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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of Witherington's most important works, October 6, 2009
This review is from: The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament, Vol. 1: The Individual Witnesses (Hardcover)
This would be my most awaited/anticipated book of the year. Witherington's agenda has grown out of his understanding that theology and ethics are intertwined throughout the New testament narrative and can not, and should not be isolated in the manner they often have been. His purpose, as he states in the forward, "First of all, I am writing two large academic volumes, but trying to do so in a lively enough manner that almost anyone can read. And I will not be limiting the discussion to "New Testament theology." I will be talking about both the theologizing and ethicizing of the New Testament writers...Furthermore since context is crucial in dealing with theological and ethical matters, and since what we actually have in the New Testament is not theological or ethical treatises but rather theologizing and ethicizing into specific contexts for specific purposes I have decided by and large not to extract the theology and ethics from the narratives and arguments in the New Testament and cast them upon some sort of Procrustean bed. Instead, I have let the first volume especially be more expositional in character, dealing with theology and ethics as we find them intertwined in contexts offered to us by the individual witnesses." (p.16)

As stated above, this is the first of two volumes, with the intention this installment will give, "the reader a sampling of doing theology and ethics in the twenty-seven books in the New Testament , honoring them as individual witnesses on these subjects" As Matthew Levering notes on the inside dust jacket, Witherington is fresh from writing a commentary on every New Testament book. While some may claim, in this age of increasing specialization, this is not ideal, it has placed him in the envious position of being aware of the whole New Testament narrative.

Finally, it is possible that this could be one of Witherington's most important works. Only time will tell. I am sure over time his conclusions will be accepted and rejected, argued and debated, in the course of scholarly interaction. However, the importance of his approach for Ministers and Seminary students is profound! It seems to me that many in the church consider the field of Biblical Studies as irrelevant to ministry, or heaven forbid the Christian life, because, as Witherington also notes, "All too often....the theology of the New Testament has been divorced from its ethics, leaving as isolated abstractions what are fully integrated, dynamic elements within the New Testament itself. As Witherington stresses, "behavior affects and reinforces or undoes belief." This volume has challenged, informed and encouraged my own approach to theology and ethics.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great summation of Witherington's Work, September 26, 2009
This review is from: The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament, Vol. 1: The Individual Witnesses (Hardcover)
The idea behind this book is to show that you cannot separate believing from behaving. You cannot separate theology and ethics. They are linked together in the New Testament. That's why Ben chose not to survey certain themes in the NT like faith, love, salvation, repentance, kingdom of God, etc. Instead, he allows the individual voices of the New Testament to have their say. he points out that Jesus was heavily influenced by the wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Bible and in texts such as the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach. He identifies Daniel 7:9-14 as a key text that Jesus used to explain his identity as God's eschatological sage. He prefers the Son of Man moniker because it didn't have the heavy political overtones that the term "Messiah" had, and He could give the term the significance He wanted.

Ben also shows that Jesus' ethics as given in the Sermon on the Mount present a higher standard than what was offered by the teachers of the law.

Later on, when Ben discusses John's Gospel, he points out that for Jesus, believing in Him could also be construed as an ethical act. I also loved the insights Ben gave: Nicodemus came to see Jesus at night while he himself was in the dark. He saw Jesus as a teacher who has come from God, but could not perceive how literally true this was. Ben also shows how Jesus' description of Himself as the Light, the way, the truth, the life (John 14:6) echoes the descriptions of wisdom in the OT wisdom literature (especially Proverbs 8).

Ben also discusses Paul's theologizing and ethicizing. He mentions that Paul is influenced by the story of God, the story of the fall, the story of Christ, and the story of Christians in Christ. He cites Paul in Philippians 2:13 where Paul states that we should work out out our salvation with fear and trembling." For Ben, this summarizes how theology and ethics go together in Paul. He also states that for Paul, you are not eternally secure until you are securely in eternity.

Ben also discusses the theology and ethics of the writer of Hebrews, the Beloved disciple, James, Jude, Peter, Luke, and John the Elder. In each instance, believing in Christ is inexplicable without resulting behavior in Christ. Theology and ethics go together throughout the New Testament. Peter is cited for his unique reflection on Isaiah 53 to portray his theology of the atonement.

