A Belated Christmas Offering to You All: New Volume in Mercersburg Theology Study Series Appears

Bill Evans head shot

Earlier this week I received a copy of Vol. 4 of the Mercersburg Theology Study Series entitled The Incarnate Word: Selected Writings on Christology (Wipf and Stock, 2014).   I’ve been editing this volume for the last two years or so, and it’s gratifying to have it finally see the light of day.  We were, of course, hoping to have this book available for Christmas 2014, and the 2014 imprint date suggests that we almost made it!

The Incarnate Word

Special thanks are due to indefatigable series editor Brad Littlejohn, and to my friend Oliver Crisp of Fuller Theological Seminary who wrote a splendid Foreword to the volume. The publisher’s description of the volume reads as follows:

The Incarnate Word contains a selection of the key writings on the doctrines of Christology produced by the theologians of Mercersburg Seminary during the middle of the nineteenth century. Despite the seminary’s small stature and marginal position within American religious life, these texts represent some of the most profound wrestlings with the doctrine of the person of Christ that appeared in antebellum America, engaging the latest in German theological scholarship as well as the riches of the Christian tradition. As such, they command more than mere historical interest, providing rich conversation partners for contemporary debates in Reformed Christology, and anticipating the insights of such key twentieth-century theologians as T. F. Torrance. The present critical edition carefully preserves the original texts, while providing extensive introductions, annotations, and bibliography to orient the modern reader and facilitate further scholarship.

Some excerpts from the book are available here.

Happily, some people seem like it. My friend Douglas A. Sweeney, Professor of Church History and the History of Christian Thought at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, writes:

John Williamson Nevin is one of the most important theologians in all of American history but sadly he is neglected by nearly all but fervent acolytes. The writings in this volume stand at the center of his oeuvre, and deserve a wide hearing from historians of religion, and especially theologians, who still have much to learn from this Christocentric, evangelical-Catholic intellectual (and his colleagues Schaff and Gans, also represented here). The essays in your hand have been judiciously selected, well introduced, and helpfully annotated. They offer to a new generation of scholars and church folks a treasure trove of thinking on the incarnation of God.

Eugene TeSelle, Professor emeritus of Theology and Church History at Vanderbilt Divinity School, says:

The Mercersburg theologians, seeking a church that would be at once Catholic, evangelical, and reformed, remain relevant today for their recovery of biblical, patristic, and Reformation themes, unified by then new currents in German thought. These essays on Christology, ably edited by William Evans, give us insight into the heart of their theology. Evans has already made a mark in the scholarly world by tracing an unfortunate bifurcation in the Calvinist tradition between forensic and participatory language about the Christian’s union with Christ. His introductions and notes show clearly and articulately how the Mercersburg theologians linked the doctrines of incarnation, cross, resurrection, spirit and church, without overemphasis on one or another of them that so often skews theological reflection.

Finally, Paul T. Nimmo, Professor of Divinity at King’s College, University of Aberdeen, writes:

Rejecting the traditions of Princeton and New England, the Mercersburg theologians set forth a vibrant and mystical understanding of the living Savior which resourced and permeated their high ecclesiological and sacramental convictions, challenging the Reformed sensibilities of their days and continuing to inspire theologians today. The resultant collection will be of interest to church historians and doctrinal theologians, both those with particular interests in the Reformed tradition and those with wider concerns for the ecumenical conversation. Lucidly introduced, scrupulously edited, and beautifully presented, this text is a delightful addition to the library.

Note also that a special edition of the journal Theology Today devoted to the Mercersburg Theology and including papers from a 2013 American Academy of Religion national meeting session on the topic has just appeared. I have an essay in it, and I’ll have more to say about this in an upcoming post.

So What? Dr. Clair Davis on the Importance of Culture (Ancient and Contemporary)


[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my good friend and former seminary teacher Dr. D. Clair Davis.  Dr. Davis studied under John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary before completing his Dr.theol. under Otto Weber at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He then taught at Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.]

As we work with God’s word, the ‘so what’ part is hard but necessary.  After we hear a thorough sermon on what God did and said back then, then we experience one of two things: #1 nothing much, maybe the preacher’s asking you to apply this to your life without telling you how, or #2 the preacher’s giving you some real help doing that. This seems hard to do and many of us are used to not getting much help, so that too often our usual response to God’s deep love in the gospel is just, ‘that was interesting, never heard that before.’

I don’t understand how Westminster Seminary is working with this. If a professor believes that he should do his best to first understand what the Old Testament must have meant to those writing it and hearing it, from what he can learn from their culture, then the Seminary asks him to leave. (Culture flows into the ’so what’). That seems to be why Doug Green was ‘retired.’  A number of us have asked the Board to rethink that but now two weeks have gone by since they met and they’ve told us nothing. I don’t understand either their action with Doug Green or their unwillingness to tell us why they did it. With sad regret I am sure now there’s no point in attempting any further communication.

That was then, ancient history now. But there is a related but bigger picture that we all need to work on as we go ahead. This is a time of crisis for the evangelical church. We share much common culture with Europe and there the gospel is almost extinguished. About a quarter of the young people in our churches have left already. God’s message is for many no longer relevant, no longer speaking into our culture.  That missing ‘so what’ means more than that we easily tolerate irrelevant sermons, it means we are uncertain about our gospel message. The bigger picture for all of us now, whether concerned with Westminster or not, is just knowing how we should understand the Bible and how we should help others do that. What is your and my ‘so what’ today?

Westminster is shutting down its Urban Mission program, accepting no new applicants (p. 9 of the catalog still lists as a distinctive ‘Contextual Missiology & Urban Mission’; no doubt that will be tidied up).  Manny Ortiz and Sue Baker continue the work now at Biblical Theological Seminary).  To me that seems very similar to the rejection of Doug Green’s use of ancient culture for understanding the Old Testament. Do we need to understand the human culture behind the Bible, and also the culture into which we are now called to bring it? Harvie gave us the convincing answer. There were so many fulfilling parts of what Westminster was in my time there, but for me Harvie Conn and his contextualization were at the top of my list. Harvie’s masterpiece, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, is always worth your close attention.

