The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism

Ben Witherington III Baylor University Press, Waco, TX October 1, 2005
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In this book Witherington, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, calls evangelicals back to a theological method that is more biblical and exegetical. The problem with evangelical theology, he suggests, is “its insufficient grounding in the Bible, particularly the New Testament” (p. 255). “Evangelicalism has lost touch with its Reformation principles and in particular with its necessary attention to the details of the Bible and the need to stick to the text and heed the cry ‘sola Scriptura’ and its corollary ‘semper reformanda’ ” (p. xi).

The reader is introduced to Witherington’s concerns about insufficient attention to Scripture through three examples. The phenomenal success of Rick Warren’s books The Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Church is evidence of a “radically individualistic Calvinism” (p. x). The Left Behind series is representative of “a Dispensationalism that is miles away from the intent of Jesus, Paul, and John of Patmos when it comes to understanding and using biblical prophecy, and in particular apocalyptic prophecy” (p. x). “This whole approach to prophecy ignores the most important principle of interpretation that the Reformers insisted on—namely, sticking to the plain, originally intended, sense of the text” (p. x). He also asserts that “at least one-third of” Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ “is found nowhere in the Bible, and indeed at various points it introduces some unsettling and even unbiblical notions” (p. xi).

Witherington’s “overture” then concludes, “These three examples illustrate very well the ethos of Evangelicalism at this juncture in regard to the matter of concern for this study” (p. xi). It seems that the author’s purpose in these opening comments is to provide illustrations of the problem addressed in his book. He asserts that “the problem with Evangelical theology at this juncture is that it is not nearly biblical enough” (xi). It is odd, therefore, to read near the end of the book: “I cannot stress enough that we should not be doing theology in reaction to anything” (p. 249). But was not this book written as a reaction to a problem in evangelical theology?

The book’s first part, “Augustine’s Children: The Problems with Reformed Theology,” critiques the “Augustinian-Lutheran-Calvinist juggernaut” (p. 3).

In part two, “On Dispensing with Dispensationalism,” Witherington begins with claims that are unsubstantiated and caricatured. “Unlike the case with Calvinism, the Dispensational approach to the Bible did not arise after profound study of the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures or detailed scholarly exegesis of the text. It was a system that apparently arose in response to a vision” (p. 93). He continues, “More recently, it has often been wed with the all-too-American gospel of success and wealth” (p. 93). He does give credit to John Darby for avoiding the tendency of others later in Darby’s tradition to set dates for the fulfillment of end-times events, but then says that “what he [Darby] did instead was to invent ‘dispensations’ ” (p. 95). Dispensationalists and other evangelical exegetes will find this last claim ironic in a book that criticizes evangelicals for inaccurate and inadequate use of the Scriptures. Dispensationalists affirm not that Darby invented dispensations (nor even dispensationalism) but rather that biblical support for dispensationalism is in Ephesians 3 and elsewhere. Unfortunately Witherington does not interact with these biblical texts or dispensationalist readings of them.

The third part, “Mr. Wesley Heading West,” is Witherington’s criticism of his own Methodist heritage. The problem, as he sees it, is that “Evangelical Wesleyans tend to be even less biblically grounded or knowledgeable about their own tradition and more experiential in their orientation than other Evangelicals” (p. 171).

In part four, “The Long Journey Home—Where Do We Go from Here?” Witherington argues for an evangelical “renewal of the commitment to contextual study of the NT, including original language exegesis” and for a reconceptualizing of theology as picture and story (pp. 227–28). It is difficult to see how this chapter fits into the overall purpose of the book, since Witherington has devoted his attention to a critique of evangelical exegetical inadequacies but has not developed a New Testament theology conceptualized as story. Perhaps he intends to do this in a later volume.

Witherington understands that his book is provocative and controversial. Early on he warns the reader, “You may find one aspect or another of the critique too strident” (p. xi). Perhaps such a tone is necessary in a work like this. However, it is a bit disconcerting to read, “If I have not thoroughly confused or alienated my whole Evangelical audience by now, perhaps there can be patience for going one more furlong along the road that we are walking” (p. 227). Readers may be confused by this book for any number of reasons, one of which is that the author’s presentation lacks clarity. And readers may feel alienated by the fact that the author did not fairly and accurately represent the traditions he criticized. He seems to have intended to alienate his readers.

Witherington writes with much passion and conviction, but the tone and content of the book are intentionally polarizing. Readers who expect dialog and interaction with alternative positions will be disappointed.

—Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2007
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2007 vol. 164 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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