I've read most of Ben's commentaries and monographs, and I think it's fair to say that this book could be subtitled "Ben Witherington's Greatest Hits," because he draws on his previous exegetical work and on his Pauline theologies. On the other hand, the work stands on its own because it has its own message and thesis. I should also say that I found the book to not only be very well written, but also very convicting. It made me question whether or not my behavior was in line with my believing. Great book. I'm looking forward to volume two.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Indelible Mark, January 12, 2010
Wesley Vander Lugt (St Andrews, Scotland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament, Vol. 1: The Individual Witnesses (Hardcover)
It is an impossible feat for a short review to do justice to Ben Witherington's massive (856 page!) work The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical Through World of the New Testament (IVP, 2009). Witherington sets out in the first of his two-volume project to investigate each individual New Testament witness through integrative theological and ethical analysis. In doing so, he seeks to correct a lamentable weakness of New Testament studies: the separation of theology and ethics, belief and behavior, into two different spheres, with ethics taking backseat to theology (23). In contrast to this bifurcation, Witherington demonstrates the organic relationship and blending of theology and ethics in each New Testament book, ultimately converging in Christology: the contemplation of and conformation to the indelible image of Christ (53-54).

The Indelible Image progresses chronologically through the New Testament, exploring each book in its context. Before launching into the Pauline corpus, however, Witherington begins with Jesus, examining his beliefs and behaviors. To understand Jesus and the stories that he told, of course, we need to understand Judaism (68). Likewise, in order to grasp the thought world of Paul, it is necessary to understanding "the five stories that shook and shaped Paul's worldviews," including the story of God, humankind, God's people, Christ, and Christians (182-203). Witherington gives a few hints toward the turn to performance and improvisation in Christian theology and ethics, affirming that these stories have a complete outline, but they have a plot that needs to be performed in the present (180). Ethical discernment, therefore, is a matter of improvisation (251). Overall, this ethical discernment involves imitating Christ, walking in the Spirit, and living as a community in unity (244). Witherington also highlights the dependence and closeness of Paul's theology and ethics on Jesus, which are both driven by grace (271-274).

But Jesus and Paul are only the starting point, and it is refreshing for Witherington to demonstrate that Christian theology and ethics should not be based on Paul alone (327). The theology of James, for example, has been insufficiently developed, since "New Testament scholars have not labored long enough in the sapiential vineyard to acquire a taste for its wine. In short, they do not understand how this sort of literature works in the service of theology and ethics" (298-299). Witherington demonstrates how the other NT books "work" in this regard, highlighting themes such as the "christotelic" hermeneutic of Peter (341), the remarkable fusion of theology and ethics in Hebrews (461), the mystery of God's sovereign love and free human response in John nestled in narrative theology and ethics (568, 599), the eschatological theology and ethics of Mark (639), the sapiential Christology of Matthew (646f), the holistic theology and ethics of Luke-Acts (672), and the intertwining of heavenly and earthly realities in Revelation (742).

The Indelible Image is immense both in sheer size and quality of theological-ethical reflection on the New Testament. Written in clear, simple prose, the book reads like a commentary and may be best used for this purpose. A comprehensive Scripture index will guide the reader to find relevant passages, although sometimes the reader will be surprised by passages Witherington chooses to pass over (like John 10). Little rationale is given for this selectivity, and one hopes it is not based on theological preference, especially since it seems that Witherington dismisses Reformed theological perspectives too quickly. Despite this suspicious selectivity, Witherington demonstrates a fitting balance between scholarly exegesis and practical reflection. Footnotes are sparse, which motivates readers to run to his commentaries (and other suggested reading lists at the end of each chapter) for more articulate arguments and insight.

Even though Witherington deals with each New Testament voice on its own, common themes continue to appear, most notably the interrelationship and interdependence of theology and ethics, at the heart of which is the person and work of Jesus Christ. These and other common themes among all New Testament writers prime the pump for the next volume of the Indelible Image series due out in April, focusing on the collective New Testament witness. You won't want to miss it! This first volume has left an indelible mark on our understanding of the theological and ethical thought world of the New Testament.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Book for the Generations at a Much Needed Time, May 6, 2010
This review is from: The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament, Vol. 1: The Individual Witnesses (Hardcover)
Furthermore, we have seen... that the ethics is well grounded in the eschatological worldview that these authors are enunciating. It is not the task of this volume to begin to show at length correspondences and similarities among the thought worlds of the various New Testament writers. (pg814)

This series is one of the most important, and anticipated, volumes on theology and ethics in a generation or more. Witherington has produced an orthodox masterpiece that pushes the reader with biblical studies, criticism, and modern theological trends. While he doesn't subscribe to all of the new trends, he has found a way to present orthodox theological precepts and tie them in to ethical concerns while introducing and answering, if need be, new paths in various biblical disciplines. It is a massive volume, and not because it totals more than 800 pages and hours of reading time, but primarily because of the amount of information - his 'theologizing and ethicizing' - which the reader soaks in. It is not a drowning depth to be sure, as it is written to a cross-cultural and disciplined group of readers (if those with none of the above), but the worth of this volume will out live the author.

