Ben Witherington III | Who God Is
1:55PM Sep 17, 2021
Jonathan J. Armstrong
Ben Witherington III
Welcome to In Unitatem Fidei where we discuss questions of the unity of the church and surrounding theological themes. And today we are absolutely thrilled to be speaking with Ben Witherington, the third. The Jean R. Amos Professor of New Testament studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, also author of the text that we'll be discussing today, who God is meditations on the character of our God available for lexham. Press. Dr. wetherington. Thank you so much for being with us. My pleasure.
Dr. witherington. So we'll dive straight into it. This book is a concise statement of the theology of God, and you have focused this book around the attributes of God or let me rephrase that you tell me about the character of God in this book from the statements of who God is. What was the genesis for this project?
Well, the real kicking off point is I did a major biblical theology, which Cambridge published a year and a half ago, a book that won the National Book of the Year award in theology and religion. But having come off of that, I realized there was something missing, not just in my treatment of the subject of biblical theology, but in general. I mean, you can survey lots of the biblical theologies out there, and they almost never get to the point, or barely scratched the surface of what about the nouns that are predicated of God? In the downtime, particularly talking about our God is love, light? life? God is Spirit. God is one. So nouns in both the new and the old testament. And my initial query was Why? Why are those things sort of ignored or, you know, put in an appendix or that sort of thing. And just as an English literature major, I learned long ago that nouns are more important than adjectives. So why is it the conversations are all all always about the adjectives God is sovereign God is holy God, God is just he's most merciful. We could go on, there's probably 100 adjectives we could predicate of God based on the Bible. So I thought, well, it's time for a mid course correction. On these, we need to put the emphasis on the right syllable. So let's teach are the nouns. And that's what this book does.
Wonderful, and you arrange this concise book around these five themes. God is light, excuse me, God is love. In chapter one, God is light. In chapter two, God is life. In chapter three, God is spirit in chapter four. And God is one or unique in chapter five. How did you decide to order the chapters in this particular arrangement? Well,
I think that from my particular point of view, the most important of these has to do with God is love. I mean, think about it for a minute. What's the great commandment, thou shalt love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbors yourself, to which Jesus adds Love your enemies. God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son does seem like we ought to know more about God's love. In fact, in some ways, that's the most important thing we need to know more about. So I put that front and center. Because I think there are implications of this when you're unpacking the exegesis of the text, like first john for which is actually the most love filled passage in all of the Bible. You go back and look at the noun, the verb, the the, the participle, etc. And even that the people are called Beloved. We need to really understand what this is all about. So the initial focus was on God is love. And of course, that immediately creates some problems. Because for us, the word love can always kind of feelings. This is not chiefly about God's feelings, though. I'm fine with the idea that God has feelings. This is not chiefly about that. What it's about is the nature of the love. The Bible is actually talking about a love that has to be freely given and freely received. And in terms of the character of God, God chooses to be a loving person. He didn't have to send His Son to redeem the world. But he acts on his character, which is love. Now, it's a holy love. It's not just any kind of love. But nonetheless, it's love. And at the heart of saying that cannot be coerced, anybody who's been in a dating relationship, who tried to coerce the other person into loving them knows, rather quickly that, in fact, you're in trouble. You're not going to get that done, you cannot make them an offer they can't refuse. No, it has to be freely given and freely responded to. So the fact of the matter is that just as for God, Love is Something he chooses, he freely chooses to do. It's also true that we must freely respond in love to God, or else it's not love. Love can't be manipulated. It can't be predetermined. It cannot be coerced, I could just keep going. Now, it seems to me that that's exceedingly important to understand in regard to the character of God. Because if we understand that, that changes the whole way, we understand how God exercises His sovereignty. If God is love, and he's freely loving, and he's giving us by His grace, an opportunity to re freely respond to that in faith. Well, by golly, that really changes. Certain views of sovereignty, a very hard fatalistic view of God's sovereignty would say, Well, God has pre determined all things before the foundation of the universe. No, there are certainly some things that God has destined in advance fair enough. But in regard to this personal relationship that we have with God, that's not one of them. That's just not the same thing. So the issue is not whether God's sovereign or couldn't do it differently. Yes, he could. He could have really chosen to do it very differently. But what the New Testament teaches is he didn't he chose to do it this way.
Excellent. Dr. wetherington. In your chapter on God is love you also unpack the biblical word for love the Greek word for love a Guppy and what are the How is it that the Greek word or the biblical concept of love and carries with different connotations that are English word for love?
