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

Bill Evans head shot

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.