His premise is simple; to show that biblical ethics needs to be first and foremost understood through the theology of the New Testament. He examines the biblical texts, the voices which we know as the New Testament, individually centered primarily around the author (Paul's corpus for example, or the Johannine writings) but draws them together based on a few common factors, such as the Christ-event which changed the perception of the Hebrew Scriptures, concerns for Christians living in a world which was hostile to them, and eschatology. He shows quite well the unity not only between Christ and Paul, but between Paul, James, and the other voices of the New Testament, erasing any hints of extreme contradictions. He is not afraid to remain orthodox while examining what many might consider unorthodox areas - such as the Wisdom Corpus (Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon) - but holds to the Christ-Event as the primary factor for biblical textual interpretation.

In his Prologue, the author explains his methods and goals, and indeed, is a short work all of its own which should give certain clues to the reader regarding what is up coming. In this part, the author moves to reason the connection between theology, ethics, and the narratives of the New Testament, not shirking from biblical studies and its needed connection to theological endeavors. Nor does he shirk from criticizing, even subtly, previous and current trends in Christian hermeneutics such as seeing the Old Testament as a complete type of the New Testament and the notion that unbelievers can fail to see theological underpinnings in biblical narratives. He is insistent that we must understand Judaism before we can start to understand Christianity (pg68)

Witherington makes an effort to take in modern scholarship, even inviting Rudolf Bultmann into the conversation (pg 44) although rejecting his starting point with Paul (pg66). It is interesting to note his take on hermeneutics. He takes a brief time to discuss the value of a proper New Testament interpretation in which the historical sense of the Old Testament is not lost. For the author, theology and ethics derived from the New Testament includes the essential piece - the historical. Indeed, he wishes that biblical, theological, and ethical studies of the New Testament would not lose site of the historical interpretation.

Moving into the first chapter, Withington begins to dig deeper into the heart of the matter. In laying theology and ethics at the feet of Jesus, Witherington doesn't mince words in describing the importance of having Him as a starting point for the discussion of NT ethics. I find his take on the Gospel writers somewhat refreshing in that he allows them to rest squarely within Christian Tradition while moving past the `Bultmannian assumptions' which he labels as extreme (p127). Throughout the book, the reader will find that Witherington is giving a commentary, such as the one found on the Beatitudes, starting in Matthew 5.

Witherington moves into the discussion Paul, by far is the most controversial figure in the New Testament, not least for a perceived departure from the `Jesus message.' Handling the discussion with skill and passion, the author's work on Paul is a radical defense of the Apostle's work in light of the `Christ Event.' One of the most interesting feature of this chapter is Witherington's detail of Paul's 'storied' life, stating five stories upon which Paul bases his interaction with the Christ event. While his job is not Pauline authorship Witherington serves well in connecting Jesus and Paul in the message of ethics associated with theology. While others see a stark difference in the message of the two, the author, dispels that long persisting rumor and shows that Paul was well in line with the message of Christ.

Witherington focuses on James, Jude and 1st Peter in one defining chapter. While he allows for echoes or direct thought quotations from the Deuterocanon, he singles out Jude's use of Enoch as something different. Instead of aligning himself with nearly every other scholar, Witherington instead allows for that a unity between Jude and not necessarily 1st Enoch, but the oral tradition behind that section of 1st Enoch which it and Jude has in common. Launching into James with almost anti-Lutheran fervor, he quickly declares the 'strawry epistle' for what it is - the New Testament's conclusion to the Wisdom literary tradition. Connecting this `back of the book' epistle, as he did with Jude, to the words of Christ, the picture emerges of just how close the New Testament documents are to Christ and the Gospel tradition. His section on 1st Peter is one that stands out long after I closed the book.

