Posts Tagged ‘Ben Witherington III’

Ben Witherington III. The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible. Waco, TX. Baylor University Press, 2007

Ben Witherington III, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, is one of the most prolific scholars of the New Testament in our day, and we should all be thankful. I have only read a small portion of his work, but I have learned much from what I’ve read and have been challenged by much of it as well, which is always good. The Living Word of God sets out some of Witherington’s thoughts on what our doctrine of Scripture should look like, touching inevitably on canon, translation, and, maybe most importantly, what exactly we as evangelicals mean we use words like “inspiration” and “authority” in regards to Scripture.

In the preface, Witherington lays out his basic view of the Bible, which can be stated succinctly as “The Bible is the word of God and is accurate and truthful in all that it intends to assert”. He will nuance and defend this as the book progresses. As a Methodist, Witherington is content to leave it basically at that, and I must say that this is quite refreshing when compared to some of the more detailed statements of what the Bible “has to be”, if I can put it like that, that one finds in some circles. At the conclusion of the preface, Witherington sets the tone for the rest of the book with a statement that deserves to be quoted in full (emphases mine):

…we need to go forward in our discussion of such matters, not backward, and so we will not be debating something like B.B. Warfield’s classic study, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, as good as it was in its day, nor we will be examining various modern statements on biblical inerrancy. These are not the appropriate places to start our discussion. We should start and stick closely to the Bible itself, assuming that as was the case with Jacob, if we wrestle with the divine long enough, we will obtain a blessing, even if we walk with a limp for a while thereafter.

Amen to that. Read that again and let it sink in.

Following on the preface, chapters 1 and 2 lay the groundwork for the rest of the book by giving some preliminary observations on the differences between our culture and the cultures to which Scripture were originally written, and laying out some common views of inspiration and their implications. Witherington draws particular attention to the difference in attitude that exists between modern readers and ancient hearers of Scripture. He reminds us that while we live in a culture of the written word, the culture of ancient Israel was an oral culture, where the texts would have been heard, rather than read. Ben also draws out the implications of passages such as 1 Thessalonians 2:13 and 1 Corinthians 14:36 – 37, i.e. that the preached gospel is also “the word of God”, and that Paul, at least in regards to the first epistle to the Corinthians, was comfortable referring to his own writing as in some sense inspired (actually this is kind of hard to miss if you are familiar with Paul). Witherington rightly sees here the beginnings of a doctrine of inspiration of the NT text.

The discussion continues with brief analyses of passages from Isaiah, Hebrews, and 1 Peter, before settling on 2 Timothy 3:16 -17, which gets an extended (but still brief) treatment. In what for me is the highlight of the this section, Witherington then returns to the Epistle to the Hebrews and discusses the way that passages from the Old Testament are introduced, drawing attention to the fact that God the Father, the Lord Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are all said to be speakers of passages from the Old Testament at various points.

Some common paradigms for defining what “inspiration” means in regards to Scripture are discussed. There’s not much new here, if you’ve read anything at all about hermeneutics, or even spent much time thinking about Scripture on its own terms, but it would probably be useful to someone new to these subjects. Ben comes to the conclusion that theories of “mechanical communication” or even “dictation” simply don’t fit the majority of the Biblical text (prophecy being a possible exception). This probably seems like common sense to most of us, but there are people who actually believe that a high view of Scripture entails exactly this.

Having critiqued more fundamentalist views of Scripture, Witherington now turns to views on the other end of the spectrum. Responding to the idea that the Bible “becomes the Word of God” when the reader encounters it, he says that while there is truth in that view, it ignores the fact “God, and God’s word, can make an objective claim on human beings without our recognizing it or responding to it”.  Again, not much new here, but it would serve as an informative and balanced treatment and conversation starter for those new to these sort of topics. The chapter is rounded out in conversation with some recent books on Scripture and hermeneutics, including NT Wright’s The Last Word.

Chapter 3 is devoted to Peter Enns’ incarnational analogy of Scripture, and some of the points made (or danced around) in Inspiration and Incarnation. I will confess that this chapter seemed completely unnecessary to me. I suppose that if you are someone who took an active interest in the whole Peter Enns/Westminster Theological Seminary controversy (and there are a lot of those, apparently), then you might find this chapter interesting. I’m not, so I didn’t. It was written before the big blowup at WTS, so it might be interesting to those who want to see an opinion of Inspiration and Incarnation from someone outside of the Reformed camp, and before the book became as controversial as it did.

