Monday, December 14, 2009

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament - Ben Witherington III

Scholar at work

The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament (Volume One) The Individual Witnesses
Author: Ben Witherington III
Publisher: IVP Academic
Pages: 856

“Scholar at Work” would be an appropriate cover sticker for this book. This might also be the most important reason for reading it. I watch in admiration when a scholar like Ben Witherington III employs the tools of his trade to examine Scripture.

In this first volume on New Testament theology, he focuses on exegetical work. What qualifies him for such a task? Prior to this project, he took on the rather daunting challenge of writing a substantial commentary on every book of the New Testament. This exercise served him well as he works in chronological order through the writings (and in the case of Jesus, the teachings) of all who contributed to the New Testament canon. In his effort to get at the heart of the major themes, he defines words and looks at their usage. He provides historical background, and he frequently resorts to extrabiblical writings to provide context.

He has an amazing grasp of these outside writings, and I wish he had explained their importance, but from his use it is plain that they provide corroborating evidence in support of the Scriptures. Again, the most valuable learning is watching Witherington attempt to determine the original meaning of texts. What we end up with is a multitude of Bible resources rolled into one. With extensive name, subject and verse indexes in the back, this is an extremely valuable reference, one that should be in any theological library, particularly those that support higher education in biblical subjects.

Even the most learned may find new insights in the wealth of exposition. One interesting example in his discussion of Matthew 19:1-12, where Jesus seams to permit divorce in the case of “adultery,” or “immorality.” Witherington states that the original term translated “adultery” comes from a word that means “prostitute.” He writes that the exception could be in a case where the wife has taken up prostitution. The word can also refer to the sin of incest. Jesus may have been commenting “on the very situation that John the Baptizer was beheaded for protesting against: the incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother’s wife.” If the exception is in the case of incest, a devout Jew would not see this as a proper marriage.

Since the word “porneia” can refer to a wide variety of sexual aberrations, translating the word in the normal way would seam to make Jesus more lenient than some ancient Jewish teachers in regard to divorce. The disciples reaction to all of this, “If that is the way it is between a man and a woman, it is better not to marry,” supposes a stricter view. Witherington suggests that what is meant “is either ‘except on the grounds of prostitution’ or more likely ‘except on the grounds of incest.’” He believes this makes good sense when compared with Mark 10, “where Jesus’ teaching is said to be ‘no divorce,’ and also 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul says that Jesus’ teaching was ‘no divorce.’”

In this survey, one major theme that continually emerges is Witherington’s view that salvation is not ironclad. He finds manifold support against the position of “once saved, always saved.” I wondered if being a Methodist scholar shaped his interpretations, but he displays a careful fidelity to the Scriptures, even if some finer points are arguable.

Further, he is not teaching the Wesley doctrine of sinless perfection, only that Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. He seems to concede that it may be hard to lose one’s salvation, but it is possible.

It’s almost startling how clear this possibility of loss becomes. It probably serves as a much-needed correction to the idea that what comes after salvation is not as important as conversion. Witherington emphasizes the two-sided nature of salvation: faith and works. Somewhere over the course of time the latter has been uncoupled from the former. Highlighting so many passages that seem to show salvation is conditional is somewhat novel and unsettling, but we need to know the truth. More than once I wished that this kind of careful analysis would filter down into our pulpits.

Calvinists and others might take issue with Witherington’s Arminian positions. I encourage them to read him. He provides strong support for his views, and if they follow his logic with an open mind, they will at least come away with a better understanding of an opposing argument. Believers in Christ should not be afraid to hold up their beliefs to scrutiny and change them if needed.

Could this book be shorter? Maybe, but the length is what makes this so comprehensive. In this first volume he gives voice to all of the individuals whose thought, actions and writings comprise the New Testament. The second volume will be a synthesis that will focus equally on belief and behavior. Witherington repeatedly shows that there is no separating the two.
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