I met then with Tim Keller and Ron Lutz for a couple years, praying for Tim’s work in evaluating New York and finding a church planter to go there. Tim finally concluded he had to go himself! Who would dare to go into the hostile ungodly atmosphere of NYC? Tim told us it was Harvie who showed him the way!

Putting together what God says in his word and how we must apply it in our time is a crucial issue. It is hard to do and it can be foolish and dangerous. You know what so many churches are up to right now, making room for pastors in same-sex marriages since that is where the ‘culture’ is today.  At least those churches are usually clear about it, admitting that the Bible is against that and then saying the Bible is wrong and they aren’t going to follow it. What is your plan? The best I know comes from Harvest USA, and director John Freeman’s book Hide or Seek is phenomenal. For me that’s so hard that there are so many deep cultural issues today that we have to address. Do we really have to? Can’t we just go on in the way our churches were a generation ago? Read this from Harvie; it helps me.

How can we bring the theologians who dominate our schools and our doctrinal developments into the discussion? As long as the unreached peoples remain a concern only of professional missiologists in our schools and the secretaries of our boards, our understanding of ecclesiology will continue to reduce itself to introverted churchliness. There was disappointment and anger and frustration. Reformed church people have had a long tradition of listening carefully to theologians. And no one at the consultation was proposing a change in that healthy respect. But we yearned for the hour when theologians would listen to the concerns of this gathering. One sensed our theologians were seen as placing the church as the goal of missions. The stress was on her isolated piety and liturgy, her inner riches. Where was the vision of the church “inside out,” in exodus to the world and as a sign of the kingdom of God? (Reaching the Unreached, p. ix)

Did you get that, ‘our church inside out, in exodus to the world’? That Harvie could write. ‘Introverted churchliness’ gets my attention even more. Isn’t that just the right label for not caring whether anyone knows what we’re talking about? Now see this in more high-tech language in Richard Muller’s Study of Theology (lifted appropriately from the ‘Conn-versation’ blog)

.…dogmatics cannot just be the recitation of the doctrinal statements of the church in a topical rather than a historical order nor can it be just the contemporary exposition of someone’s theological ideas, no matter how brilliant they might be. The doctrines must be churchly, and the exposition, also churchly in its basic attitude and approach, must be contemporary in its expression. If the contemporary aspect of the definition is lost, the exposition lapses into a reconstructive, historically defined approach that can at best produce for present-day examination a doctrinal overview from a bygone era. This kind of theology is no better than the attempt to take a particular document from a past era—even a document as valuable as Calvin’s Institutes or Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae—and use it as a textbook in theology. The past must be consulted, but not copied without regard to the new historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves. If, on the other hand, the great doctrines of the church are not addressed, the exposition lapses into a subjectivity and personal or even idiosyncratic statement….There is, therefore, in dogmatic or doctrinal theology a clear relationship between contemporary faith-statement and the normative doctrinal constructs known as dogmas. The question for dogmatic theology is precisely how these dogmas relate to the biblical witness on which they have been founded, to the larger body of doctrines that belongs to theology but that has not been as closely defined as the so-called dogmas, and to the ability of the contemporary theologian or minister to proclaim the significance of the biblical witness for the present. (p. 611) 

The mistaken self-exaltation of which doctrinal or dogmatic theology is all too easily capable can, moreover, be described and avoided in terms of this hermeneutical model. If a theologian exalts any particular doctrinal construction and insists that it become the key to interpreting the entirety of Scripture and to organizing the entirety of theological system, the scriptural Word becomes stifled by human a priori, by what is perhaps a brilliant but nonetheless false contrivance of a particular theological ego. It is an error for a systematic theologian to assume that any particular schematization of a biblical idea or group of biblical ideas can become the basis for the interpretation of texts in which those ideas of doctrines do not appear. (p. 612) 

The biblical norm provides doctrinal theology with its primary topics, while the historical norm provides theology with an ongoing meditation on and interpretive elaboration of the contents of Scripture in the light of the historical experience of the believing community…In other words, biblical theology has the potential of reopening the text of Scripture for systematic use on issues and topics where traditional interpretations have either been mistaken or have led to omissions of insights of themes from our theological systems. (p. 613) 

The question confronting contemporary systematic theology, of course, is whether or not the traditional form still serves adequately the presentation of the body of Christian doctrine—whether, in fact, the preliminary examination of the character, sources, and methods of theology that ought to precede any system of theology now demands the alteration not only of detail but also of basic patterns of organization. (p. 616) 

“The past must be consulted, but not copied without regard to the new historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves.”  That’s not as ‘Harvie-ish’ but it’s clear and cogent, I believe. That’s what Tim Keller is learning with those 30-some plants in New York. That’s what we all need to know and do as we talk to our children, the departed and the not-yet-departed.

In my PCA I know that is a big part of the reason that we see our hearty commitment to the Westminster Standards as ‘system subscription.’  We agree with what they say, but we need to say it better right now. Are we really up to that? We’re not up to anything by ourselves, but as we call upon the Lord he will hear us. It’s his honor that’s at stake, after all, that his gospel be more than mumbled but clearly proclaimed.

That Keller New York contextualization is hard but it’s our God-given calling, no doubt about it. What Old Testament profs do with that weird language that goes right to left, is that at all the same? The culture of the 17th century was providential but not inspired by God, but the OT is. Does this help us with Westminster and Doug Green? The thing is, the culture around the OT is like the 17th century, God was providentially totally in charge of it, but it was full of major human blunders, now wasn’t it? Why should Doug or Tremper or Chris or Meredith Kline or Doug Gropp or David Lamb spend so much time with it then? I don’t get why this is such a big deal, but there’s clearly only one way to know what old words mean, and that’s to figure out how they were being used, and that’s more than enough Why. To do that you have to know their cultural background, and that’s why archaeology and comparative religion and who knows what besides is well worth doing. All that work opens our eyes wider to what God said and did back then, so it’s worthwhile. I tried to say that to the Board a month ago, asking why should the seminary have only a half-full toolbox?

