In the first post, McKnight looks at Webb’s savvy commentary on the history of corporal punishment in the Bible. Namely, the original commands for corporal punishment are so draconian that no one today would adhere to them without a full (and justified) expectation of being thrown into prison and having their children removed from their home.
In fact, Webb lists seven different ways in which even those who argue that spanking is mandated by the Bible advocate doing so in ways that are unbiblical. A sample:
The age limitations: most today advocate spanking up to six years or old or pre-elementary, though it used to be pre-teenage years. But the Bible indicates corporal punishment for teens — and perhaps even beyond. The beating of fools in Proverbs seems to be focused on teens, and probably older than teens but it is a punishment that applies to children and older. E.g., Prov 18:6; 19:25, 29; 26:3; 29:19
Webb doesn’t point this out to ridicule James Dobson for hypocrisy (that’s low-hanging fruit anyway), but to argue that Christians – even those with an overly literal view of the Bible, known sometimes as biblicists – apply a “redemptive hermeneutic” to Scripture, which is to say we look at the culture of the era in which it was written and apply the principle while acknowledging that times have changed.
Here’s his big thesis: “We do not want to stay with the static or frozen-in-time ethic reflected in the concrete-specific instructions of the Bible, rather Christians need to embrace the redemptive spirit of the text and journey toward an ultimate ethical application of that spirit” (62). And then this, and if you get this you get the whole: “Movement is (crucial) meaning.”
Spanking isn’t the only subject on which Christians apply a moving scale to the Bible’s commands. Slavery, for example. As Webb and McKnight note, Exodus 21:20-21 sounds barbaric today:
20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
Roger Taney would be proud. Nevertheless, the culture at the time was that masters could kill their slaves if they so desired, so God was calling his people to a higher standard than the culture required. In the New Testament, Paul says there is “neither slave nor free,” and he’s calling on masters to respect their slaves. There’s a movement in the text as the culture changes. As the culture changed still further into the 19th century, Christians continued that movement, claiming abolition as the only choice in line with the nature of God.
We do the same thing with women. Again, Exodus 21:
7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
Again, God is calling his people to act better than their culture. By the time of Paul, he is speaking of women prophesying and leading churches (though he, or someone claiming to be him, is also calling on them to be silent and not to have authority over men.) In both cases, we play the culture card and argue that in our egalitarian culture, God demands that we treat all people the same – outside and inside church.
Webb, in a previous book, discusses both these subjects and a third, homosexuality. He embraces the redemptive hermeneutic for the first two, but not the last. I haven’t read that book, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, but when I raised the possibility in the Jesus Creed comments that homosexuality could be covered under this hermeneutic, a fellow commenter said Webb “sees both the OT and the NT as countercultural in its rejection of homosexuality as well as consistent in its rejection of homosexuality.”
I would disagree with both of those statements.
Assuming Webb has been summarized fairly, it is true that homosexuality was commonly practiced in the cultures surrounding the Jews in both testaments; however, the kind of homosexuality practiced – temple prostitution and pederasty – was far different than the kind practiced today, between consenting adults. Indeed, today’s homosexuality would be countercultural to the pagan world surrounding the Bible. This is a clear case of the cultural norms having moved in a redemptive direction; instead of taking advantage of prepubescent boys or using religion as an excuse for sexual depravity, homosexuality has become defined in recent years by a push for two consenting people to make a lifelong commitment to each other. That would have been unthinkable in the Canaanite, Babylonian and Assyrian world of the Old Testament or the Greco-Roman world of the New.
Likewise, the consistency of the Bible on this subject is very much up for debate. While male homosexuality is condemned as an unclean act in Leviticus, lesbianism isn’t discussed at all until Paul’s discourse in Romans 1, which is a description of temple prostitution and the depravity that marked the cultic rituals of the surrounding culture. Jesus, of course, is not recorded as ever having discussed homosexuality, and there’s the final problem of scientific understanding. The word “homosexuality” didn’t even exist until the 19th century, and the knowledge that it is an inborn, genetic trait was obviously nonexistent.
I think Webb is correct that we should view Old Testament law codes in a redemptive light – to look at what God was bringing them out of, use the New Testament as a guide to where he was calling them and continue that trajectory into the present day. I think he might be wrong about leaving homosexuality out of that process. If Paul had been dealing with today’s homosexuality and today’s scientific knowledge, would he have added “neither gay nor straight” to his words in Galatians 3:28?
I confess I don’t know. My wife makes a good argument in the other direction, based on Jesus’ citation of Genesis 1:27 and the strength of Paul’s vehemence in Romans 1:21-27. I remain a searcher on many things, perhaps this issue most of all. Truth be told, I want to affirm monogamous homosexuality as equivalent in God’s sight to monogamous heterosexuality. There’s been too much hatred, science denial and fear from the traditions in which I was raised; I’d like to separate from them as cleanly as possible. Webb’s redemptive hermeneutic may be the way to do that.