Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Book Review: The Living Word of God

My Christmas present to myself in 2007 was a new book by N.T. scholar Ben Witherington, The Living Word of God - Rethinking the Theology of the Bible. I started the book Monday morning, and literally could not go to bed until I had finished it late that night.

I grew up with a strong belief that the Bible was the word of God, and I am thankful for those who instilled reverence for Scripture in me. But with that conviction came certain assumptions about how the Bible was written, and what divine inspiration looked like in practical terms. I understood that the Bible was written by men, but I probably did not think of their contribution as consisting of much more than secretaries taking down dictation.

As I grew older, it became clear to me that the human element to the Bible was far more substantial than I had originally comprehended. Different authors had different styles of writing; different emphases in their content; different arrangement of material, and so on. This became especially clear the first time I studied the synoptic gospels in an academic fashion. And coming to the realization that the men who wrote the books of the Bible clearly contributed more than I had first imagined was troubling.

Of course, the problem was not with Scripture. It is clear that the Bible is both a divine and himan product; that different authors had different emphases (John 20:30-31 for instance), and the like. The problem was with my pre-conceived notions of how God should have inspired the text. And I fear that this sort of wooden fundamentalism is a danger to students of the Bible, because it can lead them to the same sorts of ill-conceived views about the Bible that God never intended.

The real issue is not whether there is a human element to Scripture. The real issue is, could God use men in such a way as to write books that were truthful. And of course as Witherington argues in the book, while the Bible never addresses how inspiration worked in all situations, it does very clearly teach that the end result was indeed the word of God - the living word of God.

A quick preview-

* Chapters 1 and 2 deal with what the Bible claims for itself in terms of its divine origin.
* Chapter 3 interacts with proposals made by another author that God accomodated Scripture in ways that Witherington believes (and I agree) undermines the truthfulness of Scripture.
* Chapter 4 discusses the different styles of literature found in Scripture (genres) and how to interpret each.
* Chapter 5 deals with alleged mistakes found in Scripture, and how recognizing the literary context of Scripture often dissolves these mistakes.
* Chapter 6 looks at the issue of the canon (I kept saying “AMEN” all through this chapter).
* Chapter 7 focuses on different translations.
* Chapter 8 deals with basic principles of interpretation and application (another home run chapter).
* Chapter 9 provides a critique of postmodernism and its allure to some interpreters.
* Finally, there is an appendix which contains several Q/A entries from beliefnet in which Witherington applies the principles he sets forth in this book to various questions has has dealt with on that website.

As with any author, I have some disagreements with Withering on certain specific points of theology (he is an egalitarian on women’s issues, for example). But I deeply appreciated the thoughtful conservativism he expressed regarding the nature of Scripture itself, and I am delighted to share the book with you.

The first chapter of The Living Word of God consists of a survey of passages in Scripture about “the word of God.” As Witherington points out, sometimes that phrase refers to the word presented orally (such as in sermons), while other times it refers to written Scripture. Some key passages he addresses:

* Mark 12:36 and Mark 7:13 - Jesus refers to the writings of David and Moses as coming from the Holy Spirit and God.
* 1 Thessalonians 2:13 - Paul refers to his oral proclamation of the gospel as the word of God.
* 1 Corinthians 14:36-37 - Paul says that he is writing the Lord’s command.
* 2 Timothy 3:16-17 - the classic statement on Scripture’s “God-breathed” origin.
* Various passages in Hebrews in which the OT is quoted as the word of God the Father (1:6, quoting Deut. 32:43); God the Son (2:11-12, quoting Ps. 22:22); and God the Spirit (3:7; 10:16).
* 2 Peter 1:20-21 - Peter says that the prophets of the OT were carried along, or forcefully moved, by the Spirit.

One of the most important points Witherington makes in this initial chapter is that “we are not given an explanation of how inspiration works…Rather, whatever the process, the product is God’s word, telling God’s truth” (p. 10).

Chapter 2 discusses the how of inspiration. Just exactly what do we learn from the Bible about the process of inspiration.

