The Problem with Evangelical Theologies
When evangelicals have debated, it has usually been Calvinists versus Arminians or dispensationalists versus Pentecostals. Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, says a pox on all evangelical houses, at least exegetically. He appreciates what each tradition brings to the tablefrom a fresh appreciation of God's sovereignty to holiness, eschatology, and gifts of the Spiritbut he argues in his latest book that in their distinctives, all four branches are least faithful to the Bible. In the end, his book, The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism (Baylor University, 2005), makes a positive argument for how biblical interpretation should be done in an increasingly postmodern setting. CT managing editor Mark Galli interviewed Witherington.
So, what is the problem with evangelical theology?
It has exegetical weaknesses that are not recognized or owned up to by the various evangelical Protestant strains of theology. That's what it boils down to.
You write that in our distinctives, we are least faithful to the Word. What do you mean?
The issue is not really with Christology, the Trinity, the virginal conception, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or the Bible as the Word of God. The issues I'm concerned about are the distinctives of Calvinist, Arminian, dispensational, or Pentecostal theology. When they try to go some particular direction that's specific to their theological system, that's precisely the point in their argument at which they are exegetically weakest.
The Calvinist system links the ideas of predestination, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. Each of those has its own exegetical weaknesses, especially perseverance of the saints.
But the same can be said about the distinctives of Arminian theology, especially when you start talking about having an experience of perfection in this lifetime. There are problems matching that up with what the New Testament says about perfection.
The same can be said about Pentecostal theology, with its teaching about a second, definitive work of grace, and about dispensationalism, with its teaching on pre-tribulation or mid-tribulation rapture. I show in my book that all of these evangelical theological systems are exegetically vulnerable precisely in their distinctives.
In what ways do you find the Calvinist teaching on the perseverance of the saintsthat a person cannot lose their salvationto be exegetically weak?
You have in the Homily to the Hebrews (usually called the Letter to the Hebrews) a long discourse warning Jewish Christians in Rome about falling away, defecting, backsliding, renouncing the grace they've received. There's this huge warning in Hebrews 6:1-6 that says, in effect: Look, you've tasted of the Holy Spirit, you've heard the gospel, you've come to the altar 15 times; if you've done all of these things and you turn back, then you've committed apostasy, and what you're facing is final judgment. He is warning all of the Jewish Christians in Rome, not a select group. That's perfectly clear from the trajectory and flow of the argument if you pursue it right through Hebrews. Christians who are eternally secure in this lifetime don't need those kinds of warnings. But the author of Hebrews doesn't think there are such people. He doesn't think you're eternally secure until you're securely in eternity.
In the Pastoral Epistles, Paul talks about people who make shipwreck of the faith. As John Wesley once said, you can't make shipwreck of something you're not sailing on.