Posted by: John Adams | October 1, 2009

Review: The Problem with Evangelical Theology

Problem with Evangelical Theology by Ben Witherington: Book Cover“Sola Scriptura” (Scripture alone) and “semper reformanda” (always reforming) were the twin mottoes of the Reformation. In his book, The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism, Dr. Ben Witherington claims that while the three main families of Evangelicals (Calvinists, Dispensationalists, and Wesleyans) are faithful to the Bible on the essentials, the things that distinguish them as theological systems are based on exegetically weak interpretations of key Biblical passages. As such, Witherington declares a pox on all houses, calling them all back to their Reformation heritage and evaluating their systems in light of what the Scripture says.

Witherington’s aim is not to write a comprehensive review of all three systems, but rather to deconstruct “the big ideas that serve as building blocks for looking at the biblical text in a certain kind of way…” (4) Naturally, then, the bulk of the book is devoted to exegesis, exemplifying an approach to Scripture that interprets the text from its original languages, appreciates socio-rhetorical context, and interacts with leading commentators.

The Problem with Calvinism

Reformed theology, in Witherington’s reading, is flawed in four ways.

First, it filters its reading of Romans through Augustine, who in reaction to Pelagius over-emphasized the helplessness of humanity “in Adam” has to please God, while downplaying humanity’s ability to freely receive the gift of salvation “in Christ.” In contrast, Witherington argues that a proper exegesis of Romans 5:12-21 will reveal that Paul is not arguing for imputation to humans of Adam’s sin or to Christians of Christ’s righteousness, but rather has a concept of “incorporative personality” (11) that does not take away either from humans’ responsibility for their own sins while “in Adam,” or for their responsibility to receive the gift of salvation and be forgiven in Christ.

Second, Witherington states that the Reformed misreading of Romans 7 has resulted in a flawed theology of sanctification, in which victory over sin is never fully possible. He argues that Romans 7 is not about believers at all, but is rather an example of an ancient rhetorical technique called “impersonation,” in which an author assumes the voice of a historical character in order to make a point. The character being assumed in Romans 7 is alternately Adam or those “in Adam,” who are both coming to realize the bondage they have to sin since they are outside of Christ. Christians, on the other hand, have victory over sin available to them through the Spirit, who offers sufficient grace capable of overcoming every sin.

Third, Witherington believes that Luther’s misreading of Galatians has caused a vacillation in the Reformed tradition between an antinomian misreading on the one hand (Luther), and the mistaken view that the new covenant is really the old covenant under a different administration (Calvin). By way of contrast, the Scripture teaches that while the Law is over and done with, Christians are not without Law. They are subject to a higher law—the standard of perfect love found in Christ. In contrast to the Mosaic Law, which the people could not keep since it aroused rebellion without providing power to be righteous, the New Covenant provides a higher Law with perfect power (through the Holy Spirit) to live it out in the real world.

Finally, Witherington believes that Calvinists have badly misunderstood Biblical passages about the doctrine of election when they assume that God elects people individually and unconditionally to salvation. He argues instead from Ephesians 1 that election is “in Christ”—Christ is the Elect One, the “place of grace,” so to speak, into whom all who will be saved must come. A parallel exists here between God’s election of Israel in the OT and God’s choosing of Christ in the NT. In both cases, those who were “in” at one time could fall away and others can be grafted in. This view neatly sidesteps the pitfalls of both the typical Arminian and the Reformed understandings of election.

The Problem with Dispensationalism

The first problem Witherington sees with the Dispensational approach to Scripture is a highly literalistic interpretation of apocalyptic prophecy. Arguing that “to take apocalyptic prophecy literally is to violate the character of such prophecy,” (109) he says that “what the text meant then is still what the text means today, and what it could not possibly have meant in the first century A.D. or before, it does not mean now.” (102)

A second problem lies in the distinctive doctrine of the secret Rapture. None of the passages marshaled in support of the Rapture actually say anything about that subject. “Unless by rapture one merely means being taken up into the air to welcome Christ and return with him to earth,” Witherington writes, “there is no theology of the rapture to be found in the New Testament anywhere, never mind the term itself.” (130) Furthermore, the NT is clear in several places that believers will not be raptured away from tribulation, but are preserved by God and called to endure it.

The final (and most serious) problem with Dispensationalism is that it teaches that there are two separate peoples of God—Israel and the church—and that a two-stage rapture involves Christ rescuing the church secretly before making his public return to rule a literally restored Kingdom of Israel after the Tribulation. However, this “two-track system of Dispensationalism,” writes Witherington, “with some promises being fulfilled in Israel and some in the church, simply will not work in the Pauline scheme of things, when one examines the details of Romans 9—11.” (165) Neither the OT nor the NT will support a two-peoples theology. Furthermore, this theology has negative consequences, since it promotes escapism, strips the church of motivation for social action, and promotes a profound pessimism with regard to future world events.