Yes, it’s dangerous, looking at old cultures that are so close to the OT one. Some people get carried away, and think everything’s ‘relative.’  Sure, that’s discouraging. But no more discouraging than the fall of Europe or of our young people, is it? By the Lord’s grace we keep doing what we need to do and trust him for the outcomes, don’t we? Do we say, stay out of New York or stay away from the Hittites? Now that’s ridiculous.  ‘Labor on,’ do you know that old one? It covers the ground, especially what we need to do in seminary:

Go, labor on: spend, and be spent,
Thy joy to do the Father’s will:
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still?

Go, labor on! ’tis not for naught
Thine earthly loss is heavenly gain;
Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not;
The Master praises: what are men?

Go, labor on! enough, while here,
If He shall praise thee, if He deign
The willing heart to mark and cheer:
No toil for Him shall be in vain.


Hyper-Inerrancy and the Sectarian Impulse


[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my good friend and former seminary teacher Dr. D. Clair Davis.  Dr. Davis studied under John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary before completing his Dr.theol. under Otto Weber at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He then taught at Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.]

“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” “I believe in the holy catholic church.”  What can that possibly mean? I am a Presbyterian; I believe that when Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus he was really writing to all the churches there. But when I go to my presbytery meeting, who’s there? The churches just like us, that’s who. No Baptists, no Lutherans, no Pentecostals—yes, no Catholics either. 

I’ve personally come close to that one church thing, when I taught at Wheaton College. Presbyterian Westminster Standards are about 31K words long, but Wheaton’s doctrinal statement is about half a page, and that was enough. Most of my students didn’t believe in infant baptism, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t show them ‘covenant’ in the Bible. God makes promises and he keeps them and you can count on that, stake your life on that—that’s “covenant,” and we all welcomed and loved that kind reality. Now what does God promise us about the salvation of our children? How do you call out to God when they give it all up and leave Jesus out of their lives? With those hard questions, hard for us all, Baptists come pretty close to being on the same page we are, especially when there’s a baby’s funeral. But when you’re in a Baptist church and it’s Lord’s Supper, who can come to the Table? Those who have “biblical baptism,” that’s who—you know who you are, or aren’t.

How can we put together two parts of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ? Like justification and sanctification, forgiveness and change? Can we agree? We all want to say that Jesus brings us both, and we surely don’t want to say that sanctification is all up to us.  “Too much law” vs. “too much grace” is where the tension is, a battle that has been very vigorously carried on by both sides. What if we asked the folks who think there’s “too much law,” just to be more specific about the sins we need to fight, and how we should do it? Couldn’t we ask the folks who think there’s “too much grace” to just tell us what Jesus means to them daily? That seemed to work for me at Wheaton.

There was that sad seven-year struggle at Westminster Seminary as we tried to understand Norman Shepherd when he told us that justification was by our “obedient faith.” We just couldn’t make progress then. I’m sorry that I didn’t try to say something like this: can we agree that “to be joined to Christ” requires our obedient faith? Or “to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord” is that way too? I know we could agree on where “salvation” comes from, but why were we so weak on the aspects of it? Could that have pulled us together again, to agree that when we know Jesus, that happens “as the Holy Spirit works obedient faith in us”?

That amazing revival with Whitefield and Wesley had its center in “you must be born again.” They didn’t do much with Paul’s way of thinking but instead worked mostly with John. Would that help us too, if we looked around for a Bible book that we all agree on and begin by working with it first?

The hardest is still Calvinism and Arminianism. Whitefield and Wesley praised the Lord for opening the eyes and hearts of so many and bringing them to Jesus. But suddenly they discovered how far apart they were—or were they? Someone asked Whitefield, “do you think you’ll see Wesley in heaven?” and he answered, “I don’t think so . . . he’ll be so close to the Throne and I’ll be so far away.”  But still, who’s right? Who saves people, God himself (Calvinists), or the people as they themselves respond (Arminians)? How could we possibly understand each other on that one? I think I have a beginning. Marq, a student of mine in Dallas, told me his story: while his group was doing student evangelism in Mexico City, and no one was responding, Marq said, “we’ve just got to pray, that the Lord will open their hearts.” But the leader replied: “no way, we believe in free will.” Hearing that story really opened my eyes. I’ve been around many people who wanted to emphasize that sinners still have to make their own decisions—but I never before heard anyone say, so don’t pray for them! The precious gift God gives me from that is, all those other “free will” people I know are wise enough to have limits, never ever imagining that what they believed was, don’t infringe on people’s liberty by asking the Lord to touch their hearts.

Could we get some clarity on the Calvinist side too? If Arminians are really “implicit Calvinists,” knowing we need the Lord to do his work, could it be that Calvinists are really “implicit Arminians” too, realizing that we’re really asking people to believe? Their ongoing puzzle seems to be, how shall we say that God is sincere in calling people to himself, when he hasn’t chosen them beforehand anyway? We try hard to understand the Lord’s grand plan. In it, he chooses a people for himself and then sends his Beloved Son to call them to trust him; doesn’t that mean that election precedes faith? So that God has already made up his mind anyway before he asks people to come to him? What does “before” mean?

Some super Calvinists, those who want to get everything exactly right, say it this way: don’t even think about coming to Jesus unless you can first spot something happening in your heart that feels like you could be “elect.” That has some logic to it—but God doesn’t teach us about election that way. Look at Romans chapters 7-11. “Wretched man that I am, I do everything wrong,” that’s the life-summary of a believer under suffering and temptation. But soon after that comes: “what shall separate me from the love of Christ!” That’s the clearest place in the whole Bible where God teaches us about election, in the midst of seeing clearly how weak and sinful we are. In God’s big plan, his decision comes at the beginning; but in our lives we’re called to learn about it when we really need it. “Election” isn’t really about evangelism and what we should say then; it’s about how we can survive Satan’s attacks after we mess up again, and again. It’s not about logic; it’s about when and how we need to rejoice in God’s plan.

