Ben Witherington III on Scripture

Michael Bird of Euangelion recently posted an interview he did with Ben Witherington III. The interview focuses on Witherington’s forthcoming commentary on 1-2 Peter, but along the way they discuss the doctrine of inerrancy–a doctrine in which I have shown some interest in the past. Here is the part of the interview that interests me:
3. What do you make of terms such as “inerrant” and “infallible”?

The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects–history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.
I certainly appreciate his attempt to substitute a positive definition of Scripture (true and trustworthy) for a negative one (inerrant and infallible). But I am uncomfortable with his final definition of the Bible’s truthfulness: “the Bible has three main subjects–history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.” I offer the following five theses in rejection of Witherington’s statement:
    1. Witherington’s definition identifies the subject of the Bible to be an object of study (history, theology, ethics) rather than a personal God whom we worship. This is an inherently and restrictively modern notion.

    2. Witherington’s definition undermines the unity and coherency of Scripture by identifying three subjects rather than one. When we focus on the God attested to in Holy Scripture rather than the various human subject matters, the biblical text is unified as a coherent dramatic narrative arising out of and witnessing to the triune economy of grace.

    3. Witherington’s definition buys into the modern academic division between history, theology, and ethics, which is simply untenable in relation to the biblical text. In Holy Scripture, history = theology = ethics. We might make certain distinctions here and there, but a rigid division like this is a modern imposition upon the text unknown to the early church and to most of the Christian tradition.

    4. The Bible does not tell the truth “about” something. This again buys into the modern view of the Bible as a kind of ancient textbook which tells us about some thing. But Scripture does not speak about; it simply speaks. Holy Scripture is a text of proclamation. It is the written Word of God—not a word about something, but a word of someone and to someone.

    5. Finally, the truthfulness of the Bible is not a property residing in or belonging to the text itself; rather, the Bible is true by virtue of the Spirit who shaped its composition in the past and shapes our reading of the text today. The truthfulness of the Bible is only guaranteed because the Spirit of truth actualizes the truthfulness of the text. To put it simply, I suggest that John 16:13 should be a central verse in our bibliology: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”


Thanks David. Your criticisms are spot on!
Anonymous said…
Does the Spirit reveal different truths in this human-text interaction at different times in history - or even at different times in our own lives?

In other words, is the truth the same truth at all times?
Bryan L said…

I think Witherington’s view of the Bible is that it’s from above in that it comes from God (a personal God) to us and is meant to teach us about him (history and theology) and about what he wants from and what it means to be a follower of Christ (ethics?). And in these things it is trustworthy (and leads to correct worship in thought and action).

Now If I’m right in describing what he is getting at then I’m having trouble understanding what you’re setting up in opposition to this. I’d try to flesh it out but I don’t know if I’d be correctly describing what you’re saying in your first point when you say the subject of the Bible is instead a personal God whom we worship. Maybe you can flesh it out a bit.

Also if I’m correct in describing witherington’s view I can’t tell what is so modern about this? What is so modern about looking at the Bible as something to learn from? Was nobody in ancient Judaism doing this? Was nobody in the Middle Ages doing this?

I have more questions but I figure I’d try to understand you as much as possible on these things before moving on to my next questions about the points of criticism you raised. Thanks.

Bryan L
::aaron g:: said…
The points you make about Scripture are very good! Thanks.

I'm not sure though that BW would disagree?
Dan said…
are you maybe putting more weight on witherington's comments then they are intended to carry since they come in the context of an interview which by nature is not usually a place to give extended dissertations on any topic... are you grinding some kind of ax here?