Ben Witherington on Correcting Calvinism

The following extract comes from “The Problem with Evangelical Theology” by Ben Witherington III. This represents what he sees as the most problematic features of Calvinist Theology, which I have further highlighted in some areas for emphasis:

Though the Reformers were not all equally indebted to Augustine, it seems clear that the indebtedness of Luther and Calvin was considerable, especially when it came to the understanding of issues like predestination, election, salvation, perseverance of the saints, and the nature of the limited atonement of Christ on the cross. Behind all of this was a particular conception of God’s sovereignty, a conception which in the case of Augustine owed something to Manicheanism, and fatalism. Unfortunately, when this heritage was brought to bear in interpreting the Scriptures, Paul in particular suffered. It took Paul out of his Jewish context and read him as an exponent of a later and, one might add, a largely non-Jewish theology, which muffled the Jewish focus on orthopraxy, on how the believer should live.

The conclusions that seem warranted from this discussion are various. First, Paul’s conception of election is a corporate one, and it does not predetermine which particular individuals can be in or out of the group. Furthermore, Paul does not operate with an “invisible elect” amidst the people of God concept. The Israelites or Christians who are true are all too visible and evident. The tree is known by the fruit it bears. Second, Paul fully affirms that perseverance is necessary to salvation, and that it involves human effort. He also affirms that apostasy is possible for a true believer, something other texts such as Hebrews 6 fully confirm as well. One is not eternally secure until one is securely in eternity.

Third, Paul believes that Christians are under a new covenant, not any administrations of the older ones. He does see the new covenant as the fulfillment of the Abrahamic one. Among other things, this means that Christians, whether Jew or Gentile, are no longer under the Mosaic Law. They are rather under the Law of Christ.

Fourth, it is worth adding, though we have not really discussed this in this chapter,67 that Paul also does not operate with a concept of imputed righteousness, if by that phrase one means Christ’s righteousness is counted in place of ours. A careful reading of Galatians 3 and Romans 4 will show that what Paul says on the basis of Genesis 12–15 is that Abraham’s faith was reckoned or counted as righteousness. His faith was reckoned as his righteousness. This is a very different matter than Christ’s righteousness counting in the place of that of the believers.

Paul affirms that believers are initially set right with God by grace through faith, but that they must go on with the aid of grace to be righteous, to manifest holiness, indeed even to go on to completion or perfection at least at the point of the resurrection of the believer when in body as well as in spirit they become truly whole.68 Righteousness needs to be imparted by the Spirit, not merely imputed. God is not deceived, nor does he ignore the Christian’s sin. It is not the case that when God looks at the believer he simply sees the righteous Christ. And as 2 Corinthians 5:10 (cf. 1 Cor 3) makes perfectly evident, Christians will be held accountable for their behavior when they appear before the judgment seat of Christ. If they choose to persist in their sin such that they commit moral (or for that matter theological) apostasy, as Paul so clearly warns in Galatians 5:19–21, they will not enter the dominion of God when it comes with Christ in eschatological glory at the end of the age.

Fifth, the Reformation inclination to say the atonement is limited was correct, but as texts like Romans 5:1–11 and 1 Timothy 1:15 make evident, Christ came to die for sinners, not the elect. Indeed, as 1 Timothy 2:4–5 makes perfectly clear, God desires all persons to be saved (so also John 3:16), and Christ gave himself as a ransom for all sinners. This means that it must be human beings in their response to God in Christ, not God through some process of choosing individuals, who limit the atonement.

Sixth, since numerous NT authors, including Paul and the author of Hebrews, not to mention Jesus himself, warn against the problem of apostasy, this in turn must mean that God’s saving grace is both resistible at the outset and rejectable later. There may be moments of overwhelming grace in a human life—such as, for example, at the moment of Paul’s conversion—but it does not follow from this that grace is always irresistible.

Seventh, the character of God as a God of holy love and also a God of freedom is such that he expects these same qualities to be reflected in his creatures, whom he calls to freely respond to his gift of salvation. Love cannot be coerced, manipulated, or predetermined. Eighth, in our discussion of Romans 7 we also noted that Luther was wrong to think that Paul was discussing the Christian life in that text. Rather we have a Christian view of a non-Christian condition, perhaps a person on the verge of conversion in Romans 7:14–25, while Romans 7:7–13 retells Adam’s tale.

The tension in the Christian life is not between old person and new person, but rather between Holy Spirit and sinful inclinations, on the one hand, and inner self, which is being renewed, in contrast to outer self, which is wasting away. However, as Paul makes very clear in 1 Corinthians 10:13, the believer has sufficient grace available to him or her to resist any temptation, and as Romans 8:1–3 says (cf. Rom 7:4–5) the Christian has been set free from the bondage to sin by the powerful Holy Spirit of life. A Christian should never assume that righteousness only has to do with his or her position in relationship to God, rather than also with his or her condition.

Christians are called to holy living, and they are empowered to carry out such living. This involves realizing that God’s grace is greater than fallen human nature, and that God expects obedience and progress toward entire sanctification. We will have much more to say about these things when we turn around and try to come to grips with the exegetical weaknesses in the Arminian way of thinking about these soteriological issues. Now, however, it is time to consider a much more recent theology—Dispensationalism—that has spread like kudzu throughout the conservative Protestant Church and is threatening to overrun and overwhelm traditional Protestant theology of various ilks. As we shall see, it is exegetically by far the weakest of these three theologies we are critiquing.

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