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.