I think this is the answer that pulls us together, the one that helped Whitefield and Wesley keep on working together, actively evangelizing together. Don’t overdo, either of you. Don’t you dare forbid prayer for those not-yet-believers. Don’t you dare say that you need to find something amazing in you before you dare trust Jesus. I say this because of my heart’s desire for God-given revival, when we all will work together. If we’re not ready for that, when it happens again, we’re going to be so into being together that we’ll want to pay the price of dropping all the theology that keeps us apart—to our shame and regret. But if we’ve both corrected our courses before, until we’re very close to being on the same path—well Hallelujah Amen! 

I’ve just read again Jim Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit. He’s good at pointing out where almost everyone else is wrong, but he also tells us what others are bringing to the banquet table, especially Pentecostals. While the rest of us are working hard just to stay alive, they’re the ones that are growing, down in South America and Africa. It won’t be long before they’ll send missionaries to us and to Europe. The biggest thing I got from Packer is that they’re learning to describe what Jesus has done—while keeping the focus on Jesus himself. That’s where they can be ahead of the rest of us. “The presence of Jesus right now beside us, by the Holy Spirit as we call out to him”—that’s what they can give us, and they are already. The biggest new piece in our Calvinist theology is discovering that “union with Christ” isn’t some vague future thing but rather the foundation of all else. So we can rejoice together, can’t we?

I know a missionary who tells me that in South America he’s a Baptist but in Africa a Pentecostal. I know another who works in Latin America. He’s immersed in the OT and thought he went there to help the Presbyterians, but when they weren’t that interested and the Pentecostals kept coming to him, he showed them Jesus in the OT. They are turning from legalism (sound familiar?) to the big gospel. 

About everything else I thought about is back in history, still keeping us apart. The Pentecostal thing is right now; this is Christ’s one church.

It’s easy to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate: “this is how we’re right and they’re wrong. What makes us special is how we’re different.” It’s a lot harder to do a seminar where everyone talks and I have to listen. What if what really makes us special is that we’re good listeners? What if we can hear God’s Word better in what others are saying, than in listening to ourselves talk? What if we want our presbytery, at least one of our presbyteries, to be all the churches within a couple miles of us?

I think the clue is what we’ve learned about Calvinists and Arminians. Just don’t exaggerate the differences or you’ll be wrong. Look at Martin Luther and his horse again: if you’re so worried that you’ll fall off the horse on the right side that you lean to the left, well you’re going to fall off on that side. Consistency is a good thing, but be careful that you don’t want to be more consistent than God’s word. Be careful that you don’t lose ability to listen, either to God or to each other.

I know finally that there will be no conversation with the Westminster Board. I know their stance is so outlandish that it’s bound to disintegrate by itself within a few years, without needing any help from me. But I believe that we outsiders have been learning, especially about listening. (When no one listens to you, that helps the learning process.) I think I know what’s in the minds of the WTS Board, something like this:

The authority of the Bible and its inerrancy is under vigorous attack. The way we have always understood it is no longer acceptable by many within our ranks, and we must do something against that terrible trend. We note that many erroneous views come from reading the OT without NT clarification. Therefore we intend to remove from the Faculty all those who speak of reading the OT by itself, regardless of whether they go on to study how the NT uses the OT text. 

I think that is the Board’s direction. I deeply honor their commitment to God’s Word and ensuring that WTS is a place where it is supported vigorously and clearly. I agree with them that this is an important need in Christ’s church today. Their procedure appears at first glance to be consistent with the Seminary’s passion for teaching and learning the Word. But is there a downside?

I believe so. Just as Calvinism is not well served by hyper-Calvinism as the wisdom of man replaces God’s revelation, so support for the inerrancy of Scripture is not well-served by a hyper-inerrancy. How can we understand the OT unless there is room for serious study of how it was originally expressed? That is especially crucial at a school with a PhD program, but it is invaluable at all levels of biblical study. 

It may be that there should be a place for a seminary to contribute its own special understanding. For many years WTS fostered the Van Til apologetic that way. But God’s people need the deeper understandings that add to our knowledge, not those that take away. Is the time for independent para-church seminaries past? When they brought us together across denominational lines that was very promising, but today they can be narrower than our own church’s understanding, evidenced by the Glenside Session’s affirmative evaluation of Doug Green’s position.

“Truth is in order to goodness” is very basic to our faith and our allegiance to Jesus Christ. When gifted godly scholars are arbitrarily removed from teaching God’s people, more is lost than their contributions. A view of defending the truth indifferent to “due diligence” in maintaining love toward each other is not the Bible’s way. When a Board believes it knows where someone is going without careful listening to him, how can that embody the gospel, can it?

This is all much bigger than the WTS Board’s actions, which I offer only as another illustration—though my heart is deeply saddened by their direction. We need to think and pray beyond all this.  When this memory of WTS is long gone, the gospel challenge of listening to each other will remain. We do and will believe in the holy catholic church, much bigger and better than partisan commitment to avoid listening to each other. We believe there is the beloved church of our Lord Jesus.

The Gospel According to Tobler


Editor’s Note:  This article first appeared in the January 2006 “Moderator’s Corner” column of the ARP Magazine.  Earlier today old age and cancer finally caught up with Tobler.  We will miss him.

Awhile back I read a newspaper article on Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ dog. Apparently the gubernatorial canine had been taken to obedience school repeatedly and had failed the course every time, thus earning the description “incorrigible canine.” Nevertheless, despite the dog’s behavior it was abundantly clear in the article that the governor and his family dearly loved their pet.

I can relate to this story, and I suspect that many of you can as well.   A well-known member of the Evans household here in Due West is a six-year-old chocolate-brown Boykin Spaniel named Tobler. To be sure, Tobler has his good points. He loves to run outside and catch the Frisbee, often spectacularly launching himself high into the air to retrieve the spinning disk. When we return home he welcomes his “favorite humans” at the door with obvious affection as he wiggles violently from stem to stern.

