Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ephesians 1.6-- 'to the praise of God's glorious grace'

I was asked of late --"could it be clearer than Ephes. 1.6 that God simply does what he does for his own glory?" Let's be clear--- the Greek of Ephes. 1.6 says that God does it 'to the praise of his glorious grace'. The Greek preposition is 'eis' here, which is probably not the Greek prepositional equivalent to the English word 'for' here. We would have expected 'pros' if that were the sense here.

More to the point the one praising God's grace here is not God--- that would be us. This whole passage is about doxology-- namely our praising of God for all the gracious things he does and has done for us in Christ, the elect one.

This passage does not tell us what God's motivations were for saving us in Christ. They do however tell us that his actions were so gracious and loving that we all certainly ought to praise and glorify God for his grace.

Furthermore, in the key phrase in this passage the subject is God's grace, not God's glory, which are most certainly distinguishable and distinct ideas. God's wonderful grace is the noun content of this clause, with the word glorious modifying it, which means little more than wonderful or praiseworthy here.

To make this clause some kind of proof text that God does what he does for the sake of his own glory is to read into the text something that simply is not there. God's grace which is to be praised here is God's unmerited favor or undeserved benefit which he lavishes on us. We are praising his other directed love here! God's glory is something else than God's unmerited favor towards us. You will be hard pressed to find a place where Paul suggests that God's motivation for saving us is so God may glorify himself. Clearly enough, this text is not about that.

For more about this see my new Eerdmans commentary on Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians which is just out.


Kyle said...

Man Dr. Witherington - you publish every week! =)

wnpaul said...

Dr Witherington,

could you comment on my sense that at the base of this whole argument lies the assumption that the biblical revelation gives us enough information to allow us to make categorical statements about what motivates God to do certain things when in fact all the biblical revelation claims is to give us enough information to accept God's saving grace and to live holy lives.

In view of God's greatness and complete otherness from us isn't it rather presumptuous to believe that we -- any one of us -- through our interpretations of Scripture -- any of them, whether Calvinist or Arminian -- have any sort of complete grasp of what motivates God, or that we can with any justification apply labels describing human pathologies (like narcissm) to what we (or some other Christian) perceive of his motivation?

All the grammatical analysis of Greek and Hebrew texts, as well as all the background knowledge of ancient Near Eastern culture does not get us beyond the fact that our knowledge of God, of his thoughts, actions and motivations is complete only as regards what is needful for salvation and holy living; we are simply not told ALL that motivates God to do what he does or has done -- at least I find no claim to that effect in Scripture.

Ben Witherington said...

I understand your frustration Mr. WN Paul but I don't share it. Why not? Because in fact the Bible reveals a lot about God's motivations. Were it silent on this matter I would agree. The issue is the misreading of various glory texts, which are assumed to say something they do not say. In other words, its about exegesis not theological assumptions about the text.


Ben W.

Ben Witherington said...

P.S. And about that much discussed verse in Isaiah-- 'I shall not give my glory to another', this is simply a way of saying 'I will not give my praise to another'. Isaiah 40-45 (and beyond) is one of the strongest statements in the whole Bible about exclusive monotheism, and the folly of idolatry. The issue here is not God's motivations, but rather what God's people Israel should do-- glorify and praise the only true God and not those idols.

Furthermore, the issue is not about God sharing his glory with human beings. This subject does not come up here, but we certainly do hear about it in the New Testament in the discussion about God's people being conformed to the image of God's glorious Son, Jesus.


Ben W.

Marc Axelrod said...

I agree that the Ephesians text is a dead end for this kind of argument. But what about in John 12:28, where Jesus says "Father, glorify your name!" And then a voice from heaven says "I have glorified it, and will glorify it again." Is glorifying your name the same thing as glorifying yourself? Although this is not a Pauline text, is it closer to what WM Paul would want to say?

