Saturday, December 03, 2005

The Problem with Evangelical Theology

There were two principles that provided guidance for the Protestant Reformation--- semper Reformanda (always reforming) and sola Scriptura (the Bible as the final authority on all matters of faith and practice). These two principles of course have not always been equally or fully adhered to in Evangelical circles, but they have been recognized as the basic blueprint of the movement which began Protestantism.

In my recent book The Problem with Evangelical Theology I have tried to point out that we have come a long way since Luther, Calvin, and Wesley (to mention but three) and not necessarily in a good direction. Biblical illiteracy is pretty rampant even in Evangelical circles and things like experience, tradition, or even reason often seem to be allowed to trump the authority of Scripture or become the de facto final authority in deciding one issue or another.

What has concerned me as an exegete and NT scholar is that all of the major Evangelical theologies now on offer (Calvinism, Wesleyanism, Dispensationalism, Pentecostalism and sometimes several of these combined) have their exegetical weaknesses-- some more glaring than others. What is most interesting to me is the fact that these weaknesses consistently show up when one or another of these theologies try to say something distinctive or different-- something that distinguishes them from other Evangelical theologies. For example, the rapture theology of Dispensationalism, the predestinarian/eternal security theology of Calvinism, the charismatic gifts requirement tagged to some experience subsequent to conversion of Pentecostalism, or some forms of the perfection argument in Weslyanism. All of these 'distinctives' in fact are ideas that are very weakly grounded in Scripture. Indeed often one or another of these ideas seems to be supported in spite of what Scripture says over and over again.

Having spent 25 years of my life gradually working through the NT inch by inch, and coming to the point of finishing writing commentaries on all this material in the next few years, the weaknesses, sometimes glaring weaknesses in all these system's distinctives has increasing become apparent to me. What then do we Evangelicals, who pride ourselves on being "Biblical", do about this? Well for one thing it will not be sufficient to say-- "back to the Bible" not least because the Bible is miles ahead of us, and we are struggling to catch up in understanding, never mind in living a Biblical lifestyle.

In my new book, which is not just a critique book I have suggested some new avenues of approach, but first of course one has to own up to the weaknesses of one's own theological orientation, if one is brave and mature enough to do so. After that one has to realize that treating theology as a history of closely linked ideas is in fact a modern notion, a post- Enlightenment notion, which the Biblical writers would not have advocated or recognized as valid.

I am talking of course about the strip mining of Biblical texts--denuding them of their contexts and storied world in which they operate, and then transferring them into one's 'system', for example with the ordo salutis-- the so-called order of salvation (justification is followed by sanctification which eventually leads to glorification).

What's wrong with this picture? Go back and read the Gospels, for example and try and find this sort of linking of ideas denuded of parables or social context or rhetorical moment. You won't find it. And low and behold when you turn to Paul, Paul thinks of such ideas not in the abstract but in the context of stories-- for example when he thinks of the Law he thinks of the story of Moses and Israel, when he thinks of faith he thinks of the story of Abraham, when he thinks of salvation obviously he thinks of the Christian event. It might be better to ask what story is this idea a part of than to ask-- what idea can I chain link this concept to?

It is my hope that this book which I have written will stir up a lot of discussion, not defensiveness or furor. I think in the 21rst century we need to learn to do our theology in a more Biblical way, not just use the Bible as a justification or proof text for the theology we want to do anyway. If we manage to do this then perhaps those two reformation principles will come alive again-- in reforming ourselves, we may become more Biblical persons, thinkers theologians, ethicists. And this would be an exceedingly good thing. The time for posturing, pretending, and polemics should be over.

We need to recognize that it is what unites us, for example what we confess in the Apostle's Creed is the most Biblical thing we ever say, not what divides us. It is time for the world to stop wondering why Protestantism is a many splintered thing, which speaks with forked tongue. Why should anyone pay attention to us when we can't get our own act together? Why should anyone pay attention to us if we embrace relativism and say-- "well its all equally valid or true if it works for you--- right?" Truth, particularly truth in Christ frankly is not a matter of subjective feelings or opinions. It is something that makes a claim on us in God's Word.

