible Commentary, eds C Kroeger & M J Evans (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002) 645.
Esther Ng, “Phoebe As Prostatis” Trinity Journal 25NS (2004) 3-13.
Daniel Wallace and Michael Burer, “Was Junia Really an Apostle? A Reexamination of Romans 16:7,” JBMW 6/2 (Fall 2001) 4-11. This was originally published in New Testament Studies 47 (2001) 76-91.
Philip Payne, “Fuldensis, Sigla for Variants in Vaticanus, and 1 Cor 14:34-35,” NTS 41 (1995) 240-262.
J. Edward Miller, “Some Observations on the Text-Critical Function of the Umlauts in Vaticanus, with Special Attention to 1 Corinthians 14:34-35,” JSNT 26 (2003) 217-236.
Thomas Schreiner, "Review of Slaves, Women & Homosexuals," JBMW 7/1 (Spring 2002) 41-51. The journal articles of JBMW are available online at www.cbmw.org This article was originally published in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 6/1 ((2002) 46-64.
William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2001). I do not follow Webb's terminology because it is not the customary terminology used in the debate and it therefore deliberately and prejudicially uses a term with a negative connotation in our society “patriarchy” for the position of complementarians, while Webb casts his own position as “complementarian egalitarianism” when it is simply “historical” egalitarianism.
Schreiner, “Review” 41.
Besides the critique of Schreiner, see also the lengthy critique of: Wayne Grudem, “Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic?” JETS 47/2 (June 2004) 299-346.
William J. Webb, “A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic” Evangelical Baptist 50:5 (Sept 2003) 14.
On the present gender debate in the FEBCC see, Randy T Mann, “The Fellowship Gender Issue: One Mann's Perspective” at www.bowmanvillebaptist.org This article is a revision of part of that paper.
That's my perception as a student/friend during my classes/discussions up to 1990.
William Webb, The Limits of a Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic: A Focused Response to T. R. Schreiner,” Evangelical Quarterly [EQ] 75:4 (October 2003) 327-342. On page 340 note 19 he refers to further writings he has forthcoming defending the egalitarian position.
William J. Webb, “A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic,“ EB (Sept/Oct 2003) 14-16. This is available on-line at www.fellowship.ca This cite also lists some interaction with Webb and shows that his 18 hermeneutical principles in his book have now grown to at least 23!
John Woodbridge, “History's Lessons and Biblical Inerrancy,” Trinity Journal 6 OS (Spring 1977 ) 73-85.
Mary Kassian, The Feminist Gospel(Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1992). This book can be read in its entirety or in the brief summary form found in JBMW at www.cbmw.org or at www.monergism.com under the “Gender issues” topical heading. This is an excellent site with a wealth of articles and books available from a Calvinistic perspective. A brief overview of Kassian's major points can be found in three articles in the JBMW, see Mary Kassian, “The history of feminism and the church,” JBMW 3:4 (Winter 1998) 8-9; idem, “The history of feminism and the church Part II,” JBMW 4:1(Spring 1999) 12-13; idem, “The history of feminism and the church Part III,” JBMW 4:2-3 (Winter 2000) 17-19.
Paul Felix, Sr. “The Hermeneutics of Evangelical Feminism” JBMW 8:2 (Fall 2003) 35-46. He also addresses other hermeneutical practices that I will mention in this article.
See, James DeYoung, “The Meaning of 'Nature' in Romans 1 and Its Implications for Biblical Proscriptions of Homosexual Behaviour,” JETS 31 (December 1988) 429-41.
See, Robert Yarbrough, “The Hermeneutics of 1 Timothy 2:9-15,” in Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of 1 Timothy 2:9-15, eds. A Köstenberger, T Schreiner & S Baldwin (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), 167-171. Felix, “Hermeneutics” 35-46. Both are available online at www.cbmw.org
Webb, “Response” 338.
Webb, “Response” 337. For those familiar with the gender debate over the last three decades or more, Webb's arguments repeat many old egalitarian refrains when he seeks to actually deal with the pertinent texts, even if he uses new terminology and has sought to refine the “spirit of the text” argument.