Witherington warns against the “mechanical dictation” theory as a model of how all inspired texts were created. The Bible teaches that some of the authors investigated sources (Ezra 7:11-26; see also Luke 1:1-4). “It would be better to suggest that perhaps God providentially guided the biblical author to choose material which, while not originally part of the inspired text, nevertheless was true” (p. 18).

Witherington also goes into a detailed discussion of 2 Peter 1:20-21, particularly regarding the “interpretation” clause of verse 20 means. I agree with his conclusion that it refers to the prophet’s own interpretation of events. Prophecy did not derive from man’s interpretation of events, but God’s objective truth.

Chapter 3 consists of an extended dialogue with a recent book by Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation. Enns’ basic argument begins with the premise that God accomodated His word to human beings and through human beings. He then builds on this premise to argue that God may have allowed the writers to say things that may not actually be true, but which communicated an important message to the original readers of the Bible.

Like Witherington, I have no problem accepting that concept of accomodation. For an infinite God to speak to finite man, accomodation is necessary. I don’t even have a problem with the biblical writers using language which we now know is not scientifically accurate (such as a geocentric language). To me this does not deny the truthfulness of the Bible anymore than a weatherman’s forecast of the time of tomorrow’s “sunrise” disqualifies him as a meterologist. The Bible was written in popular language.

However, like Witherington I am also alarmed that Enns is willing to discount so much of the biblical text as ahistorical. I once heard Enns speak at an acaemic conference in which he suggested that the narrative of Moses’ birth was not historical, but was an accomodation of typical heroic birth stories for the Israelite audience. It is one thing to say that we should not judge biblical language by modern standards of scientific or historical accuracy. “But these texts should be judged on the basis of ancient standards of historical inquiry and truth telling” (p. 38).

Another of Enn’s proposals that troubles Witherington (and me) is that the NT writers often interpreted OT texts in a manner that did not try to remain consistent with the original itent of the OT authors. While the NT is clear that sometimes the prophets of the OT spoke about subjects that were beyond their comprehension (1 Peter 1:10-12), I do not believe that the NT writers used the OT in such a haphazard fashion. Quite often the NT writers appeal to the larger contexts of the specific passages they cite. They also use typology, applying OT texts to Jesus as the fulfillment of Israel’s purpose (such as Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matt. 2:15).

Witherington’s most important critique of Enns is that so often his book comes across as “a plea to become agnostic about the importance of the historical substance of the text” (p. 48). And as you will see throughout this series on his own work, Witherington is very forthright in stating what he believes about the truthfulness of the biblical text.

Just as we use different reading strategies when looking at comic strips as opposed to the editorial page, we must also use different strategies for reading the different styles of writing found in Scripture. The matter of literary sensitivity to the different genres found in the Bible is the subject of Witherington’s fourth chapter in The Living Word of God.

Since Witherington is a NT scholar, he focuses on the various genres of the NT: ancient biographies (Matthew, Mark, John); ancient historiographies (Luke-Acts); epistles; homilies (recorded sermons, such as Hebrews); and apocalyptic (Revelation). The key point Witherington makes in this chapter is that we must judge the truth claims of these documents in light of the ancient standards those genres were held to, rather than to our “modern” notions of what biography or history should look like.

Witherington observes that ancient biographers did not intend their works to be comprehensive; they did not always follow a strictly chronological formula; they had a great deal of latitude in terms of summarizing speeches; and they often organized their biographies on a topical rather than chronological basis. In this light the gospels “conform to ancient standards of truth telling, historical reporting, and biographical writing. As such they stand up quite well when compared, say, to Plutarch…” (p. 60).

Regarding the epistles and homilies, while Witherington acknowledges the essentially ad hoc nature of these documents, he also points out that Paul equated the authority of his written word with his oral proclamation (1 Thess. 2:13; 1 Cor. 14:36-37), and that the early Christians by the time of Second Peter were already collecting and circulating his letters (2 Peter 3:16-17). Further, Witherington points out that “scholars seem to make the mistake of assuming that because something is an ad hoc document, it can only be relevant or binding on one particular audience” (p. 63).

