Serving through Scholarship: Ben Witherington III on the Calling to Be a Passionate Learner, a Persuasive Communicator, and a Faithful Witness

By Douglas Estes

Describing Ben Witherington III as prolific is like saying water is wet. Over the past thirty years, he has written commentaries on all twenty-seven New Testament books—plus dozens of other volumes. He is currently working on a biblical theology project tentatively titled Convergence: A Biblical Theology (Baker, forthcoming). His teaching career stretches from Duke to Ashland to Asbury, where he continues to serve as the Jean R. Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies. Witherington spoke recently with Didaktikos editor Douglas Estes about the role of rhetoric in pedagogy and his advice for young professors. He also explained why he writes so much.


ESTES: What does teaching well mean to you?

WITHERINGTON: Well, I guess in the first instance, teaching well means teaching clearly and effectively—offering words on target to your audience, which requires that you know your audience well. And so it’s not just a matter of knowing your subject matter, though that’s critical and presupposed. Teaching—the actual act of teaching—requires making a connection between the subject material and the audience, such that they have a more than a fighting chance to grasp the subject matter.

ESTES: So when you’re thinking about that idea as it relates to the New Testament, what do those texts have to say about teaching well?

WITHERINGTON: It’s interesting to me—the different pedagogies that we actually find in the New Testament. And it varies; one size doesn’t fit all. I mean, Jesus’ parables are not Paul’s rhetorical discourses. So there are different things that are being accomplished by different pedagogical approaches. Jesus telling parables is deliberately trying to get people to tease their mind into active thought. So he’s not being direct; he’s being indirect. It’s not perfectly clear what he’s driving at, and that’s an intentional thing—whereas there are plenty of places, like in the Pastoral Epistles, where Paul is being as direct as he can be, in using syllogisms and imperatives and exhortations.

ESTES: Are there other pedagogies you see in the New Testament?

WITHERINGTON: I think all of the writers assume their audiences are Christians, starting with the Gospel writers and going all the way to John of Patmos in Revelation. That being the case, they’re relying on the fact that all of the audience has the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit is being expected to help guide them into truth at whatever level and whatever stage they are in their Christian walk. So in a sense, it’s not all on the pedagogy. It’s also on the assumed theology of the work of the Holy Spirit in illumination.

ESTES: OK, now let’s bring that forward into our modern period. Say you have a young man or young woman, and they go and do their PhD studies, and then they go teach at a seminary or university. And they have a lot of discussion, hopefully, somewhere along the way, about various pedagogies and different ways of teaching—everything from practical things like how to use visuals, to basics like how to construct your syllabus. What can a professor today learn from Scripture when it comes to pedagogy—or can they?

WITHERINGTON: I think they can. But we have to realize we live in a very different environment than the environment of the writers of the New Testament. They lived in oral cultures, and something like eighty percent of the people couldn’t read and write. I mean, Jesus did not say, “Let those with two good eyes see.” We live in a culture of texting and tweeting, and the end result is that … we live in an age of mostly visual learners. So we need all kinds of extra-modern help to engage people who are largely visual learners—things like PowerPoint slides and movie clips—just to get them engaged in the process of learning. … So, I think there are certainly things to be learned from the New Testament about pedagogy, but their context is very different from ours.

ESTES: Yes, their context and culture was very different, not only in the area of pedagogy but also rhetoric—something you have written on extensively. How does rhetoric play into the role of the professor?

WITHERINGTON: There are a lot of things I could say about the importance of rhetoric today. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Who doesn’t want to be a teacher who persuades students of the importance of various things? And that being the case, you need to know how to handle issues of ethos, logos, and pathos. Here’s just a small example. If you’re enthusiastic about your subject, and you convey it clearly, that’s contagious. That’s good ethos. That’s getting people’s attention. If you understand that, you’re understanding something about communication— which is not just a transfer of data or words from one person to another. This is one of the reasons that in-person education is so much better than some kinds of online education, because it’s embodied learning. You have a person in front of you showing you—through their demeanor, their gestures, their tone of voice and many other things—what’s important about the subject.

I think what you can learn about argumentation is very important—how to persuade. And obviously things that persuaded in Paul’s day may not persuade today at all. I mean, Paul lived in a high pathos culture, where emotion was just sort of dripping off discourses all over the place. And so, if you read a letter like Philemon, you see what to us would look like manipulation—where Paul says, “If Onesimus owes you something, write me a statement, here’s my IOU, I will pay this. Oh, by the way, did I mention you owe me your very spiritual life?” Now to us, that is going to sound enormously manipulative, right? In that culture, in that kind of emotional environment, this was the normal thing to do. Paul appeals to the fact that he’s an old man, that he’s in chains. You can hear the violins playing in the background of Philemon. Well, what persuaded then was emotion. Emotion helps persuasion—but with our audience today, it can work very differently and can even be a turn-off. So I think you can learn a lot about how to persuade, how arguments work. But I’m especially concerned with the fact that today, as in antiquity, you have to establish contact with your audience, establish rapport at the beginning, then make your case—and then hopefully appeal to their deeper sense of emotions at the end to seal the deal. It’s got to be both a cognitive and an emotional direct appeal to them to embrace something you think they need to be persuaded about. And it cannot just be dry logic, and it cannot just be emoting either. So it’s a sort of balanced approach to pedagogy.