On the other hand, Tobler has never quite learned to be obedient. Stubborn to a fault, he remains invincibly ignorant of the meaning of the command come. He will come eventually, of course, but only on his own terms. The biggest problem, however, is that Tobler is an inveterate thief. He loves to steal stuffed animals, socks, and other small articles of clothing. Sometimes he will try to swallow the item he has stolen. Once a stolen sock caused a life-threatening intestinal blockage that required surgery. His penchant for swallowing textiles has made him infamous with the staff of our local veterinarian. “Ah yes,” they say with a smile, “we remember Tobler.”

There is a lesson in all of this. We love Tobler as much in spite of his faults as because of his doggish virtues. There is a real element of grace at work here, which in a partial and imperfect way illustrates the grace that God shows to us. When we think about it, sinful human beings don’t come off nearly as well as our canine friends. For all his faults, Tobler is affectionate and loyal, and dogs often demonstrate such qualities even when mistreated by their owners. By contrast, sinful human beings are in consistent rebellion against God. Apart from God’s grace we do not seek His company, even though God has poured out the rich blessings of His creation upon us. The miracle of God’s grace is that not only does he love us in spite of our sin and rebellion, but also that he loves us when we are thoroughly unlovable and entirely lacking in virtues that might commend us to Him.

This radical grace of God lies at the heart of the gospel message and of the Christian faith, properly understood. Paul tells us that Christ “came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), and St. Paul insists that sinners are declared righteous before God, not on the basis of their behavior, but only through faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). Throughout Christian history, however, many have been tempted to compromise this truth. The greatest contribution of the Protestant Reformation was the recovery by men such as Martin Luther and John Calvin of the foundational truth that we are saved by grace through faith, and not through our own good behavior. A bit later, men such as the Erskine brothers worked valiantly to recover this same insight in the context of a Scottish Kirk that was losing sight of God’s grace. It seems that each generation of Christians must deal with this issue. Today, for example, battles are being waged within Reformed churches over the so-called “New Perspective on Paul,” which argues that Luther and Calvin seriously misunderstood Paul on this issue of justification by grace through faith.

From our pets we can get an inkling of how God loves us in spite of our faults. From Scripture we learn a much more amazing truth—that God loved us when we were thoroughly unlovable. This Christmas Season let us never forget that Christ came to save sinners, and that we become children of God by grace alone.

Dallas and the Dutchman: Trying to Make Sense of the “Christotelic” Controversy

Bill Evans head shot

Just when I thought I was about done with this topic I have found myself the subject of some interesting criticism on the Internet. A fellow by the name of Lane Keister, a PCA minister in South Carolina who blogs on the “Greenbaggins” site, has written a response to an earlier post of mine. In it he argues that I have “not quite described Green’s critics accurately.” He goes on to intimate that I view the WTS critics of Dr. Green as saying that “the fullness of understanding that we have in the NT” was “completely present in the OT writer’s minds,” and he characterizes this as a “straw man.”

In point of fact, I have not said this, and a more careful reading of my blog posts on the topic would likely have kept Mr. Keister from this error. I’m aware of Greg Beale’s notion of “cognitive peripheral vision,” and that the critics of Christotelic interpretation hold that at least the outlines of the NT messianic interpretations, though not necessarily all the details, were present in the minds of the OT writers. So, if we are looking for a “straw man,” I think we know where to find him.

In fact, my stated position is that sometimes the OT writers did have some sense of messianic referent, and sometimes we have no reason to think that they did. In an earlier post, I wrote:

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.”

I also happen to think, on the basis of Numbers 12, that Moses may be something of an exception to the principle that the OT prophets generally had a minimal or even nonexistent understanding of the messianic content of their prophecies. I wrote:

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.

Keister also contends that I have mischaracterized the 2002 pamphlet by Sinclair Ferguson and the 1986 WTJ article by Vern Poythress as examples of exegetical method consistent with christotelic interpretation. He ignores the similarities I cited, and instead proclaims the difference to be that Ferguson and Poythress affirm the “organic unity” of the OT and NT, while advocates of christotelic interpretation see complete discontinuity between the testaments, as if “an acorn grows up to be a unicorn.” Unhappy metaphor aside, it is Keister who is mischaracterizing here. As far as I can tell, sober advocates of christotelic interpretation, such as Doug Green and Dan McCartney, affirm the “organic unity” of the testaments, but they view this as a function of the divine author’s purposes rather than what the human authors may or may not have meant. They rightly resist the effort to make the grammatical-historical meaning (with its focus on the human author’s intention) final. Responding to the charge that if NT meanings are not present in the human author’s intent for an OT text then the “authority” hangs completely on “the interpreter’s own design,” McCartney writes:

I concede that if by “the text” one means, the original grammatical-historically determinable meaning in its ancient Near Eastern setting alone, then with the exception of directly predictive prophecy this is correct. But if the context of “the text” is the whole Bible, and the whole context of God’s redemptive historical acts and purposes in the world, then “the text” does say something of it. And the authority of the passage isn’t connected entirely to something of the interpreter’s own design, but is connected to what God has revealed subsequently, and particularly to what Jesus and Paul say the Old Testament is about.

And, as I have noted here and here, Sinclair Ferguson (by way of B. B. Warfield) suggests that sometimes the OT writers were in the dark about messianic meanings, and Vern Poythress in his 1986 article notes that we can’t necessarily know what was in the minds of the OT writers. Furthermore, both use “two-readings” language to describe a grammatical-historical reading on the one hand, and a subsequent reading informed by NT fulfillment. Once again, this sounds pretty christotelic to me, notwithstanding the great gulf that Keister claims to discern. (Poythress, of course, has more recently moved in a different direction.)

Finally, Keister suggests that this two-readings view results in the “scorn of systematic theology,” and that it flows from “Kant’s bifurcation of knowledge from faith.” Simply put, this is baloney (that’s a technical theological term!), and such assertions must be a great surprise to those of us who teach systematic theology and who affirm a careful christotelic approach in keeping with the great tradition of Augustine, Hodge, and Warfield—all of whom have viewed the organic unity of Scripture as a function of divine authorship rather than human intention.

