“The fact that final salvation is a gift that must be received when Christ returns does not in any way relativize the importance of believers here and now persevering in the faith so that they might “be in that number when the saints go marching in.” Nothing in 1 or 2 Thessalonians suggests otherwise, and indeed much suggests that persevering is something that Christians must actively purpose and engage in, for it is possible for them to fall or commit apostasy” (66).
i) This is littered with more confusions and straw man. How is the claim that perseverance is essential to salvation inconsistent with Calvinism when one of the five-points of Calvinism is the perseverance of the saints? Where does Witherington get his information about Calvinism? From Dave Hunt?
ii) It is possible for a Christian to commit apostasy if he doesn’t persevere. It is not possible for a Christian not to persevere. That’s the point of the doctrine. God, by the inner grace of the Holy Spirit and the outward means of grace (e.g. preaching, prayer, Christian fellowship), preserves the elect so that they will, indeed, endure to the end.
iii) Calvinism aside, what does Witherington mean by saying that “final salvation” must be received at the Parousia? Is he saying that a Christian’s salvation is still up in the air when he dies? That unless he receives the gift of final salvation at the Parousia, he is damned? According to Witherington, what happens to a Christian when he dies? Does Witherington subscribe to conditional immortality?
He then appeals to 2 Peter 3:9. But Bauckham, though no Calvinist himself, has pointed out that this has reference, not to humanity in general, but to the covenant community. Cf. Jude, 2 Peter (Word 1983), 312-313. So this verse doesn’t prove that “God desires one thing, the outcome is another,” Witherington’s assertion notwithstanding.
“It may be asked whether Gundry Volf really wants to argue that God infallibly and inevitably appointed some for wrath from before the foundation of the world. Come what may and do what they will” (66)?
i) I have no idea what Volf really wants. But Calvinism does affirm “that God infallibly and inevitably appointed some for wrath from before the foundation of the world.” We call that reprobation.
ii) But then he throws in this business about “come what may and do what they will.” Yet another nescient straw man argument. Although sin is not a sufficient condition of reprobation, it is a necessary condition.
Witherington could have found out about this by consulting any standard Reformed writer on the subject, viz., Bavinck, Berkhof, Frame, Hodge, Turretin, &c.
It’s really rather embarrassing for a man of Witherington’s reputation to raise one know-nothing objection after another. Worse then embarrassing—dishonest. To publish such an uninformed critique of Calvinism is to publicly attack a position without having acquainted oneself with the particulars of that position. The inevitable result is to misrepresent the position in question. This is defamatory and libelous. As an Arminian, Witherington is big on personal responsibility. It would be nice to see him lead by example.
“The issue for this discussion is whether calling means ‘effectual calling’” (66).
Yet another illustration of Witherington’s inability to distinguish words from concepts. Calvinism doesn’t infer effectual calling from the mere use of the verb. It all depends on context.
“When Paul does talk about holiness and progressive sanctification during this lifetime he includes remarks like we find in 1 Thes 4:3-5 where human actions are involved, and not solely divine ones…” (67).
One more example of Witherington’s pig-ignorance. Calvinism doesn’t deny, but rather affirms, a cooperative aspect to sanctification:
“The soul after regeneration continues dependent upon the constant gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, but is, through grace, able to cooperate with them,” “Sanctification,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, J. Meeter, ed. (P&R 1980), 2:327.
Not everything in Calvinism is monergistic. Election, regeneration, and justification are monergistic, but that’s not the case with respect to sanctification.
Now Witherington might find that illogical, but the problem is that before you can fault a position, you need to understand it. And Witherington consistently fails on both counts. He misstates the position, then waves it aside without benefit of argument.
As a classic Arminian, Witherington simply assumes that anything done by God negates the human factor, and anything done by man negates the divine factor. Divine and human agency are in a state of fundamental opposition, where one necessarily limits the other.
This is not, of course, the Reformed conception. From the Reformed standpoint, it is God’s unlimited control over all things which makes possible our limited self-control. I can only type this sentence because a software engineer designed a program which makes it possible. The program both constrains and empowers my action. Without the program, I would not be at liberty to type this sentence. I am free to type it thanks to the program, but, by the same token, I am not free to use the program and to resist the program at the same time.
For Witherington, any element of cooperation would introduce an element of uncertainty into the outcome. But that, again, is due to his particular version of action theory.
Take the inspiration of Scripture. This is a cooperative endeavor. God makes full use of a Bible writer’s personality—his knowledge, temperament, faculties, and so on. Yet God is able to secure the outcome of this process. Indeed, God is providentially responsible for the Bible writer’s personality in the first place.
A secondary effect can be contingent on the human agent, but that secondary effect is, in turn, contingent on the divine agent. A second-order outcome of a first-order impetus.
