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The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism Kindle Edition
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His latest book is an attempt to test the biblical foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism. He notes that evangelical systems of thought often deviate from scripture at their most distinctive points. His book is a challenge to evangelicals of all stripes to re-examine the biblical moorings of their theological perspectives.
The first four chapters deal with Reformed Theology (aka Calvinism). After a close reading of Romans 5, Witherington suggests that while the passage shows how one person (Adam) affected the human race in a negative way, the text cannot be used to teach that Christ died for some and not for all, as Calvinists claim.
In chapter two, he discusses Romans seven, and notes that Romans 7:7-13 is the story of Adam retold in the first person and that 7:14-25, is a description of all those who are in Adam and outside of Christ. Romans 7 is the anatomy of a conversion, climaxing in the person being delivered by Christ in Romans 7:25a. He notes that Calvinists have incorrectly used this text as a description of the Christian life. Of course, it is not only Calvinists who have done this, but other believers in Christ have read Romans 7 in light of their own frailties and foibles. The late contemporary Christian singer Keith Green used to say, "I don't know if Romans 7:14-25 is talking about a believer or an unbeliever, all I know is that it sounds an awful lot like me."
In chapter three, Dr. Witherington points out that contra Luther, Paul is not refuting legalism in the book of Galatians so much as he is saying that we are under the law of Christ rather than the law of Moses. He follows this up in chapter four with a critique of the Calvinist understanding of election, noting that the apostle Paul does not teach that God has predetermined that certain individuals will be saved. Furthermore, he goes on to say that we are not eternally secure until we are securely in eternity. He stresses the three tenses of salvation: I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved, and that until we have gone through all three tenses, our situation is tense. I would say that a believer's standing in Christ can be better than tense, but I agree with Witherington that the warnings against apostasy need to be taken seriously.
The next few chapters discuss dispensationalism. Ben notes that while the early church affirmed the dispensational idea of a premillennial return of Christ, it taught that this would be a public event. Nowhere in early church history can it be found that Christians believed in a two stage second coming, beginning with a secret rapture that would take them to heaven before the beginning of the tribulation period. Ben comments that if the concept of any moment rapture can be dismissed, then dispensationalism crumbles to the ground.
However, he may have overestimated the centrality of the rapture idea in the dispensational schema. According to Charles Ryrie, the three foundational ideas of dispensationalism are 1. We should interpret the Bible in a consistently literal, grammatical-historical way. 2. There is a clear distinction between national Israel and the church, and 3. The main theme of scripture is the glory of God. The doctrine of the any moment rapture grows out of these ideas, but the dispensational system does not fall to the ground if the timing of the rapture is wrong.
Ben also has a chapter about Israel in Romans 9-11, and he maintains that throughout the chapter, "Israel" refers to physical descendants of Abraham (Jewish people) and that the reference to "Israel" in Romans 11:26 is to Jewish people alive at the time of the second coming of Christ. Dispensationalists would heartily agree.
There are also several chapters at the end of the book where Ben critiques his own theological camp (Wesleyanism). He notes that Wesley had too narrow a definition of sin, that it is not just lawless acts, but that it is also what we fail to do and what the condition of our soul is outside of Christ. There is also a criticism of Wesley's doctrine of Christian perfection, where Ben correctly points out that this will happen only when Jesus returns. There are also warnings to the Wesleyan community about an overemphasis on free will rather than God's grace.
I also appreciated the evaluation of Pentecostal theology. Ben reveals that while the movement has rightfully refocused attention on the availability of the gifts of the Spirit, there are some examples of bad Bible interpretation in the movement. For example, there is no exegetical evidence for the concept of a second definitive work of grace which causes a person to experience the baptism of the Spirit subsequent to salvation. Ben correctly shows from 1 Corinthians 12:13 that believers were baptized by the Spirit at the time of salvation, and that it is not something that we have to seek at a later time.
There is a final section where Ben encourages us to `theologize' in terms of the storied world of the New Testament (Jesus the Sage, Paul the Rhetorician and his storied world, John and his apocalyptic imagination) rather than traditional systematic categories such as eschatology, pneumatology and ecclesiology.
I really enjoyed the book. It takes a lot of courage to grapple with other systems of theology. It also takes a lot of courage to look hard at your own theology with an open mind. I appreciated this very much. I also like how Ben always writes well, not in a choppy manner like other academics. In addition, the material on Paul's rhetorical flourishes and Wesley's interaction with Paul was fascinating.
By way of friendly criticism, I would like to see a future edition of the book where Dr. Witherington dialogues more with Calvinistic and dispensational sparring partners. In the section critiquing Calvinism, it was hard to understand why Dr. Witherington chose to dialogue with people not known to hold Calvinist positions (James DG Dunn, EP Sanders, I.H Marshall) when he could have sparred with the great Cornelius Van Til or BB Warfield or RC Sproul or John Piper or John MacArthur, or even Calvin himself! (Ben did dialogue with Greg Beale, not known for his work in dogmatic theology, but a Calvinist nonetheless.) One of the best ways to show deference to a theological camp is to enter into that camp and dialogue with its deepest and most respected thinkers.