After examining how the different genres within Scripture affect our view of inspiration in chapter 2, chapters 4 and 5 turn to the actual interpretation of these genres. Witherington starts with the Gospels, and the discussion is well worth reading. He identifies the genre of the gospels as ancient biography, with the exception of Luke’s gospel, which he deems as a historical monograph (along with the Acts of the Apostles). How this genre should affect our expectations of chronology, exactness, and other related issues are discussed, and Witherington’s knowledge of primary sources near in time to the New Testament keeps it interesting. Harmonization at all costs is rightfully frowned upon, and is unnecessary given the genres in question and the expectations inherent therein. Moving on to the letters, he notes that since the Reformation, Paul’s letters have been more popular to Protestants than the Gospels. The conversation shows Witherington’s trademark humor throughout, and is enjoyable to read. He also peppers the chapter with analysis of the rhetoric of the letters, which is one of his specialties. His knowledge of the subject really shines here, whetting the appetite for his forthcoming book devoted to the rhetoric of the New Testament.

Next, Witherington discusses a few “problem” passages, particularly in the Gospels, touches briefly on the textual criticism of the New Testament, and then discusses the household codes and the issue of slavery in Paul’s letters. This chapter seems almost two brief, and I would have been happier if Chapter 3 would have been thrown out, and this chapter doubled in length.  Witherington studied under Bruce Metzger, and his knowledge of the Gospels is top notch, so this chapter could have been a real treat. That’s not so say that it isn’t good reading, it just left me wanting more. I have read enough of Witherington’s work in his commentaries to know that his discussion of textual issues is usually great, and he manages to keep it interesting (not always easy), so for those interested, the information is out there. Of course, he has also written widely on the Gospels. In a book of just at 250 pages, there is only so much ground that one can cover, and Witherington says at much at the end of the chapter.

Chapters 6 and 7 are devoted to canon and translation. The discussion of canon is informative, but probably won’t be anything new to those who have read much at all in this area. The history of the various translations, however, was fascinating. This is not a subject that I have read much in, and it is surprisingly interesting. A brief discussion of the variety of factors that go into making a good translation follows. When it comes to the task of choosing a translation, Witherington opts for the TNIV, with the Jerusalem Bible and the NRSV also getting a nod.

Chapter 8 deals with hermeneutics proper. The doctrine and implications of sola scriptura are discussed. The relevance of the Old Testament for Christian ethics, the analogy of faith, and typology and fulfillment are all touched on, before moving on to applying the texts to our own lives. This isn’t Reformed Dogmatics, so the reader shouldn’t expect a systematic detailed treatment here. What they should expect is an informative and effective overview of the subject that is conversational in style without being shallow or reductionist.

Chapter 9 is entitled “The Art of Reading Scripture in a Post-modern World”. This chapter reads like eavesdropping on a serious, but respectful and cordial conversation, with Witherington conversing with Don Miller, Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Don Carson, and various essays contained in the collection edited by Richard Hays, The Art of Reading Scripture. As throughout the book, Witherington makes a very enjoyable and informative conversation partner.

The book ends with an appendix consisting of various questions that Witherington has received over the years as a contributor to the website Beliefnet, along with the answers that were given. The questions range from serious to only mildly entertaining. Like the chapter on Enns, this section seemed unnecessary to me.

Bottom Line:

Scholars can sometimes be seen as writing more for the academy than for the Church. Ben Witherington III is one of a select group of evangelical scholars who are able and willing to write for both.  The Living Word of God is peppered with humor and wit, is an enjoyable read, and Ben’s love for both Scripture and the people of God is infused throughout. This book is aimed at the lay reader, and would serve as a valuable introduction and conversation starter to get someone thinking about issues like the canon, hermeneutics, and our doctrine of Scripture. Readers who have studied or read much in these areas probably won’t find anything mind-blowing here, but may still benefit from having a scholar of Witherington’s caliber step back from the details to give a broad view of the big picture.

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