Wednesday, November 30, 2005


Here's a story about changing Catholic views of limbo. The article is misleading in what it says about the history of beliefs about deceased children. See my article on the subject here. Other stories I've read on this subject today also contain similarly misleading material about the history of the concepts involved or what Roman Catholicism has taught on the subject.

MediaWise has published a new report on video game content.

Evolution News & Views has a good article on coverage of intelligent design by the San Diego Union-Tribune. It's an example of what often happens behind the scenes without the public's knowledge. It's also an example of how reporters often repeat their errors, even after being corrected.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

David King on Penal Substitution

For those who don't read our message boards, I want to post some links to David King's recent series of posts on the subject of penal substitution. He posted on penal substitution in John Calvin, the Westminster Standards, creedal affirmations, the Western church fathers, and the Eastern church fathers.

Monday, November 28, 2005

The Bible, the Koran, and Violence

People often make comparisons between Christianity and Islam like what's reported here and here. But we have evidence for Christianity that we don't have for Islam, and this article at Answering Islam discusses some other significant distinctions.

The articles in the Australian media linked above mention that this Australian politician is being criticized by her colleagues, but I doubt that she's being criticized nearly as much as she would be if she had made negative comments about homosexuals, for example. The Christianity that's popular in Australia probably doesn't inspire much commitment or enthusiasm.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Tilting at windmills-1

Ben Witherington has just published The Problem with Evangelical Theology (Bayor 2005).

This will be the fourth book-length critique of Calvinism that I’ve reviewed, following on the heels of Geisler’s Chosen But Free, Robert Picirilli’s Grace, Faith, Free Will, and Walls/Dongell’s Why I am Not a Calvinist. So I am making a good-faith effort to keep up with the best of the competition.

Witherington represents the sociorhetorical school of hermeneutics, which basically means that he’s a Classicist by training. He is also influenced by the Third Quest for the Historical Christ, with its emphasis on Second Temple Judaism.

Witherington is quite competent within his field of expertise. For example, his commentary on Acts is the best available commentary on that book of Scripture—although it will face some stiff competition from the forthcoming entries by Keener, Bock, and Gasque.

Witherington is a moderately conservative scholar who generally defends the historicity of the NT. As such, he’s often useful to the Evangelical cause.

His book is not limited to Calvinism. There’s an overlap between his critique of Calvinism and his critique of dispensationalism. My own review will be limited to his critique of Reformed theology. So, how successful is his critique?

Witherington says that “Evangelicalism has lost touch with its Reformation principles and in particular with its necessary rigorous attention to the details of the bible and the need to stick to the text and heed the cry of ‘sola Scriptura’” (xi).

The problem with this charge as it bears on the case for Calvinism is that, to judge by Witherington’s discussion and bibliography, he is almost completely ignorant of the exegetical literature in favor of Calvinism. For example, he attacks the Reformed reading of Rom 9-11 without a single reference to the commentaries by Schreiner and Murray, or the monograph on Rom 9 by Piper. There’s no interaction with the two-volume work on The Grace of God, the Bondage of the Will, which has a number of exegetical essays in defense of Reformed theology. No reference to Beale’s article on the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in Exod 4-14. No reference to Carson’s commentary on John, or Silva’s commentary on Philippians, or Murray’s monograph on the imputation of Adam’s sin, or Vos on “The Scriptural Doctrine of the Love of God,” or Warfield’s article on predestination. These are just a few of the gaping lacunae.

In the same vein is the following claim:
“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…They have a hard time dealing with the idea that God programmed into the system a certain amount of indeterminacy, risk, and freedom” (5).

Not only is this a very patronizing comment, but it lacks any elementary awareness of the standard literature to justify such a patronizing tone. Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards, John Frame, and Paul Helm have written extensively on these very issues.

Throughout the book it becomes quickly apparent that Witherington’s putative effort to open up a constructive dialogue is simply a monologue to justify his own theological prejudice. He operates throughout in a self-satisfied and self-contained airlock, talking to himself as he regales the reader with urban legends about Calvinism and erects one straw man after another.

And it’s not just a matter of his illiteracy. There was nothing to prevent him from running a preliminary draft of his essay by a Reformed exegete like Tom Schreiner or Vern Poythress or Gregory Beale or John Piper or Don Carson. He’d rather talk than listen. Rather talk down to people than learn from them. Rather listen to the sound of his own voice than enter into a genuine dialogue. What we end up with is a book-length back-patting exercise.

In my review I’ll concentrate on chapters 1, 2, and 9. Witherington doesn’t know the difference between Reformed theology and Lutheran theology. He seems to think that since Calvinism and Lutheranism are both products of the Protestant “Reformation,” that both theological traditions are “Reformed.” This illustrates an elementary inattention to the standard nomenclature.

In his critique of “Reformed” theology, he has an entire chapter on Rom 7. What bearing this has on the case for Calvinism is decidedly unclear. Although traditional Reformed expositors interpret Rom 7 as an autobiographical allusion to Paul’s conversion experience, that interpretation is quite inessential to the structure of Reformed theology.

In chapter 1, Witherington says:
“It is a crucial Pauline theme s early as Galatians and as late as the Pastorals that God’s desire is for all to be saved, and that Christ’s atonement is to cover the sins of the world, not just of the elect” (14).

“At the very least this [Rom 5:18] implies that Paul does not believe it was God’s intent to send Christ to die for the select few. Christ’s act of justice was for the whole human race” (17).

He also quotes Cranfield saying that “Adam in his universal effectiveness for ruin is the type which…prefigures Christ in his universal effectiveness for salvation” (14).

But there are problems with this analysis. For one thing, Cranfield is a Barthian. But unless you subscribe to universalism, it is palpably false to claim universal efficacy for the atonement.

A few pages before, Witherington had himself said that “in this case it is not just the characters of Adam and Christ which are contrasted, but also all those in Adam and all those in Christ” (10).

But those in Christ are not conterminous with those in Adam. Christians are a subset of Adamites. Indeed, he cites Achtemeier as having said that the “only way to escape” the “drastic effects” of Adam’s sin “is to join another race of humanity—those who are in Christ” (17).

So, for Witherington, you don’t have a monadic correspondence between all in Adam and all in Christ. Rather, you have a dyadic correspondence between Adam and all in Adam, on the one hand, along with Christ and all in Christ, on the other—involving a numerical comparison and contrast.

As Witherington goes on to say, the differential factor is the presence or absence of faith. But if that is the case, then his appeal to the universal quantifier is fallacious since the universal quantifier does not, in fact, determine the scope of the referent. Rather, the quantified, when applied to all in Christ, is limited to believers.

So we see Witherington playing both sides of the fence. He invokes the universal quantifier to prove universal atonement, but then invokes the faith-condition to restrict the range of the atonement. Yet if the second move is valid, then that invalidates the first move, and vice versa. Either the universal quantifier delimits the scope of the atonement or else the faith-condition delimits its scope. You can’t make the faith-condition more restrictive than the quantifier and still appeal to the quantifier to prove your first point. The faith-condition does nothing to modify the meaning of a universal quantifier. The faith-condition doesn’t make the word “all” mean “some.” So if the meaning of the quantifies fails to establish the extent of the atonement, then that part of Witherington’s argument is moot.

Witherington also appeals to 1 Tim 2:5 and 4:10 to bolster his case for unlimited atonement. Now, there’s nothing wrong with citing these verses in relation to Calvinism. This is something that Reformed theology must be able to integrate into its system.

But this is old stuff. It’s not as if Calvinism is speechless in the face of such passages. One thing we need to keep in mind is this: Paul is disaffirming one thing by affirming another. What is the error that Paul is opposing in the Pastorals?

To judge by verses like 1 Tim 1:4, Tit 1:10,14-15; 3:9, he seems up be up against a variant of the Judaizers. In this case, Jews who confine the scope of salvation to those of Jewish pedigree. So Paul’s point is that salvation is not contingent on your bloodlines, but on the blood of Christ.

And, in a deliberate slap at the Judaizers, he’s doing this by appeal to the Shema or Jewish monotheism. Since there is only one God, there is only one mediator between God and man—whether Jew or Gentile.

Witherington also passes over passages like Tit 2:14 in which the scope of the atonement is confined to a chosen people.

Regarding the faith-condition, Witherington goes on to say that “Paul talks about this blessing as a ‘gift,’ and a gift is something which has to be received and unpacked. It is not something that has an automatic effect, and of course it can be rejected” (17).

Notice that this is not an exegetical argument. Witherington has done nothing to establish from Pauline usage that the gift of faith is like a Christmas present which the recipient must graciously accept and carefully unwrap and decide if he likes it or not after he’s opened the package and looked inside—and if he doesn’t like what he sees, return it to the store for a refund.

The idea of faith as something we have to…I don’t know…sign for and put on is not something that Witherington got from Paul. Rather, what we have here is a picturesque metaphor or overgrown illustration which Witherington is using as a substitute for what the Bible teaches. He seems to be pulling this from the way we celebrate Christmas or somebody’s birthday, and reading that totally extraneous image back into Scripture, as if God were Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.

But in Scripture, the grace of faith is a “gift” because it comes from God, in contrast to a natural human aptitude. That’s the distinction, and not Witherington’s childish, anachronistic gloss.

In something resembling an exegetical argument, Witherington says of 1 Tim 4:10, “Notice that the limitation comes at the point of those who respond in faith, not at the point of God’s desire or will” (15).

But this won’t do the job. Witherington renders the verse “the living God who is the Savior of all people, especially of the faithful.”

But on that rendering, how is God the Savior of believers and unbelievers alike—only more so in the case of believes? In what sense is he also the Savior of unbelievers? Do the damned get to make week-end excursions to heaven?

Ironically, Witherington is not only ignorant of Reformed exegesis, but apparently of Arminian exegesis as well. This is what the standard Arminian commentary has to say:
“Adoption of the traditional translation of malista as ‘especially’ leads to some strained exegesis…These problems disappear if we accept the other possible translation, ‘to be precise, namely, I mean.’ ‘All’ is thus limited here to believers,” I. H. Marshall & P. H. Towner, The Pastoral Epistles (T&T Clark 1999), 556.

On Rom 5:19, Witherington says that “the verb here does not mean ‘to reckon,’ but rather ‘to make.’ This is to be contrasted with the disobedience of Adam which ‘made’ many sinners” (17).

That’s true, but so what? Witherington appears to be assuming that the imputation of Adam’s sin turns on the meaning of the verb. But that is not the nature of the argument.

Rather, the Reformed reading is inspired by the structural concept of imputation present in Rom 5 on the basis of the one-to-many relation between the sin of Adam and Adamites, on the one hand, paralleling the righteousness of Christ and Christians, on the other. The vicarious parallelism is the key feature.

Of course, to know that, Witherington would have to actually read a commentary or monograph on Rom 5 by a real live Calvinist. But Witherington’s scholarship does not extend to reading what someone has written before commenting on what they’ve written.

Witherington then makes the eye-popping statement that “Christ’s ‘act of justice’ wiped the slate clean, and so life was set right. Humans were then in a position to once again have a right relationship with God…” (17).

This is semi-Pelagian. Christ gives us a chance to begin again, make a fresh start, turn over a new leaf—like Adam before the fall.

Incidentally, the atonement is not Christ’s “act of justice” but the Father’s act of justice in exacting justice against sinners in the person of his Son.

