Here’s a thought: God is allowed to glorify himself. Actually, it’s entirely fitting that he do so.
First things first: I like Ben Witherington. As a general rule, I think his work – especially on the subject of the historical Jesus and Christian origins – is really good. But this was brought to my attention recently. It’s a short piece by James White, in which he notes that Witherington recently took issue with a forthcoming book by Thomas Schreiner. Schreiner made what sounds like me to a fairly innocuous claim, the claim that what we see in the New Testament is “God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.” Witherington, says White, reacted with a “very Arminian-originated” reply to this claim.
OK, I thought. James White is a Calvinist, and one of the more vociferous Calvinists out there today. He’s good at what he does, I mused, but sometimes he reacts a little strongly to his brethren who are not Calvinists. Maybe this was just White ragging on an Arminian scholar.
I was wrong. I read Witherington’s piece, which is here. It’s not a rant against Calvinism per se, it reads more like a rant against any view wherein God seeks His own glory – and I mean, it really is a rant. Witherington starts by describing the view that in salvation as described in the New Testament, God is ultimately magnifying His own glorify, and concludes that if this were so, John 3:16 should read “for God so loved Himself…” He rattles off a whole list of verses, re-written as equally bizarre parodies of themselves, and then explodes in a plume of rhetorical colour:
I suppose we should not be surprised that in a culture and age of narcissism, we would recreate God in our own self-centered image, but it is surprising when we find orthodox Christians, and even careful scholars doing this.
You have to be kidding, Ben. Really? What kind of absurd attempt at cultural reductionism is this? What button hath been pressed here? And how exactly would the Amonite version of Dr Witherington have reacted to Israelite culture?
I suppose we should not be surprised that in an age of powerful kings demanding our worship and a love of monarchy, we find ourselves wanting to worship a god who is just like them, demanding that worship and glory go to no other…
I’ll tell you what we shouldn’t be surprised at, Dr Witherington. We should not be surprised that in our age of asinine psychoanalysis and social reductionism, we find scholars writing of other people’s position on the grounds of some babble about cultural osmosis!
On the theological side of things, here’s what’s wrong with the above analysis. If a person is self-centred, self adoring, self loving and aggrandizing and so forth, we think it is wrong, not because love or glory are bad things, but because these attitudes do not rightly reflect the facts. A person should not think himself better than everyone else because he is not better than everyone else. A man like me should not seek his own glory above all others because I do not deserve glory above all others. Are we really prepared to demand that God abstain from such demands for the same reason?
Witherington protests that actually the greatest story in Scripture is that of the love of God. The two ideas, however, as John Piper explained, are not unrelated. “God’s exaltation of his own glory is not narcissistic but loving, because it directs our attention away from ourselves to the one glorious reality that can satisfy our souls forever.” Have a look through a longer piece by Piper on the subject, two of which are linked at the bottom of that response at Piper’s site. The idea that a God (the one and only God who created heaven and earth) should seek the glory that He deserves should not seem foreign to Christian ears. In saving human beings, no less, the end result is the greater glory of God, as spelt out pretty unambiguously by the Apostle Paul (and this is the case regardless of whether or not one accepts a Calvinist view of the references to predestination, as I do), in Ephesians 1:3-14.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.
In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.