The End of Reformed Evangelical OT Scholars … Once More!

The End of Reformed Evangelical OT Scholars … Once More! June 12, 2014

Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) has announced the “retirement” of Douglas Green from the seminary. His “retirement” is occasioned by the findings of the board of trustees that his hermeneutical approach to the NT use of the OT is no longer acceptable to the board’s interpretation of the Westminster Standards. Apparently Douglas Green’s article on a christological reading of Psalm 23 is formally declared to be unacceptable to the board, which is really funny, because it is by far the best article on Psalm 23 that I’ve ever read!!! As far as I can tell, the WTS board seems to have an allergy to the notion of a “christotelic” hermeneutic where Jesus is reckoned by the NT authors to be the goal of the OT itself, but in some cases such an observation can only be seen  retrospectively, from the Easter side of things. I think the objection is odd because if I had to summarize how Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the OT (see Luke 24:25-27, John 5:45-47; Acts 13:32-33), it would definitely be along the lines of a christotelic hermeneutic.

I blogged on this topic some years ago around the time of the Peter Enns controversy and it prompted no few responses (and let the record show that I do disagree with Enns on a lot of stuff, just see the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy). Rather than rehash the topic again, I’ll simply note that William B. Evans has a great piece about the politics and hermeneutics behind this, quite frankly, strange melee. Evans writes:

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.

Part of the problem is that the WTS Affirmations and Denials document looks a bit confusing at least to me. On the one hand, the document says, “We affirm that the methods and reasoning that Scripture uses in reaching its conclusions are valid” (IV.B) and “We deny that we can never have more understanding of an Old Testament passage than what was available to people when it was first given” (IV.C) which is fine. But then it states, “We affirm that God’s intention with respect to an Old Testament passage is consistent with his later reference to or allusion to that passage in the New Testament” (IV.C).Well it depends what you mean by “consistent” doesn’t it. Is Matthew’s citation of Hos 11:1 in Matt 2:15 consistent with Hosea’s authorial intent? Well, in a typological and canonical sense, yes, but in an authorial sense, no, because Hosea was not making a messianic prophecy.

This reminds me why I am so grateful for the three colleges I’ve worked for because I’ve never had a board where members troll through my work looking for the slightest minor exegetical objection that they can use as a reason to hang me. So glad that the boards of HTC, BST, and Ridley College have focused on strategic matters, creating an atmosphere of trust and mutual encouragement, supporting faculty in their research, and not micro-managing the interpretive decisions of their faculty with the threat of a lynching ever lingering in the air.

Evangelical OT scholars with a good hermeneutical approach are  a blessing to their students and fellow faculty. If I may paraphrase 1 Peter 1:12 – “It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but their students by exemplifying good christotelic interpretation of the Old Testament. When they spoke of such things it helped their students understand how the New Testament authors preached the gospel from the Old Testament, which even some Presbyterian Elders long to learn about.”

So God bless all you Reformed Evangelical OT scholars out there and may you receive a double portion of the spirit of Calvin, Hodge, Warfield, Vos, Ridderbos, and Conn and be delivered from the hermeneutical hilarity of well-meaning but muddled folks who have yet to come to a mature understanding of the Reformed faith where Jesus is prophet, priest, and king in ways that even the OT authors did not entirely foresee.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I wonder what the effects of this sort of hermeneutical fascism will be long term on evangelical schools.

  • Nathanael

    I’d like to point out that WTS also drove off another member of its OT faculty; Chris Fantuzzo. He’s young and hasn’t published much but he’s a brilliant professor and has a lot of promise as a scholar (I believe he’s under contract for the Two Horizons commentary on Isaiah).

  • Ben Inman

    When would it be appropriate for a school with confessional identity to remove a faculty member? How could that be determined? Assuming the confidence which led to initial hiring, what could provoke a loss of confidence?

  • Patrick Schreiner

    Thank you for saying something. If this is all it was about then this is the most ridiculous situation. The circle of tribalism is getting smaller and smaller.

  • Ben

    Doug Green is also one of the most kind and pastoral professors one could ever hope for. (See the statement from his own church: http://journal.newlifeglenside.com/2014/initial-remarks-from-the-pastors-of-new-life-presbyterian-church-on-the-announced-retirement-of-dr-douglas-green/.)

    I’d love to hear your more detailed reflection on the Affirmations and Denials document (maybe a future blog post?)

  • Pete Head

    I agree about Green’s paper on Psalm 23 (which I have only read this week). Really an excellent, thought-provoking, and spiritually encouraging paper. It does seem a very odd thing to “retire” a professor on that basis (esp. when compared with the representatives of the approved interpretive tradition which I could barely understand).

    • lionsbru

      Pete – in fact, the decision was NOT based on on either of the two articles (including that on Psalm 23) to which the announcement links. Both are given simply as illustrative of his overall approach. Very confusing, I know, but those are the facts. Perhaps at some point they will decide to present the statements on which they acted (which is not to say you or I will agree with their reasons).

  • Leroy Huizenga

    “Deductively, we know that Scripture does not teach error; inductively, we learn the form that that inerrancy takes.” Bingo.

  • LeL

    Please remember the students in all this and keep us in your prayers. When mom and dad are fighting, no matter who is in the right, the kids tend to lose.

  • Patrick

    ” As far as I can tell, the WTS board seems to have an allergy to the notion of a “christotelic” hermeneutic where Jesus is reckoned by the NT authors to be the goal of the OT itself, but in some cases such an observation can only be seen retrospectively, from the Easter side of things”.

    Well, yea! So what? We now do have Christ to worship and study for 2000 years, why would this be an issue except within Lutheran doctrine?

  • John Sullivan

    yeah its tough