Sunday, November 27, 2005

Tilting at windmills-3

“Notice the total lack of discussion of the predestination of the wicked here. Ephesians does not depict election as that which divides the human race, but rather as that which unites it in Christ” (269, n55).

i) It’s true that Eph 1 doesn’t expressly teach double predestination. So what? Even if reprobation were nowhere explicitly taught in Scripture, it would still be implicit in Scripture. As Geerhardus Vos has said:
“No more is necessary than to combine the two single truths, that all saving race, inclusive of faith, is the supernatural gift of God, and that not all men are made recipients of this grace,” Redemptive History & Biblical Interpretation (P&R 1980), 412.

ii) As a matter of fact, there are passages of Scripture in which reprobation or double predestination are more clearly enunciated (e.g. Mt 11:25-26; Lk 2:34; Jn 12:39-40; Rom 9-11; 1 Pet 2:6-8; Jude 4).

iii) Witherington is not a Barthian universalist. He believes that election is contingent on foreseen faith, and he denies that everyone is a believer. Hence, even on his own grounds, he cannot believe that election unites the entire human race. Is Witherington unable to connect the dots of his own belief-system?

“Paul does not operate with an ‘invisible elect’ amidst the people of God concept. The Israelites or Christians who are true are all to visible and evident” (87).

i) To begin with, it is arguable that Paul does operate with such a concept. A true Jew is inwardly Jewish, not only outwardly Jewish—through a circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:28-29). The faithful remnant was invisible to Elijah (11:2-5). So you can’t tell by appearances alone.

ii) But Witherington’s objection also suffers from equivocation. The Reformed position is not that God’s elect are invisible, but that God’s election is invisible. A man with a bum ticker is visible even if his heart condition is invisible to the naked eye.

An off-duty policeman is still a policeman, but out of uniform you can’t tell, just by looking at him, that he’s a policeman.

“Paul believes that Christians are under a new covenant, not any administrations of the older ones. He does see the new covenant as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic one…Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, are no longer under the Mosaic Law. They are rather under the Law of Christ” (87).

i) Covenant theology is an intricate theological construct. This is not something that one can intelligently discuss, much less dispatch, in a three-sentence paragraph. And there is more than one version of covenant theology.

No one is claiming that the new covenant is a different administration of the old covenant. To say this evinces Witherington’s chronic ignorance of the relevant literature.

The general principle is that God saves sinners by grace alone. And he does so through a covenant mediator in a one-to-many relationship. There is, in addition, a degree of progressivity as the older covenants culminate in person and work of Christ.

This general principle is exemplified in a variety of concrete covenants, viz., Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the new covenant.

When covenant theologians talk about one covenant under a variety of administrations, the relationship is not between one specific covenant and another, but between the general principle (the covenant of grace) and its concrete exempla.

“Paul also does not operate with a concept of imputed righteousness, as if by that phrase one means Christ’s righteousness is counted in place of ours. A careful reading of Gal 3 and Rom 4 will show that what Paul says on the basis of Gen 12-15 is that Abraham’s faith was reckoned or counted as righteousness. His faith was reckoned as his righteousness. This is a very different matter than Christ’s righteousness counting in the place of that of the believers” (87).

i) Witherington simply ignores the Reformed argument for imputed righteousness. One example would be John Piper’s recent book: Counted Righteous in Christ (Crossway 2003).

ii) There may be some truth to what Witherington says about Rom 4. How he gets that out of Gal 3 is beyond me—not to mention its relation to Gal 2. In any event, it is highly ironic that someone who repeatedly tells the reader that he must never interpret a verse in isolation has chosen to isolate Rom 4 from the larger flow of the argument. The Book of Romans doesn’t consist of Rom 4 alone, with nothing before or after.

To be justified by faith alone is just a shorthand expression. We are justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ. Faith is a placeholder.” Faith” stands in opposition to “works.” The voucher of faith is redeemed by the blood of Christ.

“Righteousness needs to be imparted by the Spirit, not merely imputed…It is not the case that when God looks at the believer he simply sees the righteousness of Christ” (87-88).

Calvinism doesn’t deny the necessity of sanctification. In Reformed theology, the work of the Spirit operates in tandem with the work of the Son.

