Dr Ralph Davis’ Coming Visit to the Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference
Dr Ralph Davis is the Professor of Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, USA. He is to give three addresses at the annual Banner of Truth ministers’ conference in Leicester at the beginning of April. His coming is eagerly awaited. His commentaries on the OT historical books Joshua, Judges and I & II Samuel are widely used and appreciated.
Married to Barbara they have three sons, Seth (29), Luke (27) and Joel (23). One of his former students, Wes Baker, describes three characteristics which have made Ralph a role model for the future pastors whom he is training. ‘The first is his scholarship. His knowledge of the Bible and close acquaintance with the latest concepts in the major areas of biblical study show students that it is possible to be a pastor-scholar. Second, his lecturing and preaching exhibit such a simple earnestness that one feels he is hearing the most basic truths of the gospel for the first time. Third, his interaction with students is always warm, sincere, and pastoral. One can never get the impression that he is too busy to talk.’
Ralph is a powerful preacher, graphic, descriptive, fresh and compelling. He owes a great debt to the faithful teaching and nurture of his parents and the fellowship of the church through the years. He was born in a small town called Mercer in western Pennsylvania, the youngest of five boys in a Christian home where his father was the Presbyterian minister. Ralph doesn’t remember a sudden conversion, just a gradual acceptance of Christ in the offer of salvation. ‘I just “oozed” into the kingdom of God,’ he says, ‘It’s like filling up a pond with loads of dirt from a dump truck. You don’t see any results until the last loads are in.’ His mother, he remembers, told him very early that he should be a pastor, although she put no pressure on him to move in that direction.
Then the Lord brought the schoolboy Ralph into contact with some friends who were into Youth for Christ. They helped sharpen his focus on the importance of having a personal relationship with Christ, not just adhering to the Christian religion. Witnessing in a different environment made clearer the difference between Christianity and paganism, and highlighted the need to know the Saviour for himself.
The 18 year-old went off to college in a small town in Kansas called Sterling. There he took Biblical Studies and philosophy with a growing assurance that God was calling him into the work of the ministry. There were no verses leaping out of the Bible to confirm that, just a steady quiet knowing that that is what he wanted to do with his life, but at the back of his mind there were his mother’s encouragements prodding him on. It was at the Sterling College that he met Barbara who had grown up thinking about the possibility of one day becoming a pastor’s wife. ‘It was a nice fit,’ says Ralph.
During the last two years at Sterling Ralph gained valuable experience by pastoring a small country church about forty miles away from the college. The congregation was largely composed of farmers and a highlight of his college years was working on one of the farms one summer. ‘I really began to understand farmers from the inside out because I worked with them, and spent leisure time with them,’ he remembers. ‘It made a remarkable difference in how I related to them and preached to them.’
In 1969 Ralph Davis accepted a call to the pastorate of two churches in a tiny Kansas town called Blue Rapids. ‘I was blessed to get that kind of experience right out of college because I was able to preach every Sunday morning and evening, and then in the week I had time to study without being distracted by the busy work that pastors of larger churches have to contend with.’
After four years there graduate school called and the Davis family left Kansas for Virginia to study at Union Seminary in Richmond. Feeling that his knowledge of Hebrew was not as good as his Greek he thought that doing a master’s degree in Theology and Biblical Studies would compel him to upgrade his Hebrew. While he was there he met a future professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Dr Knox Chamberlain who was then teaching at Belhaven College in Jackson but completing his doctorate at Richmond. Their paths were to cross again.
From Union Seminary Ralph moved to the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky to begin his work on a Ph.D. From there he moved to Belhaven College Mississippi to teach Old Testament Studies and Christian Doctrine. He loved instructing 18 year-olds the narrative sections of the Old Testament. Most of them had never read those chapters and it was a delight to see them get excited about the Scriptures.
It was in 1981 that Ralph Davis joined the faculty of RTS Jackson for the first time to teach Old Testament Studies. That was a happy time but at the end of three years he and Barbara began to feel the call back to the pastorate. They wanted their sons to grow up in a congregation sitting under their own father’s ministry. They spent the next four years in Westminster in Maryland where Ralph nurtured a newly planted church. Then in 1988 they moved a few miles to the great city of Baltimore itself as the preacher at Aisquith Presbyterian Church. That pastorate lasted six years.
Seven years ago Ralph Davis returned to Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson where he has been ever since. He wanted to transmit to future preachers some of what he had been learning in the pastorate. He says, ‘I’m not a high-powered academician. Most of my graduate work was done with an eye to the pastorate. My desire in my classes is to get the Old Testament back into the pulpit where I think it is too much neglected. My main aim is to give students what I call “Old Testament Fever.” If I can infect them with a passion for the Old Testament, I’ll be happy. To do that, I must be enthusiastic about the Old Testament and excited about teaching it.’
Ralph feels that students must sense that the Old Testament material is nourishing and nurturing them as they are learning it. If it is simply a historical, detached approach, they will not catch ‘Old Testament Fever.’ Most importantly, the Holy Spirit must be in the classroom. ‘The Holy Spirit works through means and messages. He uses our enthusiasm for the material and delights in taking what we teach not only to fill the brains of students, but also to nurture them in the path of godliness. Somehow we must get students to understand that they are not merely learning materials intellectually but are also being built up in the faith and in their walk before God. When they see this, they become excited about passing it on to God’s people.’
Dr Davis thinks the Old Testament is neglected for two reasons. First, people are not as familiar with it as the New Testament. Also, it is nearly three times as long as the New Testament; that can be forbidding. Second, liberal scholars are to blame for killing an interest in the Old Testament. During the last two hundred years, unbelieving scholarship dealing with the Old Testament has made it seem too dry and technical for ‘mere ministers.’ Many pastors simply throw up their hands in despair, feeling they can never get a handle on it.
‘I want to make the Old Testament alive for my students, showing them its rich narrative and colourful imagery. I don’t want anyone in my classes to think they can’t handle the Old Testament,’ he says. That is our hope who soon will be attending the Banner of Truth Conference in Leicester, that we ministers can more clearly see the inspiration and relevance of the Old Testament Scriptures to our congregations.
One of his students, Alonzo Ramirez, wrote about his Old Testament teacher, Ralph Davis; ‘As a professor, he has shown me the ideal model of a pastor, a scholar, and a Christian brother. He wants not only to instil in people’s minds a knowledge of the Bible but also to lead according to that knowledge. He has challenged me to deep study and commitment to the Word of God through his approach to Scripture. He has a considerable mastery of the original languages and real heart for God’s Word.’
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