It is no secret at this point that at the center of the Christotelic controversy is the work of Dan G. McCartney. McCartney’s 2003 paper, “Should We Employ the Hermeneutics of the New Testament Writers?” (http://www.bible-researcher.com/mccartney1.html) has come under much criticism in recent years, and in various venues. One WTS board member has even referred to this paper recently as “the basic document of record on the christotelic debate.”
Rather than wade through all the many criticisms of McCartney and the various contexts in which those criticisms have been made, here I want simply to provide an alternate interpretation than what has been considered canonical by McCartney’s detractors.
McCartney has been accused of holding several problematic positions — many of which, if true, would call into question his credentials as a Reformed biblical scholar. These criticisms come in various forms. But they are almost always variations of three basic concerns: 1. McCartney takes Christ out of the Old Testament. 2. McCartney severs the organic connection of the Old and New Testaments by denying that the OT considered on its own terms is redemptive revelation about Christ. 3. McCartney’s hermeneutic is derived not from Scripture but from postmodern reader-response literary theory.
It is my contention that none of these charges can rightly be taken from McCartney’s words considered in context – giving due heed to McCartney’s own qualifications and clarifying statements, and in connection with his work as a whole – and interpreted charitably (i.e., not read in the worst possible light).
First, it is essential to note what McCartney is doing in his paper. He is entering into academic dialogue with two interlocutors on the question of the NT interpretation of the OT. First, there is Longenecker, who says the NT writers frequently do not employ a grammatical historical (hereafter GH) interpretation of the OT, and that we should not follow them in this. On the other hand there is Beale, who claims that the apostles do in fact employ GH exegesis of the OT, and that we should follow them. In contrast to these two positions, McCartney argues (in agreement with Longenecker) that the NT writers do not always follow a strict grammatical historical hermeneutic, but that we should follow them in this nonetheless. In other words, he is with Longenecker on the nature of apostolic hermeneutics over against Beale, but against Longenecker on the question of whether or not we should follow the apostles in their method of interpretation.
So, McCartney says:
I want to suggest a third answer: The New Testament writers were not doing grammatical-historical exegesis nor did they consistently interpret according to original historical contextual meanings, but we should follow their exegetical lead anyway.
However, as McCartney is very clear to say from the outset, this is not to say that the exegesis of the apostles is never justifiable on strict GH grounds, just that many times their exegesis is something other than what often goes by the name of GH exegesis in our day. So, he states: “All would agree, I think, that the New Testament writers do sometimes follow “natural” or contextual meanings.”
This is very important to keep in mind, because often McCartney has been accused of saying that there is no messianic hope in the OT considered strictly on GH grounds. But from the outset we see him affirming that the NT authors do at times follow strictly natural or contextual meanings.
McCartney goes on to say that the reason the apostles saw the OT the way they did was because they saw it as primarily a divine text, that speaks to God’s people in every generation, and that historical/contextual meaning for them was not the primary concern.
So, he agrees with Beale that we must follow the hermeneutic of the apostles, even while disagreeing with Beale on what exactly that hermeneutic entailed:
Hence there is a sense in which we must emulate the exegetical practice of the New Testament writers. If we do not adopt the viewpoint of Jesus and the apostles that Christ’s death and resurrection is the key focus of the Old Testament, that Christ is himself the centerpiece of all God’s promises, that Christ is the true Israel, true Son of God, that the meaning of the biblical texts for the present-day people of God has to do with our relation to God in Christ, then how can our interpretation be deemed in any sense Christian?
Note here certain key statements: “Christ’s death and resurrection is the key focus of the Old Testament,” “Christ is himself the centerpiece of all God’s promises.” Keep in mind that McCartney is being accused of saying that Christ is only present in the OT via retrospective retrojection, and not really. However, such a notion would seem fully inconsistent with the above.
McCartney goes on to deal with Typology. His argument on this score is that typology is tied to historical meaning and therefore dependent in some sense on GH exegesis, but is not itself GH exegesis. He says:
Typology may very well build on historical correspondence, and may be able to link to grammatical-historical interpretation for one of the corners of typological housebuilding, 9 but typology is not grammatical-historical exegesis. Typology is a theological construction based on a conviction that two events in history or an event in history and a (separate) event in a text are somehow actually related (not just comparable or similar, nor just literarily related) in that the meaning of the former event (or the written record of such) only becomes fully manifest in the later event. Such a construction cannot be derived purely from the events themselves. Historical meaning indeed provides a tethering point for typology, but what drives typology is the fulfilment in Christ, not the historical meaning itself.
Again, note several key statements. First, typology is based on a conviction that two events (and/or the written record of those events) are really, and not merely literarily connected. Second, the meaning of the former event only becomes fully manifest in the later event — Not (and note this well!) that the later event gives the former its meaning, but rather that the later event clarifies and fills the meaning of the former. Third, historical meaning provides a tethering point for typology.