ESTES: Would it be true to say that, because of our modern culture, much of our teaching becomes limited to logos? It seems that professors might be tempted to focus only on the facts and information, and what’s sometimes lacking is pathos.

WITHERINGTON: Exactly. If you read Quintilian, for example, Paul’s contemporary, he understands human psychology and what does and doesn’t work to move people—or at least to get them to listen attentively. And so, for example, humor. What we know about humor from psychologists is that it causes people to lower their defenses if they think it’s actually humorous. Well, there are various ways to approach people to get them to lower their defenses so they will actually listen with intent, and that’s part of being a good rhetor; that’s being a good communicator.

Unfortunately, in our environment, the term “rhetoric” is associated with nothing but negative, cynical, political harangues full of sound and fury and signifying almost nothing. Well, unfortunately, that’s the sort of M.O. that rhetoric has these days. So I have to tell people what we’re talking about is the art of preaching and the art of persuasion. If you don’t want to call it “rhetoric,” that’s OK with me, but in fact that’s the subject matter under any other name.

I’m teaching a doctoral seminar right now on socio‑rhetorical interpretation of the New Testament, and let me tell you—all kinds of pennies drop and lights go on when you show people how rhetoric is being used. For example, we’re using the example of Paul’s letter to the Romans, and I’m showing them all the rhetorical devices and how they work. And all of the sudden, they have all these “a-ha” moments, and they understand Romans in a way they never understood it before.

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ESTES: So if you had a chance to mentor a young professor today, what are some key points of advice that you would give on teaching well?

WITHERINGTON: First of all, I would say, if you have a choice, teach something you’re passionate about and want to learn more about. Don’t be teaching something that you find drudgery—not even divine drudgery, but just simply drudgery.

Don’t volunteer to teach a subject that you (A) are not very good at, and (B) don’t much like. Because that will come across to the audience. I had a calculus professor at North Carolina. Worst course I ever took. And the difference between him and the textbook is that the textbook didn’t stutter. He was a Greek graduate student, and he didn’t care whether we got it or not. And so he just got up there and recited the textbook day after day after day. And you could tell he wanted to be anywhere else.

So you need to pick a subject that you care about, that you’d like to learn more about, and that you want to interact with students about. That would be one of the pieces of advice I would give. But the second thing I would say is that you need to be on a journey of lifelong learning. So, you want to be a good teacher? Don’t just recycle old lecture notes from ‘03 or whatever. You need to keep in the text, keep researching, keep studying, so that it’s a living subject for you as well as for the audience—even if they’re hearing it for the first time.

ESTES: Tell me a little bit about your personal ministry apart from being a professor.

WITHERINGTON: I’m an ordained United Methodist minister. I pastored six churches along the way. All of those were toward the beginning of my career after having received my PhD. But ever since then, I’ve been teaching and preaching and doing seminars and filling pulpits all over the world in small bursts—on weekends, over the summer, during holidays. So, for me, as a teacher, I’m doing everything in service of Christ and the church, whether I’m teaching in the seminary or I’m teaching in the church—or even if I’m offering public lectures at a secular university, which I do from time to time.

Ultimately, I’m doing it all as part of my Christian service. Teaching, preaching, and writing are my three real gifts—plus I’m a musician as well, so I can do a bit of that. You need to know your main gifts, and in some ways you need to know what is your best gift. And you need to maximize them and continue to develop those over time. And I would say—especially if you’re a seminary professor—you need to keep one foot in the church all the time, and one foot in whatever educational institution you’re teaching at, so that there’s not a sort of bifurcation there. They need to bleed over into each other if you’re a Christian person. Otherwise you have a sort of schizophrenia, where at work you’re one person and at home or in the church you’re somebody else. And that’s not healthy.

ESTES: If you had a young professor at Asbury come to you and say, “Hey, I’m just teaching right now,” what would be your response to that?

WITHERINGTON: Well, I mean, we’re supposed to model good behavior, if you’re a good teacher. For years, I’ve written an in-home Bible study for every week, for people from my church. And I teach Sunday school almost every Sunday somewhere. So I am deliberately staying in the church and working with laypeople all the time. And I would say to that young professor, “Look for opportunities to do that.” If you’re a teacher and that’s your gift, you should be a whale of a Sunday school teacher. You’re going to have much more skill at it than the person who just sort of goes to a basic Bible training or whatever, or just reads an English translation of the Bible. You have a lot more to offer than that. You should be volunteering to do something in a church setting that helps them, even if it’s only periodically.

