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

Bill Evans head shot

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.