Thoroughly Uncontroversial: Sinclair Ferguson on Christotelic Interpretation

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Regular readers of TheEcclesialCalvinist blog are no doubt aware of the recent involuntary “retirement” of Westminster Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament Dr. Douglas Green. Those still unfamiliar with this controversy can find my analysis here and here

A colleague in ministry recently alerted me to a pamphlet written by my friend and former seminary professor Dr. Sinclair Ferguson, entitled Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (London: Proclamation Trust, 2002). Brief but meaty, it wrestles with the hermeneutical challenge of preaching Christ from the Old Testament while also doing justice to the historical integrity of the Old Testament texts. For those who may wish to read the entire work, this fine pamphlet is available free of charge from the Charles Simeon Trust here.

Though it does not use the term “christotelic,” the pamphlet in question presents, it seems to me, the substance of an approach that has recently become unnecessarily controversial in the case of Dr. Green. First, Ferguson recognizes, with B. B. Warfield, that there are meanings present in the Old Testament that were not necessarily apparent in that earlier context. In a passage from Warfield cited (but not quoted) by Ferguson, the Old Princetonian says, “The Old Testament may be likened to a chamber richly furnished but dimly lighted; the introduction of light brings into it nothing which was not in it before; but it brings out into clearer view much of what is in it but was only dimly or even not at all perceived before” (Warfield, “The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Works, II:141).

Second, though he does not use Green’s exact terminology of “first and second reading,” Ferguson speaks of two ways of reading the Old Testament—one that, in the light of New Testament revelation, recognizes the Christological content present in the Old, and another that reads the Old Testament in its own historical integrity. Ferguson writes, “To read the Old Testament with the light switched off would be to deny the historical reality of our own context. On the other hand, we would be denying the historical reality of the text and its context if we were to read and preach it as though that same light had already been switched on within its own pages. Thus our task as Christian preachers must be to take account of both” (p. 4).

For example, Ferguson rightly recognizes that in Hosea 11:1 the prophet was speaking retrospectively of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and not about the later return of the holy family from Egypt. Nevertheless, in the light of the Christ event we can see, with Matthew the Evangelist, the divine Exodus pattern of activity present in both the Old Testament and in the life of Christ. Ferguson writes:

An interesting illustration of this is the use of Hosea 11:1 in Matthew 2:15: ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’. These words, Matthew says, are fulfilled in Christ. But isn’t this either an esoteric or naïve approach to reading the Bible? Hosea is talking about the historic event of the people of God coming out of Egypt in the Exodus, not about Jesus going to and returning from Egypt in his infancy. So what is going on in Matthew’s mind? Is he saying Hosea 11:1 is fulfilled in Jesus just as Isaiah 53 is? Yes. But not in the same sense. Rather Matthew, writing in the light of the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognises that the divine pattern in the Exodus (delivered from Egypt, led through the wilderness, given the covenant bond and kingdom-code) constitutes a pattern to be used in the experience of the true Israelite, Jesus Christ. In doing this Matthew provides us with a key to reading and expounding the entire Exodus narrative in a Christo-centric way, and indeed his own narrative against a background that enriches our understanding of Jesus’ identity and ministry (p. 12).

I will also say that all this is quite consistent with what I was taught at Westminster Theological Seminary back in the mid-1980s, that it is rather clearly rooted in the best of the Reformed tradition, and that it should be thoroughly uncontroversial.

Obstreperous Islam

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[This article originally appeared on The Aquila Report in September 2012.  It was written in the context of the so-called "Arab Spring" and related events, and thus it does not address the current brutal persecution of Christians and other religious minorities--involving mass executions, forced conversions, beheadings, and crucifixions--by ISIS/ISIL in Iraq and Syria.  I have resisted the urge to rewrite the article in light of more recent events (in part because it is difficult to write analytically rather than viscerally in the face of such genocidal horror), although its relevance for understanding the broader historical context of current events should be obvious.]

Recent events—the wave of demonstrations and violence in the Islamic world prompted at least in part by news of alleged religious insults from the West, ongoing threats by the Islamic government in Iran to destroy the state of Israel, and the emerging pattern in the wake of the so-called “Arab spring” of replacing authoritarian governments with rule by overtly religious parties that seek the implementation of Sharia law—have underscored what some of us already knew.  Islam in its political expression, in contrast to the personal warmth that I have experienced from many Muslims both in this country and when I have traveled in the Middle East, can be obstreperous.  It is difficult to deal with.  It refuses to be domesticated or confined by conventional Western categories.  There are reasons for this, some of them theological, which many contemporary Western leaders are ignoring to their peril.

The first is that Islam is a religio-cultural-political package.  There is no ultimate distinction in Islam between the sacred and the secular, and thus none between mosque and state.  All of life is understood as a matter of submission to Allah.  For this reason, while there has sometimes been religious toleration under Islamic governments, there can be no real religious pluralism in the practical political sense of the term.  That is to say, adherents of other religions will not be viewed as equal members of society in a context governed by Islamic principles.

Second, the history of Islam has been characterized by periods of militant expansionism in the name of religion.  As historian Efraim Karsh has noted in his recent Islamic Imperialism: A History (Yale, 2006), the great Mohammed himself provided the model of the “warrior prophet,” and a concern to unify the world religiously and politically under Islamic auspices seems to be hardwired into the Muslim consciousness.  The Islamic ideal is of a humanity unified by a single religion, and the lessons of history suggest that while this ideal has seemingly gone dormant under certain political circumstances it repeatedly reemerges.

