In the current dispute between Professor John M. Frame (see Review of Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church) and the Westminster Seminary California (WSC) Establishment, notably Mike Horton, Scott Clark, and Darryl Hart, relating to Horton’s book Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church, one vital issue is the exemplary use of the Bible (especially the OT), that is, how we today should use examples in the Bible in our teaching and preaching.
In the interests of full disclosure: I’m a friend of John Frame’s, agree with his criticism of Horton’s book, have enlisted him to speak at my conferences, and contributed to his Festschrift titled Speaking the Truth in Love. But I ask the reader to consider the evidence below on its own merits.
In his review of Horton, Frame writes:
So it is wrong, Horton says, to present (emphasize?) characters in Bible stories as moral examples (148-52).
[Horton:] Instead of drawing a straight line of application from the narrative to us, which typically moralizes or allegorizes the story, we are taught by Jesus himself to understand these passages in the light of their place in the unfolding drama of redemption that leads to Christ. (151)
[Frame:] This is another of many false dichotomies in this book. Horton says that understanding passages in the light of Christ is incompatible with understanding them as providing moral examples. But Christ himself called on the Jews to rejoice in his day, as Abraham did (John 8:56). He commended David’s behavior in supplying food to his hungry men (Mark 2:25).
Imitation is a major means of sanctification in Scripture. We are to imitate God (Ex. 20:11, Lev. 11:44, Matt. 5:48, 1 Pet. 1:15-16) and Jesus (John 13:14-15, 34-35, Phil. 2:5-11, 1 Pet. 2:21, 1 John 3:16, 4:9-11). We are to imitate the apostles as they imitate Christ (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1). The Israelites in the wilderness are negative examples in 1 Cor. 10:6 and Heb. 4:11, as are Sodom and Gomorrah in Jude 7. Timothy is to be an example to other believers (1 Tim. 4:12). Hebrews 11 presents many “heroes of faith” as examples for us. James refers to the prophets and Job as examples of suffering and patience (James 5:10-11) and to Elijah as a man of prayer (verses17-18).
Horton is right to say that Bible characters foreshadow Christ in various ways. He is also right in saying that these characters, except Jesus, are sinners like us and justified only by the grace of Christ. So, of course, not everything they do should be imitated. And insofar as we should imitate them, we should imitate them as examples of living by faith. But, given these qualifications, we should be encouraging, not discouraging, preachers to point out parallels between the lives of these people and our lives today. Preaching this way does not deserve to be called moralism.
White House Inn (WHI), which champions the WSC perspective, responds to Frame:
Of course there are moral examples in Scripture, and Horton affirms this in his book; the point is that the Bible is to be read as an unfolding story of redemption, with Christ as the hero. All we ask is that if you use a character as a moral or spiritual example, be sure to include not just the exemplary things that he or she did but also the tragic sins that made it necessary for even a “friend of God” or a “man after God’s own heart” to look forward to a Redeemer. Don’t stop with the example, look to where the example actually points: to Jesus Christ. And ground your practical ethical issues in the new creation, just as the New Testament writers do. For more on the relationship between doctrine and ethics, see Horton’s People and Place.
No matter how Gospel-honoring this view may appear at first blush, it is (I believe) so demonstrably wrong that it’s hard to grasp how anyone could defend it after even a cursory investigation. Frame is right, and it’s not hard to prove that he’s right.
Old Testament Examples
First, consider how the OT presents examples of individuals. The OT examples (whether negative or positive examples) do not usually specify “tragic sins” in order to point to a Redeemer, certainly not in the way that the WHI rejoinder designates. WHI’s is a “theological interpretation” (Daniel P. Fuller) of the OT (imposed from somewhere else in the Bible) that the text itself simply cannot sustain. Let me mention two prominent characters from the OT to show this.
Take Daniel, for starters. Daniel is not offered as an example in order to elicit the contemporary application that his “tragic sins . . . made it necessary for even a ‘friend of God’ or a ‘man after God’s own heart’ to look forward to a Redeemer.” Daniel was incontestably a sinner who needed, like all other sinners, a Redeemer, but to exclude his sinfulness in using him as an example today is not to do disservice to the OT texts. It’s not his sinfulness or need for a Redeemer (which no one denies) that the OT saw fit to highlight, and neither should we. Rather, it is Daniel’s wisdom, prevailing prayer, and fidelity to God under great pressure that strike us as exemplary. The fact is that the OT does not offer any “tragic sins [of Daniel] that made it necessary … [for him] to look forward to a Redeemer.” No doubt Daniel was tragically sinful, but that’s not how the OT depicts him, and there’s no indication that that is what we are supposed to stress in considering his example.
