Saturday, August 9, 2008
Reading Ben Witherington's Commentary on Romans, 1
Ben Witherington is not only an amazing scholar but an incredibly good and voluminous writer on subjects of New Testament. His commentaries on books of the Bible are said to be outstanding. And so I am reading one: "Paul's Letter to the Romans. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary."
From discussions on his blog, however, I already know that he holds to Wesleyan/Arminian theology and thinks it is very important to deconstruct the Augustinian/Lutheran/Calvinist interpretation. I know he thinks "imputed" righteousness is wrong. In know he thinks "simul justus et peccator" is very wrong. I know he thinks there is an "attainable perfection" that can be achieved by Christians.
So, as a Lutheran Christian who holds fast to a clear law/gospel distinction, who recognizes herself as sinner and saint at the same time, who knows she will not achieve anything near perfection, and who would be quite frightened if I thought of myself as nearly perfect--what do I expect to get from this commentary? Certainly, some things I won't be happy with. In this blog, I will point out some of the things I'm not happy with, because I think it matters.
The introduction and the chapter on Paul's lengthy greeting and purpose for writing are interesting. The section on 1:16, 17 I find weak. The gospel as power to save is illustrated in a cute story about someone not jumping off a bridge, because she remembered a Bible verse from Vacation Bible School. It is not really shown very clearly, that through the Gospel we are made the new creation, by believing it.
At the end of the section on 1:18-32, he feels compelled to bring in Luther and the Bondage of the Will. I will quote the whole thing (p. 71, 72), here:
"If, at the other extreme, one has a theology of election that does not allow for viable secondary causes, then ultimately one makes God the author of sin. Sometimes a work like Luther's 'The Bondage of the Will' seems to leave no room for human beings to make viable moral choices and so rightly be held responsible for their misbehavior. Or again, Jonathan Edwards' 'Freedom of the Will" can give the impression that all that freedom means is that human beings do not 'feel' compelled by God to do what they do, when actually they could not have done otherwise. There is no genuine power of contrary choice. It is hard to see how this sort of theology escapes the criticism that it ultimately makes God the author of sin and is a form of determinism or even fatalism.
Paul does not say that God wills everything that happens. To the contrary, he says here that God gave up the people he describes to their own devices and will and choice of behavior. God allowed them to follow the path of sin because they had determined for themselves to go in that direction.
Another problem with determinism is that no good action should be seen as virtuous if a person could not have done otherwise, or at least there should be no talk of rewards and the like if a person did something good quite apart from their own intention and will. Both Jesus and Paul do speak of rewards for virtuous behavior.
This is not to deny that all good deeds done by fallen persons are done with the aid of grace, but grace is not normally seen as some inexorable force that predetermines how one will use the grace given. Grace is a power given that enables a person to choose the good. It does not usually force a person to do something. In other words, grace is usually something that can be resisted or positively drawn upon. There are moments in life, no doubt, when one is overwhelmed by grace, but this is by no means always the case. Sometimes we reject the leading and guiding of God's love and grace in our lives, and it is part of the divine mystery that God allows such things to happen, as Romans 1 says."
So far Dr. Witherington.
The Bondage of the Will is a long and complicated book, and I read it not long ago. I think Luther would have rested his case and felt his point proved by just saying, as W says: "This is not to deny that all good deeds done by fallen persons are done with the aid of grace." The fact that grace is needed, puts God in control, that's what he is saying.
"Sometimes we reject the leading and guiding of God's love and grace in our lives, and it is part of the divine mystery that God allows such things to happen, as Romans 1 says." We don't believe in "irresistible grace" either. However, a Calvinist might.
"God allowed them to follow the path of sin because they had determined for themselves to go in that direction." Again, God allowing it, puts him in control again.
"The Bondage of the Will' seems to leave no room for human beings to make viable moral choices and so rightly be held responsible for their misbehavior."
The Bondage of the Will is concerned mostly with the power of human beings for regeneration and faith. Are they able to do this without God's aid? If they cannot do it without God's aid, then they are bound. As we saw already the Gospel is the power. Do people come up with the Gospel themselves, or is it preached to them? It is preached to them. So it is God's doing.
On the other hand, simple moral choices, are in a different category. The Bondage of the Will says, that in matters of daily life and simple reason, we do make choices.
How far the Bondage of the Will agrees with Calvinism, I am not sure. There is the critique of Calvinism that the "sovereignty of God" is taken too far in that atonement becomes limited, grace irresistible, that people are predestined to be the reprobate. We don't agree with that.
How far do Augustine, Luther, Calvin and Witherington disagree or agree with each other? I don't think Luther and Witherington disagree that much based on that passage alone. How far do Luther and Calvin agree? I think Witherington disagrees most with Calvin, but may not realize that.
Ok, that's the best I can do for now. Please, do pitch in with comments.