The same can be said for the sections on dispensationalism. There was no interaction with C. I Scofield (unless you count the part where Scofield's criminal record was cited - an interesting little tidbit I was not aware of), John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Craig Blaising, or Alva J. McClain. In addition, how can there be a discussion of dispensational eschatology without reference to J. Dwight Pentecost's Things to Come, a massive tome which has been the standard dispensational manual on eschatology for almost 50 years! Even today, this mighty work is unparalleled.
It can be argued that some of the above mentioned dispensational theologians are not exegetes, and that they do not have the scholarly pedigree that a tenured New Testament professor has.
In reply, I might say that because these are the very people who have dominated the eschatological landscape for the last century, is this not all the more reason to interact with them? Who better to interact with a theologian than a trained exegete who is more interested in letting the text speak than in teasing theology out of the text?
Because of these omissions, as good as this book is, it feels incomplete. A second edition would be awesome! I would love to see Ben go head to head with MacArthur, Piper, or RC Sproul. How many of you would pay to see that? Yes!!!! Lord, make it happen!
Especially important is his detailed exegesis of Romans, which exposes the biases that come into biblical interpretation that leans toward the Calvinistic view of predestination. As a Greek scholar, I was impressed when looking at his analysis of how difficult and ambiguous much of the Greek text is at this point. He truly has a fine grasp of the Greek language (although I did find a wrong statement by him in his analysis of "eph' ho"; see below). For those unconvinced that Calvinism is true - especially in light of the rest of the counsel of scripture - and yet feeling that Romans gives indisputable proof for the Calvinist viewpoint, Ben Witherington III's analysis is bound to be a breath of fresh air. (After all, the reason the passage seems unambiguously to support Calvinism may have something to do with the fact that the most popular early English translation of the Bible for protestants was the Geneva Bible - i.e. translated by and for Calvinists.)
Certainly Dispensationalists and Calvinists will be unhappy with his commentary, but it seems to me that their reaction is normal for anyone who has their convictions being attacked whether even-handedly or belligerently. For the most part, though, Witherington III doesn't show animosity.
** "eph' ho" in 5:12 he says cannot refer to "hamartia", but any good Greek grammar will tell you that it can if it is referring to the natural gender of "hamartia" rather than the grammatical gender; cf. Ephesians 6:17 where "ho" refers back to "makhaira"/"makhaira pneumatos" as a neuter concept not "pneumatos" as a grammatically neuter antecedent - however, it seems unlikely that "ho" refers so far back and more likely that it refers to the nearest word with the same grammatical gender "thanatos", death **
The book tries to cover far too much ground. It makes a claim it cannot possibly fulfil, and so, for all the surface erudition of each individual chapter, if ends up in reality being pretty skimpy. To attempt such a successful project -- an exegetical refutation of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and contemporary Arminianism, all in one volume -- was far too grandiose a project. Dr. Witherington did not succeed. This is like three little mini-books pressed into one, but none of the mini-books are adequate.
If you read the purely rhetorical elements of this textbook with care, you will find that the book is built squarely on many dogmatic assertions, but they are never proven exegetically. Dr. Witherington spreads long-exploded slogans and cliches -- for example, Augustine based his ideas about sin on Manicheanism, John Nelson Darby got his idea about a rapture from a Pentecostal girl in Scotland, Calvinism and Greek fatalism are the same thing, and a string of other unproven, disparaging claims. The problem i have with the rhetoric is that it is all designed to prejudice you. Arminians will shout, "Yeah, yeah!" by the rhetoric, and Calvinists will be annoyed by the same, but in the end it's just rhetorical red meat being thrown to the crowd.
It is not good that slogans and cliches are used to dress up dogmas left unproven. For instance, Dr. Witherington likes to speak of the human being still have a "measure" -- undefined -- of "authentic" freedom -- undefined. I guess that is in counterpoint ot inauthentic freedom, whatever that may be. But even though freedom of the will is a very important, central issue in the debate between Arminians and Calvinists -- whether or not sinful human beings have any natural ability to desire a positive relationship with God -- Witherington never engages with it. Unlike Luther debating with Erasmus, Dr. Witherington never engages. He makes strong assertions about free-will, or how silly the dispensational doctrine of the rapture is, but he doesn't engage with the best representatives of those views, and offers us few or no proofs of his own opinions. There is a lot more to Arminianism vs Calvinism than the meaning of "eph ho."
In a book that is supposed to be about proofs, he doesn't offer much. He criticizes contemporary pseudo-Arminianism for its flimsy doctrine of sin and its vague doctrine of universal prevenient grace, but does not engage in what was wrong with John Wesley's original doctrine of sin. Yet the latter is what matters, The Calvinists of Wesley's time knew this, and so they engaged Wesley accordingly.
If you are going to write about Calvinism vs. Arminianism, then talking about contemporary semi-Pelagianism posing as Arminianism might be interesting subject, but it is a distraction from the main event.
Dr. Witherington's interpretive approach is seriously flawed, in how we bases biblical conclusions on extra-biblical culture. For example, he states that the apostle Paul's view of predestination and free-will was identical to that of the rabbinical opinions of his times....but he never proves this important claim to be true. He just states it, quoting from extra-biblical literature like Sirach or the Psalms of Solomon as if they were holy scripture.
I do not recommend.
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