Friday, 12 October 2012

FF Bruce's integration of academic and church life, and how he embarrassed Ernst Käsemann

Today 112 years ago, Frederick Fyvie Bruce, one of the most influential British New Testament scholars of the 20th century was born in Scotland. As a small tribute, I thought I will share two little excerpts of Tim Grass' biography of Bruce's life and academic work, published in 2011. Two specific sections caught my eye as I glanced over a few sections tonight. The first is the occasion of his presidential address, after being elected president of the SNTS in 1975 (with interesting comments about Ernst Käsemann's body language!); and the second, the lack of tension he experienced between his academic study of the Bible and his approach to the Bible in personal or church life:

The 1975 SNTS Lecture

"... in 1975 he became president of the SNTS ... His presidential address, delivered at Aberdeen, was on the subject of 'The New Testament and Classical Studies'. In it he contended that the classicists were uniquely placed to study the New Testament because it was part of the cultural world which was their field and because the skills required to do so were those which they used in studying ancient writings. As a test case he took the writings of Luke, and especially the book of Acts, arguing controversially for the essential historicity of the speeches recorded in it. His conclusion was that 'the Graeco-Roman contribution to early Christianity should not be depreciated as though it were an alien accretion upon the pure gospel' ... Bruce was probably well aware that his emphasis on the importance of the classical background and his attempt to achieve objectivity in his handling of the text would run counter to the more conceptually orientated and philosophically committed approach of many continental scholars, and that his lay status would not be approved of by some clerical scholars present, but his lecture was the best (his close friend Ward) Gasque had ever heard him give, 'bearing witness to his convictions as a scholar and as a disciple'. Ernst Käsemann, a distinguished if sometimes combative German scholar, was seen to grow redder as the lecture progressed, but it may be a mark of his respect for Bruce that he does not appear to have entered into debate with him at the conference" (p. 115).

The lack of tension between academic and church life

"The Christian acceptance of the Bible as God's word written does not in the least inhibit the unfettered study of its contents and setting; on the contrary, it acts as an incentive to their most detailed and comprehensive investigation" (p. 131 [F.F. Bruce, "Matter of Call" (letter), Christianity Today, 26 March 1965, p. 38]).

"I am sometimes asked if I am aware of a tension between my academic study of the Bible and my approach to the Bible in personal or church life. I am bound to say that I am aware of no such tension ... Naturally, when I discharge a teaching ministry in church I avoid the technicalities of academic discourse and I apply the message of Scripture in a more practical way. But there is no conflict between my critical or exegetical activity in a university context and my Bible exposition in church; the former makes a substantial contribution to the latter. At the same time, membership in a local church, involvement in the activities of a worshipping community, helps the academic theologian to remember what his subject is all about, and keeps his studies properly 'earthed'" (p. 131 [F.F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past (London: Marshall Pickering, rev. edn, 1993)]).

*  This pdf is a related lecture delivered at the John Rylands University Library with the title: "Is the Paul of Acts the Real Paul?".