The question, though, is whether the work of Christ is incomplete. Are we justified by imparted righteousness? How does God see the Christian for purposes of justification? That’s the question.

Since we are still sinners, imparted righteousness is, at best, partial righteousness. Are we justified by partial righteousness? Not according to Paul (e.g. Gal 3:10).

ii) Witherington’s position is also incoherent on its own grounds. To bring in imparted righteousness must mean that we are justified, at least in part, by our sanctified works. Yet he just said that our “faith” is reckoned to us as righteousness.

iii) Incidentally, since the word “righteousness” is so closely associated with justification in Pauline theology, it would be preferable not to use the same word with reference to sanctification. Reserve “righteousness” for justification, and “holiness” for sanctification.

“God desires all persons to be saved (so also Jn 3:16), and Christ gave himself as a ransom for all sinners. This means that it must be human beings in their response to God in Christ, not God through some process of choosing individuals, who limit the atonement” (88).

This is, of course, a stock summary of the case for unlimited atonement. The problem here is that Witherington simply disregards the Reformed counterargument. The Calvinist is well acquainted with Jn 3:16 and the like.

He skirts the whole question of whether John’s “cosmic” language has an ethical import: not the “world” qua world, but world qua fallen world. Christ died for members of the evil world order. In general Johannine usage, to be of the world is an antonym for Christian identity (e.g. Jn 12:31; 14:17,27,30; 15:18-19; 16:8,11,33; 17:14; 18:36; 2 Jn 2:15-17; 4:5; 5:4,19). Witherington also cites Jn 3:16 in isolation to Jn 3:19-20, 9:39, 10:11; 13:1; 15:13,22; 17:6,&c.

“Since numerous NT authors, including Paul and the author of Hebrews, not to mention Jesus himself, warn against the problem of apostasy, this in turn must mean that God’s saving grace is both resistible at the outset and rejectable later” (88).

i) It is important to observe that this is not, in fact, an exegetical argument. The Bible never says that saving grace is resistible. And it never says that saving grace is resistible given the phenomenon of apostasy, and warnings thereof.

Rather, this is an inference from Scripture. And it turns on a key assumption which is not supplied by Scripture. Witherington is simply assuming that libertarian freedom is a necessary precondition to make sense of these admonitions. But freewill is not an actual teaching of Scripture. Scripture doesn’t ground apostasy in the freedom of the will.

By contrast, there is a good deal of implicit and explicit teaching in Scripture which runs diametrically at odds with Witherington’s presumptive or presuppositional indeterminism.

ii) Moreover, Witherington’s inference is, as I’ve said before, philosophically naïve.

iii) Furthermore, Witherington’s position is incoherent. For he himself is committed to his own set of hypotheticals and counterfactuals. He believes in “sufficient” grace. He believes in a “potentially” universal atonement. So he believes that unrealized possibilities are meaningful.

“The character of God as a God of holy love and also a God of freedom is such that he expects these same qualities to be reflected in his creatures…Love cannot be coerced, manipulated, or predetermined” (88).

i) Is every divine attribute a communicable attribute? Is omniscience a communicable attribute? Is omnipotence a communicable attribute? Is aseity a communicable attribute?

ii) Note how often he treats coercion, manipulation, and predeterminism as synonyms? But this is a piece of intellectual slackness.

Predeterminism is not the same thing as coercion. In coercion, we are forced to do something against our will. We do it unwillingly. There is a sense of resistance between our will and the will of the agent who is imposing his will upon us.

Incidentally, coercion isn’t always a bad thing. We employ coercive measures to restrain the criminal element in society.

But predeterminism goes behind the will and directs the will. An illustration would be hypnotic suggestion. Under hypnotism, an idea is planted in the mind of the subject. When he snaps out of his trance, he acts on that idea as if it were his own.

As far as love is concerned, don’t our genes and hormones “manipulate” our love-life on a regular basis? In many instances, men and woman have no control over whom they fall in love with. They are predisposed to fall in love with a certain type of person, and whenever they meet that type of person, the attraction and infatuation are automatic. In matters of the heart we are, to a large extent, creatures of our chemistry.

And, of course, the same is true in reverse. We can lose our sense of spontaneous affection, and we have precious little control over that process as well.

In brief, we have a fair measure of control over how or whether we act on our feelings, but very little control over what feelings we have.

