Webb v. Grudem: “Ultimate Ethic”

In the last few years William Webb has been the favorite whipping boy of CBMW and complementarians of all types. Ever since his book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals was published he has been subject to intense criticism by those that label his project “trajectory hermeneutics.” These code words are supposed to represent the idea that Webb has constructed a “cultural filter” that weeds out the parts of the Bible he doesn’t like (i.e. the subjugation of women) and posits an “ultimate ethic” outside of the Bible that the unfolding narrative of Scripture was heading towards. Thus Scripture is set on a “trajectory” towards something it doesn’t explicitly affirm, and perhaps even denies.

Condemnation of Webb’s work comes from a number of voices, but almost every one of them relies on the critique leveled against it by Wayne Grudem. Dr. Grudem published a 48-page review article in the 2004 June edition of JETS in which he condemned Webb’s hermeneutic as “deeply flawed,” contradicting sola Scriptura, and nullifying “the moral authority of the entire New Testament” by replacing it with “the moral authority of a ‘better ethic.’” Where does this so-called “better ethic” come from? According to Grudem it is derived from “a complex hermeneutical process entirely foreign to the way God intended the Bible to be read, understood, believed, and obeyed.” The article was reprinted in Grudem’s massive polemic against egalitarianism Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth and has been cited consistently by his complementarian friends in further condemning Webb as an evangelical scholar.

Interestingly enough, this was not the first time Webb had encountered criticism. Tom Schreiner reviewed his book shortly after it came out in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Webb responded defending his position a year later in Evangelical Quarterly (not available online). The same issue of biblical authority came up in Schreiner’s review and Webb responded by saying he wholeheartedly concurred with Schreiner’s statements that the NT is the “final and definitive revelation” that “speaks to every practical issue.” The finality of the revelation in the NT is not in dispute, says Webb; rather, the real issue is how one relates the NT as “final revelation” with a realization of its social ethics. Thus, for Webb, the so-called “better ethic” is found within Scripture (not from without), but not fully realized. Slavery is a paradigm example of this dilemma, and he argues that the within the canon we see a “movement” towards the ideal ethic of liberation between the Testaments.

If Webb had simply written about the issue of slavery he would probably have been left alone. Yet the second third of his book’s title is about women, and he argues that the same principles of movement can be discerned, albeit more controversially, in an egalitarian framework. Therefore, Webb believes that the final revelation of the NT contains a social ethic of equality between men and women that does not recognize the cultural implications of patriarchy. In this analysis the verses used to subjugate women are speaking to a specific cultural context for a culture-bound reason much in the same way slaves are enjoined to submit to their masters. Does this reasoning lead to the acceptance of homosexuality? Webb says no, because there is no movement between the canons on the issue, and that the lack of restraint on the prohibitions in the face of its wide cultural acceptance is evidence that the ethic was fully realized and should be for us too.

Merging the concepts of final revelation with the final realization of the “better ethic” is the error of Webb’s critics, and it should be clear that when properly comprehended, Webb does not at all deny the moral authority of the New Testament.

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