In a recent blog post, Asbury Seminary professor Ben Witherington questions the basic thesis of a forthcoming book he was reading: that the most basic theme of NT theology is “God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.” Witherington calls this a mistake in the “basic understanding of God’s essential and moral character.”
Because I’m already late in addressing this and others have responded better than I could, I just want to point out a couple of problems in Witherington’s article. Of course, I think his thesis is dead wrong; I think God is the most God-centered being in the universe, but that’s another post. For now, a couple of issues with how he makes his argument.
First, he distorts the view he’s arguing against by flattening and simplifying it. That’s what he’s doing in quoting John 3:16 and asking if it shouldn’t say “God so loved himself.” Reformed Christians (that’s who he’s criticizing) don’t believe God doesn’t love the world, or that his love for the world isn’t one of the things that move him to action. When we say that God’s chief concern is his own glory, we’re not saying it’s the only thing he cares about, to the exclusion of everything else. We believe, in fact, that God’s love for the world is one way in which his regard for his own glory is shown.
Second, he distorts the view he’s arguing against by mocking it. That’s what he’s doing here:
[T]he 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.
When we say that God’s chief concern is his own glory, we don’t mean that he is “deeply worried” about anything. We mean that his purpose is to glorify himself, to display to the world how magnificent he is. He is not concerned about “whether he has enough glory or not”– he is infinitely glorious. Witherington isn’t even attempting to treat his opponents’ view with care or respect here; he is simply making fun of it. That’s a far cry from a reasoned, biblical response.
Third, Witherington’s conclusion is exactly backwards. He believes that the idea of God being God-centered is the projection of a narcissistic age. In other words, we’re self-centered, and therefore we like to think of God as being self-centered too. But here’s my take: we are indeed self-centered, and therefore we like to think of God as being us-centered too. That’s Witherington’s view of God: his character is, at the core, “other directed self-sacrificial love.”* In other words, God is man-centered. Unfortunately, I think a lot of evangelicals would agree. As John Piper has said, we’re all about being God-centered, as long as we think God is man-centered. This is exactly the mistake Witherington makes, and it’s why he recoils at the God-centered God I believe the Bible presents.
*Of course, no one denies that God does love in an outward-facing, self-sacrificial way. This is another error in Witherington’s thinking: he places God’s zeal for his own glory and his love for humans at odds. The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are the basis for the atonement (for example, Rom 3:26).