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.