A Rejoinder: Clair Davis Responds to Richard Gaffin On Recent Events at Westminster Seminary

The question on how shall we read the Bible is of major and ongoing concern to the whole church of Jesus Christ

As I look at Dick Gaffin’s main response, I think his point is that there is something artificial about the grammatical-historical method that we all try to master. Even when we’re focusing on how concepts found in the Bible were used in ancient culture, we’re still full of gospel joy and love as we already see Jesus there.

 

There is much that I appreciate and respect about Westminster Seminary’s recent announcement concerning the Board’s retirement of tenured Professor Douglas Green. They didn’t have to tell us anything, or they could have used ‘irreconcilable differences’ language. But instead they were forthcoming, telling us both that Westminster’s confessional identity was at stake and also providing us with two of Green’s articles that they believe demonstrate his erroneous position. We can now all read those articles and look at the Westminster Confession and see what we think ourselves. I think that works well with the para-church character of WTS and many other seminaries; they and we recognize their direct accountability to the Christian community.

WTS has now given me a response to my criticism through Dick Gaffin, who has always been our and my expert resource on biblical theology. I find his insights helpful though I struggle to agree with his conclusions.

Though I believe that the leadership of WTS has conclusively made up its mind on Doug and the position they see him as representing, I believe this discussion is well worth continuing.  The question on how shall we read the Bible is of major and ongoing concern to the whole church of Jesus Christ. Those seeking seminary training need all the help they can get as they consider choosing the right school. (At seminary you learn more than the facts, you learn a style of Christian thinking and living.)  A friend of mine tries to encourage me by telling me that of course WTS will come to itself again in ten years or so. That may or may not be the case, but many need to think about the here and now.

Before I reply to Dick, I think it will help you to know my own orientation.  I am by no means as informed as he is, but hermeneutics has always been very important to me. I wrote my doctoral dissertation at Göttingen on the hermeneutics of E. W. Hengstenberg. At first I thought I could do the main man, Schleiermacher, but reading Joachim Wach, Das Verstehen, the definitive work, made it clear to me that I needed to pick someone else. Hengstenberg is vitally important to our heritage, briefly as Charles Hodge’s teacher and especially as the inspiration for the work of William Henry Green at old Princeton Seminary. He put together Pietistic devotional relevance with scholarly argument against liberal criticism. The Bible as relevant and as true, those two together, is what matters to me, also in the current painful discussion.

I see myself as both Reformed and as Evangelical. Many presbyteries have agreed that I am Reformed, and I have delighted to foster ‘implicit Calvinism’ in students of many backgrounds. (My student Marq was doing student evangelism in Mexico City and asked for prayer when no one was responding. His leader said, No, we believe in free will so we never pray for the Lord to change hearts. That’s how Marq went from implicit to overt). In the 70s the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) churches were praying and working toward their union—but that didn’t happen as, I believe, ungodly suspicion ruled the day. That was very painful to me. If the churches can’t unite, I believed I could foster harmonious hearts among my students. So I am suspicious of exclusive theological novelty and see it as divisive. That there is only one right way to see Jesus Christ in the Bible is a view I find hard to tolerate.  My WTS one year had students from 80 different denominations and 40 countries!

I need to tell you about things that are still unclear and undecided to me. I loved Ed Clowney and was blessed in my heart by his preaching. But his style of biblical theology was very hard to pass on to his students. My stimulating colleague Jay Adams was a master at teaching ‘relevance.’ He taught that every sermon had to include not just WHAT God wants you to do, but also HOW God wants you to do it. He was right—but he also was very uncomfortable with biblical theology preaching, mostly because he didn’t see the How. Clowney’s biblical theology didn’t get to application; Adams’ anti-biblical theology did. What could I do with that? If you know me you can guess the answer: when in doubt do both/and, be a syncretist.  So I try to preach this way: ‘see how the Jesus who loves you so much wants you to live for him.’ So my own biblical theology may not be Doug’s or Dick’s? But a gospel without Jesus, now that I won’t give in on. I’m hearing Dick, biblical theology is still alive and well at WTS—but it seems to me as greatly weakened.

Something else. I’ve never been a pastor with the discipline of carefully preaching through a whole book of the Bible. Could I have found Jesus in every chapter of Ezekiel? How would I have used that book? I’ll never know nor you either. Clowney said there were 150 Messianic psalms, others see about 15.  To me it hardly matters at all, since as a visiting preacher all I need to do to preach on what I want to and I’ll pick the easy ones. But those future preachers need more than that.

