Sunday, November 27, 2005

Tilting at windmills-1

Ben Witherington has just published The Problem with Evangelical Theology (Bayor 2005).

This will be the fourth book-length critique of Calvinism that I’ve reviewed, following on the heels of Geisler’s Chosen But Free, Robert Picirilli’s Grace, Faith, Free Will, and Walls/Dongell’s Why I am Not a Calvinist. So I am making a good-faith effort to keep up with the best of the competition.

Witherington represents the sociorhetorical school of hermeneutics, which basically means that he’s a Classicist by training. He is also influenced by the Third Quest for the Historical Christ, with its emphasis on Second Temple Judaism.

Witherington is quite competent within his field of expertise. For example, his commentary on Acts is the best available commentary on that book of Scripture—although it will face some stiff competition from the forthcoming entries by Keener, Bock, and Gasque.

Witherington is a moderately conservative scholar who generally defends the historicity of the NT. As such, he’s often useful to the Evangelical cause.

His book is not limited to Calvinism. There’s an overlap between his critique of Calvinism and his critique of dispensationalism. My own review will be limited to his critique of Reformed theology. So, how successful is his critique?

Witherington says that “Evangelicalism has lost touch with its Reformation principles and in particular with its necessary rigorous attention to the details of the bible and the need to stick to the text and heed the cry of ‘sola Scriptura’” (xi).

The problem with this charge as it bears on the case for Calvinism is that, to judge by Witherington’s discussion and bibliography, he is almost completely ignorant of the exegetical literature in favor of Calvinism. For example, he attacks the Reformed reading of Rom 9-11 without a single reference to the commentaries by Schreiner and Murray, or the monograph on Rom 9 by Piper. There’s no interaction with the two-volume work on The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, which has a number of exegetical essays in defense of Reformed theology. No reference to Beale’s article on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exod 4-14. No reference to Carson’s commentary on John, or Silva’s commentary on Philippians, or Murray’s monograph on the imputation of Adam’s sin, or Vos on “The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God,” or Warfield’s article on predestination. These are just a few of the gaping lacunae.

In the same vein is the following claim:
“Reformed exegetes have a hard time coming to grips with the paradox of a God who is both sovereign and free, and yet somehow so exercises that sovereignty and limits his own freedom that he has made it possible for human beings to have and exercise a measure of freedom as well, including in matters of salvation. They have a hard time understanding that holy love does not involve determinism, however subtle…They have a hard time dealing with the idea that God programmed into the system a certain amount of indeterminacy, risk, and freedom” (5).

Not only is this a very patronizing comment, but it lacks any elementary awareness of the standard literature to justify such a patronizing tone. Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards, John Frame, and Paul Helm have written extensively on these very issues.

Throughout the book it becomes quickly apparent that Witherington’s putative effort to open up a constructive dialogue is simply a monologue to justify his own theological prejudice. He operates throughout in a self-satisfied and self-contained airlock, talking to himself as he regales the reader with urban legends about Calvinism and erects one straw man after another.

And it’s not just a matter of his illiteracy. There was nothing to prevent him from running a preliminary draft of his essay by a Reformed exegete like Tom Schreiner or Vern Poythress or Gregory Beale or John Piper or Don Carson. He’d rather talk than listen. Rather talk down to people than learn from them. Rather listen to the sound of his own voice than enter into a genuine dialogue. What we end up with is a book-length back-patting exercise.

In my review I’ll concentrate on chapters 1, 2, and 9. Witherington doesn’t know the difference between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology. He seems to think that since Calvinism and Lutheranism are both products of the Protestant “Reformation,” that both theological traditions are “Reformed.” This illustrates an elementary inattention to the standard nomenclature.

In his critique of “Reformed” theology, he has an entire chapter on Rom 7. What bearing this has on the case for Calvinism is decidedly unclear. Although traditional Reformed expositors interpret Rom 7 as an autobiographical allusion to Paul’s conversion experience, that interpretation is quite inessential to the structure of Reformed theology.

In chapter 1, Witherington says:
“It is a crucial Pauline theme s early as Galatians and as late as the Pastorals that God’s desire is for all to be saved, and that Christ’s atonement is to cover the sins of the world, not just of the elect” (14).

“At the very least this [Rom 5:18] implies that Paul does not believe it was God’s intent to send Christ to die for the select few. Christ’s act of justice was for the whole human race” (17).

He also quotes Cranfield saying that “Adam in his universal effectiveness for ruin is the type which…prefigures Christ in his universal effectiveness for salvation” (14).

But there are problems with this analysis. For one thing, Cranfield is a Barthian. But unless you subscribe to universalism, it is palpably false to claim universal efficacy for the atonement.

A few pages before, Witherington had himself said that “in this case it is not just the characters of Adam and Christ which are contrasted, but also all those in Adam and all those in Christ” (10).