Admittedly, the Johannine literature is weak when it comes it ethics, but his focus instead on various aspects of it makes this the weakest part of the volume. While I understand the authors need to examine the entire New Testament, this volume might have been better served by not examining the Gospel but focused on the Epistles, which should have brought about interaction with authority and church leadership, but didn't. Contrary to the weakness of John is the strength of the Synoptics. The latter chapter is a rather important section, as he deals with such topics as the Shorter Ending of Mark, which he obliterates any idea that the Gospel writer ended his work with a giant question mark. As he progresses through these books (Matthew through Acts in the canon, except John) he brings to light why a plain reading of the text does injustice to the author and the story being told.

Examining the two remaining works shows that the author doesn't tire easily. For Revelation, the author doesn't really tackle the issue of eschatology for the New Testament's only real prophetic work, but highlights several portions, briefly, as he demonstrates quite succinctly that John is writing primarily to show God controls history, regardless of current or future persecutions. Further, he takes the time to thoroughly highlight what John highlights throughout Revelation - the deity of Christ and indeed, the (con)fusion of OT images and titles for God with Christ. He essentially reiterates Bauckhams' thesis on the early worship of Christ fitting well within in Jewish monotheism of the time. Finally, our author does take a very simple passage in 2nd peter 1 and shows with simplicity the ethics contained therein. Further, while he sits on the fence of apostolic authorship, he manages to hold 2nd Peter still in the inspired light and uses it to show that at the time it was written, the Church was moving from apostolic to the post-apostolic age (pg813). The author sees a high Christology in 2nd Peter, which is not difficult to see when the author calls Christ God and sees only Christ returning during judgment (pg812).

While one doesn't need to be familiar with Witherington to enjoy this volume (and no doubt this series), the reader should note that he is an author with a great many books behind him, many of which he mentions throughout the text, referring to them to support his current thought. This is a weakness and a strength, as the reader should take this book for the great worth that it represents as well as continue to theologize and ethicize on their own. Further, he does hold conversations with other authors and works in this volume, which is again, a weakness and strength. He is also strong on the fact that this is written to everyone, in not an overly technical level, nor to the lowest grade reader. It is written to mature Christians and those new to the Faith, and even to those outside of the Faith. The brief times he starts to tackle ethics present a powerful code which dismisses claims of legalism. Neither is he afraid to address the tension between Calvinism and Arminianism, leaving both groups defeated and victorious.

This work is massive, but it carries with it nothing short of a library and a lifetime's worth of thought and material for more thought.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholar at work, January 8, 2010
Michael Dalton (Eureka, CA United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament, Vol. 1: The Individual Witnesses (Hardcover)
"Scholar at Work" would be an appropriate cover sticker for this book. This might also be the most important reason for reading it. I watch in admiration when a scholar like Ben Witherington III employs the tools of his trade to examine Scripture.

In this first volume on New Testament theology, he focuses on exegetical work. What qualifies him for such a task? Prior to this project, he took on the rather daunting challenge of writing a substantial commentary on every book of the New Testament. This exercise served him well as he works in chronological order through the writings (and in the case of Jesus, the teachings) of all who contributed to the New Testament canon. In his effort to get at the heart of the major themes, he defines words and looks at their usage. He provides historical background, and he frequently resorts to extrabiblical writings to provide context.

He has an amazing grasp of these outside writings, and I wish he had explained their importance, but from his use it is plain that they provide corroborating evidence in support of the Scriptures. Again, the most valuable learning is watching Witherington attempt to determine the original meaning of texts. What we end up with is a multitude of Bible resources rolled into one. With extensive name, subject and verse indexes in the back, this is an extremely valuable reference, one that should be in any theological library, particularly those that support higher education in biblical subjects.

Even the most learned may find new insights in the wealth of exposition. One interesting example in his discussion of Matthew 19:1-12, where Jesus seams to permit divorce in the case of "adultery," or "immorality." Witherington states that the original term translated "adultery" comes from a word that means "prostitute." He writes that the exception could be in a case where the wife has taken up prostitution. The word can also refer to the sin of incest. Jesus may have been commenting "on the very situation that John the Baptizer was beheaded for protesting against: the incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas to his brother's wife." If the exception is in the case of incest, a devout Jew would not see this as a proper marriage.