Gordon Fee, “Reflections on Church Order in the Pastoral Epistles, with Further Reflection on the Hermeneutics of Ad Hoc Documents,” JETS 28 (June 1985) 150-151.
Webb, “Response” 327, 329 etc. [he uses it as a synonym for “redemptive-movement meaning”]
Webb, Slavery, pp. 179-184.
Schreiner, “Review” 46.
A glaring failure of Webb's approach is his ignoring of the “redemptive movement” of Scripture in terms of the old & new covenants. Grudem, “Beyond” 309, argues that this failure nullifies the value of the book as a hermeneutical guide. For a brief but helpful explanation of the role of the law and the Christian see: Peter Enns, Exodus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 200), 458-468.
Webb, “Response” 327-342. These expressions can be found on virtually every page of the article.
David Jones, “Egalitarianism and Homosexuality: Connected or Autonomous Ideologies? JBMW 8:2 (Fall 2003) 5-19.
Daniel Heimbach, “The Unchangeable Difference: Eternally Fixed Sexual Identity for an Age of Plastic Sexuality,” in Biblical Foundations for Manhood and Womanhood, ed. Wayne Grudem (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002) 288-289. See also Jones, “Ideologies” 11-13.
David Thompson, “Women, Men, Slaves and the Bible: Hermeneutical Inquiries,” Christian Scholar's Review 25:3 (March 1996) 349, quoted in W. Grudem, “Asbury professor advocates egalitarianism but undermines Biblical authority,” JBMW 2:1 (December 1996) 11.
Kevin Giles, “The Biblical Case for Slavery: Can the Bible Mislead? A Case Study in Hermeneutics,” EQ 66:1 (1994) 3-17.
Giles, “Mislead” 4.
Glen Scorgie, “The Trajectory Of The Spirit: Gender Egalitarianism And Biblical Inerrancy,” paper read at the Evangelical Theological Society [ETS], Toronto, November, 2002. One should know that to be a member of the ETS, one must subscribe to inerrancy, and Scorgie and Webb are presently members.
Scorgie, “Inerrancy” 20, 22.
Webb, “Response” 339-340
Webb, “Response” 340, 340n19. He has a book on biblical authority forthcoming and we will await this newest book to see his commitment to inerrancy. Webb gives a great deal of weight to social science studies in a way that undermines Scripture's absolute/ultimate authority, in my estimation.
Webb, Slaves, 221-224 in areas of cosmology, embryology. See Schreiner, “Review” 49-51, Grudem, “Beyond” 317-318.
Grudem, “Beyond” 309-312 referring to Webb, Slavery, 142-145.
Grudem, “Beyond” 303, 323. On gender roles see, Webb, Slavery, 80-81.
Grudem, “Beyond” 305, referring to the argument in Webb, Slavery, 53.
Grudem, “Beyond” 319-320. Grudem notes this would be less than 1% of biblical [OT & NT] scholars!
Webb, Slaves, 31, states our contemporary culture “happens to reflect a better social ethic – one closer to an ultimate ethic (Z) [his emphasis] than to the ethic revealed in the isolated words of the biblical text.”
Webb, “Response” 332.
This is a notoriously difficult verse, see A Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, eds. I H Marshall & D Hagner NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 553-559. Thiselton says Paul doesn't forbid pursuing freedom put emphasizes using whatever situation one is in “for living out the gospel in one's stance toward God, toward others, and toward life” (p. 559).
While Webb speaks in terms of hermeneutics, one must understand that a great deal of his argument has to do with how to apply the Bible to today. In his article, “Response” the first footnote reads, “When it comes to applying the Bible there are two basic approaches...” and he lists the “static” approach and his “redemptive-spirit/movement” approach. There is a certain degree of caricature in his analysis of the “static” approach in my estimation. For a helpful analysis on how to apply the Bible see, Daniel Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2001).
Schreiner, “Review” 48-49, 51, Grudem, “Beyond” 300-310 says, “Webb never argues that homosexual conduct is wrong because the NT says so and the NT is God's final revelation to us in this age (to argue this way would be contrary to Webb's system...).”