Conditional Prophecy or Unconditional Prophecy?

A very thorny question arises as to whether prophecies in the Old Testament are conditional or unconditional. Some of them appear to be one, and some appear to be the other. Problems arise whenever scholars seek to make one category that describes all prophecies. Hengstenberg, for instance, argues that all prophecies are unconditional. One wonders, then, how Hengstenberg deals with Jonah’s prophecy about Nineveh. Or, how does he deal with Jeremiah 18:7-10? I just finished reading Fairbairn’s chapter on this topic in his Interpretation of Prophecy. He has a taxonomy of prophecies that is well worth consideration.

Fairbairn has three categories of prophecies. Of these, one is completely unconditional, one completely conditional, and one that has aspects of both.

The first category he describes is one that has aspects of both. The prophecies of salvation that “disclose God’s purposes of grace to men” are unconditional with regard to their ultimate fulfillment. The only conditional elements have to do with “relations of place and time” (p. 63). The protoevangelion (Genesis 3:15) is an example of this type of prophecy. He writes, “[E]ven in this class of prophecies, as they do not proceed to their accomplishment in a lofty isolation from human interests and responsibilities, so the things belonging to them must be presented to men’s view as capable of being expedited or retarded by the line of behaviour they pursue; and while with God himself the end was seen from the beginning, and absolutely determined, yet particular issues might fitly enough appear to be suspended on the particular condition of the church or the world” (p. 64).

The second class of prophecies he mentions has to do with “kingdoms that stood in a rival or antagonistic position to the kingdom of God.” These prophecies “were mainly intended to assure the hearts of God’s people, that whatever earthly resources and glory might for the time belong to those kingdoms, all was destined to pass away; that their dominion, however arrogant and powerful, should come to an end” (p. 68). These prophecies were about the foreign kingdoms, but they were usually directed towards God’s people. These prophecies do not, as a general rule, address moral issues (see p. 69). Many, if not most, of the oracles against the nations, fall into this category (for examples, see Ezekiel 25-32).

The third class of prophecies is completely conditional. They are the prophecies about which Jeremiah 18:7-10 speaks. This class bears directly “upon men’s responsibilities” (p. 70). These are often directed towards the foreign nation. Jonah’s prophecy against Nineveh is a good example of this kind of prophecy. Jonah prophecies destruction, but Jonah obviously knows that this prophecy is conditional, because he did not want to give it to Nineveh, lest they repent, and then God would not bring upon them the destruction promised. Fairbairn comments on its seemingly unconditional form: “[T]he very absoluteness and precision of the form was the best adapted, it may be the only one actually fitted, to arouse slumbering consciences, and lead to serious repentance” (p. 73, emphasis original).

This taxonomy helps us to avoid three particular problems with Old Testament prophecy. One is that of open theism. God doesn’t change his mind. With the prophecies that have conditional elements, God immutably carries out His complex purposes, such that if the people change (of which outcome God already and immutably knows), then the outcome changes, humanly speaking. Secondly, this helps us to make sense of prophecies like that of Jonah that seemingly do not come to pass. As we know, one of the criteria for true prophets is that their prophecies must come to pass. Of course, liberals tend to use a very literalistic heremeneutic in order to “prove” that Old Testament prophecies are not fulfilled. This is another subject that Fairbairn addresses in this same chapter, incidentally. Thirdly, it also helps us to avoid the problems associated with extreme positions, like that of Hengstenberg, on the one hand, who argues that no prophecies are conditional; and other opposite positions, that argue that all prophecies are conditional. The problem with the latter position is that the criteria for prophecies coming true would be meaningless if the prophecies were always conditional. The prophet whose prophecy doesn’t come to pass could then conceivably always use the excuse, “Well, it was conditional.” I commend Fairbairn’s careful taxonomy. There might be tweaks that would be necessary to his categories (although I can’t think of any right off). But this is a helpful way of making sense of enormous swaths of Old Testament prophecy.

Advertisements

Seeing Christ In All of Scripture

I received in the mail a copy of this little gem from my alma mater. It is a fast read. I read it this morning.

Normally, I wouldn’t expect to have about 35 endorsements on a book that is only 87 pages long. However, in this case, what you get is actually a snapshot of scholars who agree with the trajectory that WTS is establishing (and has established in the past). I found these statements interesting and, in some cases, revealing (see John Frame’s puff, for instance).

The book has four essays, by Vern Poythress, Iain Duguid, G.K. Beale, and Richard Gaffin, Jr, all preceded by a good little introduction by Peter Lillback. Also included are three appendices. The first is Machen’s essay on the purpose and plan for the Seminary. The second is the document of affirmations and denials that the seminary promulgated in response to the recent debates at the seminary. The third is Dr. Gaffin’s short piece on biblical theology at WTS.

Dr. Lillback can now say that there is a “harmony among the theological disciplines at Westminster” (p. 1). This wasn’t the case when I was attending. The exegetical departments were, in general, at odds with the ST, AP, and CH departments. I, for one, am grateful for the present unity among the faculty and disciplines.

Dr. Poythress’s point is that true biblical hermeneutics is a spiral, not a circle, that needs to start from a self-consciously Christian perspective. In this context, he says that God’s “presence and his special work in inspiration do not make human beings less than human. Rather, he transforms sinful humanity toward humanity as God originally designed it” (p. 13). Some advocates of other hermeneutical approaches seem to suggest that if God had anything to do with revelation at all, then that “interference” would make the humans automatons, and thus less than human.

