The first volume dealt with the individual theologizing and ethicizing of Paul, Peter, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and others (Witherington 2009). Witherington's goal for the second volume is to allow the New Testament writers to articulate their own synthesis of material from Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures (Witherington 2010, 29). He presents the theology of Jesus and then announces, "I will consider how the various New Testament writers add to, or reinforce, or delete from such a discussion. I will follow the same procedure with the issue of the ethic of Jesus and then of the New Testament writers" (Witherington 2010, 29-30).
After some preliminary considerations, Witherington discusses the symbolic universe of Jesus and the New Testament writers in chapter two, a storied universe that speaks of God, Jesus, the cross, substitutionary sacrifice, sin, the risen Lord, new/true people of God, the Spirit, and spiritual gifts (Witherington 2010, 60-82). He contends that the New Testament contributors shared this symbolic worldview because they each drew from and relied on the Hebrew Scriptures (Witherington 2010, 82). As an example, Witherington lists ninety-one examples where New Testament writers and personalities drew from the Psalms for authority (Witherington 2010, 82-89).
Chapter three discusses the narrative thought world of Jesus and the New Testament writers. Jesus presents Himself as the Danielic Son of Man who tells stories of His own making, but refers to the stories of Adam, Solomon, Noah, and other Old Testament luminaries. His stories have a dark edge, noting the lost condition of His own people (Luke 15) and their danger of experiencing judgment (Matthew 11).
Paul's storied world is also rooted in the Old Testament, and his Christological hymns recall wisdom psalms such as Psalm 1 and Psalm 119, as well as the non-canonical Wisdom of Solomon (Witherington 2010, 118). After discussing the thought worlds of the other New Testament contributors, Witherington concludes, "Monotheistic, messianic, eschatological thinking characterized the thought world of all these early Jews. They believed they lived in the age of the fulfillment of prophecy, the climax of history, the arrival of final redemption, and judgment that would begin with the household of God" (Witherington 2010, 201).
The next few chapters examine what can be said about a shared set of beliefs when it comes to New Testament theology. Christ Himself is the basis of New Testament thought, so Witherington begins with what the writers say about Him. Paul sees Christ as "Lord," the true emperor of the world, the anointed one who died for the sins of the world and rose again, the true Israel who comes to save a world gone wrong (Witherington 2010, 213-18). There is also a discussion of Christ as "God" in the Pauline letters. He discusses Phil 2:6-7 and Rom 9:5 and Titus 2;13, concluding that Paul does attribute divine status to Christ (Witherington 2010, 218-23). Witherington shows that Paul taught the essential humanity of Christ in passages such as Rom 5:15 and 1 Tim 2:5 (Witherington 2010,
Witherington also shows that Hebrews shares with Paul a high view of Christ and a belief in the penal substitutionary death of Jesus in passages such as Rom 3:25 and Hebrews 9:14 (Witherington 2010, 233-45). We see the same theme in 1 Peter, Mark and in Revelation. His conclusion is that we do not need to talk about dueling Christologies in early Christianity, but rather a kaleidoscope of images and storylines that could be applied to Him (Witherington, 2010, 245).
The remaining chapters demonstrate that the New Testament writers were not only on the same page with regard to seeing Jesus as Christ, risen Lord, God, and atoning sacrifice, but they also agreed that believing and behaving go together. Divine action demands a human response (Witherington 2010, 735). This sums up the 1700 pages of both Indelible Image volumes (Witherington 2010, 735).
In a way, this book answers some of the questions raised by Carson's Collected Writings on Scripture (Carson 2010). The researcher felt that much of Carson's argumentation was convoluted and circular in reasoning, while Witherington shows clearly from Scripture that there can be a collective theology of the New Testament.
This book gives the researcher a fortified theological base to draw from when preaching through the New Testament. It will provide food for thought when preaching about the substitutionary death of Christ, the deity of Christ, and the Christological hymns of Paul. The biggest preaching point is that believing and behaving go hand in hand; you can't have one without the other. There are a number of people in the parish who think that because they walked down an aisle or raised their hand or took communion that they are automatically saved regardless of how they live their lives. But Witherington reminds us that faith without works is dead (Jas 2:17).