With that out of the way, now I can tell you why biblical theology is so important to me.  I have read a lot of Puritans. Not only did they write the Westminster Confession and start Harvard but they wrote fascinating sermons, with multiple applications at the end. (I once found a New Jersey Puritan who set the record with 14.) What a good preacher does is work hard at knowing where his people are and have that in mind as he brings them the Word. But what if you don’t know where they are, or if they are in several different places? Give them a bunch of apps and you’re bound to hit the target with one!

I mix that with biblical theology, something like this: are you content with yourself? Then ask yourself if you’re not a borderline Pharisee, as in this Zacchaeus story.  Or do you doubt that God loves you? Why would he love the traitor tax-collector do you think? He loves because he loves, not because anyone is worthy. I can go through redemptive history that way. Are you in exile because you deserve it? Hosea 11, how can I give you up, even though you deserve it? I look for the ways God expresses himself to people, in ways that fit them—and I spot them in redemptive history. Truth and relevance together, remember? Hengstenberg lives on. That’s why I’m very concerned about any weakening of that part of our heritage. 

Doug’s movie illustration is debatable like everything he says. But for me it resonates.  I can sometimes spot earlier in the Bible how it’s going, but not always. I guess I do read the OT sometimes, puzzled, and can forget the happy end—but Doug’s ‘second reading’ helps me a lot, always.

One more thing. A few years ago WTS put together 50-some ‘Affirmations and Denials’ to clarify I think mostly this issue, how to put OT and NT together. I’ve read them a couple times and they seem OK. But there’s something at the end that I need help on, and I believe relevant to this hard discussion. It goes like this:

We affirm that biblical theology (attention to the text in its redemptive-historical context) is the indispensable servant of systematic theology–indispensable because it is essential for the sound exegesis on which systematic theology depends, a servant because it contributes to the presentation, under appropriate topics, of the teaching of Scripture as a whole and in its overall unity that systematic theology is concerned to provide for the life of the church and its mission in the world. 

We deny that biblical theology and systematic theology, properly understood, are in conflict or are alternative approaches to Scripture independent of each other, or that either is dispensable. 

We affirm that the teachings of Scripture concerning God, Christ, man, sin, salvation, and other topics, as those teachings are summarized in systematic theology, offer a sound framework in which to conduct the work of exegesis and biblical theology. 

We deny that exegesis or biblical theology can be properly conducted without submission to or in tension with the teaching of Scripture as a whole.

This says that biblical theology is the servant of systematic theology, also that biblical must be in submission to Scripture as a whole—but it doesn’t say that about systematic? I have to think more about that. Frequently, systematic is the place where the Bible listens to and then looks hard at contemporary culture and evaluates it. I know, Murray didn’t do that. Maybe at WTS that was the job for apologetics and missions?  Still, I don’t see how I can agree that systematic is the same as the Bible in its authority. I’ve always liked to think of systematic and biblical as ‘yoke-fellows’ pulling the church along together? And if I use biblical theology as my source of the application, then for me isn’t the earlier exegetical part of the sermon the servant of that final app? From Jay we learned that without application, it’s not preaching the gospel at all, but only its description. I don’t know about this one, to me it seems highly unusual, maybe biased. I need more conversation.

Finally I come to Dick Gaffin’s paper itself. Much of it concerns Vos’s zeal to make use of the 19th century enthusiasm for history without succumbing to the temptation of relativism. His quotes from an early Vos are very compelling indeed, stating clearly that God’s revelation brings us the truth, even though through the channel of history. Read them all yourself, they are indeed very powerful.

Is that Vos’s only opinion on that subject? Consider the discussion in Peter Enns’ inaugural address as professor at WTS, Westminster Theological Journal 2006:  [I italicize Enns; boldly italicize the Vos quote inside it.]

More clearly than Machen, Vos articulates the positive role that historical research, especially the Second Temple Jewish environment, can play in our understanding of Scripture. 

Precious (I hope) to every Westminster student is the understanding that Paul’s already/not yet eschatology is a central element of his theology. Vos investigates this issue against the backdrop of Second Temple Judaism and concludes that Paul’s eschatology is to a certain degree dependent upon this earlier theological development—even though Paul certainly has distinctive marks. Both Pauline and Second Temple Jewish eschatology have their basis in the OT, but this common basis can not wholly account

for the agreement between it [Second Temple Judaism] and Paul as to data going beyond the O.T. There is no escape from the conclusion that a piece of Jewish eschatology has been here by Revelation incorporated into the Apostle’s teaching. Paul had none less than Jesus Himself as a predecessor in this. The main structure of the Jewish Apocalyptic is embodied in our Lord’s teaching as well as in Paul’s.’