Duguid’s point is that Christ is the whole point of the Old Testament. Period. It is a book about Christ (p. 17). Against the Christotelic interpretation, Duguid writes, “It is not that the New Testament writers were creatively assigning new and alien meanings to these old texts. Rather, the force of Jesus’s statement that it was ‘necessary that the Christ should suffer these things’ (Luke 24:26) suggests that a proper reading of the Old Testament expectation of the messiah necessarily compelled them to recognize Jesus Christ as its true fulfillment” (p. 21). While the OT prophets were not fully aware of the complete meaning of what they wrote (p. 20), we must not overstress their ignorance (p. 21). Again, taking direct aim at the Christotelic view, he says, “In other words, our astonishment will not be because the fulfillment differed from the promise, or because some parts of the promise proved to be dead ends, but because we had not begun to grasp the height and depth of the wisdom of God that is at work for our salvation in Christ” (p. 23).

Beale’s essay addresses New Testament hermeneutics. Context is king in Beale’s hermeneutics, but that context has to be defined as including more than the immediate literary and historical context. It also includes its canonical context (p. 26). Biblical Theology is given a thoroughly Vossian definition (pp. 27-28). New Testament interpretation of the Old is the correct way to read the Old Testament.

Gaffin’s article addresses the place of Systematic Theology in relation to Biblical Theology (a hallmark of his entire career). Some money quotes: “Systematic Theology, accordingly, does not have a ‘special’ hermeneutic of its own but one it shares with all other theological disciplines (p. 39). “Negatively, the difference (between ST and BT, LK) is not, as is too often maintained, that biblical theology considers the Bible purely in terms of its humanity and historically diverse make-up, leaving systematic theology to attend to whatever may be said about its divinely qualified unity (p. 49). Instead, biblical theology always presupposes the unity of God’s speech (ibid.). “At any one point in actual practice, the relationship between biblical theology and systematic theology is reciprocal” (p. 50). I might add something here to Gaffin’s remarks, and note that it is always reciprocal, whether the interpreter realizes it or not, and even if the interpreter denies that it is reciprocal.

It is clear that Machen was a Vossian. No doubt this quotation is why the essay was included: “[A]n error should be avoided: it must not be thought that systematic theology is one whit less biblical than biblical theology is” (p. 57). This is pure Vos.

The affirmations and denials are available online here, but it is good to see them in print, as well. They are extremely sophisticated, and yet very clear. I commend them to your perusal, especially the parts about private interpretation (p. 68, for example). It has some very important things to say about Ancient Near Eastern background, as well (see p. 71, for instance).

Gaffin’s last piece is a response to Clair Davis’s lament over the supposed fall of biblical theology at Westminster Seminary. Gaffin says that the reports of biblical theology’s death at WTS have been greatly exaggerated. This is the money quote from that piece: “There can be no objection to ‘Christotelic’ in itself. But Scripture is Christotelic just because it is Christocentric. It is Christotelic only as it is Christocentric, and as it is that in every part, the Old Testament included. Or, as we may, in fact must, put the issue here in its most ultimate consideration, Christ is the mediatorial Lord and Savior of redemptive history not only at its end but also from beginning to end. He is not only its omega but also its alpha, and he is and can be its omega only as he is its alpha” (p. 86).

This short book clarifies the doctrinal issues surrounding the recent debates at Westminster like no other resource of which I am aware. Get a copy of it.

Republication of the Covenant of Works

It is rather amazing to me to see how worked (!) up people can get over the republication thesis. Is it that people just hate Meredith Kline? Or do they just hate Westminster California? I hear and read overstated cases on both sides. I have read that the republication thesis was the standard position among Reformed theologians in the post-reformation era. This is surely overstated. I have also read that not only is the republication idea heretical, but that no Reformed author ever believed it before Meredith Kline. This is also quite overstated. I have hesitated to write about it, because my own thoughts on the subject were anything but settled. They still aren’t settled. I see helpful insights on both sides (although it must be said that there are an enormous number of individual positions on the nature of the Mosaic covenant). What I am attempting to do in this post is simply to clear away some misapprehensions on both sides.

Definition of republication: that there exists in the Mosaic covenant some sort of republication of the covenant of works. Almost all advocates of the republication thesis I have read agree that the essential nature of the Mosaic covenant is that it is part of the covenant of grace, and that the republication has nothing whatsoever to do with how Old Testament Christians become saved. Most advocates of the republication thesis agree that people were saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone both before and after Christ came. This is not something that most critics of the republication thesis are willing to concede (that republication advocates actually believe this about OT believers). Little, however, is to be gained by caricature, and it is time that the critics saw this. As a matter of fact, there is no Reformed theologian I know of who believes that people in the Mosaic economy obtained eternal salvation by their works in the Covenant of Works.

Another misapprehension among critics is that the Westminster Standards explicitly forbid this notion. It does not. The relevant wording in WCF 7 is as follows: “Although true believers be not under the law, as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified, or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others…The promises of it, in like manner, show them God’s approbation of obedience, and what blessings they may expect upon the performance thereof; although not as due to them as a covenant of works” (section 6). The key phrases here are “under the law” and “to be thereby justified, or condemned.” Republication advocates (at least those claiming to be confessional) do not advocate that OT believers are in any way under the law as a covenant of works to be thereby justified or condemned. Unfortunately, the normally careful Cornel Venema makes a mistake concerning this point in CPJ 9 (2013), p. 161, where he states, “[T]he Confession expressly denies that the law was given through Moses ‘as a covenant of works.'” The correction that is important here is that Venema leaves out the qualifying phrase “to be thereby justified, or condemned.” With regard to the last phrase in section 6, again, most republication advocates will say that the republication does not re-obligate us to the covenant of works. As Fesko says, “[T]he Mosaic covenant is part of the Covenant of Grace but that I maintain that the former republishes, not re-administers, the covenant of works” (CPJ 9, 2013, p. 178). The key words there are “not re-administers.” In section 6 of WCF 7, in other words, the phrase “to be thereby justified, or condemned” controls the whole section. The promises of obedience to the law did not come to OT believers by way of the covenant of works. I feel sure most republication advocates would agree with this.

