Witherington on Piper…

Last Wednesday, Dr. Ben Witherington (Asbury Theological Seminary) posting a very fine, interesting response to a John Piper interview about the perceived arrogance and negativity of Calvinists.  Having been raised in, studied in, and served in Calvinistic circles for many years before coming to Lutheranism, I found some of Dr. Witherington’s comments both striking and brilliantly perceptive.  He writes:

For whatever reason, Calvinism seems to feed a deep seated need in many persons for a kind of intellectual certainty about why the world is as it is, and what God is exactly like, and how his will is worked out in the world, and most particularly how salvation works and whether or not one is a saved person.

As an engineer, Air Force officer, and otherwise pretty anal-retentive and over-analytical person, the “intellectual certainty” was a very big draw of Calvinistic theology for a very long time.  I wanted answers.  I wanted precise answers.  I wanted a black-and-white, crystal clear understanding of not only the Bible but of God too.  Reformed theology offers just this sort of approach in many areas and really fit me quite well.  The trouble is, as Dr. Witherington continues:

But it is perfectly possible to argue logically and coherency in a hermeneutical or theological circle with all parts connected, and unfortunately be dead wrong– because one drew the circle much too small and left out all the inconvenient contrary evidence. This sort of fault is inevitable with theological systems constructed by finite human beings.

A minutes reflection will show that intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true. The truth of God and even of the Bible is much larger than anyone’s ability (or any collection of human being’s abilities) to get their mental calipers so firmly around it that one could form it into a ‘coherent theological system’ without flaws, gaps, or lacunae.

As much as it hurts to admit it…I think Dr. Witherington is spot on.  Yes, the Reformed world does a marvelous job forming a precise, logically coherent, systematic theology, but it draws “the circle much too small” and leaves out “all the inconvenient contrary evidence.”  It doesn’t take much looking over the prooftexts of the Westminster Confession (for one) to see that many inconvenient passages of Scripture speaking to a certain tenet are conveniently left out.  I discovered this truth primarily while working on my ordination paper and personal confession of faith required for my Ordination Vicinage Board.  As I poured over the great Reformed confessions in order to style my own in a fashion similar to the WCF, the Three Forms of Unity, the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, and others, I found that all too often, they simply failed to acknowledge passages that failed to fit into “the system.”

Does the Book of Concord provide a wonderful explanation of what it means to be Lutheran?  Yes.  Is it always tidy, neat, and logically coherent?  Not really.  That said, I’d rather hold to a confession that holds closely to the testimony of Scripture, even at the expense of 100% logical coherence.  As Dr. Witherington also writes:

While I certainly believe that God’s own worldview is coherent, and that some of it is revealed in the Bible, the facts are that the Bible does not reveal everything we always wanted to know about God so we could be certain God exists and form that body of knowledge into a self-sustaining fully coherent theological system with one idea leading to another idea, and so on.

The best professors I had in seminary, Calvinists many of them, were humble enough to recognize this great truth and cling more tightly to their copy of Scripture than to their Confessions.  We would do well to be of the same mindset as these!

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7 thoughts on “Witherington on Piper…

  1. These are fair criticisms. I’ve seen the same thing, though it hasn’t cause me to leave the Reformed Churches.

    In Recovering the Reformed Confession I describe what Witherington observes as the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Certainty (QIRC). In defense of the Reformed, it’s not inherent in our theology, piety, and practice as confessed by the churches, but it, along with the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE) is a problem we’ve had for a long time.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Thank your for your reply and link to your own previous article! The subject of this post was certainly neither the sole nore principle cause of me leaving Reformed circles. The ideas Dr. Witherington brings up, however, were part of the catalyst that led me down the road to Lutheranism.

    I agree that the attitudes addressed in Witherington’s post are NOT inherent in Reformed theology or praxis, and quite honestly, there are more than too many Lutheran snobs–we just stick to ourselves so much that no one notices (grin).

    Thanks again for stopping by. I enjoy reading your blog as well!


