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F.F. Bruce: A Life
F.F. Bruce: A Life
Tim Grass
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012
304 pp., 28.6

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Robert Gundry


Frederick the Bruce

The immensely productive life of F. F. Bruce.

In the first quarter of the 14th century, Robert the Bruce reigned over Scotland. In the second half of the 20th century, another Scot named Bruce, Frederick Fyvie Bruce ("Fred" to his friends," "Professor Bruce" to his students, or simply "FFB"), reigned, it could be said, over worldwide evangelical biblical scholarship. The comparison stops there, however, because the irenicism of Frederick the Bruce contrasted sharply with the militancy that characterized Robert the Bruce, a warrior. Suitably to this contrast, Robert failed on a couple of occasions to capture Elgin, the hometown of Frederick (hereafter, FFB). The volume under present review deals with the life of FFB.

An alert by way of full disclosure: I was a doctoral student of FFB, his first one at England's Manchester University, so far as I know. On the other hand, I hardly came to know him: a 15-20 minute academic conversation once a month for a year, and never any socializing in each other's homes or elsewhere. He hadn't yet established a seminar. I took not even one class that he taught, and I heard him give only one special lecture. At our first meeting in his office we agreed on a dissertation topic. He suggested a half-dozen books for me to start with; and on receiving a draft of my dissertation, he told me to use "vicegerent" rather than the "viceregent" that I had written. Apart from the negligible monthly conversations already noted, plus one later-related exception, that was it. So the biography, F. F. Bruce: A Life, taught me a lot that I didn't know about my former doctoral supervisor. It even prompted me to read in addition his autobiography, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past (Eerdmans, 1980).

Tim Grass, author of the biography, has tried not to duplicate the autobiography. Inevitably there is some overlap, but the biography grows out of a great deal of independent research. A 13-page select bibliography includes manuscripts, private papers and correspondence, files, unpublished theses/dissertations, books, articles, and websites; Grass also provides a 36-page, chronologically ordered bibliography of FFB's writings (not including more than 2,000 book reviews!), a chronological outline of significant events in FFB's life (1910-1990), and 16 photos in addition to the handsome headshot on the book cover and spine.

FFB grew up in the Open Brethrenism of northeastern Scotland, his father being a farm worker-turned-itinerant evangelist whom FFB often accompanied on preaching engagements and for whom on these occasions he read out Scripture passages. The local revival that started in 1858 gave birth to this Brethrenism, and to the end of his days FFB personally and financially supported—despite his scholarly pursuits, one is tempted to say—the Christian evangelism and worldwide missionary work for which the Brethren are deservedly famous. Nor did dedication to scholarship curb his piety, as evidenced for example in the practice of family devotions (Bible reading and prayer) after breakfast each morning, plus frequent preaching (not just lecturing).

At the same time, northeast Scottish Brethrenism and FFB himself were mildly Calvinistic (lacking belief in double predestination, limited atonement, and, in FFB's case, perseverance of the saints). Like his father and unlike most (Plymouth) Brethren, FFB was nondispensational, once telling me that he did not know of anyone in the UK who still believed in a pretribulational rapture of the church. (Surely an overstatement designed to debunk the popularity of that belief in the United States.) According to Grass, FFB even inclined later in life to postmillennialism. He definitely shifted from believing in the saints' resurrection at Jesus' return to believing in its taking place at their deaths if they did not survive till that return.

Other positions of his, often not well-known in broad evangelical circles, also made him theologically suspect among many Brethren: opposition to their allegorical interpretations of the Old Testament tabernacle and narrative; advocacy of women's liberation in the church (but with a caution not to upset Christian harmony thereby); appreciation of Barthianism (which appreciation may have contributed to his encouraging me to spend a half year at Basel University, where Karl Barth held court but did not win me over); ecumenical sympathies (as opposed to ecclesiastical separatism); belief in three Isaiahs and in a 2nd-century date for Daniel (though inclusive of 6th-century materials); denial of historical inerrancy in the Bible (though arguing for its essential historicity); post- and therefore non-Pauline authorship of 1-2 Timothy and Titus; reticence to harmonize apparent discrepancies in Scripture; sympathetic assessments of Marcion, Pelagius, and F. C. Baur (usually considered heretics by orthodox Christians); acceptance of Rudolf Bultmann as a true Christian despite Bultmann's condemnation of a theological interest in the historical Jesus contrary to FFB's own position that apart from the Jesus of history there is no gospel; openness to "fellowship with the Pope and Ian Paisley, though preferably not at the same time!"; willingness to acknowledge a strong case for including the Old Testament apocrypha in Protestant editions of the Bible; and disapproval of moves in the 1970s to tighten the doctrinal basis of the Tyndale Fellowship for Biblical Research, of which he was an early leader (a disapproval that recalls his saying to me, "Creeds are better sung than signed," as though singing fosters a more devotional and less pilpulistic understanding of them).

