WRF Board Member Dr. Kin Yip Louie Writes from Hong Kong to Provide a Response to the Davis/Gaffin Debate on Biblical Theology
Let me start by confessing my relationship with Westminster Theological Seminary. I got a M. Div. from Westminster in 1993. Both Dr. Davis and Dr. Gaffin were my esteemed teachers. After that, I enrolled in her Ph. D. program (with Dr. Gaffin as my supervisor) while I pastored a church, got married and had 3 wonderful daughters.
After dragging on for 10 years, I finally decided to terminate my Ph.D. studies at Westminster. Later on, I did get a Ph.D. from University of Edinburgh, and I am now teaching theology in a major Chinese seminary in Hong Kong.
I have my disappointments during my Ph.D. studies at Westminster, but I still consider myself a supporter of Westminster. Whenever President Lillback visits Hong Kong and hosts functions for Westminster alumni, I do my best to make time for them. I don’t have much money to give to the school, but I am proud to tell people that I am a WTS graduate and a Calvinist (even if I may not pass Westminster’s definition of a Calvinist). In the following, I speak as a third world theologian pleading for leadership from a first-class seminary from the West.
To be frank and upfront, as Gaffin’s essay is intended to be an explanation of why Doug Green should retire early from Westminster, I am totally mystified. I am absolutely unqualified to assess whether Green has betrayed the heritage of Vos. My reading of Vos is quite limited, and it was mostly done 20 years ago. Given that Gaffin is the expert in this field, I readily accept that he has interpreted Vos correctly. But, even so, should a professor be dismissed because he has violated some theological tenets of the revered Vos?
Of course, Gaffin does not merely mean that Green has merely betrayed Vos’ heritage. Supposedly, Green has strayed far from the Reformed tradition, so far that he no longer qualifies to teach in a Reformed theology. So, what is the fatal problem of the Christotelic approach of Green? If I understand Gaffin correctly, he thinks that the Christotelic approach has torn the Old and the New Testament apart. This is indeed a serious accusation (one thinks of Marcionism), one that might (if true) warrant the forced retirement of Green. But what is the rationale for such an accusation?
All I can get from Gaffin’s article is that the Christotelic tends to focus on the messiness of the Old Testament in the first stage of reading. Granted, this may be a result of emphasizing reading the Old Testament in its original context. I’m not sure that is only a bad thing. Life is messy, and I often find the Bible moving and divine precisely it speaks into the messiness of our (and my) life. If I want systematic thinking, I find Kant’s writings (for example) much more systematic than the Bible. But that does not make Kant a better thinker than the Bible. So why is messiness such a bad thing?
According to Gaffin, messiness destroys the organic unity of the whole Bible. Again, I’m not sure why that is the case. My life is probably messy, and I often find myself doing things that I cannot explain myself. But I never doubt that there is only one “I” living this life. To me, organic unity (as contrasted with mechanical unity) means that the unity cannot be totally explained by reason. But it confront us as a unity. If we read the Bible patiently, it will reveal its unity to us. We do not need a theological paradigm to guarantee its unity, although we can reflect on our own paradigm in digging out its unity. And that will be our paradigm, but by no means the only paradigm.
So, even if Green has strayed from Vos’ methodology or Vos’ conception of the unity of the Bible, does it necessarily follow that Green is destroying the unity of the Bible? As I read President Lillback’s concluding statement, the word ‘consistent’ keep leaping out. Yet, does consistency imply that there cannot be diverse voices in Scripture? Does consistency in a biblical sense mean that we can always lay out all biblical ideas in system of theology? Can there be different kinds of unity, the Vos approach or the system of Murray being only one possibility? Or does Gaffin think that the New Testament has dictated that we can only look at the Old Testament through one hermeneutical method? Did Jesus really use the Vos approach when he talked to the disciples on the road to Emmaus?
Gaffin asserts that the Christotelic approach only allows Christ to be regard as the Omega of the Old Testament, but not its Alpha. Does Green really deny that Christ is the Alpha and the Omega of the Bible? That assertion looks to me a nice piece of rhetorics, but far from being a statement of fact.
But, perhaps, Gaffin is not saying that Green himself denies the unity or the authority of the Old Testament. He is merely saying that the Christotelic approach, pushed methodologically to its logical end, will lead to such dire results. I’m not sure that Gaffin is correct, but surely he has the right and responsibility to sound the alarm. Good seminary professors debate with each other all the time, as iron sharpens iron. But we are not discussing here whether Gaffin and Green has a better approach to biblical theology. We are discussing the reason for dismissing a seminary professor. Even if the Christotelic approach has some problems, does it necessarily violated any fundamental tenets of Christianity, or even of the Reformed tradition? Does it leave Westminster with no choice but to cut off one of her limbs?
But then, perhaps Gaffin is not even claiming that Green is really heretical. However, it is incompatible with the Westminster heritage. Perhaps Gaffin is not claiming that Green has violated some fundamental tenets of a generic Reformed tradition, but that Green has violated the Reformed tradition as formulated by Westminster. And this particular Reformed tradition includes not only the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Three Forms of Unity, but also Van Til apologetics and Vos biblical theology and Murray systematic theology. However, does challenging this peculiar tradition require the ban?