But those in Christ are not conterminous with those in Adam. Christians are a subset of Adamites. Indeed, he cites Achtemeier as having said that the “only way to escape” the “drastic effects” of Adam’s sin “is to join another race of humanity—those who are in Christ” (17).

So, for Witherington, you don’t have a monadic correspondence between all in Adam and all in Christ. Rather, you have a dyadic correspondence between Adam and all in Adam, on the one hand, along with Christ and all in Christ, on the other—involving a numerical comparison and contrast.

As Witherington goes on to say, the differential factor is the presence or absence of faith. But if that is the case, then his appeal to the universal quantifier is fallacious since the universal quantifier does not, in fact, determine the scope of the referent. Rather, the quantified, when applied to all in Christ, is limited to believers.

So we see Witherington playing both sides of the fence. He invokes the universal quantifier to prove universal atonement, but then invokes the faith-condition to restrict the range of the atonement. Yet if the second move is valid, then that invalidates the first move, and vice versa. Either the universal quantifier delimits the scope of the atonement or else the faith-condition delimits its scope. You can’t make the faith-condition more restrictive than the quantifier and still appeal to the quantifier to prove your first point. The faith-condition does nothing to modify the meaning of a universal quantifier. The faith-condition doesn’t make the word “all” mean “some.” So if the meaning of the quantifies fails to establish the extent of the atonement, then that part of Witherington’s argument is moot.

Witherington also appeals to 1 Tim 2:5 and 4:10 to bolster his case for unlimited atonement. Now, there’s nothing wrong with citing these verses in relation to Calvinism. This is something that Reformed theology must be able to integrate into its system.

But this is old stuff. It’s not as if Calvinism is speechless in the face of such passages. One thing we need to keep in mind is this: Paul is disaffirming one thing by affirming another. What is the error that Paul is opposing in the Pastorals?

To judge by verses like 1 Tim 1:4, Tit 1:10,14-15; 3:9, he seems up be up against a variant of the Judaizers. In this case, Jews who confine the scope of salvation to those of Jewish pedigree. So Paul’s point is that salvation is not contingent on your bloodlines, but on the blood of Christ.

And, in a deliberate slap at the Judaizers, he’s doing this by appeal to the Shema or Jewish monotheism. Since there is only one God, there is only one mediator between God and man—whether Jew or Gentile.

Witherington also passes over passages like Tit 2:14 in which the scope of the atonement is confined to a chosen people.

Regarding the faith-condition, Witherington goes on to say that “Paul talks about this blessing as a ‘gift,’ and a gift is something which has to be received and unpacked. It is not something that has an automatic effect, and of course it can be rejected” (17).

Notice that this is not an exegetical argument. Witherington has done nothing to establish from Pauline usage that the gift of faith is like a Christmas present which the recipient must graciously accept and carefully unwrap and decide if he likes it or not after he’s opened the package and looked inside—and if he doesn’t like what he sees, return it to the store for a refund.

The idea of faith as something we have to…I don’t know…sign for and put on is not something that Witherington got from Paul. Rather, what we have here is a picturesque metaphor or overgrown illustration which Witherington is using as a substitute for what the Bible teaches. He seems to be pulling this from the way we celebrate Christmas or somebody’s birthday, and reading that totally extraneous image back into Scripture, as if God were Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

But in Scripture, the grace of faith is a “gift” because it comes from God, in contrast to a natural human aptitude. That’s the distinction, and not Witherington’s childish, anachronistic gloss.

In something resembling an exegetical argument, Witherington says of 1 Tim 4:10, “Notice that the limitation comes at the point of those who respond in faith, not at the point of God’s desire or will” (15).

But this won’t do the job. Witherington renders the verse “the living God who is the Savior of all people, especially of the faithful.”

But on that rendering, how is God the Savior of believers and unbelievers alike—only more so in the case of believes? In what sense is he also the Savior of unbelievers? Do the damned get to make week-end excursions to heaven?

Ironically, Witherington is not only ignorant of Reformed exegesis, but apparently of Arminian exegesis as well. This is what the standard Arminian commentary has to say:
“Adoption of the traditional translation of malista as ‘especially’ leads to some strained exegesis…These problems disappear if we accept the other possible translation, ‘to be precise, namely, I mean.’ ‘All’ is thus limited here to believers,” I. H. Marshall & P. H. Towner, The Pastoral Epistles (T&T Clark 1999), 556.

On Rom 5:19, Witherington says that “the verb here does not mean ‘to reckon,’ but rather ‘to make.’ This is to be contrasted with the disobedience of Adam which ‘made’ many sinners” (17).

That’s true, but so what? Witherington appears to be assuming that the imputation of Adam’s sin turns on the meaning of the verb. But that is not the nature of the argument.

