Is There a Doctor in the House? An Insider’s Story and Advice on Becoming a Bible Scholar. By Ben Witherington III. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011. 156 pp. Paper, $18.99.
The title grabbed my attention. I wanted to see what a famous NT scholar would say about doctoral studies.
Witherington received his doctorate from Durham University in England under the famed C. K. Barrett (pp. 27-31). In this work he advocates considering a degree from overseas since it is typically cheaper and faster than a doctorate earned in the U.S.
There are many interesting personal anecdotes and pieces of advice in this book for prospective doctoral students. For that reason, this book is highly desirable for anyone planning on a doctorate in Biblical or theological studies. It is an easy and enjoyable read.
Witherington is Methodist and though he is Evangelical, there is no evidence in this book that he holds to a Free Grace view of justification. The closest we get is his statement, “I am a saved and forgiven person” (p. 123). But coming from his Methodist tradition, this might mean something like I have reason to believe that right now I am in good standing with God. The issue of his eternal destiny is never broached in this book as far as I could see.
He says three semi-liberal things (I’d say liberal, but today those called conservative Evangelicals say these things) that caught my attention. First, he indicates that the Gospel accounts are not always historically accurate if judged according to modern standards of historiography (pp. 61-62). Since he believes the Synoptic authors were not seeking to be historically precise (i.e., accurate), “we must allow these accounts to be imprecise [i.e., inaccurate] if the authors were not trying to be precise” (p. 62). For example, Witherington thinks it insignificant whether Peter denied Jesus three times before the rooster crowed once or twice (pp. 61-62). The author feels it is silly to try to harmonize the accounts since precision was never intended.
Second, he indicates that we should be guided by the Scriptures only, Sola Scriptura in Latin, sort of. He qualifies this, possibly to appease his Charismatic readers, “If rule one really is sola scriptura, evangelicals are right to take a dim view of pneumatic [i.e., Charismatic and Pentecostal] claims that go against [italics his] the explicit teaching of the Bible” (p. 95). Notice the wiggle room there. Special revelation that doesn’t go against the explicit teaching of the Bible is evidently not to be challenged. What if a supposed revelation goes against the implicit teaching of Scripture? Or, what if someone claims special revelation that is not consistent or inconsistent with Scripture? Say a young man tells a young woman that God told him that he was to marry her, a not so uncommon experience in certain circles. Should the young woman take this as a command from God since it is not against some explicit teaching in Scripture? What if she does not want to marry him? Should she “take a dim view of [his] pneumatic claim”? What of church councils? Should they be regarded as inspired as long as they do not contradict the explicit teaching of Scripture?
Third, concerning who is qualified to teach the Bible, he writes, “If it sounds as if I am suggesting that one has to be a genuine Christian or devout Jew [italics mine] to properly teach, preach, or write about the Bible, I am indeed suggesting that that should be the desideratum [that which is desired or wanted]” (p. 125). Does Witherington believe that devout Jews who do not believe in Jesus make excellent Bible teachers? That is what he implies. Why should an unregenerate Jew, no matter how devout, be a good Bible teacher? Or, possibly Witherington believes that devout Jews are born again even if they do not believe in Jesus Christ.
Either way, this is a puzzling statement.
In terms of the Free Grace issue, he makes this excellent observation concerning the words save and salvation: “in most ancient Greek literature [they are] not to give someone the gift of everlasting life…[but] to ‘help,’ to ‘heal,’ to ‘rescue’ from danger” (p. 46). But then when he goes to the NT, he greatly weakens the point: “Even in the NT there are times [italics mine] when the less theological language is used” (p. 46). He implies that the normal NT uses concerns the gift of everlasting life, but that on rare occasion it refers to help, healing, or rescue from danger. The truth is that 70% of the time the latter is in view.
I recommend this book for anyone planning or even contemplating a doctorate in NT, OT, or theology, or for the spouse of such a person.
Robert N. Wilkin
Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society