I appreciate Ben’s Epilogue. As I read it, two things stood out immediately:
One: I was quite impressed that Ben could craft a response in less than 7,000 words! ;-)
Two: I don’t think the mug shot at the top of the Epilogue is a very good photo of Ben. He’s a bit better looking than that ;-)
I’m glad to see that BW3 acknowledges that both he and I have misread each other on some points. This is inevitable given the stale medium of Internet discourse (which I have never liked). And it’s only exacerbated by our profoundly different paradigms and experiences.
On a personal note, I’m happy to learn that I misunderstood a few of Ben’s points. It’s good to know that he’s not as far out in left field as I had originally thought. (grin)
Let me repeat something I said at the front (in Part One of my Response). I could be completely wrong in all my views and Ben could be completely right. However, his arguments aren’t new to me. I, along with many others who I personally know and respect in the Lord, have grappled with them for many years. We have listened carefully to those with whom we disagree, we have weighed their arguments, and we have not found them convincing. Of course, that could be an oversight on our part. Or it could mean that we who disagree with the conventional view of church may be on to something. (Hold that out as a possibility.)
In addition, I never asked or sought to be published. Each of the publishers sought me out (to my shock). And after much prayer and counsel from people who I know and respect in the Lord, I agreed. I’m very encouraged that these books are “getting out” and creating conversation that touch on those things that relate to the headship and centrality of Jesus Christ. I stand with all that I’ve written, yet I’m keenly aware that I could be mistaken. So I welcome this sort of civil and gracious dialogue and feel that it’s healthy.
That said, let me wrap this discussion up by focusing on a number of topics that Ben addresses in his Epilogue. I trust that it will help our readers to better see my line of reasoning and why I’ve come to various conclusions.
***Counting Heads and Sitting on Limbs***
The bulk of Ben’s Epilogue invokes with I would call the argument of “counting heads.” Ben appeals to it twice. It goes like this: “What the majority of the church has believed is correct. The minority view is incorrect.” Ben asserts that my views on the church represent a tiny, tiny almost invisible minority of Christians. Using his words, I’m “out on a limb” that only a few others share.
(Frank clears his throat.)
I concede that in terms of my complete ecclesiology, I’m part of a minority voice in the Body of Christ. (In terms of my views on the Trinity, however, I’m in the majority. More on that later.)
A few facts to consider.
The Radical Reformation, which I and others identity mostly with, has always been in the minority. Most of these brave souls were exterminated in years past. In fact, if Ben and I were discussing these same issues some 500 years ago, after my “rejoinder” (if I was even given a chance to write it), I would have been taken out and burned at the stake.
Interestingly, however, this minority is growing in our day.
Reportedly, 1500 pastors a month leave the clergy system (traditional pastorate) in the United States. (That number has been reported by Rev Magazine, Leadership Magazine, CT, Focus on the Family, et. al.)
According to Gallop, 1 million adult Christians per year leave the institutional church in the U.S. and the number is growing. Most of them are still following the Lord and fellowshipping with other Christians. As Reggie McNeal has said, “A growing number of people are leaving the institutional church for a new reason. They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.” George Barna has written extensively on this in recent years.
Note: By nature, I’m skeptical of statistics. Part of my early Christian journey was in the Pentecostal movement. And I quickly came to the conclusion that if a Pentecostal gives you a figure of those healed or saved, cut it in half and divide by two and you’ll *probably* get the real figure ;-) Frankly, I have no idea what the real numbers are. But what I do know is that according to many researchers all across the board, the typical American evangelical, conservative, traditional church is on the decline. Many Christians are either shifting toward more liturgical church forms (Catholic/Anglican/Eastern Orthodox) or they are seeking to gather in more simple/organic forms of church life.
I think it’s unwise to ignore all of this or fall into the temptation of judging those Christians who’ve taken those turns.
What “Reimagining Church” does is bridge the gap between the Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox emphasis on the Godhead and authentic Christian community and practically applies it to organic forms of church life.
But beyond all this, the most striking thought that shot through my mind while reading Ben’s “counting-heads/Frank’s-out-on-a-thin-limb” argument was . . .
This is the same exact same line of reasoning that was launched against John Wesley some 200 years ago. And it was launched by the clergymen of his day.
Early on, Wesley’s critics were filled with sentiments that he and his movement had departed from the historic church.
I find this ironic seeing that Ben has been serving in a denomination that owes its very existence to John Wesley.