Third, there is the Muslim understanding of jihad, or holy war.  All three great monotheisms—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—have traditions of holy warfare in their scriptures, but in both Judaism and Christianity these notions were largely spiritualized and eschatologized.    After the bitter experience of the Jewish wars against Rome in the first and second centuries, the Jews realized that holy warfare was a dead end and they decided to wait for the messiah to set things right.  Likewise, Christians have tended to interpret biblical holy warfare language as a metaphor for spiritual struggle or to project it into the future when Jesus returns to judge the world.  Though there is some evidence of similar spiritualization in the Qur’an, on balance the Muslim notion of jihad retains a decidedly this worldly and overtly political edge.  Reasons for this are complicated and have to do with both theological and historical factors.     Nevertheless, in contrast to the other great monotheisms, the conception of holy warfare has followed a strikingly different path in Islam.

Along with this there is the attendant religious incentivizing of violent struggle.  According to the Qur’an, those who engage in warfare on behalf of Islam will be rewarded (see, e.g., Surahs 4:959:38-3911148:17).  And of course, when eternal religious rewards are offered for temporal violence in the name of religion, unfortunate things tend to happen.  To be sure, Christians have occasionally fallen into this trap as well.  Here we think of Pope Urban II, who declared a plenary indulgence (i.e., go straight to heaven with no stop in purgatory) for those who went on the First Crusade.  But such instances are more the exception than the rule, and Christianity contains within itself notable safeguards against them such as the Sermon on the Mount and the example of Jesus himself.

Finally, there is the hermeneutical tradition of Islam.  Here we are referring to the way that Muslims themselves read the Qur’an.  Many in the West today hear conciliatory passages from the Qur’an and conclude that Islam is a “religion of peace.”  But as my late academic colleague W. H. F. Kuykendall (who read Middle Eastern history at Johns Hopkins) often pointed out, the interpretation of the Qur’an is very much a “tale of two cities.”  The Qur’an is a collection of the records of visionary revelations that Mohammed claimed to receive, and they date to two strikingly different contexts—his earlier time in Mecca and the later period in Medina.  The Meccan surahs (chapters) reflect a period when Mohammed was trying to win people over to his cause, and here the emphasis is on persuasion and kindness.  The Medinan surahs present a more militant version of Islam as Mohammed was trying to expand his influence and take over Mecca by force.

But how does one reconcile these two perspectives?  A common answer given by Muslim scholars is that where there is conflict or contradiction the later surahs abrogate or set aside the earlier.  In fact, the roots of this principle of abrogation are found within the Qur’an itself (see, e.g., Surahs 2:10616:101).  While for obvious political reasons this notion of abrogation is denied by some Muslims today, it is nevertheless well attested in the Islamic interpretive tradition.

There is nothing particularly complicated about all this.  But why do secular Western liberals seem to be so clueless?  What blinds so many in the West to these realities?  Here we think, for example, of Barack Obama’s astonishing 2007 assertion that upon his inauguration as President the Muslim world would look at America differently simply because he had lived in a Muslim country and has relatives who are Muslims.   There are at least three reasons.

First, Western secular liberal democracy no longer takes the question of religious truth seriously.   In fact, it largely lacks even the vocabulary to discuss religious truth claims, and this places it at a distinct disadvantage when deals with groups for whom such truth claims are central.  We in the West are the heirs of the post-Enlightenment fact/value dichotomy—on the one hand there are empirical, scientific facts; on the other hand there are values which cannot be rationally confirmed.  Such values are matters of opinion, and religious beliefs and convictions are, on this reading of things, merely values.  Along with this comes the inevitable privatization of religion.  Religious belief is simply a matter of personal opinion that is acceptable only so long as it remains private and unobtrusive.

The public square, as the late Richard John Neuhaus aptly observed, has thus become “naked” or stripped of religious expression.  When Barack Obama claims that Muslims will have a different opinion of America because he “understands their point of view,” Muslims know full well that he is not taking them as believers or their truth claims seriously, and they are not impressed.   But we really cannot expect a Western secularist like Obama to respond in any other way, and hence the persistent disconnect between Islam and the West.

Second, in the absence of a transcendent frame of reference there is the reduction of political process in Western secular liberal democracies to matters of economic wellbeing, tolerance, and personal autonomy.  This means that many in liberal democracies not only do not understand what is at stake in this struggle, but they will also often seek compromise with militant Islamists in order to maintain economic stability and preserve lifestyle.  This has been the story in Western Europe, and there are indications that the same process is beginning here in America as well.  The irony here is that, having opposed the religious truth claims of the Judeo-Christian tradition by denying the reality of objective religious truth itself, secular liberalism now finds itself with little in the way of resources to deploy against a zealous and confident religious opponent that will not be distracted by such ideological games.

Finally, there is the multicultural fixation of secular liberalism.  Having used the presence of other religions such as Islam in the West as leverage against the supposed cultural hegemony of Christianity, secularists cannot very well now turn around and condemn Islam without embarrassment.  This no doubt helps to account for the deafening silence of many secular liberals when they are confronted by Islamic intolerance and violent excesses.

The West is now locked in a political and cultural struggle with Islam, and no amount of sentimental claptrap about “mutual understanding” will change that.  The real question is whether the West will have a robust and principled position from which to oppose Islamic religious, cultural, and military aggression.  Such a principled stance will need to take religious truth claims seriously.  At the same time it also needs to provide a basis for defending what is good and right about the West as well as a position from which to oppose Islamic violence and intolerance.  That is a tall order.   At least one thing is now clear—the solution is unlikely to come from an intellectually spent secular liberalism.


Statement of Support for Dr. Douglas Green Released

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The following statement of support for Dr. Douglas Green (whose picture is immediately below this paragraph), along with a list of signatories and an addendum regarding the decision of the New Life Presbyterian Church Session, was sent yesterday to representatives of the Board of Trustees, administration, and faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.  The complete document is available here.

For those who have not been following the story of the recent forced “retirement” of Dr. Green from WTS, I have provided some analysis of the issues involved here and here.


