Thursday, 4 July 2013

F. F. Bruce: A Productive Life

I finally finished Tim Grass's F. F. Bruce: A Life, which took me all week to read. I was attracted to the book because of Bruce's connection with the Plymouth Brethren, a denomination which I studied for my master's thesis at Regent College. I have fond memories of talking about Brethren ecclesiology with Bruce's former student Ward Gasque in Vancounver as well as J. I. Packer, who served as the supervisor for my thesis. Each time that I met with Dr. Packer, he would mark up the drafts of my thesis in pencil with various corrections. Amazingly, Dr. Packer would refer to footnotes in my thesis by memory.

Growing up in an unofficial Brethren church in Toledo, Ohio, I wanted to learn more about this denomination while answering questions that pertained to its ecclesiology. I wondered why our church did not have a pastor, why it was run by elders, and why we held a "Breaking of Bread" service each Sunday. Furthermore, in retrospect, it seemed striking to me that so many laypeople in our church knew the Bible backwards and forwards. I cannot think of any church that I have attended since in which the congregants knew scripture as well. With this background in mind, I was excited to pick up Tim Grass's biography of F. F. Bruce last week at the Eerdmans bookstore in Grand Rapids.

Bruce is the most important Brethren scholar in the latter half of the 20th century, establishing himself as a preeminent New Testament scholar while holding the Rylands Chair of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester University. From Grass's account, Bruce's life was not all that exciting. The book is nothing like the page-turning biography of C. S. Lewis by Alister McGrath. What I found to be the most impressive aspect of Bruce's life was his literary output (Grass helpfully provides a bibliography of Bruce's works at the end of the book), writing some fifty books, hundreds of articles, and roughly two thousand reviews while somehow managing to serve his church, raise a family, and mentor dozens of students. I also was amazed at the breadth of Bruce's scholarship, with expertise on not only ancient languages and biblical studies, but also extending his interests into church history and practical theology.

While Bruce maintained his allegiance to the Brethren, he did not shy away from criticizing some of the denomination's most cherished distinctives, such as premillennial dispensationalism and its ban against women in ministry. Because of his failure to adopt some traditional Brethren beliefs, he was not universally appreciated by everyone in the denomination. Some, for instance, criticized him for supposedly liberalizing Brethren doctrines.

Bruce's greatest impact seems to have been on the wider evangelical movement. In his conclusion, Grass writes that Bruce's influence on evangelicalism is twofold: "he paved the way for widespread evangelical acceptance of critical methodologies as having a part to play in reverent and submissive biblical study, and for wider academic acceptance of evangelicals as genuine scholars... For many evangelicals, Bruce was 'Exhibit A' as evidence for their claim to have an intellectually credible position" (217). Bruce helped contribute to the push among current evangelicals to establish themselves as respected scholars at secular institutions in the academe. For people interested in biographies on the forerunners of contemporary evangelical scholarship--Carl F. H. Henry, George Eldon Ladd, and others.--Grass's book is a good place to start.

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