May we see this truth soon. May it be so in our life time and in our children's life time.


brad said...

I just wrote a paper on "The Purpsoe of Romans" which was a short overview of the basic history of the debate. Anyway, the point is the text just opens up when we see the story of Paul and the story of the Roman churches and marry these stories and the heart of the apostle together to really come to a contextualized understanding of the doctrines unfolding. WOW!!! I believe such an approach is just starting to come into the churches and it is very helpful to the present story of the church.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Stephen: Well the Evangelical world is a big place, and info like this only trickles down gradually. I expect some fiery rebuttals, but so far nothing like that. In fact it has been mostly praise. I am wondering if I am slipping into a kinder gentler mode.

Layman said...


I am eager to read your book, but after reading your blog my wife raised an interesting question. To what extent does the need for context and an socio-rhetorical understanding of the New Testament writings place personal bible studies beyond the reach of laypersons? Is there a concern that the person-in-the-pew will feel that such informed studies is beyond them? Afterall, one of the great achievements of the Reformation was to place a Bible in the common tongue in the hands of the laity.

Ben Witherington said...

This is a fair enough question and my answer is that we are all supposed to study to find ourselves approved as the Bible itself says. The leader of any Bible study should have gone to the trouble of using commentaries to study the text in its original contexts and so be adequately prepared to lead that study. Bible study without preparation is like building a car without reading the instructions. There are bound to be mistakes. I do not say that everyone in the Bible study should be at such a level of Biblical literacy, but the leader certainly should.

Jimmy Archer said...

Great question, [wife of] layman, and great response, Prof. That speaks quite well to the common situation, I think. As a youth, I find that people just don't care and wouldn't take the time to study. Some have legitimate reasons for not studying S-R context, and I can't fault them. Bare survival is more important. But those who are supposed to be the leaders must study, because they are the interpreters.

There still is a big chunk of laypeople who have time but no will. I am not sure how to convince them, but some have seen the delight of a rich reading. If anyone has any thoughts I would give them serious consideration.


On the note of replies, there's one Calvinist who thinks "that Witherington’s putative effort to open up a constructive dialogue is simply a monologue to justify his own theological prejudice. He operates throughout in a self-satisfied and self-contained airlock, talking to himself as he regales the reader with urban legends about Calvinism and erects one straw man after another." and that "Witherington doesn’t know the difference between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology."

But I doubt that is representative of the Calvinist response. I don't give that guy much weight, but I'm waiting to discuss what another Reformed theologian has to say.

Layman said...


Thank you for your answer. Given the widespread availability of good commentaries, the challenge is -- as you say -- doing our homework. But then knowing which commentaries are the good ones can sometimes be a challenge. I would recommend all of yours, but also like the Baker Exegetical Comentary on the New Testament. My wife says she benefited from Gordon Fee's How to Read the Bible for All its Worth and How to Read the Bible Book by Book.

Anyone have advice for a good commentary series for the Old Testament?

Mickey Sheu said...

Steve Hays posted parts 2 and 3 soon afterward along with an offer for conversation in the comments of point 3.

As a person who is thoughally reformed (at least according to my defition *laughs*), most of the blogs I read have been pointing to the posts as a pretty good criticism, notably:

Justin Taylor, Alan Kurschner, and

Matt said...

Layman: thank your wife for her terrific question and thank you as well Dr. Witherington for your reply.

As one who is the early stages of his own theological education, I have been wrestling this question down too. One of the things I had hammered at me in my early walk with Christ was that anyone could read the Bible. Now I also see that a good historical/social/contextual understanding of the Bible is so key to its right interpretation. Yet surely God would not restrict his Word only to the elite few? Only the elite few could ever think that.

So, the educated few are to use their knowledge to be servants of others? How novel.

Ben Witherington said...

