Review: The Living Word of God by Ben Witherington III

bwiii_livingword_coverBen Witherington III, The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible
Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007. 263 pages.

I approached Ben Witherington’s latest book with great anticipation because of the subtitle’s promise to “rethink the theology of the Bible” (my thanks to Baylor University Press for sending me a review copy). Moving beyond older formulations and engaging the many challenges to those formulations is desperately needed in Evangelical thought.

W is a capable and engaging scholar, and I was expecting from him nothing less than a penetrating analysis of the current predicament, a fresh contribution to a timely and difficult issue. Although there are certainly some worthwhile things about the book, it does not, however, deliver on its promise to rethink the theology of Scripture in fresh ways. Instead, on the whole it is a rehearsal of a fairly traditional articulation of Evangelical notions of inspiration and authority.

Is Anything Really Being Rethought?

Along with the subtitle’s promise to rethink the theology of the Bible, the introduction lays out W’s intention to address this topic in a novel way. It is with the following quote, however, that I began to suspect that perhaps W may not come through as promised.

Oddly,[sic] enough, most discussions about God’s word do not actually involve a careful investigation of what the Bible has to say about itself, nor is the theory of inspiration usually promulgated based on an investigation of what is actually going on in the various texts within the canon. In this study I wish to ask, wouldn’t it be better to take an inductive approach to this subject and actually examine biblical texts in all their historical contexts, and then draw some conclusions about our theories of inspiration, authority, canon, and our theology of the Bible as God’s word? Wouldn’t it be better to say that the text of the NT as originally given is what inspiration actually looks like? Wouldn’t it be better to assess the nature of the NT’s truth claims after delving in depth into a close study of the meaning of various relevant texts, asking how they work and what sorts of information they are trying to convey (xiv-xv).

W’s claim to read the Bible in its original settings in order to assess more accurately the Bible’s own claims about its character is fine, but this hardly constitutes a fresh approach, and for W to present it as such is puzzling.

Perhaps what we read here is a rhetorical flash to help sell books, I’m not sure, but I would think someone of W’s academic experience would actually be dismissive of such rhetoric. Surely this is an overstatement and leaves unstated what exactly “most discussions” have been doing, although, apparently, they have not done well in reading the Bible in context nor paying attention to some key verses that (allegedly) speak to its character. (Note, too, that, although W mentions the canon early in the quote, his entire focus in this paragraph is on the NT, a factor that I feel hampers the volume on several occasions—more below.)

In the chapters to follow, rather than finding a fresh assessments of biblical evidence and heretofore unexplored inductive studies of what Scripture actually says, the reader is guided through some more or less commonly covered topics, such as: an extended exposition of 2 Tim 3:16-17 (that Paul is making an objective truth claim about the nature of Scripture); an extended discussion of what “Word of God” means in its various dimensions (oral, incarnate Christ, and Scripture); 2 Peter 1:19-21 demonstrates the importance of the Spirit’s role in interpreting Scripture, and therefore apostolic teaching has precedence over experience.

Further, W walks his readers through a discussion of such things as canon formation (restricted to the NT), picking a Bible translation, the meaning of sola scriptura, and what I think is a unfortunately predictable discussion of biblical interpretation in a postmodern world and among the emergent church movement, both of which, he asserts, are “antithetical to many of the truth claims, and indeed the whole notion of perspicuous revelation from God, which undergirds the presentation of salvation history and the good news of the Bible” (174-75).

Still, I found much of this quite helpful in the limited sense of rearticulating from W’s point of view some common topics. There is value in such things, and it is nice to see how W presents his views. But this does not constitute a rethinking of the theology of the Bible. Moreover, the chapter selections began to feel a bit disjointed rather than contributing to a coherent exposition of W’s theology. Some of his observations are interesting, but it is not clear to me how the stated purpose of the book is thus served.

“Truth” and “Unity”

There is a conceptual shortcoming that pervades the entire volume. Clearly central to W’s understanding of the nature of Scripture is that the Bible’s “truth claims” (or similar phrases) must be taken seriously, and that, being ultimately authored by God, the Bible constitutes a theological unity that must ultimately override its diversity.

