Witherington on God's Glory and God's Love

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Ben Witherington has found another theological position to misrepresent [hat tip: Justin Taylor]. I should say that I very much appreciate a lot of Witherington's scholarly work, particularly his response to skeptical attacks on the Bible and his placement of the book of Acts among the kinds of historiographical work done in the ancient world. I haven't been a fan of all his conclusions, but I think he's one of the most important biblical scholars of our day on a lot of matters, even ones I hold a different view on.

Nevertheless, I regret his tendency to pick out his favored "bad guy" views and then to misrepresent them in order to shot them down. He does this with complementarianism on gender roles, sometimes even admitting that he hasn't read the most important scholarship on the issue (see the comments here). He does it regularly with Calvinism. This time he's picked a view that I happen to reject, but I think he's radically misrepresented the position he's disagreeing with and even given arguments against a much more reasonable position (one that I think is true and hope he would agree with).

I've been critical in the past of John Piper's reduction of God's motives to the one motive of pursuing his own glory. I mentioned my concern in this post, although it wasn't be central focus there (but see the comments for more development on the issues). I focused a little more on that concern here. So I'm no defender of the view that God's primary focus is his own glory, with all other motivations reduced to that one. So I'm not a fan of the view. Nevertheless, it seems pretty unfair to portray that view the way Witherington does:

Let me be clear that of course the Bible says it is our obligation to love, praise, and worship God, but this is a very different matter from the suggestion that God worships himself, is deeply worried about whether he has enough glory or not, and his deepest motivation for doing anything on earth is so that he can up his own glory quotient, or magnify and praise himself.

I don't see any indication in Piper that he would describe God as worshiping himself. I see nothing remotely in the area of God being worried about anything, never mind being worried about whether he has enough glory. That's not the idea at all. The view is that God's other concerns ultimately boil down to demonstrating how good and amazing God is. Being perfectly good is really and truly wonderful, and why wouldn't it be a good thing for God to demonstrate just how good he is? I find it extremely hard to believe that Witherington doesn't think God is motivated by spreading information about his goodness.

The difference between the view I would defend and Piper's view is that I don't think this is the only fundamental motive in God's mind. God's love is fundamental and does not depend just on God's concern for his glory. But that doesn't mean God has no concern for his glory, and I would sincerely hope Witherington isn't rejecting such a motive at all, because it's all through the Bible. But his criticism of Piper is a criticism of that view, not a criticism of where Piper actually gets it wrong.

I'm not sure what a glory quotient is. If the idea is that God spends all his time being and becoming more glorious, that's surely not the idea. Maybe Piper would say that God is as good as he could be, which means he acts in the most glorious way he can. If there are good objections to that view, they come from the possibility that there is no limit to how good the world or a being can be, and then you run into trouble when you say that God is at the limit. But that's not a problem for Piper in particular, and it's not the worry Witherington is raising. He seems to think it would be wrong to pursue one's glory quotient, even if one is God. I find it hard to believe that he would think it wrong to be as good as you could be. So he must think it's wrong to pursue being thought of as good. But why would God want people to have an inadequate understanding of how good he is? Why would he want people to be misinformed about one of the most important truths about the universe, that its creator is simply wonderful? So I'm at a loss to figure out what Witherington is even getting at with this language.

Consider also the following argument:

For instance, suppose this thesis stated above is true-- would we not expect John 3.16 to read "for God so loved himself that he gave his only begotten Son..."?

The answer is definitely no (and the same will go for his parallel arguments with different texts, so I'll just focus on this one). While it's true that on Piper's view the ultimate reason for God's love is his glory, reductionism isn't eliminativism. An eliminativist about God's love would insist that God doesn't love. Any talk of God's love is ultimately false, even if there's something we meant to say that could be more accurately captured by love-talk. Reductionism, on the other hand, insists that the phenomenon in question is real but that it's ultimately based in something deeper. Reductionism about heat reduces the phenomenon to average kinetic energy, denying that there's some substance called caloric that explains heat sensations by moving around and making areas hotter, while insisting that heat is real and is just a more fundamental phenomenon to do with the movements of particles. Piper's view of God's love is similar. He doesn't say that God doesn't love. He doesn't insist that biblical passages about God's love aren't about God's love. It's just that God's motive of love is ultimately motivated by his love of what's perfectly good, and that's himself. He loves perfect goodness, and perfect goodness includes loving those who do not deserve it.

So it would be true if John has commented on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus by saying that God sent his Son because of his love for himself. But it would be misleading, because it suggests no mediating causes, no motivation that immediately causes the sending of the Son besides the ultimate motive of God's glory. So no, I wouldn't expect such a misleading statement from John even if Piper's view were true. What's especially ironic about Witherington's argument is that it ignores the distinction between primary and secondary causation, something he was not too long ago complaining that Calvinists don't understand (when it's actually the Calvinists who insist on it and Witherington's anti-Calvinist arguments that ignore it, so maybe this is just another instance of the same problem; see my comments on Peter Kirk's post here for my response to Witherington on that issues).

Update (27 Nov 2007):  Piper has responded to Witherington. I agree with all of his points to the extent that they show where Witherington has misrepresented Piper's view. (I'm not sure I endorse all the points as true, but Witherington doesn't seem even to realize that Piper thinks they're true.)

Update 2 (8 Dec 2007): I've gotten behind on my blog reading during grading season, so I just noticed this, but my cousin Danny Pierce agrees and says it much more succinctly than I did.

4 Comments

Your comments are helpful. I'm disturbed by Witherington's tendency to misrepresent those with whom he disagrees, not only is it intellectually dishonest, it's counterproductive (and one might claim it is a sinful act against a brother in Christ). And maybe I'm even more annoyed because 1) I am a big fan of Witherington's work (most of it) and 2) I tend to agree with Witherington on many issues (more than you would). It's kind of like watching your favorite sports team cheat, it just makes me sad (to use an illustration that comes quite close to home).

Anyway, my biggest problem is that Witherington seems to discount God's own glory as a motive at all, putting it under His love as a motivation. And while I cringe whenever I hear the overused "it's not either/or, it's both/and", it just might apply here.

For the record, I haven't read your discussion on Piper's view, but I bet I'd agree.

A few things:

1) There seems to be quite a number of people on Witherington's blog who endorse his opinion, to the point of denouncing the "other" Christians who should be so daft and (perhaps even) blasphemous as to attribute narcissism to God. Surely the Christian God wouldn't dare to think of Himself as the most perfect of all things, created or eternal. (Check out the comment from "Luke" on the Witherington blog.)

2) It seems that Ben (along with some of the responders of his blog) is, to say the least, extremely distressed that God should look out for His own glory, even for a moment. I wonder if someone who is fed up with cynicism and narcissism, two of our present-day ills, would hope to see a God who is not subject to glorifying Himself and can have genuine, real care for His people.

He needs to read, Jonathan Edwards', The End for Which the World Was Created. This whole idea of God working to that end which is glorifying Himself comes from this book:

http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works1.iv.html

There are a variety of objections to this view that Edwards takes on that are worth studying.

I was reading in Packer's Knowing God this morning, and ran across these thoughts. I thought they were appropriate for this discussion.

"We have in previous chapters made the point that God's end in all things is his own glory... This statement is true, but it is incomplete. It needs to be balanced by a recognition that through setting his love on human beings God has voluntarily bound up his own final happiness with theirs.... Thus God saves, not only for his glory, but also for his gladness." (125)

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