Reflection: The Indelible Image, Beloved Theology and Ethics

Witherington’s latest work is an 800 page masterpiece. In order to help me keep track of my thoughts on this book, and in part to showcase more of the book than a review, I am posting ‘reflections’ on each chapter.

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Witherington starts the chapter by examining the closeness of the Gospels and the Epistles and then blowing my mind by stating that he believes that Lazarus is the author of these works (he goes on later to suggest that there is a possibility that the Demetrius of 3rd John could be the author of the Gospel).

Part of what Witherington is doing is engaging his previous works while laying out in commentary fashion the scene and setting of the work to be examined. For John, this is not different. One area of concern, especially when examining John is the issue of current scholarly trends in regards to John’s Gospel. While not offering much in the footnotes for this trend, he does however refer to Blomberg’s, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel. This is Witherington’s right, of course, but I do wish that he would have a small amount of time exploring the competing questions of historical reliability.

In exploring the 1st Epistle, Witherington spends some time in exploring John’s epilogue, as I say, making as case that it is related, but not dependent upon John’s Prologue (John 1.1.-18). He moves rather quickly through this, leaving the rest to be ciphered from various commentaries and works, moving into the ethical section of the Epistle in which we encounter the light and the dark, the truth and the lie. For Witherington, as it is a growing trend, behavior and belief is the lens in which he reads these ethical guidelines. Of course, I might say that because of the ethical guidelines found in the text, a requirement to connect belief (theology) and behaviour (ethics) is a permanent must.

In working through the connection between the New Testament community of writers, Witherington maintains a respectably conservative position in that he fully acknowledges the rightness of interpreting the Christ event through the Old Testament, unlike Brueggemann. In dealing with the atonement (translation debate), and in other areas, Witherington allows the writers to speak for themselves with the documents which they themselves would have read. By doing this, BW3 is able to draw the two communities – Jewish and Christian – together in a shared ethics.

At times, Witherington sounds like a (scholarly) educated holiness preacher. He writes of the Greek, of the Fathers, the LXX, tenses, clauses, and Qumran, and then turns to application for the believer. The author takes the text and applies to the life of the Christian in a manner which is measurable – meaning that we can measure the Christian life and responsibility by the ethics, or holiness standard as some of us would say, found in the New Testament. For example, in deal with a subsection in this chapter, Witherington moves ‘love’ from the Greek – first explaining it as such – into practical application, in that love is something more than nobility, but spontaneous and creative, and binding between Christians. He bases this model on the Godhead. It then urges completeness and conditioning in that love between the believe and God and then the believers with each other.

The author paints the picture of community in the first epistle and the importance of continuing in that community. For Witherington, 1st John is written to a congregation after a major split. While he doesn’t delve much into the why, he does present the argument that John is writing to set perimeters for the remaining congregation. I don’t he does justice to what ethics this should produce, nor doe he spend time on the why which itself could feed an ethical discussion.

Moving into the discussion on Apostasy, specially 1st John 5, Witherington allows current anti-sacramentalism to blur his lens and bends over backwards connecting ‘water’ in 1st John 5.6 with water in John 3.5, noting that baptism couldn’t possibly be the meaning here since the Gospel doesn’t mention the baptism of Christ whatsoever. It seems to me that the author is working his viewpoint around an already settled fact, for him, that a partial eyewitness wrote these works based only on the unknown author’s account. Further, like most modern interpreters, he fails to take into account that nowhere in ancient literature does birth¬† become connected with water. Instead of taking into account the LXX, the ancient literature, and common sense, Witherington simply relies upon his own understanding of what the author of 1st John is saying. It is a low point of this work.

BW3 has a way in connecting the New Testament authors, finding dovetails in the least obvious places. For example, he connects 2nd John with other issues of Apostolic authority, testing Church leaders, preachers and doctrine which is found in Revelation and the Pastorals. Granted, I think that he might go over board on a few of those connections, but he reveals himself as one who can see connections in the New Testament writers which betray not various adverse communities springing up around the Jesus Tradition, but one united by the Christ Event.

Ending the examination of the Epistles leaves me wondering where the discussion of Ethics went. Unlike previous sections, this focused more on ecclesiology and authorship than either real theology or ethics. Although I might say that this plays into Christian ethics, especially the ethics of church leaders, congregations and even the budding house church movement, Witherington lets slip away any chance of dealing head on with those issues.

One of the things which can be taken either way is Witherington’s use of his previous works. If you are familiar with his previous works, then his statements about them are easy enough to digest, however, for those unfamiliar with them, they will be a little off putting. Of course, he does summarize himself and his previous works, but it might be helpful to familiarize yourself with him.

Failure to know Wisdom literature leads to failure to understand the sort of theologizing and ethicizing that is going on in this Gospel (pg556)

On a plus note, Witherington’s initial take on John’s Gospel as one presenting Christ as Wisdom is preferable. He is right, though, when he says that John’s Gospel benefits from viewing Christ with (a lot of) hindsight (pg548). This is a late gospel, perhaps, and one which reflects a developed view of the divinity of Christ, which seems to be the sole viewpoint of this work.¬† While he well lays the case of John’s parallelism of Logos/Sophia, I believe that his focus on the ‘Father’ language in the Fourth Gospel doesn’t sit with the other language of the time, in which Judaism understood God as Father without the use of the Son, and indeed, it could be said that unlike BW3’s postulation, the Son is interpreted through the Father and not vice versa.

It seems that like other scholars at this time, Witherington takes some of John’s Gospel as doubtful historicity, attributing the ‘I Am’ sayings of Christ to the Evangelist as a theological function. Further, it seems that every phrase or shade of lighting is used to reveal some deeper meaning. He does return to his rather botched understanding of the water that he explored in 1st John adding to it a controversy which has been, or so I thought, settled, by discussing the Greek anothen (again or above). He bends over backwards, but does not footnote his arguments, using Scripture to supplement his view that water in John 3.5 is the waters of birth, ignoring that even within the Gospel, birth is considered by blood. Although he lists the Jewish view that water will bring a new creation/conversion, he dismisses in favor of his view. In laying the groundwork for Christ as Wisdom, BW3 has the Evangelist showing Christ as superseding an existing format. So why is it then, that for baptism, Christ is speaking something completely foreign to the audience?

I understand that BW3 is writing about theology and ethics, but he does allow – especially in John’s section – his own theology, and not the theology of the writer to come forth. For example, he spends a considerable amount of time connecting Christ to the personified Wisdom, and then, starting on pg 588, does the same with the Holy Spirit, and yet maintains Fourth Century distinctions and viewpoints. It is in these ‘essential’ points that Witherington simply doesn’t allow for discussion. He builds the idea of ‘personhood’ for the Spirit not based on the Greek pneuma (neuter), but on the Greek parakletos (masculine), which is a job or adjective of the Spirit.

Finally, in the Long Falwell, as Witherington labels John 13-17, he turns to ethical guidelines, but briefly. In the end, it seems that the only thing which can be gleaned from the Gospel regarding ethics is that believing is necessary to continue in Christ. He realizes that ethics in John is difficult to come by, following other authors who have tried, but Witherington, true to form, knows the right way to decipher the Johannine ethics, in that he sees ethics bound up in the theology of the Evangelist. It seems a stretch to me, or perhaps BW3 will examine the ethics supposedly found in the Gospel in the second volume; he should have spent more time developing the ethics of community found in the Epistles.

In my opinion, Witherington obliterates John’s Gospel.

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