  3. T.C.

    I have encountered Calvinists who I might describe as having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), not that I do not have one myself. I think the philosophical machinery inherent in Calvinism does lead to a bit of obsession.

    Lutheranism is quite week in its epistemology, but it does not seem to be bothered that it does not have answers to some seemingly important questions. We are just simply happy with our ignorance, which is bliss in the first place.

    Lastly, I sometimes listen to a fairly respectable radio program – run by a Reformed Baptist, I just notice that it is so important for him to introduce his guest to be “theologically Reformed”.

    The word “reformed” is the in thing, it is the featured flavor in evangelicalism.


  4. “…intellectual coherency, as judged by finite fallen or even redeemed minds, is not a very good guide to what is true…” – BW3

    It is true only because the internal consistency / logic can be right on while the premises the logic is acting on are false. The question is whether the Calvinists have examined all of the data. I think they have. Too many of them preach verse by verse through the whole Bible.

    Besides, there are many places where the Westminster Divines left gaps (the mystery of iniquity, the fate of those who have never heard the gospel outside of natural revelation, the tricotomy or dichotomy of humans, the exact nature of the end-times/ pre/post/amillennial, and others). When you look at it, that’s a healthy chunk of humility. Westminster, and the 1689 London Baptist Confession that I affirm, leaves many areas of mystery, just like the Bible.

    Further, hardly anyone accuses the “God foresees who will have faith in Christ and predestines them” crowd of being illogical or unfair. Ditto the God doesn’t interfere with human choices / libertarian free-will approach to the problem of evil. And the Lutheran approach is still logically consistent; it just does not comment on some of the more controversial implications of the teachings of Scripture. The charge of coherence to a logical system that leaves out biblical data can go to many groups.

    “It doesn’t take much looking over the prooftexts of the Westminster Confession (for one) to see that many inconvenient passages of Scripture speaking to a certain tenet are conveniently left out.”

    Leaving the verses in question out of a confession of faith that is intended to teach a system of doctrine does not mean the texts are not dealt with elsewhere. You can’t expect a teaching tool that is meant to simplify a system of doctrine for instructional purposes to give all of the verses of the Bible. Check their systematic theologies. Just like the Lutherans / Methodists, they address much more of the biblical data.

    You are right, humility is called for. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” “…This man went down to his house justified rather than the other.”


  5. Thanks for the reply, JK.

    I think Witherington’s statement you quote is not true ONLY because of false premises. While false premises can be used in a logically consistent argument, the bigger issue is the finitude of man’s intellect to wrestle with concepts about an infinite God. While I don’t doubt the sufficiency of Scripture with respect to salvation, I have no doubt that it fails to tell us everything about everything with respect to the true majesty, nature, and being of God. Why should it? We couldn’t grasp it anyway.

    Please don’t see my comments as one-sided against Calvinism, either. I think the Arminian/Wesleyan view of predestination that you cite (for one) fails miserably on biblical and logical grounds…and I, for one, accuse them of that as often as I can, ha, ha.

    Good point on the completeness of prooftexts in confessions and catechisms! You’re right, they are not to be viewed as comprehensive engagements with the whole of Scripture. At the same time, many of the great Reformed systematics texts leave out inconvenient texts too. I poured over Calvin, Hodge, Berkhof, and Reymond in seminary, to name a few, and they’re generally guilty of the same thing. To his credit, John Frame interacts with many difficult texts, and I enjoy reading his works, even if I don’t reach the same conclusions.

    All that said, as much as we need to be convinced of our doctrine, orthodox Christians have much more in common than we care to admit often (esp. in the academy). We would do well to unite under the banner of Christ more than we do, especially as we are salt and light to the world.

    Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Consistency is a necessary requirement for truth, but it is not sufficient.

    Many think that because a system – such as Calvinism is consistent that means it is true.

    As logician/mathematician by training, we will point that consistency is not enough.


  7. Yes, but…these criticisms of Calvinism aren’t specific to it alone. The same thing could be said of Lutheranism, Methodism, Pentecostalism, and every other branch of the Protestant faith. It cuts both ways.

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