Add to that: this same line of argumentation was leveled against all the Reformers, who in turn, leveled it against the Radical Reformers.
And history repeats itself as it so predictably does.
Historical sidelight: Shortly before the Diet of Worms, the pope dispatched one of the major theologians of the day, Cardinal Cajetan, to speak to Luther. What the pope told him was “do not argue with him on the substance of the issues. Just simply insist that he’s obligated to submit to my authority and the authority of the Church.”
Hmmm . . .
Note that I (and everyone else I know for that matter) cannot fill the shoes of a John Wesley or a Martin Luther. But the point remains. As one writer for Leadership Magazine put it recently, “The heroes of church history began as reflective Christians who doubted what everyone else took for granted, and as a result, were in almost every case marginalized … If renewal comes from the margins—as it nearly always appears to do—then by amputating our margins, we do what the chief priests and scribes did when a needed voice showed up at the margins of their community.”
If we will take “the counting heads/out on a limb” argument to its logical conclusion, then Ben and I ought to join the Roman Catholic Church and submit to the pope. The last time I checked, the RCC is the largest segment of the Christian world today.
The fact is, the church as an institution has been wrong on the issue of slavery throughout the centuries. It’s been wrong on the issue of “the sword” (shedding blood over doctrinal differences) since the fourth century. It’s been wrong on the unholy wedding between church and State since Constantine. It’s been wrong on the place of women throughout the centuries – treating them as second-class citizens and degrading them in its theology. (Interestingly, Ben himself broke with the majority historical voice on this issue.)
Point: the “counting heads/out on a limb” argument doesn’t seem to hold up very well when put under the magnifying glass of church history. The tiny, tiny minority has often been proven in the long run to be correct.
Consequently, I think the question of ecclesiology should be settled (where possible) by comparing arguments rather than by counting noses.
***Exegesis vs. Theology***
One of the constants in this discussion has been the hermeneutical question. To my thinking, because the Scriptures point to Christ, we cannot restrict ourselves to authorial intent. We must ask and answer relevant questions about the God to whom the Scriptures so truly and reliably reveal. In other words, we can’t build our views about God on exegesis alone. We must also do theology because theology is ultimately about God.
In this connection, Ben accuses Grenz, Giles, Volf, and Bilezekian of not “grounding their theologizing in a close reading of Scripture” and then says there’s “not an exegete among them.”
Really? I encourage our readers to pick up Stanley Grenz’ monumental work, “Theology for the Community of God.” Flip over to the back. You will find a 13-page, tiny-font Scripture index referencing the scores of texts that Grenz grounds his theology in. Throughout the book, Grenz’ roots his theology solidly on compelling exegesis. Also pick up Gilbert Bilezikian’s “Community 101” and watch how he grounds his theology in the NT text time and time again. Do the same for Kevin Giles’ books, “The Trinity and Subordinationism” and “Jesus and the Father.” Giles grounds his views solidly in the NT and the consensus of the church historically. Read those books and then decide whether or not Ben’s charge that these men “do not ground their theology in a close reading of Scripture” is true or not.
Incidentally, Giles and Grenz appeal to Scripture in the books I’ve cited above far more than Ben does in his theological book, “The Problem of Evangelical Theology.” (I just plugged your book, Ben. (smile) )
I believe that Ben has set up a straw man implying that theologians don’t do exegesis. That’s just not true.
Right or wrong, it’s my opinion that Ben confuses exegesis with theology. Karl Barth believed that exegesis was not theology; it was only the beginning of theology. I would agree. Very simply, the biblical text points us to something outside of itself. The Bible is not a book about the Bible. The Bible is a book about the Lord Jesus Christ.
***Canonical Criticism vs. Historical Criticism***
Ben suggests that we don’t have “permission” to read the latter part of the canon back into the earlier part. My question is: “Who is the permission giver?” “Who can give or deny us that permission?”
I wonder if implicitly Ben is suggesting that the exegetical scholar is the one who grants such permission. If that’s the case, then the exegetical scholar who denies canonical criticism is viewed as standing as king over the whole realm of biblical interpretation and tells everyone what is and what is not permissible.
Interestingly, not all exegetes are bound to the narrow methodology that says you must interpret a text by just restricting yourself to ask one question, “What did the author have in his head at the time when he wrote that text?”
