Problem with Evangelical Theology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781932792423
  • Publisher: Baylor University Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 325
  • Sales rank: 926,656
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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The Problem with Evangelical Theology
Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism
By Ben Witherington III
Baylor University Press
Copyright © 2005 Ben Witherington III
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-932792-42-3

Chapter One
Oh Adam, Where Art Thou?

The Problem with Tulips-and Other Protestant Flowers

Popular Evangelicalism has three main theological tributaries. Each of these three tributaries ultimately goes back to the Bible in one way or another and each has made serious and lasting contributions-the Augustinian-Lutheran-Calvinist juggernaut kept Evangelicalism focused on soteriology or the way of salvation. Dispensationalism renewed our focus on and thinking about the future in eschatological ways. Wesleyanism/Pentecostalism stressed the experiential dimensions of Christian thought and life and the need for holiness of heart and life. However, each of these contributions came at a price-individualism and determinism in the case of the Augustinian heritage; systematic ahistoricism in the case of Dispensational reading of prophecy; and the raising of experience to a norm, sometimes even above the Bible, in the case of Wesleyanism/Pentecostalism. My concern is not just to point out the problems with each of these theological streams, but rather to clean up the streams by passing these theological tributaries through a more purifying and rectifying biblical filter. We will begin with the children of Augustine after a few necessary preliminary remarks.

In Evangelical theology today, it is hard to tell who the players are without a program. Sometimes scholars in the Reformed tradition sound remarkably like John Wesley, and sometimes scholars in the Arminian tradition talk about things like total depravity and "once saved always saved," when they are not busy toying with nonbiblical notions like openness theology. My concern in this portion of the book, however, is with those Evangelicals who deliberately articulate their biblical theology in a way that reflects their deep indebtedness to Luther or Calvin or both, and to their successors as well (e.g., in the Calvinistic tradition that would include the Hodges, Warfield, Berkhof, Berkower, and the like, to name but a few).

My interest is in the big ideas that serve as building blocks for looking at the biblical text in a certain kind of way and that undergird Evangelical theology in this tradition. My concern is that various of these seminal and interesting ideas are simply not biblical. For example, the idea of "once saved always saved," or the idea that it is impossible for a "saved person," a true Christian, to commit apostasy, is simply not an idea to be found in the NT. More to the point, much in the NT flatly contradicts such an idea.

It must be said from the outset to their eternal credit that scholars who look to Calvin and Luther and their legacy pride themselves on being biblical and giving meticulous attention to the biblical text. This is not a surprise since both Calvin and Luther were formidable exegetes and theologians, and they set examples that many have sought to follow ever since. Calvin did not just write Institutes, he did the painstaking work of exegeting inch by inch almost the entire corpus of the canon. Luther as well wrote some remarkable commentaries. These were not armchair theologians, nor those who deliberately ignored exegetical particulars. To be honest and to be fair, they would be ashamed of a good deal of what passes for good theology in some Reformed Evangelical pulpits and pamphlets and books today. Would that they were here to discipline their offsprings' unruly use of their heritage! I do not intend, however, to get bogged down with popular expressions of this theology. My plan is to deal with the problem at its roots-at the level of the underlying exegesis and theological system.

Sometimes with Reformed exegetes, indeed all exegetes, the problem is reading the text outside of its proper original contexts-historical, rhetorical, social, theological, and so on. Proof-texting and what I call the strip-mining of the text are endemic problems with Biblicists who cannot wait to get to the theological or ethical implication or the application pay dirt. Sometimes, of course, the problem is more hermeneutical than it is exegetical, and sometimes it is more presuppositional than it is a matter of careful exposition of texts. Sometimes the problem is a matter of imposing a theological grid on the schema of interpretation and assuming that if text A cannot possibly mean that (since it would be inconsistent with one's prior theological commitments), then text B surely does not mean that either. And sometimes one's theological system is so carefully worked out that one assumes that anything that does not fit the system must be a misinterpretation of the text. But it is perfectly possible to argue consistently and logically about something, but draw the circle of argumentation too narrowly, and so wrongly exclude some of the most important data. I believe the latter is often the case with Reformed exegetes.

Reformed exegetes have a hard time coming to grips with the paradox of a God who is both sovereign and free, and yet somehow so exercises that sovereignty and limits his own freedom that he has made it possible for human beings to have and exercise a measure of freedom as well, including in matters of salvation. They have a hard time understanding that holy love does not involve determinism, however subtle. Indeed love, if it is real love, must be freely given and freely received, for God has chosen to relate to us as persons, not as automata. They have a hard time dealing with the idea that God programmed into the system a certain amount of indeterminacy, risk, and freedom. And maybe, just maybe the good old Evangelical lust for certainty leads us all to too quickly fill in gaps and silences of Scripture, driving us to bad exegesis.