Further criticism has come from Richard Phillips in a comment attached to the Keister blog post referenced above. Phillips, with his usual confidence, describes my last post as “curious,” as “simply untrue,” and as “not a helpful or responsible take on this situation.”   Phillips goes on to repeat Keister’s canard about the OT writers having a complete understanding of the messianic references, something that I have dealt with above.

But the beginning of his comment is particularly intriguing. Here Phillips, who is a current WTS board member, asserts that “the basic document of record on the christotelic debate is Dan McCartney’s 2003 ETS paper, ‘Should we employ the hermeneutics of the New Testament Writers.’” This statement, of course, raises all kinds of troubling questions. Is this controversy about Doug Green, or about Dan McCartney? Given that Dr. Green’s articles referenced by WTS as problematic and out of step with the Westminster Confession seem to be anything but, are the alleged views of McCartney being imputed to Green?

I have referenced the McCartney article above, and (contra Phillips) a more charitable reading of it suggests that McCartney is not denying the “organic unity” of Scripture, and that he recognizes that there is direct predictive messianic prophecy which can be interpreted in grammatical-historical terms. Rather, McCartney’s focus is on those numerous NT references to OT passages as messianic where grammatical-historical interpretation does not seem to be utilized, and he wants to find ways for us to view the OT similarly today. Here it is important to note that both Keister and Phillips have a common assumption that they nowhere explicitly acknowledge—that the “organic unity” of Scripture must hinge on what the human authors knew.   Of course, this reduction of “organic unity” to the epistemological category of what the human authors knew is not at all what Hodge and Warfield meant by the term.  As I have pointed out earlier, Hodge wrote:

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)

Green and McCartney, on the other hand, say that sometimes the OT writers did have some sense of messianic import (especially in the case of direct predictive prophecy) but that often they did not.

I have sought to show in these posts that Green and his careful christotelic colleagues are closer to the Reformed consensus on this issue of “what did the OT writes know.” And so questions emerge as to why WTS has gone in a different direction. Furthermore, why do some defenders of the new direction seem to think that they can ignore what their opponents actually say, and instead flourish pretentious and high-sounding phases like “organic unity of Scripture” and “Kant’s bifurcation” in an effort to discredit them.

Recently I was talking with retired WTS church historian Clair Davis about his Göttingen doctoral dissertation on the great 19th-century German OT scholar E. W. Hengstenberg. When I noted that Charles Hodge had explicitly viewed the “organic unity” of Scripture as a function of divine authorship rather than what the individual human authors knew, Davis observed that Hodge had studied with Hengstenberg, and Hengstenberg had said the same thing. So how has this evangelical scholarly consensus been overturned more recently at WTS?

Could it be, as some of us who support Dr. Green have recently surmised, that the dispensational background of some of the key players at WTS is significant here? Of course, I’m not at all saying that Professors Beale, Lillback, and Garner (all of whom have degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary) are dispensationalists. Far from it. But with dispensational literalism comes a rather narrow grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and with that a focus on the human author’s intent as decisive for interpretation that has been influential far beyond the confines of dispensationalism itself. Even when people leave dispensationalism proper they often retain that hermeneutical orientation.

Significantly, former WTS OT Professor Tremper Longman has just advanced this very argument here. Speaking of the group of Dallas Seminary graduates who came to WTS, Longman writes:

Their spiritual leader was S. Lewis Johnson of Believers Chapel. This group departed from their DTS background by rejecting dispensationalism, but they maintained a more literalist understanding of interpretation which includes a commitment to meaning found in the conscious intention of the human author.

Without question, this theology stands behind their rejection of Christotelic and affirmation of something that they call a Christomorphic reading of the New Testament use of the Old Testament.

I sense that, in drawing our attention to the Believers’ Chapel connection, Dr. Longman is on to something quite important here.  I can easily imagine how people with that grammatical-historical bias who came to WTS with its conviction that Christ is pervasively present in the OT, and who were strongly opposed to the view of the NT’s use of the OT presented in Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation, would think it necessary to say that the OT writers had those NT Christological ideas in mind.  But these imported hermeneutical ideas simply don’t sit well with the Old Princeton heritage of WTS.

I also suspect that the Van Tilian legacy, with its focus on uncovering the presuppositions that are thought to determine the position of one’s opponents, has played something of a role in this controversy as well. Some seem to assume that if one can identify an opponent with an invidious “presupposition” (e.g., “Kantianism”) then one doesn’t have to interact with what they actually say. I’ll readily grant that Cornelius Van Til was generally better than this (his treatment of Karl Barth is perhaps an unfortunate exception), and I see myself in the Neo-Calvinist tradition with a substantial debt to Van Til. But the bagatelle Van Tilianism that appears to be present in some quarters does at times lead to the subversion of meaningful dialogue and debate.  In a context in which the conservative Reformed world is growing more and more fragmented by the day, that is not a good thing.

Has WTS Changed?

Bill Evans head shot

Given the continued silence of the WTS administration and board regarding its curious judgment that OT Professor Doug Green’s understanding of the New Testament’s use of the Old is incompatible with the Westminster Confession of Faith, this may well be my last post on this topic. After all, one-way conversations are generally unproductive. In these articles (here and here and here and here) my primary focus has been on the theological issues involved. Others, of course, have also raised significant questions about the process and the culture at WTS that have resulted in Green’s “retirement,” and I share some of those concerns.

Green, we will recall, is a proponent of what has been called “christotelic” interpretation. He contends that grammatical-historical interpretation is an important and necessary starting point for understanding an OT text, but we can’t stop there. After all, the NT writers sometimes interpret OT texts in ways that likely would not have occurred to Isaiah or Hosea.   Grammatical-historical interpretation asks what the text would have meant in its original historical and linguistic context 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. For Green, 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. 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.

Green’s critics, however, contend that such thinking effaces the “organic connection” between the Old Testament and the New. They believe that grammatical-historical interpretation is the normative method of biblical interpretation, and that the meaning of the text resides in the human author’s intention. However, the grammatical-historical method is redefined and expanded to include divine influence on the human authors’ psychology as legitimate considerations for interpretation. Thus they conclude 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 of Green’s critics 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.