ESTES: Right. And I’ll say this—you don’t have to agree—but it seems to me that if you’re not a whale of a Sunday school teacher and you’re a seminary professor, something’s missing.

WITHERINGTON: Here’s part of the problem—and one of the things I’ve learned. I had the president of the seminary come to me one day and say, “Ben, do you know what your best gift is?” And I said, “OK, tell me.” And he said, “You have the ability to distill even complex ideas to any level of discourse, even to the simplest layperson.” And then he said, “Not all teachers can do that. Not all professors are good at that at all.” And I thought, “So my best gift is hermeneutics and homiletics!” And I thought about that for a while, and it is true.

I have some professors in my past who could not preach their way out of a paper bag, nor would I want them teaching my Sunday school class. But in terms of just what they knew and their ability to convey what they knew, they were golden. They were good at doing that. I just wouldn’t introduce them to my Sunday school class and have them substitute for me!

So some of it has to do with gifts and graces. The advice I give to potential teachers or those who are beginning teaching will vary with what their gifts or graces are. One of the first things I would do is say, “What is your assessment and the assessment of others—like maybe your wife or your husband or whoever— of your best gifts?”

My wife is constantly telling me, “Your best gifts are teaching and writing. You should stick more to those and less with other things.” And, OK—blessed are those who know where their happy place is and where they’re most effective. To me, it’s unfortunate how ego sometimes gets in the way of maximizing what your best gifts are, because you think “Well, I’m really good at this” when you’re only kind of mediocre at it—but nobody wants to hurt your feelings and tell you that. I think one of the services an older teacher can give to a younger teacher is helping them to discern what their best gifts are and then helping them to maximize those.

ESTES: Right, sure—and after hearing your comment, I would nuance what I was saying. I understand someone may not have the gift to teach Sunday school, but they should at least have the heart or the desire to do something on that level.

WITHERINGTON: Sure, I agree with that. There are people who have a heart for the laity. But actually, what I need them to do is practical things and not do the teaching. Because if that’s where their heart is, well, then, here are ten things you can do for the church. Are you an IT person? Then I don’t want you explaining the nuts and bolts of the rhetoric of Romans. But I could sure use your help in setting up the video projector and all that stuff. And if you want to serve laypeople, use the skills you’ve got to serve them.

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ESTES: Let’s change gears and talk about writing. What’s the importance of publishing for a Christian scholar today?

WITHERINGTON: Witness, of course. Our culture is increasingly biblically illiterate, and so at every level of discourse, from the highest academic level to the ordinary layperson, we need to bear witness. To whom more is given, more is required. And so publishing is a way to have a voice when you can’t be there, when you can’t meet people in person.

Of the fifty-some books I’ve written, they’ve sold half million copies and I’m getting letters all the time—from India, from Bangladesh, from here, from there, from yonder, asking for copies of the book and saying thank you. Publishing gives you a platform and an opportunity to bear witness and to educate a much larger audience than you’re ever going to have in person, no matter how much you travel. So in terms of involvement in a mission and a ministry and sharing a witness, publishing is critical to the Christian enterprise. And now more than ever, we have these technological tools. That’s why I have a blog. I’m just giving stuff away for free every single day because we are supposed to be witnesses for the Lord Jesus Christ—and we need to get on with it, all the time.

ESTES: Didaktikos is a place for professors to have conversation about theological education. Is there anything else you would like to mention to that audience?

WITHERINGTON: I would say that in the technological age we now live in, we need to not hide behind our screens and just rely on the technology. We need to interact with and build relationships with other professors, and we need to do cross disciplinary work. We biblical scholars need to interact with theologians and church historians and other aspects of our field—linguists.

The knowledge we have is only partial, and we need to have a holistic vision of the Christian life and God’s revelation. The only way to get that is to pool resources with other people and be a team player and have a sense of community — a community of scholars. That’s why I like the Society of Biblical Literature, the IBR (Institute for Biblical Research), the SNTS (Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas), and various other groups—because we get to learn further, and we also get to interact with other people and cross-fertilize. And cross- fertilization is crucial.

Some people think they’re in a groove when they’re just in a rut. The way to get out of the rut is to have your thoughts challenged by people you don’t necessarily agree with, and I think that’s a good thing. That’s why I would say to evangelicals, don’t just go to meetings where there are other evangelicals, though that’s fine too. Branch out and be part of the larger biblical academy.

Keep up with Ben Witherington on his blog


This article was first published in Didaktikos, the new journal for teachers of theology, published by Faithlife Corporation. To receive copies for yourself or your institution, please visit this page.

Ben Witherington teaches “Christian Life from a Kingdom Perspective”
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Didaktikos is a vocational journal for professors who teach in biblical studies, theology, and related disciplines—particularly at the graduate level and in service to the church. Didaktikos is published four times a year.

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