“God accepts all kinds of limitations in order to have a relationship with human beings…God treats his people as persons who will be held responsible for their life choices. A loving response to God cannot be coerced or predetermined, if it is to be personal and free. Indeed, it is also the case that for any behavior to be truly virtuous or loving, it must involve the power of contrary choice” (268-269, n53).
This is, of course, the classic Arminian objection to Calvinism. And there are several things to take note of:
i) This is not an exegetical objection. Witherington has done nothing to show from Scripture itself that any of these assertions is true. He hasn’t shown from Scripture that divine self-limitation is a prerequisite of entering into a personal relationship with man. He hasn’t shown from Scripture that a loving response cannot be predetermined. He hasn’t shown from Scripture that libertarian freedom is a precondition of virtue.
Calvinism begins with the radical idea that if you want to know what God is like, you don’t speculate about God, but listen to God. If you want to know what God has done, you don’t speculate about God, but listen to God. God has told us what he’s like. God has told us what he’s done. We take God’s self-revelation as the source of our knowledge of God.
By contrast, Witherington’s modus operandi is to interpret the Bible in light of what he deems to be the necessary and sufficient conditions of moral responsibility. He doesn’t derive these preconditions from the witness of Scripture itself. Rather, these are extra-Biblical assumptions which control his reading of Scripture.
ii) Not only has Witherington failed to make an exegetical case for his position, but he has failed to mount any sort of argument at all. Apparently, Witherington doesn’t feel the need to argue his position since it is obviously true to him.
But this is hopelessly jejune. I have before me The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. This is a hefty volume, 9.6 inches high by 6.8 inches wide, 638 pages long, with a series of heavily footnoted essays and a 40-page bibliography. The volume includes a variety of highly sophisticated essays defending soft and hard determinism—in addition to essays in favor of libertarian freewill. To my knowledge, none of the critics of libertarian freewill in this volume are Reformed, or even Christian.
The time is long overdue for Arminians like Witherington to get beyond this seat-of-the pants appeal to their pretheoretical intuitions regarding moral responsibility. Amateur night is no substitute for academic rigor.
“In Rom 8:38-39 we have a similar promise for believers bout no external force or factor separating them from the love of God. However, the one thing not listed in that list is, of course, the individual himself” (68).
“Paul will go on to stress that no outside power, circumstance, degree of suffering, or temptation can rip them out of the firm grip that God has on their lives” (75).
“He means all that is necessary for salvation, all that is necessary to protect believers from spiritual danger in all sorts of difficult and dangerous circumstances…no third party or power or force or circumstance or lesser supernatural being will be able to separate the believer from the love of God in Christ” (78).
“His point is to stress that no other forces, powers, experiences, or events external to the believer’s own heart or mind can do so” (81).
This is a very arbitrary distinction. Is “temptation” internal or external to our heart and mind? Is “suffering” internal or external to our heart and mind?
Why would a professing believer feel tempted to fall away? Why would he succumb to temptation? Oftentimes it is under duress and pressure from outside incentives to leave the faith and/or disincentives to remain faithful.
In fact, Witherington has Rom 8:28-39 exactly backwards by making it say what it doesn’t say, and by denying what it does say. Rom 8:28-39 takes for granted the existence of these external threats in the life of the believer. God will not shield the believer from exposure to these hostile situations. So what is left? If Christians are outwardly at the mercy of such circumstances, then the only thing which keeps them from falling is the inner grip of God.
By his own account, Witherington clearly believes that God does not do all that’s necessary for salvation, God does not do all that’s necessary to protect believers from spiritual danger, since Witherington also believes that a true child of God can be lost.
“Paul addresses the entire Thessalonian audience in this fashion throughout this letter” (70).
Naturally. This is a public letter, not a private letter. It is a medium of mass communication. Since Paul is not in Thessalonica at the time of writing, he can’t individualize. So he writes a letter. It’s a one-to-many means of communication. This doesn’t mean that everything he says is equally true of everyone to whom the letter is addressed.
“The language of election, appointing, destining is used in a variety of ways in Paul, and indeed in the NT, and in no case is it used in a fashion that suggests that humans are predetermined for salvation or wrath regardless of their own volitions or desires, as if only God’s will was involved in such crucial matters, or as if only God’s will determines the outcome of these things” (70).
Like clockwork, we’re treated to yet another one of Witherington’s simplistic caricatures of the opposing position. Notice how he jumbles distinct concepts and categories. God is the only agent who determines the outcome. God is not the only agent involved in the outcome. Election and reprobation presuppose sin, so election and reprobation are not irrespective of our sinful volitions and desires. But election is not contingent on how we would response since, left to our own devices, we are rebels and fugitives.