Again, I address this in “Beyond Bible Study,” www.ptmin.org/beyond.pdf I’ll just say that we can learn a great deal by looking at the NT’s own way of interpreting the OT. Matthew quotes Hosea saying, “Out of Egypt have I called my Son” and applies it to Jesus Christ. Such an interpretation clearly had nothing to do with the authorial intention of Hosea. But this is typical of the way the NT utilizes the OT. It sees the full meaning of a text coming in the fullness of light that we’ve received in Christ.
Just so we’re clear: I believe that the meaning of Scripture *includes but exceeds* the product of the modern hermeneutic. The modern historian doesn’t have the last word on the meaning of Scripture. The interpreters of Scripture prior to the Renaissance, Reformation, and Enlightenment still had the basic equipment they needed to understand Holy Writ: the Holy Spirit and their fellow Christians through the ages. Just because they didn’t have modern historical science does not mean that they were incapable of understanding the Scriptures. Such a thought is absurd to me. To think it is the height of Western, Enlightenment arrogance in my view.
Brevard Childs, like myself, accepted historical criticism. Childs’ position was that historical criticism is a good beginning, but not a good stopping place. We don’t stop with the historical information of the text. We rather go on to see the fullness of the canon. Thus Childs didn’t deny historical criticism. The problem is that some are setting canonical criticism and historical criticism up as an either/or choice. But that’s a false choice. One can advocate the historical study of Scripture and yet say that historical study needs to be inserted into a larger and richer context, i.e., the existing canon of Scripture which contains a revelation of Jesus Christ.
My book, “The Untold Story of the NT Church,” is mostly a work of historical criticism written on a popular level. But just like Childs, I’m insisting that the interpretative process is not completed by historical criticism alone.
Put another way, the biblical texts are not just a grab bag of individual books. They are an organically united, canonical collection and they are only fully intelligible as such.
***Jesus Christ Speaking Through the Members of His Body***
This is not a black vs. white matter. I can’t identify with Ben’s statement of speaking “AS Jesus.” I have no idea what that means.
I affirm that Paul’s statement, “yet not I, but Christ lives in me” is an actual, and not a metaphorical, reality. Therefore, I believe that Christians can “speak by the Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). Prophetic utterances occur in the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12-14). The Spirit of Christ still inspires, anoints, and speaks through His people. At the same time, we are exhorted to judge every prophetic utterance and discern what in it rightly represents the mind of God. Why? Because NT prophecy is not understood by looking at the OT mediatorial prophet as its model. NT prophecy is not the same thing as the ministry of the OT prophets, because OT prophets had a mediatorial position. NT prophets and those who prophesy do not have this mediatorial position. So what they say must be judged.
By the way, it’s reported that Bishop Butler, an Anglican clergyman, supposedly scolded Wesley once saying to him, “Sir, this matter of Christians being inspired by the Holy Spirit in spiritual gifts is a horrid thing, a horrid thing.” I find that interesting, given this discussion.
***The Godhead and the Church Fathers***
Ben says with absolute certainty that the NT says nothing of the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit before creation except that God “created the universe, or God was planning to redeem it. That’s all folks.”
I can’t agree. John 17:24b is just one example of a text that tells us something about the relationship between the Father and the Son before the foundation of the world. And there are more such texts folks. ;-)
I’ve never said nor do I believe that the Father died on the cross. My point was that the principle of the cross is found in the Godhead. God is love. Thus His nature is to dispossess Himself and pour His life into the other members of the Godhead. Calvary was merely an outworking of this principle, which is rooted in God’s nature and worked out among the Trinitarian Community.
The views on the Trinity that “Reimagining Church” advocates is held by Catholics today, by Orthodox today, and by most Anglicans and Lutherans, as well as many people in Reformed and other denominations.
Regarding my views of the Trinity, Ben says I’m wrong on the Eastern Fathers and I’m wrong on the Trinity. First, when I wrote about what the Eastern Fathers believed in my response, I was essentially quoting their writings themselves. Second, those who have studied the writings of the Fathers in detail know that subordinationism was considered a heresy and that the Fathers did not believe that there was a chain-of-command hierarchy in the Godhead. Some, however, have quoted the Fathers out-of-context in their attempt to try to justify a hierarchy in the Trinity (Augustine is sometimes used for this).
A challenge to our readers. Read Kevin Giles two books (mentioned above) and the Appendix in Gilbert Bilezikian’s “Community 101.” They will clearly show that the view on the Trinity taken in “Reimagining Church” is in line with the historic teaching of the church. Note that I quote them in the book also.