In English, we have one love. This is a problem. You know, I mean, even words related to the feeling of love in English, like lust, okay, are not words for love. Lust has a negative connotation. So in Greek, there is a gap Bay, and the verbal form of that word. There's filetto, as in brotherly or sisterly love. I do have a beef with Philadelphia, that town's name is the city of sisterly love. If it were the City of Brotherly Love, it would be Philadelphia sauce. And it's not. So they need to change their signs. So there's filetto brotherly love. There's store gay, family love as well. There's air OSS. And now air OSS is physical love, okay. It always involves the word from which we get the word erotic, right? Those are the big four. There are several other minor words for loving Greek, but there's not just one word for love. And clearly the most important of these is the word I got a I got, oh, I got paid toss, etc.
Dr. witherington, you are known as a theologian operating in the Wesleyan tradition, not in the reformed tradition that we hold to a doctrine of predestination. As you already pointed us in that direction. Would you construct an argument or From a rigid understanding of predestination based on this concept that God is love, and if you would, what would that argument? How would that arguments unfold?
Again, I'm not denying that we have a concept of God destiny, some people in advance to be conformed to the image of Christ. The question is, who. And what romans eight actually says is, those whom love God, God has destined in advance to be conformed to his son's image. It's very clear. It doesn't say, God has picked a group of people out of a mass of fallen and unredeemed humanity to be saved. It doesn't say that salvation just by grace through faith. What it does say is that if anyone is in Christ, they are a new creature, and they have a destination to be conformed to the image of Christ. Romans eight is real clear that that is that the antecedent of Romans 829 is Romans 828. And what does Romans 828 say? It says, God works all things together for good for those who love God, and are called according to purpose. By the way, it doesn't say, called according to His purpose or his choice. There is no modifier to the word for purpose or choice. But that doesn't matter so much what matters is, this is one of those rare places, when Paul talks about love. He's not talking about the love of God. He's talking about our love for God. And what he says about that is those who love God, are destined in advance to be conformed to the image of Christ son. So is there predestination there? Sure. It doesn't have to do with God choosing people out of a massive unredeemed humanity to be saved. It has to do with the destination of those who already love God. And that's what it's about. So it's not an either or proposition. It's a Let's follow Paul to the letter and hold his feet to the fire and see where we get
actually wetherington many of the biblical texts that that provide the clearest support for your, your exposition here come from the Gospel of john or from Johanna and literature. Right. So the probably the purest statement that God is love is first john four, eight, that God is light would come maybe from first john one five, that God is life, from john 1125. And God is spirit from john 424. Does your exposition here share a special relationship with Johanna and theology? And how might it shaped differently if it were reflected by or led by other New Testament authors?
Well, here's what I think. I think that I mean, obviously, the most theologically reflective portions of the New Testament are a Paul line letters be the johannah and literature including revelation. Okay. The book of Hebrews, and two that we might add first, Peter, okay. Now, this is not the gospels are very important. They certainly have theological statements in them as well as ethical statements. But if we're talking about the big Dawgs sources of our theology, and the theology of the early church, I mean, if you look the early christological councils at nicea or Cal Seton, what are they arguing about? They're mainly arguing about john one, In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Hello. You know, so I think it's right to say that if we are front lighting, the Paul and stuff and the johannah and stuff, we're not doing a disservice to what is really front lighted by the writers of the New Testament. And that's what I would want to say about that.
Excellent. Actor wetherington. Your last expositional chapter before you bring things to a conclusion is God is one or unique. And this is the chapter that you reflect on the Shema, hero, Israel from Deuteronomy six, four and five, and you bring the study in a way to around in a circle that is to say that this command, excuse me, that is to say that this doctrine that God is one brings us back to the command to love God. Absolutely. How does the Shema work to undergird your previous analysis?
Well, as you probably know, the Hebrew word in question is a card. Now this word can be interpreted various ways, like so many Hebrew words, does it mean God is a singularity and therefore a single person? Clearly, that's how the Quran understands it. Their basic credo is, Allah is it? If there's one person in the Godhead, please don't confuse me with any other notions. Okay. I don't think that that's the thrust of the Shema. In the Pentateuch, I think it's saying that you always The only real God is unique, in that he's the only real God, there are pretenders and contenders out there, there are parodies. But he's the only reality he's the only living God as the Old Testament puts it in various other places. So what's going on? There is is a claim that he deserves exclusively deserves our worship, our love, our attention, our service, the whole nine yards. And yes, that brings us back to the fact that we're supposed to love that God, with our whole being the great commandment, no question about it. Now, the thing about mana would say ism is if there were multiple gods, the claim that we should worship only this one would not make sense. If they really were multiple gods, or the claim that we should only serve this one wouldn't make much sense or the claim that we should only love this one. Now if you know Greek myth, or your Roman mythology, they didn't believe that they thought different strokes for different folks. I like Apollo, you'd like Aphrodite, that's fine. So it's a unique claim. It's a monotheistic claim the whole claim to only worship this person is a claim that that he's the only legit God. And that certainly goes along with the notion that this is the only deity we should worship.