The list of names on the document as of this posting is incomplete because more individuals have signed in the meantime, and a final list of signers will be published in a few weeks.  Gentle readers of TheEcclesialCalvinist who wish to add their names to the document may contact Dr. Sam Logan (

July 30, 2014 

To the Evangelical and Reformed Christian Community -

We, the undersigned, wish to affirm the following:

1) We are aware of the “retirement” of Dr. Douglas Green from his position on the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

2) We are aware that two articles written by Dr. Green were cited by Westminster Theological Seminary on the seminary’s website on June 6, 2014, as the cause of that retirement and that those two articles are the following: “‘The Lord is Christ’s Shepherd': Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy,” in Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: Essays in Honor of J. Alan Groves (eds. P. Enns, D. J. Green, and M. B. Kelly; 2010), 33 – 46; and “How to Read Old Testament Narratives” (online essay).

3) We have read these two articles carefully.

4) We find nothing in these articles which is, in any way, inconsistent with the Westminster Standards (The Confession of Faith, The Larger Catechism, and the Shorter Catechism) as we understand those Standards.

5) We find nothing in these articles which is inconsistent, in any way, with the hermeneutical and exegetical tradition at Westminster Theological Seminary as we understand that tradition.  

6) We believe that Dr. Douglas Green consistently upholds the authority and integrity of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments both in his teaching and in his life. 


Dr. Doug Green Affirmed by New Life Presbyterian Church Session

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Those who have been following the controversy regarding the forced “retirement” of Dr. Doug Green, a tenured Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (see here and here for more information), will be interested to learn that the Session of the New Life Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania (of which Dr. Green is a member) has unanimously concluded “that Doug Green’s teaching does not fall outside the Westminster Standards.”  The Session writes:

It has been the intention of our Session from the beginning to thoughtfully and prayerfully study this matter and report back to you. Here then, is an outline of our actions and decisions:

Our first step was to ask members of the Session to examine the relevant portions of the Westminster Standards, and a number of documents Doug and Westminster Seminary provided to us that shed light on the questions at issue. Following this, at our request, a representative of the Seminary met with us to clarify the actions and positions of the Seminary’s Board and Administration in this matter, and to answer our questions. The representative was forthcoming, though he was not able to provide certain confidential details included in the Board’s discussions. He also affirmed that the Session of New Life has an independent right to consider and make its own judgment concerning an elder’s adherence to the Standards.

Subsequently, we met with Doug and raised our own questions in light of the presentation by the Seminary’s representative and the documents provided for our study. He answered our questions, laying out his own understanding of the Scriptures and the Standards, and affirmed for us his support of the Standards, particularly with regard to the unity of Scripture and the presence and centrality of Christ in all of Scripture. He spoke about the value of the grammatical-historical understanding of the text being a “tether” that shapes the way in which we see the truths of the Old Testament point to the fullness that comes through the coming of Christ and the establishment of his kingdom.

As a result of our study and these meetings, we the Session of New Life Church, while fully respecting the right of the Board of Westminster Seminary to determine the bounds under which its faculty may operate, respectfully disagree with its judgment and are satisfied that Doug Green’s teaching does not fall outside the Westminster Standards.

You can find the complete statement by the Session of the New Life Church here.

This episode does have its share of ironies.  A parachurch institution ousts a long-time tenured professor on the basis of what appears to be a peculiar reading of the Westminster Confession (one that would also, it seems, exclude Charles Hodge), while a Presbyterian church Session answerable to the Westminster Standards and to the higher courts of the church finds nothing amiss.  There are, I think, some lessons here regarding the use and misuse of confessional documents, as well as issues relating to the communal interpretive context within which those documents are understood, but those are topics for another time.

How Much Did the OT Writers Know? (2): The Spectre of Bibliological Eutychianism

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The controversy regarding the forced “retirement” of Westminster Theological Seminary Old Testament Professor Doug Green continues unabated. After an initial flurry of posts in the blogosphere (e.g., here and here and here), the debate has, interestingly enough, become a battle of former WTS professors. Retired church historian D. Clair Davis has waded in here and here and here, and retired NT professor/systematician Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. was pressed into service by the institution here.

As I noted in my initial post on the subject, there is actually a remarkable level of agreement between the two parties in this debate.

Both groups agree that the Bible is inspired by God and that it is fully reliable. Both agree that the divine author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, intended and inspired all the messianic prophecies of the OT. Both agree that biblical interpretation must be informed and conditioned by redemptive history. Finally, both agree that grammatical-historical interpretation as it is often practiced is a product of modernity and that its exclusion of God is a great problem. That’s pretty significant!

The sticking point here has to do with the psychology of the OT writers. When they wrote passages interpreted by the NT as references to Christ, did they consciously have these Christological meanings in view? The advocates of “christotelic” interpretation argue that at least some such Christological content was extrapolated by NT writers in light of the Christ event. Their critics contend that this threatens the authority of Scripture, destroys the “organic unity” of the OT and NT, and stands in tension with the Westminster Standards.

While this debate probably strikes some as odd and even a waste of time (as far as I can tell, deployment of the substance of “christotelic” method, if not the name, is common among Evangelical biblical scholars), it is at least worthwhile to examine the biblical and confessional arguments of the critics. Then we will look briefly at a standard Reformed systematic theology and how the author dealt with this question.