The fact is that republication of the covenant of works in the Mosaic economy is, in the theology of most of its advocates, simply another way of talking about the pedagogical use of the law.

However, against some republication advocates, I do not believe that the WCF proves the republication thesis, either. Chapter 19 is often referenced in this regard, but chapter 19 does not say that the covenant of works was republished. It says that the moral law that was used in the Adamic covenant as the covenant of works was later given at Mount Sinai. It is that same moral law that is the subject of the sentence in WCF 19.2, not the covenant of works. Republication is therefore not proven or disproven by the Westminster Standards.

Another common misapprehension is that the republication view is quite novel and new. It most certainly is not. There probably are sources that have been “accommodated” to the modern viewpoints. Turretin’s view is, for instance, enormously complex and difficult to parse. However, James Buchanan, John Colquhoun, and the Marrow divines are not difficult to parse at all, and they quite clearly advocate the republication view, with almost all of the distinctives that the modern advocates have. Here is James Buchanan, in his monumental work on justification:

The Law-considered as a national covenant, by which their continued possession of the land of Canaan, and of all their privileges under the Theocracy, was left to depend on their external obedience to it,- might be called a national Covenant of Works, since their temporal welfare was suspended on the condition of their continued adherence to it; but, in that aspect of it, it had no relation to the spiritual salvation of individuals, otherwise than as this might be affected by their retaining, or forfeiting, their outward privileges and means of grace. It may be considered, however, in another light, as a re-exhibition of the original Covenant of Works, for the instruction of individual Jews in the principles of divine truth; for in some such light it is evidently presented in the writings of Paul (Justification, BoT edition, pp. 38-39).

Can anyone seriously doubt that Buchanan was an advocate of the republication thesis?

Here is John Colquhoun, in his work A Treatise On the Law and the Gospel:

The violated covenant of works, as I observed above, was not, and could not be, made or renewed with the Israelites at Sinai; for it was a broken covenant, and besides, it was a covenant between God and man as friends, whereas now man has become the enemy of God. but though it was not renewed with them, yet it was, on that solemn occasion, repeated and displayed to them. It was not proposed to them in order that they might consent, by their own works, to fulfil the condition of it, but it was displayed before them in subservience to the covenant of grace that they might see how impossible it was for them as condemned sinners to perform that perfect obedience which is the immutable condition of life in it…Now the covenant of works was displayed in this tremendous form before the Israelites in order that self-righteous and secure sinners among them might be alarmed, and deterred from expecting justification in the sight of God by the works of the law…Although the Sinaic transaction was a mixed dispensation, yet the covenant of grace and the covenant of works were not blended together in it…The law promulgated from Mount Sinai to the Israelites as the matter of a national covenant between God and them…the promises of that national covenant were promises of temporal good things to the Israelites, both as a body politic and as individuals, and of these in subservience to their enjoyment of religious privileges. The inheritance of the earthly Canaan as typical of the eternal inheritance was given to Abraham by promise (see p. 67 for a further delineation of the national promises that the republished covenant of works would give to an obedient Israel). See pages 55, 57, 61, 62, 64, and 66 of the SDG edition for the quotations.

Lastly, The Marrow of Modern Divinity:

God never made the covenant of works with any man since the fall, either with expectation that he should fulfil it, or to give him life by it…[L]et no man imagine that God published the covenant of works on Mount Sinai, as though he had been mutable, and so changed his determination in that covenant made with Abraham…[I]t was added by way of subserviency and attendance, the better to advance and make effectual the covenant of grace; so that although the same covenant that was made with Adam was renewed on Mount Sinai, yet I say still, it was not for the same purpose. (Christian Heritage edition, pp. 83-84).

On pages 81-83, there are supporting quotations from Polonus (maybe Polanus?), Preston, Pemble, and Walker that advocate a republication of the covenant of works at Sinai. Now, the idea of republication is not the view of all the Reformed fathers, and it would be difficult to say what the majority view was. A lot depends on which elements one includes in one’s definition of republication. There is the element of the covenant of works renewed as pedagogical. Then there is the element of a national covenant (which can be made for different purposes, as the Colquhoun quotation shows; i.e., not all advocates of a republication thesis believed that it was republished for the purposes of giving the land to Israel upon condition of obedience.). In Kline’s view there is the additional element of simple merit, which is certainly not something all republication advocates share.

Can the critics of republication please stop claiming that all these ideas are purely novel, and haven’t been around until Kline came on the scene? That should now be manifestly absurd.

On the other side of the coin, there seems to me to be some exaggeration on the part of republication advocates as to how widespread the view was in the Reformation era and post-Reformation era. Here is where the danger of accommodation comes in (making old authors speak with modern categories). It does not appear to me from my current vantage point that republication was the majority view. A careful reading of Turretin would seem to bear this out (Venema’s careful handling of Turretin seems mostly on target, although Fesko does have some legitimate points in response. The whole exchange in CPJ 8-9 is essential reading for this debate).

So here is where I currently am: I advocate a form of republication that is very similar to Colquhoun’s. The republication was given to Israel primarily for the purposes of the pedagogical use of the law (though not only for this purpose). Of course, it is helpful to bear in mind that in this pedagogical sense, the covenant of works is always republished throughout the entire Bible. It is always there, sometimes more in the background, sometimes more in the foreground.

There is something unique about the Mosaic economy, however. I believe that there was a national covenant made with Israel, but not for the purposes of giving them the land. That was already promised in the Abrahamic covenant. John Colquhoun’s list of privileges and promises that hinge on the obedience is more in line with what the Scripture says, in my opinion. It is, therefore, a very limited republication view that I espouse. I reject Kline’s view of simple merit, if he means strict merit. No one can merit strictly except Jesus Christ.

