The Problem with Evangelical Theology: A Review of Ben Witherington III

By: Graham H. Twelftree
Wednesday, March 13th, 2013

Ben Witherington III. The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2005. 294 pp. $34.95

For Witherington, Evangelicalism—that “many-splintered thing” (ix)—has three main tributaries: Reformed theology, which contributes the emphasis on soteriology, Dispensationalism, which renews the focus on eschatology, and Wesleyan/Pentecostalism with its stress on the experiential (3). Important for Witherington, in their distinctive elements, each of these systems is “only loosely tethered to detailed exegesis of particular texts” (6).

Witherington applauds the Reformed tradition for its high Christology, its Trinitarian emphasis, its belief in the atoning death of Jesus and its omnipotent God (3–89). It is its TULIP that is dead and ought to be thrown out (167–68). It is not God but human response that limits the atonement: “God’s grace is resistible at the outset and rejectable later” (88).

Dispensationalism (93–168) is certainly not Witherington’s favorite form of Evangelicalism, wed to “the all-too-American gospel of success and wealth” (93). He draws some no-holds-barred-conclusions. “There will be no Armageddon between human armies . . . all divine solutions to the human dilemma descend from above . . . . One should not look to the modern secular state of Israel as some sort of fulfillment of biblical Israel;” from the Christian point of view, all OT prophecies are fulfilled in or by Christ, not apart from him or the church (109). Also: “Unless by rapture one merely means being taken up into the air to welcome Christ and return with him to earth, there is no theology of the rapture to be found in the NT anywhere” (130). For Witherington, much of the Dispensational system collapses.

“Mr. Wesley Heading West” (169–237) focuses attention on Wesleyan concepts. As a cradle Methodist, Witherington admits the difficulty of criticizing his theological parent. Not surprisingly, he is more restrained in his criticism, declaring that to him there appear fewer weaknesses in the Arminian approach to biblical texts than in other systems (171). Witherington concedes that Wesley’s notion of sinless perfection has imperfectly followed the text of the NT. An encounter with the perfect love of God may have a profound effect on a person, but there is no suggestion that perfection, in the full sense of that term, will result (214).

In a glance at “The People of Pentecost” (216–222) Witherington takes issue with consequence or subsequence, which he argues cogently is weakly based, and in some cases distorts the biblical text (218). On the question of there being any particular gift Christians must manifest to demonstrate being Spirit-filled, Witherington is clear: “absolutely not” (220).

In the final part, “The Long Journey Home—Where Do We Go from Here?” (225–54), Witherington argues that the story of God’s people is to be read starting from Jesus. This would involve not only reading the OT, but also ourselves and our non-Christian neighbors, through the lens of Jesus. Indeed, the foundation of Evangelical Christianity, at present apparently a Book, needs to be replaced by a Person, Jesus. For, if we read the Book carefully it points us beyond itself to the incarnate Person. Though, even Jesus is not the ultimate object or, as Rowan William says somewhere, the terminus of our faith.

Witherington also argues that we should “do our theologizing in the very same manner as Jesus and the biblical authors—using stories” (239). However, so far as I can see, the theologizing that comes to us from the NT was not only done “out of various paradigmatic stories” (240). The gospel is neither limited to nor embodied in a message: Jesus did not simply tell stories. A case can be made that he only told stories because something had already happened both in his coming and in his ministry. Without the coming of God in him, without the expression of the coming of God’s powerful presence in his activities (not least the miracles), Jesus would have had no stories to tell. Yes, the early Christians told stories of the Jesus event, but they were also compelled to connect that story with their own stories. For, the power of his Spirit, manifest in events (including the miraculous), required new stories.

If this is right, I would suggest that the way forward in re-conceptualizing (Evangelical) theology is not in finding new ways to do hermeneutical tricks with old stories. Instead, as we look carefully at those stories, I suspect we will want to find new ways to allow the powerful presence of God access to our present. The result would mean—as it did for Jesus and his early followers—that we would then be obliged to explain what was happening, as well as retell the Old story about the One whose powerful presence was being experienced. In short, theologizing is not done merely by interpreting paradigmatic stories. Theology is describing and interpreting God, including both his speaking and acting, in relation to present experience.

Does such an approach put theology at the mercy of experience? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that, from a biblical perspective if there is no experience there is no theology, only history. But no, in the sense that just as contemporary stories (our words) do not replace the message of Jesus—they can reflect on, enliven and enlighten it—so contemporary experience (healings, tongues, prophecy, miracles) does not replace or eclipse the activities of Jesus but, like the stories, can give them contemporary expression and significance as it did for the early Christians.

The problem with Evangelical theology is certainly in the distinctives having poor exegetical foundations. But, if the devil is in the distinctives, the heresies are in what we hide with our present theologies: the person of Jesus and his ongoing powerful presence among us through the Spirit.

Tags: , ,

Graham H. Twelftree
This entry was posted by on Wednesday, March 13th, 2013 at 7:18 am and is filed under Biblical Studies, Book Reviews, Theology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “The Problem with Evangelical Theology: A Review of Ben Witherington III”

  1. Jeremy S. Crenshaw says:

    As much as I love Witherington’s work and desire to read this book that you have presented, I cannot say that I look for many surprises from him by what you have presented. He seems to correctly attack dispensationalism and Calvinism while pointing out the errors in views of perfection and rejecting the notions of Pentecostalsim or experiencing initial tongues. We have to take his work for what it is: a theologian writing under the persuasion of his belief system or denominational heritage. The one bright spot seems to be his denial of Wesleyan perfection. However, we should not put too much stock in his denial of a second work of grace or tongues. It is nothing new to see non Pentecostals make claims that good biblical exegesis denies them. Theologians like Stronstad and Menzies have shown the biblical evidence that people like Witherington deny time and again. Perhaps part of the “problem” to be found with Evangelicalism is in the theological grid that scholars like Witherington use when interpreting the Bible in relation to the Spirit-filled church.

  2. Jeremy S. Crenshaw says:

    By the way, I do appreciate this posting Dr. Twelftree. I think that you have highlighted this work from Witherington quite well. I just wanted to point out that, from what you presented of his work, it seems as though he does not really say anything too unexpected, accept for possibly his thoughts on Wesleyan perfection. Of course, I found his dismissal of Pentecostal theological beliefs to be “old hat” as well.