American Inerrancy Stories: The Case of Douglas Green
In a prior post, I spoke about Saving Inerrancy from the Americans where I argued that many conservative evangelicals in America conflate the authority/veracity of the biblical text with the authority/normativity of their interpretation. I also alleged that inerrancy functions as something of a club to wield against those who challenge the power of certain power-brokers in certain networks.
However, I left out one particular incident that I think illustrates the sociological function of inerrancy in American conservative circles and how it is used to purify the flock over secondary or even tertiary matters. So let me spin you a story about my dear friend Dr. Douglas Green.
Green is an Australian Presbyterian elder and presently a lecturer at Queensland Theological College. He taught Old Testament for many years at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia until he “retired” in 2015 and left Westminster due to allegations that he violated the Westminster Standards in his interpretation of Psalm 23.
So I invite you to read his excellent article "The Lord is Christ’s Shepherd": Psalm 23 as Messianic Prophecy. It is a great article, I mean, I preach sermons at Easter inspired by this essay. Green asks us to imagine the Messiah, Jesus, as the one who himself prays this Psalms, as the one who has to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and waits for his soul to be restored. Green argues that Psalm 23 could, at the compositional level, simply describe the psalmist’s own experience, but in the context of the Psalter, that experience (especially when David is understood to foreshadow the messiah) now becomes prophetic of the messiah’s experience. I find that coherent and convincing and this preaches well!
But, because of certain political machinations, the Westminster Seminary administration wanted to remove Green from Westminster Seminary and they used some trumped allegations that his interpretation of Ps 23 violated the Westminster Standards as interpreted by the administration.
You can read about the official statement about Green’s “retirement.”
Green was charged with creating a “disunity between the OT and the NT that is not consistent with WCF 1:5, 1:9.” Because Green was implying one level of meaning at the point of composition (i.e., David imagines himself needing a Shepherd at a tough point in his life) and a second level of meaning at the literary-canonical level (i.e., You can read this Psalms as if Jesus is the speaker), this allegedly broke with the WCF statement “the true and full sense of any Scripture … is not manifold, but one” (WCF 1.9).
It is funny that a Reformed seminary would critique, censure, and condemn a christological reading of the Psalter and restrict meaning to the pre-canonical level and initial compositional setting. The irony is that this is how ultra-Dispensationalists interpret the Psalter, it is exclusively about David and Israel, not a typology or prophetic pointer to the Messiah. This is what blows my mind, the Westminster Seminary administration were so desperate to remove Green that they literally adopted a literal dispensational hermeneutic concerning the relationship between the OT and the NT. And this from the seminary of Vos and Gaffin, two of Presbyterian America’s foremost biblical theologians!
Now, whether it is “inerrancy” or “confessional standards,” you can notice how a reasonable interpretation is deconstructed to try and make it look deviant.
Everyone at WTS-Philly I’ve spoken to - and that includes several former and present faculty - fully admit that the administration just wanted to get rid of Green, and Green’s interpretation of Ps 23 was the desperate and ridiculous pretense that the administration resorted to, to do it.
After all, if Green’s interpretation of Ps 23 is not confessionally kosher, it’s funny that he was immediately hired by a very conservative and confessional Presbyterian seminary in Brisbane, Australia. This proves my point. The whole affair wasn’t about biblical truth, or even confessional standards, it was about tribal politics, purifying the WTS-Philly faculty from a guy who was clearly confessional but not part of a conservative sub-culture that required aggressive denunciation of certain things and certain people.
Now, just to be clear, I affirm the sufficiency and infallibility of the Christian Scriptures as an Anglican priest and as a global evangelical. I’m not disputing the necessity of a robust definition and stand on the truth of Holy Scripture. But I’m pointing out the way “inerrancy” is wielded as a weapon in certain US evangelical networks as a tool of intimidation and ostracism. Not always, but very often, biblical inerrancy and its equivalents are not about the truth of Holy Scripture, it’s about the power of the tribe and factions that survive by manufacturing fear.
NB: These events happened six years ago, many persons have come and gone from WTS-Philly. There are many fine faculty at WTS-Philly, many great graduates too, and this is not intended as an indictment of them, I’m pointing out the weird machinations and mind-boggling hermeneutics of the administration and their ludicrous case against Dr. Green.