Ben Witherington III - "The Problem with Evangelical Theology"
5:16AM Jun 26, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Today it is our delight to be speaking with Dr. Ben Witherington III. Dr. Ben Witherington is professor of New Testament for doctoral studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and is on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Dr. Witherington has written over 40 books including the Jesus quest and the pole quest, both of which were selected as top biblical studies by Christianity today. We have with us The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, Wesleyanism, and Pentecostalism. And this is the text that we're privileged to be speaking with Dr. witherington about today, Dr. Whether it's and thanks for being with us.
Sir, as we begin your book, in this book, you challenge The biblical foundations of for Protestant theological systems or streams of tradition Calvinism, dispensationalism, Wesleyan ism and Pentecostalism. How and when was it that you decided to write this book?
Well, it's sort of a combination of exegetical weaknesses, and all of these evangelical traditions, in particular texts, you know, all these traditions have their strengths, their weaknesses in various places. And what I discovered in doing the exegesis over and over again, what was a remarkable thing, what I discovered was that it's precisely when any of these traditions, oh, if you will, out of the box, and want to argue for some distinctive theological position like the idea of a tribulation rapture, it's precisely those points In their theological tradition that are exegetically the least defensible. And that's not just true of one of these traditions, it's actually true of all of them. And so I kind of went, aha, anytime we tend to veer from theology that we actually share, mostly in common with both Catholics and Orthodox as well. Anytime we sort of go rogue on what was the faith ones received? Start getting a little strange and weak, and that's what I'm planning to explore. Hmm.
This is a book that takes a lot of courage to write no doubt, because it places you precisely in the camp of no one. Were there some aha moments or some challenging moments as you formulated this study?
Well, I mean, I am a lifelong Methodist. I mean, my mother says my first two words were john Wesley. I'm doubting that but But, you know, I've grown up in the Wesleyan tradition. And then I went to a more reformed seminary, I went to Gordon Conwell, because I wanted to hear the other side of the conversation. So I've always kind of known the foibles of the Wesleyan tradition in regard to a doctrine of entire sanctification or even perfection, and some of the issues with that. But in studying all these other traditions along the way, and participating in them in various ways, I began to realize that, you know, we all have chinks in our armor. So instead of just defending an ideology, if we were honest, it would actually bring us all much closer together. If we simply admitted there are exegetical problems with some aspects of our theological system and maybe we ought to talk about that.
Thank you, Dr. witherington.
In the first section of your book in which you're critiquing, reformed Calvinism, You have a chapter entitled awaiting the election results. And if I can read just a quick paragraph from that section you right? election for Paul is a corporate thing. It was in ethnic Israel. It is now in Christ. from Paul's viewpoint, which is simply an adaption of us found in early Judaism election does not guarantee the final salvation of individual Christian converts any more than it guaranteed the final salvation of individual Israelites in the past, unquote. What can we say about Paul's doctrine of predestination? How did Paul intend it to function in his own theological system?
Well, you know, perseverance of the saints is sort of the end of the doctrine of predestination. predestination is talking about the process by which you became a chosen one state a chosen one persevered, is the chosen one and finished is a chosen one. So it really has to do with the whole arc of salvation from or persons. And I don't think it's an accident that this particular theology, which originally was sort of sounded by a Gustin, it really wasn't part of the early church. And I would say it's really not a major theme in the New Testament itself was, in fact, when we get to the Age of Enlightenment when we get to Calvin, well, this is also the age of individualism, in fact, radical individualism, individualism, even to the extent of where we say which each person should have the individual right of conscience to decide what is false for you. There's not a sort of universal truth, there's a truth for individuals. I realized that in fact, what was said in early Judaism, of which Paul and Jesus were both apart.