Rather, the Reformed reading is inspired by the structural concept of imputation present in Rom 5 on the basis of the one-to-many relation between the sin of Adam and Adamites, on the one hand, paralleling the righteousness of Christ and Christians, on the other. The vicarious parallelism is the key feature.

Of course, to know that, Witherington would have to actually read a commentary or monograph on Rom 5 by a real live Calvinist. But Witherington’s scholarship does not extend to reading what someone has written before commenting on what they’ve written.

Witherington then makes the eye-popping statement that “Christ’s ‘act of justice’ wiped the slate clean, and so life was set right. Humans were then in a position to once again have a right relationship with God…” (17).

This is semi-Pelagian. Christ gives us a chance to begin again, make a fresh start, turn over a new leaf—like Adam before the fall.

Incidentally, the atonement is not Christ’s “act of justice” but the Father’s act of justice in exacting justice against sinners in the person of his Son.

So much for chapter 1. Let’s see if Witherington can redeem his sorry performance in chapter

4. Regarding the import of proginosko in Rom 8:29, Witherington says:
“It is probably that lying in the background here are the OT references to God knowing his people, which at times connote his inclination toward or love for them, and at other times connote something like the concept of election (cf. Amos 3:2; Deut 9:24; Exod 33:12,17; Gen 18:19; Deut 34:10)…[However], Paul has reenvisioned whatever he believed as a non-Christian Jew about such matters in the light of Christ and in the light of his new found eschatological beliefs…Furthermore, the language about God knowing and determining in the OT does not stand in isolation but needs to be correlated with the discussion about Israel’s apostasy, rebellion, and falling away” (59-60).

It isn’t clear how this is pertinent to the lexical import of proordizo or proginosko. To begin with, the fact that Paul “reenvisioned” his theology in light of the Christ-Event doesn’t mean that Paul is going to contradict OT theology and usage, as if the NT abrogates the OT.

Moreover, the phenomenon of national apostasy is irrelevant to the dictionary definition of a word. Witherington is confusing words with concepts. It’s a pity that a NT scholar of his standing is so ham-handed in matters of Biblical semantics. The concept of apostasy doesn’t define or redefine the import of proordizo or proginosko. It would, at most, have a bearing on the overall concept.

In this same vein, Witherington says:
“Dunn, Romans 1-8, 482, argues that the use of “foreknow” here “has in view the more Hebraic understanding of ‘knowing’ as involving a relationship experienced and acknowledge.” This however makes no sense. You cannot have a relationship with someone who does not yet exist, and more particularly you especially cannot have the experience of a relationship that does not yet exist. You can, however, know something in advance without yet experiencing it, and this is what Paul has in mind here. Cf. Acts 26:5; 2 Pet 3:17.” (267, n42.).

There are several problems with this objection:
i) Why is Witherington using Dunn as his foil? Isn’t this supposed to be a critique of Reformed exegesis? Dunn is not a Calvinist, is he? Why isn’t Witherington using a Calvinist as his foil? Why isn’t he interacting with what Schreiner or Murray has to say about proegno in Rom 8:29 in their commentaries? Or why isn’t he interacting with word-studies by Murray or Baugh on the same subject?

Frankly, I think this is one part tenure to two parts celebrity, or maybe it’s the other way round. Men like Witherington work very hard all through college and graduate school and postgraduate school, as well as assistant and associate professorships, but once they get tenure and make a name for themselves, it’s not uncommon to see them slacken their standards and coast on their reputation. They begin to spread themselves way too thin, to write too much too fast, to accept too many speaking engagements. They don’t know how to say no. They begin churning out a lot of sloppy material that would get them a failing grade if they were still in grad school. Research takes time. Analysis takes time.

ii) Although I don’t agree with Dunn, I’ll play devil’s advocate for the moment. Creative writers often have a relationship with their characters. They may have a favorite character who becomes the main character in a cycle of novels, written over a period of years or decades. And God’s relationship to the elect in his decree is analogous to the relationship of a creative writer to his storybook characters.

iii) The correct explanation, as Witherington himself hints at, only to drop on faulty grounds, is that proegno, in covenantal contexts, carries the idiomatic meaning of “to choose beforehand.” So it is a synonym for eternal election. It such settings, it doesn’t mean “to know” or “foreknow” in any pregnant sense of the word. Rather, it has a different meaning—an elective meaning. Nothing more, nothing less.

“If one thinks that God before the foundation of the world chose some individuals to be saved, come what may, then of course one has to believe that apostasy is impossible for a real Christian person, someone who is truly elect” (62).

Notice the straw man argument. Calvinism doesn’t say the elect are saved “come what may.” That isn’t Calvinism, but fatalism.

