On his blog The Ecclesial Calvinist, Dr. Bill Evans of Erskine College has just posted a statement issued by the session of New Life Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Glenside, Pennsylvania, unanimously affirming the confessional orthodoxy of one of its Ruling Elders, Dr. Doug Green (the statement is also available on New Life’s website). Dr. Green—under whom I briefly had the privilege of studying—has recently come under fire at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he teaches Old Testament. The seminary’s board of trustees came to the decision that Dr. Green’s views regarding the Old Testament do not fall within the bounds of the Westminster Standards, and therefore Dr. Green is being forced into retirement.
For readers unfamiliar with this intramural Reformed controversy, the issue revolves around how one sees Christ in the Old Testament (to put it somewhat simplistically). At one end of the spectrum are those who advocate a “christotelic” interpretation of Scripture. On this view, Christ is the goal toward which the biblical narrative is heading, but his presence in the OT is often only seen in retrospect by NT authors (he is the “surprise ending,” as it were). In other words, the OT authors often speak about Christ, but they often do not realize that they are speaking about Christ. For example, Matthew 2:15 quotes Hosea 11:1 (“Out of Egypt I called my son”) in fulfillment of messianic expectation. But in the original context, Hosea is talking about Israel, not Jesus. This much is agreed upon, and the apparent discrepancy is generally resolved by appealing to the standard hermeneutical tool of typology (i.e., pattern-and-fulfillment). Israel sets the pattern (type), which finds its climactic fulfillment in Christ (anti-type). The question then becomes, did Hosea know he was doing typology? Did he know that there would one day be a True Israelite who, likewise being called out of Egypt, would succeed where corporate Israel failed? On a christotelic reading, such an inference is unnecessary. What matters is that the NT authors were able to trace such a connection.
There doesn’t seem to be a single agreed-upon term for opponents of the christotelic view, but a good candidate would probably be “christomorphic” (“christocentric” is another candidate, but seems to me a little too ambiguous) This term, which is used by Dr. Lane Tipton, professor of Systematic Theology at WTS, refers to the objective presence of Christ in the OT text. Stated more strongly, the OT authors must have had some awareness of a messianic referent to their words, however embryonic such an awareness might have been. In the words of Dr. G.K. Beale (professor of New Testament at WTS), a messianic fulfillment must have been a part of the human OT author’s “cognitive peripheral vision.” According to the christomorphic side, the main problem with a christotelic reading of the OT is that it amounts to an essentially Jewish reading, and runs contrary to how the NT authors themselves viewed the OT. The christotelic side would in turn fault the christomorphic side with excessively psychologizing the OT authors, in what amounts to a version of “Reformed midrash” (referring to an early Jewish interpretive practice that relied heavily upon speculative commentary of the text).
I should reiterate, however, that we are dealing with a spectrum of views here. Not everyone involved in this discussion falls so neatly into one camp or the other. Dr. Green is for the most part a christotelist, but he does not represent its most extreme forms. Meanwhile, both the board and the faculty of WTS are currently swinging heavily in favor of christomorphism, but even they are not exactly monolithic on the matter. Much more could be said—and indeed much more has been said elsewhere. For a better understanding of this controversy, I would refer readers to the following sources:
Enns, Peter. “Fuller Meaning, Single Goal: A Christotelic Approach to the New Testament Use of the Old in Its First-Century Interpretive Environment.” In Three Views on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Kenneth Berding, 167-217. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2008.
Evans, Bill. “What Did the OT Writers Know: Another Controversy Erupts at WTS.” On The Ecclesial Calvinist (accessed July 23, 2014).
Tipton, Lane. “The Gospel and Redemptive-Historical Hermeneutics.” In Confident of Better Things: Commemorating 75 Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, edited by John R. Muether and Danny E. Olinger. Willow Grove: Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2011.