Since the word "porneia" can refer to a wide variety of sexual aberrations, translating the word in the normal way would seam to make Jesus more lenient than some ancient Jewish teachers in regard to divorce. The disciples reaction to all of this, "If that is the way it is between a man and a woman, it is better not to marry," supposes a stricter view. Witherington suggests that what is meant "is either `except on the grounds of prostitution' or more likely `except on the grounds of incest.'" He believes this makes good sense when compared with Mark 10, "where Jesus' teaching is said to be `no divorce,' and also 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul says that Jesus' teaching was `no divorce.'"

In this survey, one major theme that continually emerges is Witherington's view that salvation is not ironclad. He finds manifold support against the position of "once saved, always saved." I wondered if being a Methodist scholar shaped his interpretations, but he displays a careful fidelity to the Scriptures, even if some finer points are arguable.

Further, he is not teaching the Wesley doctrine of sinless perfection, only that Christians must work out their salvation with fear and trembling. He seems to concede that it may be hard to lose one's salvation, but it is possible.

It's almost startling how clear this possibility of loss becomes. It probably serves as a much-needed correction to the idea that what comes after salvation is not as important as conversion. Witherington emphasizes the two-sided nature of salvation: faith and works. Somewhere over the course of time the latter has been uncoupled from the former. Highlighting so many passages that seem to show salvation is conditional is somewhat novel and unsettling, but we need to know the truth. More than once I wished that this kind of careful analysis would filter down into our pulpits.

Calvinists and others might take issue with Witherington's Arminian positions. I encourage them to read him. He provides strong support for his views, and if they follow his logic with an open mind, they will at least come away with a better understanding of an opposing argument. Believers in Christ should not be afraid to hold up their beliefs to scrutiny and change them if needed.

Could this book be shorter? Maybe, but the length is what makes this so comprehensive. In this first volume he gives voice to all of the individuals whose thought, actions and writings comprise the New Testament. The second volume will be a synthesis that will focus equally on belief and behavior. Witherington repeatedly shows that there is no separating the two.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Scholarly Work For The Whole Church, March 10, 2010
A. Morgan (Virginia, United States) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Indelible Image: The Theological and Ethical World of the New Testament, Vol. 1: The Individual Witnesses (Hardcover)
Ben Witherington is one of those rare theologians who, while solidly `orthodox', is refreshingly adventurous, tackling huge ranges of subjects, and even (gently) treading on some toes (such as his paper exploring the possibility of Larazus being the `beloved' disciple).

This is shown with this first of two volumes, The Indelible Image: The Theological And Ethical Thought World Of The New Testament. Remarkably this 800 page book is really an introduction to the second volume (which I have not yet read).

Witherington lays the ground work in his thesis that New Testament Theology cannot be separated from New Testament Ethics. Indeed, they are irrevocably intertwined. Here in volume 1, he demonstrates how each of the New Testament figures and authors did their `theologizing and ethicizing'. Volume 2 will examine the subject from the perspective of the whole New Testament.

In a nut shell, Witherington argues that God wants his moral and spiritual character (and behavior) replicated in his people. Witherington writes:

The goal [of salvation, knowing God] is that the indelible and perfect character of God be indelibly stamped on his creatures such that God's image is perfectly reflected in those creatures.

Theology and ethics should NEVER have been separated and this is the underlining point of the whole book. The words repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand meant a change in moral and spiritual behavior. Two of the many challenging and insightful statements in this book, for me at least, were;

Both [Jesus and Paul] believed that the new eschatological situation called for, demanded and through the Spirit enabled one to behave according a higher standard of ethics than even Moses or the Pharisees could have endorsed... (pg 272)


One must go through all three tenses of salvation - I have been saved, I am being saved and I will be saved - in order to enter the dominion.

Salvation is an ongoing process; new birth, progressive sanctification and finally glorification. Witherington argues that this process is not perfect or complete until it has reached its terminus.

Witherington hits you between the eyes demanding us to wrestle with and realize that it is not acceptable to just be theological - theological thinking, for it to be TRULY theological must involve the ethical - belief, without any doubt, demands change in our behavior and character. Such a change is done primarily through the power of the spirit, but also with our cooperation and participation.

A hallmark of Witherington is that his books are steeped in scholarship and yet he is wonderfully readable. But this is a big book. It is thorough. At 800 pages there are only seven chapters, and so patience is required in reading. Read steadily, and carefully, knowing that you will in this book for quite a while - it is not one to be skimmed.

I HIGHLY recommend this work.
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