Interview with Ben Witherington III on THE INDELIBLE IMAGE

Ben Witherington III, Amos Professor of NT for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary (KY), is a highly competent interpreter of Scripture and a prolific author. We have some interesting similarities. We both studied at secular undergrads (Ben at UNC and me at Miami Univ), both did our MDIVs at Gordon-Conwell, and both did our PhD work at Univ of Durham. We both taught at Ashland Theological Seminary and I just joined the adjunct faculty (to teach for the virtual campus) at Asbury. Another cross-current – I went to high school with his daughter!

Well, in any case, I was happy to receive a copy last year of his fantastic and cogent book entitled Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament (vol1 : The Individual Witnesses, Vol 2: The Collective Witnesses). Ben was kind enough to do an interview here with me and I suggest you recommend that your library order this weighty series. It is an excellent resource and would make a nice textbook as well.

NKG: There has been a whole host of NT Theology projects in recent years (Thielman, Marshall, Matera, Dunn,

Schreiner, Schnelle) – your project seeks to complement the ‘theology’ aspect by attending to the ‘ethical’ aspects as well.  Why has this been neglected by scholars?

You are of course right that there have been a plethora of NT theology tomes that have come out in the last decade or so. Not so many systematic surveys on NT ethics however.   Richard Hay’s The Moral Vision of the NT, and Wayne Meek’s work are both quite dated by now.   To some degree, the answer why the latter has been largely neglected while the former has been the subject of constant scrutiny has to do with the way one views salvation.  If salvation is purely a theological matter, we are saved by grace through faith plus nothing, then ethics can be no more than the grateful response of a person to what God has and is doing.  The problem with this view of salvation is considerable.  Salvation has three tenses in the NT— I have been saved (conversion, the new birth) I am being saved, and I shall be saved to the uttermost (involving finally the resurrection and full conformity to the image of Christ).  According to the NT, while the new birth is by grace through faith,  the working out of salvation, in the form of sanctification is a joint project— God working within us, and us working it out with fear and trembling.  In other words, we participate in our own progressive sanctification not merely by what we believe, but by what we do, and what we don’t do.  Of course this would not be possible if there were not the grace of God to draw on each and every day, but in fact our sanctification is affected by our behavior, either positively or negatively.   And then of course there are the numerous warnings in various places in the NT about the possibility of a true believer committing apostasy. As John Wesley once said about that famous text in the Pastoral speaking about converts who had made shipwreck of their faith,  ‘you can’t make shipwreck of something you don’t have’.  In short, the neglect of ethics, or the relegating of it to the spot of an after thought or a mere response of gratitude to God which has no effect on one’s everlasting life is ultimately a result of a theology that does not adequately understand the divine human encounter, even when it comes to salvation.  God had chosen to save us by involving us actively in the process.  And our free and willing participation is not predetermined by God.  Doubtless God could have done it otherwise, but he has chosen not to do so, and part of the reason is because he created us in his image—with a capacity for personal relationship with God,  a capacity to freely respond in love to God’s love for us. Love, can neither be coerced, nor manipulated nor predetermined, and it is no accident that love is at the heart of the ethic of the NT— love for God, and all others as well.  Like God who is love, we are called to be lovers of all his creation. Freely we have received, and freely we should give.

NKG: In many ways, this is the culmination of your life’s work on the NT, drawing together many of your interests in rhetoric, ethics, the church, narrative, Jesus studies, Pauline studies, etc…  Certainly this is the perfect way for a newbie to access your work, but for the rest of us who have read all things Witherington, are there ideas and concepts that appear in Indelible Image that are not found in your other works?

Yes indeed there is a good deal in the Indelible Image, especially the second volume that one will not find in my earlier work. The second volume is the synthetic project, the ex post facto project— what would a theology and ethic of the whole NT look like.  I should say from the outset, that I have only made the first steps in this direction in this volume.  I’ve laid the ground work and the methodology out, and done the initial soundings but it is for someone else to pick up the ball and run with it now.  Maybe you Nijay!!    There are two focal images for conceiving of the unity of NT theology and ethics which I have come up with—- one is an image from the arts, the other from the sciences.  In the former I conceive of the NT as like Handel’s landmark work  ‘Messiah’, a great oratorio with numerous musical parts.  The focus of the oratorio, indeed its essential subject matter is of course Christ, even though it involves a considerable about of quoting the OT (especially Isaiah, the so-called Fifth Gospel). Now in an oratorio like this one there are major soloists, and the way I conceive of the NT I would say the voice of Jesus is the major solo voice, and everyone else in the NT is trying to blend in with, harmonize with, or echo that voice. There are other major soloists of course— the Gospel writers,  Paul,  Peter, James, the author of Hebrews, John of Patmos, but their work serves the larger purpose of glorifying Christ and harmonizing with him.  If you know music, you know that the differing parts of an oratorio can sometimes involve dissonance as well as doubling and harmony.  This is how I would conceive of the differences in as well as the Christological unity of the NT.   The second focal image is that of a Venn diagram (or as my students jokingly call it— the Ben diagram).   In this image you have a whole series of overlapping circles at the center of all of which is Christ.  The circles are arranged according to whether the witnesses are more focused on telling the story to Jewish Christians in a largely Jewish way, or telling the story to Gentile Christians in various other ways.  Then of course there is the concept of ‘the indelible image’  which I see as the conjunction point that brings the theology and ethics of the NT together.  As God is holy, so must we be, as God is love, so must we be, as God is righteous so must we be. We are to reflect the character of God to the world, not merely proclaim that character verbally. Because we are created in God’s image and renewed in that image in Christ, we have been created for good works, and indeed for being an indirect reflection of the glory of Christ on earth.  The call to imitate Christ is at the heart of the NT ethic, and the writers of the NT believe that by the grace of God, the image bearer can bear an uncanny resemblance to the one who created him in that image.

