Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ben Witherington on NT Ethics

BW3 has a post from the second volume of his forthcoming book on NT Theology and Ethics. Here is a foretaste:

"It is sad but true to say that NT ethics has been the step-child of NT studies throughout the 20th and into the 21st century. There are a variety of reasons for this in the scholarly world. One is the disparaging remarks made about NT ethics by various highly influential NT scholars. When you complain that what we have in large portions of the NT is ‘bourgeois’ ethics (e.g. in the Pastoral Epistles), or an ethical miscellany cobbled together from Greco-Roman and Jewish ethics, or a baptizing of various forms of the status quo, the contempt for what is being urged in the NT is not far beneath the surface of the discourse. But there is another reason why NT ethics has suffered both abuse and neglect and it is theological. In some forms of Reformed theology, ethics is frankly an after-thought. Reformed theology is all about God’s sovereignty, and grace and divine salvation, and there is an allergic reaction to the notion that the ethics of the NT might have something to do with theology, might have something to do with human salvation, because of course ethics is almost exclusively about human behavior, not God’s behavior. Even when a Reformed scholar emphasizes ethics as an essential act of gratitude in response to grace, he has failed to do justice to the inherent and necessary connection between theology and ethics in the NT. For example, salvation has to do with both theology and ethics in the NT. And there is a crucial epistemological issue to consider—how exactly can you ‘know’ a truth in the Biblical sense without living into and out of that truth? In the Bible, understanding often comes from doing or experiencing. Belief and behavior are not meant to be separated from one another into hermetically sealed off containers. The obedience which flows from faith is also the obedience which reassures, strengths and more fully forms faith."

Re: the bold type, I understand his objection and I've seen Reformed theology go doctrinaire and antinomian, but this still strikes me as a Weslyan/Arminian caricature of Reformed Theology. I'd like to know which Reformed Theology he is talking about. That said, BW3 does have some genuinely good stuff in his post on NT ethics, esp. in relation to the role of the Holy Spirit in ethics, the commonality of NT ethics being a shared narratological framework, and his focus on the kingdom .

4 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Ethics has to be a personal value system, because even when we speak of "God's Kingdom", we will understand that differently and therefore apply it also differently. You cannot prescribe a prescriptive that is behavior specific, unless you want to limit others in their freedom of choice as it pertains to how they will "worship, serve and commit"....

A. B. Caneday said...

I agree, Michael. It strikes me as an odd and out-of-the-way excursion into a caricature of Reformed theology. It certainly doesn't touch me or those that I know and read.

Matt said...

To Angie: According to your logic, everything in theology is subject to a "personal value system" because we all understand things differently. If I understand the Trinity a bit differently than you, then are we necessarily speaking of different Gods?

Wayne said...

Caricature is probably the best way to explain this. What I hope doesn't happen is for comments like this by BW3 to serve as a stumbling block to would-be readers who may be turned away from what looks to be a very excellent work.