Monday, January 15, 2007

The Concept of a "Redemptive Trend"

Scot McKnight has been posting on the concept of a "redemptive trend," specifically as it relates to the idea of women in ministry. In today's post, he asks the following question:

Does the redemptive trend take the Bible from the lay person’s hands or does it make explicit what we (and the Church) have been doing all along? How many of us think it is wrong to wear clothing of two different kinds of material (Lev 19:19)? How many of us think Jesus’ statement to sell our possessions and give to poor (Luke 12:33) is permanent? How many of us think women need to cover their heads (1 Cor 11:6-7)? Now I don’t want to debate specifics, but I do want us to grapple with how we treat such statements and why we treat them the way we do and to ask if we don’t already have a redemptive trend hermeneutic at work but are just uncomfortable with applying it to women in the Church?

I have been in the odd (but not unfamiliar) position of agreeing with the implied point of the discussion (that there is no Biblical warrant for excluding women from ministry) while disputing the reasoning being used to come to that conclusion.

My understanding of the basic concept of a redemptive trend is this: God inspired human beings to write the Scriptures from a position within their own cultural norms and understandings. This was necessary for the scriptures to have been written and to have been comprehensible to human beings at all. Therefore, some of what was written is culturally conditioned, and therefore application of the principles involved may vary from one cultural circumstance to another. Any reasonably developed hermeneutic will acknowledge this. The "redemptive trend" idea takes this a step further, suggesting that we may move from the culturally-conditioned commands of scripture through other passages that appear to modify or ameliorate these commands, and press this "trend" forward to a conclusion that may not be found explicitly in the Bible and may even contradict the culturally-conditioned commands.

What I understand Scot to be saying in the questions he asks is that if we acknowledge the existence of culturally-conditioned commands, obedience to the letter of which is not necessary (or applicable) today, then we have already implicitly acknowledged the concept of a redemptive trend, and therefore resistance to the concept is likely resistance to a particular application of that concept--such as women in ministry. I think that a more modest hermeneutic will suffice to deal with the cultural aspects of Scripture, and avoid some of the more problematic implications of the redemptive trend idea.

The problem of the "redemptive trend" idea is its open-endedness. How are we to distinguish between a "redemptive trend" that is to be pursued to its ultimate, logical conclusion, and a cultural situation that God may have wanted to change but not necessarily to curtail completely? For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy is tolerated; in the New, monogamy is insisted upon, and we are told that in the resurrection, there will be no marriage at all. Should we follow a "redemptive trend" and eliminate marriage altogether? (You could quote me passages in the New Testament that affirm marriage; I could dismiss these as merely culturally conditioned.)

The classic "poster child" example of a redemptive trend is that of slavery. The Bible nowhere prohibits slavery, yet throughout, God ameliorates the effects of slavery, and 19th century Christians came to the conclusion that slavery ought to be eliminated on Biblical grounds. Isn't this an obvious example of a redemptive trend?

I don't think so. What the Bible allows in the Old Testament is a form of indentured servitude which is either temporary (7 years) or voluntary, and in which the treatment of the servant is circumscribed by law. What we consider slavery--the outright ownership of one human being by another--is not permitted at all. In the New Testament, believers are to live out their Christian lives in the social and economic situations in which they find themselves. The morality of the institution itself is not dealt with.

But that's just the point, redemptive trend advocates would tell us. The Bible accommodates itself to the cultural circumstances of the day, tolerating slavery but not condoning it and ameliorating its cruelty. It was left for later generations of Christians to follow this trend out and finally to condemn slavery in all forms and to outlaw it forever. It seems to me that this position misses two points. First, taking Scripture seriously means not only dealing with the presumed terminus of the trend--in this case, the elimination of slavery--but also dealing with the accommodation itself: apparently, in some cultural circumstances, slavery was not the ultimate evil. Temporary or voluntary servitude could be preferable to being an economic outcast with no means of support. This leads to the second point: focus on the elimination of slavery can blind us to social and economic injustices that may be equally oppressive but don't bear the name, "slavery." Is it better to be a voluntary servant in the household of a fair-minded Old Testament Israelite, or to be entrapped in an Asian sweatshop today?

With regard to Scot's examples above, I take the Lev 19:19 passage as an Old Covenant proscription not binding in the New; the command to sell our possessions as just as binding on us as on Jesus' original audience (i.e., probably not an absolute command even then, but probably more binding on us than most of us would like to admit); and the head covering command as, yes, cultural, but telling us in principle that we are to dress and conduct ourselves in a manner that would be recognized as modest and humble in whatever cultural circumstances we find ourselves. Similarly, I may not greet my brothers in Christ with a "holy kiss," but I do think that I should greet them warmly and affectionately in the Lord.

In other words, a serious hermeneutic must recognize the differences between different covenants; must recognize hyperbolic language where it exists; and must recognize that there are sometimes underlying principles that are expressed in culturally specific forms in Scripture. None of these recognitions implies our right to follow a "redemptive trend" that is not only beyond Scriptural warrant but actually opposed to certain things Scripture actually says.