Witherington also demolishes the irresponsible way dispensationalists use the Book of Revelation (for more of his critique of dispensationalism, check out The Problem with Evangelical Theology).

As I said in my original post on this book, there are some specific points of doctrine that I disagree with Witherington on, but his overall emphasis in this chapter on properly interpreting the text according to its genre is a must-read. And I absolutely agree with his conclusion that the Bible, properly interpreted, tells the truth!

The 5th chapter addresses common problems critics raise against the truthfulness of the New Testament. He begins by dealing with problems of a historical nature (the naming of “Abiathar” as priest in Mark 2:25-26; the differences in the birth narratives of Jesus; the census of Quirinius in LUke 2:1-4). Next, he turns to the issues raised by Bart Erhman’s Misquoting Jesus, centering on textual criticism. Finally, Witherington deals with the challenge of the household codes in the NT (Ephesians 5:22-6:9 and Colossians 3:18-4:21 especially).

Aside from Witherington’s commitment to an egalitarian view of male-female roles in the church, I think this chapter contains excellent responses, and even more importantly, an excellent model of methodology as to how to deal with such questions. And even though I disagree with him on the specific point of male leadership in the church, I completely agree with his analysis of how to interpret these codes - “The question one needs to ask about this material is threefold: How does it compare to the standard advice given in the culture about household relationships? Where is this advice heading? What would the social situation look like if all ethical advice given in and around these codes was followed faithfully?” (p. 104).

Many critics of Scripture love to latch on to passages addressing slaves and masters as evidence of a defective ethical standard in the Bible. Often, this is done with the assumption that all aspects of the American slave experience were true of slavery in the ancient world. This is clearly not the case. (As a simple illustration, some people in the NT world actually chose to be slaves- see Daniel B. Wallace’s article). Further, the way the NT instructs masters to treat their slaves is much different than, for example, the counsel of Aristotle, who thought it was absurd to imagine that anything a master did to a slave could be considered unjust. As Witherington summarizes: “Paul has not baptized the existing structures of society and simply called them good. To the contrary, he has called them to account” (p. 110).

Chapter Six addresses three separate issues: 1) further thoughts on whether there are mistakes in the Bible
2) the formation of the canon
3) a brief history of the English Bible

Regarding mistakes in the Bible, Witherington outlines several considerations that must be taken into account to fairly judge the truthfulness of the text, such as:

* recognizing that the authors of the Bible often gave generalized reports of speeches or actions rather than precise reports, as was the custom of the day
* ancient writers had the freedom to arrange, edit, and paraphrase what someone said or did
* a true contradiction must violate the law of non-contradiction, so if one gospel mentions one angel and another gospel mentions two angels, that is not a contradiction (it would be if a gospel said “one and only one”)

His conclusion: “Taking into account all contextual issues and all conventions that I know of that were operative in the day and time of the NT writers, I have yet to find a single example of a clear violation of the principle of non-contradiction anywhere in the NT” (p. 117).

Witherington’s comments regarding the canon are superb. He is absolutely that it is not true to say that “the church chose and formed the canon…No, the church recognized that these books told the apostolic truth, they spoke the word of God, and so they wished to preserve them in a collection” (p. 118). He also demonstrates that the popular notion that the canon was not finalized until many centuries after Christ is untrue. There was widespread consensus about the vast majority of the books of the NT very early on, without any kind of coercive ecclesiastical power.

The final part of this chapter is a very brief but well written summary of the history of the English Bible. It is amazing that just a few centuries ago men risked (and lost) their lives just by translating the Bible into English, and Witherington’s summary will make you feel even more respect for men like Tyndale who helped make this happen.

I will not say much about chapter seven, which focuses on translations. He does a fine job explaining the difficulty of translating one language into another in a way that is both faithful to the original language while understandable in the new language. He also deals with the issue of gender-inclusivity. While Witherington is an egalitarian on gender issues, I did not find his comments objectionable.

