Sunday, November 23, 2008

Deceptive humility

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.


  1. Coincidentally only a day apart, there was a post by Michael Patton over at Parchment and Pen making a similar argument against Arminian theology.

    When I read Vincent Cheung or Gordon Clark, I do get the kind of vibe they are both talking about; however, I'm not sure if the trend applies evenly to either camp. Naturally men want to tie up loose ends and nail down loose planks..perhaps even at the expense of doing exegetical gymnastics.

  2. “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).”

    Why do you even respond to this guy?

    If he brought this kind of misrepresentation of other people's views into NT scholarship he would be smacked up side of his head.

    If I went to his blog and made the statement that, "Arminian 'Free-Will' is founded on the pursuit and lust for idolatrous autonomous freedom.", would he not freak out?

    His comment about "experience" is bunk also. I know plenty of examples from church history and my own "experience" that would prove otherwise. Witherington needs to stick to his historical Jesus, and eschatological studies. When he strays to far from those topics he begins to sound like a dishonest preacher.

  3. If we want to stick with "experience" arguments, it's by my experience that overwhelmingly Calvinists are far more likely to be engaged in missions than Arminians. My parents are both Calvinists, and both missionaries, to name an immediate example.

    Of course "experience" claims almost always tell more about the person having the experience than the world that has been experienced. That's why they're pointless.

    In any case, I haven't figured out this whole "to be spiritual is better than being intelligent" concept. I mean other than the fact that it sounds like something an idiot would say to justify his stupidity. I, for one, am glad to say that Calvinism makes more intellectual sense than Arminianism. What's the problem with that? How is it prideful to say that I know 2 + 2 = 4 (in base 10 math, for the wisecrackers out there)? That's just reality.

    My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.

    (Hosea 4:6)

  4. A few more reflections I might add here:

    1. Witherington's discussion of "experience" sounds remarkably neo-orthodox. He knows God by an encounter with God in worship or His Word.

    Where's the exegetical argument?

    2. What about assurance? "Experience" is subjective. Now, on the one hand, assurance is subjective - person variable. Scripture teaches that God gives it and takes it as a blessing on the one hand, a disciplinary measure on the other. However, notice what I've done argument for assurance is exegetical.

    3. Apropos 2...Isn't one of the standard arguments against Calvinism the supposed LACK of assurance? But, at least on paper, how is Arminianism in any better position? If all Witherington can muster is "experience" then how is this really any improvement? Witherington is either forced to admit that he's more certain - yet on uncertain grounds - or there is no ground of assurance in Arminianism - which means Trent is right? Gee, and I thought Arminians waved the Protestant flag.

    4. And when he does talk about exegesis, what does he do? He casts doubt. His argument isn't "What does God say?" Rather it is "Did God really say?"

    a. That's the Serpent's question.
    b. It's also the Romanist question.

  5. Hi GeneMBridges,

    You write:

    "Scripture teaches that God gives it and takes it as a blessing on the one hand, a disciplinary measure on the other. However, notice what I've done argument for assurance is exegetical."

    I don't doubt that it exists, but what would that exegetical argument look like? (A link to another work would be fine.)

  6. So...does Witherington start from experience? His is experience of God based the experience of his experience? To cut the legs off of the intellect just makes no sense. Steve, just as you asked about Mormonism. Mormons also have "experiences." As a matter of fact, their whole reason and evangelism technique is based solely on experience. The experience of the burning in the bosom. So does this prove Mormonism?

    Reading this gives me a burning in the bottom!

    Romans 10:2 For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.


  7. Of course, Witherington throws in the weasel word “exactly” to give himself an escape route.

    Heh, heh. I caught that too.

  8. Matthew, good question...

    If you follow the proofs in the WCF and LBCF2 on assurance you can draw the consequent argument.

    By the way, one of the problems with these confessions is that, being confessions, they often summarize and don't argue the exegesis, because the writers assume the elders (and the people consequent to the elders' teaching) know it already.

    The short explanation is that our faith is centered on Christ (Calvin). If we believe, we should look to the sufficiency of his work (as opposed to adding meritorious works, etc. to His work). On the other, the believer can fall into sin. That's why Scripture teaches us to examine ourselves. If we come up lacking in assurance, then we need to ask ourselves if it's because we're in sin. The Spirit of God uses the Scriptures to convict us of sin. We should return. The removal of our assurance can therefore be disciplinary in nature. It will either drive us away from God or to God.

    BTW, Steve has written on assurance here too. Check the archives. Offhand, I can't remember if I have or not. That's what we get for having over 3000 posts here. After awhile, it gets hard to remember what's been covered and not covered.

  9. Mr. Bridges, In the comments of The Warrant To Believe you wrote, “To know that you are elect, you need a personal revelation from God - violating Sola Scriptura, and that's necessarily subjective.”

    Is that your position, i.e., a person cannot know whether he or she is elect without a personal revelation from God?

  10. Steve, You asked, “How unlike the true God can your ‘God’ be like and still count?” Is there an answer to this question? Do you happen to know if Plantinga dealt with this issue in his book “The Nature of Necessity”?

  11. I.S.

    Go back and read the entire article. That is the polar opposite of my position. What you just stated is a summary of the Amyraldian position when taken to it's logical end, the Arminian objection Calvinism with respect to assurance, and hyper-Calvinist practice itself.

    I'm commenting on the appeal to the decree of election itself, whether used as a means to attain assurance or, in the context of the exchange I was having with DBT, as an evangelistic warrant in which people are told "Christ died for you."

    Here's that full comment:

    I'd ask you to consider that appealing to the atonement itself in an evangelistic call, as if Jesus died for everybody savingly is also an implicit appeal to election on either a Calvinist scheme or an Amyraldian scheme.

    Take the Infra position: The decree of election falls before the decree to atone.

    So, it's obvious that to use "Jesus died for you" as an evangelistic assurance is not really different than saying "You are elect." That's hyper-Calvinists who do that.

    On an Amyraldian scheme, it's still that appeal, but it's a more subtle appeal. In Amyraldianism, the decree of election falls after the decree to atone - but in real Amyraldianism, you have a covenant hypotheticum. The atonement satisfies those requirements,then the decree to elect leads to the application of those benefits.

    But this isn't what you would be discussing if you used this as an evangelistic assurance. You are telling them that Jesus actually, not hypothetically, died for them, and that is also an implicit appeal to their election.

    And any appeal to the decree of election and/or atonement is an attempt to divine the mind of God and that's highly subjective. To know that you are elect, you need a personal revelation from God - violating Sola Scriptura, and that's necessarily subjective.

    My position is contained in the article to which that combox is attached.

  12. Mr. Bridges, Thank you for the clarification. Having reread the article (I had forgotten what an enjoyable read that entry and combox were) I see that I misunderstood what you were saying at that point in the discussion. Thanks again for your time.


    “Is there an answer to this question? Do you happen to know if Plantinga dealt with this issue in his book ‘The Nature of Necessity’?”

    I don’t see how Plantinga’s book is relevant. I’m not posing a question about metaphysical identity, but religious duty.

    As a practical matter, God’s self-revelation in Scripture provides the standard by which we measure our duties to the true God.