The difficulty I have here is that W does not explain or argue this point but leaves it on the level of theological assertion. W leaves unexamined what precisely “truth” and “unity” mean, or better, how these concepts are to be articulated based on how the Bible itself—W’s claimed source of information—behaves. It bears repeating—for this is a problem that recurs among some Evangelical writers—that concepts like “truth” “truth telling” “truth claim” need to be understood contextually, just like everything else in the Bible, rather than importing, let us call it, a somewhat rationalistic understanding of these terms.

Further, to claim that the Bible must present a theological unity of some sort (because it is ultimately authored by God) is wonderful, provided one can give an adequate accounting for why the Bible is in fact so un-unified in its contents—which is what I was hoping a book aimed at articulating a fresh theology of the Bible would do. This is the very sort of thing I tried to articulate in I&I by appealing to an incarnational model of Scripture, where the clear lack of “unity” in the Bible is not a problem to be overcome by repeated theological assertions to the contrary, but an issue to be embraced as having positive theological value for how we articulate a theology of the Bible.

I should add at this point that, at various junctures in the book, W seems as exercised as I am about a failure to let the Bible dictate the terms of engagement. I think W is at his best in such moments. My point is that such vigorous re-engagement holds for such concepts as the nature of truth and unity, i.e., defining such terms in a way that the Bible can actually support. By failing to take this step, W is simply repeating the error of assuming the semantic content of “truth” and “unity” when speaking of Scripture, and then using these powerful, galvanizing, terms to cut off what for me would truly be a fresh articulation of the theology of the Bible, which would be to explain “why does our Bible look this way?” What is needed in Evangelical theology is a deliberate movement beyond mere theological re-assertion and enlisting of worn proof texts (like 2 Tim 3:16-17) toward a more synthetic engagement of the challenging phenomena of Scripture if one hopes to add a fresh voice to an important conversation.

Inspiration and Incarnation

I suppose I should comment on W’s criticism’s of I&I, although this does not constitute the heart of his book. W shows some appreciation for what I am doing in I&I (for example, chapters 2 and 5 are introduced with quotes). His treatment of I&I in chapter three, however, (“The Ends of Enns: The Danger of an Analogy”) was disappointing on two levels. It is not a concern of mine that W would be critical of the model I present in I&I. Rather, I do not think W understands what an incarnational approach is meant to do, nor do I think he appreciates the theological problems caused by our very own Scripture—particularly the OT—that an incarnational model is aimed at addressing. Perhaps it is a failure to engage the latter that leads to a misunderstaning of the former.

On the latter point, it is surely an inadequacy, not only of his critique of I&I but of the book as a whole, that W focuses throughout almost entirely on the NT, and thus fails to address the myriad problems with inspiration, etc., that the OT brings to the picture.

To be sure, W cites the OT here and there, but only incidentally. His only real engagement of the OT comes in the chapter aimed at I&I by picking up two threads of my own argument—the diversity of the 10 Commandments and the henotheistic language of the Psalms—to which he offers only brief and superficial observations.

W’s brushing aside of the situationally determined diversity of 10 Commandments (namely the 4th commandment) as simply a matter of “unity of commandment but diversity of its application, motivation, and implication” (42) is hardly a solution but a restatement of the problem. His confidence in asserting that the henotheistic passages in the Psalms are merely poetical and apologetical, and to base that assertion on 1 Cor 8:5-6 (43), is to sweep aside commonly agreed upon notions of the development of Israelite thought, and so will satisfy few who are looking to W to give a more thorough accounting of the data.

To functionally leave the OT out of a discussion of a fresh theology of the Bible amounts to a failure to assess the depth of the theological problem introduced by Scripture itself. This is the very issue that I&I aims to address and what is urgently needed for Evangelicals and other readers of Scripture. The well-known challenges to the OT, rising from not only the modern study of Scripture but scientific research, are not going away, and the problem cannot be ignored. I do not expect W to have treated these issues fully, but some substantive acknowledgement of how the OT affects a theology of Scripture seems like a reasonable request.

