[K:JNWTS 28/1 (2013): 30-33]
Ben Witherington, III, The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament: Volume One. The Individual Witnesses. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009. 856 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-08308-3861-5. $50. The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament: Volume Two. The Collective Witness. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010; 838 pp. Cloth. ISBN: 978-08308-3862-2. $50.
When Christian people hear about biblical theology, most of them understand this expression to mean theology that has the Bible as its ultimate standard and source. In this sense, all theology ought to be biblical. In theology as an academic discipline, biblical theology has a somewhat different meaning—it is part of theology that stands between exegesis and systematic theology. Exegesis is the exposition of Scripture. Its focus is a single text or a single passage. Systematic theology reflects on the Bible as a whole. Understanding and recapitulating the content of the Bible is done in community with the church of all ages. Systematic theology is always confessional in character. The doctrinal content of the Bible is underlined.
Biblical theology focuses on the content of biblical revelation from the viewpoint of its unfolding in history. The history of revelation (or history of redemption) is one of the leading viewpoints in biblical theology as an academic discipline. Biblical theology calls attention to the individual biblical witnesses and treats biblical themes in the context of the history of revelation and redemption. The emphasis falls on the diversity of the individual biblical witnesses within the greater unity of the Bible as a whole.
In biblical theology, the great distinction is between the theology of the Old and the New Testament. When we speak about the theology of the Old and New Testament, the underlying presupposition is that the writings of the Old and New Testament (although diverse in character, each having its own accents and distinctives) ultimately form a consistent and coherent unity. At the same time, I must say that a number of scholars who have written an Old or New Testament theology only accept the canon for pragmatic reasons. We are then not writing biblical theology, but the history of religion. Actually, theology, in the strict and real sense of the word, is only possible when the Bible is accepted as the infallible and inerrant Word of the living God.
I stress that we cannot draw exact distinctions between exegesis, biblical theology and systematic theology. In fact, they are part of a spectrum. Besides that, we must reckon with the so-called hermeneutical spiral. It is a great misunderstanding if we think that exegesis and biblical theology can be done in a neutral way. The exegetes and scholars who suggest that neutrality is possible in biblical theology are unaware that they are the most dogmatic scholars we have come across. Finally, I state emphatically that biblical theology can never replace systematic theology. The Bible as a whole confronts us with questions, which can never be solved solely by an appeal to biblical texts. I think about questions with regard to the relationship between time and eternity and the relationship between the Creator and his creation.
When theologians want to restrict themselves to biblical theology at the expanse of systematic theology, you always see that they have an anti-metaphysical bias. They do not want to speak about God in himself, but only about God in his relationship to his creatures. However, this is a very important dogmatic decision with far reaching consequences. In that case, the narratives of the Bible are in a certain sense read as dogmatic treatises. For in the Biblical narratives, God reacts to the actions of man in many cases. Thus, the conclusion is drawn that you cannot speak about the immutability of God. Actually it is the case that the genre of narrative is not really taken seriously. I must add that when we take the Biblical narratives as a whole, their clear message is that God is completely in control of all history. History is his story. The whole reality depends on him and he himself is independent. In theology, we use the term the aseitas Dei ("aseity of God") to describe this.
Having tried to indicate the limitations of biblical theology, I am convinced that it is very fruitful to study the content of the Bible focusing on the history of redemption, on the specific contribution of each book of the Bible and each writer of the Bible to the complete revelation. These introductory remarks have prepared us to evaluate a recently published Theology of the New Testament.
Ben Witherington has given his two-volume study the title The Indelible Image. By means of the concept of the image of God, he explains the relationship between theology and ethics in the New Testament. The first volume treats the individual witnesses of the New Testament and the second volume describes the collective witness. Witherington states that in several of the studies of New Testament theology, ethics is not given its due emphasis. He wants to remedy this fault. Witherington does not mention it, but in former days actually no separation was made between systematic theology and ethics. Gisbertus Voetius, the father of the Dutch "Further Reformation", can serve as a good example here. Many of the disputations of Voetius centered around questions related to the practice of piety. The fostering of piety was seen as the goal of (systematic) theology. So Witherington is not as innovative in his treatment as he suggests.