was rather different than what Calvin was saying, saying or saying or Jonathan Edwards. was saying, and one aspect of the difference was corporate election. If I were to put the thing more broadly, obviously, Paul is suggesting that there is such a thing as assurance of salvation. For those who have been saved. I think that's what romans eight is about. Romans eight, in fact, isn't talking about being predestined to become a Christian. It's about what is the destiny of those who are already being asked. So what Paul is saying as a reassurance to his audience, is that God always had a plan. He had a wonderful plan for your life. And once you have embraced Christ, then you not only called but he's gonna make sure you're justified you're saying to fight and eventually you're glorified, being conformed to the image of Christ. So it's a reassurance that God's hand is on you through the whole process. That's what it is. What it's not is a sort of guarantee that no matter what you say or what you do after conversion, you're eternally secure. You know, I like to put it this way, you're not eternally secure until you're securely in eternity. Because at the same time that we have predestination texts in the New Testament, we also have apostasy texts, text that repeatedly talk about the fact that genuine Christians who have really embraced Christ, or as the author of Hebrews says, has, has tasted of the gospel and of the actual salvific power of Jesus, and yet then afterwards, commits an act of Apostasy of deliberately consciously rejecting the gospel. Well, then guess what? You're not you don't have an absolute guarantee of eternal security. But you have is a God who's angry with your rebellion. And by golly, you'd better repent. So You know, I think what we fail to realize is that if it were really true, that from before the foundation of the world, God had predestined everything, either actively or passively there he was. The day This makes God the author of evil. And because by golly, we got plenty of evil in the world, and plenty of suffering. And in fact, the Bible repeatedly denies this. It denies that God is the author of evil. In fact, James, the brother of Jesus even says, Do not say you have been tempted by God, God is not tempted. And he doesn't tempt anybody. Well, then who does? Well, this means that there are other viable, choosing actors in the human drama. It's not just God and us being automatons, it's God. It's angels, it's fallen angels, it's demons, it's human beings. And we all have some kind of measure of the power of contrary choice. No, well, that's very hard for some people to reconcile with a hardline doctrine of predestination. Oh, when you go back to early Judaism and see how they talk about this, they talk about this in a much more balanced way. They don't say God has predestined everything in advance to happen. And we're just sort of living out the script. And we don't realize we're living out the script, but that's what's happening know what happens early Judaism is they say things like, God has destined things in advance, but choice has been given. Now that's very interesting. That's a much more balanced the process God is the most powerful actor in the human drama, and that certainly God is almighty and nobody else But it's also true that God in his own divine design allowed us to have some choice about how and whether we would respond to his overtures. And so that's what I would want to say about it. It's not an either or proposition. I'm not denying there are texts in the New Testament that talk about predestination. I'm simply saying it's only part of the conversation. And you need to have a viable view that takes all the aspects of what the Bible says the subject.
I'm very grateful for your response. Dr. weathering today, we're discussing the problem with angelical theology testing the exegetical foundations of Calvinism dispensationalism, Wesleyan ism and Pentecostalism. Dr. witherington, in your next section in which you address dispensationalism you have a chapter entitled what goes up must come down. And you conclude that dispensationalism does read Paul properly about the millennial reign of Christ on earth. But also the dispensationalism reads Paul incorrectly on the point of the pre tribulation rapture. How would you summarize Paul's teaching on the pero? sia or the coming of Christ?