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 both 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."
This is a monumental work. Published by the academic arm of InterVarsity Press and written by Dr. Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image comes to us from trusted sources. IVP Academic has been producing quality resources for the church and universities for over fifty years. Dr. Ben Witherington is known and respected as one of the top evangelical scholars in New Testament studies. His qualifications for a work of this magnitude are many. He has written prolifically, producing published works on every writer of the New Testament and commentaries on every book of the New Testament in addition to many, many other written contributions, publications, papers, and lectures covering almost every feasible topic from the New Testament writings. The Indelible Image comes to us in two volumes; volume one speaks to us from the individual voices of the NT writers and volume two is the collective voices of the writers "singing" together the "common" message of the New Testament. Each of them, contends Witherington, speaks to us in their own vernacular with a common ethic... the New Testament is all about Jesus Christ.
I have not read either of these volumes cover-to-cover; each of them exceeds eight-hundred pages in length. These volumes are serious theological reference works, but I did not find them difficult to read. I'm not a language scholar, so I appreciate there are not lengthy portions of original manuscript in either book. Where there are original text references, there are understandable explanations as well as annotations for those references should the need exist to pursue additional study from them. Before I proceed further with my review, I should share what the purpose of this collection is. Here Dr. Witherington's own words follow:
The New Testament, says Ben Witherington, is "like a smallish choir. All are singing the same cantata, but each has an individual voice and is singing its own parts and notes. If we fail to pay attention to all the voices in the choir, we do not get the entire effect. . . . If this first volume is about closely analyzing the sheet music left to us by which each musician's part is delineated, the second volume will attempt to re-create what it might have sounded like had they ever gotten together and performed their scores to produce a single masterful cantata."
What the New Testament authors have in mind, Witherington contends, is that all believers should be conformed in thought, word and deed to the image of Jesus Christ-the indelible image.
Aside from the purpose and content of the two volumes themselves, I am enjoying these works in ways I had not anticipated. The subject or topical index of each book as provided me with a reading plan of sorts if I want to seek out "What does Jesus say about...?" answers to my questions or thoughts. Since these works are compendiums of the collective thoughts of entire New Testament, I have found that I get a fairly comprehensive overview of whatever topic I pursue. Additionally, the references and commentary have pointed me in the direction I need to further my own study, when seeking more input and other points of view. I don't believe this usage was one of the intended purposes, but I am finding it quite beneficial in this regard.
A second and very nice feature I am gleaning from is the exhaustive Scripture index at the end of each book. In recent weeks I have been involved in a few in depth Bible studies. I have found the Scripture index a very helpful tool providing me insight that I was unable to gain from any of my other library resources. Similar to the topic index (mentioned above), I was also pointed to other resources or presented other ideas that helped me to move on to the "next level" of my study.
The last point I'd like to cover in this review is likely one of the greatest benefits of this theological reference set. As pastors, teachers, and theologians we often get caught up in the orthodoxy (right thinking) of our studies. We also have a tendency to get caught up in the hair-splitting of our doctrinal differences. A resurgence of sorts in the last decade has pushed hard to move our orthodoxy to orthopraxy (right practice), and this is, after all, what we desire most. We want the teachings of God to take root in us, so we might fully become his disciples in every way as Witherington contends; so "all believers should be conformed in thought, word and deed to the image of Jesus Christ-the indelible image." The research and understanding of the "mind" of the writers, understanding (as best we can) their cultural and historical families of origin... the socio-political settings that shaped their thinking help us to get a more comprehensive understanding of the message dictated to us through the New Testament. Ultimately, an accurate interpretation of that message helps us to transcend the generations to make accurate application of the teaching in our own world and in our personal lives; orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
I hope the magnitude of this work is not underestimated. Personally, I do not think a work of its nature has been produced in modern history. Ben Witherington stands alone in qualification to produce such a work and I think, even if you disagree with his conclusions, the sheer academic contribution of this work will be worth your time and investment. I am grateful to have The Indelible Image as an ongoing resource in my library and it is my contention that you will be too. Most highly recommended.