Those who have followed the Reformed blogosphere lately will likely have heard a lot of talk about two intramural controversies over Old Testament interpretation. What they may not realize, however, is just how much these two controversies actually have in common.
The first controversy has been around for quite a while, although it has attracted more attention recently. It has to do with the doctrine of “republication,” as espoused by the late OT professor Meredith Kline and his followers (I have explained it in greater detail here). In short, republication is the idea that the Mosaic Covenant republishes the “works principle” that existed in God’s original covenant with Adam, according to which human obedience merits divine reward. This principle stands in antithetical relation to the principle of grace, by which reward is received only through faith by the merit of Christ’s obedience. This doctrine has received a lot of pushback lately with the release of Merit and Moses: A Critique of the Klinean Doctrine of Republication by Andrew Elam et al. (Wipf & Stock, 2014), and with blog posts by Reformed scholars like David Murray and Mark Jones. Opponents of republication are not always united in every area of theology, but they generally have a common sympathy to the teachings of the late Systematic Theology professor John Murray. Murray taught that the law itself is gracious, as are the rewards given to believers who sincerely (though imperfectly) strive to obey it; strict merit simply does not figure here.1
The second controversy has to do with the forced retirement of OT professor Douglas Green at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia (I have written about this here). Green has defended a “christotelic” hermeneutic, which finds strongest expression in the writings of Peter Enns. This hermeneutic denies that Christ can ordinarily be found through a strictly grammatical-historical “first reading” of the OT. Rather, Christ is considered the “surprise ending” of Israel’s story and can only be recognized retrospectively in a canonical “second reading” of the OT. Opponents of the christotelic hermeneutic contend that such a reading puts the NT at odds with the OT, since Christ himself claimed that Moses wrote about him (John 5:46), and that indeed all of the OT points to him (Luke 24:25-27). Instead of a christotelic reading of the OT, opponents posit a “christomorphic” reading, according to which Christ is objectively present in the OT at the grammatical-historical level, even if he is only a part of the human OT author’s “cognitive peripheral vision” (a term coined by NT scholar G. K. Beale).2
At first glance, these two controversies might not seem related, except for the fact that they both have to do with the OT. However, I believe they have quite a lot more in common than that. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that republicationists almost universally prefer a christomorphic hermeneutic over against a christotelic hermeneutic. I believe that the common thread that ties these two positions together is one of methodology. To be more specific, it is a hermeneutical prioritization of the New Testament over the Old Testament. Let me explain.
One of the greatest perceived strengths of Kline’s view of republication lies in his exegesis of Paul, particularly Romans 10:4-8 and Galatians 3:10-14. In these passages (which are among the most debated NT passages today), the apostle Paul sets up a contrast between the way of works/law on the one hand, and the way of faith/grace on the other. One common Reformed reading is that these two ways constitute two antithetical means of justification, the former hypothetical on condition of perfect obedience, and the latter actual on condition of faith. In other words, it is a works principle in contrast to a grace principle (see especially Thomas Schreiner’s commentary on Galatians).3
However, it is much harder to find a works principle in the OT in its original context. Where exactly does one look for the notion of merit in Moses? In the context of Lev. 18:5 (quoted in Rom. 10:5 and Gal. 3:12), where Moses says that the one who obeys the commandments shall “live” by them, Moses is not directly concerned with the question of individual justification. Rather, he is speaking about the life of those who have already been redeemed by God’s gracious acts of deliverance. Taken in this light, law-keeping serves the ministerial function of nurturing and maintaining the covenant relationship, not earning or establishing it. This also appears to be Moses’s intent in Deut. 30:11-18, where he says both that the law is not too hard for Israel to keep, and also that it offers them life (cf. Ps. 119:93, where the law actually confers life). How exactly does this fit with Paul’s contention in Rom. 7:10 that the law, though promising life, only brought death? Has Paul ignored the original context of Moses?
Kline himself acknowledged this difficulty, and consequently spoke of a typological merit in the Mosaic Covenant, whereby Israel would earn temporal life in the land of Canaan through their sincere but imperfect obedience. This typological scheme foreshadowed Christ, whose perfect obedience merited our eternal life in the new heavens and earth. This then would explain how Paul draws a connection between Moses and the Judaizers. The latter misinterpreted the typological character of the Mosaic Law, believing that they could merit justification and eternal life through law-keeping.4
Notice how this logic proceeds: it begins with Paul, where a works principle is (arguably) more easily demonstrated. It then views the Mosaic Covenant in light of that principle by means of typology.5 It can then be further argued that, while Moses’s explicit focus was on Israel’s possession and retention of Canaan through imperfect obedience (type), the idea of meriting eternal life through perfect obedience (antitype) was still in his “cognitive peripheral vision.” In this way, the integrity of the Old and New Testaments is preserved, Paul has done no violence to Moses, and Moses has objectively (though implicitly) pointed forward to Christ.
This is very similar to the approach taken by proponents of a christomorphic hermeneutic. By appealing to particular NT passages such as Luke 24:25-27 or John 5:46, they contend that the OT must be read in a certain way—with Christ present to the mind of the human OT author—lest we compromise the integrity of Scripture. This, then, is the common underlying methodology: it is a way of demonstrating implicitly in the OT what is (allegedly) demanded explicitly in the NT.
My intention here is not to debate the strengths or weaknesses of the Klinean/christomorphic hermeneutic. Much less am I saying that to follow Murray is necessarily to follow Enns (mē genoito!). So if I were to nuance my thesis, it would be that a Klinean hermeneutic entails a christomorphic hermeneutic, even if the reverse is not true. In other words, republication is christomorphic. Notice how, in the diagram below, the Klinean/Christotelic quadrant is completely blank. I think there is a reason for that, which supports my suggestion that a real connection exists between these two debates. They are bound together by common hermeneutical principles, and the way forward must be to evaluate these principles. I intend to explore these principles in greater detail in subsequent posts.
- Some heirs of Murray deny the concept of merit altogether, including even the merit of Christ (e.g. James Jordan). Others allow for the merit of Christ, while excluding a meritorious works principle in the Covenant of Works (e.g. Robert Rollock, Mike Williams). And yet others would allow for merit in the Covenant of Works, but only in an ex pacto, nominalist/congruent sense, as opposed to merit in the graceless, condign sense of strict justice (e.g. Francis Turretin, Mark Jones).
- I use the term “christomorphic,” which was coined by Lane Tipton, although many in this camp prefer the term “christocentric” or “christological.” In my opinion, these latter terms are too ambiguous. However, the term “christomorphic” accurately captures the idea that Christ is present in the very form of the OT text at the grammatical-historical level.
- I personally do not agree with this interpretation, mainly since Galatians 3:21 seems to rule out the possibility of hypothetical justification through law. My own view would be closer to Joel Willitts, “Context Matters: Paul’s Use of Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12,” Tyndale Bulletin 54.2 (2003), 105-22.
- This view is supported by Simon Gathercole’s study notes on Galatians 3:12 in the ESV Study Bible.
- Richard Gaffin writes, “Though it [christotelism] is motivated in part by the legitimate concern to avoid reading New Testament meanings back into Old Testament texts—no doubt a danger—there is a difference between reading the New Testament back into the Old and reading the Old Testament in light of the New. The former is wrong; the latter is not only legitimate but also requisite.” Unfortunately, it is not always easy to draw the line between reading the NT back into the OT and reading the OT in light of the NT. When one side claims to be doing the latter, the other side sees the former.