There are in fact profound exegetical problems with the T.U.L.I.P. theology of Calvinism and to a lesser extent of Lutheranism. These theological ideas are linked, and, with the exception of the "T" and the "L," are necessary corollaries of each other. For example, if one believes that God has predetermined from before the foundation of the world people to be saved, then of course election is unconditional, grace is irresistible, and perseverance is inevitable. These three linked ideas do not necessarily require the notion of total depravity or limited atonement (e.g., God could have predetermined to save everyone, and original sin might not have had as extensive an effect as sometimes thought).

There is then a logical consistency to this cluster of linked ideas, and it is the logic and coherency that seem to make it compelling, rather than its real exegetical viability. And of course the danger of any such necessary linking of ideas is that if one link in the chain is dropped off then the chain ceases to hold. For example, if it can be demonstrated that apostasy from the true faith is not merely possible but is an idea that Christians are regularly warned against in the NT, then there is something wrong not only with the notion of perseverance but also with the ideas of irresistible grace and predetermination. But there is more. The hermeneutic that seeks to see salvation history as various administrations of just one covenant and continues to seek to see Christians as under various parts of old covenants which have been renewed in the new covenant is severely problematic, especially in light of Paul's remarks about the Mosaic covenant being obsolescent. The older covenants do not determine the character of the new one, as it turns out. In fact the older ones are read in light of the new and final one. There is an indirect critique here not only of Reformed biblical theology but also its child-certain forms of canonical criticism.

Lest this criticism seem one-sided I would stress there is a similar kind of problem with Dispensationalism. If one takes the rapture out of the system, then the rest of the eschatological schema falls to the ground as well. There will not be two second comings, there are not two fulfillments of final prophecy-one in Israel and one in the church-there are not two peoples of God, and so on. The Dispensational hermeneutic applied to the OT is in fact denied in the NT, where all the promises of God are yea and amen in Jesus Christ.

Once more, there is a similar sort of problem with Wesleyan and Pentecostal theology. The theology of prevenient grace, not well tethered to sound exegesis, is allowed to vitiate the concept of being a slave or addicted to or in bondage to sin. This idea then is linked with "free will" or a kind of voluntarism that is not found in the NT. It makes salvation more of a self-help program rather than a radical rescue mission. And then there is the problem with the theology of subsequence, whether it takes the form of "the baptism of the Holy Spirit" or "perfection." Such ideas on the one hand suggest that conversion is inadequate to save a person and on the other hand, that it is possible to divide Christians into two major categories-Christians and super-Christians. But no such twofold division of Christians can be found in the NT-the dividing line between weak and strong, immature and mature Christians has to do with progressive sanctification and growth in Christ. It is apparently not linked to a second-blessing theology, though the NT does not rule out the idea of crisis experiences subsequent to conversion. The point I am making is just this-all these Evangelical theological systems in their distinctives are only loosely tethered to detailed exegesis of particular texts.

My modus operandi in this chapter will be to deal with some of the key texts of the Reformation, showing the problems with the traditional Reformed exegesis of the materials. Romans more than any other source has determined Evangelical exegesis when it comes to the nature of salvation. It is time then to dive into the deep water of Romans, all the while seeking to keep our heads above water and our eyes on the safe parameters of the pool.

Back to Reform School-Should Our Teachers Be Augustine and Luther?

Adam was the beginning of it all in more ways than one. For Reformed theology, Adam is a crucial starting point because particular notions about the fall, total depravity of humanity because of the fall, loss of any sort of free will, and general human lostness are bound up in this story. The "T" in T.U.L.I.P. is all about certain kinds of conceptions about Adam and his legacy to us all. But the story of Adam in Genesis 1-3 is not simply read by itself in Reformed theology, it is read through the eyes of Paul (particularly in light of texts like Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15), and furthermore, it is read through the eyes of Augustine as he viewed those Pauline texts. We must keep all this in mind as we focus on the most crucial Adamic texts in Romans.

There is no text more commented on in the entire Bible than Romans, and within the text of Romans, there is no text more commented on than Romans 7. One would think with all the ink spilt on this text that we could get it right. Yet there are almost as many views of this text as there are major commentaries and dissertations on it. Oddly enough, one of the most fundamental problems in Evangelical exegesis of Romans is the failure to read Romans cumulatively, rather than sound-byting it. This failure manifests itself when Romans 7 is read as if it has little or no connection with Romans 5. But the story told in Romans 5:12-20 is the very story that underlies and undergirds Romans 7, as we shall see. In order to set up the discussion, it is necessary to speak briefly about Augustine's views on Romans 5-7 and their influence on Luther and others.