NKG: Who has been the greatest intellectual influence on you in terms of the integration of theology and ethics in the NT?  What other scholars would you consider kindred spirits in this kind of approach and orientation?

It is really impossible to pick out one person who has influenced me down this road I have taken, if you mean NT scholars.  Certainly I owe a great debt to folk like Howard Marshall and Gordon Fee and others of my teachers, but to be honest it is the classic Wesleyan theologians who took seriously the interface of theology and ethics all along which sparked this sort of reflection— I mean people like John Wesley, Francis Asbury, Joseph Fletcher, Richard Watson, Adam Clarke, and more recently folk like Tom Langford and Albert Outler.  None of these folk were exegetes or NT scholars in the modern sense of term, so it has been left to me to pursue these sorts of matters as an exegete and historian and I have done so.

NKG: When you conceived of this project, had you always centered it on the indelible image [of God]?  What inspired this thematic choice?

It was during the course of the descriptive task of writing the first volume, and simply reviewing and displaying the various and sundry theologies and ethics of the NT writers and Jesus himself that I came to the conclusion that the imago dei would be a good focal point, binding theology and ethics together.  It is an interesting fact that there was no NT in the NT era.  It is an after the fact compilation and thus the attempt to do a theology and ethic of the whole NT must be seen as an ex post facto project as well, in this case by me.  It is one thing to simply describe the NT evidence, quite another to try and see what unites it.  Of course the underlying assumption is that there is a unity of theology and ethics in the NT because God inspired these writers to tell the truth about Jesus and related matters.

NKG: You explain that too often the theology (and ethic) of the NT is focused solely on Pauline and Johannine portions, and that you sought out to examine the entire witness of the NT.  In what other parts of the NT did you end up finding fecund ideas and paradigms for theology and ethics?  Were you ever surprised to find deeper reflection in a book you would not have guessed to contain such thinking?

My friend Richard Bauckham has long been plowing the furrow of the theme that the Jewish Christian voice of various NT writers (Jude and James for instance) has been muffled, ignored, or even criticized.  He’s right of course and I have sought to remedy this problem by giving due attention to every single NT book in all their variety.  As it happens it is precisely the so-called General Epistles that most play the ethics card in ways that demonstrate my thesis about the interface of NT theology and ethics.  James was absolutely right that faith without works is dead, and so is belief without behavior.  As John Wesley once famously said ‘You can be as orthodox as the Devil, and still not be saved, because the truth has not transformed your character and behavior’.   As Wesley, the Devil knows the truth about Jesus, he can recite the theological canon verbatim correctly,  but it does him no good.  Why not?  It’s one thing to know the truth, another thing for the truth to set you free, to transform you through vital experience.  Orthodoxy without character reformation availeth not. It is dead orthodoxy.  This is not to denigrate right belief.  It’s simply to say that orthodoxy and orthopraxy go together hand and glove, and they affect each other. You become what you admire and imitate, so to speak.

NKG: Can you share with us what writing projects you are currently working on and that we can get excited about?

I am enjoying doing a variety of small projects now for Eerdmans, several Kingdom books.  The most recent one to come out was on a Kingdom or eschatological view of worship  We Have Seen his Glory. Next in line is a book on work, and more specifically the interface of work, rest, play, and worship tentatively called Labor Pains.  And I am especially enjoying working with my wife on a series of archaeological thrillers for Pickwick Press. I have seven envisioned in all.  Three are out—- The Lazarus Effect, Roman Numerals, and Papias and the Mysterious Menorah just came out.  One is in the pipeline— Corinthian Leather.  It will be followed by Roma Aeterna (The Eternal City) and two more.  I was an English lit major at Carolina and it is fun to use all that learning now writing novels.  I discovered that lay people are far more likely to read novels than heavy theological tomes, and so I am trying to squeeze some good history, theology etc. into them sideways while they are busily reading a thriller.  I felt like I could do a much better job at this than was done with the Left Behind series (which is aptly titled since it should be left behind) and for that matter a better job than the hysterical rather than historical fiction of Dan Brown.  Its nice that some very positive reviews have started coming in for these novels—- one from Anne Rice in fact.

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2 thoughts on “Interview with Ben Witherington III on THE INDELIBLE IMAGE

  1. Nijay,

    Great interview–Ben’s approach appears to be similar to what I’m doing in a volume on Imitation for IVP. Do you know of online reviews of his novels?

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