Ben Witherington has recently published a useful, biblical analysis of three segments of Evangelicalism: Calvinism (which neither he nor I are), Dispensationalism (the same), and Wesleyanism (which he is, I’m not). The book is called The Problem with Evangelical Theology: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism and Wesleyanism. It pays reading, as it is yet another call for more of us to be involved in a generous orthodoxy.
Here’s the gist:
“Evangelicalism is a many-splintered thing with more denominational expressions than one can count, and like much of the rest of the church is to a large extent biblically illiterate or semiliterate” (ix).
Ben’s an Arminian, and he is slanted against the Calvinism he critiques, but I lean with him so I tend to agree mostly with this part of his study. But, he offers a challenge: reading Paul through the lens of Augustine runs the risk of getting Paul muddled through the thinking of ideas that influenced Augustine, namely, Manicheanism. (Here some experts on Augustine will have to be the final judges.)
He’s not at all dispensational, and neither am I, but millions read those books so Ben inveighs against the movement. He discusses apocalyptic, the rapture, the relationship of Israel and the Church — and he gets this stuff right.
Ben is Wesleyan and a “cradle Methodist” (171). Here’s his stance: “I have to say, however, that there appear to me to be fewer weaknesses in the Arminian approach to biblical texts than in various other systems of approach” (171). (Humor: You got it like it when a fella objectively admits the truth!) Ben finds problems in modern Wesleyan voluntarism, doubt of original sin, open theism, the emphasis on new birth rather than new creatures, and the teaching of perfectionism.
Ben summons us to a theologizing that is rooted in a storied world. And he calls us to engagement with the biblical texts, in their original languages and contexts, to focused attention on these matters, and all of this is a community task (not just individual).
The dangers are fourfold:
1. Selective use of favorite texts.
2. Filling in biblical gaps with unbiblical ideas.
3. Connecting the dots of NT ideas without biblical warrant.
4. Letting distinctives of each of us lose biblical moorings.
Ben calls each of these traditions to task for not being biblical enough. He sees a lurking tendency to retrenchment back into fundamentalism that is motivated by fear. The groups chosen are important, for there are too many today who excuse the Wesleyans for the evangelical conversation, or who mistakenly think true-blue evangelicalism is only of the Calvinistic Reformed view. Evangelicalism is, as Randy Balmer pointed out long ago, a patch-work quilt. Ben finds three of the biggest patches and calls each to sew themselves deeper into the biblical fabric and, at the same time, stand a little closer to one another.