The confessional materials can be treated quickly. Often cited are WCF 7.5-6, 8.6, 11.6, and WLC QQ. 33-35. Here the unity of the covenant of grace in the OT and NT is emphasized, and the administration of the covenant of grace “under the law” (i.e., in the OT) is said to involve “promises, prophesies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances . . . all fore-signifying Christ to come, which were for that time sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah.” As far as I can tell, these confessional materials affirm what no one in this discussion denies. Certainly the OT does point forward to Christ and the eschatological tenor of passages like Genesis 12:1-3 and Deuteronomy 18:15, and of the psalter in general encouraged Israel to look forward with anticipation to God’s redemptive activity. But none of this tells us very much about the psychology of individual OT human writers. In fact, the description of prophetic revelation in Numbers 12:6-8 suggests that Moses was the sole exception to the general rule that prophetic language was a matter of dreams, visions, and (as the AV memorably translates it) “dark speeches.” In other words, the emphasis seems to fall here on lack of clarity and how much the OT prophets in general didn’t know.

A number of biblical passages are cited as well, and, because some of the current discussions have an air of proof-texting, it is worthwhile to examine them individually.

In Luke 24:44-45 the resurrected Jesus speaks in comprehensive terms about how “everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.” This content to be found in the threefold division of the Hebrew canon is then further specified in vv. 46-47 as “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Three things are to be noted here. First, this passage tells us next to nothing about the psychology of the individual OT writers. Second, we certainly don’t find this content presented in so many words in the OT, though we can, with the benefit of hindsight, begin to put the pieces together. Finally, as far as I can tell this passage asserts what no one in the present discussion denies.

1 Peter 1:10-12 speaks of how the “prophets who prophesied of the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired about this salvation; they inquired what person or time was indicated by the Spirit of Christ within them when predicting the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glory.” Of course, we can well imagine the prophet Isaiah pondering the wonderful messianic prophecies he was privileged to receive, but note the emphasis here on what such prophets didn’t know. They “searched” and “inquired.” Once again, this passage doesn’t tell us all that much about the detailed content of the prophetic psychology.

More interesting are three passages from the Gospel of John that seem to refer to prophetic intentionality. In fact, this emphasis seems to be a distinctive of the Gospel of John, and I hope that some technical scholars of the Johannine literature can shed more light on this phenomenon.

In John 5:46 Jesus tells the Jews, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me.” The tendency among the commentators I consulted is to view this as a reference to the Mosaic corpus in general and to how it prefigures Christ, rather than to a specific passage. Once again, this doesn’t tell us very much about the specific content of the prophetic psychology.

In John 8:56 Jesus says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Admittedly, the meaning of this is not immediately obvious. After summarizing a range of interpretations both Jewish and Christian, D. A. Carson writes:

Whatever the allusion, it is unlikely that Jesus’ opponents took umbrage because they heard him ascribing powers of foresight to the patriarch Abraham. It is altogether likely that some of them, at least, believed that Abraham knew in advance of the messianic age. The point of tension arose because of the way Jesus phrases this: not ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see the messianic age’, but ‘Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day’. The ‘day’ or the ‘day of the Lord’ becomes Jesus’ day. Even if ‘to see my day’ does not mean some prophetic vision of the literal fulfillment of prophecy in Jesus and his ministry, but some vision, however vague, of the promise inherent in the binding of Isaac or (better) of the covenant promising that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gn. 12:1ff et al.—hence NIV’s addition of ‘at the thought of’), the fact remains that Jesus identifies the ultimate fulfillment of all Abraham’s hopes and joys with his own person and work (Gospel According to John, 357).

Thus, on close examination this passage too doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the specific content of OT prophetic psychology.

Finally, in John 12:41, after alluding to Isaiah’s call narrative, and specifically to the ministry of futility described in Isaiah 6:10, John tells us that “Isaiah said this because he saw his [Jesus] glory and spoke of him.” Not surprisingly, some commentators connect this reference to “glory” to the throne-room vision in Isaiah 6:1-4. Thus, D. A. Carson again writes:

What is remarkable, on this rendering of the passage, is the statement that Isaiah saw Jesus’ glory. This may be no more than the conclusion of a chain of Christian reasoning: if the Son, the Word, was with God in the beginning, and was God, and if he was God’s agent of creation, and the perfect revelation of God to humankind, then it stands to reason that in these Old Testament passages where God is said to reveal himself rather spectacularly to someone, it must have been through the agency of his Son, his Word, however imperfectly the point was spelled out at the time. Therefore Isaiah said these words because (a stronger reading than ‘when’, AV) he saw Jesus’ glory (Gospel According to John, 449-50).

Actually, Carson’s interpretation here sounds rather “christotelic”! But the larger point to be made here is that this passage as well does not tell us much of anything about the content of the prophetic psychology. Thus we see that the passages typically cited against christotelic interpretation either don’t carry the freight that the critics desire or they emphasize what the OT writers didn’t know.

Not surprisingly, this biblical emphasis on what the OT writers didn’t know carries over into the Reformed dogmatic tradition. Louis Berkhof, for example, emphasizes that “the prophets sometimes failed to understand the message which they brought to the people” (Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology, 148). But the most extensive discussion of this issue that I have found is in Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, where a number of points relevant to this larger discussion are made.

First, Hodge insists that the “organic unity” (his term) of the OT and the NT is a function of the divine authorship of Scripture rather than the individual human authors.  He writes:

The organic unity of the Scriptures proves them to be the product of one mind. They were not only so united that we cannot believe one part without believing the whole; we cannot believe the New Testament without believing the Old; we cannot believe the Prophets without believing the Law; we cannot believe Christ without believing his Apostles; but besides all this they present the regular development, carried on through centuries and millenniums, of the great original promise, “The seed of the woman shall bruise the serpent’s head.” This development was conducted by some forty independent writers, many of whom understood very little of the plan they were unfolding, but each contributed his part to the progress and completion of the whole.