Technorati Tags: , , , , ,


  1. I have been concerned that at Jesuscreed there seems to be a feeling that we need to apply a redemptive trend approach in order to justify women's equality and to give womankind the full freedom to use their gifts in the body.

    I agree with you, a more modest hermeneutic is both sufficient and necessary.

  2. Keith,

    Have you read Webb's book? I think he does a really good job of showing when the redepmtive trend should be applied, and when it shouldnt. He uses homosexuality as the example of this.

    I think reading the book would help you understand what he is really saying more.

  3. Thanks, samicarr. It looks as though we share the same concern.

    Anonymous--No, to be honest, I have not read Webb's book, and I am sure that doing so would help me understand his point better. Based on what I've read on Jesus Creed, it seems to me that the criteria are rather subjective and designed to fit a preconceived outcome, but it may be that I've formed a false impression.

    Would you be willing to share how Webb applies his thesis to the issue of homosexuality? My impression, which again may be ill-conceived, is that slavery is Webb's "sure thing" example, the one he wants to use to secure a hearing for his thesis; the role of women is the example that will antagonize some conservatives but will be approved of by most moderate-to-liberal groups; and homosexuality is the cutting-edge example. But once again, I may have completely misread this "trend" as well.

  4. Yeah...slavery is the "sure thing example". He uses the issue about women to show where the redemptive trend should be used, and uses homosexuality as an an example of when it should NOT be used.

    Basically, you can pick up his main idea in the first 75 or so pages of the book. It's well worth a read.

  5. Thank you for the tip on Webb's book. It appears that I have misread the "trend" I thought was in it. I will make it a point to check it out.

  6. I certainly understand the "slippery slope" possibilities in the redemptive trend argument. It makes me a little wary, too. I find , however, that most Christians too easily categorize anything that we find bizarre (i.e. head coverings, holy kisses) as "cultural", anything find normal as "doctrinal", and then we argue about everything in the middle. There should be (IMHO) some systematic approach that makes sense in all of these cases. I'm interested in reading Webb's book to see how he structures the argument.

  7. Keith: I'm trying to understand what is meant by the "redemptive trend argument" being discussed here. Does it mean that what the Bible literally says is not necessarily the way we need interpret it because of a trend (in believers) that Jesus' redemptive sacrifice overturns certain passages such as the cultural ones in scripture as slavery, head covering and women in ministry?
    And the women's ministry issue is evolving from Jesus' acceptance and promotion of females. And Paul recognition of their importance to the furtherance of the gospel?
    If the ministry of women is an issue, I find it ridiculous. I find women can serve the Lord in multiple capacities without serving as Pastors and Ministers and Teachers of men. Just my thinking. I'm rather conservative on the issue. selahV
    P.S. Love to hear Anne Graham Lott and others speak. Even when speaking to mixed gender assemblies. Speaking and sharing their understanding of the Lord at work is different than a constant head-ship (if I'm permitted to make up a word) over men.

  8. SelahV--

    Yes, the actual issue being discussed on Jesus Creed was how this "redemptive trend" idea could affect our understanding of the issue of women in ministry. It's based on a book which I haven't read, and evidently have a flawed understanding of.

    I'm just generally concerned about the implications of going beyond scriptural warrant because one discerns a "trend" in a particular direction in Scripture. Let's just say the dominant culture in the first century is at position A. In Scripture, God says it should be at position B. Over the next 2000 years, the dominant culture moves to position C, and voices in the church begin arguing that we should move to position C in the church as well.

    What I don't know, methodologically, is how we are supposed to distinguish between a "redemptive trend" that would make valid a move (beyond what Scripture actually says) to point C, and God actually wanting us to stay at point B.

    You would get along with my wife. She's also skittish about women as pastors. Personally, I don't have a strong opinion; I don't find the arguments against women's ordination compelling. But I do think that ministry is about meeting the needs of the people being ministered to; it isn't about a person having a position or a title or the right to self-expression. That fact gets lost a lot in the debate.

  9. Keith: Yes, I probably would like your wife. Wish more wives of you guys would blog. But then most women do not have the luxury of time, like I. They are scrubbing behind ears, doing laundry and preparing to do everything they did today all over again tomorrow.

    I do not and cannot see women pastoring men. Can't. Won't. I value women for mentors. I value their perspectives to Bible studies in co-ed classes. I love to hear them speak. (I like their sensitivity and feminine point of view) But do not want them in positions over men. I need to go back and study up on Esther and Deborah.

    On Brad Reynold's site they are dabbling in that issue a bit. But in my humble opinion, I think part of the reason more men do not step up to the plate to be the leaders in their homes is because they'll rue the day they did should they try. Marriages in general today have been so watered down from the Word of God and the authority line that there is little room for a man to be a man without incurring the wrath of females. And I believe that is due to point B moving to point C without regard to God's opinion in the matter.

    I wonder. Would we even be having these kinds of discussions if not for the Women's Lib Movement in the 60's? What do you think? selahV