So much for chapter 1. Let’s see if Witherington can redeem his sorry performance in chapter

4. Regarding the import of proginosko in Rom 8:29, Witherington says:
“It is probably that lying in the background here are the OT references to God knowing his people, which at times connote his inclination toward or love for them, and at other times connote something like the concept of election (cf. Amos 3:2; Deut 9:24; Exod 33:12,17; Gen 18:19; Deut 34:10)…[However], Paul has reenvisioned whatever he believed as a non-Christian Jew about such matters in the light of Christ and in the light of his new found eschatological beliefs…Furthermore, the language about God knowing and determining in the OT does not stand in isolation but needs to be correlated with the discussion about Israel’s apostasy, rebellion, and falling away” (59-60).

It isn’t clear how this is pertinent to the lexical import of proordizo or proginosko. To begin with, the fact that Paul “reenvisioned” his theology in light of the Christ-Event doesn’t mean that Paul is going to contradict OT theology and usage, as if the NT abrogates the OT.

Moreover, the phenomenon of national apostasy is irrelevant to the dictionary definition of a word. Witherington is confusing words with concepts. It’s a pity that a NT scholar of his standing is so ham-handed in matters of Biblical semantics. The concept of apostasy doesn’t define or redefine the import of proordizo or proginosko. It would, at most, have a bearing on the overall concept.

In this same vein, Witherington says:
“Dunn, Romans 1-8, 482, argues that the use of “foreknow” here “has in view the more Hebraic understanding of ‘knowing’ as involving a relationship experienced and acknowledge.” This however makes no sense. You cannot have a relationship with someone who does not yet exist, and more particularly you especially cannot have the experience of a relationship that does not yet exist. You can, however, know something in advance without yet experiencing it, and this is what Paul has in mind here. Cf. Acts 26:5; 2 Pet 3:17.” (267, n42.).

There are several problems with this objection:
i) Why is Witherington using Dunn as his foil? Isn’t this supposed to be a critique of Reformed exegesis? Dunn is not a Calvinist, is he? Why isn’t Witherington using a Calvinist as his foil? Why isn’t he interacting with what Schreiner or Murray has to say about proegno in Rom 8:29 in their commentaries? Or why isn’t he interacting with word-studies by Murray or Baugh on the same subject?

Frankly, I think this is one part tenure to two parts celebrity, or maybe it’s the other way round. Men like Witherington work very hard all through college and graduate school and postgraduate school, as well as assistant and associate professorships, but once they get tenure and make a name for themselves, it’s not uncommon to see them slacken their standards and coast on their reputation. They begin to spread themselves way too thin, to write too much too fast, to accept too many speaking engagements. They don’t know how to say no. They begin churning out a lot of sloppy material that would get them a failing grade if they were still in grad school. Research takes time. Analysis takes time.

ii) Although I don’t agree with Dunn, I’ll play devil’s advocate for the moment. Creative writers often have a relationship with their characters. They may have a favorite character who becomes the main character in a cycle of novels, written over a period of years or decades. And God’s relationship to the elect in his decree is analogous to the relationship of a creative writer to his storybook characters.

iii) The correct explanation, as Witherington himself hints at, only to drop on faulty grounds, is that proegno, in covenantal contexts, carries the idiomatic meaning of “to choose beforehand.” So it is a synonym for eternal election. It such settings, it doesn’t mean “to know” or “foreknow” in any pregnant sense of the word. Rather, it has a different meaning—an elective meaning. Nothing more, nothing less.

“If one thinks that God before the foundation of the world chose some individuals to be saved, come what may, then of course one has to believe that apostasy is impossible for a real Christian person, someone who is truly elect” (62).

Notice the straw man argument. Calvinism doesn’t say the elect are saved “come what may.” That isn’t Calvinism, but fatalism.

“There are just too many warning in the NT that Christians can and do fall prey to temptation, can make shipwreck of their faith, can grieve or quench the Holy Sprit in their lives, and can even commit apostasy or the unforgivable sin. If this can happen to genuine Christians, whose whom God has called and given the Holy Spirit to, and destined or intended in advance for them to be conformed to the image of the Son, then frankly something is wrong with the Reformed concept of election” (62).

i) All that Witherington has done here is to beg the question in his own favor by claiming that genuine Christians can commit apostasy or the unforgivable sin. There’s no argument here: just a tendentious assertion.

ii) Calvinism is not the only theological tradition that distinguishes between true and nominal believers. So it isn’t special pleading when we invoke this distinction with reference to apostasy.

iii) Witherington’s logic is reversible. He starts with apostasy, and modifies election accordingly. But one could just as well—indeed, much better—begin with election and modify apostasy accordingly.

iv) Apostasy is perfectly consistent with predestination: apostates are reprobates. They were foreordained to commit apostasy.

v) Witherington often alludes to 1 Tim 1:19. But this is what the standard Arminian commentary has to say:
”There is a close parallel to 6:21 which (along with the implications to be drawn from 1:3b-7) may suggest that it was by following a false ‘knowledge’ which they regarded as superior to conscience that the heretics went astray as regards their faith,” Marshall, ibid. 412.

If so, then the apostasy in question issues from a false conversion. Defecting from the faith because your theology was heretical from the get-go is hardly evidence that a true believer can lose his faith. At a bare minimum, Witherington would need to establish that the apostate was once an orthodox believer. Even that would be a necessary rather than sufficient condition, for one can be nominally orthodox. And this is hardly a logic-chopping distinction, but a quite common phenomenon.

Witherington is a Wesleyan. The Wesley brothers were leading figures in the Great Awakening. Their ministry, and the ministry of others (e.g. Whitefield, Edwards, Roland) was predicated on these very distinctions.

“Does the term [eklecktos] simply refer to an action of God, perhaps a premundane action of God…” (63)?

Another straw man argument. Once more, Witherington is confusing words with concepts. Calvinism doesn’t infer the “doctrine” of election from the Greek word alone. And dogmatic usage is not the same as Scriptural usage. Rather, the Reformed doctrine of election is derived from passages of Scripture where the concept is present, with or without the word.

“And lest we think that being elect guarantees salvation, we even have texts like 2 Kgs 23:27…” (63).

This is just more of the same lame-brained reasoning. No Reformed theologian was ever under the illusion that everywhere the verb “to choose” pops up in Scripture with God as the subject, it has reference to eternal election.

Where does Witherington come up with this stuff, anyway? It is just because he’s too lazy to study Reformed theologians? Or is he really that muddle-headed over the nature of systematic theological method? The doctrine of election is a theological construct, just like the Trinity.

Tilting at windmills-2

“The fact that final salvation is a gift that must be received when Christ returns does not in any way relativize the importance of believers here and now persevering in the faith so that they might “be in that number when the saints go marching in.” Nothing in 1 or 2 Thessalonians suggests otherwise, and indeed much suggests that persevering is something that Christians must actively purpose and engage in, for it is possible for them to fall or commit apostasy” (66).

i) This is littered with more confusions and straw man. How is the claim that perseverance is essential to salvation inconsistent with Calvinism when one of the five-points of Calvinism is the perseverance of the saints? Where does Witherington get his information about Calvinism? From Dave Hunt?

ii) It is possible for a Christian to commit apostasy if he doesn’t persevere. It is not possible for a Christian not to persevere. That’s the point of the doctrine. God, by the inner grace of the Holy Spirit and the outward means of grace (e.g. preaching, prayer, Christian fellowship), preserves the elect so that they will, indeed, endure to the end.

iii) Calvinism aside, what does Witherington mean by saying that “final salvation” must be received at the Parousia? Is he saying that a Christian’s salvation is still up in the air when he dies? That unless he receives the gift of final salvation at the Parousia, he is damned? According to Witherington, what happens to a Christian when he dies? Does Witherington subscribe to conditional immortality?

He then appeals to 2 Peter 3:9. But Bauckham, though no Calvinist himself, has pointed out that this has reference, not to humanity in general, but to the covenant community. Cf. Jude, 2 Peter (Word 1983), 312-313. So this verse doesn’t prove that “God desires one thing, the outcome is another,” Witherington’s assertion notwithstanding.

“It may be asked whether Gundry Volf really wants to argue that God infallibly and inevitably appointed some for wrath from before the foundation of the world. Come what may and do what they will” (66)?

i) I have no idea what Volf really wants. But Calvinism does affirm “that God infallibly and inevitably appointed some for wrath from before the foundation of the world.” We call that reprobation.

ii) But then he throws in this business about “come what may and do what they will.” Yet another nescient straw man argument. Although sin is not a sufficient condition of reprobation, it is a necessary condition.

Witherington could have found out about this by consulting any standard Reformed writer on the subject, viz., Bavinck, Berkhof, Frame, Hodge, Turretin, &c.

It’s really rather embarrassing for a man of Witherington’s reputation to raise one know-nothing objection after another. Worse then embarrassing—dishonest. To publish such an uninformed critique of Calvinism is to publicly attack a position without having acquainted oneself with the particulars of that position. The inevitable result is to misrepresent the position in question. This is defamatory and libelous. As an Arminian, Witherington is big on personal responsibility. It would be nice to see him lead by example.

“The issue for this discussion is whether calling means ‘effectual calling’” (66).

Yet another illustration of Witherington’s inability to distinguish words from concepts. Calvinism doesn’t infer effectual calling from the mere use of the verb. It all depends on context.

“When Paul does talk about holiness and progressive sanctification during this lifetime he includes remarks like we find in 1 Thes 4:3-5 where human actions are involved, and not solely divine ones…” (67).

One more example of Witherington’s pig-ignorance. Calvinism doesn’t deny, but rather affirms, a cooperative aspect to sanctification:
“The soul after regeneration continues dependent upon the constant gracious operations of the Holy Spirit, but is, through grace, able to cooperate with them,” “Sanctification,” Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield, J. Meeter, ed. (P&R 1980), 2:327.

Not everything in Calvinism is monergistic. Election, regeneration, and justification are monergistic, but that’s not the case with respect to sanctification.

Now Witherington might find that illogical, but the problem is that before you can fault a position, you need to understand it. And Witherington consistently fails on both counts. He misstates the position, then waves it aside without benefit of argument.

As a classic Arminian, Witherington simply assumes that anything done by God negates the human factor, and anything done by man negates the divine factor. Divine and human agency are in a state of fundamental opposition, where one necessarily limits the other.

This is not, of course, the Reformed conception. From the Reformed standpoint, it is God’s unlimited control over all things which makes possible our limited self-control. I can only type this sentence because a software engineer designed a program which makes it possible. The program both constrains and empowers my action. Without the program, I would not be at liberty to type this sentence. I am free to type it thanks to the program, but, by the same token, I am not free to use the program and to resist the program at the same time.

For Witherington, any element of cooperation would introduce an element of uncertainty into the outcome. But that, again, is due to his particular version of action theory.

Take the inspiration of Scripture. This is a cooperative endeavor. God makes full use of a Bible writer’s personality—his knowledge, temperament, faculties, and so on. Yet God is able to secure the outcome of this process. Indeed, God is providentially responsible for the Bible writer’s personality in the first place.

A secondary effect can be contingent on the human agent, but that secondary effect is, in turn, contingent on the divine agent. A second-order outcome of a first-order impetus.

“God accepts all kinds of limitations in order to have a relationship with human beings…God treats his people as persons who will be held responsible for their life choices. A loving response to God cannot be coerced or predetermined, if it is to be personal and free. Indeed, it is also the case that for any behavior to be truly virtuous or loving, it must involve the power of contrary choice” (268-269, n53).

This is, of course, the classic Arminian objection to Calvinism. And there are several things to take note of:

i) This is not an exegetical objection. Witherington has done nothing to show from Scripture itself that any of these assertions is true. He hasn’t shown from Scripture that divine self-limitation is a prerequisite of entering into a personal relationship with man. He hasn’t shown from Scripture that a loving response cannot be predetermined. He hasn’t shown from Scripture that libertarian freedom is a precondition of virtue.