If the Bible be the work of one mind, that mind must be the mind of God. He only knows the beginning from the end. He only could know what the Bible reveals. No one, says the Apostle, knows the things of God but the Spirit of God. (Systematic Theology, I:166-67)

Second, Hodge insists that God respected the humanity of the human authors of Scripture by using them “according to their nature.” This is consistent with a hallmark of the Reformed tradition—respect for the integrity of humanity. For example, the humanity of Christ retains its finitude and human qualities. As Bruce McCormack has rightly pointed out, according to the weight of the Reformed tradition the humanity of Christ was sanctified by the Holy Spirit, not ontologically transformed by its incarnational union with the Logos. Thus Hodge writes:

The sacred writers were not machines. Their self-consciousness was not suspended; nor were their intellectual powers superseded. Holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost. It was men, not machines; not unconscious instruments, but living, thinking, willing minds, whom the Spirit used as his organs. Moreover, as inspiration did not involve the suspension or suppression of the human faculties, so neither did it interfere with the free exercise of the distinctive mental characteristics of the individual. . . . All this is involved in the fact that God uses his instruments according to their nature. (Systematic Theology, I:157)

Finally, Hodge notes that the human writers of the OT were often quite limited in their understanding. He writes,

The sacred writers also, doubtless, differed as to insight into the truths which they taught. The Apostle Peter intimates that the prophets searched diligently into the meaning of their own predictions. When David said God had put “all things” under the feet of men, he probably little thought that “all things” meant the whole universe. (Heb. ii 8.) And Moses, when he recorded the promise that childless Abraham was to be the father “of many nations,” little thought that it meant the whole world. (Rom. iv 13). (Systematic Theology, I:165-66)

I will readily admit that in other contexts I have learned much from some of the critics of christotelic interpretation. Those familiar with my own research program know that to be the case.   I will also readily concede that there may have been excesses among those identified with christotelic interpretation that I would not endorse. That being said, I am not convinced by the biblical and confessional arguments of the critics. The insistence that the OT writers must have had NT Christological meanings in mind when they wrote smacks of bibliological Eutychianism (Eutyches, we will recall, was a fifth-century figure who spoke of Christ as having one divine-human nature, and argued that the humanity was so elevated by its union with the Logos that it was no longer like ours; of course, the incarnational analogy is inexact when applied to Scripture, but it helpfully illustrates key issues of emphasis and balance). By staking their case on a curious and speculative argument about what must have been in the minds of the biblical writers, they have not only placed themselves at odds with a significant portion of the Reformed tradition, but they have also painted themselves into a corner from which there is no easy exit.

What Did the OT Writers Know? Another Controversy Erupts at WTS

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By now the news has spread regarding the forced “retirement” of Dr. Douglas Green, Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. After being examined in 2009 by the WTS Board regarding his view of the institution’s “Affirmations and Denials Regarding Recent Issues” (a document framed in the context of the controversy involving another WTS OT Professor, Peter Enns) and passing muster, we learn that in November of 2013 the Board reversed itself and decided that Green’s response is “no longer acceptable.” The key issue, we are told, is that Green has “expressed agreement with a ‘christotelic’ hermeneutical method that severs the organic link between the Old Testament and the New Testament.” Here we see that the NT use of the OT is at the center of this discussion.


At this point, I should insert a personal disclaimer. Dr. Green and I were fellow students at WTS in the mid-1980s, and he went off to Yale for his Ph.D. about the same time I left for Vanderbilt. We have kept in touch, and have discussed a wide variety of issues over the years. While we have certainly not agreed on everything, those discussions have always been cordial, and I value his friendship and fellowship in the Lord.

While some of the terms of discussion are new, this episode is historically connected to the recent Peter Enns controversy. In his 2005 book Inspiration and Incarnation, Enns argued that the Bible is a human as well as divine document, and that because it is human it evinces “messiness,” “problems,” and irreconcilable theological diversity. Enns also argued that the New Testament writers persistently engage in “eisegesis” rather than the exegesis of Old Testament texts. That is to say, they “read into” Old Testament texts distinctively Christian meanings that could not have been intended by the original authors, and they did this because they viewed Christ as the telos or goal of Israel’s history (hence the term christotelic). Not surprisingly, this volume elicited a range of responses, and some (including this writer) were convinced that Enns’ position undermined the full authority of Scripture (I responded to Enns’ volume here).

While Enns departed WTS in 2008 and now teaches at Eastern University, other present and former WTS faculty members were saying somewhat similar things about the NT writers’ use of the OT, and the tensions continued, albeit at a somewhat lower temperature. Among these have been Green (here and here) and current Redeemer Seminary NT Professor Dan McCartney (here). The opponents have included WTS systematic theologian Lane Tipton (here) along with NT Professors Vern Poythress (here) and Greg Beale (here).

At this point, however, a caveat is in order. Having read materials by Green, McCartney, and Enns, I recognize that each needs to be evaluated on his own terms. There are material and stylistic differences between Enns on the one hand, and Green and McCartney on the other, and any sort of “Enns et al” approach does a disservice to all three individuals.

What are the characteristics of christotelic interpretation? First, there is a rejection of grammatical-historical interpretation as the only legitimate hermeneutical approach to Scripture. Yes, they say, it is important to understand the biblical text in its original linguistic and historical context, but we can’t stop there. Grammatical-historical interpretation is a creature of modernity, and earlier Christian interpreters were not tied to it—the NT writers sometimes interpret OT texts in ways that likely would not have occurred to Isaiah or Hosea.   Also, grammatical-historical interpretation asks what the text would have meant to the original human author, but the Bible is also divinely inspired and our interpretation must take this divine origin and perspective into account as well.

Second, the larger meaning of the text resides in the text as it is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and this meaning is then progressively grasped by the human audience over the course of redemptive history. Here there is particular focus on the Scriptural canon as a whole as the context within which christotelic interpretation takes place.

Finally, all this leads to a programmatic distinction between “first reading” and “second reading.” In the first reading we encounter the text without reference to the conclusion of the story, while in the second reading we see levels of meaning we did not see before precisely because we know how the story ends and how things fit together.

