Ben Witherington has done a post on Calvinism, commenting on an interview with John Piper:
“What he does not add, that could have been added, is that, for whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.”
Well, that raises some interesting questions. Isn’t the Bible concerned with our knowing what God is like? The contrast between worshiping and serving the true God over against worshipping and serving false gods? The sin of idolatry.
Of course, Witherington throws in the weasel word “exactly” to give himself an escape route.
Okay, so how much inexactitude is too much inexactitude? Is the God of Islam close enough to count? What about Mormonism? How unlike the true God can your “God” be like and still count?
And what about intellectual certainty regarding my salvation? Suppose Calvinism does “feed” a deep-seated need on that score. Is there something wrong with having a deep-seated need to know whether I’m heavenbound or hellbound?
We’re all going to die sooner or later. And eternity is a long time. Is there something wrong with making my eternal fate a top priority? And doesn’t Scripture itself prioritize that concern?
“But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong-- because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence.”
Of course, Witherington spends a lot of time drawing theological and hermeneutical circles. That’s what he does for a living. As a professor, blogger, speaker, writer.
“This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.”
Unless they’re constructed by Ben Witherington.
“A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true.”
Except that Ben Witherington will exempt himself from his own statement.
“The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone's ability (or any collection of human being's abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a 'coherent theological system' without flaws, gaps, or lacunae.”
And Ben Witherington is quick to identify the flaws, gaps, and lacunae.
“Even his [Calvin’s] God is too small to encompass everything that is said about God in the Scriptures, even just everything that is said about soteriology in the Scriptures.”
See what I mean? Unlike Calvin, Witherington is in a privileged position to tell us where to draw the right theological and hermeneutical lines. He’s certain that Calvin drew the circle too small.
“A strong sense of assurance provided by the living presence of God in the person of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not the same as intellectual certainty.”
How does he know this assurance comes from God? That he is in the presence of the living God? That the Holy Spirit stands behind this experience?
Doesn’t that require an intellectual identification of who or what is causing this experience?
“I must tell you that whenever I have had a profound experience of God through reading his word or encountering God in worship or community.”
He’s assuming that he had an experience of God. That involves an intellectual interpretation of his experience.
“Nevertheless, we should be placing our faith in God, not in a particular theological system. There is a difference. In the former case the faith is largely placed in whom we know and whom we have encountered. In the latter case the faith can be too often placed in what we believe we know about God and theological truth.”
That’s a lot of pious nonsense. The immediate object of faith is our concept of God. Our faith is oriented to what we think, rightly or wrongly, God is like. The question, then, is whether our concept corresponds to what God is really like.
It’s a belief, or set of beliefs, about God. Our beliefs also trigger an emotional response, accompanied by a level of commitment or repulsion.
Witherington talks about “encountering God.” That’s a belief. He believes that God is the author and object of his encounter. He identifies God as the person he encountered.
But that’s not raw experience. That’s interpreted experience. And it involves an element of intellectual certainty. Absent intellectual certainty, he’s in no position to simply equate his experience with the presence of God.
“Not even Paul in the Bible dots all the i's and crosses all the t's of a particular theological system and more to the point, he has no compelling interest in doing so. He is interested, as are all the Scriptural writers in simply bearing witness to a truth and a reality they have not merely come to believe in, but which they have experienced and which has changed their lives.”
To witness to a truth is an intellectual exercise.
There is also a difference between the religious experience of the apostles and the religious experience of later Christians. At one level, we share a common experience in the saving grace of God.
But at another level, the apostles knew Jesus by acquaintance, while we know him by description. They didn’t come to believe in quite the same way we do.
It’s also fallacious to assume that Paul was not a systematic theologian. We have 13 occasional writings from Paul, addressing the special needs of individual churches. This doesn’t mean that Paul’s own belief system is reducible to 13 letters. Same thing with the Pauline speeches in Acts.
Paul is usually responding to a situation. And it’s more plausible to suppose that his systematic grasp of revealed theology helped him to know just what to say in every situation.
“Humility is fostered more by a recognition of and an owning up to what you don't know about God, than what you do.”
This is one of those mock-pious statements that sounds very modest and devout, but it’s also one of those throwaway disclaimers that he himself quickly discards in actual practice. Witherington is a very prolific speaker and writer. His entire life is dedicated to persuading his audience that he is right. That demands a high degree of self-confidence.
“What I have noticed over the years is that in the pursuit of and lust for certainty, Calvinists tend to look for an intellectual certainty of some sort, but Arminians seek an experiential certainty (e.g. a second blessing or post-conversion crisis experience that assures one that one is right with God and so, saved).”
But Witherington is in no position to map his “experiential certainty” back onto God unless he can identify God as the source (and object) of his experience. And that, in turn, presumes a level of intellectual certainty.
Also, notice the invidious contrast, as if Arminians have more spiritual experience than Calvinists. For someone who talks about fostering “humility,” that’s a rather prideful claim—don’t you think?
“One of the problems in this discussion is when a necessary element in a theological system is made central to that system even if, it is barely, if all mentioned in the Scriptures themselves. I am thinking for example of the notions of either irresistible or prevenient grace. These of course are not Biblical phrases, and indeed they are quite difficult to demonstrate on any straightforward exegesis of any particular text. And yet, whole theories about salvation are based on these two different notions (see my The Problem with Evangelical Theology). Now in my view passion should be reserved for things we can talk about with more certainty and clarity and which more nearly seem to be major themes or emphases in the Scriptures themselves. I demonstrated at length, in the Problem of Evangelical Theology that it is no accident that it is precisely where a theological system tries to say something distinctive is where it is exegetically the weakest. This should have told us something. For example, the rapture theology is precisely the least exegetically defensible element of Dispensationalism.”
This is a perfect illustration of the fact that, all his mock-pious disclaimers notwithstanding, his actual position is predicated on his sense of intellectual certainty. He’s sure that Calvinism is wrong. He’s sure that Dispensationalism is wrong.
“Experiential certainty” doesn’t select for Arminianism over against Calvinism or Dispensationalism—or Lutheranism or Anabaptism, &c.
Witherington is blind to his theological presuppositions because he’s blinded by his theological presuppositions. He reads Scripture through his Arminian lenses. He reads Calvinism through his Arminian lenses.
The problem is not that he has his own presuppositions. Rather, the problem is that he’s so oblivious to his own presuppositions that he arbitrarily oscillates between absolutistic claims and relativistic disclaimers. Arminianism just so happens to coincide with what we can know for sure, while everything outside that blessed circle is fraught with doubt and uncertainty.
Make no mistake: Witherington is not a man who suffers from a lack of intellectual self-confidence. He’s every bit as dogmatic as Calvin ever was.