So What? Dr. Clair Davis on the Importance of Culture (Ancient and Contemporary)

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[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my good friend and former seminary teacher Dr. D. Clair Davis.  Dr. Davis studied under John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary before completing his Dr.theol. under Otto Weber at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He then taught at Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.]

As we work with God’s word, the ‘so what’ part is hard but necessary.  After we hear a thorough sermon on what God did and said back then, then we experience one of two things: #1 nothing much, maybe the preacher’s asking you to apply this to your life without telling you how, or #2 the preacher’s giving you some real help doing that. This seems hard to do and many of us are used to not getting much help, so that too often our usual response to God’s deep love in the gospel is just, ‘that was interesting, never heard that before.’

I don’t understand how Westminster Seminary is working with this. If a professor believes that he should do his best to first understand what the Old Testament must have meant to those writing it and hearing it, from what he can learn from their culture, then the Seminary asks him to leave. (Culture flows into the ’so what’). That seems to be why Doug Green was ‘retired.’  A number of us have asked the Board to rethink that but now two weeks have gone by since they met and they’ve told us nothing. I don’t understand either their action with Doug Green or their unwillingness to tell us why they did it. With sad regret I am sure now there’s no point in attempting any further communication.

That was then, ancient history now. But there is a related but bigger picture that we all need to work on as we go ahead. This is a time of crisis for the evangelical church. We share much common culture with Europe and there the gospel is almost extinguished. About a quarter of the young people in our churches have left already. God’s message is for many no longer relevant, no longer speaking into our culture.  That missing ‘so what’ means more than that we easily tolerate irrelevant sermons, it means we are uncertain about our gospel message. The bigger picture for all of us now, whether concerned with Westminster or not, is just knowing how we should understand the Bible and how we should help others do that. What is your and my ‘so what’ today?

Westminster is shutting down its Urban Mission program, accepting no new applicants (p. 9 of the catalog still lists as a distinctive ‘Contextual Missiology & Urban Mission’; no doubt that will be tidied up).  Manny Ortiz and Sue Baker continue the work now at Biblical Theological Seminary).  To me that seems very similar to the rejection of Doug Green’s use of ancient culture for understanding the Old Testament. Do we need to understand the human culture behind the Bible, and also the culture into which we are now called to bring it? Harvie gave us the convincing answer. There were so many fulfilling parts of what Westminster was in my time there, but for me Harvie Conn and his contextualization were at the top of my list. Harvie’s masterpiece, Eternal Word and Changing Worlds, is always worth your close attention.

I met then with Tim Keller and Ron Lutz for a couple years, praying for Tim’s work in evaluating New York and finding a church planter to go there. Tim finally concluded he had to go himself! Who would dare to go into the hostile ungodly atmosphere of NYC? Tim told us it was Harvie who showed him the way!

Putting together what God says in his word and how we must apply it in our time is a crucial issue. It is hard to do and it can be foolish and dangerous. You know what so many churches are up to right now, making room for pastors in same-sex marriages since that is where the ‘culture’ is today.  At least those churches are usually clear about it, admitting that the Bible is against that and then saying the Bible is wrong and they aren’t going to follow it. What is your plan? The best I know comes from Harvest USA, and director John Freeman’s book Hide or Seek is phenomenal. For me that’s so hard that there are so many deep cultural issues today that we have to address. Do we really have to? Can’t we just go on in the way our churches were a generation ago? Read this from Harvie; it helps me.

How can we bring the theologians who dominate our schools and our doctrinal developments into the discussion? As long as the unreached peoples remain a concern only of professional missiologists in our schools and the secretaries of our boards, our understanding of ecclesiology will continue to reduce itself to introverted churchliness. There was disappointment and anger and frustration. Reformed church people have had a long tradition of listening carefully to theologians. And no one at the consultation was proposing a change in that healthy respect. But we yearned for the hour when theologians would listen to the concerns of this gathering. One sensed our theologians were seen as placing the church as the goal of missions. The stress was on her isolated piety and liturgy, her inner riches. Where was the vision of the church “inside out,” in exodus to the world and as a sign of the kingdom of God? (Reaching the Unreached, p. ix)

Did you get that, ‘our church inside out, in exodus to the world’? That Harvie could write. ‘Introverted churchliness’ gets my attention even more. Isn’t that just the right label for not caring whether anyone knows what we’re talking about? Now see this in more high-tech language in Richard Muller’s Study of Theology (lifted appropriately from the ‘Conn-versation’ blog)

