Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Greatest!

(Posted on behalf of Steve Hays.)

Once upon a time, Ben Witherington was a serious NT scholar. That's before he became a celebrity and TV personality. You can't maintain the all the speaking engagements he undertakes and still crack the books. As a result, the quality of his scholarship has suffered a precipitous decline. Here's one example:
Unfortunately, one has also come to expect, particularly in the last few years, manuscripts from Witherington that are really not yet quite ready to turn into the publishers. This is, however, the first one where apparently no one at the publishing house was able to turn the rough draft into a publicly presentable form. Sentences are poorly worded and concepts are unnecessarily repeated, sometimes verbatim within just a few sentences of text. Just about any kind of typographic error that spellcheckers alone do not catch appears somewhere in the book, even in large print subheadings. Chapter and verse references have not been carefully checked. Transliterated foreign words, especially from Greek, are misspelled so often as to call into question even the author's competence, especially with the determination of lexical forms of words. Endnotes have not been rendered via any consistent form, especially short second references. Dates, places of publication, and publishers, in both endnotes and bibliography, at times are just plain wrong. Endnote superscripts are wrong by one digit for pages on end on two different occasions. Wrong fonts or colors of fonts now and then appear. In the text itself, it appears that Witherington read and cited less and less secondary literature, particularly from recent scholarship, as his work on the commentary progressed. While it is perfectly understandable that he should often refer to his own previously published works (because he has written so many), where Matthew runs parallel to Mark not only did he frequently appeal just to what he had written earlier in his commentary on Mark but also his endnotes too frequently referred solely to Markan rather than Matthean studies.
He's suffered the same fate as Margaret Mead. After she became famous, she was sought out as a moral oracle on all of the hot button social and political issues of the day. Witherington has also become enamored with his own celebrity, presuming to be an instant expert on a wide variety of subjects without bothering to inform himself before he pronounces judgment. This accounts for his inane, clueless, limousine liberal comments about the war effort. Unfortunately, this radical chic dilettantism is all-too-typical of what passes for intellectual discourse in the public square these days.1

You have so many academics whose prejudice is never exposed to serious challenge because they generally sequester themselves in within the echo-chamber of their like-minded, self-affirming communities. It would be beneath them to talk to the people they talk about.

The most recent example is a post he did on Calvinism, which starts out in the following manner:
I was recently reading through the proofs of a new book on New Testament Theology, and it was stated that the most basic theme or thesis of NT theology is --'God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit'…The more one read, the more it appeared clear that God was being presented as a self-centered, self-referential being, whose basic motivation for what he does, including his motivation for saving people, is so that he might receive more glory. Even the sending of the Son and the work of the Spirit is said to be but a means to an end of God's self-adulation and praise. What's wrong with this picture? How about the basic understanding of God's essential and moral character?2
Witherington is clearly taking aim at the great bugbear of Calvinism. Unfortunately for him, he doesn't know what the target looks like. Here, for example, is what a 17-18C Dutch-Reformed theologian had to say on the subject:
The creature can neither add glory nor felicity to [God]; however, it has pleased the Lord to create creatures in order to communicate his goodness to them and consequently render them happy.3

The objective which God had in view with predestination is the magnification of himself in his grace, mercy, and justice. This should not be understood to mean that anything can be added to the glory of God, but rather that angels and men, in perceiving and acknowledging this glory, would enjoy felicity.4

The purpose of election is the glorification of God. This is not to add glory to him, for he is perfect, but to reveal all his glorious perfections which manifest themselves in the work of redemption to angels and men, in order that in reflecting upon them felicity many be experienced.5
So Calvinism doesn't deny, but rather affirms, that God is acting in the best interests of the redeemed. They are the beneficiaries of redemption.

God does not augment his own glory in the salvation of sinners. Rather, his glory is manifested in election and reprobation. And it is manifested for the benefit of the elect.

If Witherington could shake off his intellectual sloth for long enough to do a bit of research, he might have spared himself the embarrassment of such a pig-ignorant misstatement of Calvinism.

But the initial incompetence only worsens in statements like:
Let me be clear that of course the Bible says it is our obligation to love, praise, and worship God, but this is a very different matter from the suggestion that God worships himself, is deeply worried about whether he has enough glory or not, and his deepest motivation for doing anything on earth is so that he can up his own glory quotient, or magnify and praise himself.
Since Calvinism traditionally affirms divine impassibility, there's no sense in which Calvinism ever imagined that God is "deeply worried" about anything at all, or depends on the created order to supplement his existence.

Once again, it wouldn't take much study on Witherington's part to know this.6 But the facts would get in the way of his hatchet-job.