Now, how about the other end of the moral spectrum? In the book of Proverbs we encounter the harlot who seduces the foolish, unwary young man (ch. 7). Unlike Daniel, she’s a patently negative example (full of “tragic sins”), yet nowhere does the writer suggest that the godly recourse for the harlot — or the young man — is to “look … to a Redeemer.” Of course, their only hope in life and death is Jesus as their Redeemer, but that’s not the suggested recourse rooted in the OT text. Rather, the harlot is called (implicitly) to recall the covenant with her God (see 2:17), and the young man is charged (explicitly) to avoid this ungodly woman (7:25).
Old Testament Examples in the New Testament
Second, consider how the NT interprets examples from the OT. We need not guess at how the NT writers and speakers might have drawn lessons from the OT. Despite intense scholarly debate over the hermeneutics assumed by the NT writers and speakers, they furnish evidence of their hermeneutics in their exemplary use of the OT. Here we find that, whatever else we may say about their “hermeneutical method” in employing the OT, they did not always (or even usually) use OT examples to teach “the tragic sins that made it necessary for even a ‘friend of God’ or a ‘man after God’s own heart’ to look forward to a Redeemer.”
Think of Job, an enigmatic but striking OT character. When James refers to this godly man (5:11), he enlists him as an example of patience and perseverance: “Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end [intended by] the Lord — that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.” James does not enlist Job in order to preach the tragedy of human depravity and the consequent necessity of a Redeemer, but rather to teach the promise of God’s blessing to those who persevere under extreme duress.
Next, and staying with the book of James, what about Elijah? In the midst of an exhortation to fervent prayer (5:13–18), James enlists as an example this great prophet, when he prayed for God to withhold rain on an idolatrous Israel and then later to unleash from the clouds this life-nourishing blessing when the nation repented. James does not even hint that Elijah’s “tragic sins … made it necessary for [him] to look forward to a Redeemer,” though no one dare dispute that Elijah was tragically sinful or that he would have perished eternally apart from faith in the coming Jesus Christ.
Finally, examine the longest sustained exemplary use of the OT in the NT, Hebrews 11. Here is a catalog of examples documenting the necessity of faith. Yet the specific object of faith is not Jesus as the Redeemer, but God as the Rewarder of those who seek and persevere (v. 6). The writer of Hebrews holds up these OT saints as examples to his audience whose faith is flagging under persecution (10:32–39). He’s saying, “Hang in there, just like your godly forefathers did, and God will reward you in the end, just as he did them.” There’s not the least hint that human depravity and the necessity of trusting Jesus as Redeemer are the exemplary uses to which the writer put these OT characters. He simply didn’t use the OT in that way — and neither should we assume that this use is illegitimate if we imitate it in our preaching and teaching today.
There are OT examples used in the NT which do stress salvation from tragic sin in the form of Jesus our Redeemer — Abraham and David come immediately to mind (Rom. 4), but we must never suppose that we are guilty of “moralizing” (as Mike Horton charges) if we do not unvaryingly employ OT examples to exhibit tragic human sinfulness and the necessity of a Redeemer.
Does the OT not testify of Jesus Christ? It incontestably does (Jn. 5:39). But that doesn’t mean that all the OT examples are given to exhibit their “tragic” sinfulness that renders necessary a Redeemer. We need to use OT examples as the OT invites us to use them, and in many cases that use is a simple (or complex!) moral imperative that does not include the Gospel in the specific manner that Horton and WHI advise. It may be true, then, that broadly conceived, “[T]he Bible is to be read as an unfolding story of redemption, with Christ as the hero”; but we do not honor the Bible as a story of redemption when we use examples to teach lessons not explicated or implied in the text.
If, therefore, by “moralizing,” Horton and the WHI denote “being good” apart from the Cross and Resurrection and the Gospel, Frame and I oppose it as firmly as Horton and Co. But if they mean by “moralizing” using the OT examples to teach moral truth without always specifying man’s tragic sinfulness and need for a Savior, we plead gulity — and also plead guilty for many of the NT writers and speakers.
We should use the Bible as the Bible invites us to use it — and not impose on every passage a “theological interpretation” — no matter how pious and Christ honoring it may appear.