Monday, October 27, 2014

Jesus in the Old Testament? Westminster Theological Seminary and Douglas Green

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Theologians and biblical scholars have been discussing Westminster Theological Seminary's (WTS) controversial announcement of Douglas Green's retirement in June. The seminary's Board of Trustees found Green's interpretation method is not consistent with the institution. Here is the official statement:
The Board of Trustees regards the particular hermeneutical method of the New Testament use of the Old Testament included in Dr. Green’s response to be inconsistent with the Seminary’s confessional standards.

While Dr. Green respectfully disagrees with this decision of the Board, he acknowledges the governing authority of the Trustees to lead Westminster in fulfilling the institution’s mission as a confessional Reformed seminary.
Basically, Green thinks that the Old Testament (OT) authors didn't have Jesus Christ in mind when composing their document. WTS' position is that Jesus was objectively present, though vague, in the OT authors' mind when they were writing the relevant passages (its faculty G. K. Beale calls this "cognitive peripheral vision").

To be sure, the WTS doesn't condemn Green as heretical, but (as its faculty member Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. wrote) views his approach as "obscuring" and "compromising" the truth.

This has provoked many responses. Brandon Withrow, who did his doctoral study at WTS, commented that the seminary has over the years becoming inward-looking and hence fundamentalist. Tremper Longman III who taught at WTS for 18 years has strongly criticized the seminary's decision: "Westminster Theological Seminary is a toxic environment for the training of future pastors."

Another former student of WTS, William B. Evans, examined the changes of WTS' doctrinal position through its faculty member Vern Poythress' writings. In the past, Poythress' position was "careful and considered". Now, it's ad hoc and closed---as if the shift is made to justify WTS' current doctrinal stand. (To which Green Baggins disagrees.)

Kevin Davis points out that John Calvin himself wouldn't get a job at WTS given the institution's present position. As Calvin wrote concerning Hebrews 2:7's usage of David's Psalm 8:4-6:
I answer that it was not the purpose of the apostle [author of Hebrews] to give an accurate exposition of the words. [...] The apostle has no intention of overthrowing this meaning or of giving it a different turn; but he only bids us consider the humiliation of Christ, which was shown forth for a short time, and then the glory with which He is crowned for ever, and he does this more by alluding to the words than by expounding what David meant.
(John Calvin, Hebrews and 1 & 2 Peter [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994], 22-23.)
The author of Hebrews, as Calvin commented, was not describing what David had in mind.

The World Reformed Fellowship has produced a statement signed by dozens of WTS' former faculty members and alumni in support of Green---in disagreeing with WTS' present position. 

How then should Christians decide which position is right? Did the OT authors had Jesus Christ in their "cognitive peripheral vision" when writing the scripture? If yes, then aren't we assuming too much on what the OT authors knew? I think it is too ambitious, too self-conceited, on our part to claim that we know the OT authors had Jesus in their mind when writing the scripture. No one can know such thing for sure. Saying that we know is making our faith in our cognitive ability an idol.

If no, then how can we claim that the OT foretells the coming of Jesus as the Christ? I think we can. It has to do with our understanding of how scripture's authority works.

The OT foretells Jesus as the Christ because of his own foretelling of his own death and resurrection, and the fact that he did rose from the dead. In other words, the veracity of Jesus' application of the OT passages as referring to himself depends entirely on (1) his prophecies about himself and (2) the fulfillment of them.

If Jesus merely prophesied about himself yet he wasn't raised from the dead according to his own prophecy, then he was just a loony, and according to Deuteronomy 18:21-22, a false prophet. Jesus was raised, and so his application of the OT prophecies about him was vindicated. This means that Jesus didn't override the OT authors' intention. Rather, he was revealing what they didn't know.

This is not special-pleading. When a text becomes authoritative, its intent does not belong entirely to the authors alone. This is how authoritative text works. For example, a country's constitution which was drafted in the 1950s is still being invoked to address a new situation in 2014. Though the drafters of the constitution did not have the 2014's situation in mind, yet their writing carries the authority to speak to 2014's situation as if the latter is implied in the text. And how we know whether there was such implication depends on how history turns out to be. In Jesus' case, he was raised.

3 comments:

Timo said...

Hi ps joshua! Would like to ask: what about messianic passages such as isa 53? Would the authors have forseen the longing for a messiah in these passages?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Tim,

In Jesus' time, the Isaiah 53 passage was understood differently by different Jewish interpreters. Some thought that the mentioned "suffering servant" was just a "righteous one", which was not necessarily messianic (Wisdom of Solomon 2:2, 5:1). Others think it refers to the messiah (Targum Isaiah 52:13-53:12).

For Jesus, he took the passage as written about him as the messiah, and will be fulfilled in him.

Timo said...

Hm ok. Thanks!