Thursday, May 1, 2008
Ben Witherington III and Antipodal Predestination.
Ben Witherington III,(1) fascinating Protestant scholar with a mind all his own(2) has posted a controversial post at his blogsite http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/ entitled, "Decisions on Earth Ratified in Heaven- the Opposite of Predestination". The crux of the matter is Witherington's apparent belief that the sovereignty of God gives some room for human decision making and thus, God acts in reciprocity to human actions that are in no way predestined or initiated by God. Witherington III cites Matt 18:18 on the matter and states the obvious, God responds to human resolutions. While most Protestant's would argue that this "openess" on the part of God is a mere illusion from human standpoint (since all human action is in a sense predetermined by God) Witherington sounds a lot more "Catholic" in the sense that his view would line up with many of the early fathers on the issue of human free will and the response of God.
The soteriological implications of Witherington's view are transparent, "Jesus believes that decisions taken on earth, have eternal consequences. We of course can understand this in a discussion about soteriology-- see for example Jesus' parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where earthly behavior by humans determines afterlife outcome. Heaven is not seen as the place where all things have been pre-determined, rather there is an inter-active relationship between events on earth and things in heaven. The influence can go in either direction" (2nd par.) The reason for this "openess" in God's dealing with humanity we are told is to give us a real sense of accomplishment in ministry, "Whilst, God could have done otherwise, he has chosen to allow us to be viable partners with God in ministry and the working out of his will and Kingdom on earth, beings capable of making un-predetermined choices that have incredible consequences. The issue is not the sovereignty of God-- the issue is how God has chosen to exercise his power and will. And what the Bible says about this is that he has not pre-determined all things from before the foundations of the world" (6th par.)
Witherington then goes on to finish by articulating that contra the predestinarian conception of history (which plays out like a boring wooden play) history is actually alive and dynamic and while true that God is the author of this play we are given real roles to act out (and lines to improvise) and the chief actor, (perhaps the Harvey Keitel) that we are supposed to measure our acting skills on, is Christ Jesus the redeemer of mankind.
At the heart of this matter in relation to soteriology is the sincere endeavor to retain the responsibility of man in his actions and the eternal consequences of these actions. That the earliest fathers held this position as well, coupled with a high view of the free will in near unanymity is manfiest(3). For the Bishop of Hippo of course (St. Augustine) the factors over human free will and God's sovereignty were a bit more sophisticated(4). Suffice is to say, Augustine broke with the optimissim concerning the ability of man to initiate response from God, even to claim that most if not all of the soteriological steps were initiated always sola gratia.
In the final analysis, these gropings of Witherington into the mysterious realm of God's foundational dealings with His creatures is nothing new and has been taken to perverse lengths by the so called "open theists" throughout the centuries. Strange (and dangerous) as Witherington's views might sound to Protestant ears, the well informed Catholic knows these gropings by experience.
(1). Professor of New Testament Studies, Asbury Kentucky.
(2). Works I have especially enjoyed by Witherington; The Problem with Evangelical Theology, Baylor University Press (an interesting critique of Calvinism vis a vi "Covenant Theology" and Dispensationalism from a Protestant perspective), Jesus, Paul and the End of the World, A Comparative Study in New Testament Eschatology, Paternoster Press (a sober analysis of the eschatological issues and texts), Jesus the Sage, The Pilgrimage of Wisdom, Augsburg Fortress Press, The Jesus Quest, The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth, InterVarsity Press, Jesus the Seer, The Progress of Prophecy, Hendrickson Publishers.
(3). A few examples from the many are; Athenagoras of Athens (Supp. 24, 4), Tatian the Syrian (Or. 11, 2).
(4). Entering into the Augustinian view of predestination and free will is a large matter that takes us far beyond the parameters of this post.