Calvinism begins with the radical idea that if you want to know what God is like, you don’t speculate about God, but listen to God. If you want to know what God has done, you don’t speculate about God, but listen to God. God has told us what he’s like. God has told us what he’s done. We take God’s self-revelation as the source of our knowledge of God.

By contrast, Witherington’s modus operandi is to interpret the Bible in light of what he deems to be the necessary and sufficient conditions of moral responsibility. He doesn’t derive these preconditions from the witness of Scripture itself. Rather, these are extra-Biblical assumptions which control his reading of Scripture.

ii) Not only has Witherington failed to make an exegetical case for his position, but he has failed to mount any sort of argument at all. Apparently, Witherington doesn’t feel the need to argue his position since it is obviously true to him.

But this is hopelessly jejune. I have before me The Oxford Handbook of Free Will. This is a hefty volume, 9.6 inches high by 6.8 inches wide, 638 pages long, with a series of heavily footnoted essays and a 40-page bibliography. The volume includes a variety of highly sophisticated essays defending soft and hard determinism—in addition to essays in favor of libertarian freewill. To my knowledge, none of the critics of libertarian freewill in this volume are Reformed, or even Christian.

The time is long overdue for Arminians like Witherington to get beyond this seat-of-the pants appeal to their pretheoretical intuitions regarding moral responsibility. Amateur night is no substitute for academic rigor.

“In Rom 8:38-39 we have a similar promise for believers bout no external force or factor separating them from the love of God. However, the one thing not listed in that list is, of course, the individual himself” (68).

“Paul will go on to stress that no outside power, circumstance, degree of suffering, or temptation can rip them out of the firm grip that God has on their lives” (75).

“He means all that is necessary for salvation, all that is necessary to protect believers from spiritual danger in all sorts of difficult and dangerous circumstances…no third party or power or force or circumstance or lesser supernatural being will be able to separate the believer from the love of God in Christ” (78).

“His point is to stress that no other forces, powers, experiences, or events external to the believer’s own heart or mind can do so” (81).

This is a very arbitrary distinction. Is “temptation” internal or external to our heart and mind? Is “suffering” internal or external to our heart and mind?

Why would a professing believer feel tempted to fall away? Why would he succumb to temptation? Oftentimes it is under duress and pressure from outside incentives to leave the faith and/or disincentives to remain faithful.

In fact, Witherington has Rom 8:28-39 exactly backwards by making it say what it doesn’t say, and by denying what it does say. Rom 8:28-39 takes for granted the existence of these external threats in the life of the believer. God will not shield the believer from exposure to these hostile situations. So what is left? If Christians are outwardly at the mercy of such circumstances, then the only thing which keeps them from falling is the inner grip of God.

By his own account, Witherington clearly believes that God does not do all that’s necessary for salvation, God does not do all that’s necessary to protect believers from spiritual danger, since Witherington also believes that a true child of God can be lost.

“Paul addresses the entire Thessalonian audience in this fashion throughout this letter” (70).

Naturally. This is a public letter, not a private letter. It is a medium of mass communication. Since Paul is not in Thessalonica at the time of writing, he can’t individualize. So he writes a letter. It’s a one-to-many means of communication. This doesn’t mean that everything he says is equally true of everyone to whom the letter is addressed.

“The language of election, appointing, destining is used in a variety of ways in Paul, and indeed in the NT, and in no case is it used in a fashion that suggests that humans are predetermined for salvation or wrath regardless of their own volitions or desires, as if only God’s will was involved in such crucial matters, or as if only God’s will determines the outcome of these things” (70).

Like clockwork, we’re treated to yet another one of Witherington’s simplistic caricatures of the opposing position. Notice how he jumbles distinct concepts and categories. God is the only agent who determines the outcome. God is not the only agent involved in the outcome. Election and reprobation presuppose sin, so election and reprobation are not irrespective of our sinful volitions and desires. But election is not contingent on how we would response since, left to our own devices, we are rebels and fugitives.

Again, salvation does involve the human will, for regeneration renews the fallen will, but by that very same token, regeneration enjoys causal priority over faith and repentance. The Christian is an active participant in some, but not all phases, of salvation. But he is activated or reactivated by God, and his subsequent activity is not autonomous.

“There is a synergistic nature to perseverance as God works in the person or persons to will and do to, but they also must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. The human part is not optional or otiose” (72).

“There is more than one will in operation in the universe. There is God’s will and human wills, not to mention the willing of angels and demons and the devil” (74).

No Calvinist denies this. But does God thereby cede some of his authority to the devil? Is this a power-sharing arrangement? Why would Witherington rather be at the mercy of the Devil than at the mercy of the Lord?

“Origen, Chrysostom, Theodoret, and other ancient Greek commentators knew Paul’s’ Greek far better than we do” (74).

That may well be so, but excepting for Origen, who is accounted a heretic, the Greek Fathers didn’t know their way around the Hebrew OT, which is key to understanding NT theology.

“Rom 8:29 must be red in light of v28…Paul is not discussing some mass of unredeemed humanity out of which God chose some to be among the elect” (75).

So we should read Rom 8:29 in light of Rom 8:28, but we shouldn’t read Rom 8:29 in light of what Paul has to say about the mass of unredeemed humanity in Rom 1-6 or the common lump in Rom 9. Don’t you just love contextual exegesis?

Quoting Achtemeier:
“As Paul uses [the terms foreknow and predestine], they do not refer in the first instance to some limitation on our freedom, nor do they refer to some arbitrary decision by God that some creatures are to be denied all chance at salvation” (75).

This characterization could scarcely be more prejudicial. It begins by initially positing the fact of human freedom which Calvinism then proceeds to “limit.” It describes election and reprobation as “arbitrary.” It describes salvation as giving everyone a “chance.” The insinuation here is that God has to make a special effort to prevent sinners from being saved. Reading Witherington write about Calvinism is like reading a Klansman write a biography of Lincoln.

“Paul will make clear in Rom 10:8-15 that the basis of that response is faith and confession” (76).

And what is the source of faith or its absence? Paul attributes faith to the gift of God while he attributes unbelief to the hardening of God. Witherington’s answer only pushes the question back a step. And when we take a step back, the answer is found in God’s will, not in man’s.

“Knowing and willing are not one and the same with God. The proof, of course, is that God knows very will about human sin, but he does not will it or destine it to happen” (76).

Remember that Witherington is supposed to be writing a critique of Calvinism. But instead of arguing for his own position, all he does here is to assume what he needs to prove. His illustration only proves his point if he takes Arminian theology as the frame of reference.

Needless to say, Calvinism affirms the very thing he breezily denies: God did foreordain the Fall. Indeed, the Bible expressly says so (Rom 11:32; Gal 3:22).

Witherington is incapable of thinking outside his Arminian box even for the sake of argument. Throughout his chapters on Calvinism he simply takes Arminian theology as the standard of reference. That isn’t dialogue. That isn’t argument.

Witherington reminds me of multiculturalism. The beauty of multiculturalism is that you don't actually have to know a thing about another culture. You can see this in the way the multiculturalist makes excuses for militant Islam. The multiculturalist doesn’t listen to what Muslims in the Muslim world have to say about Islam. Instead, the multiculturalist has his preconceived sociological theories about what motivates a Muslim.

Witherington is the same way. Don’t be a listener. Don’t be a learner. Talk about the Calvinist, but never talk to the Calvinist.

One of Witherington’s problems is that he can only think in terms of coordinate relationships (cofactors) rather than subordinate relationships (cause and effect). This so conditions his outlook that he is blind to what the text of Scripture actually says. Take his allusion to Phil 2:12-13. Paul doesn’t lay the divine and human factors side-by-side, as if these were independent of each other or opposed to each other.

As Moisés Silva observes,
“Our dependence on divine activity for sanctification is nowhere made as explicit as here. To begin with, God’s work is viewed as having a causal relation to our working (gar, ‘for’); our activity is possible only because of divine grace. Second, the syntax is emphatic: Paul says not merely ‘God works’ (ho theos energei) but ‘the one who works the working is God’ (theos…estin ho energon…to energein). Third, the divine influence is said to extend not only to our activity but to our very wills—a unique statement, though the idea is implied in other passages (e.g., Jn 1:13; Rom 9:16),” Philippians (Baker 2005), 122.

Moving along:

“Paul speaks only of him as the God who reveals himself, not as the hidden God whose will and ways are inscrutable, and whose hidden counsels might actually be the opposite of his revealed Word” (78).

After a while you don’t expect Witherington to know what he’s talking about or fairly depict the opposing position. As a rule, there’s no correlation between what truly is and what he says. But at the risk of stating the obvious, Calvinism subscribes to predestination precisely because predestination is a revealed truth of Scripture.

“Since vv29-30 must be linked to v28…Paul makes perfectly clear that he is talking bout Christians here. The statement bout them loving God precedes and determines how e should read both the ous in these verses, and the chain of verbs. God knew something in advance b out these persons, namely that they would respond to the call of God” (268, n.44).

This analysis is simply incompetent: no other way of putting it:

i) It confounds a literary sequence (vv28-30) with a causal-temporal sequence as though, if vv29-30 are subsequent to v28, then God’s action must be subsequent to v28. You can hardly get more disoriented than this: confounding the literary level of discourse with its extra-textual referent.

ii) Even at the literary level, his analysis misses the point. VV29-30 do, indeed, refer back to v28. But the causal-temporal sequence is in reverse: vv29-30 explain how the Christians in v28 came to be believers, and the destiny that awaits them.

“Election is a corporate concept, and individuals can opt in or out of the elect group” (81-82).

Here we have Witherington trying, once again, to play both sides of the fence. You can’t say that election is a corporate concept, and then immediately proceeds to make exceptions.

Witherington appeals to corporate election to oppose the Reformed doctrine of individual election. But this would only work if election were exclusively corporate. Once you talk about individuals opting in and out of election, you are now talking about elect individuals. To be sure, you are doing so in a way scarcely coherent, but that’s part of the problem.

“Beginning at Eph 1:4, Paul talks about the concept of election. The key phrase to understanding what he means by this concept is ‘in him’ or ‘in Christ’…By God’s choosing of him (who is the Elect One), and those who would come to be in him were chosen in the person of their agent or redeemer” (83-84).

Witherington frequently appeals to Eph 1:4 to prove corporate election. This is merely his fullest statement.

But his Barthian interpretation is clearly fallacious:

i) Eph 1:4 doesn’t say that God chose Christ. Christ is not the object of the verb. Rather, God chose “us.” “Hemas” is the object of the verb. To say that God chose us “in Christ” is not syntactically equivalent to saying that God chose Christ. Doesn’t Witherington know basic Greek grammar?

There is nothing necessarily wrong with saying that Christ is the chosen one (cf. Isa 42:1, LXX), but that is not what Paul says here, and for Witherington to tell his readers otherwise, most of whom don’t read Ephesians in the original, is simply dishonest.

And even if Christ were the chosen one, that’s a very different concept than the idea of elect sinners.

ii) A Calvinist doesn’t deny the corporate dimension of election. God is saving a people—a people comprising his church. But this also doesn’t authorize you to drive a wedge between corporate and individual election, playing the former off against the latter.

Election has means as well as ends. To be chosen in union with Christ is to be appointed to salvation, not apart from Christ, but through Christ, as our Redeemer.

iii) When Paul goes on to say of the elect that they believed the gospel and received the seal of salvation (1:13-14), the effect of election terminates on elect individuals.

iv) Paul uses the plural (“us”) because he is writing to the church of Ephesus. He is addressing his letter to a congregation. But, needless to say, a congregation is made up of individual members.

v) Paul doesn’t talk about those who “come to be in him,” but those who were and are in him by virtue of eternal election—“chosen before the foundation of the world.” Once again we see Witherington defy the actual wording of the text. Can’t he read Greek?