Arminians talk about love as if they came out of a test tube and grew to maturity inside germ-free bubble that was sealed off from direct contact with other members of the human species. Nothing is more artificial or inhuman than the way in which an Arminian defines true love. Arminian love is something that only exists in a petri dish or sci-fi film. It is completely divorced from universal human experience in the real world of love and longing, rejection and jealousy. Thank God Racine was a Jansenist rather than a Wesleyan!

In chapter 7, Witherington opposes a Reformed reading of Rom 9-11. He does this, in part, by arguing for a premil (postmil?) reading of Rom 11:26, which, according to him, has reference to a mass endtime conversion of the Jews.

But there are several problems with this line of argument:

i) Calvinism has no official position on the millennium. A Calvinist can be an amil, historical premil, or postmil. Hence, there is no tension between a Reformed reading of Rom 9-11 and a pre/postmil reading of Rom 9-11, viz. John Murray, Tom Schreiner, S. Lewis Johnson.

ii) At the same time, Witherington also ignores Reformed writers who argue for an amil reading of Rom 9-11, viz., Hoekema, O. P. Robertson, Lee Irons.

iii) In addition, one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to oppose a pre/postmil reading of Rom 9-11. N. T. Wright, in his recent commentary on Romans, presents a preterist interpretation.

iv) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Witherington’s interpretation is sound, it would in no way blunt the damnatory or double-predestinarian force of judicial hardening. For the spiritual restoration of the Jews would only extend to the endtime generation. Hence, all unbelieving Jews before the millennium would die in a hardened state and suffer the eternal consequences. And they would be unbelieving Jews due to divine hardening.

God’s process of hardening would only be lifted for one generation—at the end of the church age. Hence, election and hardening do not have the same individuals in view. They do not represent successive stages of divine agency, terminating on the very same subject.

“Hardening does not mean damning. It involves a temporal action of limited duration” (145).

That may well be true. But a human lifespan is of limited duration too. If you die in a hardened state, you die a lost sinner. And if the process extends over several generations, then it racks up quite a toll of hell-bound casualties. Paul penned this letter 2000 years ago.

“Paul is referring to the hardening of some, he is not talking about their eternal damnation. He is talking bout a process in history that is temporal and temporary. In their words e are going to see that what Paul is talking about in vv22-23 is not those saved or damned from before the foundation of the world, but rather as Cranfield says, those vessels that are currently positively related to God, and those vessels which currently are not” (142).

i) Cranfield is a Barthian universalist. He believes in universal election, whereby all men are elect, while Christ is both elect and reprobate. Cranfield’s position is consistent—though consistently wrong. Witherington is no Barthian—or is he?

ii) If we’re going to bring in the historical process, then that includes the past as well as the future. So does Witherington believe that Christ died for the damned? For those who were already burning in hell at the time he went to Calvary? Or does Witherington shore up his case with postmortem evangelism?

“The quoted verse [Mal 1:2-3] then may speak of God’s elective purposes, but the discussion is about a role these people were to play in history, not their personal eternal destiny” (143).

It is true that the historical fate of the Edomites does not precisely correspond to their eternal fate, just as the adoption of Israel does not precisely correspond to eternal election.

However, to say that they do not coincide is not to say that they do not intersect. Not every member of the covenant community was saved—most, indeed, were not—but whoever was saved was either a member of the covenant community or a neighbor who came to a saving knowledge of the true God by virtue of his proximity to the Chosen People. In general, not to be party to the covenant is to be excluded from the revelation of God, without which saving faith is impossible. The remnant is a remnant of the covenant community.

For all his talk of the historical process, Witherington acts as if men are saved or damned irrespective of their position in redemptive history.

“Israel’s or anyone else’s salvation is not finally completed until the eschaton. Until then, there can be assurance of what is hoped for, but this assurance always stands under the proviso that one must persevere until the end of life” (143-144).

But the eschaton and the end of life are not the same thing. Can’t Witherington tell the difference? So when are we saved or damned? At the time we die? Or is our postmortem status indeterminate until the final judgment?