Alongside these sometimes mildly liberal tendencies, however, Grass points out balancing elements of both theological and behavioral conservatism. FFB championed the Westminster Confession's statement on the divine authority of Scripture, with emphasis on its and John Calvin's view of Scripture as self-authenticating through the inward witness of the Holy Spirit: hence, infallibility as regards the matters of salvation and godliness that the Bible was meant to address. FFB also defended arguments from fulfilled prophecy and miracle and affirmed the moral corruption of human beings, salvation by grace through faith without any contribution of human achievement, Christ's authority to execute judgment, the Christian gospel as the sole way of salvation (what would FFB make of current interreligious dialogue?), and evangelism and godly living, rather than scholarship for its own sake, as the purposes for biblical research. In his view, foreign missions should concentrate on church-planting, not on the establishing of schools, hospitals, and similar Christian institutions, a concentration presently being diluted somewhat by evangelicals' marrying social activism with evangelism. FFB feared that hostile governments might take over those institutions, and he likewise had no use for the institutionalizing of ecumenism. His social conscience led him to deplore the materialism of First World countries and cultures at the expense of poor countries. As to domestic culture, FFB's children were not allowed out to play on Sundays (where was Paul, his beloved "Apostle of Liberty"?), and the Bruces waited till their children had grown up before exercising Christian liberty by drinking alcohol at home (whereas imbibing has now become so prevalent among evangelicals that the practice of total abstinence amounts to an exercise of Christian liberty).

Peppering FFB's biography are some personal tidbits of interest. As a youngster at Elgin Academy he wrote an article claiming that the Scots had descended from ancient Egyptians and Assyrians and that the Stone of Scone had been Jacob's pillow, mentioned in Genesis 28. Asthma apparently kept FFB from participating in sports, and certainly from serving later in the military. Nonmechanical, he never learned to drive an automobile, which he considered a waste of time when train-riding provided him opportunity to work. Technologically backward, he never learned to use a word-processor. During the last year of his life he bought an electric typewriter but did not use it and continued with a small portable typewriter deficient of electricity. Nor during his last years did he keep up with new developments in biblical criticism: structural, sociological, feminist, postcolonial, deconstructive, et al.

While still a teenager and not yet baptized, FFB argued in print against infant baptism. His courtship of Anne Bertha (Betty) Davidson, who became his wife, lasted seven years, a good theological number, though on our very first meeting he told me emphatically, "Mr. Gundry, I am a historian and philologist, not a theologian." In connection with that courtship and marriage, one should not miss the hilarious example of FFB's humor on page 21 of the biography. Twirling a walking stick while strolling along and holding it out when crossing a road exhibited a certain flamboyance.

During World War II, FFB served as a night-time air warden and fire-watcher and started writing his commentary on the Greek text of Acts in an air-raid shelter. Multitasking had him engaging in conversation and seminar discussions while writing letters, marking essays, and correcting proofs. In The Harvester, a Brethren publication, he answered no fewer than 2,000 questions sent in by readers during the years 1952-75. His lectures consisted in monotone reading, often from proofs of one of his books. Though a supervisor of doctoral students, he held reservations about the research doctorate; and he himself never earned a doctorate. Pressure to propose "some new thing" tended to produce unlikely hypotheses, he thought; and he himself proposed no new idea, at least not a noteworthy big one. Touting the BA as superior to Oxford's DPhil, the Oxford philosopher John Lucas expressed to me the same sentiment. Had FFB influenced him, or was it "in the air (or 'clouds')" that the earned doctorate was invented for aspiring Americans?

FFB was good at talking and playing with children, but fell short in small talk with adults; and in serious talk his comments were notably brief as well as clear and coherent, as I found out when expecting a full hour's conversation about my doctoral research only to get about a quarter hour of "yes," "no," or a sentence or two in answer to my questions, plus ten or so minutes of informal but labored conversation over tea and biscuits. According to Grass, later doctoral students fared better, doubtless because they had conversational skills superior to mine. Grass also describes FFB's book reviews as "kindly," to which description I might add that the effusiveness of the blurbs he wrote for others' books became something of a joke. (But who is complaining? Not his beneficiaries!)

