Thanks to Trevin Wax for arranging that discussion between Ben Witherington and me. (See the posts over the last three days.) It’s a good use of technology to have that kind of forum. Some thoughts:
(1) An effective argument–that is, one whose purpose is persuasion rather than just hitting the other person over the head with your position–tends to start by finding common ground. I did that. (I hope I didn’t concede too much. Perhaps I should have defended Luther more. Or gone after Ben’s Arminianism. But those lines of thought didn’t seem productive in this particular argument.) In academic debate, it’s especially important to find a way to be civil. I think we succeeded at that.
(2) If I were to someday sit down with Dr. Witherington at a pub over a beer as he suggested–and how significant was that offer for a Wesleyan!–I’d want to ask him, What kind of good works do you think play such an important role in your understanding of salvation? I was astonished that he doesn’t believe in the “imputed righteousness” of Christ, holding instead to an “imparted righteousness” given by the Holy Spirit, which means an actual righteousness that Christians attain. I know about the Arminian doctrine of perfection and their belief that it is possible to lead a sinless life. I would like to ask him what that looks like. Is it doing some heroic and spectacular acts of goodness? Or is it being able to avoid bad behavior? I have noticed that the notion that our works contribute to our salvation often manifests itself in a person adopting some code of behavior that is rigid but fairly easy to follow, such as abstaining from drinking or smoking, even though the code has little actual moral content. It also has nothing to do with what the Bible actually says. (Another option is to come up with ritualistic observances, as in Roman Catholicism, which believes the same thing. Repeating the Rosary a hundred times becomes a “good work” that accrues “merit,” even though the action is not particularly “good” in a moral sense.) I would like to ask, are the godly elderly women in a Wesleyan congregation who believe in the necessity of moral perfection any different, really, in their behavior or demeanor than the godly women in a Lutheran congregation who consider themselves sinners saved only by the blood of Christ? I’d truly like to know what this moral perfectionism is supposed to look like. (I’d love to hear from any of you readers who believe that.)
Here Dr. Witherington actually attended a Lutheran church. But what made him indignant is service of confession and absolution in which he had to pray, “I confess that I am by nature sinful and unclean.” He resented the theology that he characterized as “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” He thinks he isn’t by nature sinful and unclean, that if he falls he can just get right back up on his own, indeed, that God requires that of him. How different we are! I know myself as a sinner by bitter experience. I think that phrase from the TV commercial shows excellent theology. I’ve fallen, along with Adam & Eve but by my own fault as well. I can’t get up. I need help. I need someone to raise me up. And that happens when I hear the words of absolution. The Gospel is not just for back when a person first became a Christian, but it’s for every moment of the Christian life.
Dr. Witherington also has problems with the presence of God. He doesn’t want to think that God is in vocation any more than he wants to think that God is actually present in the Sacraments. He wants space for human beings to be autonomous. I understand that. But I consider it so sad!
I do respect him and agree with much of what he said in his book. I don’t mean to vaunt my Lutheranism over those of you who don’t share my theology. I can understand someone not believing in Lutheranism for all kinds of good reasons, including that it is too good to be true. All that I can say personally, though, as I study other theologies, is GTBL.