Again, salvation does involve the human will, for regeneration renews the fallen will, but by that very same token, regeneration enjoys causal priority over faith and repentance. The Christian is an active participant in some, but not all phases, of salvation. But he is activated or reactivated by God, and his subsequent activity is not autonomous.
“There is a synergistic nature to perseverance as God works in the person or persons to will and do to, but they also must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. The human part is not optional or otiose” (72).
“There is more than one will in operation in the universe. There is God’s will and human wills, not to mention the willing of angels and demons and the devil” (74).
No Calvinist denies this. But does God thereby cede some of his authority to the devil? Is this a power-sharing arrangement? Why would Witherington rather be at the mercy of the Devil than at the mercy of the Lord?
“Origen, Chrysostom, Theodoret, and other ancient Greek commentators knew Paul’s’ Greek far better than we do” (74).
That may well be so, but excepting for Origen, who is accounted a heretic, the Greek Fathers didn’t know their way around the Hebrew OT, which is key to understanding NT theology.
“Rom 8:29 must be red in light of v28…Paul is not discussing some mass of unredeemed humanity out of which God chose some to be among the elect” (75).
So we should read Rom 8:29 in light of Rom 8:28, but we shouldn’t read Rom 8:29 in light of what Paul has to say about the mass of unredeemed humanity in Rom 1-6 or the common lump in Rom 9. Don’t you just love contextual exegesis?
“As Paul uses [the terms foreknow and predestine], they do not refer in the first instance to some limitation on our freedom, nor do they refer to some arbitrary decision by God that some creatures are to be denied all chance at salvation” (75).
This characterization could scarcely be more prejudicial. It begins by initially positing the fact of human freedom which Calvinism then proceeds to “limit.” It describes election and reprobation as “arbitrary.” It describes salvation as giving everyone a “chance.” The insinuation here is that God has to make a special effort to prevent sinners from being saved. Reading Witherington write about Calvinism is like reading a Klansman write a biography of Lincoln.
“Paul will make clear in Rom 10:8-15 that the basis of that response is faith and confession” (76).
And what is the source of faith or its absence? Paul attributes faith to the gift of God while he attributes unbelief to the hardening of God. Witherington’s answer only pushes the question back a step. And when we take a step back, the answer is found in God’s will, not in man’s.
“Knowing and willing are not one and the same with God. The proof, of course, is that God knows very will about human sin, but he does not will it or destine it to happen” (76).
Remember that Witherington is supposed to be writing a critique of Calvinism. But instead of arguing for his own position, all he does here is to assume what he needs to prove. His illustration only proves his point if he takes Arminian theology as the frame of reference.
Needless to say, Calvinism affirms the very thing he breezily denies: God did foreordain the Fall. Indeed, the Bible expressly says so (Rom 11:32; Gal 3:22).
Witherington is incapable of thinking outside his Arminian box even for the sake of argument. Throughout his chapters on Calvinism he simply takes Arminian theology as the standard of reference. That isn’t dialogue. That isn’t argument.
Witherington reminds me of multiculturalism. The beauty of multiculturalism is that you don't actually have to know a thing about another culture. You can see this in the way the multiculturalist makes excuses for militant Islam. The multiculturalist doesn’t listen to what Muslims in the Muslim world have to say about Islam. Instead, the multiculturalist has his preconceived sociological theories about what motivates a Muslim.
Witherington is the same way. Don’t be a listener. Don’t be a learner. Talk about the Calvinist, but never talk to the Calvinist.
One of Witherington’s problems is that he can only think in terms of coordinate relationships (cofactors) rather than subordinate relationships (cause and effect). This so conditions his outlook that he is blind to what the text of Scripture actually says. Take his allusion to Phil 2:12-13. Paul doesn’t lay the divine and human factors side-by-side, as if these were independent of each other or opposed to each other.
As Moisés Silva observes,
“Our dependence on divine activity for sanctification is nowhere made as explicit as here. To begin with, God’s work is viewed as having a causal relation to our working (gar, ‘for’); our activity is possible only because of divine grace. Second, the syntax is emphatic: Paul says not merely ‘God works’ (ho theos energei) but ‘the one who works the working is God’ (theos…estin ho energon…to energein). Third, the divine influence is said to extend not only to our activity but to our very wills—a unique statement, though the idea is implied in other passages (e.g., Jn 1:13; Rom 9:16),” Philippians (Baker 2005), 122.
“Paul speaks only of him as the God who reveals himself, not as the hidden God whose will and ways are inscrutable, and whose hidden counsels might actually be the opposite of his revealed Word” (78).
After a while you don’t expect Witherington to know what he’s talking about or fairly depict the opposing position. As a rule, there’s no correlation between what truly is and what he says. But at the risk of stating the obvious, Calvinism subscribes to predestination precisely because predestination is a revealed truth of Scripture.