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for this good question Marc. John 12 is indeed a better place to start the discussion. The question then becomes what does 'glorify your name mean here', and not merely what does it mean, but what event does it refer to in the narrative. The answer of course to the latter question is in regard to Jesus' hour, by which is mean his death on the cross. God's name will be glorified by Jesus' death on the cross. Or better said God's character will be revealed and vindicated by Jesus' death on the cross. But what exactly is God's character revealed on the cross-- clearly it is God's ultimate act of self-sacrifice not self- congratulation!!!

Notice that the contrast in the text between 'save me from this hour' and 'glorify your name'. The idea here is of the divine plan to save the world through the death of Jesus (Jn. 3.16). Were God actually a self-centered being we might expect that 'glorifying his name' would involve God rescuing his one and only begotten Son from such a horrible death. Surely, God's love for his only begotten Son was such that like any parent, God might be inclined to do this. But the actual character of God is, at its root and heart--- love, self-sacrificial love. And therefore, God and God's character is more glorified and revealed and vindicated by the death of Jesus on the cross, than any other event in history.

In short, God's glorifying his name here does not mean the same thing that some Reformed folks seem to think it means. If by glorifying himself, you mean 'tooting his own horn', 'praising himself' or the like, then no, God's glorifying his name does not mean that. If by 'glorifying himself' you mean God's revealing and vindicating the divine plan and character-- then yes, it means that.


Aleksandra said...

What about Romans 9, where God says that He is giving time for the objects of wrath to increase in wrath, so that the objects of glory -- and God Himself -- will end up getting more glory from that?

Kristina said...

Sorry for the long post but I am getting tired of the run around. not from you. I'm just trying to find some answers and I'm not getting them. I sent this to someone. Maybe you know a person I can contact in person to about this?
Original email
Hello. My name is Kristina Wright and I am looking into the
I recently read a critique of Lee Strobel's new book, "Case for the Real Jesus" and I know that I should read the book first but I would like to see a
dissenter's opinion first before I buy a book. He really goes through each part of the Strobel's work and argues several different points. He talks about Jesus not fulfilling prophecies and that some of them were imagined or misinterpreted. I have found in the old Testament some passages but I sometimes wonder if Christians put their own spin on it to make look like what they wanted. For example, exegesis being "a way make the Bible what we want it to be". Or Micah 5:2 with Bethlehem being a tribe and not a city?

Also why, as Doland points out, did God not make his nature clear to the Jews? "the Jews were "staunch monotheists" because they were reading the Bible? You know, The Word of God? Brown's "argument," if one can call it that, is that God didn't make His own nature clear to begin with, so His own chosen people didn't understand Him, so He had to keep making further revelations less and less clear in order to avoid confusing His people even more! Despite all this, we are supposed to believe that the Jews who didn't believe that Jesus was the Messiah were really blind for not seeing it!"

Here is the article to Paul Doland's site:

Here's another link to "unfulfilled" prophecies:

Look, I'm new to this whole apologist things and it has been ratting my brain for weeks. I've talked with other people but it's small answers this or I'm too busy or read my book. I understand that but I want words and counterarguments from the person themselves. I recongize they are busy but I would like their help. See I look at these sites and they seem to be on point with arguing bit by bit. Where are some sites that do that for secular works? Not just an overview. I mean VERY detailed items. I can't find them! And not just books. Online articles too. I REALLY hope you have time to go through this critique bit by bit like certain secular sites do with theirs. If you are busy, I understand. But I would really like if someone did not merely suggest a book or give me pat answers. Again if you do not have time to answer my email, that's fine. However, if you can spare just one hour, I would be greatly appreciated. I am a Christian who wants to give solid matter to non-believers. Now, I know Christianity is a religion of faith and mystery, but I would like SOME form of solid fact and not just me interpreting like how I want it. I cannot do this with these secularists like Paul Doland and Michael Martin and Richard Carrier dismantling all of the Christian apologist arguments. I would REALLY like your help. If you cannot help, please take me to a person who can. Not a book. A person who I can talk to. Sorry if this got a little heated. I just want some answers.

Much appreciated,

PS Can you give me something on any critiques on Paul Doland, author of the review aside from tektonics.org? No offense but I sometimes get this idea that he attacks rather than argues.