You’d think a Greek scholar could do a better job of it. And Witherington is a very able scholar. But he’s blinded by the very thing he is quick to criticize in others—agenda-driven exegesis.

“Paul is not talking about the pretemporal electing or choosing of individual humans outside of Christ to be in Christ…” (84).

Once more, you wonder if Witherington has any grasp of the position he is opposing. He writes this as though he were setting this over against the Reformed doctrine of election. But Calvinism doesn’t deny that Christians are elect in Christ. To the contrary, Calvinism emphatically affirms the internal relation between the work of the Father in election, and the work of the Son in redemption—as well as the work of the Spirit in the renewal of the elect and redeemed.

“The concept here is not radically different than the conception of the election of Israel in Rom 9-11. During the OT era, if one was in Israel, one was part of God’s chosen people; if one had no such connection, one was not elect. Individual persons within Israel could opt out by means of apostasy, and others could be grafted in” (84).

i) I agree with Witherington that the concept of election in Eph 1 is essentially the same as the concept of election in Rom 9-11, but I disagree with his interpretation of Rom 9-11.

ii) Witherington completely fails to take into account the progressive character of redemptive history. The national adoption of Israel is not at all interchangeable with the eternal election of the church. What we have in Israel is an elect remnant within the national as a whole (Rom 2:28-29; 9:6-8; 11:1-10). Although the nation of Israel was set apart by God in contrast to the surrounding nations, that is not the same thing as the remnant. There’s a difference between ritual purity and a pure heart (Deut 10:16; 30:6; Jer 4:4).

The proper analogy here would be the invisible church within the visible church. Not all members of the visible church are elect, and not all the elect are members of the visible church.

Tilting at windmills-3

“Notice the total lack of discussion of the predestination of the wicked here. Ephesians does not depict election as that which divides the human race, but rather as that which unites it in Christ” (269, n55).

i) It’s true that Eph 1 doesn’t expressly teach double predestination. So what? Even if reprobation were nowhere explicitly taught in Scripture, it would still be implicit in Scripture. As Geerhardus Vos has said:
“No more is necessary than to combine the two single truths, that all saving race, inclusive of faith, is the supernatural gift of God, and that not all men are made recipients of this grace,” Redemptive History & Biblical Interpretation (P&R 1980), 412.

ii) As a matter of fact, there are passages of Scripture in which reprobation or double predestination are more clearly enunciated (e.g. Mt 11:25-26; Lk 2:34; Jn 12:39-40; Rom 9-11; 1 Pet 2:6-8; Jude 4).

iii) Witherington is not a Barthian universalist. He believes that election is contingent on foreseen faith, and he denies that everyone is a believer. Hence, even on his own grounds, he cannot believe that election unites the entire human race. Is Witherington unable to connect the dots of his own belief-system?

“Paul does not operate with an ‘invisible elect’ amidst the people of God concept. The Israelites or Christians who are true are all to visible and evident” (87).

i) To begin with, it is arguable that Paul does operate with such a concept. A true Jew is inwardly Jewish, not only outwardly Jewish—through a circumcision of the heart (Rom 2:28-29). The faithful remnant was invisible to Elijah (11:2-5). So you can’t tell by appearances alone.

ii) But Witherington’s objection also suffers from equivocation. The Reformed position is not that God’s elect are invisible, but that God’s election is invisible. A man with a bum ticker is visible even if his heart condition is invisible to the naked eye.

An off-duty policeman is still a policeman, but out of uniform you can’t tell, just by looking at him, that he’s a policeman.

“Paul believes that Christians are under a new covenant, not any administrations of the older ones. He does see the new covenant as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic one…Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, are no longer under the Mosaic Law. They are rather under the Law of Christ” (87).

i) Covenant theology is an intricate theological construct. This is not something that one can intelligently discuss, much less dispatch, in a three-sentence paragraph. And there is more than one version of covenant theology.

No one is claiming that the new covenant is a different administration of the old covenant. To say this evinces Witherington’s chronic ignorance of the relevant literature.

The general principle is that God saves sinners by grace alone. And he does so through a covenant mediator in a one-to-many relationship. There is, in addition, a degree of progressivity as the older covenants culminate in person and work of Christ.

This general principle is exemplified in a variety of concrete covenants, viz., Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the new covenant.

When covenant theologians talk about one covenant under a variety of administrations, the relationship is not between one specific covenant and another, but between the general principle (the covenant of grace) and its concrete exempla.

“Paul also does not operate with a concept of imputed righteousness, as if by that phrase one means Christ’s righteousness is counted in place of ours. A careful reading of Gal 3 and Rom 4 will show that what Paul says on the basis of Gen 12-15 is that Abraham’s faith was reckoned or counted as righteousness. His faith was reckoned as his righteousness. This is a very different matter than Christ’s righteousness counting in the place of that of the believers” (87).

i) Witherington simply ignores the Reformed argument for imputed righteousness. One example would be John Piper’s recent book: Counted Righteous in Christ (Crossway 2003).

ii) There may be some truth to what Witherington says about Rom 4. How he gets that out of Gal 3 is beyond me—not to mention its relation to Gal 2. In any event, it is highly ironic that someone who repeatedly tells the reader that he must never interpret a verse in isolation has chosen to isolate Rom 4 from the larger flow of the argument. The Book of Romans doesn’t consist of Rom 4 alone, with nothing before or after.

To be justified by faith alone is just a shorthand expression. We are justified by the imputed righteousness of Christ. Faith is a placeholder.” Faith” stands in opposition to “works.” The voucher of faith is redeemed by the blood of Christ.

“Righteousness needs to be imparted by the Spirit, not merely imputed…It is not the case that when God looks at the believer he simply sees the righteousness of Christ” (87-88).

Calvinism doesn’t deny the necessity of sanctification. In Reformed theology, the work of the Spirit operates in tandem with the work of the Son.

The question, though, is whether the work of Christ is incomplete. Are we justified by imparted righteousness? How does God see the Christian for purposes of justification? That’s the question.

Since we are still sinners, imparted righteousness is, at best, partial righteousness. Are we justified by partial righteousness? Not according to Paul (e.g. Gal 3:10).

ii) Witherington’s position is also incoherent on its own grounds. To bring in imparted righteousness must mean that we are justified, at least in part, by our sanctified works. Yet he just said that our “faith” is reckoned to us as righteousness.

iii) Incidentally, since the word “righteousness” is so closely associated with justification in Pauline theology, it would be preferable not to use the same word with reference to sanctification. Reserve “righteousness” for justification, and “holiness” for sanctification.

“God desires all persons to be saved (so also Jn 3:16), and Christ gave himself as a ransom for all sinners. This means that it must be human beings in their response to God in Christ, not God through some process of choosing individuals, who limit the atonement” (88).

This is, of course, a stock summary of the case for unlimited atonement. The problem here is that Witherington simply disregards the Reformed counterargument. The Calvinist is well acquainted with Jn 3:16 and the like.

He skirts the whole question of whether John’s “cosmic” language has an ethical import: not the “world” qua world, but world qua fallen world. Christ died for members of the evil world order. In general Johannine usage, to be of the world is an antonym for Christian identity (e.g. Jn 12:31; 14:17,27,30; 15:18-19; 16:8,11,33; 17:14; 18:36; 2 Jn 2:15-17; 4:5; 5:4,19). Witherington also cites Jn 3:16 in isolation to Jn 3:19-20, 9:39, 10:11; 13:1; 15:13,22; 17:6,&c.

“Since numerous NT authors, including Paul and the author of Hebrews, not to mention Jesus himself, warn against the problem of apostasy, this in turn must mean that God’s saving grace is both resistible at the outset and rejectable later” (88).

i) It is important to observe that this is not, in fact, an exegetical argument. The Bible never says that saving grace is resistible. And it never says that saving grace is resistible given the phenomenon of apostasy, and warnings thereof.

Rather, this is an inference from Scripture. And it turns on a key assumption which is not supplied by Scripture. Witherington is simply assuming that libertarian freedom is a necessary precondition to make sense of these admonitions. But freewill is not an actual teaching of Scripture. Scripture doesn’t ground apostasy in the freedom of the will.

By contrast, there is a good deal of implicit and explicit teaching in Scripture which runs diametrically at odds with Witherington’s presumptive or presuppositional indeterminism.

ii) Moreover, Witherington’s inference is, as I’ve said before, philosophically naïve.

iii) Furthermore, Witherington’s position is incoherent. For he himself is committed to his own set of hypotheticals and counterfactuals. He believes in “sufficient” grace. He believes in a “potentially” universal atonement. So he believes that unrealized possibilities are meaningful.

“The character of God as a God of holy love and also a God of freedom is such that he expects these same qualities to be reflected in his creatures…Love cannot be coerced, manipulated, or predetermined” (88).

i) Is every divine attribute a communicable attribute? Is omniscience a communicable attribute? Is omnipotence a communicable attribute? Is aseity a communicable attribute?

ii) Note how often he treats coercion, manipulation, and predeterminism as synonyms? But this is a piece of intellectual slackness.

Predeterminism is not the same thing as coercion. In coercion, we are forced to do something against our will. We do it unwillingly. There is a sense of resistance between our will and the will of the agent who is imposing his will upon us.

Incidentally, coercion isn’t always a bad thing. We employ coercive measures to restrain the criminal element in society.

But predeterminism goes behind the will and directs the will. An illustration would be hypnotic suggestion. Under hypnotism, an idea is planted in the mind of the subject. When he snaps out of his trance, he acts on that idea as if it were his own.

As far as love is concerned, don’t our genes and hormones “manipulate” our love-life on a regular basis? In many instances, men and woman have no control over whom they fall in love with. They are predisposed to fall in love with a certain type of person, and whenever they meet that type of person, the attraction and infatuation are automatic. In matters of the heart we are, to a large extent, creatures of our chemistry.

And, of course, the same is true in reverse. We can lose our sense of spontaneous affection, and we have precious little control over that process as well.

In brief, we have a fair measure of control over how or whether we act on our feelings, but very little control over what feelings we have.

Arminians talk about love as if they came out of a test tube and grew to maturity inside germ-free bubble that was sealed off from direct contact with other members of the human species. Nothing is more artificial or inhuman than the way in which an Arminian defines true love. Arminian love is something that only exists in a petri dish or sci-fi film. It is completely divorced from universal human experience in the real world of love and longing, rejection and jealousy. Thank God Racine was a Jansenist rather than a Wesleyan!

In chapter 7, Witherington opposes a Reformed reading of Rom 9-11. He does this, in part, by arguing for a premil (postmil?) reading of Rom 11:26, which, according to him, has reference to a mass endtime conversion of the Jews.

But there are several problems with this line of argument:

i) Calvinism has no official position on the millennium. A Calvinist can be an amil, historical premil, or postmil. Hence, there is no tension between a Reformed reading of Rom 9-11 and a pre/postmil reading of Rom 9-11, viz. John Murray, Tom Schreiner, S. Lewis Johnson.

ii) At the same time, Witherington also ignores Reformed writers who argue for an amil reading of Rom 9-11, viz., Hoekema, O. P. Robertson, Lee Irons.

iii) In addition, one doesn’t have to be a Calvinist to oppose a pre/postmil reading of Rom 9-11. N. T. Wright, in his recent commentary on Romans, presents a preterist interpretation.

iv) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Witherington’s interpretation is sound, it would in no way blunt the damnatory or double-predestinarian force of judicial hardening. For the spiritual restoration of the Jews would only extend to the endtime generation. Hence, all unbelieving Jews before the millennium would die in a hardened state and suffer the eternal consequences. And they would be unbelieving Jews due to divine hardening.