“There are just too many warning in the NT that Christians can and do fall prey to temptation, can make shipwreck of their faith, can grieve or quench the Holy Sprit in their lives, and can even commit apostasy or the unforgivable sin. If this can happen to genuine Christians, whose whom God has called and given the Holy Spirit to, and destined or intended in advance for them to be conformed to the image of the Son, then frankly something is wrong with the Reformed concept of election” (62).

i) All that Witherington has done here is to beg the question in his own favor by claiming that genuine Christians can commit apostasy or the unforgivable sin. There’s no argument here: just a tendentious assertion.

ii) Calvinism is not the only theological tradition that distinguishes between true and nominal believers. So it isn’t special pleading when we invoke this distinction with reference to apostasy.

iii) Witherington’s logic is reversible. He starts with apostasy, and modifies election accordingly. But one could just as well—indeed, much better—begin with election and modify apostasy accordingly.

iv) Apostasy is perfectly consistent with predestination: apostates are reprobates. They were foreordained to commit apostasy.

v) Witherington often alludes to 1 Tim 1:19. But this is what the standard Arminian commentary has to say:
”There is a close parallel to 6:21 which (along with the implications to be drawn from 1:3b-7) may suggest that it was by following a false ‘knowledge’ which they regarded as superior to conscience that the heretics went astray as regards their faith,” Marshall, ibid. 412.

If so, then the apostasy in question issues from a false conversion. Defecting from the faith because your theology was heretical from the get-go is hardly evidence that a true believer can lose his faith. At a bare minimum, Witherington would need to establish that the apostate was once an orthodox believer. Even that would be a necessary rather than sufficient condition, for one can be nominally orthodox. And this is hardly a logic-chopping distinction, but a quite common phenomenon.

Witherington is a Wesleyan. The Wesley brothers were leading figures in the Great Awakening. Their ministry, and the ministry of others (e.g. Whitefield, Edwards, Roland) was predicated on these very distinctions.

“Does the term [eklecktos] simply refer to an action of God, perhaps a premundane action of God…” (63)?

Another straw man argument. Once more, Witherington is confusing words with concepts. Calvinism doesn’t infer the “doctrine” of election from the Greek word alone. And dogmatic usage is not the same as Scriptural usage. Rather, the Reformed doctrine of election is derived from passages of Scripture where the concept is present, with or without the word.

“And lest we think that being elect guarantees salvation, we even have texts like 2 Kgs 23:27…” (63).

This is just more of the same lame-brained reasoning. No Reformed theologian was ever under the illusion that everywhere the verb “to choose” pops up in Scripture with God as the subject, it has reference to eternal election.

Where does Witherington come up with this stuff, anyway? It is just because he’s too lazy to study Reformed theologians? Or is he really that muddle-headed over the nature of systematic theological method? The doctrine of election is a theological construct, just like the Trinity.


  1. Excellent Steve!

    Thank you fir the time and care you brought to this issue.

    Grace and peace to you,
    Steve Camp
    2 Cor. 4:5-7

  2. Hi Steve:

    This is an interesting diatribe, but you have missed so many points, including the main ones, that it is hard to know what to say.

    I have read most all of those sources you have mentioned but this is quite beside the point. I said quite clearly at the outset that I was dealing with these different Evangelical theologies as they are found at the popular and most widely disseminated level. This means unlike most of my work I deliberately avoided spending much time debating other scholars. The issues was the ideas, not who said what.

    What is especially disturbing about your critique is its inability to be self-critical. This is unfortunate and it reduces your remarks to pure polemics, which is sad.

    Try again to recognize that all these theological systems, including Arminianism have their weaknesses particularly when they try to say something distinctive.

    And as for not knowing the difference between Reformed and Lutheran theology, shame on you--- how would you know whether I do or not? In fact, I not only attended a Reformed seminary and read almost all of Calvin's major works, and Jonathan Edwards and various later exponents like the Hodges and Warfield, I also read most of Luther-- who is even more Augustinian than Calvin, especially on the issues of secondary causes!

    So I would suggest you take a good look at your critique again, and rethink this. If you are unable to be self-critical, then you need to learn to listen to others who will help you with that.

    Ben Witherington

  3. Just in case anyone cares, replies to Ben Witherington's comment above can be found here and here.

  4. in my ballywick, the standard operating procedure on unforgivable sin is that if you are a true, mature beleiever who has fully partaken of the deepest gifts of the holy spirit, that God will kill ya before he lets you commit the unforgivable sin. Thus, it is only a "warning in extremis". akin to the end time apostacy warning " and even the elect if it were possible would be deluded..." and as to evangelism, I can see no common sense interpretation or exegesis that doesnt fully support at least ultimate human free will in the salvation process. There may be some that are chosen and foreordained to succeed but there can be NONE that are foreordained to fail(suffer eternal damnation)