These points are essential to see, because McCartney has been accused, in connection with these three points, of 1. severing the organic connection between type and antitype (and OT and NT more generally), 2. Taking any inherent Christological meaning out of the original text considered on it own terms, and 3. Doing away with the importance of original historical context in interpreting types. All three of these charges would seem to be contradicted by the above paragraph.
Does this mean that there are no valid concerns that can be raised with McCartney’s view of typology? Not at all. But, it would seem that those concerns would have more to do with his narrow definition of GH exegesis, rather than the substance of what he is actually saying. He is not here rejecting confessional Reformed hermeneutical principles at any substantial point.
Another accusation that has been made against McCartney is that he is reliant on a sort of reader-response hermeneutic — that he locates Christological meaning in the subjective interpretation of the community rather than in the text itself. But, note what McCartney goes on to say:
I challenge this [pure GH method], not on post-modernist grounds or by appealing to some recent subjectivist literary theory, but on biblical and theological grounds.
So, if we take McCartney at his word, his concerns are biblical and theological. And what exactly is the nature of those biblical and theological concerns? Well, it is the very thing McCartney’s most outspoken critics are presumably most concerned to uphold: the divine authorship of Scripture.
Grammatical-historical method does not, and by its very nature cannot, deal with the special hermeneutical considerations of a divine text. A text written by several individuals from different cultures over the course of several centuries, which is at the same time authored by One who knows where history is going before it gets there, is inherently unique. Grammatical-historical interpretation proceeds on the assumption of the similarity of its text to other texts. The Bible is indeed a text like other texts, but it is also in certain ways sui generis, and thus requires something more.
McCartney then goes on to make a statement that has often been capitalized on by those wanting to portray him as outside the Reformed tradition:
“Pure” grammatical-historical method in Old Testament study does not give us the gospel. When we try to read the Old Testament from the vantage point of its original context we find hints at the gospel, and we find principles about the nature of God and man that imply the gospel, and we find prophetic expectations of a gospel, but one cannot really see the gospel itself until one gets to the New Testament (cf. Heb 11:39-40). But then we are, after the fact, able to see how the Old Testament is as a whole, moving toward the gospel. A second reading, a re-reading of the Old Testament from the standpoint of knowing its eventuation in Christ, manifests what God was doing all along.
This paragraph makes some nervous, supposedly because of the possibility of taking Christ out of the OT. However, as we have noted, McCartney has actually implied otherwise above. And in other places in his work, he clearly affirms a Christological meaning in the OT considered even on its own. (See here, https://christthetelos.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/how-much-did-the-human-authors-of-the-old-testament-know/)
And even in this quote, let’s note what McCartney affirms: the OT contains “hints,” “principles,” and “prophetic expectations of a gospel.” Considered in context and interpreted charitably, I find it hard to see where McCartney can rightly be accused of taking Messianic hope out of the OT. What he is arguing against is the idea that we can get the full gospel of death, resurrection, ascension, gentiles included as gentiles, etc., out of the OT considered strictly on GH grounds, apart from fulfillment in Christ. But he is not saying that there is no Christological focus in the OT considered on its own terms. Again, there is no problem with raising concerns here. But let us do so seeking understanding, and not insist that McCartney is saying something other than what he actually says.
This then sets the stage, so to speak, for McCartney’s use of the mystery novel analogy for the unfolding story of Scripture. That analogy assumes various things that McCartney has already made clear. 1. The divine authorship of the text — God always intended his word to point to and reveal the gospel of Jesus Christ. 2. All stages of the story are tied together by God’s purposes in redemptive history and in the written record of that history in the redemptive revelation of his written word. 3. The text at each stage in the progress of the story is driving us forward to its climax in Christ.
Just as a good mystery writer knows the solution to the puzzle even as he lays out the material, so the Bible’s divine Author knew the end of the story before he set out the process of revealing the story in time. I vigorously and whole-heartedly believe that Jesus was absolutely correct when he told the disciples in Luke 24 that the Old Testament was about him, his death and resurrection, and the offer of the gospel to the nations. And from our post-resurrection perspective, we can see it. But I have difficulty in seeing how one can aver that an ordinary time-bound human, believer though he be, could have seen it prior to the event. 14 Where, in a strictly grammatical-historically understood Old Testament, is the death and resurrection of Messiah? Jesus and Paul and Peter all say that Jesus’ death and resurrection is not just predicted but lies at the core of the meaning of the Old Testament, yet not a single Old Testament passage, when viewed strictly from its ostensive grammatical-historically determinable meaning, unambiguously states that the messiah will die and rise three days later. We can only see it after the fact. A genuine “first reading” of the story allows for a surprise element. Or as Paul calls it, a mystery which is now revealed.
