Limits of Knowledge, Brilliant Ben Witherington Comments

On his blog, Ben Witherington, a very helpful New Testament scholar (though weak on Israel issues, IMO), is commenting on an interview with John Piper. John Piper is pretty much THE voice of Calvinism in America today. Calvinism is a Christian theology strong on predestination, damnation, and depravity.

I have been blessed by some beautiful things Piper has written about the supremacy of God and desire as a spiritual path. And I have to say some of my Christian friends are Calvinists. But I find this theology to be not only sterile, but bleakly over-pessimistic.

The point of my including Ben Witherington’s comments below is not merely to critique Calvinism, but to critique a lot of Christian (especially evangelical) assumptions about knowledge and theological systems. We all need to be reminded of exactly what Witherington so eloquently describes here:

EXCERPT FROM http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/
John Piper explains Why Calvinists are so Negative

What he does not add, that could have been added, is that, for whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.

And all too often, the apparent intellectual coherency of a theological system is taken as absolute and compelling proof that this view of God, salvation,the world must be true and all others be heresy, to one degree or another. But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae. That includes Calvin’s very fine mind as reflected in his Theological Institutes. The real paradox about the God of Calvin is while Calvin does all in his power to stress the enormity and consequent sovereignty of a great God over all things, sadly but inevitably even his God is too small to encompass everything that is said about God in the Scriptures, even just everything that is said about soteriology in the Scriptures.

While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God so we could be certain God exists and form that body of knowledge into a self-sustaining fully coherent theological system with one idea leading to another idea, and so on (and now we can all sing a chorus of ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’). . .

Ben Witherington

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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3 Responses to Limits of Knowledge, Brilliant Ben Witherington Comments

  1. mchuey says:

    Calvinism is much more a philosophical ideology that has been superimposed onto the Scriptures, than something that probably has its roots in the Scriptures. Many of the “predestined” passages that Calvinists commonly point to in the Apostolic Scriptures deal more with the corporate calling of God’s people to His mission than individuals predestined to salvation. But no one can deny Calvin’s achievements, nor the contributions he made to early Reformation theology. He was one of the first to put together a systematic theology for the Reformation period.

    Calvinism does present a serious challenge, though, to exegeting the Epistle to the Romans. Romans scholarship is overwhelmingly dominated by the Reformed perspective.

    As an almost-Asbury alum (graduating this Fall), I can say from personal experience on campus talking to other students (and even faculty) that Witherington is a tough nut to crack sometimes. It is undeniable that he is a brilliant scholar, whether you agree with him or not (and I frequently do not), and that is perspective should be considered. But he is rather pessimistic toward Israel and the Tanach Scriptures in general, and believes in a definite difference between “the Law of Moses” and “the Law of Christ.” Witherington seems to be influenced more by the law/grace antithesis Lutheran theology than the Wesleyanism that he claims. When I conducted a Galatians study over a year ago, I got to point out too many instances where Witherington was a disloyal Wesleyan.

  2. mchuey says:

    Calvinism is much more a philosophical ideology that has been superimposed onto the Scriptures, than something that probably has its roots in the Scriptures. Many of the “predestined” passages that Calvinists commonly point to in the Apostolic Scriptures deal more with the corporate calling of God’s people to His mission than individuals predestined to salvation. But no one can deny Calvin’s achievements, nor the contributions he made to early Reformation theology. He was one of the first to put together a systematic theology for the Reformation period.

    Calvinism does present a serious challenge, though, to exegeting the Epistle to the Romans. Romans scholarship is overwhelmingly dominated by the Reformed perspective.

    As an almost-Asbury alum (graduating this Fall), I can say from personal experience on campus talking to other students (and even faculty) that Witherington is a tough nut to crack sometimes. It is undeniable that he is a brilliant scholar, whether you agree with him or not (and I frequently do not), and that is perspective should be considered. But he is rather pessimistic toward Israel and the Tanach Scriptures in general, and believes in a definite difference between “the Law of Moses” and “the Law of Christ.” Witherington seems to be influenced more by the law/grace antithesis Lutheran theology than the Wesleyanism that he claims. When I conducted a Galatians study over a year ago, I got to point out too many instances where Witherington was a disloyal Wesleyan.

    JKM

  3. Pingback: A Reader Comments on Calvinism « Messianic Jewish Musings

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