It is not entirely surprising that this approach would be controversial. Proponents of christotelic interpretation have sometimes overstated their case, suggesting that the Old Testament, when interpreted simply according to grammatical-historical method, is not a Christian book. One can understand why some would view this as a denial of the “organic connection” between the OT and the NT and as an example of creeping naturalism. In addition, evangelical Protestants have generally had a rather static view of the text and its meaning as inhering in the intent of the original human author, and grammatical-historical interpretation is often regarded as the normative method of interpretation. Finally, this approach also seems to engage questions of Protestant identity in that grammatical-historical interpretation is often regarded as a hallmark of Protestantism over against Catholic allegorical and sensus plenior approaches.

How, then, shall we characterize the opposing position? First, there is the affirmation of grammatical-historical interpretation as the normative method of biblical interpretation. Thus the meaning of the text resides in the author’s intention.

Second, the grammatical-historical method is redefined so as to remove the Enlightenment emphasis on human autonomy and the resulting exclusion of God from consideration. Thus it is expanded to include divine influence on the human authors’ psychology as legitimate considerations for interpretation. Along this line, grammatical-historical method is also recast to include biblical typology, which is seen as arising intrinsically out of the grammatical-historical meaning of the text.

Finally, all this leads to the affirmation that the NT meanings (i.e., the OT Christological content referenced by the NT writers) must have been present in the minds of the OT writers. The OT is, as one critic puts it, “christomorphic,” in that references to Christ are objectively present in the text of the Old Testament and were intended by the human author.

Are there problems here as well? I think there are. Critics of christotelic interpretation tend to focus on the easier OT messianic texts—the protoevangelium in Genesis 3:15, the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, the OT sacrificial system that in its provisionality pointed forward to a final and perfect sacrifice, and so forth. In such instances a reasonable case can be made that Moses or Isaiah was aware that the text pointed forward to God’s great redeemer. Indeed, proponents of christotelic interpretation recognize that sometimes the NT writers utilize straightforward literal interpretation of the OT, and I’m confident Green would affirm that the messianic prophecies of Isaiah, for example, were understood on some level to be such by the prophet. But what about texts like Matthew 2:15 and its quotation of Hosea 11:1, which in its original context retrospectively referred to the Exodus from Egypt, whereas Matthew understands it prospectively as speaking of the return of the holy family from Egypt?   Such examples can be multiplied (see the catalog in Richard Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period [1975]), and here we must seek to do justice to the “whole counsel of God.”

Another problem here is the lack of attention paid to the hermeneutical practices of Second Temple Judaism, which, as many scholars have demonstrated, are often remarkably similar to the NT’s use of the OT. This creates at least the presumption that the NT writers were not consistently tied to grammatical-historical interpretation.

These previous points lead directly to another difficulty—the argument seems to be driven not so much by the inductive study of texts but rather by a series of a priori theological assumptions. To be sure, our doctrine of Scripture must be shaped by deductive considerations arising from the theological claims of the biblical text (e.g., Jesus’ statement that “Scripture cannot be broken” in John 10:35), but we must also inductively account for the phenomena of Scripture. Deductively, we know that Scripture does not teach error; inductively, we learn the form that that inerrancy takes. But such balance seems not to be present here.

For example, it is assumed that proper interpretation is grammatical-historical (in its modified and expanded sense), and that (because grammatical-historical interpretation focuses on authorial intent) the human authors of OT Scripture must have had those Christological meanings in mind. Furthermore, because of this grammatical-historical focus on the human author, any suggestion that the OT human author may not have had these NT meanings in mind is viewed as a threat to the doctrine of inerrancy. But this notion of what the biblical writers must have had in mind is an inference; in most cases it cannot be demonstrated, and to assert otherwise is to commit what the New Critics called the intentional fallacy. In other words, more often than not we simply don’t know what was in the minds of the OT human authors when messianic prophecies were first presented. All we have are the texts, which sometimes suggest original meanings other than what the NT writers assert (e.g., Matthew 2:15 citing Hosea 11:1). Rather than being doctrinaire on this point, why not leave the question open and deal with these matters on a case-by-case basis? Why does everything have to be nailed down so tightly?

Finally, other alternatives are not explored. Given the dual authorship of Scripture and the vast gulf between the creator and the creature, why is it impossible or unlikely that God intended levels of meaning that were unknown to the original human author? Of course, the Catholic interpretive tradition has a long history of such notions of sensus plenior or a “fuller sense” of Scripture. For example, the late Raymond Brown wrote in his famous 1955 book The Sensus Plenior of Sacred Scripture,

The sensus plenior is that additional, deeper meaning, intended by God but not clearly intended by the human author, which is seen to exist in the words of a biblical text (or group of texts, or even a whole book) when they are studied in the light of further revelation or development in the understanding of revelation (p. 92).

But for reasons probably having to do with their Protestant ecclesial location the critics of christotelic interpretation have apparently chosen not to explore such options.

In light of all this, I’m struck by a parallel between this debate and the Reformation-era debates between Lutherans and Reformed over the relationship of the divine and human in Christ. Lutherans, we will recall, argued that by virtue of the incarnational union of divine and human there is a real communication of attributes such that the incarnate humanity of Christ becomes “ubiquitous” (i.e., present everwhere). Calvin and the Reformed tradition more generally responded with what has come to be known as the extracalvinisticum (the idea that the Logos is not restricted to the humanity of Christ), arguing that the humanity of Christ retains its integrity with its human limitations. The excesses of Peter Enns “incarnational” approach to Scripture notwithstanding, there does seem to be an analogy here: the opponents of christotelic interpretation contend that by virtue of the inspiration process the knowledge of the human writers regarding the Christological content of OT texts must be pretty much coextensive with what God intended, while the christotelic proponents argue that the human writers were often limited with respect to their knowledge of such matters.