I will conclude with his final point in this chapter. There are many places in the world where the Bible is not available in the language or dialect of the native population. I want to urge all Christian parents to consider the value of making sure their children learn a second language, especially one where the gospel is not yet known.

Chapter 8 is an excellent summary of basic principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). It begins with a list of basic “rules of the road” of biblical interpretation:

1. Sola Scriptura (pp 152-153). This principle says that the Bible alone is the final authority over the church. As such, no non-biblical tradition is immune to revision or critique. Further, this sets up a suspicion about pneumatic claims (”the Spirit told me…”).
2. Scripture is its best interpreter (pp 154-156). One of the subjects Witherington addresses in this section is the relationship between the Old and New Covenants, presenting what I believe to be the correct position that the Law is not binding on Christians, and that only those portions of the law “which are explicitly reaffirmed in the NT are binding on Christians.”
3. The Analogy of Faith (p 156). This principle suggests that there is a basic theme in Scripture (redemption), and that Scripture must be interpreted in a manner consistent with this theme.
4. Sensus Literalis vs Sensus Plenior (pp 156-158). This principle holds that the authors of the Bible may have said more than they themselves understood (as Peter says in 1 Peter 1:10-12).
5. Prediction vs Fulfillment (pp 158-160). This is a very insightful section. Witherington makes a great point that fulfillment is a much larger category than prediction. In other words, some of the fulfillment recorded in the NT is the fulfillment of types rather than predictions (the classic illustration is Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2).
6. A Quadrilateral of Authorities (pp 160-162). Though Witherington does not mention it, the four-fold view of authority is a common view held by adherents to Wesley’s theology (such as Methodists). The four legs of authority are Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Witherington has no problem critiquing the view of his own tradition: “But in no case and on no occasion should reason, tradition, or experience be seen as a higher authority than Scripture by which Scripture could be trumped on some issue that Scripture directly addresses” (his emphasis).

The second part of this great chapter (pp 162-170) deals with applying the word, particularly the issue of when to bind the examples of the Bible on modern practice. His solution: “My suggestion would be that one looks for positive repeated patterns in the text.”

Once again I am impressed with the thoughtful conservativism Witherington expresses.

The final chapter addresses the challenge of postmodernism to biblical interpretation. As Witherington succinctly observes, “At the heart of postmodernity is a protest against the whole concept of truth” (p. 172). This must be contested on several levels.

First, there is the “relativist paradox” (p 172) - the insistence on the truth that there is no truth! Second, postmodernism naturally leads to “skepticism about the ability to know the world or reality outside our own heads” (p 173). And third, from a Christian standpoint, it is hard to swallow postmodernism in light of the Bible’s message that “God’s revelation is able to penetrate the human cloud of unknowing” (p 174).

Witherington concludes the chapter by discussing the principles of interpretation suggested in The Art of Reading Scripture, a collection of articles by scholars from a moderate to liberal view of Scripture. The positives of this anthology are that it takes interpretation seriously, and that it does not fixate on critical issues of source and redaction criticism. However, the authors for the most part do not come to the Bible with a high view of its inspiration. And thus the meaning of Scripture must be adduced in the community of faith (that is, the “church” is the privileged institution of interpretation). The problem with this view, as Witherington makes clear, is that “the Bible is in the first instance God’s book, not the church’s book” (p 183).

In his conclusion, Witherington suggests that there are some facets of postmodernism which may be good news. “The postmodern age likes mystery, awe, wonder, and beauty, even if it does not know that these things are but vehicles and garments of God’s revelation, God’s truth. The general ignorance of the dead dogmas of the past or the exegetical missteps of previous generations of Bible interpreters is a good thing, not a bad one. And postmoderns love a good story” (p 193). But at the same time he issues a warning for those who are accepting the foundations of postmodern thinking. “My advice to those dabbling with postmodern hermeneutics or philosophy or ways of looking at the world is simply this: don’t sell your birthright for a mess of pottage” (p 194).

No comments:

Post a Comment