Part 1 of my review can be read HERE.
Concerning the Author’s Approach
One of the things I really appreciate about Witherington’s approach and honesty concerning his presuppositions are helpful in evaluating the data presented and provide a framework within which his conclusions might be evaluated. Witherington acknowledges his assumption that “The Bible is both the words of human beings and, in and through those words, the living word of God.” He goes on to state his opinion that it is impossible for a person to deal with New Testament Theology and ethics without “a concept of divine revelation” (2003, p.29). Therefore one should not be surprised by his argument that, “what is historically false cannot be theologically true” (2009, p.32). It would appear that Witherington believes the New Testament to be both theological and ethical in nature while also completely historically accurate.
Witherington seeks to not only establish the historicity of the New Testament but also how the historical context informs ones understanding of the theology and ethics of the New Testament. In the opening two chapters of this volume, a large amount of time is spent dealing with various issues relating to historical Jesus studies and other matters relating to the historical criticism of the New Testament. Many of the issues which Witherington has addressed have been foundational in forming the current approach to New Testament studies (2009).
Despite his concerns that certain elements of New Testament historical study have led to a diminishing of the relationship between New Testament theology and ethics, Witherington believes a person’s understanding of the New Testament must be grounded in its historical context. Otherwise, one’s conclusions will amount to nothing more than subjective hypothesis rather than objective understanding. As he notes:
“New testament theology or ethics is also not properly done if we simply assume that our modern worldview and presuppositions are obviously better and more correct than those of the authors of the New Testament itself.” (2009, p.45)
In Witherington’s mind, the historical context provides an understanding of the context into which the theologising and ethicising of the New Testament took place. Perhaps too much ethicising and theologising is not grounded in an understanding of the New Testament witness and for far too long those responsible for the task of New Testament Studies have either demythologised the message of the New Testament to the point of irrelevance or constructed a New Testament ethic based on their own presuppositions.
 I will discuss the issues surrounding the historical critical in my critique of the book in upcoming posts.
You would think that it would be a no brainer.. “that if something is not historically true.. then it can’t be theologically true…”
I think Witherington is spot on to connect theology and ethics – all good theology has ethical implications and ethical living is rooted in solid theology. Additionally, wouldn’t it be better to say “what is not historically false cannot *not* be theologically true”?
Thanks Brian I have fixed the quote.
Craig – It is one area I may disagree with Ben. In my mind something does not have to be historically true to be theological true…(within certain limitations)
“He goes on to state his opinion that it is impossible for a person to deal with New Testament Theology and ethics without “a concept of divine revelation” (2003, p.29).”
Does he mean that one would have to postulate a concept of divine revelation for the persons writing and being written about in the New Testament (Jesus, Paul, etc.) in order to do New Testament theology and ethics or that those doing New Testament theology and ethics must themselves hold to a particular dogma of divine revelation?
@Mark: What would be an example of something that could be historically false yet theologically true? Are you thinking like the Book of Job could be an ancient near eastern drama that never “really” happened in space-time, yet the message of the story is true? Or the Book of Jonah is a parable using the Hebrew prophet Jonah, though he may not have had that actual experience? Or something else?
@ Mark: I am keeping in mind that Ben is talking about a NT ethic and not a OT ethic.
Within the context of historical truth there has to be contextual understanding of genre… so we don’t read parables and spoken stories as being historical truth.. but we can recognise that its historically true that Jesus did share those stories…and therefore dig out theological truth and understanding within those stories.
@Brian & @Craig Yes and Yes. Although I believe in Pauline authorship of the pastorals i would argue that if they were not written by Paul they would still be theologically true (in message). God chose them to be written with Paul’s name as the author (even if he wasn’t).
Job, yes & Creation narrative. Historically false (in the way it is written) and yet theologically true (its intended meaning).
@Dan I think what Ben is arguing is that although many people are involved in the Biblical Studies field (especially in historical research) only those who believe scripture to be more than just a set of documents can undertake the task of NT Theol and Ethics faithfully.
Comments are closed.