I am reviewing this book, courtesy of IVP-Academic, and it is a rather thick volume. Because of this, and for other reasons, I thought that I might offer periodic reflections/reviews.
All too often, argues Ben Witherington, the theology of the New Testament has been divorced from its ethics, leaving as isolated abstractions what are fully integrated, dynamic elements within the New Testament itself. As Witherington stresses, “behavior affects and reinforces or undoes belief.”
Having completed commentaries on all of the New Testament books, a remarkable feat in itself, Witherington now offers the first of a two-volume set on the theological and ethical thought world of the New Testament. The first volume looks at the individual witnesses, while the second examines the collective witness.
The New Testament, says Ben Witherington, is “like a smallish choir. All are singing the same cantata, but each has an individual voice and is singing its own parts and notes. If we fail to pay attention to all the voices in the choir, we do not get the entire effect. . . . If this first volume is about closely analyzing the sheet music left to us by which each musician’s part is delineated, the second volume will attempt to re-create what it might have sounded like had they ever gotten together and performed their scores to produce a single masterful cantata.”
What the New Testament authors have in mind, Witherington contends, is that all believers should be conformed in thought, word and deed to the image of Jesus Christ–the indelible image.
It is rather difficult for me to reflection on the words of a live man – perhaps for fear of a challenge, correction, or complete abandonment. Yet, in this volume of Witherington, he invites reflection, as if I was sitting in the audience of his choir.
His Prologue explains his methods and goals, and indeed, is a short work all of it’s own which should give certain clues to the reader regarding what is up coming. In this part, the author moves to reason the connection between theology, ethics, and the narratives of the New Testament, not shirking from biblical studies and its needed connection to theological endeavors. Nor does he shirk from criticizing, even subtly, previous and current trends in Christian hermeneutics such as seeing the Old Testament as a complete type of the New Testament and the notion that unbelievers can fail to see theological underpinnings in biblical narratives.
Witherington makes an effort to take in modern scholarship, even inviting Rudolf Bultmann into the conversation (pg 44) although rejecting his starting point with Paul (pg66). For Witherington, Jesus Christ, and thus Christology, is the central starting point for theology and thus the theology and ethics which occupies the author’s subject. He makes the case, and I assume, will explore this case further in-depth throughout this volume (as well as the subsequent volume) that ethics is tied to the theology found in the various New Testament witnesses.
It is interesting to note his take on hermeneutics. He takes a brief time to discuss the value of a proper New Testament interpretation in which the historical sense of the Old Testament is not lost. For the author, theology and ethics derived from the New Testament includes the essential piece – the historical. Indeed, he wishes that biblical, theological, and ethical studies of the New Testament would not lose site of the historical interpretation.