08 November 2011

review: ff bruce - a life

Tim Grass. F. F. Bruce: A Life. Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2011.

Few scholars have had the impact on contemporary biblical studies as  The Dean (F. F. Bruce).  This biography offers many of us (especially those who entered the world of biblical studies post-1990) the opportunity to understand the life and influence of this top scholar.  Hopefully, a good number of people - academically involved or otherwise aware - will take the time to consider one of the greats.  In any field or endeavor, such is an important task to know who and what has gone on before us.  And since, I believe, we stand on the shoulders of such giants as Bruce in more ways than one.

Although the book was well-written and engaging, one aspect that made it more personally enjoyable was the sense of how accessible Bruce was to a broad range of people.  Additionally, I personally had the sense that in many ways he and I were cut from the same cloth in our perspectives on the world of biblical studies (he obviously from the brighter end of said cloth); there were numerous times when I chuckled at the way he would respond to questions, address issues and controversies, or spoke about the endeavor of biblical scholarship.

The book progresses more or less along the lines of a traditional biography, beginning with an account of Bruce's family, birth, childhood and early life.  One of the hallmarks of his life is the association to the Brethren throughout his life, often leaving him to navigate a sea of in-betweens - he was often seen as too 'liberal' by the Brethren and too 'fundamentalist' by the academic community, a perception that he consistently broke through by his commitment to the text and to his faith.  He worked to broaden evangelicalism, defining the Christian faith in the simple Pauline understanding of possessing faith in Christ.  He thus became self-identified as an "unhyphenated evangelical" based on his belief that the term evangelical included "every one who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly" (152).

Along with his perspective on evangelicalism, perhaps the second most influential fact of his scholarship was his commitment to the biblical text.  Such a comment should not be striking, but Bruce's dedication to Scripture still presented a challenge to much of the work being done (in both his day, and times before and afterward).  Bruce defined tradition as the family memory of the church and warned that the notion of sola Scriptura "had all too often meant allegiance to Scripture as our tradition has interpreted it."  Further, "He suggested that the essential principle of canonicity was witness to Christ; this was what gave the biblical documents their unity.  And since the Spirit's task was to bear witness to Christ, the supreme evidence for the authority of the Bible was the inner witness of the Spirit" (159).

Such a position gave Bruce an interesting voice in discussions regarding Inerrancy v. Infallibility, the role of women in ministry, the millenium questions, biblical inspiration, along with others.  Time and again he would return to what he found in Scripture, mostly repeating the refrain that he saw emerge from the Pauline epistles - freedom.  Once, when asked if there was any scriptural support for the idea of a secret rapture of the church he replied, "There may be, but I have yet to find it" (179).  Such was his approach to many topics, and often brought him to a place of scrutiny among the Brethren with whom he continued to minister and worship.

The author also includes a chapter on Bruce's writings, providing good summaries of the major content and their impact.  Here is a helpful overview in its own right, providing those who are less familiar with F. F. Bruce to get a better sense of his influence on biblical studies.

The legacy of F. F. Bruce is given consideration in the final chapter, as the author looks at the impact made on three communities: "Brethren, evangelicalism generally, and the world of academic biblical studies" (212).  Throughout his life, Bruce sought to broaden the notion of evangelical by appealing to the text of Scripture over and above any particular tradition or vantage point.  I believe movement such as this greatly enhanced (and still continues to push today) the experience of being Brethren.  (As part of a Brethren community - slightly different than Bruce's particular thread of Brethrenism - there is much for us to learn in order to grow.)

As for being an academic, Bruce's uniqueness is also seen in the lack of 'one big idea' that can be identified (223).  In fact, there is not a heavy emphasis on originality so much as there is on understanding the biblical text.  Moving exegesis to application was the heartbeat of Bruce's life, ministry and academic career.  How did he become so influential?  Through faithful engagement and exposition of the text, making it accessible to the evangelical community.  Here again is a point of agreement between myself and Bruce: the perceived need to become novel in our studies does not necessarily make us more intuitive or accomplished, but often runs the risk of moving us from faithful interpretation for the sake of attaining something new.  Bruce refused to go this route yet still made his impact on the world.

Here is a great mind, a committed evangelical, and a fearless scholar.  F. F. Bruce was 'old-school' in many ways: his choice of church, his opening of doors for other people (even young students), his refusal to work with a computer or electric typewriter, and his lack of interest in an ever-changing popular culture, choosing instead to work for the gospel.

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