After wetherington, in the final chapter of your book, which is a summation, it's titled The character of our God, you demonstrate that the way these prior statements fit together to give us a coherent sense of who the Christian God is. Many people ask how it is that a God of love could as Christian tradition, posits condemned people to eternal punishment? For those who reject Christ? What is your view?
Well, I think there's no question. There is the doctrine of hell in the New Testament. In fact, interestingly, the person who talks the most about how or gahanna is Jesus, also the book of Revelation, Paul says almost nothing about this. I mean, that's really interesting. He really says almost nothing about hell. There are a few statements like, Second Thessalonians. There's some statements or First Thessalonians, two, but But mostly, he's not talking about a negative, eternal outcome. For people. He's mainly talking about salvation in the positive afterlife. That's what he's talking about. So I don't have any doubt that there is a hell. And I like what CS Lewis says about that. He says, hell is the place where God says, okay, have it your way, you don't have anything to do with me. You don't want to do my will. This is for you. This is what's happening to you. This is where you're gonna go. I like to put it this way. Hell is the place where you experience the absence of the presence of God forever. We could also add to that hell is the place where you realize you be eternally blown it and there is no remedy. Like in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. No, you're not there's no transportation between hell and heaven. And, and so that's so not happening, or vice versa. So, the New Testament I think, is very clear that there are eternal consequences to life here on earth. Now, here's, here's the thing, since all have sinned and lack the glory of God, which is what exept Paul exactly says, since that's true. Salvation is purely God's love and mercy on those who will receive it. I mean, that's what it is. God is all Holy love, he desires the whole world to be saved. And here's the interesting thing about the famous john 316. He's do a study of the word cosmos, which is translated world there. And it doesn't mean the stars. What it means is the world of humanity organized against God. rephrase, john 316, God loved the world in this manner that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish. That's an implied statement about what happens to somebody in the afterlife, but shall have ever lasting life. That's God's intended outcome for everybody. The fact that not everybody receives it believes it embraces it is not on God. It's on us. And here's the other part of this that we didn't really talk about. So I'll just mention it briefly. God's love is a holy love. God is also righteous, he's also just, he's also fair, all of that is endemic to the character of God. And so he doesn't want to have a world where in the injustice is not done. So how was that taken care of, through the cross? God's demand that sin be dealt with, be taken care of the Justice be done, is done through the death of Jesus on the cross. But if you don't embrace that, you don't get that outcome. That's not for you. You have chosen to do something else. So that's kind of how I would see it. I don't think God's love, love is at odds with his holiness. Indeed, His love is a holy love, not justice without mercy, not love without righteousness. All of that's part of God's character. And guards. God is not privileging one part of his character over against another part.
Dr. wetherington, we're thrilled to be able to speak with you. So this this excellent little book, who God is meditations on the character of our God, what number book is this for you that you've written so far?
Oh, Lord, it's over 60 I stopped counting A while ago. Yeah. But you know, this one, has really rung the bell, in various ways, and in various places. And, and what I really intended it for, I mean, as you know, they're sort of devotional exercises at the end of each chapter, is to get people to really meditate on the character of God and have a full orbed picture of who our God is not just a partial picture, based on one adjective or one trait of God that we're, we're happy with. But no, what's the full picture of God? I asked people as a result of reading this book, do you really want to live in a world where justice in the end is not done? If you don't want to live in that world, then why are you complaining about God's holiness, and God's justice? And that he has deliberately set up the moral universe? So there are consequences to human actions? That's so important. And a lot of people don't want it that way. You know? Do you really want to live in a world where God is merely just? I don't think so goes we would all fall short, and none of us would be saved. Now we want the full orbed character of God to be expressed in God's world. It's his world. After all, not ours. We don't get to decide what is and isn't moral in this universe. God got to decide that.
Dr. wetherington, thank you so much for those responses. And I would be remiss if I didn't ask you briefly, what it is that you were learning from the COVID crisis, a lot of folks in theological education are having quite a time reconfiguring their processes to this new COVID world. What are you learning in the process of this about Christian education?
