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Clair Davis Asks "What Does the Truth MEAN?"

Clair Davis Asks "What Does the Truth MEAN?"

We need to learn and grow from God’s Word. As that happens our faith will be active in our lives. But it isn’t easy for that to happen. Our Bible reading and meditation are becoming less and less important to us. We hear too many sermons that only describe the gospel and do not bring it home in our lives.

How did that happen and what can we do about it? My work for many years was in learning and then teaching church history. My early plan was to do systematic theology, showing how the Bible’s teachings are related to each other—but the Lord had another idea. In church history I learned to show how the truths of the Word made a difference in people’s lives, and then I went on to encourage us to learn from their examples. How do we put together Truth and what it Means? To answer that is the calling the Lord has given me, and I believe what the church of Jesus Christ deeply needs right now is finding that Meaning in the Word. In hi-tech language it’s about hermeneutics, guidelines for biblical interpretation.

We can review how our ways of thinking have developed in the history of philosophy. In God’s good providence the Reformation and the Renaissance came at the same time: both “how can I be right with God” and “how can I understand myself” came to be considered simultaneously. John Calvin led the way by showing how God-knowledge and self-knowledge interact. Those of us who follow the Reformed way of thinking appreciate the way our creeds say it, the Heidelberg Catechism with its “what is your only comfort in life and in death” and the Westminster Confession teaching that God’s good gifts to us come only through Christ our Mediator. “How shall we stand in God’s judgment” will always be a vital question, but no more so than “how may I live today for God’s honor?”

In many ways the faith and life of that day was the best there ever has been in the history of God’s church. But that didn’t last, read C. F. Allison’s Rise of Moralism for the story. Christianity came to be marginalized, limited to an intellectual and theoretical world, perhaps because a biblical faith was too demanding? That expressed itself in the rise of 18th century Rationalism, with its focus on the abstract truth found in science and mathematics. The sum of all the angles of all triangles will always be the same as the angle described in a straight line, whether or not a particular triangle has already been drawn or ever will be. Truth is eternal, but only in the theoretical mind, not in life. 

That could never be enough, so Romanticism came, a view that included all of human experience, especially that found in history with all its changes and movement. The answer to the question, what is true, was a resounding “it changes.” That sets the scene for our modern thinking and its basic question, how can we put together “eternal truth” and “our changing experience?” Immanuel Kant suggested an answer and to a great extent all thinking since his day interacts with him and his question, how can the Christian gospel find its place in that modern world? 

Could the Pietistic experiential use of the Bible be helpful? For many, especially in the Lutheran world, Pietism is too subjective as it addresses the issues of living for Christ. But if you can regard it as a welcome Lutheran version of Puritanism, in practice there is very little difference. Puritanism has Reformed roots, where the gospel includes not only the forgiveness of sins in justification but also the transformation of life in sanctification. Within that setting biblical help in life is more than welcome—but within the Lutheran world with its single focus on justification, questions of life transformation can seem unnecessary and distracting. Whatever the distinction within the Protestant world might be, the practical side of following Jesus certainly belongs to us all as vital to biblical interpretation.

In the narrower American scene the issue of the value of our experience was more pressing. Jonathan Edwards may well be the greatest of all our theologians, godly in heart and well-balanced exegetically. But his focus was the glory of God, while all of his disciples looked only at the narrowly psychological side of Christian faith, ending up for many in Unitarianism, no longer finding the divine Christ relevant for Christian faith! What can that mean, that looking at experiential faith threatens the core of the gospel? If all of one’s students don’t have it right, doesn’t that mean there is something radically wrong with the teacher? But we just can’t say that about Edwards. Read Joseph Haroutunian, Piety Versus Moralism, to see how those disciples got that way.