Note that the fuller meaning revealed in Christ does not infuse the OT with meaning that it does not already have. Rather, what McCartney is arguing is that it sheds light, clarity, to the meaning that is already there in the text, so that what is new is not something that has changed in the text itself, but rather our epistemological vantage point, in the age of fulfillment. The first reading is meant to put us back into the mindset of the age of anticipation. The second reading sees everything in light of fulfillment in Christ.
So, We have here in fact no hint of the thing McCartney has been consistently accused of–that of postulating a purely retroactive meaning thrust unnaturally upon the text by the “creative interpretive community.” No, for McCartney the gospel of Jesus Christ is the one and only completion of the story. To be sure, he argues that the full gospel of the death and resurrection of the Messiah can’t unambiguously be gained from strict GH exegesis (as he has defined it). But he does not say that this meaning is not there, or that it is somehow disconnected from the GH context of the text.
Really, it is difficult to see where this differs in substance from Vern Poythress’ work on the divine meaning of Scripture. For instance:
“History and the promises of God are forward looking. The story is yet to be completed. It is altogether natural to construe this feature as implying that earlier promissory statements of God may be more deeply understood once the promises begin to be fulfilled, and especially when they are completely fulfilled… in at least a few cases… we find prophecies that take unexpected [!] form” (“What Does God Say through Human Authors,” 89-90)
Poythress has in fact stated in multiple places that “grammatical historical interpretation is not enough.” And, interestingly, he has made this claim specifically with regard to typology (“Understanding Dispensationalists,” 115-116). In other places Poythress would himself advocate a two reading method in interpreting the OT. (See, for instance, “The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses”, p. 7).
Now, to the question that inevitably comes regarding this mystery novel analogy, “How then could Jesus and the apostles hold people accountable for failing to see that Jesus was the Messiah if the OT doesn’t clearly reveal the gospel from the outset?” The answer is simple: Because the people who were held accountable for failing to see Christ as the fulfillment of the Scriptures were guilty of sinning against the light they had in fact received. Christ came and fulfilled the Scriptures. They saw it. They hoped for a Messiah. But they rejected the one God had perfectly provided. They rejected the only one who could be both Suffering Servant and Conquering King. They rejected, in other words, the only one in whom the whole story perfectly holds together. The one who does in fact fulfill every single promise made to God’s people of old, and in a way far more glorious than anyone could ever have imagined.
In support of all this, McCartney points us not, as he has been accused of doing, to any postmodern literary theory, but to the redemptive historical character of biblical revelation:
The Bible is redemptive-historical in character. This is not without any support in the text itself. The later Old Testament writers, for example, did understand the earlier parts of the Old Testament, as well as the events of their own time, as elements of a redemptive history, a redemptive history that is also eschatological. Redemptive history is not just about the past; it pushes its way into the future, and has eschatological purposes that could not be perceived in its original environment.
God’s word was always and is always pushing us forward, not simply presenting to us a static past. And this forward-looking flow of Scripture is what we must see. For, according to McCartney, the Scripture is forward-looking even when the human author of a given text may have been concerned simply with recording a historical narrative, or giving laws for the life of the community of God’s people in the land of Canaan. This is all based on the conviction that, as Jesus and the apostles have told us, Scripture is a book that points us to Christ.
Then, McCartney asks the pressing question: “Where then is control?” How, in other words, do we authenticate which interpretations are valid and which are not? And the answer is really the heart of McCartney’s point. Such control can’t be located in a standard that is found outside of Scripture itself – that is, it cannot be found in GH exegesis (at least as McCartney has defined it). Because, as McCartney has already claimed (with Longenecker, and Poythress), the apostles themselves did not follow this method. Rather, what drove exegesis of the OT for the apostles was fulfillment in Christ, not simply the Old Testament Scriptures considered by themselves apart from fulfillment in Christ.
This insight is nothing new or unique with McCartney. It is even essentially admitted by those who would take issue with McCartney on certain points. For instance, commenting on the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s Temple in Christ and his work, G.K. Beale has said:
The reason that the Ezekiel expectation is interpreted as beginning fulfillment in a perhaps somewhat unexpected way is because of Christ’s death, which has caused the redemptive-historical turn of the ages. Christ’s work is now the dominant interpretive lens through which to understand Old Testament expectations. (The Temple and the Church’s Mission, 316).
Further, as I have already shown in previous posts, Reformed exegetes like John Calvin have often admitted that the apostles’ application of OT texts to Christ does not always come from GH exegesis, but rests on the conviction that Christ is the goal of all Scripture (Calvin’s comments on Ps. 8.5-6, Heb. 2, Rom. 10.4-8, among other places).
