Review: The Indelible Image – Ben Witherington III

Click to Order

I would like to thank IVP-Academic for the chance to review this first volume in what I expect to be a rather important series.

Furthermore, we have seen… that the ethics is well grounded in the eschatological worldview that these authors are enunciating. It is not the task of this volume to begin to show at length correspondences and similarities among the thought worlds of the various New Testament writers. (pg814)

This series is one of the most important, and anticipated, volumes on theology and ethics in a generation or more. Witherington has produced an orthodox masterpiece that pushes the reader with biblical studies, criticism, and modern theological trends. While he doesn’t subscribe to all of the new trends, he has found a way to present orthodox theological precepts and tie them in to ethical concerns while introducing and answering, if need be, new paths in various biblical disciplines. It is a massive volume, and not because it totals more than 800 pages and hours of reading time, but primarily because of the amount of information – his ‘theologizing and ethicizing‘ – which the reader soaks in. It is not a drowning depth to be sure, as it is written to a cross-cultural and disciplined group of readers (if those with none of the above), but the worth of this volume will out live the author.

His premise is simple; to show that biblical ethics needs to be first and foremost understood through the theology of the New Testament. He examines the biblical texts, the voices which we know as the New Testament, individually centered primarily around the author (Paul’s corpus for example, or the Johannine writings) but draws them together based on a few common factors, such as the Christ-event which changed the perception of the Hebrew Scriptures, concerns for Christians living in a world which was hostile to them, and eschatology. He shows quite well the unity not only between Christ and Paul, but between Paul, James, and the other voices of the New Testament, erasing any hints of extreme contradictions. He is not afraid to remain orthodox while examining what many might consider unorthodox areas – such as the Wisdom Corpus (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon) – but holds to the Christ-Event as the primary factor for biblical textual interpretation.

In his Prologue, the author explains his methods and goals, and indeed, is a short work all of its 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. He is insistent that we must understand Judaism before we can start to understand Christianity (pg68)

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). 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.

Moving into the first chapter, Withington begins to dig deeper into the heart of the matter. In laying theology and ethics at the feet of Jesus, Witherington doesn’t mince words in describing the importance of having Him as a starting point for the discussion of NT ethics. I find his take on the Gospel writers somewhat refreshing in that he allows them to rest squarely within Christian Tradition while moving past the ‘Bultmannian assumptions’ which he labels as extreme (p127). Throughout the book, the reader will find that Witherington is giving a commentary, such as the one found on the Beatitudes, starting in Matthew 5.

Witherington moves into the discussion Paul, by far is the most controversial figure in the New Testament, not least for a perceived departure from the ‘Jesus message.’ Handling the discussion with skill and passion, the author’s work on Paul is a radical defense of the Apostle’s work in light of the ‘Christ Event.’ One of the most interesting feature of this chapter is Witherington’s detail of Paul’s ’storied’ life, stating five stories upon which Paul bases his interaction with the Christ event.  While his job is not Pauline authorship  Witherington serves well in connecting Jesus and Paul in the message of ethics associated with theology. While others see a stark difference in the message of the two, the author, dispels that long persisting rumor and shows that Paul was well in line with the message of Christ.

Witherington focuses on James, Jude and 1st Peter in one defining chapter. While he allows for echoes or direct thought quotations from the Deuterocanon, he singles out Jude’s use of Enoch as something different. Instead of aligning himself with nearly every other scholar, Witherington instead allows for that a unity between Jude and not necessarily 1st Enoch, but the oral tradition behind that section of 1st Enoch which it and Jude has in common. Launching into James with almost anti-Lutheran fervor, he quickly declares the ’strawry epistle’ for what it is – the New Testament’s conclusion to the Wisdom literary tradition. Connecting this ‘back of the book’ epistle, as he did with Jude, to the words of Christ, the picture emerges of just how close the New Testament documents are to Christ and the Gospel tradition. His section on 1st Peter is one that stands out long after I closed the book.

Admittedly, the Johannine literature is weak when it comes it ethics, but his focus instead on various aspects of it makes this the weakest part of the volume. While I understand the authors need to examine the entire New Testament, this volume might have been better served by not examining the Gospel but focused on the Epistles, which should have brought about interaction with authority and church leadership, but didn’t. Contrary to the weakness of John is the strength of the Synoptics. The latter chapter is a rather important section, as he deals with such topics as the Shorter Ending of Mark, which he obliterates any idea that the Gospel writer ended his work with a giant question mark. As he progresses through these books (Matthew through Acts in the canon, except John) he brings to light why a plain reading of the text does injustice to the author and the story being told.

Examining  the two remaining works shows that the author doesn’t tire easily. For Revelation, the author doesn’t really tackle the issue of eschatology for the New Testament’s only real prophetic work, but highlights several portions, briefly, as he demonstrates quite succinctly that John is writing primarily to show God controls history, regardless of current or future persecutions. Further, he takes the time to thoroughly highlight what John highlights throughout Revelation – the deity of Christ and indeed, the (con)fusion of OT images and titles for God with Christ. He essentially reiterates Bauckhams’ thesis on the early worship of Christ fitting well within in Jewish monotheism of the time. Finally, our author does take a very simple passage in 2nd peter 1 and shows with simplicity the ethics contained therein. Further, while he sits on the fence of apostolic authorship, he manages to hold 2nd Peter still in the inspired light and uses it to show that at the time it was written, the Church was moving from apostolic to the post-apostolic age (pg813). The author sees a high Christology in 2nd Peter, which is not difficult to see when the author calls Christ God and sees only Christ returning during judgment (pg812).

While one doesn’t need to be familiar with Witherington to enjoy this volume (and no doubt this series), the reader should note that he is an author with a great many books behind him, many of which he mentions throughout the text, referring to them to support his current thought. This is a weakness and a strength, as the reader should take this book for the great worth that it represents as well as continue to theologize and ethicize on their own. Further, he does hold conversations with other authors and works in this volume, which is again, a weakness and strength. He is also strong on the fact that this is written to everyone, in not an overly technical level, nor to the lowest grade reader. It is written to mature Christians and those new to the Faith, and even to those outside of the Faith. The brief times he starts to tackle ethics present a powerful code which dismisses claims of legalism. Neither is he afraid to address the tension between Calvinism and Arminianism, leaving both groups defeated and victorious.

This work is massive, but it carries with it nothing short of a library and a lifetime’s worth of thought and material for more thought.

I have posted a series of reflection on each chapter, which you can find here.

You Might Also Like

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.