A related matter, the relationship between the testaments, so central to addressing the announced topic of the book, is given at best several passing comments. I remain convinced, however, that a proper accounting of how the NT authors use the OT is a pressing hermeneutical issue with clear doctrinal implications, and no discussion of a theology of the Bible is remotely complete without it.

But W’s brief engagement of the NT use of the OT issue (46-47) ignores the very real hermeneutical challenges of this phenomenon by reducing it to a theological matter: Scripture is a unified body of truth and how one handles the NT’s use of the OT is expected to reflect those foundational assertions. Hence, the fact that the NT writers employ a Christological hermeneutic “does not by any means allows us to gloss over the fact that the OT is also making a number of truth claims on its own and raises on its own the issue of what sort of truth, and what is the relationship between of diversity and unity on the test itself” (46). Rather, I would challenge W to allow the NT’s Christological hermeneutic to affect how he frames the issue at the outset.

W also mischaracterizes the hermeneutical issue when he says, for example, that Christians today cannot follow the hermeneutics of the NT authors since Christians today are not inspired and we “should not pretend to be their equals” (47). I confess such an assertion may be persuasive to some, but it does not do justice to the complexity of the hermeneutical conundrum posed by the NT’s use of the OT.

As for an incarnational model itself, it is not “dangerous” (as the chapter title instructs us). It is rather a very traditional model of Scripture, one that I employ in an effort to give concrete account for such things as the ANE and Second Temple settings of Scripture, as well as the theological diversity of Scripture that is a product of these varied historical contexts.

The incarnation is a metaphor to give some theological account for why the Bible looks the way it does. It is a way of bringing Christian theology and biblical scholarship into conversation with each other.

It is not a dangerous, foreign, imposition upon an otherwise problem-free text. It is a theological category that allows us to face problematic biblical phenomena with theological coherence, energy, and integrity.

W is free to approach these issues in different ways, of course, but that would also require far more attention on his part to the nagging details of the Bible. To be sure, W understands that historical setting challenges our theology, that Scripture displays some theological diversity, etc. W’s Bible is not problem-free by any means. Still, at least in this book, W is content to lay out a theology of the Bible without addressing the very issues that have rendered traditional articulations so problematic—articulations which W seems content to repeat. He has not allowed the depth of these problems—which are the very causes of the unrest that W is supposedly addressing—to affect his own theological discourse on Scripture.

Concluding Comments

There are numerous positive aspects of the book. It is clear (for those who have not read W before), that he is anything but a knee-jerk Fundamentalist. He is adamant, for example, in asserting (although not in executing) that exegesis should challenge theological preconceptions. W also wants to resist easy answers. For example, W has no patience for the easy harmonization of the temple cleansing episodes in the Gospels (an example I also use in I&I), which says that Jesus simply must have cleansed the temple twice because the episode is mentioned in chapter 2 of John but during Passion Week in the Synoptic Gospels (xv-xvi). Elsewhere he implies that we have to move beyond earlier articulations, however helpful they might have been at one time (he mentions Warfield specifically, xvii-xviii). These are promising statements that no doubt reflect where W is on some level, or perhaps sees himself. I would have liked more consistent application of this spirit throughout the book.

I am, I think it is clear, largely disappointed with the book. Perhaps if W’s promises were no so inflated at the outset I would have read this volume with a very different set of expectations—perhaps not as a fresh corrective but as the latest iteration of standard Evangelical introductory issues. There are, to be sure, some interesting twists and turns thrown in, all written with a certain flare, but on the whole I did not come away thinking that I have just read a book that contributes to a fresh rethinking of the theology of the Bible.

I am chiefly disappointed because I feel Evangelical readers, many of whom are really struggling with ways to articulate a theology of the Bible that is thoroughly conversant with the many challenges such articulations face in the contemporary world, need much more than what W provides. W’s efforts here will not enter into a much larger (and more crucial and interesting) debate over the viability of any biblically attentive Christian faith. However relevant W’s book might be to those engaged in older conversations, in my opinion it will be of little to no help to those with a much broader universe of discourse and therefore in need of truly fresh articulations of the theology of the Bible.

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