How to Reconcile the Immutability of God with “Repent” Passages

On the one hand, we have passages that tell us that God does not change (James 1:17, Malachi 3:6, Numbers 23:19, and Hebrews 13:8. These are quite clear: God does not change. God does not move on to plan B. God is not “open” in this sense to the future. Since these are the clearer passages, we should start with these, and not with the passages that are less clear, like the repentance passages. Going from the clear to the unclear is what the orthodox do. Going from the unclear to the clear (and imposing thereby their own pre-conceptions on to the texts) is what heretics do. This is the error of the open theists (read Socinians!).

So, if these passages are that clear, then what do we make of passages like Genesis 6, where God “repents” of making humanity? Is this a contradiction with the above set of passages? The answer is no. It doesn’t contradict at all. There is not even any paradox involved. What happens is this: God is utterly consistent in His treatment of human beings, depending on their state and their relationship to Him! Those who are God’s children and have a relationship to Him of child to Father (through adoption) can expect to be treated in a very consistent way. This would be a way that includes discipline, for the Lord disciplines those He loves. However, the Lord will never again treat His child the way a judge treats the defendant.

Similarly, those who are not in a right relationship with God can always expect Him to treat them as a judge treats the guilty defendant. God is long-suffering, and so sometimes that judgment takes a while. Nevertheless, the judgment will come. In other words, what changed in Genesis 6 was humanity, not God. It kept on changing for the worse (see verse 5). When that happens, the relationship changes, and God is always consistent in His treatment of people based on the state of that relationship.

The idea of covenant is heavily involved here. The first category of people we described above are members of the covenant of grace, and will always receive consistent covenant-of-grace treatment. Those not in that covenant are still condemned under the covenant of works, and thus, the more evil they do, the closer to judgment they get.

To sum up here, God does not change. He is always consistent with His character, and always treats people based on the state of the relationship that person has with God, a relationship that is covenantally determined.

One other thing must be mentioned here, and that is the “relenting” of the prophetic literature. Take the case of Jonah, for instance. After Jonah’s rebellion, he goes into Nineveh and preaches the world’s shortest sermon, (“40 days, and you’re toast”). The people repent and God relents. What is going on here? Take note of the 40 days. Why give Nineveh 40 days? Why not just say that it’s going to happen tomorrow? Because, built into every single judgment oracle in the OT, is the understood condition that if the people repent (i.e., their relationship with God changes!), the judgment will either be delayed or eliminated. So the relationship change works in reverse, too. If the relationship changes for the worse, God brings judgment. If it changes for the better, God holds off on judgment. God is rigidly consistent in this! In other words, God does not change, man does.

Doug Green on Psalm 8

After reading Green’s articles on Psalm 8 and Psalm 23, there are a few things that stick out. One is that there is definitely a spectrum of opinion on the Christotelic scale, and that Green seems to be far less extreme in his views than Enns, or even McCartney. Secondly, the Psalm 8 article leaves more in the way of questions for me, instead of firm ideas on what Green’s hermeneutic is. There are indications, but they do not seem to me to be full-fledged. Thirdly, there are many, many things that I would agree with Green on in both articles. In fact, I would say that there is more I agree with him on than disagree. So the following is a set of questions only addressing possible areas of concern. From my experience with Green in the classroom, he is rather guarded in what he says, and says rather less than more. The article on Psalm 8 can be found online here.

The first question has to do with footnote 8, which I will reproduce in full:

Implicit in this statement is my conviction that biblical texts should be read (by and large) in the context of the unfolding story of redemption. The meaning of a text varies depending on the way it is related to the larger story in which it is embedded. Each part of the unfolding story (including individual psalms) “make sense” on their own as the story unfolds; they have provisional meanings, which are discerned through grammatical-historical exegesis. But these earlier parts of the story will “make sense” in a different way once the climax of the story is known. The meaning of the parts is shaped by the whole, which, in an unfolding story, means that the parts only “make ultimate sense” in the light of the climax of the story. Now I admit that the Bible is not quite an unfolding story, but it is a book that takes its general shape from the history to which it bears witness. This connection to the metanarrative of redemption means there are (at least) two ways of reading Old Testament texts. The “first reading” can be variously named: reading towards an unknown conclusion, reading without the benefit of the conclusion, reading a text in the context of the story as far as it has unfolded. It is like the way we read a novel or watch a movie for the first time: we make sense of the individual parts in the context of what we have read or seen so far. But there is also is a second way of reading Old Testament texts, one that is distinctly Christian. It is fundamentally an act of rereading, or reinterpretation of earlier provisional meanings, in the light of the (sometimes surprising) Christ-ending to the story of redemption. Just as scenes from a movie watched or book read a second time can have quite different meanings once the ending is known, the same is true for Old Testament passages re-read in terms of the whole canonical story of redemption (emphasis added).

I have bolded key sections of the quotation that I wish to ask questions about. On the one hand, statements like “the unfolding story of redemption,” “is shaped by the whole,” sound like a unified Bible. The statement, “Now I admit that the Bible is not quite an unfolding story, but it is a book that takes its general shape from the history to which it bears witness” is puzzling to me. What does Green mean by “not quite an unfolding story”? I must admit I have no idea what that means, especially since he immediately goes on to compare the Bible to a novel, which, presumably, is an unfolding story. How does the second half of that sentence qualify the first half? What does the unfolding nature of a story (or the “not quiteness”) have to do with “its general shape” being taken “from the history to which it bears witness?”

Then there are the remaining bolded sections, which are more problematic. The second reading is Christian, which seems to imply that the first reading is not. He says that the second reading can have quite different meanings, or “make sense” in a quite different way. What does Green mean by that? Does he mean a shifted meaning, or sensus plenior? In the phrase “reading towards an unknown conclusion,” is Green saying that the OT authors did not know Jesus? Did Abraham rejoice to see Jesus’ day? Did he see Jesus’ day? Green says that the Christ-ending is “sometimes surprising.” Does this mean it is not always surprising? If so, then how can the second reading be “distinctly Christian?” Some clarification on these questions would be welcome.