God’s process of hardening would only be lifted for one generation—at the end of the church age. Hence, election and hardening do not have the same individuals in view. They do not represent successive stages of divine agency, terminating on the very same subject.

“Hardening does not mean damning. It involves a temporal action of limited duration” (145).

That may well be true. But a human lifespan is of limited duration too. If you die in a hardened state, you die a lost sinner. And if the process extends over several generations, then it racks up quite a toll of hell-bound casualties. Paul penned this letter 2000 years ago.

“Paul is referring to the hardening of some, he is not talking about their eternal damnation. He is talking bout a process in history that is temporal and temporary. In their words e are going to see that what Paul is talking about in vv22-23 is not those saved or damned from before the foundation of the world, but rather as Cranfield says, those vessels that are currently positively related to God, and those vessels which currently are not” (142).

i) Cranfield is a Barthian universalist. He believes in universal election, whereby all men are elect, while Christ is both elect and reprobate. Cranfield’s position is consistent—though consistently wrong. Witherington is no Barthian—or is he?

ii) If we’re going to bring in the historical process, then that includes the past as well as the future. So does Witherington believe that Christ died for the damned? For those who were already burning in hell at the time he went to Calvary? Or does Witherington shore up his case with postmortem evangelism?

“The quoted verse [Mal 1:2-3] then may speak of God’s elective purposes, but the discussion is about a role these people were to play in history, not their personal eternal destiny” (143).

It is true that the historical fate of the Edomites does not precisely correspond to their eternal fate, just as the adoption of Israel does not precisely correspond to eternal election.

However, to say that they do not coincide is not to say that they do not intersect. Not every member of the covenant community was saved—most, indeed, were not—but whoever was saved was either a member of the covenant community or a neighbor who came to a saving knowledge of the true God by virtue of his proximity to the Chosen People. In general, not to be party to the covenant is to be excluded from the revelation of God, without which saving faith is impossible. The remnant is a remnant of the covenant community.

For all his talk of the historical process, Witherington acts as if men are saved or damned irrespective of their position in redemptive history.

“Israel’s or anyone else’s salvation is not finally completed until the eschaton. Until then, there can be assurance of what is hoped for, but this assurance always stands under the proviso that one must persevere until the end of life” (143-144).

But the eschaton and the end of life are not the same thing. Can’t Witherington tell the difference? So when are we saved or damned? At the time we die? Or is our postmortem status indeterminate until the final judgment?

“Being chosen for historical purposes and being saved are not one and the same thing. Salvation for individuals is by grace and through faith. Election, insofar as the creation of a people is involved, is largely a corporate thing: it is ‘in Israel,’ or it is ‘in Christ,’ but the means of getting in is by faith. Israel as a nation was chosen to be a light to other nations. This is election for a historical purpose, and it says nothing about the eternal salvation of individual Jews” (144).

Several problems here:

i) Notice how he fudges on whether election is individual or corporate. If faith is the differential factor, then he can’t very well play corporate election off against individual election. What he’s really saying is that God chooses believers on the basis of foreseen faith. In that case, election is primarily individual and only secondarily corporate. The corporate dimension would not be constitutive of election, but a side-effect of individual election.

He tries to slide this by the reader in a hurried little paragraph so that we don’t notice that he’s just shot the bottom out of his Arminian dingy.

ii) To claim that the adoption of Israel “says nothing” about the eternal fate of individual Jews is a sizable overstatement. There was a considerable redemptive benefit to being a Jew rather than a pagan. Being a Jew didn’t guarantee you a nonrefundable ticket to heaven, but being a pagan pretty well guaranteed you a nonrefundable ticket to hell.

God doesn’t save people in a historical vacuum. The grace of God is coordinated with the means of grace. You can have the means of grace without the grace of God, but rare can you have the grace of God without the means of grace. Covenants make a difference. They don’t make all the difference, but they are a necessary, if insufficient, condition to being in a state of grace.

Saving faith demands a suitable object. If God chooses to save someone, God will, at some point in life, place that individual in a spiritually advantageous position. Heaven-bound Jews were a subset of Jews generally. Heaven-bound Gentiles came to a saving knowledge of God through contact with the covenant community—as in-laws or proselytes or God-fearers.

iii) There is also a tendency on Witherington’s part to confound the ontology of election with the epistemology of election. We don’t know which Jews were saved as a result of Israel’s adoption. But we do know that some Jews were saved as a result of Israel’s adoption.

“Barrett is right on target: ‘election does not take place…arbitrarily or fortuitously; it takes place always and only in Christ. They are elect who are in him… (Gal 3:29),’” (144).

Really, you don’t know if you should laugh or cry. What does Witherington think he’s opposing, here? What Calvinist believes that election is fortuitous—like the luck of the draw? Election is purposeful, not haphazard.

Witherington’s treatment of Calvinism is so frivolous and dilettantish that it wouldn’t be worth the effort were he not a big name who commands a ready audience.

Yes, the elect are elect in Christ. But everyone is not elect. That’s the point. If you are not elect in Christ, then you are not in Christ, and if you are not in Christ, then you are lost.

“It should be noted that the quote in v15 from Exod 33:19 says nothing about ‘I will judge those whom I will judge’” (144).

Now Withering must resort to semantic hair-splitting:

i) To begin with, there’s the historical context of the Exodus itself—which represents the judgment of God upon a pagan nation.

ii) To withhold mercy implies the opposite of mercy, which is wrath and judgment.

iii) In case some readers can’t figure this out, Paul makes the point explicit in v18, where mercy is shown to some while others are hardened.

iv) Likewise the business about vessels “prepared for destruction” (v22) in direct contrast to vessels “prepared for glory” (v23).

If Witherington is going to indulge in special pleading, I’d much rather than he split hares than split hairs since I could at least get a bowl of rabbit stew out of the exercise.

“Election is not some abstract or inscrutable will of God that lurks behind the revealed will of God, for God’s will and heart are truly revealed in Christ. Whatever is not known about God must comport with what God has revealed to the world in Christ. Thus it is not helpful to talk about pretemporal eternal decrees by God, unless one is talking about what God decreed about and for his Son, the chosen and destined One” (145).

i) This savors of Barth’s Christomonism. Is Witherington a closet Barthian?

ii) We have another helping of Witherington’s inept appeal to Eph 1:4.

iii) A Calvinist would readily agree that God’s decretive will does not lurk behind his revealed will, for God has revealed the existence of his decretive will.

iv) It is illicit to invoke the revelation of God in Christ as a general blocking maneuver to set aside the more specific teaching of Scripture on the scope and nature of election.

v) For that matter, Jesus himself had a fair amount to say about election and reprobation in the Gospel of John (chapters 6, 9-12, 17).

“As Eph 2:3-4 makes quite evident, someone can start out as a vessel of wrath and later become a child of God by grace through faith” (147).

i) No, this is quite inevident. “Vessel” and “child” are not interchangeable metaphors. In Romans, this figures in the potter/clay clay imagery, where God is depicted as being the Creator under the metaphor of a potter.

In Eph 2:3,by contrast, it is not our relation to God, but Adam which is primarily in view. The phrase (“by nature children of wrath”) is an allusion to original sin and the fall of man in Adam, just as we find in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15.

The text is not talking about a temporal transition from wrath to grace. Christians don’t cease to be Adamites, but not all Adamites are Christians. The contrast lies between what we all are in Adam, and what some of us are in Christ. In Adam we are deserving of wrath and judgment. Indeed, as Christians we are still deserving of wrath and judgment. But as Christians we are judged by what we are in Christ, and not in Adam.

ii) And even if there were a temporal transition from wrath to grace, that is not the same thing as a transition from reprobation to election. There is nothing in Eph 1-2 where we find the reprobate crossing over into a state of grace over or vice versa. What you have, in Eph 1-2 is a conversion process as well as the ulterior explanation for the conversion process. We become Christians in time because we were already in Christ before time.

Witherington is a very capable scholar. And he teaches at the flagship of Arminian seminaries, where he has the benefit of like-minded conversation partners such as Jerry Walls and Joel Green. If this is the best he can do, then he has rendered the cause of Calvinism a distinct service by documenting in great detail the vast inadequacy of its Arminian rival.

The Early Christian Tradition of Biblical Harmonization

I recently read some comments in a thread at another blog regarding how the writers of the gospels allegedly weren't as concerned with history as they were with theology. The comments were made in a context in which the historicity of the infancy narratives was being downplayed. Critics of the historical credibility of the Bible, including critics who profess to be Christians or are conservative on many other issues, often suggest that their lower view of the historicity of scripture is consistent with what the earliest Christians believed. We live in a day when homosexuals will claim that the Bible accepts homosexuality, or abortionists will claim support for abortion in scripture, for example, so it's not too unusual to see radically unhistorical views presented as if they're rooted in early church history.

People who hold a less conservative view of scripture will often criticize attempts to harmonize scripture, often piously making references to how it's an abuse of scripture to attempt to harmonize one portion of the Bible with another. During this Christmas season, we'll probably be hearing a lot from critics of Christianity and less conservative Christians regarding how we shouldn't read the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke too literally.

It's true that the authors of scripture were concerned with theology, but they also were concerned with historical issues, and the two are intertwined. We know that the authors of the gospels, for example, were writing in the historical genre of Greco-Roman biography. The earliest Christians spoke of the contents of the gospels as historical accounts, and the earliest enemies of Christianity responded to the religion in a manner that suggests that they interpreted the gospels in the same way:

"A careful reading of the patristic evidence suggests that indeed the vast majority of early Christians did believe that the type of information the Gospel writers communicated was historical fact, even as they recognized the more superficial parallels with the mythology of other worldviews" (Craig Blomberg, cited in Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2004], p. 327, n. 27)

Note that, as Blomberg explains, these early Christians were aware of the possibility that the gospel accounts were unhistorical. They knew of the possibility and rejected it. They were surrounded with a world of fictional religions and fictional documents, with many allegories and naturalists and other skeptics. In that context, they interpreted the gospels in a highly historical manner.

On the infancy narratives in particular, we see the earliest church fathers referring to events such as the virgin birth and the census of Luke 2 as historical. And we see widespread attempts at harmonization. In a previous post, I discussed the example of Julius Africanus, one of the most knowledgeable scholars of the early church, who advocated a high view of scripture and of the historicity of the infancy narratives specifically. Tatian published his Diatessaron, a harmonization of the gospels, around the middle of the second century. Justin Martyr, in the same timeframe, combines elements from Matthew and Luke, treating the infancy narratives as harmonious historical accounts (Dialogue with Trypho, 78). Regarding the differences between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, Eusebius writes that "every believer, in ignorance of the truth, has been zealous to invent some explanation which shall harmonize the two passages" (Church History, 1:7:1). While Eusebius criticizes many believers for being "ignorant" in the harmonizations they offer, he doesn't criticize them for seeking harmonizations, and Eusebius goes on to offer a harmonization himself, the one advocated by Julius Africanus.

Interpreting scripture in a highly historical manner, including the harmonizing of the infancy narratives, is an early Christian tradition. The tendency toward a lower view of scripture isn't so early and, more significantly, can be shown to be contrary to what the authors of scripture themselves intended.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Exceeding Abundantly Beyond All That We Ask or Think

"the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14)

"no second-Temple Jews known to us were expecting the one god to appear in human form" (N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God [Minneapolis, Minnesota: Fortress Press, 2003], p. 573)

"It is indisputable that there was no Jewish expectation that God would become incarnate. Pagans believed that their 'gods' had taken human form from time to time; but their 'gods' were lesser gods with limited powers, not God, omnipotent and omniscient. There simply was no precedent, Jewish or pagan, for expecting an incarnation: God almighty truly taking a human nature. And that again is reason for supposing that the first Christians were not reading back into history something which they expected to occur." (Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate [New York: Oxford University Press, 2003], p. 115)

Friday, November 25, 2005

A pneuma-shaped idol

“I know that for many of us the doctrine of Scripture is presuppositional and prolegomena to all we do. I fear that such an approach will turn the Bible as God’s Word into bibliolatry and idolatry, where mastery of the Bible is equated with loving God and others. Scripture is God’s gracious gift to us, but that doesn’t mean that every extreme is justifiable. We are in need of a new set of categories for understanding Scripture.”