Matt: Here is the deal with studying the Bible. Of course it is true that anyone can read the NT in particular and figure out the claims about Jesus and understand it enough to be saved. But the Bible is not just about how to be saved. It is about so many other subjects as well, some of them very complex. It has always been the case that some of us must rely on other believers to understand one thing or another, simply because we don't have the time, skills, languages etc. to study the Bible in its original contexts. And yes, you are absolutely right that Bible scholars are supposed to be servants of the church in general. This is the very reason I write the books and do seminars and preaching events all over place in addition to my day job at the seminary. I understand why James says that teachers have more responsibility for what they know.


Ben W.

Matt said...

Thanks for the reply Dr. Witherington. I struggle with how "deep" academically to go with people I teach. (I lead a housegroup at my church)

I often hear things like, "Why does it have to be so complicated? Isn't Christianity supposed be simple? You know, love Jesus and love others?"

More responsibility indeed. I need to remember not to be heaping heavy burdens on people but rather to use the knowledge God develops in me to clarify the road ahead for those I serve.

Again, thanks.

Russ said...

In the book are you arguing that there is a fundamental flaw in a systematic theology approach that requires it be abandoned, or that a few doctrines need more exegetical analysis?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi R Reeves:

I am arguing that any theology that has major tenets that are only loosely grounded in Scripture, and in fact may involve a misreading of Scripture, is a theology in need of an overhaul.

I am not allergic to systematic theology, but it needs to be based on sound exegesis and Biblical theology, not be some kind of independent entity whose driving force and tenets are not Scriptural but which uses Scripture to bolster views already held on other grounds, such as church tradition.

elizabby said...

Fantastic! I love the idea of more church unity and less "protesting" against each other! It makes us look really silly to those outside the church, to start with.

Just wondering why only Protestant are included though? We share the Apostle's Creed with Catholics and Orthodox as well, and unity with them would also be a good thing, woudn't it?

Marc Axelrod said...

Dr. Witherington:

I enjoyed the book and agree wholeheartedly with the conclusions. The distinctives inherent within dogmatic theology are usually the weakest links in the system.

My one note of critique is that even though you looked at primary source material in the discussion of Wesleyanism, you didn't always do that with the other dogmatic systems. In your discussion of dispensationalism for example, there was no dialogue with the deans of dispensationalism (McClain, Walvoord, Ryrie, Pentecost). The dispensational system does not live by LaHaye alone.

These aforementioned authors will provide a scholarly balancing of what is proffered in the more lay oriented readings. It would also show your dispensational readers that you respectfully took the time to thoroughly engage their system of thought.

That's why the Reformed scholar Vern Poythress has been so effective at helping dispensationalism to evolve. He took the time to engage with the preeminent thinkers of dispensational premillennialism.

If there is ever a second edition to this book, I would show evidence of more dialogue with these primary sources. God bless you and Merry Christmas!

Marc Axelrod, who refuses to stay anonymous :)

Richard W. Wilson said...

I am encouraged by Ben Witherington's affirmation and critique of Evangelical Theology. So far I've only read interviews and reviews regarding its main points. As a radical biblicist I'm barely inclined to go as far as affirming the Apostles' Creed, but do so since it didn't cause any major rifts in the early Church. Distinctives are necessary, of course, and if the simple and subtle truths of "scripture alone" could accurately be discerned they would no doubt appear very disctinctive today! So, how a theology differs from the average Evangelical norm isn't necessarily a good indicatory of its accuracy.

The reason I'm posting, however, is that I have long noted, though I have perhaps studied in part to "show myself approved," scripture DOES NOT say, as Ben does "we are all supposed to study to find ourselves approved." Paul says that to Timothy and it is inappropriate to simply apply that admonition to everyone. See how easily we simply follow along with what we've heard rather than stick merely to what has been written in Scripture. Thank God we're not saved by the perspicacity of our theology.

Scot McKnight said...

I posted a brief summary and approval of your book at my site:
Thanks brother.

Unknown said...

Excellent points.. I hope I can live up to that standard myself some day.

You should have linked to this article in your recent discussion on Pagan Christianity. It provides some good background for readers, like me, who are new to your work.