The other passage I wish to interact with is footnote 37, also reproduced in full with bold added:

Hebrews 2 shows how the provisional meanings of Old Testament texts are always subject to change in the light of the gospel. In Psalm 8, “being a little lower than the angels” and “crowned with glory and honor” are set in parallel. They are different ways of saying more or less the same thing. To be the true Adam (or David) was to be the true bearer of the divine image and so be a “little lower than the angels” (i.e., almost divine) and “crowned with glory.” In other words, both clauses describe a condition of royal exaltation. For the writer of Hebrews, however, “a little lower than the angels” is an entirely inadequate description of Christ’s exalted (i.e., post-resurrection) state because in that state he is decidedly not “a little lower than the angels. ” Therefore, exploiting some ambiguity latent in the Septuagint translation of Ps 8:6 (braxu/, brachu, can either refer to status or time), this writer cracks the verse open and reinterprets it to fit his Christology. Rather than allowing the two halves of the verse to be conceptually parallel, he makes them temporally consecutive: first Christ was “made a for a little while lower than the angels” (incarnation and humiliation) and then later (at his resurrection and exaltation) “crowned with glory and honor” (see Brevard S. Childs, “Psalm 8 in the Context of the Christian Canon,” Interpretation 23 [1969]: 24-26). Is this “reading into” the text? Yes … and no. Yes: the original meaning of Psalm 8:6 does not quite fit what the resurrection reveals about Jesus. So what does the author of Hebrews do? He interprets the psalm to make it fit Christ. It has turned out that Jesus is a surprisingly bigger, more incredible climax to Israel’s story than Israel could ever have imagined: the Messiah is in fact elevated above the angels. So the writer of Hebrews expands and breaks open (or “blows up”) Israel’s understanding of what the Messiah-figure would be like and in so doing he makes Scripture conform to Christ. On the other hand, we must also recognize that this interpretative move is true to the metanarrative of redemption. This “making Scripture fit Christ” is undergirded by a deep belief that the metanarrative of redemptive history has reached its initial climax in the enthronement of Christ and ultimately will reach the final climax in the submission of all creation to him. Above all, it is this “sense of an ending” to Israel’s story, rather than grammatical-historical exegesis, that controls apostolic interpretation of the Old Testament. See Dan G. McCartney, “The New Testament’s Use of the Old Testament,” in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate (ed. Harvie M. Conn; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 101-16.

Here again, there are indications that are somewhat puzzling. There are statements that seem to assert the unity of Scripture right alongside statements that seem to mitigate unity. So Green says “he makes Scripture conform to Christ,” and then says that “this interpretive move is true to the metanarrative of redemption.” He seems to agree with McCartney that apostolic interpretation of the Old Testament did not include GHE. For more on that particular subject, see now Steve Hays’s excellent article on the Triablogue. Hays has a particularly good response to McCartney’s argument concerning the similarity of typology to allegory. Hays also has an excellent article on the “mystery novel” analogy. Anyway, back to Green. In the first sentence of the quotation, what does Green mean by “provisional,” and “always subject to change?” Does this imply that God is changing His mind on what something means? Again, is the meaning shifting with the NT, or merely growing naturally out of the OT? At the moment, my current impression of Green is that he is trying to straddle a number of positions at once. It makes his position less extreme, but also a bit more confusing.

Is Typology Part of Grammatical-Historical Exegesis?

Typology has come on hard times these days. It is often thought to be wild, subject to flights of fancy. This is probably because very few people have read Patrick Fairbairn’s book on the subject. For him, it is a completely valid part of the scientific theological enterprise, precisely because it is in itself biblical. Typology is not something invented by the early church. It is in the Bible itself. 1 Peter 3:20-21, wherein the flood in Noah’s time is connected to baptism as a type is to an antitype. For those who have not heard the terms before, a type is a person, place, thing, or idea in the Old Testament that has a larger, better version in the New Testament. Think of it as a repeated pattern that gets bigger the second time around. Or, in computer terms, version 1.0 is the type, and version 2.0 is the antitype.

Now, Dr. Dan McCartney has challenged the idea that typology has any part in grammatical-historical exegesis. This is a part of McCartney’s Christotelic hermeneutic. One reason he adduces is that distinguishing typology from allegory is only partially successful. And since allegory is not part of grammatical-historical exegesis, then neither is typology. McCartney accepts the validity of typological interpretation, incidentally. He is not rejecting typology. He just rejects the idea that typology is part of GHE. Furthermore, his position is that the New Testament authors were not engaging in grammatical-historical exegesis (hereafter GHE). As a result, GHE of the Old Testament will result in the “first read,” which really has nothing to do with the second Christotelic reading. McCartney thinks that we should read the OT the way that the NT writers do, but then accept that it is not the meaning of the OT itself, at least exegeted in a GHE way.

I would challenge this view of things on a number of levels. When Paul in Galatians 3:16 makes a special point about “seed” being singular, and not plural, is not Paul making a grammatical point, something very much within the purview of GHE? Yes, Paul goes on to make a typological point from that, but doesn’t that prove the point? GHE is not so easily separated from typology as McCartney would like to believe. Paul uses both in proximity. Similarly, many of the NT authors make specific points about Israel’s history. One thinks of Paul in Romans 9-11 as an example. Yes, there is typology involved there, too, but there is also GHE going on, in a somewhat broader sense that Paul was aware of and made use of the grammar and the history of the OT to make his points. Just read it through and see how many things that are simple history of the OT Paul points out precisely in order to make typological connections. This leads us to the core of the issue.

McCartney claims that the interpretive moves of allegory and typology are not so easily separable, but he misses a crucial point: everything about typology is tethered irrevocably to history. Allegory is not thus tied to history. Allegory can make a text stand for anything it wants to, whereas typology is firmly limited by history. The methodology is not the key point here. What matters is that nothing about typology is ahistorical. Two very real, very historical events are connected in typology. So, when one does GHE on the OT, one has half of the typological bridge already in place.