“Being chosen for historical purposes and being saved are not one and the same thing. Salvation for individuals is by grace and through faith. Election, insofar as the creation of a people is involved, is largely a corporate thing: it is ‘in Israel,’ or it is ‘in Christ,’ but the means of getting in is by faith. Israel as a nation was chosen to be a light to other nations. This is election for a historical purpose, and it says nothing about the eternal salvation of individual Jews” (144).

Several problems here:

i) Notice how he fudges on whether election is individual or corporate. If faith is the differential factor, then he can’t very well play corporate election off against individual election. What he’s really saying is that God chooses believers on the basis of foreseen faith. In that case, election is primarily individual and only secondarily corporate. The corporate dimension would not be constitutive of election, but a side-effect of individual election.

He tries to slide this by the reader in a hurried little paragraph so that we don’t notice that he’s just shot the bottom out of his Arminian dingy.

ii) To claim that the adoption of Israel “says nothing” about the eternal fate of individual Jews is a sizable overstatement. There was a considerable redemptive benefit to being a Jew rather than a pagan. Being a Jew didn’t guarantee you a nonrefundable ticket to heaven, but being a pagan pretty well guaranteed you a nonrefundable ticket to hell.

God doesn’t save people in a historical vacuum. The grace of God is coordinated with the means of grace. You can have the means of grace without the grace of God, but rare can you have the grace of God without the means of grace. Covenants make a difference. They don’t make all the difference, but they are a necessary, if insufficient, condition to being in a state of grace.

Saving faith demands a suitable object. If God chooses to save someone, God will, at some point in life, place that individual in a spiritually advantageous position. Heaven-bound Jews were a subset of Jews generally. Heaven-bound Gentiles came to a saving knowledge of God through contact with the covenant community—as in-laws or proselytes or God-fearers.

iii) There is also a tendency on Witherington’s part to confound the ontology of election with the epistemology of election. We don’t know which Jews were saved as a result of Israel’s adoption. But we do know that some Jews were saved as a result of Israel’s adoption.

“Barrett is right on target: ‘election does not take place…arbitrarily or fortuitously; it takes place always and only in Christ. They are elect who are in him… (Gal 3:29),’” (144).

Really, you don’t know if you should laugh or cry. What does Witherington think he’s opposing, here? What Calvinist believes that election is fortuitous—like the luck of the draw? Election is purposeful, not haphazard.

Witherington’s treatment of Calvinism is so frivolous and dilettantish that it wouldn’t be worth the effort were he not a big name who commands a ready audience.

Yes, the elect are elect in Christ. But everyone is not elect. That’s the point. If you are not elect in Christ, then you are not in Christ, and if you are not in Christ, then you are lost.

“It should be noted that the quote in v15 from Exod 33:19 says nothing about ‘I will judge those whom I will judge’” (144).

Now Withering must resort to semantic hair-splitting:

i) To begin with, there’s the historical context of the Exodus itself—which represents the judgment of God upon a pagan nation.

ii) To withhold mercy implies the opposite of mercy, which is wrath and judgment.

iii) In case some readers can’t figure this out, Paul makes the point explicit in v18, where mercy is shown to some while others are hardened.

iv) Likewise the business about vessels “prepared for destruction” (v22) in direct contrast to vessels “prepared for glory” (v23).

If Witherington is going to indulge in special pleading, I’d much rather than he split hares than split hairs since I could at least get a bowl of rabbit stew out of the exercise.

“Election is not some abstract or inscrutable will of God that lurks behind the revealed will of God, for God’s will and heart are truly revealed in Christ. Whatever is not known about God must comport with what God has revealed to the world in Christ. Thus it is not helpful to talk about pretemporal eternal decrees by God, unless one is talking about what God decreed about and for his Son, the chosen and destined One” (145).

i) This savors of Barth’s Christomonism. Is Witherington a closet Barthian?

ii) We have another helping of Witherington’s inept appeal to Eph 1:4.

iii) A Calvinist would readily agree that God’s decretive will does not lurk behind his revealed will, for God has revealed the existence of his decretive will.

iv) It is illicit to invoke the revelation of God in Christ as a general blocking maneuver to set aside the more specific teaching of Scripture on the scope and nature of election.

v) For that matter, Jesus himself had a fair amount to say about election and reprobation in the Gospel of John (chapters 6, 9-12, 17).