Case in point. When the Eastern Fathers – Gregory of Nyssa and the other Cappedocian Fathers – stated that God the Father is the fount/source of the Godhead, some said, “You’re teaching subordinationism.” And they insisted, “No, we aren’t. The Father is the fount of the Godhead, but what He begets is One who is fully like Himself, and therefore, He is not subordinate to Him.” So the accusation of the subordination of the Son was specifically made and denied by the Eastern Fathers.
Contrary to Ben’s claim, I am not blending together the three Persons of the Trinity. I’m simply insisting that their glorious distinctive relationships are intelligible only when seen in the context of an overarching analogical resemblance. Yes, the three Persons are different. But they have an analogical resemblance to one another. They are distinct, but not separate. The Father’s gift of Himself to the Son is not the same as the Son’s gift to the Father. But they are analogous, and the term “subordination” can name one element of that analogy. Further, their relationship to one another is rightly named “love,” and therefore can be understood as being analogues. The relationship between Father and Son, then, is a matter of mutual submission. They just submit in different ways. “Perichoresis,” as the early Christians called it, the “Divine dance,” is what makes our human relationships intelligible in our relationship to God.
Regarding Ben’s comments on the members of the Trinity having different functions, this is what theologians call “appropriation.” The great theologians throughout the centuries, without any exception that I’m aware of, have all said that appropriation must be done very carefully. It should not be thought to mean that if we appropriate creation to the Father, that only the Father is involved in creation. In fact, all the members of the Trinity are in their own distinctive ways involved in creation. The same is true for every Divine act. All the members of the Trinity are involved in the incarnation, in the atonement, in the resurrection, in regeneration, in sanctification, etc. Each Divine act is associated with a specific member of the Godhead, but that doesn’t mean that it’s an activity *exclusive* to that member.
***Soundbytes or Building Blocks?***
I believe that Ben misses the point, here. I’m not naming various scholars as members of a single school of thought that I subscribe to. Not at all. I’m simply crediting those people who have helped me answer specific questions.
Thus when I quote and cite scholars who are Roman Catholic, Anglican, and part of other denominations, I do so because they drew the same conclusions that I have on certain questions. Quoting them doesn’t mean that I agree totally with their entire model or vice versa. What it does mean, however, is at a minimum, their handling of certain texts draw the same basic conclusions that I’ve drawn.
To get more specific: I own all of F.F. Bruce’s work and have studied his exegesis and life for years. Bruce wasn’t your typical Plymouth Brethren. He believed in 1 Cor. 14:26/Heb. 10:24-25 open-participatory meetings (as do I); he believed that women could speak in those meetings (as do I); he disagreed with J.N. Darby’s “biblical blueprintism” approach to ecclesiology as well as his dispensationalism (as do I); he didn’t believe in a clergy nor a single pastor system (as do I); he believed that elders were plural in the local assembly (as do I); I could go on.
The fact is, F.F. Bruce’s ecclesiology was far closer to mine than it is to BW3’s. Further, Bruce was a formidable exegete. And in my view, one of the greatest NT scholars of this age.
The same is true for Gordon Fee. While we may not agree on every detail of our ecclesiology, there’s wide agreement. For instance, Fee believes that 1 Cor. 14:26 was prescriptive. He believes that God through the Spirit speaks through the church, etc. He believes that Paul was an itinerant apostle. He believes in a plurality in elders in every church. He denies top-down authority leadership structures.
What follows are some direct quotes from Fee that make the same identical points that I make in “Reimagining Church” that Ben took issue with in his review.
"God as Trinity, including the Holy Spirit, is the ground of both our unity and our diversity within the believing community…” (‘God in Three Persons: The Spirit and the Trinity’ in “Paul, the Spirit, and the People of God,” p. 45).
"One of the more remarkable features of the New Testament Epistles is the twin facts (a) that they are addressed to the church(es) as a whole, not to the church leadership, and (b) that leaders, therefore, are seldom, if ever, singled out either to see to it that the directives of a given letter are carried out or to carry them out themselves" (‘Laos and Leadership Under the New Covenant’ in “Listening to the Spirit in the Text,” pp.132-133).
"Closely related to this is another reality that is easily missed in an individualistic culture, namely that the imperatives in the Epistles are primarily corporate in nature, and have to do first of all with the community and its life together; they address individuals only as they are part of the community. In the early church everything was done allelon ('one another')" (p.134).