Well, there's only one second coming. There's not two, an invisible one and a visible one. And, and then again, I would say that not Incidentally, this is the historic position of the church dispensationalism along with Pentecostalism are the two new kids on the block and Protestant theology that are dominant are very important theological traditions. But nobody in the early church was talking about a pre tribulation rapture, not in the second century, the third century, the fourth century. In fact, even dispensational scholars who have sent me reams of material and tracks have not been able to trace it back earlier than the 17th century, this idea of a pre tribulation rapture amongst some early Baptists. And I think there's a reason And for that, and the reason for that is it's just not there in the New Testament. And so is there a vision of Christ returning to Earth and putting his enemies under his feet and raining until he is completed that task? And then after that the new heaven and new earth? Well, that's exactly what revelation 20 and 21 and 22 say, and I think first Corinthians 15 is the thing. But what it does not say is there's a beam me up Scotty theology that gets you out of some kind of final tribulation. And frankly, logically, that whole idea makes no sense. It's an escapist theology. It doesn't make sense, because in every generation of Christian history, there have been persecuted, prosecuted and executed Christians that have suffered to the limit, that it is possible to suffer. You can't suffer more than being killed. I mean, that's the end of the story. So why Just be exempt from tribulation and suffering. This is simply a form of escape is theology and it has, anytime you run into a bad theology, it always had. For example, this dispensational theology often leads to the conclusion. I don't need to worry about politics and elections and that sort of stuff. I mean, we're going to be beamed up if things get really bad, Well, too bad for the world, but I'm good, right? It can lead to a complete agnosticism about one civic responsibilities or caring about the rest of the world. It can lead to bad creation theology as well. Wow, you know, God's gonna give us a new heaven, new earth so we can just trash this when it's not really a problem, completely forgetting the creation mandate that we're called to be caretakers of God's garden. And we're supposed to give a preview of coming attractions of the new heaven and new earth by the way. We take care of the earth. So, you know, bad theology leads to bad theological corollaries and dispensationalism is one of the worst, because it really does promote promote an escapist mentality about human responsibility in regard to our fellow human beings and probably pretty caring about all kinds of problems in the world. It it promotes not being engaged with the world. Hmm.
Dr. witherington, thank you for that reflection. You published the first edition of your book in 2005. And now the second edition in 2016. And the revised edition includes a section on Pentecostalism. Why did you add this new section on Pentecostalism to your text?
Well, the Pentecostals asked for it. I was at Lee University and Cleveland, Tennessee, which is a it's a university in the Pentecostal tradition. Very fine. vibrant University and we had a debate about the first edition of this book and they said, You gave us short shrift. You needed to say a lot more about Pentecostalism than you did. What are we? And so they actually asked me to go back and give a more careful critique of Pentecostal facts fact, the growing Protestantism in the world, especially in places like South America, and Latin America, it might be wise to say a bit more about that was my own teacher Gordon fee. And we simply wanted to dialogue with and repeat some of the things I have learned from him at Gordon Conwell. And, I mean, he's written on this subject, many times over, he is first and foremost a faithful exegete in the New Testament, and as as such, he is a critique of his own tradition which he wholeheartedly embraces, warts, wrinkles, and all. And but he always qualifies by saying, Yes, I'm a Pentecostal, but No, that doesn't mean I agree with all the bad exegesis that goes along with that. And so that's why I decided to do a more fulsome critique of Pentecostalism in this edition. Hmm.
Dr. witherington, citing Gordon fee, your mentor, you critique Pentecostal theology and the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a spiritual transaction that comes subsequent to conversion. I've heard it said that the baptism of the Spirit might be the primary doctrinal Pentecostal theology, but it seems clear to me that you would disagree that it's not the essential part of Pentecostal theology. In your view, what is the defining core of Pentecostal theology?
Well, let me get at this by by first talking as an extra Jeet when we really don't have the noun phrase verb Baptism of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. So basically this is a deduction based on a now analyzing certain texts and acts and in poll that mean that's really where it comes from. Plus the fact that Jesus promises the devotee boys, they're going to be baptized with the baptism. He has experienced, which actually has nothing to do with Pentecostalism. It has to do with coming suffering. He refers to baptism as you know, a trial by fire coming, suffering, death, in fact, martyrdom. So the first task for me was to deal with the extra Jesus that says anything remotely close to what we're talking about here is first Corinthians 12. Which says, by one Spirit, we have all been baptized into the one body.
That same spirit we are allowed to drink.
Um, What's this about? Well, it's about conversion.
