Trajectory/Redemptive Movement Hermeneutics - Humans Driving Redemption

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.

These signs give a ‘trajectory’ but there is much interpretation needed to arrive at Rio.  Photo by  Deanna Ritchie  on  Unsplash

These signs give a ‘trajectory’ but there is much interpretation needed to arrive at Rio.

Photo by Deanna Ritchie on Unsplash

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.

Golden Record shot into space and the Bible

It may still be in the collective memory that back in 1977 there was a golden record shot into space. Known as the Voyager Golden Record, it contains sounds and images of life here on Earth. It has words of greetings in all sorts of languages as well as images of an X-rayed hand to a woman at a supermarket (here is a list of the contents of the record).

Do you use a record player or a laser disk to read this thing?

Do you use a record player or a laser disk to read this thing?

This is a beautiful and humbling project taken on by many people and curated by a few people before it was "officially created". There was controversy to be sure of what was included and what was not included. There is only so much space on a record made of gold and only some things just did not make the cut even if they were considered by people to be worthy. And while the prospect of this record being found and played by creatures beyond earth is slim to none, it does not take away from the beauty of the project. 

This project was dedicated to try to express deep truths about life here on Earth. It tried, through image and song and language and poetry, to give a glimpse into what we believe at that moment in time to be "timeless". It tried to express something to future and different generations about what we think will be universal and beautiful and enduring. It was not a perfect project. It has faults. For instance, the fact this whole project is one a gold record exposes the cultural surroundings of the contents. Or the fact this was deeply influenced by Americans contextualizes the contents of the record. This record has its own biases and limitations. And although not exactly the same, this golden record is similar to the Bible.

Located in different times and cultures the scriptures have their own biases and faults. They are human products that try to express the the deep Truths of God through poem, prose and song. Many people contributed to the creation of the canon but it was curated by a smaller number of people. And there are stories and texts that just did not make the cut for one reason or another. The scriptures try to express what it means to be in right relationship with God and neighbor and self and it tries to tell the story of God. It has faults (Methodists do not believe the Bible is infallible) and it has quirks (like when she-bears maul some boys who mock a prophet of God).

For all it's failings it is the best artifact that I know of that can guide one to know God in Christ through the Spirit. (To be clear the Bible is not the Word of God, but the word of God.)

One can imagine that if we were to create another "golden record" tomorrow, we would have similar aspects to the original. However, one could imagine that we would even brand new aspects of what it means to be human on planet Earth. Just because we have a canonized Bible does not mean that we have learned everything there is to know about God, the nature of reality and what it means to live in right relationship.

So as we move into this Pentecost season may we continue to be open to what the Holy Spirit has to remind, show and expose us to about this beautiful loving creator we call God.