It is interesting to note on this issue that Charles Hodge was convinced that the biblical writers often “understood very little of the plan they were unfolding” (Systematic Theology, I:166), and he takes pains to note that God uses the human authors of Scripture “according to their nature” (ST, I:157). And to make the point even more clear, Hodge adds:

The sacred writers also, doubtless, differed as to insight into the truths which they taught. The Apostle Peter intimates that the prophets searched diligently into the meaning of their own predictions. When David said God had put “all things” under the feet of men, he probably little thought that “all things” meant the whole universe. (Heb. ii 8.) And Moses, when he recorded the promise that childless Abraham was to be the father “of many nations,” little thought that it meant the whole world. (Rom. iv 13). (ST, I:165-66)

Given that Hodge places the emphasis on how much the OT writers didn’t know about the content of their prophecies rather than how much they did know, could it be that christotelic interpretation represents a more authentically Reformed impulse with regard to the relationship of the divine and the human?

Despite the serious institutional turn this discussion has taken, I still can’t help but be struck by the amount of agreement shared by the two parties in this most recent iteration of the debate. Both groups agree that the Bible is inspired by God and that it is fully reliable. Both agree that the divine author of Scripture, the Holy Spirit, intended and inspired all the messianic prophecies of the OT. Both agree that biblical interpretation must be informed and conditioned by redemptive history. Finally, both agree that grammatical-historical interpretation as it is often practiced is a product of modernity and that its exclusion of God is a great problem. That’s pretty significant!

Of course, there are also two key points of disagreement. The first has to do with the nature and role of grammatical-historical method. The parties disagree as to whether grammatical-historical interpretation is the normative method of interpretation and whether it can be redefined so as to include typology. Second, the parties of course disagree as to whether the OT writers were in all cases consciously aware of the Christological content of their statements. This latter difference seems to boil down to differing understandings of where meaning and authority reside (does it reside in human authorial intent of the inspired writer or in the text itself as inspired by God?), and the assumptions that fund this difference need to be acknowledged and explored. For example, I wonder if this is in reality a debate between modern and late-modern hermeneutical approaches?

It should be evident by this point that the onion is being sliced very thinly. I know some smart people who think that a great deal is at stake in this debate. I also know some equally bright people who wonder what all the fuss is about. But the long history of discussion of issues pertaining to the NT use of the OT certainly suggests that these are complicated and difficult questions that deserve to be discussed carefully and openly within the circle of faith rather than turned into weapons of exclusion.

All this raises uncomfortable questions about the future of WTS. The institution that I attended in the 1980s was one in which Ray Dillard and Dick Gaffin and Sinclair Ferguson and Harvie Conn and Tremper Longman and Vern Poythress and Philip Edgcumbe Hughes and Clair Davis and Robert Knudsen and Tim Keller and Moises Silva and Roger Greenway and Manny Ortiz and Rick Gamble could get along and work together despite their sometimes considerable differences. That institution is now apparently gone. Of course, nothing stays the same, and perhaps a new context and new challenges demand that lines be drawn more narrowly. It remains to be seen, however, whether a narrower institution can thrive in the current challenging seminary market environment. Furthermore, will it produce scholarship that is meaningful and useful to the broader Christian world rather than catering to the boundary preoccupations of the conservative Reformed subculture?

This episode also raises discouraging questions about the current state of the conservative Reformed world and its perception by others. Last year I wrote a blog post that received wide circulation entitled “How Conservative Presbyterianism Lost Its Mojo.” The fact of the matter is that we in the conservative Reformed world have an image problem.  The line that divides necessary defense of truth from needless hairsplitting is sometimes difficult to discern, but we have ample reason to try to get this right.

Are Good Works Efficacious unto Salvation?

Bill Evans head shot

My friend Rick Phillips has posted an extended blog post over on the Reformation21 website in which he responds to Mark Jones’ contention that works are in some sense efficacious for salvation. Rick’s response frames the matter primarily in terms of the evidentiary value of works and the fact that one will not be saved without them. In other words, good works are a necessary demonstration that one is already justified, and thus, to use the language of classic Reformed orthodoxy, they are a conditio sine qua non.

Two main concerns seem to be driving Phillips’ post. First, while he recognizes that there is an “eschatological” element to justification, he is leery of any construction suggesting that final justification somehow hangs on good works and faithful perseverance. This, he thinks, constitutes a “structural difference” which undercuts the certainty and finality of the justification we as Christians presently experience, and smacks of the teachings of N. T. Wright.   Implicated here, as we will see below, are some vital though complicated issues having to do with the time of justification.

Second, Phillips is rightly concerned to safeguard the biblical and Reformational truth that faith is the sole instrument of forensic justification, and in order to do this he thinks that we must “pointedly separate [the necessity of good works] from justification.”

To be sure, there is much that I agree with in Phillips’ post. We concur that faith is the sole instrument of justification, and that works do not provide the analytic or meritorious ground of justification. Furthermore, we agree that N. T. Wright’s contention that present justification is by faith and final justification is according to works is, well, wrong. As I’ve argued elsewhere, such teaching can undermine one’s assurance of salvation. Nevertheless, I am also convinced that a proper understanding of the necessity of works demands the recognition that works are, in a sense that must be carefully defined and circumscribed, efficacious unto salvation.

Why do I say this? In quite a few passages Paul makes it clear that those who persist unchanged and unrepentant in sinful patterns of behavior “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-21). Similarly, in sobering fashion the writer of Hebrews underscores the fact that those who fail to persevere in faith will not be saved (Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:26-31). Paul notes that his own perseverance in faith and faithfulness is essential to his final salvation (Philippians 3:7-11). This language seems to go beyond the notions of works as evidentiary and as merely something without which we will not be saved. There is a positive role for works and perseverance here, and if good works play a role in whether one makes it to the pearly gates then there is some sort of connection to justification. But how do we explain this role without falling into the ditch of legalism?