On a more basic level, let’s just ask the question this way: how can we get at the meaning of a text in a GHE manner without involving typology, if the text itself has typology built into it? In 1 Peter 3:20-21, the word and the concept of typology are both present. How can we possibly engage in GHE of that text without doing typological analysis to find out what the grammar and history of typology says in that passage? The problem here is that McCartney has sought to seal off typology from GHE, when the New Testament itself does not do that. Does that mean that there is no room for saying anything like, “Our culture of interpretation is different from the first century?” We can say things like that. But we also have to remember that separating interpretive moves like GHE and typology from each other is a distinctly modern phenomena. It would never have occurred to the ancients. Of course, they would never have thought in modern categories of GHE at all. They would probably have just called it “interpretation.”

By way of analogy (a VERY closely related analogy, indeed, one that is part of the same phenomenon), one can look at commentaries these days, and how reticent they are to make any kind of systematic theological statements. If I had a dollar for every time I read, in a commentary, something like “That’s a doctrinal or ST thing, and we can’t deal with that in an exegetical commentary,” I would be fabulously wealthy. The Reformers never took off the exegetical hat to do ST, and they didn’t take off their ST hats to do exegesis. It was all happily mixed up together. They included historical theology and practical theology in there as well. In fact, they tended to do all of them at once, all together. Our growing specialization and fragmentation is not a healthy trend at all. That trend came with the Enlightenment. I believe that a divorce of GHE from typology comes from the same impetus.

A Further Response to Dr. Evans

Rather amazingly, Dr. Evans has responded to my post here. I say “amazingly” because most of the time when I critique seminary professors, they do not reply.

Firstly, he says that he did not say what I said he did: “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.'” Let me remind him of what he said in his original post:

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. (emphasis added)

If he was not saying what I said he did, then he was a bit confused in what he said. It does not seem to me to be a terrific leap to go from saying that Green’s critics hold that the meaning of the text resides in the human author’s intention, and that the NT meanings must have been present in the minds of the OT writers, to saying that the fullness of understanding that we have in the NT was completely present in the OT writers’ minds. Maybe Dr. Evans is objecting to the word “completely.” The fact of the matter is that what was in the minds of the OT writers is a red herring. It is not relevant to the point at issue. See Rick Phillips’s reply to Dr. Evans’s piece. So, that whole paragraph that I quoted is evidence that Dr. Evans is locating the debate in the wrong place.

The reason I did not address the “similarities” between Ferguson/Poythress and the TRV is that these are not the points at issue. Ferguson/Poythress cannot be read as arguing anything more than simply taking the literary and historical context into account when we read the OT. As Rick Phillips has pointed out (link above), this is not the issue. Neither Ferguson nor Poythress advocate a TRV that posits a grammatical-historical exegesis devoid of typology (like McCartney advocates), or a TRV that divorces divine and human meanings. Maybe Dr. Evans could call up Drs. Ferguson and Poythress and ask them if they are advocating a Christotelic interpretation by their words.

The last point I will address is Dr. Evans’s misunderstanding of my point about ST. He writes, “Keister suggests that this two-readings view results in the ‘scorn of systematic theology.'” This is not what I said at all. I said, “The TRV is inevitably connected with a scorn of systematic theology.” The problem here is Dr. Evans’s use of the words “results in.” That is not my point. My point is that the TRV is connected with a scorn of ST. If anything, the scorn of ST is a contributing factor resulting in the TRV, not the other way around. In Dr. Evans’s understandable attempt to set the record straight with regard to himself, he (inadvertently, no doubt) set my record crooked. By the way, I was not accusing Dr. Evans of holding to Christotelic interpretation. Nowhere did I suggest this. Dr. Evans is defending people who hold to it. That is different from holding to it oneself. Given the fact that Dr. Evans is not defending the particular point that is actually in debate, and that Rick and I have a problem with, I have seen no evidence as of yet that Dr. Evans holds to the TRV. So, Dr. Evans’s example of himself and ST is beside the point. My experience is with Longman, Enns, Green, and McCartney, all of whom have in class or in writings, expressed their disdain for ST having any kind of impact on their exegesis. The only kind of shackles they want for exegesis is Second Temple Judaism, or ANE parallels. That is their grid for exegesis, not ST. This is not a unified encyclopedia such as Vos would have practiced. So, the point is far from baloney.

A Response to Jonathan Bonomo on Christotelicism

Jonathan Bonomo has written a piece defending the Christotelic hermeneutic (what I will abbreviate here as the Two-Readings View, TRV). I thought I would interact with this a bit, and then in a follow up post interact with Doug Green on Psalm 8 and the Enns/McCartney article on Hosea 11:1.

First, we’ll deal with what we agree on, and then move to areas of disagreement. Bonomo and I agree on what Luke 24 is saying: that the entire OT is about Jesus. We also agree that the historical context of the OT is important to help us understand how the first audience would have heard something. And, being somewhat guarded here, we agree that Christ is the telos of the Old Testament. Telos is, after all, a word that the New Testament uses to describe Christ’s relationship to the OT. We should not avoid the term simply because the TRV has taken it over. Otherwise, we would have to throw out Romans 10:4 and other passages. Bonomo and I also agree (with McCartney) that we should employ the hermeneutics of the apostles. What that hermeneutic actually is will be the question under discussion. We also agree that the human authors did not know the full extent of the meaning of what they wrote. Full stop. Read that last point again. I think Bonomo thinks the point is in dispute, when in fact it is not. 1 Peter 1:10-12 says as much.