The Problem with Wesleyanism

In the last major section of his book, Witherington turns his sights on his own theological tradition—the Wesleyan tradition—to critique and analyze it in light of what the Scripture says. He begins by examining the Biblical theology of the kingdom of God (which he re-terms the “dominion of God,” [174] due to the fact that he believes it to be a better translation of the underlying Greek concept) before moving on to a survey of John Wesley’s theology of the dominion and a survey of the dominion in the Wesleyan tradition in general. Witherington notes Wesley’s emphasis shifted from an early focus on the interiority of the dominion to a “later focus on the future eschatology of the NT, and his continual stress…that working out one’s salvation and the reign of God in one’s life involved deeds of piety and charity.” (189) Thus, Wesley maintained the proper balance between the already and the not-yet aspects of the dominion, a balance his successors did not always preserve.

The next chapter examines Wesley’s theology of conversion, concluding that despite Wesley’s appropriate (revivalistic) emphasis on conversion as a major theme of Johannine and Pauline literature, he occasionally misinterpreted the major texts he used to preach the message of conversion. As an example, he interpreted the “water” that Jesus says a man must be born of in John 3:5 to mean the waters of baptism—a misinterpretation owing to his desire not to break with his Anglican heritage—although to his credit he recognized that “the real thrust of the material has to do with spiritual experience.” (205)

Finally, Witherington devotes a chapter to Wesley’s concepts of prevenient grace and entire sanctification. While admitting that prevenient grace is a doctrine “weakly grounded” (207) in the Bible, he contends that it “comports well with the character of a gracious God.” (209) Nevertheless, he would limit his doctrine to the statement that “sinners are enabled by grace, in the moment of crisis and crying out, to respond to the Gospel.” (209)

Concerning entire sanctification, Witherington admits that Wesley “sometimes…defined the scope of sin too narrowly, as simply a willful violation of a known law, and thus saw perfection as the avoidance of that coupled with the experience and expression of holy love.” (215) Nevertheless, Witherington defends Wesleyan perfection if it means “experienc[ing] the perfect love of God here and now, and so no longer liv[ing] in fear, and indeed [being] cleansed of all unrighteousness” (215), while dismissing later Wesleyan discussion of holiness as missing “the main [NT] focus of holy love” (216).

The last section of the final chapter is devoted to an offshoot of Wesleyan theology, the Pentecostal movement. Since this is the tradition in which I was raised, this section was of particular interest to me. While Witherington dismisses any notion of subsequence in the reception of the Holy Spirit as lacking exegetical grounding, he nonetheless defends the importance of charismatic gifts in the church, asserting that “evangelical theology needs to include a robust dose of pneumatology” (222). To that, I heartily reply, “Amen, brother,” although I question whether that statement goes quite far enough.


I agreed wholeheartedly with Witherington’s evaluations of Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism and have nothing further to add to either one.

It did puzzle me, however, that in his section on Reformed theology, he does not make explicit whether he believes in the imputation of Adam’s sin to all human beings. I suppose that he does not, since toward the end of Chapter 2, he makes it clear that he does not believe in the doctrine of imputed righteousness: “The righteousness of Jesus is not simply transferred to believers. They are in fact enabled and expected to behave in a holy manner, being empowered by the Holy Spirit.” (37) This line of argument sounds curiously similar to the Catholic doctrine of infused righteousness, in which it is the believer’s responsibility after initial justification to cooperate with grace in order to maintain salvation. In fact, this is exactly what Witherington goes on to say: “Christians are set right with God at the point of conversion, but they are also given the resources to live righteously thereafter, and they are expected to do so” (37).

While I agree that believers are expected and empowered to live righteously after conversion, can’t righteousness be both imputed and imparted? If Christ’s righteousness is not imputed to the believer, then it would seem to leave believers open to what has often been the dark side of Wesleyan/Arminian theology (and even Wesley himself)—the lack of assurance of salvation. If we do not have the assurance of a perfect righteousness beyond our own works—even if they are Spirit-empowered—then that would seem to open us up to despair. Furthermore, it would seem to contradict clear statements in Scripture that Christ has in fact become righteousness to us (1 Cor 1:30) and became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God (1 Cor 5:21).

However, the primary difference I had with Witherington was in the section on Pentecostalism. While I agreed with his argument that John 20 cannot be used as an example of the first reception of the Holy Spirit, leading to a second work in Acts 2, his work raised a few questions, especially when he writes that “it makes no sense to talk about getting the Spirit in doses or stages…it happens at conversion” (220). However, some of the accounts in Acts will not fit together that neatly. For instance, Luke writes of Samaritan believers who received the Word of God before receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-15), of Paul who was filled with the Spirit through the laying on of hands after having received a heavenly vision and having prayed for a few days in Damascus (Acts 9:17), and of Ephesian believers who received the Holy Spirit through the laying on of Paul’s hands in an experience clearly distinguishable from their conversion (if by conversion we mean “initial response of faith”—Acts 19:6). While conversion and “receiving the Holy Spirit” (in the Lukan sense, with accompanying manifestations) are closely related, I do not believe that they can be said to be identical. So far as I can see, there is no reason to identify conversion so closely with reception of the Spirit.

Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly with Witherington’s call to subject all of our theology to rigorous Scriptural exegesis. Would that more Christians (including, and perhaps especially Pentecostals) would embrace Paul’s call to “know nothing but Christ and Him crucified.” Would that all Evangelicals would purify their problematic theologies through the filter of the Word of God.



  1. you’re a brilliant writer. you make me sick. 🙂

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