Or take this little gem:
I like the remark of Victor Furnish that God's love is not like a heat-seeking missile attracted to something inherently attractive in this or that person.
He thinks Calvinism is predicated on the idea that God saved the elect because he finds something inherently attractive in the elect? Either he really believes that—in which case he's an utter ignoramus—or else he's indulging in rhetorical caricature—in which case he's a demagogue.

And not only is he out to lunch on Calvinism, but his grasp of Scripture is no better. For example:
If we go back to the Garden of Eden story, one immediately notices that it is the Fall and sin which turned Adam and Eve into self-aware, self-centered, self-protecting beings. This is not how God had created them. Rather, he had created them in the divine image, and that divine image involves other directed, other centered love and relating.
Two problems:

i) Self-awareness and self-centeredness are hardly synonymous. Self-awareness is one of the things that distinguishes man from the lower animals. We have a capacity to objectify our environment, and this is a precondition of moral deliberation. God's prohibition regarding the tree of knowledge would have been meaningless to Adam and Eve unless they could draw a subject/object distinction between themselves, their environment, and their Creator.

ii) How does Witherington propose to exegete the concept of "other centered love," from the imago Dei in Gen 1:26-27? Where does he pull that out of the actual wording of the text? Are love and dominion synonymous concepts?

To the contrary, he's guilty of the very thing he falsely criticizes in the combox: "The problem here is the anachronistic importation of western notions about glory and self-glorification by latter day Reformers into an ancient text"—only he's substituting the touchy-feely, psychobabble of the Sociology Dept. down the quad.

I suppose we should not be surprised that in a culture and age of narcissism, we would recreate God in our own self-centered image, but it is surprising when we find orthodox Christians, and even careful scholars doing this.
And did Calvin or Beza live in an age of narcissism? Were there a lot of Valley Girls zipping around 16C Geneva?

Finally, let's say a little more about the glory of God as the chief end of man. Human beings are fascinated with greatness. We make lists of the all-time greatest this or that. We compete to establish who is the greatest among us in some field or another. Who is the greatest mathematician or physicist or tenor or soprano or surfer or movie star or chess player or poker player or pool player or tennis player or figure skater or marital artist or pianist or violinist or painter or composer or preacher or philosopher or theologian or poet or novelist or actor or general, and so on and so forth.

Yet the greatest human being in any particular field is only greater by degree rather than kind. The world's smartest man is, at best, only twice or three times as smart as the average man. And the most brilliant men alive in math or chess or physics are often among some of the dumbest men alive when it comes to anything the least bit practical.

Suppose you were interviewing a mathematician. Suppose you asked him if he were the world's greatest mathematician. If he said "yes," would he be a narcissist? But suppose he really is the world's greatest mathematician? And if you were a young, gifted mathematician, wouldn't you want to study with the best there is?

All finite goods are good because they are shadowy images of God's infinite goodness. We love them because they remind us of God. And that is where the apparent extremes of theocentricity and human self-fulfillment coincide.

1 R. Posner, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard University Press, 2002).
3 Wilhelm a Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service (Soli Deo Gloria 1992), 1:193-94.
4 Ibid. 214.
5 Ibid. 219.


  1. I always thought that Arminianism was just another form of humanism...

    Now its been confirmed.

  2. It's too bad, because some of Witherington's earlier books such as The Christology of Jesus and The Jesus Quest are quite good.

  3. Because of God's decision to create there will be:
    1) more conscious entities who are aware of him (and hence glorify him) than otherwise.
    2) more conscious entities who are there for him to give his love to.

    Now, I'll admit these are superfluities. They exist not because of any deficiency within the Godhead, but still, which one do you feel is the teleological endpoint for creation? One or the other, both, something else scripture addresses, or is this not something scripture addresses?

    I must admit, I'm getting a massive headache!

  4. And you expect me to believe that Witherington has lost it because you say so?

    Come on, man. Look at the two track records and get serious.

  5. Anonymous said...
    Because of God's decision to create there will be:
    1) more conscious entities who are aware of him (and hence glorify him) than otherwise.
    2) more conscious entities who are there for him to give his love to.

    Now, I'll admit these are superfluities. They exist not because of any deficiency within the Godhead, but still, which one do you feel is the teleological endpoint for creation? One or the other, both, something else scripture addresses, or is this not something scripture addresses?


    He creates conscious entities as an act of sheer generosity. In his magnanimity, God makes conscious creatures (with special reference to elect men and angels) to share in his beatitude.

  6. "And you expect me to believe that Witherington has lost it because you say so?"

    Well, obviously he knows nothing about Calvinism.

  7. yeah I think its obvious Arminians do not believe God exists.

  8. okay. . . I'm a bit late. But, I just started reading Witherington's TPET. I share the same sentiments as most here.

    I have one question.

    Has he committed the unpardonable sin in all his sloppiness?

    Just wonderin'