“I’m suggesting we use the term “identity.” The term “authority” is that of power — it tells us that we are “under” something. The term “identity” speaks of the Spirit who is at work — in the world in God’s redemptive work, in the Church as the community of faith, and in that community as it tells the story of God’s redemptive work. And I’m not suggesting that we understand “identity” as filling the same spot as “authority,” but that we learn to see Scripture (not so much as the Authority) but as what gives us our Identity because through it God’s Spirit speaks to and guides us.”

“Identity invites us to conceptualize our relationship differently than the term “authority,” which invites us to see ourselves in submission (which is not the worst thing in the world, to be sure). Identity, I am suggesting, gives us the opportunity to rethink our relationship to Scripture in terms of a pneuma-shaped identity.”

Since idolatry is a biblical category to begin with, bibliolatry is a contradiction in terms. Where does Scripture ever equate submission to the authority of God’s word with idolatry or bibliolatry? Never!

God is an authority-figure. God is powerful. Indeed, God is omnipotent—the Almighty. Hence, God’s words are authoritative—not merely by might, but also by right. God is the Creator and Judge. God is the exemplar of truth.

That is why, for God’s people, the doctrine of Scripture is, indeed, presuppositional and prolegomenal to all we do.

What McKnight is promoting is an unscriptural category of Scripture. Notice the false antithesis between Word and Spirit. Scripture is divinely authoritative because Scripture is inspired by a divine Person—the Spirit of God.

Not every “pneuma-shaped identity” is identical with the Spirit of God. “Beloved, do not believer every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 Jn 4:1).

Unless we have an authoritative word from God, we have no master key against which to test the spirits.

In the Fulness of Time

"Paul's famous comment that the Nativity happened 'in the fulness of time' [Galatians 4:4] is usually interpreted to mean that God had a good sense of timing, since conditions prevailing in the Mediterranean world could not have been more favorable for the spread of Christianity....the Greeks had given their world a universal language through which Jesus' message could spread easily and quickly. The Roman empire had organized the whole Mediterranean basin into one vast communications network, almost perfectly geared to foster the spread of Christianity, since its missionaries could travel from city to city without fear of piracy at sea or brigands by land. Rome had also spread the welcome blanket of peace across the world, the Pax Romana, a time in which the new faith could thrive." (Paul Maier, The First Christmas [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Kregel Publications, 2001], p. 34)

"Early Jewish interpretations of the seventy weeks prophecy of Daniel 9 increased expectation in precisely the decades surrounding the ministry of Jesus; this may have fit a general expectation of a coming era of peace in the eastern Mediterranean in this period." (Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], p. 285)

Now are the days fulfilled,
God’s Son is manifested,
Now His great majesty
In human flesh is vested.
Behold the mighty God,
By Whom all wrath is stilled,
The woman’s promised Seed—
Now are the days fulfilled.

Now are the days fulfilled,
Lo, Jacob’s Star is shining;
The gloomy night has fled
Wherein the world lay pining.
Now, Israel, look on Him
Who long thy heart hath thrilled;
Hear Zion’s watchmen cry:
Now are the days fulfilled.

Now are the days fulfilled,
The child of God rejoices;
No bondage of the Law,
No curses that it voices,
Can fill our hearts with fear;
On Christ our hope we build.
Behold the Prince of Peace—
Now are the days fulfilled.
(author unknown, "Now Are the Days Fulfilled")

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Ephesians 5:20

"But if thou give thanks when thou art in comfort and in affluence, in success and in prosperity, there is nothing great, nothing wonderful in that. What is required is, for a man to give thanks when he is in afflictions, in anguish, in discouragements. Utter no word in preference to this, 'Lord, I thank thee.' And why do I speak of the afflictions of this world? It is our duty to give God thanks, even for hell itself, for the torments and punishments of the next world. For surely it is a thing beneficial to those who attend to it, when the dread of hell is laid like a bridle on our hearts. Let us therefore give thanks not only for blessings which we see, but also for those which we see not, and for those which we receive against our will. For many are the blessings He bestows upon us, without our desire, without our knowledge. And if ye believe me not, I will at once proceed to make the case clear to you. For consider, I pray, do not the impious and unbelieving Gentiles ascribe everything to the sun and to their idols? But what then? Doth He not bestow blessings even upon them? Is it not the work of His providence, that they both have life, and health, and children, and the like? And again they that are called Marcionites, and the Manichees, do they not even blaspheme Him? But what then? Does He not bestow blessings on them every day? Now if He bestows blessings on them that know them not, much more does he bestow them upon us. For what else is the peculiar work of God if it be not this, to do good to all mankind, alike by chastisements and by enjoyments? Let us not then give thanks only when we are in prosperity, for there is nothing great in this. And this the devil also well knows, and therefore he said, 'Doth Job fear God for nought? Hast Thou not made an hedge about him and about all that he hath on every side? Touch all that he hath; no doubt, he will renounce Thee to Thy face!' (Job i. 10, 11) However, that cursed one gained no advantage; and God forbid he should gain any advantage of us either; but whenever we are either in penury, or in sicknesses, or in disasters, then let us increase our thanksgiving; thanksgiving, I mean, not in words, nor in tongue, but in deeds and works, in mind and in heart. Let us give thanks unto Him with all our souls. For He loves us more than our parents; and wide as is the difference between evil and goodness, so great is the difference between the love of God and that of our fathers." (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Ephesians, 19)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Conclusion to Glenn Miller's Series

Glenn Miller has posted the final part of his series on Christmas.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A Few Links

A television show on the miracles of Jesus will be airing on Christmas day in England. The difference between this show and the ones we're used to seeing in this nation during the Christmas season is that this show features some magicians imitating the miracles of Jesus. I'm looking forward to seeing what prophecies they fulfill, and the segment where they kill the magicians and let them try to rise from the dead should be good. I assume they won't be using any props when they do things like feeding five thousand people, since Jesus didn't have magician props.

And here's an unusual story.

There are some good opinion pieces on intelligent design in the Seattle Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Selective Recognition of Intelligent Design

I recommend reading this entry on William Dembski's blog. This attempt to communicate with extraterrestrials should be added to archeology, forensic science, and other fields where scientists acknowledge their ability to detect intelligent design. They can't reject the application of the same reasoning to a field such as biology just because God seems to be the best candidate for filling the role of the intelligent agent. If you go to the NASA page the article links to, you'll notice that the well known evolutionist Carl Sagan was involved.

It Shouldn't Even be Close

Read this story and think about the claims we hear so often from political and religious liberals about how concerned they are for the poor and how materialistic conservatives allegedly are. For example, I came across an editorial this morning in The Daily of the University of Washington-Seattle. The author, Sarah Carr, in addition to many other unsupported claims about conservative Christians, writes:

"The Gospels were not written about a selfish man who helped the rich and forgot the poor."

Supposedly, then, conservative Christians often "forget the poor". That's not my experience with conservative Christians, and I've been in contact with a lot of them. And the Associated Press story linked above doesn't suggest it either.

The Associated Press report tells us that some people dispute the methods of the study that finds the Bible Belt more generous than New England. The report also mentions another study by Indiana University that shows New England as below average and more secular in some ways in its charitable giving.

I don't know which numbers are most reliable and what all of the implications are. But if the claims we hear so often from political and religious liberals were true, the numbers in the blue and red states shouldn't even be close. The blue states should be far ahead. Instead of trying to find studies that show the blue states less far behind or show the blue states even or a little ahead, they should easily be able to find study after study that shows the blue states far ahead. Unless the liberal rhetoric is far from reality.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Some Were Unorthodox, But the Founders Weren't Secularist Liberals

I haven't yet read this book, which apparently just came out, but I think there's some worth to its objective:

"James Hutson, longtime chief of the Library of Congress manuscript division, said he edited the book to counter some conservatives' misleading citations of the founders [of America]. Not that Hutson found them to be irreligious. All were immersed in the Bible and pondered religious questions, and many were notably orthodox."

Religious conservatives do often distort the Christian nature of America's background, and I've repeatedly seen examples of false or unverified quotes circulating in Christian circles. Overall, America's background is largely Christian, and today's religious right is closer to the truth on church/state issues than today's secular left. We as Christians should be teachable and correctable, however, and all of us should be careful in what we believe and claim about American history.

As an example of the sort of religious proclamation Ostling refers to, see this 1799 proclamation from President John Adams for a day of fasting, prayer, and thanksgiving. It mentions Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Divine inspiration of the Bible. Whatever doctrinal errors Adams held, and whatever else he may have disagreed with today's religious conservatives about, his sentiments in this proclamation are far closer to the religious right than the secular left.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Vague Complainers and the Burden of Proof

Steve Hays recently wrote an article on his Triablogue in response to an article by Tim Enloe. Steve asks a question that I think a lot of us have been asking, namely what view of the Bible Tim Enloe holds. A lot of critics of the Chicago view of Biblical inerrancy make disparaging comments about that view without specifying what view they hold.

Similarly, Tim criticizes Evangelicals for adhering to a "'Grammar Alone' method of hermeneutics", but I have yet to see him sufficiently explain and defend his alternative. This past summer, in a discussion on Greg Krehbiel's board, I explained to Tim how I would approach a Biblical passage like Galatians 3. He said that he agreed with the principles I described. But he suggested that we shouldn't limit ourselves to the grammatical-historical approach I outlined. He referred to allegorical interpretations of scripture that had been popular in earlier generations of church history. When I asked Tim how he knows which allegorical interpretations to accept and which to reject, he said that he might respond to me if he had time to respond later. As far as I know, he never responded.

There's no significant difference that I'm aware of between my approach to Galatians 3 and the approach taken by somebody like Eric Svendsen, James White, David King, or Steve Hays. If this "Grammar Alone" method Tim is criticizing is faulty only because it limits itself to the grammatical-historical method and therefore doesn't include other factors, then why doesn't Tim tell us more about what those other factors are and why we should include them?

Tim Enloe's article is what led me to write this article, but Tim isn't the only person I'm addressing. I've noticed other critics of Evangelicalism making comments along the same lines. We see Biblical inerrancy criticized without much specificity about the alternative we're supposed to replace it with. We see criticisms of the grammatical-historical method of interpretation that tell us we shouldn't limit ourselves to that method, but don't give us any justification for another method. We see appeals to what was believed by historical majorities, yet those same people appealing to such majorities are themselves sometimes disagreeing with what the majority has believed (see here for some examples). We're never given a coherent, verifiable standard by which to arrive at the conclusion that their majorities are correct, whereas the majorities they disagree with aren't.

There are a lot of critics of Evangelicalism who need to start living up to the burden of proof they carry. It's not our responsibility to guess at our opponents' undisclosed opinions or to prove a universal negative. If you want to argue that the Bible is wrong on some scientific or historical issues, for example, without being wrong elsewhere, then give us the specifics and tell us how you know what's reliable and what isn't. Similarly, if we're to follow an allegorical method of Biblical interpretation, then tell us the specifics of it. Tell us how you know which of the many contradictory allegorical interpretations of the past to accept, for example. And tell us how you determine when to follow majorities and when not to.