It's about being grafted into the body of Christ. It is not about some subsequent to conversion dynamic spiritual experience. Now, let me just say, I believe there are possibilities of many subsequent to conversion dramatic experiences in the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can give you new gifts. It can improve your sanctification level in a dramatic way at a revival for example. I don't have any problems with the notion of subsequent to conversion, dramatic experiences in the Holy Spirit. But what they are not is a reception of the Holy Spirit. You wouldn't be a Christian in the first place if the Holy Spirit wasn't in your life. And here's the other part of the problem with this whole theology. You don't get the Holy Spirit on the installment plan because the Holy Spirit is a person. It is not like a quantity of water 30% now 70% later, the Holy Spirit As a person, when the Holy Spirit is in your life at conversion, the Holy Spirit is in your life. You can't get more of the Holy Spirit. I mean, he's be like talking about being a little bit pregnant, you can't have a little bit of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is either in your life or not. Now, it's true that the Holy Spirit can get hold of more aspects of your life progressively, over time, more control of your mind, over your will over your feelings. And the Holy Spirit can give you more fruit of the Spirit. It can give you fresh, new spiritual gifts, subsequent conversion, all that's fine. All of that's true. But none of that has to do with a, quote unquote, second definitive work of grace after justification called the baptism in the Holy Spirit. That's, that's not only a misuse of New Testament language, leads to a misunderstanding of what those texts are actually Talking about so that would be, you know, that would be my real beef with theology now, I am not a cessationist I believe that God still allows people to prophesied in our time and that God still gives the gift of speaking and interpreting tongues. I mean, a lot in common with Pentecostalism, which actually is an offshoot of the late 19th and early 20th century Methodist revival movements. It's an offshoot of Methodism. Really, that's really what it is. If you if you go back and look at the Azusa Street Revival at the beginning of the 20th century, and what was the root of that? Well, guess what the root of that was naza Marines who were going Westley and starting a revival in Los Angeles. That's where it comes from. Right. So it's, it's part of my it's an offshoot of the tradition I'm a part of, and there's a lot of it. I can't imagine
Dr. weathering 10 Thank you. In the final chapters of your book, you reflect on how all of these inadequacies, these exegetical inadequacies in various streams of evangelical theology. A point should teach us something about the nature of biblical revelation. And you propose, I understand that you propose a new way of doing theology, you offer that the logic of the biblical writers can be best articulated by tracing the connections they draw to the so called storied world of the Scripture, you write, when Paul thinks of sin, He thinks of the story of Adam. When he thinks of law, he thinks of the story of Moses when he thinks of faith, he thinks of the story of Abraham, and so on. Even Paul's letters are not compendiums of abstract ideas laid out in syllogisms. They lead to the paradigm, symbolic universe of ideas configured in stories with the story is then becoming the fodder and framework for a For theologizing and emphasizing into, into specific situations, how is it today that you would propose that theologians can pursue faithfulness to Scripture?
Well, I think it's happening. I mean, I'm happy to say that on my watch, and in the last 25 or 30 years, I think this is happening, because there and narratology, the storied world that is behind in the basis of the articulation of the theology and ethics in both the Old Testament and New Testament, and, and what I'm really saying is, we need to stop reading the Bible anachronistically that is in a post enlightenment, or modern way, and that means we need to stop abstracting in CO aid ideas from the Scripture, and then connecting one idea to another idea and a history of ideas kind of way, when in fact That's not how the biblical writers wrote. That's not how they thought. That's not how they wrote. for them. There was a symbolic universe, fixed stars in their mental sky. So for example, God, none of the writers of the Bible deny, like a rampant atheist, the existence of God, some have doubts, but none of them deny God is a fixed reality in their mental world. And they're almost all Jews. And so a theology of the distinction between a creator and creation is taken for granted. It's absolutely taken for granted. And it's the basis of thinking about the human story. We are creatures God has made us, we're all made in God's image. I mean, there's no debate about this. In the older New Testament, this is just taken for granted. That's part of the symbolic universe. And also part of this universe is this theology of In and suffering and the fall, it's taken for granted that early on something went dramatically wrong, something went dramatically wrong. And therefore God salvific plan is not act one or two of the drama. It's act free of the drama and it is creation and creature that he is trying to renew, restore, and save. And that's basically the arc of the narrative of the whole Bible, there is a plot to the