A Comment for Ben Witherington

Unfortunately, Dr. Witherington’s Blogspot blog only allows Blogspot bloggers to blog er, comment so I thought I’d cast my comment upon the blogosphere and hope he gets it.

He’s written a post that I rather appreciate, which you can read here. If you do, you’ll notice some typos and some confusing use of language. Out of my appreciation for it, I’ve edited a bit. (I’d hate for folks to miss what he’s saying.) I’d hoped Dr. Witherington might be able to simply cut and paste the edited version into his blog, but I guess not. Anyway, here’s the comment that I wanted to leave along with my revision of the post.

I imagine that you are a very busy person who doesn’t have time to go back and edit this post, so out of appreciation for what you have written, I’ve gone through and edited it. I’m an English teacher by profession, so doing this is almost second nature for me.

I hope that you approve…but understand if you don’t.

Thanks for a good post.

One of the more interesting subjects to discuss is the freedom of God. What exactly is God free to do or not to do? Is God’s will the primary and controlling divine attribute such that even God’s knowledge is dependent on God’s will in the first place? Are there things that a sovereign God cannot do? For example, is God free to sin? Or is God’s behavior determined by the unalterable divine nature? That is to say, is God subject to the same sort of determinism some Christians believe applies to human beings? These sorts of questions and their answers all have a bearing on how we ask and answer the question about human freedom and its nature.

A few preliminary points are in order. Firstly, I take it that the primary attribute of God is not God’s will but rather God’s love, which is a holy love. Not holiness without love, and not love without holiness. I say this because God’s will has primarily to do with his doing, but what is prior to that is God’s being or character, and in my view God’s willing is dependent on his character. There are certain things which, while theoretically God might be able to do, God would never do because it would be ‘out of character’. For example God is light, and in God is no darkness at all. I take this to mean that God would never do evil nor commit sin. Of course there have been theologians who have argued that the terms good or evil are simply defined by what God does or does not do and sanction. I think there is a problem with this whole approach. The moral order of the universe and, more specifically, the image of God in human beings are meant to tend in a particular direction, namely conformity to the character of God. God says “be ye holy as I am holy”. There is supposed to be a reflection of the divine character in us, and indeed in all of creation. This in turn means that God, having set up the universe in a particular way, is not free to be capricious and redefine the meaning of holy in the middle of the game. God has chosen to express the divine nature in a particular way and has chosen to limit himself such that God as well as all of his creation is subject to certain standards of truth, holiness, love, and so on. This is a complicated matter, but the bottom line is that once God set up the universe with free agents other than himself, God is not free to do just anything without violating his revealed character and will. This is not an absolute limitation. I am assuming God could set up a definition of sin and could violate it, but if God did, he would cease to be the good God of the Bible. It is the last refuge of a scoundrel to say that God, who has already defined darkness and light, can change the definition along the way so that “whatever is, is right, because God has done and said it”. This is one of the reasons why it is terribly false to attribute to God sins that he prohibits us from doing, say for example destroying innocent human lives for no good or appropriate reason. But I digress.

I assume that when human beings were created in the image of God this meant, among other things, that Adam had libertarian freedom to either obey God or not. It is not appropriate to judge this matter on the basis of the attributes of fallen human beings who indeed in various ways can be said to be in bondage to sin or addicted to sinful behaviors. No, the question is: how did God make us in the first place, and how in Christ does God restore us in Christ as we are renewed in the image of Christ? Does grace restore the power of contrary choice in redemption or not? Of course much depends on one’s view of grace. Some people think grace works rather like an escalator– it does all the heavy lifting and we are just along for the ride. I disagree with this. Grace is not irresistible, it is rather a form of enablement from a gracious God which gives us a further chance to freely love and obey God. In other words, we must indeed work out our salvation with fear and trembling. God’s grace does not do it all for us and in spite of us.

Another of the major issues which affects this discussion is the nature of love. Now, I understand love to be the most personal act of either God or human beings. Furthermore, it is the most free and freeing act of all beings. It must be freely given and freely received. It cannot be coerced, co-opted, manipulated, and it most certainly does not work in an impersonal manner, like say the way iron filings are attracted to a magnet. God is not a magnet and he does not treat his creatures in an impersonal way that makes their behavior inevitable. If he did, it would cease to be personal and loving behavior on our part for sure.

This leads me to a further point. Ethics in the Bible are largely what are called “virtue ethics”. They are not intended to be exercises in futility or frustration. Nor is the function of ethical enjoinders to simply give us a clear picture of our impotence compared to God’s omnipotence, though it must be said it often has such an effect. Now, virtue ethics require that a person has the capacity to be virtuous, by which I mean, the person has the capacity to either freely behave in this way or not. Otherwise there is nothing virtuous about the behavior. The pure “fight or flight” instinct of a deer is not an example of making a conscious choice to “do the right thing”. I am utterly convinced that the Bible calls us to be virtuous beings, or as Paul suggests in Phil. 4, to be creatures who can not merely reflect on what is noble and excellent, but seek and attempt to do it. The commands to love as we are loved, to forgive as we are forgiven and so on, presuppose that grace actually enables us to freely attempt to imitate Christ and do what he commands us to do, at least approximately. God is an ethical being and he wants Christians to reflect the highest and best behavior a human being can muster. Indeed, he commands us to do it, but as Augustine says, God gives what he commands; he enables us to believe and behave as we ought to do.

In short, the discussion of the freedom of human beings should never be undertaken in isolation from the discussion of the freedom of God, and the ways God has chosen to limit himself in order to allow us a limited measure of freedom, and so be a small reflection of the divine character. Here we must return to the matter of God’s will and knowledge. Notice how in Rom. 9-11 God foreknows things that he did not will, for example the apostasy of Israel and the rejection of its savior by most early Jews. Not only did God not will this, but his heart is broken by it just as Paul’s heart is. What this tells me is that Calvin was wrong about the relationship between God’s will and God’s knowledge. God does not merely know it because he wills it. There is some other relationship between knowing and willing in God and they are not inexorably linked. At the end of the day, I believe whole heartedly in what John 3.16-17 says: God loves the whole fallen world and Jesus died for the sins of all human beings as 1 Tim. 2 also says. This in turn means there are other agents in play in the matter of redemption, human agents who can either positively or negatively respond to the Gospel, and the eternal lostness of some is in no way willed or destined by God. Were the matter otherwise, our God would cease to be a good God by his own definition of goodness. One final reminder– as the prophets told us, God requires of us that we reflect the divine character– to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. What God requires of us, he enables us to do, so that in small measure we may reflect the virtuous and free character of our God.

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2 Comments

Filed under Reflection

2 responses to “A Comment for Ben Witherington

  1. gepr.blogspot.com

    This is abolutly great correction.

    i really wonder why the gentlman didnt get a chance to read the correction.

    i respect and apprciate when someone talks about a subject while he has a good backup related to it.

    Mr. Witherington comments about JESUS were tempted, in time he doesnt seem knowing what JESUS mission was here, and mainly what his nature was.

  2. Thanks for coming by gepr.blogspot.com.

    Sorry, but I don’t understand what you mean by the last statement.

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