I think that a lot of these people don't get into more specifics because they know that they wouldn't be able to defend more specifics. They dislike some elements of Evangelicalism, but they don't know of a way to refute those elements, so they just complain without justifying the complaint. Other people with a similar opposition to Evangelicalism and a similar lack of evidence will join the chorus, but what about people who are more interested in being reasonable? What do they do to reach beyond an audience of vague complainers? Or are they satisfied with that audience?

From the Chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education

Here's an article worth reading, written by Steve Abrams, the chairman of the Kansas State Board of Education.

Friday, November 18, 2005

More Flailing at Intelligent Design

I think that events like this one tell us something about the worldview and motives of a lot of the people who oppose intelligent design.

George Will and Charles Krauthammer continue to write bad opinion pieces on intelligent design, with a mixture of false and misleading claims. You have to wonder how they know that what happened in the Dover election allegedly is an indication of what's ahead, some sort of warning that we should heed, whereas the advances made by intelligent design in other places aren't. For a more realistic view of what happened in Kansas and a more realistic view of the scientific status of evolutionary theory, see Jonathan Wells' comments here and here.

"They Find Profundity in Admitting Their Confusion"

You would almost think that this story is a parody.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Eclipse of Inspiration

Flipping through John Nolland’s new commentary on Matthew today reminded me once again of something I’ve observed in a lot of contemporary “Evangelical” scholarship. Nowadays, many Evangelicals will make allowance for “minor” errors in the record of Scripture while defending its “basic” historicity or “reliability.”

Let’s call this the Neoevangelical view of Scripture. And we need to be clear on what this amounts to. Neoevangelicals have simply ditched the doctrine of inspiration. This never figures in their deliberations. They may allow for a supernatural element in the events recorded, but not in record of the events.

So the only difference between the liberal and the Neoevangelical is that the Neoevangelical regards the Bible as historical, but uninspired—while the liberal regards the Bible as both uninspired and unhistorical.

The Neoevangelical approaches the Bible in the same way he’d approach Tacitus or Josephus. The Bible writers are to be treated as serious historians who are faithful to their sources. Nevertheless, like any uninspired historian, they are fallible. Although they’re generally reliable, they make honest mistakes.

I’m not aware that there’s has been any conscious attempt to deny the doctrine of inspiration. It seems, rather, to have dropped out of sight due to the intellectual milieu in which Neoevangelicals circulate.

What this means is that there is no longer any presuppositional difference between the liberal and the Neoevangelical in terms of the process of inscripturation—only the quality of the end-product.

Now, there is an apologetic strategy, popularized by J. W. Montgomery and his spiritual protégés, in which you bootstrap from the “basic reliability” of Scripture to inerrancy via Christology. But what I’m observing is not apologetic strategy.

It is possible that Neoevangelicals would cling to some theory of partial inspiration, but not only would this be illogical, I just don’t see it in evidence. The very idea of inspiration seems to be irrelevant to the way in which Neoevangelicals approach Scripture.

To the extent that they still affirm certain miraculous events in Scripture, what we end up with is a naturalistic doctrine of Scripture grafted onto a supernaturalistic philosophy of history. God still intervenes in history, but not in the historical record.

So they have an activist theology underwritten by a deistic Bibliology. And it is only a matter of time before this unstable compromise degenerates into a more consistent Deism or atheism.

A Couple of Links

Here's a recent story about religious trends in England.

And Glenn Miller has posted the latest segment in his series on Christmas.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The Path to Historical Shallowness

We're seeing stories like this one more and more, and it's not because there's any evidence to warrant this elevated view of Mary. We're told about James Lyon, an Episcopalian pastor, and his church:

"Lyon's church recites the rosary, a Mary-related devotional prayer, once a week, and for several years it has taken part in a group recitation of the rosary with members of St. Joseph Catholic Church on Devine Street."

And we get the usual vague, non sequitur justifications:

"'Mary is an intercessor for the people of God, a model of submission and obedience to the will of God for the whole Christian church,' Lyon said....Biega, who regularly uses the rosary as a means of devotion, thinks more Protestants are becoming interested in learning about Mary because she offers a symbol of what women can become through the love of God. 'What attracts women is the need to understand the significance of our mother Mary as the child who said yes to God.'"

Is Mary an example of some good things, including "what women can become through the love of God"? Yes, and it's true that Mary said yes to God. Do any of these things justify something like saying the Rosary, which includes praying to Mary? No.

People who are overly ecumenical and Roman Catholics looking for converts will commend what these Episcopalians are doing. But we're never given a justification for it. The Episcopalians who do this sort of thing aren't getting deeper into history. They're getting shallower. The earliest church fathers knew nothing of the Roman Catholic Mary. They denied that Mary was sinless, repeatedly discussed the subject of bodily assumptions (Enoch, Elijah, etc.) without mentioning Mary, identified the woman of Revelation 12 as an entity other than Mary, condemned prayers to the deceased, which would include Mary, condemned the veneration of images, which would include images of Mary, etc. If Episcopalians want to get even more historically shallow, one of the quickest ways they can do it is to follow Roman Catholicism's lead on Marian doctrine.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Paul Owen: Cross-burner

Paul Owen has penned yet another public attack on the doctrine of penal substitution—to follow up on his previous assault.

It is striking that, to my knowledge, none of his confreres in either the “Reformed” Catholic or Federal revisionist camp has deemed the doctrine of penal substitution sufficiently important to mount a pubic defense. Says a lot about the company he keeps. He can put a match to the cross of Christ while they simply yawn and turn the page. Remember that the next time you’re tempted to look to Tim Enloe or James Jordan or Doug Wilson or Peter Leithart or Andrew Sandlin for spiritual guidance.

Before commenting directly on his remarks, I’ll briefly summarize the Scriptural evidence for penal substitution. We’ll quickly see that the categories are interrelated.

Although there are verses which explicitly teach penal substitution (e.g. Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 2 Cor 5:21; 1 Pt 3:18; 1 Jn 3:4-5), it isn’t necessary to find this combination in a single prooftext. All you need is find the work of Christ separately described in both penal and vicarious terms, and then combine both truths to form the doctrine of penal substitution.

I. Penal

i) Divine wrath

a) The wrath of God is a pervasive theme in Scripture. By the reckoning of Leon Morris, it occurs over 585 times in the OT alone. It also occurs at strategic junctures in Matthew, Luke, John, Romans, Ephesians, Colossian, 1 Thessalonians, Hebrews, and Revelation.

The wrath in view is not mere anger, but moral outrage or righteous indignation in relation to sin. Although the Bible depicts the wrath of God in anthropopathetic terms (e.g., Isa 30:27-30), this is a colorful way of expressing a literal truth about God’s attitude towards sin. Divine wrath presupposes that sin is culpable or blameworthy.

As you’d expect, divine wrath is also associated with the judgment of God. Hence, the wrath of God has a punitive dimension. God will exact justice on sinners.

b) Wrath and propitiation are correlative. Even if the Bible had no separate term for propitiation, the concept would be implicit in the nature of salvation, for salvation would, of necessity, include deliverance from the wrath of God.

ii) Covenant

A covenant is a legal arrangement. Breach of covenant carries legal sanctions. Both the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant are expressions of contract law. The New Covenant is God’s law for the church.

iii) Sacrifice

Nowadays we ordinarily use sacrificial language as a figure of speech. But a sacrifice is literally putting to death a man or animal or propitiate the deity. In Scripture, a sacrifice is a sin-offering or guilt-offering. The penalty of sin is exacted on victim to secure a reprieve or pardon for the sinner.

This has its foundation in the Mosaic code. It underlies Isaiah 53. And the author of Hebrews makes systematic use of this framework to explicate the work of Christ.

iv) Sin

Sin is a forensic category. Sin is a violation of God’s law (1 Jn 3:4). The sinner contracts guilt as a result of sin. The sinner is liable to divine judgment for his sin.

v) Blood

In Scriptural usage, blood is generally a synonym for violent death. It is often used with reference to the OT sacrificial system, where the sacrificial animal is penalized in lieu of the sinner.

In the NT it is, of course, associated with the shed blood of Christ, as a synonym for his death upon the cross.

vi) Death

In Scripture, death is a penalty for sin (Gen 2:17; 3:19; Rom 5:12-21; 6:23; 1 Cor 15:21-22). If death is penal in character, then atonement must be penal in character.

vii) Hell.

Hell is a penalty for sin. If hell is penal in character, then atonement must be penal in character.

viii) Redemption

In OT usage, redemption can be either figurative (e.g. the Exodus, post-Exilic Restoration) or literal (e.g. manumission of indentured servants). The sense of the word can sometimes shade into the bare idea of deliverance.

More directly relevant to NT usage is where the offender must make restitution to avoid the death penalty (Exod 21:28-29; Num 35:31-32); likewise, where a sacrificial animal is offered in lieu of the firstborn son (Exod 13:2,13; 22:29-30; Lev 18:15; 19:20; Num 3:46,48,51). The firstborn Jewish male escapes the Plague of the Firstborn, unlike the firstborn Egyptian male, because his life is ransomed by an animal sacrifice.

The flip side of this provision is the avenger of blood who redeems the life of a kinsman by taking the life of his murderer (Exod 13:2,13; 34:19-20; Num 3:12; 35:19; Deut 15:19-20) in a vicarious life-for-life transaction.

In NT usage, the ransom price is the blood and/or death of Christ (e.g. Rom 3:24-25; Eph 1:7; Heb 9:12,15; 1 Pet 1:18).

In passages like Mk 10:45 (par. Mt 20:28), the case for substitution doesn’t turn on the mere meaning of a given preposition (Gr. anti, hyper). Rather, the vicarious dimension is evident both from the explicit statement of a one-to-many relation as well as the way in which the action actually plays out. Jesus, and Jesus alone, dies on the cross.

In addition, Christ redeems us from the curse of the law (Gal 3:13). His death is nothing less than a judicial execution.

ix) Reconciliation

Reconciliation presupposes a prior state of enmity.

x) Propitiation

a) In secular Greek, hiliaskomai means “to placate, propitiate, appease.” In Septuagintal usage, it is associated with the wrath and judgment of God. Although that association doesn’t define the word, it confirms the secular import.

b) In its NT occurrences (Rom 3:25; Heb 2:17; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10) it also denotes propitiation.

c) Again, even if the Bible had no term for propitiation, the idea would be implicit in the principle of divine wrath and sacrifice to appease the deity.

For standard word-studies on the meaning of hiliaskomai, cf. D. Hill, Greek Words & Hebrew Meanings (Cambridge 1967), chap. 2; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (Eerdmans 1983), 144-214; R. Nicole, “C. H. Dodd & the Doctrine of Propitiation,” Standing Forth (Mentor 2002), 343-85.

xi) Justification

Justification is a forensic category. The sinner is guilty, but acquitted on account of his Redeemer. The righteousness of Christ is imputed to the believer.

II. Substitutionary

i) Covenant

In the ANE, a king would enter into a treaty with another king. Each king acted as the official representative of his royal subjects. It is generally held that the genre of Mosaic covenant is literarily indebted to this legal form.

In divine covenants, a human being like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, acts as the official representative of his people. In the NT, this role is assumed by Christ, who acts on behalf of his people.

ii) Sacrifice

In a sacrificial system, the victim takes the place of the sinner. (e.g. Isa 53; Heb 9:26). This is signified by the imposition of hands, with its symbolic transfer of guilt from the sinner to the victim (Lev 1:4).

iii) Kinship

The OT category of redemption is related to the OT principle of kinship. For example, an indentured servant could be ransomed by a kinsman-redeemer (Lev 25:49; Deut 25:5-10). Likewise, next of kin could function as collateral (Gen 43:9; 44:32-33).