We disagree in several areas. I would first point out a rather large tu quoque. He says,

You who are in Reformed churches should care, because we now seem to live in an ecclesial world where it is supposedly OK for men to make accusations against other men and take action against them without any substantiating evidence and without clearly divulging the reasons for their accusations and their actions.

First of all, I don’t see WTS making accusations or taking action against people, although they have been accused of that. I certainly don’t see why he can say that there is no substantiating evidence at this time, since Bonomo is not privy to the inner workings of the seminary. How does he know 1. that there was “action taken against someone,” and 2. that if there was, there was no substantiating evidence? Was he at the board meetings? the faculty meetings? How does he know this? At the moment, the best information he could possibly have would only constitute one half of the story. He doesn’t know WTS’s side of the story. Also, I have written before about the why’s and wherefore’s of whether a seminary divulges all the reasons for what they do or not, and when (the wheels of an institution can often turn slowly). Apparently, Bonomo has been influenced by Longman and others who are making rather large claims to knowledge which they cannot possibly have. By what right does Bonomo get to level accusations like these against an entire institution, drag an entire institution’s name through the mud, and make accusations against an entire institution without substantiating evidence? Tu Quoque, Mr. Bonomo. You need to be much more careful. In my opinion, we can talk about Green/Enns/McCartney’s views. Their writings are public. The actions of WTS are not fully public, the discussions are not public, the reasoning is not public. Wouldn’t it be best to wait on judging WTS, until we have more public information?

Secondly, Bonomo’s version of the TRV does not square with other versions of it. Take Pete Enns’s book Inspiration and Incarnation, for instance. On page 115, he lays out in option 1 the very position that Bonomo was claiming is the TRV, and then rejects it. Option 1 is actually the correct position to take on the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament. Instead, Enns’s conclusions are as follows: “1. The New Testament authors were not engaging the Old Testament in an effort to remain consistent with the original context and intention of the Old Testament author: 2. They were indeed commenting on what the text meant. 3. The hermeneutical attitude they embodied should be embraced and followed by the church today” (emphasis original, pp. 115-116). For our purposes, the first conclusion that Enns states is the important one. The original context and intention of the Old Testament authors is irrelevant to the NT author in the view of the TRV. Later in the book, it becomes clear that God can have a meaning that He intends for a text to have that has nothing to do with what the human author meant. This is definitely not the theory of concursus, folks. Either the human author is hijacking God’s meaning, or God is hijacking the human author’s meaning. Never the two do meet (or at least, rarely! This CANNOT be squared with 1 Peter 1:10-12).

To take a specific example of Enns’s teaching, in The Evolution of Adam, pp. 86-87, we find some very clear statements on how the TRV sees Paul’s handling of Adam. He says that “Paul’s use of Genesis is clearly rooted in something other than a simple reading of that story. There is more at work in Paul’s thinking than simply repeating the plain sense of Genesis” (p. 86). Does this mean that he thinks it is still possible for Paul’s interpretation to be in line somehow with Genesis? Not at all. On page 87, he says, “Paul’s reading of Genesis is driven by factors external to Genesis. Paul’s use of the Old Testament, here or elsewhere, does not determine how that passage functions in its original setting.” On page 103, he says, “Paul does not feel bound by the original meaning of the Old Testament passage he is citing.” Jesus Christ is a wholly unexpected transformation of the Old Testament story, according to Enns (p. 104 and 82). How can a “wholly unexpected” transformation of the OT story be in organic unity with it? According to Enns, the one meaning of the OT has nothing to do with Christ. Only on the basis of Second Temple Jewish interpretative techniques can Paul (and other NT authors) get Christ out of the OT. In other words, Christ is not in the OT, according to Enns. Certainly, Jesus would be wrong to claim that Moses wrote about Him. Jesus is talking, in John 5, about authorial intent. No doubt, Enns would claim that this flattens out the development of the OT story. Not at all. Does looking at a fully grown oak tree flatten out the development of that oak tree? If one takes pictures at various times of the growth of the oak tree, one can see all the contours of growth one could wish. But the oak tree is not a unicorn. It stays an oak tree throughout.

I want to point people to read Dr. Gaffin’s response to Clair Davis once again. Read especially Gaffin’s comments about Vos’s position on the relative position of history and revelation. Bonomo is claiming that Gaffin is wrong (not directly, but indirectly). Gaffin’s understanding of the TRV is certainly the same view that I hold. Enns is clear on this. Next up will be an examination of Green and Enns/McCartney.

An Answer to Dr. Bill Evans

Dr. William Evans has written several posts on the Christotelic controversy. I wish to focus on this post. As I see it, the key issues here surround the initial similarity between Poythress/Ferguson/Hodge, on the one hand, and the Christotelic interpretation, on the other. In fact, Evans does not seem to find any difference at all between the two. I beg to differ.

The first thing I wish to point out is that I believe Evans has not quite described Green’s critics accurately. Evans writes:

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.

This is not quite accurate. The fullness of understanding that we have in the NT need not be completely present in the OT writer’s mind. That is a straw man, and it unfortunately affects the remainder of Evans’s analysis. Now, part of the description is accurate. References to Christ are indeed objectively present in the text of the OT and were intended by the human author. That does not mean, however, that the OT author saw everything as clearly as we see it now. 1 Peter 1:10-12 is immensely instructive in this regard. Indeed, I am not sure that there is any more important passage in the NT about this issue than 1 Peter 1:10-12. What did the OT authors know? They knew about the grace that was coming (verse 10). They knew about the messianic sufferings and glories (verse 11), since the Holy Spirit was indicating it to them. They knew whom they were serving (verse 12). In other words, they knew more than the TRV (two-readings view) folks think they knew, though they did not know as much as we know now through the New Testament. Even more importantly, the Holy Spirit was testifying the messianic sufferings and glories in advance (verse 11). From the same passage, we know that they did not know the circumstances or timing of the events (verse 11).

