Friday, November 11, 2005

The Problem with Ben Witherington

Ben Witherington has written a new book. Ben Witherington writes a new book every other week. Well, not exactly, but he’s nothing if not prolific.

His new book is a critique of three Evangelical traditions, of which Calvinism is a prime target. Since he’s such a high profile figure in the Evangelical community, it is worthwhile to comment on his approach.

He recently gave an interview plug his new book.

While it’s not entirely fair to judge a book by an interview, his answers give us an idea of his argumentative strategy.

Let’s begin with a few quotes:

“The issue is not really with Christology, the Trinity, the virginal conception, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or the Bible as the Word of God. The issues I'm concerned about are the distinctives of Calvinist, Arminian, dispensational, or Pentecostal theology. When they try to go some particular direction that's specific to their theological system, that's precisely the point in their argument at which they are exegetically weakest.”

“In addition, we are all children of the Enlightenment, so we've tended to treat the Bible as if it were a history of ideas, where topics like soteriology, justification, the new birth, sanctification, going on to perfection, and glorification were the main themes, and our job was to link one idea to another.”

“I think part of the problem is that we are still doing theology in an Enlightenment frame of mind, as if it were a string of ideas that we should logically link together, and once we've produced a nice logical circle, then we're home free. The truth is that life is a lot messier than that, and the Bible is more about stories than the history of ideas that are embedded in the stories.”

The problem with these remarks ought to be obvious. To take a couple of his own examples, the doctrine of the Trinity is a theological construct. The doctrine of Christ is a theological construct. The way we arrive at the Trinity or a high Christology is precisely by logically linking one idea to another.

Witherington seems to be rejecting the harmonistic principle, which is the basis of systematic theology. But the harmonistic principle isn’t limited to the distinctives of a particular theological tradition. It is equally relevant to Christology and the Trinity.

If he repudiates the harmonistic principle, then how is he going to maintain any standard of orthodoxy? Couldn’t the Arian and the Unitarian take refuge in the criterion of messiness?

After all, there are problem passages for the Trinity. There are problem passages for the deity of Christ. The Arian has his prooftexts. The Unitarian has her prooftexts.

Witherington goes on to say: “That would suggest that what matters is not truth, what matters is, "Can't we all just get along?"…This is all about truth with a capital T. Therefore, we need to work these things out…”

But how can we be faithful to the truth if Scripture fails to furnish “an abstract collection of eternal principles that we can then link”? How can we work these things out if we relegate logic to Enlightenment thinking? How can we “be more faithful to honoring the Word of God,” if the witness of Scripture is so messy that it sends us mixed signals?

Moreover, don’t we have NT writers like Paul, in Romans and Galatians, or the author of Hebrews, stringing ideas together to drive home their point? They wander all over the OT, plucking a passage here, pulling a passage there, and linking these into a logical chain or bracelet.

Furthermore, didn’t Jesus often fault the rabbis for failing to attend to the implicit teaching of Scripture? They failed to take an OT teaching to its logical conclusion. So the business of drawing inferences and comparing one inference with another is a theological method we find in Scripture itself.

It is true that a lot of Biblical teaching takes the form of narrative theology. When, however, there is a point of theological controversy, we see Bible writers (e.g. Paul, the author of Hebrews) and speakers (e.g. Jesus, Stephen) shift to a different genre. In polemic writing and discourse, they don’t only tell more stories. They comment on stories. They tell stories to illustrate a point they’ve made by non-narrative means. They draw inferences. They link one idea with another.

Narrative theology is more than story-telling. Narrative theology is interpretive history. And there are many literary genres in Scripture besides historical narrative.

Incidentally, one wonders why Witherington dates the method of systematic theology to the Enlightenment. Calvin is pre-Enlightenment. For that matter, Aquinas wrote commentaries on the Bible—commentaries in the Scholastic mode.

Witherington tries to bolster his contention by the following claim:

“We have to remember that those who wrote the Bible were not late-Western Christians suffering from post-Enlightenment psychoses. These were people who lived in storied worlds, in an oral culture where storytelling was the essence of the thing. Most people in that culture were not even literate. They didn't live in a world bound by texts.

The Bible was not written in a text-oriented culture but for an oral culture. So these documents were meant to be heard. When you read them out loud in Greek, you notice alliteration and poetry and all kinds of things going on that are totally lost in translation. I think the oral dimension of the biblical world, very much connected to storytelling, is a crucial dimension and is a key to understanding the theology in those texts.”

There are a couple to basic problems with this claim. To begin with, it fails to draw an elementary distinction between orality and aurality. It is true that Scripture is written for the ear more than for the eye. But that does not imply a preliterate or illiterate culture. That does not imply an oral culture.

