Ben Witherington on Theologizing Today

The following extract from “The Problem with Evangelical Theology” is Ben Witherington’s prosciption for some of the weaknesses he sees in many streams of Evangelicalism:

But hear the good news: the NT writers largely do theology out of a paradigm that appeals to the imagination, including the visual imagination, and so in various ways it is not that hard to translate into a postmodern situation. As it turns out, premodernity and postmodernity have many things in common, and it is not syllogistic or analytical teaching, preaching, or witnessing. It has far more to do with story, as we shall see.

Put bluntly, we do not have “theology” in the New Testament; we have what may be called theologizing—indeed theologizing into specific cultural settings, whether we are talking about Jesus’ parables, Paul’s rhetoric, or John’s apocalyptic salvos. Traditional Western training has prompted us to think in categories like NT theology, historical theology, systematic theology, and so on. The fundamental assumption when it comes to the Bible is that the Bible, including the New Testament, is some sort of compendium of theology. Now if one means no more than that we have plenty of God-talk in the Bible (“theology” deriving from the Greek words theos and logos), of course that is true. What is not true is that the Bible is some sort of manual that synthesizes key ideas and then slots them into categories like eschatology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, theology, Christology, anthropology, and so on. To treat the theologizing in the New Testament that way is in some respects just another approach rather like Dispensationalism took with prophecy, slotting things into one box or another. What scholarly treatment of the Bible has done is seek to divide up its material into isolated concepts that can be analyzed, processed, controlled, and then disseminated. It hardly requires much reflection to realize that this involves stripping these ideas of their contexts, particularly their narrative contexts. Perhaps we should have remembered the mantra, “a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean,” before we disembodied and disemboweled God-talk from its storied world.

I would suggest that the new paradigm for doing theology involves recognizing the following points: (1) theologizing was done by the biblical writers out of a storied world, and into specific situations, using a variety of literary types, as mentioned above; (2) the storied world sometimes lies on the surface of the discourse (e.g., in parables), but sometimes it lies beneath the surface and is only alluded to or partially quoted (e.g., in Paul’s letters); (3) what we would call concepts or abstract ideas are configured in the storied world, not in some other sort of reasoning. By this I mean, for example, that when Paul thinks of sin, he thinks of the story of Adam; when he thinks of Law, he thinks of the story of Moses; when he thinks of faith, he thinks of the story of Abraham, and so on. Even Paul’s letters are not compendiums of abstract ideas, laid out in syllogisms. This leads to the paradigm: symbolic universe of ideas configured in stories, with the stories then becoming the fodder and framework for theologizing into specific situations. 

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