Ben Witherington offers some critiques of an unnamed book on NT theology. The book to which he is referring is Tom Schreiner’s forthcoming New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ. Tom Schreiner argues in his new book that the basic theme of the New Testament is “God magnifying himself through Jesus Christ by means of the Holy Spirit.” Witherington doesn’t like this thesis. Let me give you a sampling of Witherington’s complaints and then offer some brief responses.
“In other words I am arguing Christ, the perfect image of God’s character, reveals that God’s character is essentially other directed self-sacrificial love. God loves people, not merely as means to his own ends, but as ends in themselves. . .
“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.
“If we go back to the Garden of Eden story, one immediately notices that it is the Fall and sin which turned Adam and Eve into self-aware, self-centered, self-protecting beings. This is not how God had created them. Rather, he had created them in the divine image, and that divine image involves other directed, other centered love and relating. It follows from this that not the fallen narcissistic tendencies we manifest reflect what God is really like, but rather other directed, self-giving loving tendency. . .
“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.”
Full disclosure: Tom Schreiner was my doctoral supervisor and is a good friend. That being said, I still think Witherington’s critiques are way off and reveal more of his own Wesleyan/Arminian commitments than of any deficiencies in Schreiner’s work.
First, Witherington would be hard-pressed to show biblically that God’s love is an “end” in itself. Everywhere the Bible teaches that God’s love and redemptive acts are designed to magnify His own glory (e.g., Exodus 9:16; 2 Samuel 7:26; Psalm 79:9; Isaiah 42:8; 48:9; Ezekiel 36:22, 32; John 17:5; Romans 9:17; 11:36; Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). God’s love and God’s glory are not at odds, as John Piper would say. God’s love (manifested supremely in Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners) is a means by which His glory is manifested to the world. This is the common Arminian error. They mistakenly regard God’s means (His love and redemptive acts) as ends in themselves. But the Bible simply does not bear this out. The ultimate end or purpose of everything is God’s glory (see the texts cited above).
Second, neither Schreiner nor any other Calvinist would use the word “narcissist” to describe God. Witherington’s use of the word to describe Schreiner may be an effective rhetorical ploy, but it really isn’t helpful at all in terms of theological analysis. We get our word “narcissist” from Greek mythology, but the term’s meaning in common parlance is “inordinate fascination with oneself.” But the Bible teaches that it is not possible for God to be inordinately fascinated with Himself; nor is it possible (as the myth goes) for God to be so enraptured with the reflection of His own image that it becomes a vice. The sum of the Bible’s teaching is that God is the only being for whom self-exaltation is not a vice, but a virtue. That God would exalt the beauty of His own perfections for others to admire is the essence of love. That is why you have texts in the scripture that express God’s jealousy concerning His own worship and glory: “I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images” (Isaiah 42:8). Only with God is self-exaltation a virtue, since He is the first and best of beings, the only One who can satisfy the soul. When sinful humans exalt themselves, it is not loving because it is a distraction from the One who truly can meet the deepest needs of fallen humanity. It is a vice for sinful people to call others to admire them and so to distract them from admiring God. God is love. Therefore He must exalt Himself so as to draw people into worship. This is not narcissistic because it is no vice for Him to exalt the beauty of His own perfections for His creatures’ enjoyment and blessing. Witherington misses all of this, and like other Arminians, removes the firmest grounding that we have for God’s loveâ€”God’s own desire to exalt the glory of His own perfections.
In sum, don’t go to Witherington for a reliable analysis of Schreiner’s work. He is hitting way wide of the mark. God’s love and God’s glory are not at odds, as Witherington would have us to believe.