“As Eph 2:3-4 makes quite evident, someone can start out as a vessel of wrath and later become a child of God by grace through faith” (147).

i) No, this is quite inevident. “Vessel” and “child” are not interchangeable metaphors. In Romans, this figures in the potter/clay clay imagery, where God is depicted as being the Creator under the metaphor of a potter.

In Eph 2:3,by contrast, it is not our relation to God, but Adam which is primarily in view. The phrase (“by nature children of wrath”) is an allusion to original sin and the fall of man in Adam, just as we find in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15.

The text is not talking about a temporal transition from wrath to grace. Christians don’t cease to be Adamites, but not all Adamites are Christians. The contrast lies between what we all are in Adam, and what some of us are in Christ. In Adam we are deserving of wrath and judgment. Indeed, as Christians we are still deserving of wrath and judgment. But as Christians we are judged by what we are in Christ, and not in Adam.

ii) And even if there were a temporal transition from wrath to grace, that is not the same thing as a transition from reprobation to election. There is nothing in Eph 1-2 where we find the reprobate crossing over into a state of grace over or vice versa. What you have, in Eph 1-2 is a conversion process as well as the ulterior explanation for the conversion process. We become Christians in time because we were already in Christ before time.

Witherington is a very capable scholar. And he teaches at the flagship of Arminian seminaries, where he has the benefit of like-minded conversation partners such as Jerry Walls and Joel Green. If this is the best he can do, then he has rendered the cause of Calvinism a distinct service by documenting in great detail the vast inadequacy of its Arminian rival.


  1. Actually Steve, I think you're wrong on all counts and your Daddy dresses funny - but let's be tolerant here can you?

    On an actually serious note; how long did it take you to write that post? That's like my thesis, but longer. I'm simultaneously impressed and depressed or as Bart Simpson said, "I didn't know something good suck and blow simultaneously."

  2. Witherington certainly writes a lot. Maybe he and Alister McGrath should start a publishing company.

  3. >>>Witherington is a very capable scholar. And he teaches at the flagship of Arminian seminaries, where he has the benefit of like-minded conversation partners such as Jerry Walls and Joel Green. If this is the best he can do, then he has rendered the cause of Calvinism a distinct service by documenting in great detail the vast inadequacy of its Arminian rival.

    I had to laugh at that comment! Steve, tell us how you reallyfeel.

    >>>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.

    ----I'll be honest here. It seems like every few months now, another one of these tomes is published either purporting to "refute" Calvinism or promote "moderate" Calvinism or some such. This is getting tiresome. What they want to pass off is their own brand of Arminianism, period; and very few of them actually interact with our own writers. It's as if those massive volumes of Reformed theology and commentary sitting on my shelves simply do not exist.

    The least they could do is be honest. These aren't "modest proposals" they are attack pieces, plain and simple, and bad ones at that. Don't criticize what I believe or teach and misrepresent it; don't dare be a scholar of supposedly high caliber and not interact with scholarship on my side of the aisle and proceed to tell me why I'm wrong and you're right. If you can't properly articulate my theology, you have no business critiquing it. It is high time for these folks to wake up and pay attention to what has actually been written and to interact with writing from their own side of the aisle, as well as ours. You're quite correct. Many times I read these books and know that the standard Arminian commentary doesn't even agree with what the author is saying. As I so often say to unbelievers, "Do you even bother to read what has been written on these subjects?"

    Was his "criticism" of Arminianism any better? I understand he chose perfectionism. Yeah, that's the biggest problem with Arminianism...a handful of Wesleyans hold to it. (Rollseyes) Apparently, he lacks the ability or willingness to interact with Reformed theology and possesses a singular incapacity for self-criticism.

    I sincerely hope he reads this review. I'd like to read his response.

  4. I'm kinda stunned to see a scholar of such calibre bungle up so bad. But I haven't really read his book, so I don't know for sure.

    And yes, somebody ought to notify Witherington- just go down to his blog and leave a comment. Can't wait to see his response =)

  5. ^^^

    It's not going to be me ;-p

  6. I have to head out of the house, so I don't have time to notify Witherington. You guys are free to do so. He is welcome to either post a reply in my combox or send me an email which I'll post as is (unedited).

  7. I wrote an online review of Witherington's new book on but it was deleted like a couple of days later. Apparently, I had misrepresented his true view.