Well, here's what I would say. It's an opportunity to think theologically about such disasters. So for example, think about why Jesus came. Jesus came as a healer. A person who healed diseases, raised the dead, gave blind their sight. COVID COVID-19 is a part of this fallen world. That's what it is. It's not God's Will God's best. purposes for our lives. that's point number one. So if you're asking the question, what did I do to deserve this? You're asking the wrong question. Frankly, one of the texts that helps me the most about these kinds of things is First Kings 19th. Elijah goes up to Mount Horeb, aka Mount Sinai. And what happens? What happens is, there is a great conflagration but God was not in the fire. There is an earthquake, God is not in the earthquake, please tell the insurance companies, okay. There is a mighty wind and God is not in the wind, you cannot tell the will of God by looking at creation, especially chaos and creation, especially in a fallen world. Where is God in His Will can be found in His Word, as Elijah quickly learned. So, during COVID-19, we should not be playing the blame game, and certainly not be blaming God, for something that actually we have been spreading to other human beings. And over a half million Americans have died. This is on us. And thank God, we're working fast now to get vaccines in everybody's arms. Because otherwise it would be even a bigger disaster, to say the least. So I would say, if your your theological understanding of God is clear enough, you will know the God is with the doctors, and the nurses, and the special care workers who are trying to prevent us from getting this disease or help us get over this disease. That's where you see the hand of God. He is the great physician Hello. He's not the great zapper. He's the great physician. And that's the theology I would want people to take away from this moment.
Dr. wetherington, thank you for that reflection. If I can ask you one final question. Our program is titled in want to talk to V day, which is the Latin phrase from Paul's words there in Ephesians 413, that Christ gives gifts to the church to equip the saints for the ministry until we attain to the unity of the faith. That's where that phrase comes from. And we're asking theologians biblical scholars from across the spectrum of Christian traditions to help us envision what would it reunited church look like? And so we pose that question to you to what what would a church that was reunited, look like? What is it that we can do as Christians to pursue the Unity for which Jesus prayed and john 17,
or it looked like the kingdom of God. That's what it would look like. It would look like people from all races and ethnic groups, and ages and stages of life, reconciled not merely to God, but to one another, and standing unified as the body of Christ. Whereas actually, sadly, that's not what we see. So I would say that in the best sense of the word, all of us need to be working towards that end of, for example, doing doing communion across denominational lines with each other, sharing the Lord's Supper, working together on projects of relief from the disaster that just happened in Texas, and elsewhere. You know, I mean, my church, boy, they are gung ho and ready to go, you know, that when a crisis happens, they suit up, they get supplies, they go, and they go and help people who are in extreme difficulty, you know, that that's what we're supposed to be doing. We're supposed to be helping each other. And I think that if we act in the way that Christ act, that in itself unites us and makes us realize there is a worldwide Body of Christ, and we're part of it. Another thing is we need to broaden our horizons beyond our local church, to be honest, I mean, I have worked with all kinds of different people, Orthodox people, Catholic people, you know, all the kinds of products that you could possibly name including Mennonites, and Amish, you know, the whole sort of gamut. And at the end of the day, when you actually do that, you realize that all of these people, whatever their perspectives are, are actually Christian people. They are brothers and sisters in Christ. Well, for some people, you actually have to come to that realization, because the the plant of the powers of darkness is divide and conquer. They want not a United Church. They want a divided church, for sure. You know, there's a parody of the great hymn that goes like this, like a mighty turtle, loose the Church of God, brothers, we are treading where we've always tried, not united Brethren, not one body, we, we will all be standing here until eternity backward Christian soldiers. That's the opposite of what we should be doing. That's the opposite of what I'll give you one final illustration. I was blessed and honored to be asked to be amongst some of the Protestants, who came to the end spoke of historical Jesus conference at the Vatican. Pope Francis had been recently made Pope, the conference set out actually been set up by Pope Benedict who is a proper theologian, and he's a theologian amongst the Pope's, most Pope's are not theologians. But in any case, we had that conference. And it was great that were Protestants. There were lots of Catholics there were orthodox, there were Christians of all kinds who were theologians at this meeting. And it was a it was a great meeting. And afterwards, we had an audience with Pope Francis. And I got up there and I shook his hand, I've got the picture right here on my wall here, me, shaking hands with him. And you know what he said to me? Please pray for me.
There are many things that need to change in my church. I know this. And we want to be a good servant of Jesus Christ. I mean, wow. Absolutely. I said, I will pray for that. All of our churches need to be reformed. If you believe in the reformation, you believe we all need to be reformed. And after that, we all went out. And and he was the thing I noticed about him is his humility. He would go and just sit with the priests, that there that were there in Rome on that day, and have meals with them day after day after day. He didn't stay up in his Vatican apartments, and just sequester himself and, and try to be holier than thou just the opposite. He would eat with them, he would wash their feet. He was trying to follow the example of Christ but also of St. Francis as well. I was really impressed. I was really impressed. Now. That's not to say I don't have plenty of differences with Catholic theology. I do. But the truth is, all of us have some defects in our theology. But you will know. We are Christians, by our love. And when I see that Christ like love and some money his life, I have to. I have to.
You're so grateful today to have been speaking with Dr. Ben witherington, author of many books, including who God is meditations on the character of our God available for the next press. Dr. wetherington, thank you so much for spending a few moments with us today.
My privilege. Thank you very much for having me.