I loved Dan Fuller. I still do, the way one does when the beloved slips from you by degrees until he dies at 97. And yet lives. Dan died in the wee hours of June 21, 2023.
He was the most influential teacher I ever had. It was the kind of influence that pierces to bone and marrow. The kind that changes the mental and emotional DNA. The kind that touches everything, forever. My eternity will be different because of Dan Fuller.
Grand Permission and Obligation
He was professor of hermeneutics at Fuller Seminary during my three years there, 1968 to 1971. I took every course he offered, starting with the required freshman hermeneutics class — call it a door to a new world, like a wardrobe opening to Narnia. Call it a jarring reveille wakening me from a 22-year sleep of inobservance. Call it the grand Permission and Obligation: you may and you must pursue joy. Call it the gift of a skill — to wring from texts their lifeblood, with a method called “arcing.” Call it a future, a life.
“Daniel Fuller was the most influential teacher I ever had.”
Something else happened in that class of a different kind. A single sentence was spoken that went deep into my fragile self-understanding. I entered seminary uncertain of my abilities. I was a B student at Wheaton College. This did not inspire confidence that I could excel in seminary or go on for doctoral studies.
One assignment in the hermeneutics class was to write a review essay of James Smart’s The Interpretation of Scripture. As Dr. Fuller was handing back the papers, we were clustered around his desk. He did not know me by name. It was a huge class. He looked at the paper, and said, “John Piper.” As I took the paper from his hand, he looked at me and said, “You’ve got ability.” Someone who mattered had just built into me, “You can do this.”
Hermeneutics for Eggheads
Then came 22 hours of electives — Bible, Bible, Bible. Not “introductions.” Not “overviews.” Not “surveys.” Not “Forschungsgeschichte.” But put your nose in these propositions, and don’t come up till you smell the reality — not just the words, not just the ideas, but the reality. Class after class, Bible book after Bible book, forming for a lifetime the habit of discontent until a text yields, and gives up its riches.
There was one exception — a course not focused on the Bible. Dr. Fuller announced it on the bulletin board outside his office: “Hermeneutics for Eggheads.” Six of us signed up.
We met at his house once a week until our heads hurt, as we Adlerized Fuchs, Ebling, Robinson, Gadamer, and Hirsch. “Adlerized” — as in Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book. No talking back to a book until you can state the author’s view to his satisfaction. Then sic ’em. Flag every factual mistake, every inattention to relevant facts, every non sequitur. Who would have thought that the first book to be mastered in graduate school is a book that should be mastered in high school — Adler. Fuller knew his plebes.
Then came the climactic, required (desired!) integrating course, “Unity of the Bible.” This was not a course in mixing paints and knowing brushes and learning line and form and perspective. This was the completion of the canvas, the panorama. The effort to say the unsayable: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
This was the end for which God created the world. This was seven-point Calvinism without the name. This was Jonathan Edwards marinated in the whole Bible. “The beams of glory come from God, are something of God, and are refunded back again to their original. So that the whole is of God, and in God, and to God; and he is the beginning, and the middle, and end” (Works of Jonathan Edwards, 8:531). The climactic course was the merging of theology into doxology. Knowing into enjoying.
Prayers, Promises, and Warnings
One of the earliest signs in seminary that great changes were happening was the effect of Fuller’s teaching on our prayers. Noël and I were newly married (December 1968). Right away we put in place the practice of praying together every night (a practice still in place 55 years later). Then came the discoveries:
- The goal of God in everything he does is the glorification of God. It was God himself who told us to pray for his name to be hallowed. So, we did.
- The goal of the human soul in all we do is to be satisfied in God above all things. It was God himself who demanded that we “serve the Lord with gladness” (Psalm 100:2). God himself told us to pray, “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love” (Psalm 90:14). So, we did.
- The goal of persevering faith is reached by a proper fear of unbelief. This was God’s word: “They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear” (Romans 11:20). So, we prayed for the fear of unbelief.
“There was absolutely no academic gamesmanship. This was life and death.”
Dr. Fuller taught these realities. He pointed to them in actual biblical texts. Look at these words, these phrases, these propositions, these arguments. Then he would look at us, with utter seriousness and affection, and say, “We will go to hell if we ignore these things.” All the glories, all the promises, all the threatenings are there to help us fight the fight of faith. They are there to prevent the shipwreck of faith. They are there to get us home. It is suicide to ignore the promises and threatenings of Scripture.
After Class Ended
It was the urgency of the classes that gave them their weight. The skills, the truths, the realities were all kindling. But the fire was the urgency — the blood-earnestness. There was absolutely no academic gamesmanship. This was life and death. If you didn’t feel this, you shouldn’t be in the ministry. Because real ministry is an aroma from death to death and life to life (2 Corinthians 2:15–16).
He loved us. I felt it in class. And even more, I felt it after class. These were the best of times. The two-hour give-and-take of the Galatians class was over. And four or five of us would not move. The others left the room. Dan sat down, and for another hour he would respond to our questions. What made these times powerful was not that he had all the answers, but that he was as eager as we were to ask the right questions and together find what the text actually meant. He was vulnerable. He was actually excited to learn things from our interaction. This was electric for neophytes.
Not everyone loved Dan Fuller the way some of us did. There were a handful of students in that first hermeneutics class who sat at the back and rolled their eyes at his stammering voice and his radical commitment to rationality. Once one of them complained out loud in class that Fuller was too rational. Dan’s response was a life-changer for me. He said,
Why can’t we be like Jonathan Edwards, who could be writing a treatise that would challenge the most philosophical minds, and then break into a paragraph of devotion that would warm your grandmother’s heart?
I knew almost nothing of Jonathan Edwards then. But that one sentence sent me running to the library to find that signature mixture of reason and emotion. And until June 21, 2023, I would have said that Edwards was my most influential dead theologian.
Great Logic of Heaven
Now the fight is over. It was a good fight. For decades he taught us and showed us how to fight it. Near the end, as the outer man wasted away, others fought for him, reciting into his almost deaf ears the promises of God. The precious promises of God. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32). This is the great reason why Daniel Fuller loved logic. This is the great logic of heaven. This is the most glorious a fortiori.
Because God did the hardest thing — give his Son — he will most certainly do the easier — give us all things. Everything good for us. Faith-sustaining grace for 97 years, and now face to face with the Son of God.