Ben Witherington on Free Will

This past Tuesday Dr. Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary wrote the following at the end of a blogpost titled “The Freedom of God and the Free Will of Human Beings“: “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.”

“What God requires of us, he enables us to do.” This statement is certainly true of believers, who will be made into the image of Christ, but it is not true of people in general or of every aspect for anyone in this life (we will always fall short of God’s requirements until we are transformed in heaven). As a defense of free-will, one wonders if Dr. Witherington likewise applies this statement to Matthew 5:48.

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8 Comments on “Ben Witherington on Free Will”

  1. Kevin Says:

    I don’t agree that this statement is a tenet of Pelagianism. It seems more to be in keeping with Augustine’s prayer, “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire.”

    Certainly, Augustine taught that in order for us to ever please God, He must enable us to do so.

    Pelagianism taught free autonomous action apart from God. Adolph Harnack states it this way:

    Nature, free-will, virtue and law, these strictly defined and made independent of the notion of God – were the catch-words of Pelagianism: self-acquired virtue is the supreme good which is followed by reward. Religion and morality lie in the sphere of the free spirit; they are at any moment by man’s own effort.

    I don’t know Ben Witherington. He may be a Pelagian, but I would be extremely hesitant to draw that conclusion merely from this quote.

  2. Andrew Says:

    Good point, Kevin. I’ve edited the post accordingly. I will defend that it is, however, a tenet of semi-Pelagianism.

  3. Arthur Sido Says:

    His statements and his affiliation with Arminian seminary certainly seem to place him squarely in the semi-Pelagian camp, as a sympathizer if not an advocate.


  4. 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

    The problem of course is the fact that rules outside of God presuppose ability to violate them which in turn presupposes a nature that is capable of good and evil, which presupposes a nature both good and evil.

    Witherington then seems confused:

    This is a complicated matter, but the bottom line is that once God set up a universe with other 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 assume 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

    If he here means by “assume” only the second part of the statement, it is a non sequitur. If he could not violate it, there is no purpose for it impinging upon him. Then too, is the fact that it is the order of the created nature that has been exalted above the uncreated nature of God. Witherington is assuming that the creation by virtue of having been created binds God. He then by that fiat makes the creation a god of absolute authority above God.

    In either case Witherington has created a christian version of YinYang, a god more akin to the Force of Starwars where certain actions will eventuate in taking the path of the Darkside.

    He says:

    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

    This is Witherington’s view of the image of God in man.

    In doing this he has made the same blasphemous inference that Hobbs did. Namely, that for God to be virtuous, he must first have acted. In otherwords, God is not transcendantly virtue and therefore eternally so, but at the point of creation (I take that is what Witherington means by the binding Himself) God could act in a virtuous manner and thereby gain virtue but before that, before the creation of certain rules to govern himself, he could not. He was neutral (the Pelagian error).

    Remember, Witherington credits God with making man in his image capable of doining good and evil. To love God man has to be able to act contrarily, (acting contrary to love is not to hate, but other-love; to love a greater good than God). It remains then that God must also be able to act contrarily and love another greater good than Himself. But, we know that even by Witheringon’s rule that would be a violation of the first commandment. The greatest love that God has is his love for Himself, the greatest good, which we see worked out in his creation.

    I have written on Hobbs here. And, I will be finishing that series with Hobbs’ statements concerning the image of God in man. A far more scholarly treatment of LFW in God is found at Triablogue: here here Or, here is a discussion of Moral Government Theory as it develops from the same heresy.

    From what Witherington has said, he at least sets up God in a Pelagian motif, and of course, as is modified by the fall, that image in man becomes semi-Pelagian; virtue is then attainable, but more difficult as the scales have been tipped, but not toppled, toward sin. Man still begins as neutral. Witherington simply proposes “prevenient grace” bringing the balances back to equilibrium, enabling man to gain virtue. And that virtue is first of all, the good choice of Christ.

    It really does not matter then that he is semi or full Pelagian, for in the end, enabling grace of the prevenient kind that Witherington postulates restores man to his original status as neutral but without saving virtue, and for all intents and purposes, is Pelagian.

  5. charles Says:

    phil 2:12Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.

    Ben’s take: 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.

    always interesting to watch arminians quote the first part of this sentence without reference to paul’s foundational reasoning in v 13…


  6. Nice to see my post discussed, albeit with various false assumptions and errors.

    I was indeed paraphrasing Augustine about God giving what he commands. And no, if anyone of you has bothered to read my commentaries, no I do not take Phil. 2.12 out of the context of Phil. 2.13.

    I also do not believe in the Hobbsian world view, in fact I would say that Hobbes belongs with Calvin, as neither articulate the Biblical world view:)

    I don’t think any good behavior is possible for a fallen person ‘by mere nature’. I do think that God’s grace enables, transforms, changes nature so that free choices are once more possible.

    The issue that none of you have come to grips with is that God has freely chosen to limit himself. This is the very nature of Incarnation. And you have not dealt with the character of love either, which can neither be pre-determined nor compelled, else it is not love as God loves us.

    Blessings anyway and keep discussing 🙂

    Ben Witherington

  7. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    The issue that none of you have come to grips with is that God has freely chosen to limit himself.

    Which is exactly the Hobbsian view and eventuates in a god who potentially can choose against his nature. The source of that choice can only be within god, which actually bifurcates the nature, the result is a god who is both good and evil. Yin and Yang, and not the God of Light in whom there is no shadow of turning and no need to place limits (laws) outside himself that he must obey like some strangly modified gnostic reality. You said exactly what Hobbs did and it is self-contradictory or perhaps you did not mean to say that God cannot do things because of his nature, and chooses to limit himself. Because the logical conclusion is that the limit was in realilty. And that reality was that God could act contrary to those limits. Which is it? Does virtue dictate choice, or do choices determine virtue?

    Nice try. But the incarnation does not limit who or what God is in the least. Nothing in Protestant orthodoxy that I know of leads to the conclusion that God diminishes or in anyway changes in the incarnation.

    Let me ask you, are the natures of Christ as God and as the Son of man mingled? Or, is the humanity, that which limits God, not a diminution of God, but the means by which God veils himself so that he can be apprehended by man in the Person of Christ? It seems to mean you have conflated the meaning of the incarnation far beyond what Scripture intends to defend your rationlistic philosophy.

    As you have already revealed that you agree with Hobbs but don’t, perhaps you can explain how it is that God set limits upon himself and those not be potential sins that he might commit? Or, you can just answer: Has God created man in His image such that man can choose to do good or evil? But of course you have already answered this question just as Hobbs would:

    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.

    Does God really have LFW, able to choose against himself? Can God disobey himself? Is it even remotely possible?

    One more:

    so that free choices are once more possible

    What kind of free choices are possible? Evil ones? Where in your “Biblical world view” does the Scripture grant free choice of evil? Or is it the case that what the Spirit does is enable us to make righteous choices?


  8. Dr. Witherington,

    Thank you for condescending to comment on this blog. (And when I write “condescending,” I am being quite serious, as I know how busy you must be.) I would like to ask, however, if you could respond to the question of whether your statement that was quoted would (in your understanding) apply to Mathew 5:48?

    -Andrew


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