Saturday, September 15, 2007

Ben Witherington on Scripture

Ben Witherington is Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary and I interviewed him about his forthcoming book on Scripture.

1. What led you to write your triology of books on the sacraments?

There has been far too much fuzzy thinking, or indeed, no thinking in some cases, about the sacraments in many Evangelical and Protestant contexts, and what passes for thinking is so poorly grounded in what the NT says about baptism, the Lord's Supper, and the Word of God that I thought it was time to offer three short pithy discussions on these inter-related topics.

2. By way of summary, what is your forthcoming book The Living Word of God: Rethinking the Theology of the Bible arguing for?

I am arguing for a lot of different things in my Living Word book out this fall. One of the main points is that we are making a mistake by looking at the Bible as a 'text' in the modern sense of the word. The environment in which the Bible was written is an oral culture, a culture in which only 10% or so of the populus could read and write. Among other things then, the fact that we have a plethora of people leading Christianity who could read and wrote these books speaks volumes about the social level of the authors. They were not bucolic peasants, and they were all deeply steeped in the OT. Furthermore, they all had a strong sense of how sacred texts, inspired texts, functioned in a basically oral culture. A good example of where this study is going comes early when I deal with what Paul says in 1 Thess. 2-- he says that his converts received his preaching of the Gospel as not merely the words of human beings, but as it really was, the inspired word of God. In other words, the primary sense of the phrase word of God applies in the first instance to an inspired oral proclamation, in the second instance to Christ himself, and in the third instance, to a written sacred text, the OT (see 2 Tim. 3.16). In other words, Paul, and other NT writers believed they were speaking and writing God's Word, inspired by God's Spirit telling the truth about God, Christ, salvation and other subjects.

3. What do you make of terms such as "inerrant" and "infallible"?

The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects-- history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.

4. How do Scripture and Tradition relate together?

It is true to say that Scripture is one form of tradition that has become a sacred text. So yes, Scripture contains a plethora of different traditions. But to say this is not enough. What was believed about these sacred texts is that they were God-breathed, and so different in various ways from other traditions which were more mundane or purely human. Without an inadequate undestanding of ancient views of inspiration and how they effects texts, we can't get very far in discussing the relationship of ordinary traditions to inspired or sacred ones.

5. What place should the Bible have in the Church?

The Bible, as the written expression of the Word of God, should have final authority in and over the church in all matters of faith and practice, at least in regard to those subjects on which it makes pronouncements.

6. How important is it to learn how to interpret the Bible properly?

This question is too broad. I will simly respond by saying 'a text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean'. That is, unless the Bible is interpreted in its various historical and literary and rhetorical and social contexts, it will inevitably be misused and abused.

7. For many of my students topics such as source criticism, debates about authorship, ancient standards of history, textual criticism, and the process of canonisation, often make them nervous and even defensive at times. As a New Testament lecturer I am constantly challenged as to how introduce them to the humanity of Scripture and the phenomenon of how Scripture came into existence, but without them thinking that they have to forfeit their high view of Scripture. What are your thoughts on that problem?

I think that one has to have a certain amount of insight into one's audience's level of Christian maturity to decide how to talk to them about the humanness as well as divine character of Scripture. It never helps to just blow them out of the water. I do however think that if one is commited to the Bible as the Word of God, then one needs to be honest with them about the 'truth' and the 'Word'. Among other things, bibliolatry is as much of a problem as too low a view of Scripture.

8. To follow that up, based on your forthcoming volume Letters and Homilies for Hellenized Christians: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1-2 Peter what is your opinion on the authorship of 2 Peter, and how does your conclusion to that issue relate to your view of Scripture?

2 Peter is a composite document involving some genuine Petrine material in chapter one, some material from Jude in chapter 2, and a knowledge of a collection of Paul's letters in chapter 3. The book is labeled according to its most famous contributor Peter, but it has been put together probably in the 90s by a member of the Petrine circle, probably in Rome (Linus would be a good guess). Ancient documents which were composite could be anonymous, or could be attributed to their most famous contributor-- in this case because of a testimony of Peter about his experience at the Mt. of Transfiguration. In other words, I do not think that even this document should be labeled pseudonymous, nor do I think there are any such documents in the NT if this one is not.

9. What are the failings of some evangelical approaches to the Bible and what are the failings of some liberal approaches to the Bible?

Too often Evangelicals tend to treat the Bible in a Gnostic manner, as if it dropped straight from heaven, and that the human contribution to the text is nil, or unimportant. This of course is false, and it is also a violation of the very character of these texts which are historical documents through and through, written in specific languages to specific people at specific times with timely (as well as timeless) remarks. Liberals on the other hand, tend to underestimate the divine inspiration of these documents and their profound truth content in regard to matters of history, theology, and ethics.

10. Finally, what makes you believe that Scripture is Inspired and what do you find inspiring about Scripture?

What makes me think the Scriptures are inspired comes not merely from studying them so long, and finding they stand up to every sort of challenge including the intellectual ones, but seeing how many millions of lives they had and continue to change. This did not happen by accident, and certainly not over thousands of years. There is no comparable ancient document that had had, and continues to have that sort of effect. Period. As for what I find inspiring about it, the answer is-- basically everything. Here is a book which provides us with a clear window into the mind and character of God, the nature of the human dilemma, and the nature of salvation. It answers the deeps questions and longings we could have.


Thanks Ben!

1 comment:

Matthew D. Montonini said...

Great job, Mike and Ben!