T. J. Deidun aptly summarizes the key points of Augustine's mature interpretation of Romans, and we turn to this in a moment, but first we need to bear in mind that his interpretation immediately had enormous weight in the West and was to be, in effect, canonized for the Roman Catholic tradition at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 418 and of Orange in A.D. 529.2 It was to be canonized, so to speak, for the Protestant line of interpretation by Luther and Calvin. It must be stressed that Augustine's interpretation of Romans, and especially Romans 7, seems to be in various regards an overreaction to Pelagius who argued that sin comes from human beings' free imitation of Adam, and can be overcome by imitating Christ. Pelagius also suggested that justification, at least final justification, is through determined moral action.

Consider now Deidun's summary of Augustine's main points on Romans:

1) The "works of the Law" which Paul says can never justify, mean moral actions in general without the grace of Christ, not Jewish practices as Pelagius and others maintained. 2) The "righteousness of God" is not an attribute of God but the gift he confers in making people righteous; 3) Romans 5:12 now became the key text for Augustine's doctrine of original sin: all individuals (infants included) were co-involved in Adam's sin. As is well known, Augustine's exegesis of this verse largely depended on the Latin translation in quo ("in whom") of the Greek eph hoi ("in that," "because") and on the omission in his manuscripts of the second mention of "death," with the result that "sin" became the subject of "spread": sin spread to all (by "generation," not by "imitation"). 4) Romans 7:14-25, which before the controversy Augustine had understood to be referring to humanity without Christ, he now applied to the Christian to deprive Pelagius of the opportunity of applying the positive elements in the passage (esp. v. 22) to unredeemed humanity. To do this, Augustine was obliged to water down Paul's negative statements: the apostle is describing not the bondage of sin but the bother of concupiscence; and he laments not that he cannot do good (facere) but that he cannot do it perfectly (perficere). 5) During this period Augustine came to express more boldly his teaching on predestination. It does not depend on God's advance knowledge of people's merit as Pelagius and others maintained in their interpretation of Romans 9:10ff. nor even on his advance knowledge of "the merit of faith" as Augustine had supposed in 394 in his remarks on the same passage: it depends rather on God's "most hidden judgment" whereby he graciously chooses whom he will deliver from the mass of fallen humanity. Everything is pure gift (1 Cor 4:7). Of course all of these points of Augustine are today under dispute among interpreters of Romans, and some are clearly wrong, such as the conclusions based on the Latin text of Romans 5:12. For our purposes it is interesting to note that Augustine, having changed his mind about Romans 7:14-25 in overreacting to Pelagius, must water down the stress on the bondage of the will expressed in this text in order to apply it to Christians. Luther takes a harder and more consistent line, even though in the end he refers the text to the wrong subject-namely everyone including Christians. It is also noteworthy that Pelagius does not dispute God's destining of persons, only that God does it on the basis of his foreknowledge of the response of believers. It is also important that Augustine talks about God's gift of making people righteous. The later forensic emphasis comes as a result of the translation work of Erasmus.

It is interesting that the discussion of merit which Pelagius introduced into the conversation about Romans resurfaces in the medieval exegetes after Augustine. Paul's doctrine of "justification" is filtered through Aristotelian thinking, so that grace becomes a donum super additum, something added on top of God's gift of human faculties (see Aquinas). "Divine charis became 'infused grace.'" The nominalist school of William of Occam focused on merit, even in a Pelagian way, and it was to this repristinization of Pelagius's case that Luther, an Augustinian monk much like his founder, was to react in his various lectures and then in his commentary on Romans. But it was not just Pelagius he was reacting to. In due course Luther came to see self-righteousness as the most fundamental of human sins (not concupiscence), and his polemics were directed against both Judaism and Catholicism, which he saw as religions embodying this besetting sin, as well as being preoccupied with "merit." Luther thought that Romans 7:14-25 was about that sin of self-righteousness.


Excerpted from The Problem with Evangelical Theology by Ben Witherington III Copyright © 2005 by Ben Witherington III. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Overture : the legacy of the reformers
Pt. 1 Augustine's children : the problems with reformed theology
1 Oh Adam, where art thou? 3
2 Squinting at the Pauline "I" chart 21
3 Laying down the law with Luther 39
4 Awaiting the election results 59
Pt. 2 On dispensing with dispensationalism
5 Enraptured but not uplifted : the origins of dispensationalism and prophecy 93
6 What goes up, must come down : the problem with rapture theology 111
7 Will the real Israel of God please stand up? 133
Pt. 3 Mr. Wesley heading west
8 Jesus, Paul, and John : keeping company in the kingdom 171
9 New birth or new creatures? 191
10 Amazing prevenient grace and entire sanctification 207
Pt. 4 The long journey home - where do we go from here?
11 Reimagining the mystery 225
12 And so? 239
Coda : rebirth of orthodoxy or return to fundamentalism? 249
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