Friday, January 22, 2010

the evangelical crisis in interpreting Scripture

There is a new crisis in the evangelical handling of Scripture. Issues such as the role of women are significantly shaping the traditional evangelical doctrine of Scripture. This is the main thesis of Wayne Grudem's book “Evangelical Feminism: A New Path to Liberalism?”. Grudem argues that evangelical feminists are using a method of interpretation that leads inexorably to the normalization of homosexuality as well as feminism. Grudem believes that approval of homosexuality is the point of real apostasy, “the final step along the path to liberalism.”

Grudem focuses his attack on the redemptive or trajectory hermeneutic popularised by William Webb's book, “Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis” (IVP, 2001). The book evaluates the progress made throughout history in the area of interpreting Scripture in relation to slavery and proposes that the same progress should be made in other areas, such as the role of women. The hermeneutic asserts that the principles taught in the Old Testament are outdated in relation to the permission and regulation of slavery. It goes on to assert that the principles taught in the New Testament improve upon this by discouraging slavery. The trajectory did not stop there however but moved towards a point where the Church rejected slavery. The idea is that the Scriptures are only on a developing trajectory which was not cut short by the canon of Scripture. The Church must be dynamic and move with the culture rather than be bound to Scripture's "frozen" ethics. It is also called the "redemptive-movement hermeneutic" because of this movement. Traditional evangelical interpretation is called a "static hermeneutic".

Webb says, "In sum, the case studies developed in this book support a redemptive-movement hermeneutic. If the original readers of Scripture lived out its isolated words, by virtue of their cultural context, they lived out the redemptive spirit of the text for that generation. For us, however, it is a different story. For us the redemptive spirit does not always come automatically because the applicational context has changed. We must journey beyond any surface-level appropriation to application of the text that captures its meaning in cultural and canonical context-an application that honors its underlying spirit. Our task is not to lock into an ethic that has been frozen in time, but to pursue an ultimate ethic, one reflected in the redemptive spirit of Scripture. As a community born to the twenty-first century, we must not be limited to a mere enactment of the text's isolated words. It is our sacred calling to champion its spirit."

The idea is that Paul and other New Testament authors were moving in a trajectory toward full inclusion of women in Church leadership, but they didn’t quite reach that goal by the time the canon was complete. We have to continue that trajectory.

“This means that the teachings of the New Testament are no longer our final authority,” Grudem writes. “Our authority now becomes our own ideas of the direction the New Testament was heading but never quite reached.” This relativism has no logical stopping off point and so as Grudem indicates, the same method of interpretation that defends evangelical feminism can be applied to homosexuality, the approval of which, Grudem writes, “is the final step along the path to liberalism.” There is much to evidence such a view. The fact that Arcbishop Rowan Williams (not to mention those in the Church of Scotland) has argued for approval of homosexuality using the same interpretative principle demonstrates the point.

Grudem observes, “I have lived in the academic world for over thirty years, and I have a great deal of confidence in the ability of scholars to take a set of eighteen criteria like this [Webb’s system] and make a case for almost anything they desire, through skillful manipulation of the variable factors involved in the criteria. But whether or not these are the result of a proper use of Webb’s criteria, the point remains: the standard is no longer what the New Testament says, but rather the point toward which some scholar thinks the Bible was moving. And that is why I believe it is correct to say that Webb’s redemptive-movement hermeneutic nullifies in principle the moral authority of the entire New Testament.”

The decision on which details are relative and which are not is essentially subjective . It is rather like an inversion of the quest for the historical Jesus which pursued its quest into the biblical text discarding whatever didn't seem to the critic to be authentic and arrived at a historical Jesus who was strangely rather like the critic himself in his convictions. As one writer put it, it was like someone seeing their reflection at the bottom of a deep well. The trajectory hermeneutic pursues its goal away from Scripture but ends up with the same uncanny carbon copy of contemporary cultural beliefs and norms. In both cases Scripture is treated like a wax nose. It becomes used as per the Roman Catholic magisterium, simply to illustrate the Church's teaching rather than self-authenticating and finally authoritative.

The trajectory hermeneutic does not have a place for the sufficiency and final authority of Scripture. It also undermines its perspicuity. It is a way of writing off vast tracts of the Old Testament.

What Webb has shown us, however, is that the way in which evangelicals have employed cultural relativism 'conservatively' both in bible translation and interpretation is highly dangerous. For the last generation or two, there has been a gentleman's agreement amongst evangelical scholars that cultural relativism can be embraced without undermining traditional evangelical convictions. Evangelical feminism has flown in the face of that.

Evangelicals have happily applied cultural relativism as a way of interpreting parts of Scripture that seem inconvenient such as the precepts (grounded on Creation ordinance) in relation to hair length and requiring head covering in 1 Cor 11. “That’s just cultural”, you hear parroted. These developments should make us think twice before we utter these words.