All that serves as background for my 1960 doctoral dissertation under Otto Weber at Göttingen, The Hermeneutics of Ernst Wilhelm Hengstenberg: Edifying Value as Exegetical Standard. When German liberal theology came to America at Andover Seminary, Charles Hodge became convinced he needed to study German conservative responses before taking up his work at Princeton Seminary, so in 1826 he went to Berlin to learn from Hengstenberg. Later J. A. Alexander, leader of Old Testament studies at Princeton, translated much of Hengstenberg’s work and built his own commentaries upon his. Considering the great influence of Princeton Seminary on our evangelicalism, it helps us to consider this German influence. (Attached is the diss itself, for those willing to read that much German).

How may we make use of our Christian “experience” as we read God’s Word? How can we make use of modern “scientific” historiography? That is another way we ask our ongoing question, how can we find both Truth and Meaning in the Word? Friedrich Schleiermacher had led the way, as he sought to be “a Pietist of a higher order,” combining piety with modern thought—but while he was immensely influential, at the end of the day what he did was minimize theology all the way down to “the feeling of total dependence.” (Didn’t we already see that in Edwards’ disciples? Do we really need to know how Germans think?) It’s not surprising that Hengstenberg saw in arbitrary Pietism the doorway to arbitrary liberalism, and therefore rejected it—but at the same time promoted “edifying value” as a vital side of good exegesis! How could he do that?

The guiding factor in his thinking was “openness to God’s Word,” vigorous acceptance of all of the Word as God intended it to be received, making no room for some external principle of interpretation, whether Pietistic or liberal. God himself in his Word cares for us pastorally and we are called to receive it that way! History is our guide, not God-denying Kantian historicism but God’s own redemptive history. I quote myself from pp. 64-65 of the dissertation: 

His interpretation is therefore not an arbitrary one, even though it has as its announced end the satisfaction of the needs of the people of God. Though pragmatic, it is not subjective; one certainly is not to twist the Scripture to satisfy one's needs, but is to discover the laws which enable the release of the kernel from the husk. This does not by any means mean that this process is an abstract "scientific" one; as has been mentioned, it is precisely this process which cannot be utilized without faith, as is not surprising, for one must penetrate to the very essence of God, to the laws by which he governs the universe, thinking the thoughts of the prophets after them. But it does not mean that this process is not an arbitrary or forced one; in spite of the fact that the exegetical "feeling" plays an important part, it is just as much against it to use an unnatural method, which could yield practically any desired result, as it is to so interpret Scripture so that it is of no immediate edifying use to the Church. 

Isn’t that what we today call biblical theology? God unfolds his merciful saving plan, in deed and in explanatory word? As his personal saving plan in our own lives unfold? So that “God’s story is your story?” J. P. Gabler we all recognize as its pioneer, but why not include Hengstenberg too? With that way of seeing reality, believers were getting back to the good days of the Reformation, when Truth and Meaning belonged together, when the gospel of Jesus Christ is our “only comfort in life and in death.” His story and your story are not at all static, but go on to our “more about Jesus would I know” and the Lord’s “more and more will I come to you.” 

That was then, but very much still there for us and blessing us. The story isn’t over. See that as you work through Mike Emlet’s Crosstalk. It’s similar but from the Christian counselor’s point of view. Before we worked hard to see the movement in the Bible, now we work to understand the changes in the person we’re caring for. How has she been reading that Bible passage, not just how you read it? Is it an isolated ditch problem? Or more a chasm? Either way, we don’t see Bible rules in splendid isolation but always within the unfolding history, both God’s and ours. Everyone is a Saint, Sufferer and Sinner, so get to know her in all of those ways! (When I think Saint, I go to biblical theology’s Already, is that right?) Sam Logan says about this book, that “anyone who wants to understand and apply the Bible really MUST read!” Sam does hyperbole, but not this time.

Sufferer is the hardest. What do you do with John 15: 18-21? 

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” 

Last Sunday I heard how to hear this, much more deeply than ever before. It was my son Marc preaching, but paternal something isn’t what happened. It was the riches of the gospel, of the love of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit coming deeper and deeper to us all. So much Truth with so much Meaning, now for you too.


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