.…dogmatics cannot just be the recitation of the doctrinal statements of the church in a topical rather than a historical order nor can it be just the contemporary exposition of someone’s theological ideas, no matter how brilliant they might be. The doctrines must be churchly, and the exposition, also churchly in its basic attitude and approach, must be contemporary in its expression. If the contemporary aspect of the definition is lost, the exposition lapses into a reconstructive, historically defined approach that can at best produce for present-day examination a doctrinal overview from a bygone era. This kind of theology is no better than the attempt to take a particular document from a past era—even a document as valuable as Calvin’s Institutes or Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae—and use it as a textbook in theology. The past must be consulted, but not copied without regard to the new historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves. If, on the other hand, the great doctrines of the church are not addressed, the exposition lapses into a subjectivity and personal or even idiosyncratic statement….There is, therefore, in dogmatic or doctrinal theology a clear relationship between contemporary faith-statement and the normative doctrinal constructs known as dogmas. The question for dogmatic theology is precisely how these dogmas relate to the biblical witness on which they have been founded, to the larger body of doctrines that belongs to theology but that has not been as closely defined as the so-called dogmas, and to the ability of the contemporary theologian or minister to proclaim the significance of the biblical witness for the present. (p. 611) 

The mistaken self-exaltation of which doctrinal or dogmatic theology is all too easily capable can, moreover, be described and avoided in terms of this hermeneutical model. If a theologian exalts any particular doctrinal construction and insists that it become the key to interpreting the entirety of Scripture and to organizing the entirety of theological system, the scriptural Word becomes stifled by human a priori, by what is perhaps a brilliant but nonetheless false contrivance of a particular theological ego. It is an error for a systematic theologian to assume that any particular schematization of a biblical idea or group of biblical ideas can become the basis for the interpretation of texts in which those ideas of doctrines do not appear. (p. 612) 

The biblical norm provides doctrinal theology with its primary topics, while the historical norm provides theology with an ongoing meditation on and interpretive elaboration of the contents of Scripture in the light of the historical experience of the believing community…In other words, biblical theology has the potential of reopening the text of Scripture for systematic use on issues and topics where traditional interpretations have either been mistaken or have led to omissions of insights of themes from our theological systems. (p. 613) 

The question confronting contemporary systematic theology, of course, is whether or not the traditional form still serves adequately the presentation of the body of Christian doctrine—whether, in fact, the preliminary examination of the character, sources, and methods of theology that ought to precede any system of theology now demands the alteration not only of detail but also of basic patterns of organization. (p. 616) 

“The past must be consulted, but not copied without regard to the new historical and cultural situation in which we find ourselves.”  That’s not as ‘Harvie-ish’ but it’s clear and cogent, I believe. That’s what Tim Keller is learning with those 30-some plants in New York. That’s what we all need to know and do as we talk to our children, the departed and the not-yet-departed.

In my PCA I know that is a big part of the reason that we see our hearty commitment to the Westminster Standards as ‘system subscription.’  We agree with what they say, but we need to say it better right now. Are we really up to that? We’re not up to anything by ourselves, but as we call upon the Lord he will hear us. It’s his honor that’s at stake, after all, that his gospel be more than mumbled but clearly proclaimed.

That Keller New York contextualization is hard but it’s our God-given calling, no doubt about it. What Old Testament profs do with that weird language that goes right to left, is that at all the same? The culture of the 17th century was providential but not inspired by God, but the OT is. Does this help us with Westminster and Doug Green? The thing is, the culture around the OT is like the 17th century, God was providentially totally in charge of it, but it was full of major human blunders, now wasn’t it? Why should Doug or Tremper or Chris or Meredith Kline or Doug Gropp or David Lamb spend so much time with it then? I don’t get why this is such a big deal, but there’s clearly only one way to know what old words mean, and that’s to figure out how they were being used, and that’s more than enough Why. To do that you have to know their cultural background, and that’s why archaeology and comparative religion and who knows what besides is well worth doing. All that work opens our eyes wider to what God said and did back then, so it’s worthwhile. I tried to say that to the Board a month ago, asking why should the seminary have only a half-full toolbox?

Yes, it’s dangerous, looking at old cultures that are so close to the OT one. Some people get carried away, and think everything’s ‘relative.’  Sure, that’s discouraging. But no more discouraging than the fall of Europe or of our young people, is it? By the Lord’s grace we keep doing what we need to do and trust him for the outcomes, don’t we? Do we say, stay out of New York or stay away from the Hittites? Now that’s ridiculous.  ‘Labor on,’ do you know that old one? It covers the ground, especially what we need to do in seminary:

Go, labor on: spend, and be spent,
Thy joy to do the Father’s will:
It is the way the Master went;
Should not the servant tread it still?

Go, labor on! ’tis not for naught
Thine earthly loss is heavenly gain;
Men heed thee, love thee, praise thee not;
The Master praises: what are men?

Go, labor on! enough, while here,
If He shall praise thee, if He deign
The willing heart to mark and cheer:
No toil for Him shall be in vain.

 

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