Winter 1997

Volume 16, Issue 4

A Slow and Certain Guidance

by Becky Hobbs

Ask Ralph Davis how God has guided him during his life, and you won’t get a dramatic answer. No lightning bolts or flashes of light have appeared -- just a gentle "knowing" of God’s will has characterized his life.

"The only flashes of light that occur are lightning storms in Mississippi," quips Ralph, with his trademark humor. "Other than that, everything has been a gradual ‘bump along’ type thing, walking through doors as God has opened them."

But others will tell you that God has done an amazing work in this Professor of Old Testament at RTS/Jackson. Through the years of constant biblical study and practice of the Christian faith, Ralph has become an example of godliness for his students.

Wes Baker (RTS ’96), one of Ralph’s former students, feels that three characteristics in particular make Ralph a wonderful model for the future pastors whom he is training. "The first is his scholarship," says Wes. "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 never gets the impression that he is too busy to talk."

Ralph is a powerful preacher -- graphic, descriptive, fresh and compelling. His expositional commentaries attest to his deep and sharp insight into Scripture. So far he has written four: No Falling Words (Joshua), Such a Great Salvation (Judges), Looking on the Heart (1st Samuel), and Out of Every Adversity (2nd Samuel), due out in 1998.


Ralph acknowledges that he owes much to the faithful teaching and nurture of his parents and the fellowship of the church through the years. Born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, a small town in the western part of the state, Ralph grew up as the youngest of five boys in a Christian home where his father was a Presbyterian minister. Ralph doesn’t remember a sudden conversion, just a gradual acceptance of Christ and His offer of salvation.

"I think I just ‘oozed’ into the kingdom of God," says Ralph. "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.

A big change occurred in Ralph’s sheltered existence during his freshman year in high school when his family moved to Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town. Populated with many Eastern Europeans, the culture was very different from the Protestant, Christian environment in which he had grown up. In Ralph’s words, "The move just shook the insides out of life as I knew it."

But the Lord used the situation by bringing Ralph into contact with some friends who were in 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. Being in an environment that was not so apparently Christian showed him the difference between Christianity and paganism and highlighted the need to know Christ.

After high school, Ralph enrolled in Sterling College in the small town of Sterling, Kansas. He majored in Bible and philosophy, knowing by now that God indeed was leading him into the pastorate. Again, there was no flash of light or thunderbolts -- just a quiet knowing. Looking back, he realizes that his mother’s words to him had always been in the back of his mind, gently prodding him toward the ministry. It was at Sterling that he met his wife, Barbara. She had grown up knowing she wanted to be a pastor’s wife, so it was a "nice fit," says Ralph.

During his last two years at Sterling, Ralph gained valuable experience by pastoring a small country church about forty miles away. The congregation was composed primarily of farm families in the area. 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, ate 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."

After seminary the two accepted a pastorate in the tiny Kansas town of Blue Rapids in 1969. There Ralph gained very helpful experience pastoring two small churches. "I was blessed to get that kind of experience right out of seminary," he confides, "because I was able to preach every Sunday morning and teach every Sunday evening. Since it was a relatively small pastorate, I had time to study constantly without being interrupted by the ‘busy work’ that pastors of larger churches must contend with."

Although immensely satisfied in this ministry, after four years Ralph decided to go to graduate school at Union Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. Feeling that his knowledge of Hebrew was not as good as his Greek, he thought that doing a masters degree in theology and biblical studies would force him to work on his Hebrew. While there he met Dr. Knox Chamblin, who was there on leave from Belhaven College to finish his doctorate. The relationship would later bring Ralph to Jackson.

Next, he entered the Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, to work on a Ph.D. in Old Testament, and when he completed his doctorate, Belhaven happened to have an opening.

Ralph enjoyed several happy years at Belhaven, where he taught Old Testament Studies and Christian Doctrine. Although the load was heavy, he especially liked teaching freshmen Old Testament Survey. "Many of those kids had never read the narrative sections of the Old Testament," recalls Ralph with a smile. "It was a challenge to get them excited about Scripture."

In 1981, Ralph left Belhaven and came to RTS to teach Old Testament Studies. Although happy and challenged in his teaching position, three years later he and Barbara began to feel the call back into the pastorate, thinking they would like their sons to grow up in a congregation where Ralph was preaching and teaching. In the end they walked through the Lord’s open door and took a small church in Westminster, Maryland, near Baltimore. They spent four years watering this newly planted church.

In 1988, they felt the Lord opening another door within the city of Baltimore at Aisquith Presbyterian Church (PCA). Ralph particularly enjoyed working with the session in that church and developing close ties with the people.

"In spite of all the problems and pressures in a congregation," says Ralph, "a pastor really creates a bond with the people he is serving, living among, and caring for. They are ‘his people.’ He cries with them in sorrow and rejoices with them in happiness. He can’t help but love them."


In 1994, Ralph returned to RTS/Jackson, ready to transmit some of what he had learned in the pastorate. "I’m not a high-powered academician," confesses Ralph. "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 "OT Fever." Most importantly, the Holy Spirit must be in the classroom.

"The Holy Spirit works through means and messages," explains Ralph. "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 material 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 this on to God’s people."

Ralph 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 foreboding. 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 bring the Old Testament alive for my students, showing them its rich narrative and colorful imagery," Ralph comments. "I don’t want anyone in my classes to think they can’t handle the Old Testament.

With Ralph as a teacher, it’s hard to see how anyone could fail to catch a vision for the Old Testament in all its glory and how it relates to everyday life.. Perhaps Alonzo Ramirez, a senior in the Doctor of Missiology program at RTS/Jackson, sums up Ralph’s ability the best of all. "As a professor, he has shown me the ideal model of a pastor, a scholar, and a Christian brother. He wants not only to instill in people’s minds a knowledge of the Bible but also how 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 commendable mastery of the original languages and a real heart for God’s Word."

RTS wordmark Reformed Quarterly, Volume 16, Issue 4
Reformed Theological Seminary
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Last updated 7-20-99.