New England Guy said...


I think you are referring to the following passage.

"What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory..." (Romans 9:22-23, NKJV).

Dr. Witherington could offer more precise insights, but I think the phrase "the riches of His glory" means "His glorious riches," i.e., His generosity and grace toward some vessels. Nowhere in the passage is this being done in order for God to congratulate Himself.

In fact, the opposite seems to be the case according to 9:23. He wants believers to share in His glory with Him (see 1 Cor 2:7).

As for understanding this passage in general, I would encourage anyone who reads it to compare it with Jeremiah 18, Ezekiel 18, and 2 Tim 2:19-21 to get a better idea of what Paul is (and is not) saying.

Anyway, that's all I have to say. I'm sure Dr. Witherington has more insights.


Unknown said...

Yeah, Ephesians 1 is really getting old as a proof-text to defend this thesis. It says nothing at all about God's goal being to glorify himself.

I think we have just developed some type of Christian code language where we say these words and they sound good but we have no idea what they mean. Therefore authors can use them in their books to defend this heretical view of God and their followers can say "see, God does all things for his glory".

This has really become somewhat of a joke. I just hope people can start to see past their little systems and let the text speak for itself.

Kyle said...

Dr. Witherington -

I was wondering if you could comment on an argument that I came across for universal in Phil 2:11 (since this passage was brought up in recently in your blog in speaking about the "glory" issue. The argument goes like this:

1) Paul is referring back to Isaiah 45, which seems to be a promise of universal salvation. While it says some will be "brought to shame," this is idiomatic language used elsewhere in the OT to speak of the shame of those who come repentent for things they have done. The idea is Isaiah 45 is that it is an oath that all the nations will be saved

2) The verb Paul uses for "confess" here almost always means "praise" in the LXX, so it cannot be referring to some kind of forced submission. In addition, Paul always uses this verb in connection with salvation (cf. Romans 10)

How would you respond to this argument?

Joel Joslin said...


I'm no expert on apologetics (it's just a hobby for me that I don't always follow closely), but I can give you a little advice. Yes, JP Holding can be a rather polarizing figure. I do like some of his work, but he often takes an overly caustic and aggressive tone and some of his theology seems rather strained.

I've read Strobel's newest book. It's nothing that will convince a real skeptic, but it's really meant to be a popular-level book and brief survey, not a comprehensive defense. Strobel also opens himself up for accusations (and I'd say they're pretty valid) of weak journalistic integrity by pretending to be hard-hitting and totally objective. I will say this: the fact that the Case Against Faith writer thinks Jesus's existence and crucifixion are things to be skeptical about makes me look at all his writing questionably. By the standards that people use to say there isn't enough evidence for Jesus's existence, we could say Hannibal and a host of other historical figures nobody doubts the existence of are mythical!

There are much more scholarly apologetic books out there, including those by people that Strobel interviews in his books. One good recent one is Reinventing Jesus, co-written by Dan Wallace. Lee Strobel and Josh Mcdowell do not represent the best of Christian apologetics by any means. Scholars like Witherington and NT Wright have written some apologetics too.

Regarding messianic prophecy: it does have pretty much zero apologetic value and it makes me cringe when people like Josh Mcdowell trumpet it as irrefutable evidence. Ironically, however, I would say the fact that the old testament passages they quote (and many of them are saying "this happened before and now something similar is happening", more than "this is what was predicted") aren't always perfect fits make it MORE likely they're telling the truth. If all the prophecies and fulfillment fit into neat like holes, it would seem more suspect that they were making stuff up.

If you want some people to talk to, try e-mailing the folks at Christian CADRE (christiancadre@yahoo.com). They are quite knowledgeable and should be able to help you.

Another good site that's highly detailed is http://christian-thinktank.com. Like with Holding of Tektonics, I'm not 100% behind everything Miller of Thinktank writes, but he tends to be very thorough (sometimes exhaustingly so!) and is much more polite in his approach than Holding.

Hope this helped.