Throughout this controversy there have been persistent suggestions that WTS has changed, that approaches to OT studies formerly seen as mainstream at the school are now deemed beyond the pale of acceptability. Of course, with its storied history of professors such as the apologist Cornelius Van Til, systematician John Murray, and biblical scholars like E. J. Young, Ned Stonehouse, Meredith Kline, Ray Dillard, and Moises Silva, continuity with the past counts for something at WTS. A certain defensiveness on this point is, I think, evident in a September 2, 2014 WTS fundraising letter that focused especially on the tradition of OT studies at the school. The “carrot” for this fundraising effort is a special two-volume edition (which can be yours for a gift of $200 or more, if you act quickly!) entitled “Christ in the Old Testament” and consisting of late president Edmund Clowney’s The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament (representing the past) and God of Our Fathers: The Gospel According to the Patriarchs by newly appointed OT professor Iain Duguid (representing the present and future of the school). According to the letter, these volumes “demonstrate a perceptive synthesis of careful scholarship and clarity, and they provide insight into the standard of quality within Westminster’s faculty—past and present.” In light of all this, I think it is fair to ask whether WTS has in fact changed. Does this recent episode evince a significant departure from the institution’s past with regard to OT studies?

Here some broader context is useful. As far as I can tell, it is pretty much the historic majority consensus position of the church that the inspired OT writers often spoke better than they knew. For example, in an important article patristics scholar Tarmo Toom notes that for Augustine a human author’s intention is important but not decisive for determining the meaning of an OT text, and for two reasons. First, the “Scriptures as a double-authored text (i.e., a text authored by God and humans) prevent the human authorial intention from being the ultimate hermeneutical criterion.” Second, to “equate the human authorial intention with the meaning of a text would tie the meaning of the canonical texts to the past history and may eliminate the possibility of Christological interpretations of the Old Testament” (“Was Augustine an Intentionalist? Authorial Intention in Augustine’s Hermeneutics,” Studia Patristica 54 [2012], 1).

This broader consensus is reflected in the Reformed tradition. Charles Hodge, for example, 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” (Systematic Theology, 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). (Systematic Theology, I:165-66)

Along the same lines, B. B. Warfield wrote: “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” (“The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity,” in Works, II:141).

Much more recently, former WTS Professor of Systematic Theology Sinclair Ferguson takes a similar tack. In an illuminating pamphlet entitled Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (London: Proclamation Trust, 2002), he 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).

Note that although Ferguson does not use Green’s specific language of “first and second reading,” the idea is the same.

Thus far we have discussed Reformed systematicians (Hodge and Warfield of Old Princeton and Ferguson of WTS), but what about WTS biblical scholars? A crucially important article for this issue was penned by WTS NT Professor Vern Poythress (“Divine Meaning of Scripture,” WTJ 48 [1986]: 241-79). I remember reading this article when it first came out (I was heading from WTS to grad school at Vanderbilt at the time) and finding it extraordinarily helpful. Such was the importance of this article that an abbreviated version of it was included in the WTS faculty symposium entitled Inerrancy and Hermeneutic (Baker, 1988).

Poythress begins by recognizing a range of opinion among Evangelical scholars over a key question: “Does NT use of OT texts sometimes imply that God meant more than what the human author thought of.” He notes the negative answer to this question from Walter Kaiser, positive answers from S. Lewis Johnson, J. I. Packer, and Elliott Johnson, Bruce Waltke’s emphasis on the completed “canon as the final context for interpretation,” and the approach of those such as Earle Ellis and Richard Longenecker who emphasize the NT’s appropriate of the interpretive techniques of second-temple Judaism.   Poythress then goes on to “concentrate on the problem of dual authorship” of Scripture, and he makes clear that he is concerned not merely about the NT use of the OT but even more about a theological framework for understanding Scripture in general (p. 242).

Poythress warns against views holding that the divine meaning “has little or nothing to do with the meaning of the human author” (e.g., medieval allegory) as well as the notion that the divine meaning is coextensive with the intention of the human author, in which case the divine authorship of the Bible makes no difference to the interpretive process (pp. 243-44). Here he invokes E. D. Hirsch’s distinction between “meaning” and “significance,” arguing that there are “applications” that go beyond the human author’s intention but that were intended by the divine author (pp. 245ff). Poythress also rightly recognizes that the distinction between “meaning” and “application” is fluid, and that it has to do with what is “said directly” and what is “inferred” from the larger context (p. 251).

Poythress also rightly emphasizes the continuity of the human author’s intention and the divine intention—“there is a unity of meaning and a unity of application here” (p. 259). But there is also discontinuity in that the fact of dual authorship “leaves open the question of how far a prophet understood God’s words at any particular point.” We really cannot say how much or how little the prophets understood; rather, we must deal with what is clear: “It is clear that the prophet faithfully recorded what he saw and heard. He intended that we should understand from it whatever there is to understand when we treat it as a vision from God” (p. 260).

He then distinguishes three contexts within which Scripture is to be read: (a) the grammatical-historical context of the human author, (b) the canonical context to that point in time, and (c) the completed canon (p. 267). But again Poythress emphasizes continuity, insisting that the interpretations arising from these contexts are complementary rather than contradictory. Poythress writes:

The difference between these three approaches is quite like the difference between reading one chapter of a book and reading the whole of the book. After taking into account the whole of the book, we understand the one chapter as well as the whole book more deeply (p. 269).