Conspicuous by its absence in Phillips’ post is any mention of the believer’s union with Christ (except in his quotation of Romans 8:1). But we must remember that references to “justification by faith” are best understood as a sort of theological shorthand, for we are “justified by faith” in that we are united with Christ by faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, and that “in Christ” we receive what Calvin called the duplex gratia or “double grace” of justification and transformation of life. For this reason, we must not say, as Phillips seems to, that the necessity of good works pertains only to sanctification and not to justification, for the real issue, as Paul puts it, is to “gain Christ and to be found in him” (Philippians 3:8-9), who is “our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Thus it is that Paul strives and presses onward in faith and obedience.

This rootedness of justification in union with Christ has implications for our understanding of justification itself. To put it more precisely, to be justified in Christ is to be so joined with Christ that his own resurrection justification (which legally overturned the sentence of condemnation and declared him to be the righteous one) applies also to us. He was, as Paul declares in 1 Timothy 3:16 in reference to the resurrection, “justified in the Spirit” (KJV), and for this reason he was “raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). All this, of course, implies that justification is both forensic and relational—it is a legal judgment that is received through union with Christ by faith. Thus, to be “in Christ” is to be justified, and (if it were possible) to cease to be in union with Christ is no longer to be justified.

This rootedness of justification in union with Christ in turn has implications for the time of justification. But here it is important to grasp a bit of historical theology. Many Reformed theologians have sought to protect the gratuity of justification by temporally sequestering it from transformation of life so as to underscore that justification cannot depend upon sanctification. For example, some (e.g., Abraham Kuyper) have spoken of justification from eternity, but this completely abstracts justification from the ongoing life of faith and faithfulness. Less radically, others have adopted an ordo salutis (“order of salvation”) approach in which a once-for-all declaration of justification in time and space logically and temporally precedes sanctification. But the result here is the same as the first, in that justification is abstracted from the ongoing life of faith.   Thus it is that a good deal of conservative Reformed theology has been more or less unable to give a coherent account of the Christian life.

Much more satisfactory is the early Reformed conception of the believer’s participation in Christ’s resurrection justification that has been more recently retrieved by Geerhardus Vos, Richard Gaffin, and others. Vos, for example, rightly recognized that, because we participate in Christ’s resurrection justification, our justification has dynamic dimension to it. Vos wrote in his classic and seminal work The Pauline Eschatology (153-54):

Much light falls on the forensic significance of the resurrection in believers from a comparison with the case of Christ’s resurrection. The Spirit is in Christ the seal and fruit of his righteousness, and at the same time it is in Him through his exalted state, produced by the resurrection, the perpetual witness of the continuous status of righteousness in which He exists. In Him unintermittedly springs up that fountain of justification, from which all believers draw. To say that forgiveness of sin procured though the imputation of Christ’s merit constitutes only the initial act in the Christian life, and that thereafter, the slate having been wiped clean, there is no further need for nor allowance of recourse to it, all being thenceforth staked on sanctification, is, apart from all other criticism, wrong, because it ignores forensic righteousness as a vital factor in the exalted state of the Saviour. If this were not so, it would remain unexplainable why, in the matter of justification, Paul directs the gaze of faith not merely to the cross retrospectively, but likewise upward to the glorified existence of Christ in heaven, wherein all the merit of the cross is laid up and made available forever.

Although it is popular in Reformed circles to speak of justification as a once-for-all event (in contrast to the ongoing moral renovation of sanctification) our view of the time of justification must take this more biblical dynamic into account. Elsewhere I have written on this point:

Here the earlier Reformed notion of the resurrection justification of Christ opens up new possibilities, for it now becomes possible to move beyond the aporias of ordo salutis thinking. No longer is justification viewed as an abstract punctiliar decree in eternity or when a person believes. Rather, justification inheres once for all in the person of Christ, the resurrected and justified one. The believer’s justification, then, is viewed as a continual and ongoing participation in the one divine forensic decree of justification—the resurrection justification of Christ. Such a decree of justification is both analytic (in the case of Christ) and synthetic (for the believer). . . . As to the time of justification, to speak theologically, the Christian’s justification is intended in the eternal purposes of God; it is objectively declared at the resurrection of Christ; it is subjectively realized in the ongoing union with Christ by faith and the Holy Spirit; and it is conclusively ratified at the eschaton (Imputation and Impartation, 265).

Because our forensic justification is found always in Christ, and only in Christ, there can be no “structural difference” between present justification and future justification of the sort Phillips references. Justification is always by faith and by faith alone as we are continually joined with Christ and look to him for righteousness.

Having laid this biblical-theological foundation we are now better able to see how works are “efficacious” unto salvation and thus related to justification. Here, however, we must understand that works relate to justification, not directly as the analytic or meritorious ground of justification, but indirectly through union with Christ by faith. The lessons of experience as well as Scripture teach us that good works are essential to faith. Faith that is not strengthened and deepened by the ongoing patterns of obedience that flow from faith as we trust God in every aspect of our lives simply will not last. Any pastor worth his salt quickly learns that many if not most crises of faith are caused by lifestyle issues and disobedience. The decision to disobey God often sooner or later leads to a process of cognitive bargaining that asks, “Has God really said?”

In other words, we need to realize that the relationship between faith and obedience is a two-way street. On the one hand, a true and living faith will issue in good works, as both Paul and James agree. On the other hand, good works are also essential to a true and living faith. This latter truth seems to be what James was driving at when he said of Abraham that “faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (James 2:22).

We conclude from this that good works are efficacious unto salvation, but in a carefully and biblically defined way that is properly zealous to protect the graciousness and gratuity of justification.