This underlies covenant theology. In a tribal society, the chieftain or patriarch would act on behalf of the clan. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David assume this role in the OT.

iv) Kingship

Kingship is an extension of kinship. The king was head over all the tribes.

v) Priesthood

A priest would act on behalf of the sinner. He would intercede for the people.

Already in Messianic prophecy we see the fusion of the royal and priestly office in one incumbent (Ps 110:1-4; Zech 3:8-10; 6:9-15; 9:9-10).

vi) Redemption

In the OT avenger of blood we have a vicarious life-for-life transaction as the avenger takes the life of the murderer to atone for the life of the victim.

Using the classic Exodus paradigm, Isaiah says that God paid a ransom for Israel, and the ransom-price was Egypt in exchange for Israel (Isa 43:3-4).

vii) Reconciliation

Reconciliation is not inherently vicarious. However, the NT describes the reconciliation effected by Christ in vicarious terms of a one-for-many exchange (2 Cor 5:14-15,19-21).

Let us now consider Dr. Owen’s objections:
“My rejection of the propitiation model, and penal substitution (as it is commonly understood), is not a new development. These are views I have rejected since my graduate school days (mid 90’s). They are not indications of some alarming new shift in my theological compass.”

Whoever said that Dr. Owen’s view marks an alarming new shift in his theological compass? His heterodoxy is more indicative of an abortive conversion process. He never made a complete transition from Mormonism to Evangelicalism—much less Calvinism. This accounts for his eclectic and eccentric theology. You can take Owen out of the cult, but you can’t take the cult out of Owen.

What he’s been doing all along is a softening up exercise. He started out sounding nominally Evangelical to lower the guard of the gullible and unsuspecting. But as time goes he slowly unveils his hidden agenda. Having suckered and snookered the easily deceived with the tar-water of his cure-all catholicity, he shows his true colors.

“2. I do not reject propitiation because I do not believe in the wrath of God. My primary reasons for rejecting it are:
i)The OT nowhere associates the slaughter of animal sacrifices with the appeasement of God’s anger toward sinners. Since Jesus’ death is plainly to be seen as the anti-type of those sacrifices, I see no reason to link his death with the appeasement of God’s wrath either.”

i) In my brief summary of the Biblical evidence, I have argued otherwise.

ii) But even if what Dr. Owen says here were true, penal substitution is a broader category than propitiation. You don’t require an explicit link between sacrifice and propitiation to establish the penal character of the atonement.

iii) Since, to judge by his double negative, Dr. Owen does admit to the wrath of God, how can he affirm the wrath of God in the very same breath as he denies the propitiatory character of the atonement? Wrath and propitiation are correlative.

“2) I do not believe it to be consistent with eternal election and limited atonement. God’s election of sinners indicates an already present love for them, and a willingness to forgive them. The death of Jesus therefore cannot be understood as causing or effecting God’s benevolent disposition towards them by appeasing his wrath. Christ’s death does not cause God to be willing to forgive those whom he has already determined in his decree to forgive.”

This is a fallacious objection. All you have to say is that apart from penal substitution, God’s wrath would terminate on every human being. The elect are deserving of judgment, deserving of hell. Were it not for penal substitution, they would be objects of God’s wrath, like the rest of mankind. This is a necessary precondition of the atonement.

“3. The expiation model which I hold to does agree that Christ’s death delivers us from destruction. But the logic is different. Christ’s death is not designed to satisfy the offended honor of God, nor his punitive justice. The eternal punishment of the unrepentant will do that. Rather, the death of Christ is designed to satisfy: a) God’s holiness (through expiation); and b) God’s demand for righteousness in his creature (through Christ’s obedience). Now it is true that it would be out of character for God (and in that sense unjust) to allow sin to abide in his blessed presence. So in order to maintain his holiness, God must do one of two things: a) destroy the sinner; or b) destroy the sin (understanding sin as an offensive stain). He can either propitiate his wrath, or allow a substitute to offer an expiating sacrifice. He can either punish or pardon. Christ’s death is the means of granting pardon, in such a way as to satisfy the demands of God’s holiness (which cannot abide the presence of sin).”

This is exceptionally confused.

i) Appealing to expiation only pushes the issue back a step. What need is there for expiation unless sin is offensive to God?

ii) Expiation is just a placeholder. It fails to explain how atonement is made. Hence, it is no an alternative to penal substitution.

iii) Eternal punishment may satisfy the justice of God with respect to the reprobate, but that hardly explains how the elect are able to escape the judgment of God.

iv) Notice the false antithesis: God can “either punish or pardon, propitiate his rather, or allow a substitute to offer an expiating sacrifice.”

Somehow it never connects with Dr. Owen’s furry brain that God pardons the sinner by means of exacting retributive justice on the sin-bearer. Otherwise, there is nothing to underwrite the pardon. Like a voucher, the pardon must be redeemed. It has to have something to back it up.

How would the death of Christ satisfy the claims of divine holiness unless the death of Christ were the very retribution which divine justice demands?

“4. So it is true that Christ dies instead of us (since we would be destroyed if we were not pardoned through his blood). It is also true that Christ dies the death that we deserve. However, he dies our death, not to satisfy God’s punitive justice, but to take away our sin, so that we need not die. The penal substitution model sees the wrath of God being poured out on Jesus so as to satisfy the demand for a just punishment of the pardoned sinner. Inevitably, in effect, this takes the emphasis off of the physical death of Jesus, and places it upon some supposed outpouring of God’s anger upon Christ on the cross as the unfortunate substitute. This leads to the erroneous idea that God killed Jesus on the cross instead of us.”

i) As an aside, notice how Dr. Owen constantly talks about the sinner being “destroyed.” Is he an annihilationist?

ii) Back to the main point, observe what a remarkably illogical mind Dr. Owen possesses. He begins by admitting that Christ dies instead of us, dies the death we deserve, dies our death. But then he ends by speaking of “the erroneous idea that God killed Jesus on the cross instead of us.”

“It is very important to distinguish between Jesus being punished in our place so that we do not have to be punished, and Jesus dying in the place of our sin so that we do not have to die.”

i) Dr. Owen is doing far more than drawing a distinction. He is driving a wedge between the two.

ii) Why is this a very important distinction, anyway? Death is a penal sanction for sin.

iii) Strictly speaking, Christ doesn’t die for sin. This is just a shorthand expression for the fact that Christ dies for sinners. There is no collective reservoir of anonymous sin for which Christ dies.

Sin is not some nameless, free-floating hypostatic entity. There is the sin of Adam as well as the sin of his posterity. Christ doesn’t die for sin: Christ dies for (elect) sinners, and he dies to atone for their sin and the sin of Adam imputed to them.

“One model emphasizes the punitive justice of God (an extra-biblical concern), and the other model emphasizes the purity and holiness of God (a biblical concern).”

He can only say that God’s punitive justice is an extra-biblical concern in defiance of literally hundreds of Biblical verses to the contrary. This may be good Mormon theology, but Biblical it isn’t.

“5. To illustrate: The penal substitution model sees God bringing down his celestial hammer to smash the guilty sinner. But at the last moment, Jesus steps into our place and takes the blow upon himself. God does not care that the one who got smashed was in fact innocent; just so long as he smashed somebody. Jesus was smashed just as if he had been guilty of the crime. Since God’s wrath is now spent, he does not feel the need to lift the hammer again and smash us. So we escape punishment.”

This is an amazingly obtuse statement coming from someone who claims to be a Calvinist and adherent of the Westminster Confession.

i) No Calvinist sees Jesus as stepping in at the last moment. Jesus dies for the elect. That was the deal all along. Those whom the Father chose, the Son redeemed, and the Spirit renews.

ii) God doesn’t care who got smashed as long as someone got smashed? So Jesus just happened to be at the wrong place and the wrong time? Is Dr. Owen really so dense that this is his conception of penal substitution?

iii) God doesn’t care that the one who got smashed was in fact innocent? What a perverse way of putting it, as if God were indifferent to the innocence of the sin-bearer, as if, what is more, this were a miscarriage of justice.

It should be unnecessary to point out that the innocence of the sin-bearer is a presupposition of the atonement. To turn this around as though it were incidental at best, and unjust at worse, misses the whole point—and no minor point at that.

iv) Jesus was smashed just as if he’d been guilty of a crime? See how Dr. Owen poses this statement as something objectionable, something to be rejected out of hand. You’d think the Calvinist made this up whole cloth. You never know that it comes straight from the pages of Scripture.

Yes, that’s exactly what the Father did: to punish his Son just as if he’d been guilty of the crime. You get that from reading the Bible.

What it comes down to is the old rationalistic objection to penal substitution and vicarious atonement. It’s so unfair! Is downright immoral!

At this point it’s no longer a question of defending “whether” the Bible teaches penal substitution, but defending “what” the Bible teaches about penal substitution.

For a Bible-believing Christian, our point of departure is what God has actually said and done. But the rationalist has to begin and end with his intuitions. And his intuitions are culturally-conditioned.

So, I’ll now shift from exegetics to apologetics. As I’ve already noted, penal substitution takes certain things for granted, like kinship and sacrifice.

Many contemporary westerners have lost their sense of kinship. When we think of a family, we think of a nuclear family at best, and a broken family at worst. And family members typically live hundreds or thousands of miles apart. This has resulted in the felt loss of kinship that comes of village life, extended families, tribes, elders, and chieftains. And we haven’t really put it all behind us, for this fragmentation and diminution of family life has taken an emotional toll.

In Bible times, it would seem perfectly natural for a king or kinsman to act on behalf of his people—taking their place, if need be. That was a socially accepted and expected role for them to play.

And remnants of this instinctual bonding linger on. Let’s say that Peter and Paul are friends, while Paul and John are friends, but Peter and John are not friends. They’re not enemies, just not friends.

One day, Peter does something to offend John. He would like to patch things up with John, but he doesn’t dare approach him. So he prevails on their mutual friend Paul to intercede.

The assumption here is that John will forgive Peter as a favor to Paul. Peter has done nothing to deserve this. Paul is deserving, but Paul wasn’t the offender.

Now, if you wanted to be contrarian, you could object that favoritism is unfair, even immoral. And if you took that position you wouldn’t have any friends left because favoritism and friendship are correlative. Friends do favors for each other. That’s the essence of friendship.

I use this simple illustration for its universal appeal. Maybe we find penal substitution repugnant, but if we think it about it, we all operate with very similar honor-code.

To take another example, Christian children naturally relate to the idea that Christ died for their sins. Indeed, they’re more receptive to that precious truth than are many adults. It’s only when some folks grow up that they become very self-conscious, inhibited, and easily embarrassed by their “childish” beliefs. They lose their natural spontaneity and become red-faced at what they used to believe. Instead of difficult things becoming easier to understand, easy things become more difficult.

Which brings us to another point. Every culture is a shame-culture. We may pretend that this is irrational. That I shouldn’t feel ashamed of what my close associates do. But we feel it all the same.

Sacrifice is another cultural universal. If this were so counterintuitive, why is it so ubiquitous?

Nor is this just a thing of the past, or backward regions of the globe. The only difference is that we’ve learned to disguise it or put a nice name on it. We still wage war. Murder one another. Revel in abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia. Indulge in high-risk behavior. Watch violent movies and play violent video games.

Contact sport is a domesticated form of warfare. So is hunting.

All we’ve done is to sublimate the sacrificial instinct. Bloodletting by another name.

“On the cross, Jesus was not paying the price to satisfy the punitive justice and anger of God; rather, by means of sacrificial love, he performed an act of sacrificial obedience which so pleased and moved the heart of God, that the offensive stain of our sin was destroyed.”

So the Father bloodied and brutalized his own Son, not because it was necessary to discharge a judicial debt, but to give his boy a chance to impress the old man—something like that? This is Dr. Owen’s preferred theory of the atonement?