However, none of this means that there is no control to Christian exegesis. For, as McCartney says,
The real “control” for the apostles and for us comes from at least three directions: 1. An assumption of coherency of God’s story. 2. The conviction that Christ is the endpoint of the story. 3. The promise of the Holy Spirit’s involvement.
These controls don’t necessarily give us absolute certainty that our every interpretation will be correct. But they do give us confidence that with God’s help we can adequately grasp the content of Scripture and its presentation to us of Christ and his gospel.
These clearly don’t quite give us a “box” that clearly differentiates legitimate from illegitimate hermeneutical activity. They are rather like tethers or trajectories than walls, and hence cannot provide independently verifiable proof of legitimacy. And I make no claim that these “controls” are exhaustively adequate, and would even urge us to continue to think about how we can differentiate good from bad interpretations without jumping to the supposed haven of “pure” grammatical-historical exegesis. But the fact that God is not idle in the continuing story of the church which grew out of the story should give us confidence in interpretation, not despair at the lack of rational certitude. The Spirit leads his church (hence tradition, though not inspired, is certainly a big part of understanding the story). Further, the meaning of the Bible is very much tied up with knowing God (cf. Calvin, Institutes, Bk 1—knowing self and knowing God intertwined. Surely knowing the Bible and knowing God are equally entwined). And this is why every Christian instinctively reads the whole Bible as a Jesus book until he is taught not to do so.
McCartney goes on then to bolster our confidence in the veracity, the coherency, and the Christological import of all Scripture, as well as the legitimate place of GH exegesis as an essential part of our exegetictask:
The text of the whole Bible, the assumption of its coherency, and its ultimate purpose in pointing to Christ, provide parameters for determining which interpretations correspond and appear valid, and which do not. Grammatical-historical exegesis serves us well as one tool among others in carrying forward the recognition of the Bible’s coherency, so long as the context for our exegesis remains not only historical but also canonical. None of these tethers provides certainty, but then not even “pure” original-meaning grammatical-historical interpretation offers certainty. But when coupled with faith in God in Christ these principles can give us confidence that we know the truth that God has revealed.
As I see it, legitimate criticisms can be made of McCartney on two fronts: 1. He is working with a very narrow definition of grammatical-historical exegesis. And 2. He does at times word things in unclear ways that might ideally be stated differently. Here, it would be beneficial if McCartney’s interlocutors would ask questions for clarification and offer positive proposals to move dialogue forward, rather than label him as an enemy of Reformed principles from the outset and seek to locate unbelieving presuppositions in his thought that corrupt his entire exegetical house.
However, when it comes to the specific criticisms that have driven the certitude of some that McCartney is something other than a Reformed biblical scholar – even driving some to refer to him as “extreme,” “liberal,” “Kantian,” etc., it would seem that on a patient and fair reading of his words in context, these accusations are in fact wide of the mark.
Among other things, Dan McCartney has been accused of such things as “severing the organic connection” between the OT and NT, taking Christ entirely out of the OT, denying a Messianic hope in OT Scripture, founding his hermeneutic not on Scripture but on postmodern literary theory, Kantianism, Barthianism, holding to pagan notions of “mystery.” In response to all such claims, I ask: How, on a responsible reading of his words in context can we get such notions clearly stated or implied from what he has actually written?
Detractors of Christotelic hermeneutics have in the past insisted that they are interested in discussing the issues. Great. Same here. But, how can any meaningful discussion really be had when we are labeled from the outset as enemies rather than brothers? How can any meaningful discussion really be had when the worst is assumed of one another from the start?
As I’ve argued in my previous posts, I see the substantial differences as resting in two particular areas. 1. How clear was the OT revelation about Christ prior to his coming?—Christocentrics arguing it was fairly clear and pervasive, Christotelics arguing it was more shadowy and less pervasive, but both in agreement that there is such a hope in the OT considered on its own terms. And 2. Following from (1), How much exactly did the human authors of the OT really grasp of the full import of their words? These are differences worth discussing. But, I continue to say that they are not by any means differences Reformed believers should divide over.
In the end, it seems to me that the criticisms leveled against McCartney are actually proof of McCartney’s most basic insight: hermeneutical method is subservient to hermeneutical goal. For, it seems that his critics have entered into an assessment of his work with the a priori goal of branding him out of line with Reformed principles, and their methods have been an outworking of this goal.
But, if our goal is peace and unity, as it ought to be, then we must strive to understand each other. When we do this, there may well be (as there often in fact are) legitimate and substantial differences, which we can and should vigorously debate. But we mustn’t create differences where there in fact are none. And we mustn’t make the differences we do have out to be bigger and more serious than they actually are.