The second point I want to make is that Ferguson’s and Poythress’s views are NOT the same as the Christotelic interpretation. I will use an illustration that I used in one of my comments on a previous post. The correct understanding of the OT is that it is like an acorn that grows up to full flowering in the New Testament. All along, you can see that it is an oak tree. Branches may come and go, but it is always an oak tree. The TRV believes that the OT grows up like an acorn of an oak tree, and then when it comes to full flowering, we discover that it is actually a unicorn. This illustration might be a bit overblown (and the illustration will certainly disintegrate if pressed too far), but it puts the point clearly, I think. The point is this: merely saying that we need to understand how a passage would have sounded to the first audience, as Poythress and Ferguson do, is NOT the same thing as saying that an acorn grows up to be a unicorn. Poythress and Ferguson are also NOT saying that the understanding of the context and the passage as it would have originally sounded would have resulted in a dead end that did not lead to Christ. Every tributary branch leads to Christ. That is what Poythress and Ferguson believe. That is NOT what the TRV believes. So Poythress and Ferguson are not advocating the TRV at all. I also would agree that it is very helpful indeed to ascertain how something would have sounded to the original audience. What I would go on to say is that the result of that inquiry feeds into a tributary branch that will eventually lead us to Christ. There are no dead ends in the Old Testament.

Dr. Evans believes that there are “careful and considered christotelic approaches that respect the organic unity of Scripture.” This is not true. The Christotelic approach does not respect the organic unity of Scripture. However, the organic unity of Scripture is something that WTS Philly has been known for, and for a long time. It is the heritage of Geerhardus Vos.

Speaking of Vos, I wish to make one last point about the TRV versus organic unity. The TRV is inevitably connected with a scorn of systematic theology. I know of not one single practitioner of the TRV who loves systematic theology. They always believe that ST is a Procrustean bed that chops off the best of exegesis and biblical theology. And in this, they often think that they are the inheritors of Vos. Unfortunately for them, Vos was a practitioner of a unified theological encyclopedia. Vos taught ST at Calvin before going to Princeton to teach BT. His 5-volume ST is now being translated. It is no accident, this despising of ST among the TRV folks. ST tells us that Scripture has a unified message, and that God does not change His mind. The TRV denies both of these things. The TRV is thus the product of the Enlightenment’s fragmentation of knowledge, starting with Kant’s bifurcation of knowledge from faith.

Why the Two-Readings View of the Old Testament is Wrong

The two-readings view (hereafter TRV) says that we should first read the Old Testament as though the New Testament did not exist, and as though Christ had not come. The reasoning typically runs along the lines of seeking to ensure that we understand the text in its original literary and historical context. How would this have sounded to the original audience? What impact would it have had? Now, there are certainly important points here which we cannot afford to ignore. We need to know context, literary and historical. The Old Testament writings were written at a particular time and place, and there is a good reason for why those writings were written just then. It is good to seek answers to those questions. At this point, I might add a gentle reminder to TRV folks that opposing views do not necessarily ignore the context. That is not primarily where our disagreements lie (although how much weight we give to ANE materials in determining the nature of Scripture is certainly an issue of disagreement. On this I will only say that there is a difference between using ANE materials to understand how a text would have sounded to an original reader versus using the ANE materials to determine what Scripture actually is). It is not primarily the context of the OT that is under dispute (with the caveat just mentioned) but rather the intention of the OT that is under dispute. As Rich Barcellos helpfully put it to me, does the Christological reading of the OT predate the NT or not?

The second reading of the TRV is what we do after we re-factor Jesus and the New Testament into the equation, usually as a surprise ending. The apostolic hermeneutic is often likened (in the TRV) to rabbinical methods of interpretation (key-word exegesis, etc.). Oftentimes, the meaning that the NT writers see in the OT has little or nothing to do with what the OT itself actually says in its original context. There is often (not always!) a radical break between the meaning of the OT in its own context and the meaning that the NT authors assign to the OT text.

The problem with the TRV comes in the area of what the Old Testament actually intends. On a TRV, it is possible for a New Testament author to twist the meaning of the OT into something it was never originally intended to say. Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 is an excellent example. We may ask the question this way: is Matthew’s use of Hosea a legitimate way of understanding what Hosea intended to say? Or, better yet, what God intended to say through Hosea? The standard Vossian way of interpreting Matthew’s use of Hosea is simply to note that Matthew everywhere describes Jesus as reliving Israel’s story, but in a righteous way (thus contrasting with Israel). Matthew treats Israel as not only typologically pointing to Jesus, but also as being embodied (in a faithful way) in Jesus. So, when Matthew looks at Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son,” in the original context plainly speaking about God calling Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus), he sees Hosea not only talking about the old Exodus, but also talking about the new Exodus that Jesus brought into being by embodying faithful Israel. It is what he understands Hosea to be saying. The TRV would say that Matthew’s interpretation has nothing to do with what Hosea meant (and notice here how divine authorship fades very quickly from view here).

The deeper problem with the TRV lies in the character of God. If God has written the Bible, then God has changed His message from the OT times to the NT times. That means that God changes His mind and is open to the future. The TRV cannot avoid an ultimately open theistic view of God’s character. They would probably respond that it’s okay that God does this because the changeability resides in the humanness of Scripture. This is just God using the messiness of humanity to communicate to humans. This is a smokescreen, unfortunately. God inspired humans to write the Bible in such a way that there are no errors in recording God’s words. Yes, humans are fallen and sinful. That does not mean that they distorted God’s message in any way. They were carried along by the Holy Spirit. For the TRV to be correct, the message had to have been garbled in transmission. Yes, we see humanness in the Bible. Paul does not sound like John. We can tell the difference. God used the personalities of each writer. But He did so in such a way that there are no garbled transmissions. In short, the TRV is ultimately incompatible with our doctrine of inspiration, and it is incompatible with our doctrine of God.

« Older entries