The fancy word to describe the process we all use to interpret the Bible is called “Hermeneutics”. There are many different hermeneutics, just like there are many different political philosophies. And like politics, hermeneutical processes are in tension with each other and these tensions are what makes theology fun and exciting. It is also what makes theology contentious.
One of the “newer” hermeneutics that I have come in contact with is called “Trajectory” or “Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics” (RMH). How it works, as I understand it, is that the Biblical authors have a context and a culture that must be taken into account when interpreting the scriptures. The context allows us to see beyond the specific teaching, and allows us to ask in what direction is the teaching moving the people of God?
Some have found this hermeneutics helpful to address a number of topics. For example, It is argued, most notably in William J. Webb’s book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, that there is an overall “trajectory” of liberation when it comes to slavery and women throughout the Bible. For instance, Exodus 21:7-11 says:
When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master (father), who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter.
You may read this and think this sounds awful; however, what Webb and other trajectory thinkers would point us toward is that this scripture is redemptive because this commandment limits who the father can sell his daughter to. The daughter cannot be sold to foreign people and the daughter is given rights that were uncommon in the day. Webb suggests that God is pushing the boundaries of the male dominated world in such a way that women are to be liberated and free.
Webb goes on to show the incremental ways God is pushing and pulling the people toward greater redemption and liberation of women and slaves and children. According to Webb, God does not push or pull the people too far or too fast but that “God brings his people along in ways that were feasible adaptations.” (p. 255).
And this is where this hermeneutic becomes counter to the basic idea that God is the primary mover of redemption.
God pushing for liberation of women in ways that were socially acceptable still permits God to allow for the sin of subjugating women. Yes, this commandment from Exodus may be more freeing than the culture in which it was written, but redefining who you can sell your daughter to still allows you to sell your daughter.
If selling your daughter is a ultimately reveled to be a sin, then why not prohibit the selling of all daughters in Exodus? Why is there a gradual softening of the position by God over the course of scripture?
For the moment, let’s accept that God prefers to have a gradual reveal of what is sinful in ways that are “feasible adaptations’ to culture. What do we do when the trajectory seems to shift? For instance take the trajectory of marriage. Adam and Eve are monogamous, but later scriptures endorse polygamy, but then when we get later into the Bible monogamy seems to take a privileged position. Of course this trajectory is called into question when marriage is no longer a part of the new creation.
Is there is trajectory? Is the Bible waffling on the definition of marriage? Or are these commandments just reflecting what was acceptable in the culture of the time and then given a divine veneer?
If God only moves in ways that are “feasible adaptations”, then we have to ask who is driving the work of redemption? Will God command the redemption of people only when it is “feasible” to achieve? Is God waiting on humans to be willing to change before God commands it?
As a evangelical progressive pastor I believe God has already revealed God’s desire in the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The desires are stated by Jesus himself in several locations, none of which are feasible adaptions to culture. To name a few - the liberation of all people (Luke 4:17-21), mercy over purity (Matthew 9:13), supremacy of forgiveness (Luke 23:34), taking up the cross mandate (Matthew 10:38; Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; Luke 14:27), give up possessions (Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22).
Christianity proclaims that the desire of God is most clear in Jesus Christ, but readers of the entire Bible know that these are not new revelations. Jesus fulfills the law which we have failed to do (Matthew 5:17-20). In doing so Jesus points us back to what is already known to us. Humans have done a good job at justifying why we are slow to live out the desires of God.
If Trajectory/Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics reveals anything, it reveals the same sin we have always done - justifying our delay to make real the desires of God.