Whiterington has a high view of the authority and historical reliability of the New Testament. He stresses that theology and history must not be seen as rivals. The gospels must be seen both as theological and historical writings. In the case of the gospel of John, the word ‘theological’ must be underlined and in the case of the synoptic gospels the words ‘writing of the historical’ must be underscored. All four gospels are based on what eyewitnesses saw or heard. Witherington is convinced that also in the case of the fourth gospel, we are confronted with real history. Witherington also defends the historical reliability of Acts. In painting the portrait of early Christianity, Luke gives a selection of the facts, but not an idealized story that is highly unrealistic. It is remarkable that in the gospels Matthew and John (both written by persons who belonged to the circle of the Twelve) the frequency of the use of the name of "Father" is much higher than in the other gospels. Among the synoptic gospels, Matthew in this respect most closely resembles the gospel of John.
The unity of the New Testament writings is seen in the way they speak about the person and the work of Christ. In almost all writing of the New Testament, Jesus is called either Lord, Christ and/or Son of God. Only in 3 John do we not find any of these three expressions. But the reason is simple—it is a letter of exhortation and brevity. Jesus is everywhere portrayed as the one in whom redemption is found. He is the Savior. Jesus himself and his activity and teaching while he was on earth are the fountain of the expressions of faith with regard to his person. Witherington rightly makes this statement without denying that compared to the self-revelation of Christ when he was on earth there is in the New Testament a further development in the presentation of the person of Christ after his exaltation and after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The witness of the writers of the New Testament not only when they record the teaching of Jesus when he was on earth, but also when they are instructed by the resurrected and glorified Christ, confronts us with the real Christ. We cannot make a distinction between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, but only between Jesus Christ when he was on earth and Jesus Christ as he is in heaven.
Wirtherington’s conviction that according to Paul the gospel does not annihilate the order of creation but intensifies it, is very important. Homosexual behavior cannot be reconciled with bearing of the image of Christ. Homosexual orientation—just as all sinful desires—must be seen as a result of the fall of man. Persons who have this orientation must be called to self-denial in the light of the order of creation and the gospel of Christ and never be given the impression that homosexuality can be allowed under certain conditions. Witherington denies that Paul or other New Testament witnesses can be seen as defenders of the view of sinless perfection. There are mature believers, but even a mature believer has reasons to confess his sins and shortcomings.
According to the New Perspective on Paul, justification has only to do with the boundaries of the community of faith. It is an ecclesiological and not a soteriological doctrine. The New Perspective denies the correctness of the view of the Reformation on justification. Witherington cannot be seen as a defender of the New Perspective on Paul, but he does not sufficiently highlight the great importance of the message of justification in Paul’s writings. Rightly, he states that Paul and James do not really contradict each other with regard to justification and faith. They each use both the word ‘justification’ and the word ‘faith’ in different ways.
Witherington cannot provide a satisfying explanation about the sayings in the New Testament regarding election and predestination. Final election depends, in his view, on man’s faith. But in the New Testament, we read just the reverse.
You will note that I think the two volumes of Witherington are very valuable. They are goldmines full of useful information and insights. However, I must honestly point to what I consider a very serious defect—a defect that is seen again and again in the way Witherington presents the message of the New Testament. Witherington is a thoroughgoing Arminian. He denies the particular nature of the atonement. Yet nowhere in the New Testament is it ever said to unbelievers outside the Christian church that Christ died for them. A complete Savior is preached and must be preached to unbelievers, both Jews and Gentiles. Not just a blessing connected with the work of Christ ("Christ died for you!") but Christ himself must be presented to unbelievers. The message that we will never be separated from the love of God in Christ because Christ died for us and prays for us is a message of consolation for all believers. It makes clear to them the depth and the total character of Christ’s love for them.
Pieter de Vries
Reformed Church of Boven-Hardinxveld (Hersteld Hervormde Kerk), The Netherlands