Here I am finally ready to explain my Third World perspective. In where I live, the only explicit Presbyterian denomination is the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. That denomination is probably not very Reformed by Westminster’s standard. Nonetheless, that is all we get, and it is a small denomination. I am proud to tell people that I am a Reformed theologian, but then I have to explain myself what is the Reformed heritage. Things usually get tricky whenever I need to explain limited atonement (or definite atonement, according to Westminster). I have to find ways to explain it without sounding offensive to others (wow, do you mean people like Calvin do not believe that God loves the whole world?) Imagine that I have to explain to people the difference Christocentric and Christotelic approach to the Bible, and why a professor was dismissed based on that difference. It will make them swoon.
Perhaps Dr. Gaffin moves in a circle of people where all the subtleties of the Reformed tradition are well understood. Perhaps, in that circle, people demand Westminster to make explicit her positions on all sorts of questions internal to the Reformed circle. Perhaps, most of the donations comes from that circle. It is totally understandable that the concerns of that circle has some sort of priority for Westminster.
But Westminster also prides herself as an international leader in theological education. As a theology teacher of a young seminary (nearly 40 years old) of the relatively young Chinese church, I look towards my alma mater (and in particular, my eminent teachers such as Dr. Gaffin) for theological leadership. But it seems to me that she is more interested in preserving her purity than to serve the world.
For the Chinese churches, logical consistency in theology is not a very high priority. A more pressing question is whether these theologies can transform life. Therefore, Van Til has never been popular in the Chinese church, and he probably never will. For many Christians in the Third World, we naturally (even unreflectively) read the Old Testament in a Christocentric way, but do not press us too hard on our methodology. The important fact is that we all find Christ in the whole Bible. More important than the subtleties in hermeneutics is the pursuit of justice. How can the Christian faith be a force in the transformation of the society?
Often I find the revered forefathers of Westminster less than helpful in our struggles. I have already mentioned the case of Van Til. Take John Murray for another example. Indeed he is an excellent theologian. But, in Principles of Conduct, he spends several pages claiming that the Bible does not absolutely reject the system of slavery. His exegesis may have merits, but why does he seek to defend slavery at all? Has he not asked the wrong question altogether? In Hong Kong, where we are struggling to keep the oppressing power of the Communist power at bay, do we not have a right to be angry with Murray?
That brings to my major point: in theology, perhaps the question is more important the answer. To me, Green has asked the right question: how can the messianic implications of the Old Testament make sense to theological students raised and steeped in historical method of hermeneutics? His answer is probably not perfect, and certainly not the only valid one. But why shoot down someone for precisely trying to preserve the unity of the Bible?
And if Westminster professor spends all their time defining more and more clearly the boundaries on issues of concerned to less and less people, how can they lead the church? Being faithful to Van Til, Vos may be a safe option, but they were great precisely because they attempted to answer pressing questions of their time. They developed novel answers on issues that were new to the Reformed tradition. Do Westminster professors dare to answer pressing questions of today (and these are unknown to our forefathers) and propose new answers? By adhering meticulously to our revered forefathers, have we followed their letters but missed their spirit?
For example, can we develop a Reformed approach to sexuality in this age of confusing sexual identity (not about women ordination, but on why women should be happy to be women and man happy to be man)? Or a Reformed critique of the capitalist system that make billions of poor serve thousands of rich people? Or a Reformed critique of the violence (both gun and verbal) in America? Would not time spent on these issues be much helpful to Westminster and the whole church of Christ than time spent on the pursuit of a so-called theological consistency?
Union with Christ is a favorite topic of Gaffin. I was privileged to hear Gaffin speak on this topic when he visited Hong Kong. Dare we ask: what can this doctrine tell us about our union with other brothers and sisters? After all, unity among believers are explicitly commanded by our Lord and urged by Paul (in 1 Corinthians etc.). In Hong Kong, the society and the church is struggling with bitter fragmentations. And I think that is not unique to Hong Kong, as the whole world seems to be tearing itself apart with power politics. Perhaps that is why Volf’s Exclusion and Embrace has become such an instant classic. Now, that is theological leadership. Would Westminster like to develop a Reformed approach to forgiveness and loving our enemies? But, with the dismissal of Enns and now Green, how can Westminster speak credibly on this issue? If Westminster has to make their teachers theologically pure to the last jot, how can her students learn to live in and love a messy world? From my perspective, it is not the messiness of the Bible that is driving people away from God. It is a church that fails to embrace and love the messiness of the world, a church that stands apart in her purity, that drives many people away from Christ.
A Chinese proverb says “once a teacher to you, always a teacher to you.” It is painful to speak against my teachers. I pray that, under God’s sovereign grace, the whole episode will work for the good of Westminster. What are the most important questions? That is a question not just for Westminster, but it is an urgent question for all seminaries.