Psalm 22 with its NT application to the passion of Christ is then used as an example. Poythress rightly recognizes that the description of suffering and abandonment reflects the psalmist’s own experience of difficulty, but viewed in its broader canonical context we see the rationale for messianic application (pp. 269-71). Poythress explains this further:

In scholarly research, we may begin with approach (a) as a control. For Psalm 22, we focus narrowly on the original historical context, and what is known within that context. We do grammatical-historical exegesis as the foundation for all later systematizing reflection. We try to avoid simply “reading in” our total knowledge of Scripture, or else we lose the opportunity for the Bible to criticize our views. As a second, later step, we relate Psalm 22 to earlier canonical books and finally to the NT. Whatever we find at this stage must harmonize with the results of approach (a). But we come to “extra” insights and deeper understanding as we relate Psalm 22 to the NT. These extra things are not “in” Psalm 22 in itself. They are not somehow mystically hidden in the psalm, so that someone with some esoteric key to interpretation could have come up with them jut by reading the psalm in isolation from the rest of the Bible. Psalm 22 in itself gives us only what we get from approach (a). The extra things arise from the relations that Psalm 22 has with earlier canonical books (approach (b)), with the NT, and with the events of Christ’s death. These relations, established by God, provide the basis for our proceeding another stage forward in understanding (pp. 272-73).

The article closes with some well-formed thoughts about the limits of grammatical-historical exegesis. Poythress rightly contends that “the NT authors do not aim merely at grammatical-historical exegesis of the OT,” and that while grammatical-historical interpretation is essential, it is not sufficient precisely because of the divine authorship of Scripture (pp. 276-79).

At this point we must note carefully what we have seen here. According to Poythress in this article, we cannot be dogmatic about what the OT human authors may have known. He insists that the historical situation of the OT authors must be respected and that grammatical-historical exegesis serves as an important control on hermeneutical excesses, that progressive character of revelation must be recognized, and that there is a “distinction between the intention of the human author and divine intention” (p. 276). He also recognizes the limits of grammatical-historical interpretation for our more complete understanding of the text today. Finally, these considerations issue in the recognition of two types of reading—one in its original human context and the second in light of the larger canonical context in which the conclusion of the story is known. All of this, as far as I can tell, is quite consistent with what Doug Green has written on the topic. In fact, we might as well say that Dr. Poythress here presents a nuanced and careful christotelic approach!

Needless to say, I was both surprised and disappointed by a more recent article written by Poythress on this same topic (“The Presence of God Qualifying Our Notions of Grammatical-Historical Interpretation: Genesis 3:15 As a Test Case,” JETS 50/1 (March 2007): 87-103). This article is less focused than the first, and we immediately sense that something is bothering Dr. Poythress. That something, it turns out, is “evangelical scholars in dialogue with the historical-critical tradition” who are “tempted to compromise” on the issue of divine authorship. Here, significantly, he mentions some Christological heresies as analogies for these mistaken views (p. 92). The rest of the article consists largely of an effort to expand the definition of “grammatical-historical interpretation” to include supernatural divine influence on the human authors such that they had some inkling of the Christological meanings that are later unpacked in the NT. Here the argument veers in a speculative direction as Poythress writes:

The human authors of Scripture are in one respect ordinary human beings. But in another respect they are not ordinary. They operate under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is God, he exercises more extraordinary capabilities than do the demons. What are human minds capable of, when under the extraordinary influence of the Holy Spirit? We really do not know. And it is this kind of mind that God employs in writing the Scripture. How do we control what is or is not possible? We cannot. Rather, as scholars, we simply pretend that ancient human authors were pedestrian, that they can hardly do a thing that goes beyond what our petty version of rationality could potentially explain. Is the worship of Reason alive and well among evangelical scholars, when they attempt to calculate the limits of thought in what they read? (p. 97)

Dr. Poythress is a good scholar and a Christian gentlemen, and I do not wish to be unkind. But, especially in contrast to the rigor and excellence of his earlier article, the thrust of this one is little more than schwärmerisch special pleading, and the obvious question emerges: why did Dr. Poythress change his mind? In the absence of one of those “How My Mind Has Changed” articles in the Christian Century we should probably reserve some judgment as to details, but both the content and temporal context of Poythress’s 2007 article point to the Peter Enns controversy that was raging at WTS at that time as the catalyst. Enns, in his Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker, 2005), had argued on the basis of a supposed incarnational analogy or model 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 contends that the NT writers persistently engage in “eisegesis” and “subversion” of OT texts.

Let me say at this point that I share some of Poythress’s concern. Having really tried to understand Enns’ position, I sense that he views the meaning of the text as its human historical meaning without remainder, and thus NT Christological interpretations of OT texts are inevitably seen as imposed on the text—hence the language of “subversion” and “eisegesis.” Moreover, it is not in the least surprising that the powers-that-be at WTS heard this rhetoric of radical discontinuity as a rejection of the “organic unity” of the OT and the NT. And they were probably right! But, and this point is crucial, I simply do not hear Doug Green using this language of subversion and radical discontinuity. Rather, his point is more that the canonical or “second” reading supplements the first and is ultimately consistent with the first (though there are obviously big surprises and unanticipated developments).

All this illustrates the dangers of doing theology by reaction. Here we will recall Luther’s famous Tabletalk quip about how people often behave like a drunken peasant trying to ride a horse and falling off on one side and then the other. But the excesses of Pete Enns (whom, incidentally, I happen to like despite our significant disagreements) do not justify imbalance in the opposite direction.  Nor do they justify administrative pogroms directed against those within the institution who may agree with Enns on certain points but disagree with him at others.

In short, WTS has indeed changed, and rather dramatically. As we have seen, careful and considered christotelic approaches that respect the organic unity of Scripture have been characteristic of the Princeton-Westminster tradition, while the recent opposing “christomorphic” position has apparently been quickly formulated in an ad hoc way to address the challenge posed by Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation. In short, an understandable but ultimately indefensible reaction has led the institution into a theological cul de sac from which there is no easy or dignified exit, and the collateral damage has been substantial. Furthermore, this will lead to both the marginalization of WTS and, I fear, to the further balkanization of the conservative Reformed community.

In closing, as a WTS alumnus I’m now haunted by the question of whether this unfortunate episode could have been averted. In retrospect, I wonder if Poythress’s 1986 article, with its nuance and balance, could have served as a useful basis for productive institutional dialogue and eventual consensus? I guess we will never know.

Thoroughly Uncontroversial: Sinclair Ferguson on Christotelic Interpretation

Bill Evans head shot

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.