Literality is prior to orality. Speeches are committed to writing. Or writing is read aloud. So we still have a text-based language community. The spoken word may be the common mode of communication, but the spoken word is simply a delivery mechanism for the written word.

Witherington goes on to say that “Part of the problem is the temptation to form our theology almost independently of doing our exegesis. We run to the biblical text to shore up or find proof texts for things we already believe.”

This is true. Indeed, it’s a truism. And it suffers from the limitations of a truism. For it points in no particular direction. Everyone can agree with it, and apply it to the opposing side.

At the same time, it’s also somewhat misleading. Due to the redundancy of Biblical teaching, a systematic theologian can get it right on predestination, irresistible grace, and perseverance, even if he sometimes gets it wrong on a particular verse of Scripture. His specific exegesis can be off from time-to-time without his being generally mistaken.

Moving from generalities to specifics, Witherington says:

“The Calvinist system links the ideas of predestination, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Each of those has its own exegetical weaknesses, especially perseverance of the saints.

You have in the Homily to the Hebrews (usually called the Letter to the Hebrews) a long discourse warning Jewish Christians in Rome about falling away, defecting, backsliding, renouncing the grace they've received. There's this huge warning in Hebrews 6:1-6 that says, in effect: Look, you've tasted of the Holy Spirit, you've heard the gospel, you've come to the altar 15 times; if you've done all of these things and you turn back, then you've committed apostasy, and what you're facing is final judgment. He is warning all of the Jewish Christians in Rome, not a select group. That's perfectly clear from the trajectory and flow of the argument if you pursue it right through Hebrews. Christians who are eternally secure in this lifetime don't need those kinds of warnings. But the author of Hebrews doesn't think there are such people. He doesn't think you're eternally secure until you're securely in eternity.”

I plan to post something on this subject, so I won’t go into detail. But a few comments are in order:

1.Perseverance and eternity security are not interchangeable concepts. Eternal security is associated with fundamentalism, not Calvinism. It is antinomian. It confines the grace of God to the objective work of Christ to the exclusion of the subjective work of the Spirit. Every objection to eternal security is not an objection to perseverance.

2.The author is writing to everyone in the sense that a letter is a medium of mass communication. That doesn’t mean that everything in the letter is equally relevant to every member of the audience. For example, there’s no reason to assume that every Jewish Christian in Rome was contemplating apostasy. The fact that it’s written to everyone doesn’t mean that it’s for everyone. Unlike a private letter, the author cannot individualize.

3.In terms of the trajectory and flow of the argument, the leading theme in Hebrews is not the danger of apostasy, but the supremacy of Christ. The author mounts a spiral argument to show that Christ is superior to the prophets and the angels, to Moses and Aaron.

But if Christ, as the high priest of his people, cannot save his people from apostasy, then how is he superior to the prophets and the angels, to Moses and Aaron? What does the high priestly intercession of Christ amount to if he cannot preserve his people from damnation?

4.It isn’t enough to say that they tasted of the Holy Spirit. You have to ask how the work of the Spirit is delineated in the Book of Hebrews. Is this equivalent to regeneration—or inspiration? Is this about the New Birth? Or is it related to the agency of the Holy Spirit in the authorship of Scripture? Are they resisting the grace of regeneration? Or are they resisting the voice of the Spirit speaking in Scripture?

5.Let us also not overemphasize the warnings to the detriment of the assurances, for the writer has a habit of beginning with a stern admonition, but ending on a note of encouragement (3:14; 6:9-12; 10:39; 12:4ff).

6.The doctrine of perseverance isn’t simply a logical inference from election, or special redemption, or irresistible grace. There are also direct prooftexts for this teaching, viz., Jn 10, 17; Rom 8.

P.S. Hat-tip to Gene Bridges for drawing my attention to this interview.


  1. Thank you, Steve. In fairness, I have to give an HT to Alan Kurschner, the Calvinist Gadfly, whose blog linked the article yesterday evening.



  2. Dear Gene:

    I was pointed to this website recently, and since I found some interesting comments here, I thought I would respond, even though the discussion seems to have mostly taken place some weeks ago.

    First of all, you are right. You shouldn't review a book unless you have actually read it. It prevents obvious mistakes. Secondly, you would be wrong to take someone else' word for it about a book-- this book is not mainly about Calvinism, though there is a critique of Calvinism near the beginning of the book.