"Leaders do not exercise authority over God's people—although the community is to respect them and submit to their leadership; rather they are the 'servants of the farm' (1 Cor.3:5-9), or 'household' (1 Cor.4:1-3). The New Testament is not concerned about their place in the governance structures . . . but with their attitudes and servant nature. They do not rule, but serve and care for—and that within the circle, as it were." (p.136)
The truth is, Gordon Fee’s ecclesiology is far closer to mine than it is to BW3’s. Further, Fee is an excellent exegete. (I quote him at other times in “Reimagining Church.”)
And Robert Banks’ work on the anatomy of Paul’s authority in the church is incomparable, bar none.
Point: The way that Bruce, Fee, Banks, Howard Snyder, and even in some places Dunn, handle the Biblical text is in *many cases* the same way that I handle the text.
Contrary to Ben’s statement, the “building blocks” of my theology of the Godhead and the relationship between Jesus Christ and His church maps tightly with the theology of Bonhoeffer, Grenz, Volf, and Giles. The difference lies in the *practical application* of that theology. I believe that if we apply their theology practically, it will not lead us to justify a Catholic church, an Anglican church, a Lutheran church, or an American Baptist church. Instead, it will lead us to the organic expression of the ekklesia.
All told, I’m perfectly fine with being characterized by sitting out on a limb. The truth of the matter is that many Christians of the past and a countless number in the present have taken their seat there also. In my estimation, Bruce and Fee, and even Snyder, are sitting on that limb too, but some of them are closer to the tree than others. (Unfortunately, those who were part of the original Radical Reformation were tossed off that limb to meet horrid deaths.)
By the way, Ben’s closing statement, “the consensus of the vast majority,” is an oxymoron. A consensus means you don’t think in terms of minorities and majorities.
Anyways, that’s how the tree looks from my humble limb ;-)
I’d like to thank Ben once again for this conversation. As I said in Part 2 of my response, I loathe this sort of academic discussion because 1) it typically doesn’t get past the frontal lobe, 2) it often degenerates into something that grieves the spirit, and 3) it rarely if ever ends up changing anyone’s mind.
However, I sensed that there was a shot that Ben and I could demonstrate, by God’s grace, how two Christians can have a vigorous, robust discussion on issues with which they strongly disagree and do it in a respectful, Christ-honoring way void of personal attacks and ad hominems. I certainly hope that this was the case. Our readers will have to decide if we pulled it off.
I also hope this discussion won’t end here, but that it rather becomes a “starter” of sorts that others will continue in many other places.
Methinks that if Ben and I keep going round the ben’ on this topic (no pun intended), that his blog will become an echo chamber of sorts, where the same arguments will just be repeatedly echoed. (Counter-assertion arguments have already begun to show up, I think.) There’s a lot to reflect on in what’s already been said, I think.
Regarding the book that provoked Ben’s review in the first place, there are plenty of positive reviews (see http://www.ReimaginingChurch.org). And there are some not-so-positive reviews (like BW3’s). ;-)
There are credentialed professors who wholeheartedly agree with the book (like Leonard Sweet who has made it required reading for his doctoral students). And there are those who wholeheartedly disagree with it (like BW3). ;-)
There are renowned authors who have endorsed it (like Shane Claiborne and Alan Hirsch). And there are renowned authors who haven’t endorsed it (like BW3). ;-)
Suggestion: If this conversation has been of interest to you, I seriously hope that you will read “Reimagining Church” for yourself instead of relying on someone else’s review– whether good or bad. Many of the arguments made in it haven’t been touched on in this conversation by the way.
Add to that: if you suffered the pain of reading “Pagan Christianity,” then you owe it to yourself to read “Reimagining.” For one simple reason: “Pagan” was only the first half of a conversation – the deconstructive side. The constructive half – which is the most important – is found in “Reimagining.” “Pagan” was never meant to be a “stand-alone,” and it’s not complete without “Reimagining.”
That said, I hope our conversation will continue in the church at large, and I trust that it will be Christ-honoring– friendly dialogue among brethren rather than hostile debates among enemies. I’m of the opinion that with respect to dialogue, the journey is more important than the destination— the process more important than the outcome.
Despite our differences in ecclesiology, I stand with Ben Witherington III in our shared testimony that Jesus Christ is this world’s true Lord. And I affirm him as a gifted member of the body of Christ.
It’s been an honor.
Your brother who sits on a limb,
p.s. I’ve not watched too much of Bill O’Reilly. But in some of the episodes I’ve seen, he doesn’t really give his guests “the last word” despite his claim. However, to quote Hebrews, “I shall think better things” of my brother Ben. (smile) Ultimately, the Lord Jesus Himself will have the last word, eh?