Bible, that if you understand where you are in the story, you understand far better what are the ideas that are generated by the story. So there was the symbolic universe, dimension and various acts, leading fine late to a new creation when Christ returns. And the theologizing which is an activity are done out this symbolic universe out of these narratives and into specific situations. is being addressed in Old Testament times and in New Testament types. So it's a dynamic thing theologizing and emphasizing is not a canned, potted, can of spam that you can sort of open up and it's just gonna sit there and do not know what this is, is we see samples of how to do Thea and how to do ethics out of the story. Now what happens when you get to an age of biblical illiteracy like we're in what happens when you forget the story? Or where do you begin, do you you then hand them a track saying these are the five spiritual laws and here are the six doctrines you need to memorize? Or do you start over again with the story? I think that the way going forward into the 21st century to do mission is to retell the story, get people better grounded in the story and get them to ask the question Where am I? In this story? Am I inside the story of redemption? Or am I outside of it? Do I want to be inside this story of redemption or no? Thank you. So I think we're at a place where we have to start over from scratch. It's why I wrote the book reading and understanding the Bible for Oxford recently, because biblical illiteracy sadly on my watch has become worse, not better in my lifetime, even within the church. I mean, it's just appalling, how bad it really is. And and therefore, I think you just have to start over from scratch and retell the story.
Thank you, Dr. witherington. If I can close with a final question. I would like to ask you what would it mean, in your view for the church to be united? How would we recognize this unity and what can Christians do today to pursue Christian unity?
Well, the first thing I would say about that is there is Actually a spiritual unity in the body. All genuine Christians have whatever, genuine Christian faith tradition. So there is a de facto unity that we need to simply recognize God working towards unity. Well, I think the first thing that is to recognize we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and in a world increasingly more hostile to that fact, where the weather the hostility is from another religion or from atheism, or whatever it is, we need to get our act together and affirm each other as brothers and sisters in crisis. It's why I've gone to the Vatican and done conferences and deliberately made friends with Catholics. It's why I've gone and visited with Patriarch Bartholomew and assemble and made friends with Orthodox people with whatever degree of shipping of water is true about all of our careers. And traditions which it is true. if we're honest, it is true. Okay? We need to realize that there is a vibrant beating heart at the center of Christian identity because all genuine Christians are part of the body of Christ and we need to stop anathematized each other and get on with affirming each other. That's point one. But I agree with john Wesley, that unless the church is seen to be unified, and is deliberately working at its unity and working out the Unity we have in the spirit, then why should the world listen to us because we speak with four good tone. One group says this and other group says that etc. So there is plenty of room for ecumenical work and discussion over time, so that we can actually get our act together. so impressed with Pope Francis when I met him, because in the very first thing he asked of us who had the audience with him is would you please pray for me? The Catholic church needs a lot of reform. And the task is too overwhelming for one person. Please pray for me. This is a genuine Christian brother who wants help, right? How could I possibly say no to that? Right? We need to stop, antagonizing each other anathematized each other, and we need to get it together and we need to stand together in the face of world increasingly hostile. So we do things with one another, that are mutually agreeable. We can pray for each other. Occasionally we perhaps can worship together perhaps actually tear union together as a symbolic act of being, in fact, the body of Christ together. There are a lot of baby steps we can take and we have been taken Kingdom I, I was very encouraged by the discussions between the Lutherans and the Catholics, where they came to an agreement on yes, we affirm justification by grace through faith. Imagine that. In other words, we are miles from medieval Catholicism, that talked about works as necessary to even beginning to be saved or, or penance, money or buying your way into years off of purgatory. There's no talk like that anymore. All of these church traditions have been evolving over time, and we are at a propitious moment, which if we will take this sea tide at the flood will give us an opportunity to work together and to be together. A lot more work needs to be done. evangelicals need to be part of the conversation, and we need to get on with it.
It's been a privilege today to be speaking with Dr. Ben witherington. The third ame is professor of New Testament for doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and is also on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Dr. witherington, thank you so much for being with us today.
You are most welcome. God bless