    I find the defensiveness, and in the case of 'Steve' hyper-defensiveness quite remarkable and telling. All of us should be able to take constructive criticism without knee-jerk reactions or polemics. All of us should be able to admit there are problems with some of our own theological and exegetical assumptions and interpretations. If not, no dialogue is possible.

    A few comments on your more substantive points: 2) the notion of eternal security is simply a subset of the notion of perseverance of the saints, and is its most common form of expression at the level of lay people talking about the idea. You are right of course that Calvin provides a richer discussion of this matter, and does not just reduce perseverance to the issue of whether we are or feel we are secure forever; 2) I beg to differ with you about the Trinity-- it is NOT a theological construct that we have conjured up-- it is an eternal reality. By not reading the book you have missed the point I am making about the problem with post-Enlightenment ways of dealing with ancient texts; 3) you are absolutely wrong about first century culture. Only 10-20% of the culture was literate. It was both an oral and an aural culture such that even texts were written so as to be spoken and heard, becoming transcripts of speeches, oracles etc. that one would have offered if one was present. The NT era is not a text based period of history and there are fundamental consequences to this.

    3) I have nothing against harmonizing things when you are trying to see how things actually fit together. This in its best sense is like putting together a puzzle where God has already cut the pieces to fit but he wants us to probe and see how that extant harmony works out. But harmonizing has its dangers as well, not the least of which is that it often leads to stripping a text not only of its context but of its original meaning. It has to be done with care and with more knowledge of the context not less.

    4) You are absolutely right about narrative theology, and the fact that not everything is narrative in the Bible. However, it is true that everything is undergirded by and supported by narrative in various ways because everything is undergirded by the mighty acts of God and interaction of God with human beings--- a grand story. For example, the OT Laws presuppose a covenant, which in turn presupposes a relationship, the chronicling of which is a story.

    5) When Paul or someone else wrote a letter meant to be heard by a whole congregation it was directed to the whole congregation-- say "the church in Corinth". Now of course it is true that some bits of that letter would be more relevant to some folks than others. Paul makes this clear for example when he deals with specific problems in a text like 1 Cor. 5. But even in that case Paul wants the whole audience to hear about it to warn them against such immoral behavior as well.

    When we are dealing with Hebrews (and certainly you are right that Christology is a more pervasive theme than apostasy in this sermon) it is important to recognize that the author is warning the entire audience against the problem and dangers of apostasy, whether they are tending in that direction or not at the current moment. He does not add a little footnote saying "BTW this is only for those who are not amongst the elect". Why not? Because that is not his theological viewpoint. Read Hebrews 6 again closely. It is a warning meant for all of us.

    This is enough for now, but I do want my Calvinist friends not to make the silly mistake of thinking that non-Calvinist readings of the NT are superficial or not substantive in the way they interpret the Bible. This would be a caricature, and it serves no good purpose to caricature another person's worldview. This of course applies to me as well as to you.

    Merry Christmas to you and yours,

    Ben Witherington

  3. Yeah Steve, you've made a mistake that many evangelicals have already formed an opinion about the book and are against it simply by the title or write-up about it, and you haven't even read it. I personally am not Calvinistic in the slightest and plan on purchasing some of Dr. Witherington's books (I've just recently become acquainted with him), but I certainly listen to my Calvinistic friends and believe they have another view on the biblical text that is sometimes healthy and good for me to hear. It's sad that you base your theology off of 1)systematic theology textbooks that do incredible injustice to the biblical text, 2)pastors like John Piper that do the same (though an incredible man), 3)basically 1 man (Augustine) whose thoughts were regurgitated by two other men (Calvin and Luther) when nobody else had these western, individualistic thoughts before them. I love my Calvinistic friends and love the emphasis the system puts on God and exegesis, but the way it views humanity (who is created in God's image), and God's character (who is a complete egotistical jerk in Calvinistic theology, which the system also makes claims that aren't even biblical...complete foreknowledge, "the fall", persevearance of the saints, etc). Maybe you should actually try learning something from somebody who thinks outside the box. I totally admire and respect Dr. Witherington for writing about these issues and praise God he is seeking truth and not conformity or acceptance. I have grown up in a Calvinistic setting, currently go to a seminary with a Calvinstic mindset, and studied the Scriptures and proof-texts Calvinists claim, and though it might be good and right at many is evil at its core. If Christians would seek truth rather than conformity to systems then maybe we would have more people like Ben Witherington. I do not claim him to be right on all things he believes, but at least he's willing to stand up for truth based upon the scriptures, something clergymen are afraid to do b/c they don't want to lose their jobs (paycheck), nor their congregations (patriotism in the church, tithing, alcohol, interpretations of Gen 1-2, and many more).