A Christ-centered view of the inseparability of belief and behavior
The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Thought World of the New Testament
Author: Ben Witherington III
Publisher: IVP Academic
In volume one of The Indelible Image, Ben Witherington shows the interrelationship between theology and ethics given by Jesus and the New Testament writers. He ties the two together through the concept of God’s image being renewed in fallen human beings by the salvation that is in Christ. “Salvation involves the restoration not merely of relationship between God and humankind, but of human character so that the relationship can be ongoing and positive rather than sporadic and broken. The aim of salvation is not merely to start a relationship, but to conform a people to the image of God’s son …“Salvation involves both belief and behavior. Since God is loving, holy, just and good, he works to produce the same in the lives of his people. This is a constant theme throughout both volumes.
The present volume is more of a synthesis than the first. Witherington writes, “What I offer in the present volume is the distillation of what can only be called the theology and ethics of Jesus and of the various New Testament writers as it is revealed in detailed exegetical study.“ Witherington brings the voices that sang individually in the first volume together as a choir, showing how they harmonize and complement each other. He also highlights their solos, their unique contributions that make them distinct.
He eschews categories and groupings in favor of a Christological focus. First and foremost in developing a theology of ethics is seeing how the New Testament writers deal with Christology, which Witherington rightly sees as the pivotal change-event in their world. He does, however, deal with many other subjects along the way, but there is a continual recognition that Christ brings theology and ethics together. “The longer I work with the New Testament, the less satisfied I am to see theology and ethics divided from one another as if they were discrete subjects. By this I mean that the figure and pattern of Christ binds the two together and grounds both the indicative (what Christ was and did) and the imperative (what his followers should do and be).”
Witherington starts by going deeply into the symbolism and thought world of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Theology and ethics must not be stripped of its first century context. He also emphasizes the importance of narrative or story. “Story is the primary means by which the meaning of God and the divine human encounter is conveyed from the very first chapter of Genesis.” There’s no need to choose between story and history in the work of interpretation. Removing either would be like a picture without a frame.
When it comes to analysis, though Witherington may not always be right, more often than not I felt as though he was uncovering the true meaning of texts. Witherington’s extensive background and study give rise to careful interpretation. This is what kept me reading page after page, until I finished the entire book.
One of my favorite sections is an exposition of Revelation 11 and 12. If Witherington’s handling of these chapters is any indication, his commentary on Revelation is worth getting.
His purpose is to provide a sense of the character of visionary material in Revelation. I thoroughly enjoyed his thoughtful reflections on the identity of the woman clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and wearing a crown with twelve stars. He sees her not as Mary or Israel but the community of God’s people.
Witherington further shows the importance of precise analysis in his handling of the Pauline household codes, where Paul gives instruction to husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. He identifies the crucial question as, “‘What does Paul do with these preexisting structures and customs?’ Does he simply endorse them, or does he modify them, and if he modifies them, what is the direction or aim of his remarks?”
He convincingly shows that Paul is ameliorating the harsher effects of patriarchy, guiding “the head of the household into a new conception of his roles that Christianizes his conduct in various ways and so turns marriage into more of a partnership and turns household management more into a matter of actualizing biblical principles about love of neighbor and honoring others.”
Witherington saves for the end one of his most thoughtful insights, which some may take issue with, but which is nevertheless worth considering. He has written in detail about the subject in a prior book, “In The Problem with Evangelical Theology one of the main points I stressed repeatedly is that the problem with evangelical theologies of various sorts is, paradoxically enough, that they are not biblical enough, and even more to the point, they become unbiblical at the precise junctures where they try to say something distinctive from the things that all orthodox Christians basically agree on. He cites as examples, predetermination, sinless perfection, the rapture, which he sees as an exaggeration of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, and the baptism of the spirit as a second work of grace.
These issues and ones like them can be controversial and debatable, but it’s no reason not to pick up these volumes if you have a different view than the author. These issues are never the focus, and there is a wealth of solid biblical exegesis that will benefit any student of the Bible. His point about distinctives is a reminder of the need for humility. It’s not only important to subject our beliefs to the utmost scrutiny; it’s good to recognize that we can be wrong. Where disagreements persist, Christ, his person, work and words can be a unifying factor.
Witherington ends with a fitting prayer: “Lord, may we understand not only your Word but also ourselves in the light of your Word, written and incarnate, and so become what we admire, mirrors of Christ, bearers of the indelible and restored image. Amen.”
June 17, 2010