“Since vv29-30 must be linked to v28…Paul makes perfectly clear that he is talking bout Christians here. The statement bout them loving God precedes and determines how e should read both the ous in these verses, and the chain of verbs. God knew something in advance b out these persons, namely that they would respond to the call of God” (268, n.44).
This analysis is simply incompetent: no other way of putting it:
i) It confounds a literary sequence (vv28-30) with a causal-temporal sequence as though, if vv29-30 are subsequent to v28, then God’s action must be subsequent to v28. You can hardly get more disoriented than this: confounding the literary level of discourse with its extra-textual referent.
ii) Even at the literary level, his analysis misses the point. VV29-30 do, indeed, refer back to v28. But the causal-temporal sequence is in reverse: vv29-30 explain how the Christians in v28 came to be believers, and the destiny that awaits them.
“Election is a corporate concept, and individuals can opt in or out of the elect group” (81-82).
Here we have Witherington trying, once again, to play both sides of the fence. You can’t say that election is a corporate concept, and then immediately proceeds to make exceptions.
Witherington appeals to corporate election to oppose the Reformed doctrine of individual election. But this would only work if election were exclusively corporate. Once you talk about individuals opting in and out of election, you are now talking about elect individuals. To be sure, you are doing so in a way scarcely coherent, but that’s part of the problem.
“Beginning at Eph 1:4, Paul talks about the concept of election. The key phrase to understanding what he means by this concept is ‘in him’ or ‘in Christ’…By God’s choosing of him (who is the Elect One), and those who would come to be in him were chosen in the person of their agent or redeemer” (83-84).
Witherington frequently appeals to Eph 1:4 to prove corporate election. This is merely his fullest statement.
But his Barthian interpretation is clearly fallacious:
i) Eph 1:4 doesn’t say that God chose Christ. Christ is not the object of the verb. Rather, God chose “us.” “Hemas” is the object of the verb. To say that God chose us “in Christ” is not syntactically equivalent to saying that God chose Christ. Doesn’t Witherington know basic Greek grammar?
There is nothing necessarily wrong with saying that Christ is the chosen one (cf. Isa 42:1, LXX), but that is not what Paul says here, and for Witherington to tell his readers otherwise, most of whom don’t read Ephesians in the original, is simply dishonest.
And even if Christ were the chosen one, that’s a very different concept than the idea of elect sinners.
ii) A Calvinist doesn’t deny the corporate dimension of election. God is saving a people—a people comprising his church. But this also doesn’t authorize you to drive a wedge between corporate and individual election, playing the former off against the latter.
Election has means as well as ends. To be chosen in union with Christ is to be appointed to salvation, not apart from Christ, but through Christ, as our Redeemer.
iii) When Paul goes on to say of the elect that they believed the gospel and received the seal of salvation (1:13-14), the effect of election terminates on elect individuals.
iv) Paul uses the plural (“us”) because he is writing to the church of Ephesus. He is addressing his letter to a congregation. But, needless to say, a congregation is made up of individual members.
v) Paul doesn’t talk about those who “come to be in him,” but those who were and are in him by virtue of eternal election—“chosen before the foundation of the world.” Once again we see Witherington defy the actual wording of the text. Can’t he read Greek?
You’d think a Greek scholar could do a better job of it. And Witherington is a very able scholar. But he’s blinded by the very thing he is quick to criticize in others—agenda-driven exegesis.
“Paul is not talking about the pretemporal electing or choosing of individual humans outside of Christ to be in Christ…” (84).
Once more, you wonder if Witherington has any grasp of the position he is opposing. He writes this as though he were setting this over against the Reformed doctrine of election. But Calvinism doesn’t deny that Christians are elect in Christ. To the contrary, Calvinism emphatically affirms the internal relation between the work of the Father in election, and the work of the Son in redemption—as well as the work of the Spirit in the renewal of the elect and redeemed.
“The concept here is not radically different than the conception of the election of Israel in Rom 9-11. During the OT era, if one was in Israel, one was part of God’s chosen people; if one had no such connection, one was not elect. Individual persons within Israel could opt out by means of apostasy, and others could be grafted in” (84).
i) I agree with Witherington that the concept of election in Eph 1 is essentially the same as the concept of election in Rom 9-11, but I disagree with his interpretation of Rom 9-11.
ii) Witherington completely fails to take into account the progressive character of redemptive history. The national adoption of Israel is not at all interchangeable with the eternal election of the church. What we have in Israel is an elect remnant within the national as a whole (Rom 2:28-29; 9:6-8; 11:1-10). Although the nation of Israel was set apart by God in contrast to the surrounding nations, that is not the same thing as the remnant. There’s a difference between ritual purity and a pure heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).
The proper analogy here would be the invisible church within the visible church. Not all members of the visible church are elect, and not all the elect are members of the visible church.