There is little ambiguity here. Vos states there is an ultimate OT root for both Jewish and Pauline eschatology, but there are elements they share that are not OT concepts. Since the Jewish eschatology preceded Paul, Vos concludes that, therefore, by revelation, Paul incorporated the Jewish eschatology into his teaching. And don’t worry, Vos says, Jesus did that already!” 

I think Vos and Enns are both very clear: Paul used the language and concepts of his day, language and ideas that people understood. Why is that a big deal, pro or con? At this point I’m feeling more like a rank amateur than usual, but doesn’t this mean that Paul read the OT in light of later ideas? Isn’t that just what we mean by grammatical-historical and always have? Bible Study 101? Why is it still worth saying? At any rate, if it’s ordinary language, it seems reasonable to me to just take it as it comes, without concern about where it comes from? Think about that as we move ahead.

Did you see how I just spoiled my argument? I quoted Peter Enns! Do I still have credibility with you? Isn’t Pete wrong about everything? Didn’t I just display my gullibility for all to see? The thing is, I see a Christian seminary as a place for conversation, not monologue. Luther was unbalanced on the Supper, but always well worth listening to. Jonathan Edwards’ followers were tainted by way too much psychology of faith, that must have been a weakness in Edwards—but his insights are still invaluable. Pete Enns isn’t quite in that league, high minors I think like the Allentown Iron Pigs, but has many things to say that I don’t want to miss. I hear now far too many rumors about my beloved WTS, how it’s all changed—but I cannot accept that they now do guilt by association. For us all in this conversation it’s not ‘Enns, et. al.;’ it’s Doug and where he is. But for all that Dick Gaffin says in his response, as far as I can tell it has little to do with Doug.

Anyhow, like any great thinker there’s more than one thing in Geerhardus Vos. He believes in the Truth of the Bible, and so do we all. He also believes that the Bible expresses itself through later Jewish thought—some of us think so too. But as I just said, that’s a Bible 101 insight that we have to learn what the words in the Bible meant.

As I look at Dick Gaffin’s main response, I think his point is that there is something artificial about the grammatical-historical method that we all try to master. Even when we’re focusing on how concepts found in the Bible were used in ancient culture, we’re still full of gospel joy and love as we already see Jesus there. We don’t really need to wait for the end of Doug’s movie to see Jesus. I think Dick is right, if I get what I think he’s saying.

Still, isn’t there something startling about Jesus as he comes to us in the fullness of time, something much bigger than we ever expected? He says to the waves, now just calm down, and the disciples were astounded, who is this man? Isn’t the fulfillment so much bigger than the promise?

On his deathbed Heinrich Heine was asked about whether God would forgive him. He had a quick answer, ‘Gott vergibt mir. Es ist sein Job.’ I attempt a long-winded paraphrase: ‘What would you expect from God anyway? Isn’t that what we expect him to do?’ I bring that up to say, haltingly and feebly, that when Jesus comes everything he says and does is so much more than we ever anticipated! In the OT my biggest ‘aha moment’ is in Hosea 11, ‘O Ephraim how can I ever give you up!’ That comes after a long list of all the very good reasons the Lord has to be totally through with his people—but he isn’t going to do that!! In the NT my jaw drops when I see in Hebrews this about Jesus: He sat down! No chairs in the OT temple, priests have to keep moving from one sacrifice to the next, fat here, blood there. But our high priest has finished the job! The old sacrifices had to be repeated again and again, just because they were only anticipatory, but now it’s happened!!

So with all respect to Dick’s reminder that there’s already so much Jesus in the OT, in comparison with the fulfillment I am blown away with delight from the end of Doug’s movie, God’s movie. The grand Already is so much bigger than the old Not Yet.

Dick has done a great job in setting the stage, showing how important this all is. But I think now is the time to get to the action. We all truly want to hear Westminster follow up in what it began to tell us: in the two documents by Doug that you gave us, what is it that you are convinced denies our Westminster Confession of Faith?

Then our conversation can move ahead, with love for each other and clarity of heart and mind.

Dr. D. Clair Davis, lives in Philadelphia, Penn., is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and is a Professor Emeritus of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.