More than one acquaintance of FFB has remarked his powers of memory. Though not referenced by Grass, Moisés Silva tells of asking FFB whether a Hebrew word might carry a meaning favored by its Old Testament context but unattested in Hebrew lexicons, and having FFB respond in the affirmative by reciting on the spot a line in one of Bialik's modern Hebrew poems that features the word in exactly the meaning Silva had suggested. (When it comes to prodigious memory, though, FFB had his peers at Manchester, among them the Jewish scholar P. R. Weis.)

All of which gives rise to the question, What was it about FFB that vaulted him to unequaled prominence among evangelical biblical scholars? Grass answers this question admirably well. First to mention is FFB's sheer intellectual brilliance. Academic prizes were showered on him at Aberdeen University. Called the most brilliant student there of his generation, he earned such high grades that over 40 years later I heard them lauded during a meeting of the Society for New Testament Studies at that university. He took his Cambridge degree, with first-class honors (as at Aberdeen), in two years rather than the usual three. Aberdeen University awarded him an honorary DD, and the University of Sheffield an honorary DLitt. Given the prestige of his predecessors in the Rylands Chair of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester—A. S. Peake, C. H. Dodd, and T. W. Manson—his appointment to that chair constituted an honor in and of itself.

Elections to the presidencies of the Society for Old Testament Study and of the Society for New Testament Studies, and as a Fellow of the British Academy, which then awarded him the Burkitt Medal in biblical studies, paid further tribute to his intellectual brilliance. FFB recognized the danger in these honors, however. After hearing accolades from some of his former students in a private meeting following the presidential address he gave to the Society for New Testament Studies, he responded—not unappreciatively, but self-deprecatingly—that "it does good to no man's soul to hear such things said about him." (Grass regrets that FFB's response was not recorded, but together with others I was there.) By the way, during FFB's presidential address a well-known anti-evangelical, later to become president of the snts himself, was sitting beside me and after the address said to me (in effect), "I expected to hear some evangelical twaddle but have to admit that this man knows a lot."

So adding to the prominence of FFB among evangelical biblical scholars was the vast breadth of his learning. He started as a scholar in the Latin and Greek classics, beginning with Latin at the age of eleven and with Greek at the age of thirteen. His studies in the classics continued throughout his years in Aberdeen and Cambridge, and his first employments, at the Universities of Edinburgh and Leeds, remained in that field, so that he was self-taught in biblical studies, the field into which he shifted at the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester. His undergraduate studies included English, logic, and moral philosophy; and he taught himself enough church history to write a three-volume survey of it. One can taste the flavor of all this learning in a dissertation title of his: "The Latinity of Gaius Marius Victorinus Afer, with appendices on his Biblical text and on the vocabulary of Candidus the Arian."

At the University of Vienna, FFB studied Sanskrit, Indo-European philology, the Hittite language, and more Greek. He learned Hebrew and Middle Irish; and his book reviews evince a knowledge of Dutch, French, German, Italian, and Spanish. According to Grass, FFB studied Coptic at Manchester in 1962-63. Maybe so, but his special lecture on the Gospel of Thomas a year or two earlier left me with the impression that he had learned Coptic in preparation for the lecture. Because of his vast learning, in any case, "[h]e has been called 'evangelicalism's Erasmus' " (so Grass). Yes! But I have to note that during my time in Manchester it was FFB's colleague Arnold Ehrhardt whom we called "Erasmus," his having told me once, "I feel competent to teach both law [as he had done at the University of Freiburg im Breisgau], church history, and theology," and then added the fillip, "in a German university." No disservice to FFB, though; and testifying further to the breadth of his learning were his presidencies of the Manchester Egyptian and Oriental Society, the Yorkshire Society for Celtic Studies, and the Victoria Institute, and his editorship of the journals of the latter two societies, of the Palestine Exploration Quarterly, and of the Evangelical Quarterly.

Contributing yet further to the preeminence of FFB in evangelical biblical scholarship was the panache that attached to his attainment of posts in secular universities, most gloriously the Rylands Chair at Manchester, whereas other evangelical biblical scholars of note—especially Americans—taught only in evangelical theological seminaries which did not offer PhD programs for students who might carry forward the scholarly legacy of their teachers. At Manchester, FFB supervised about fifty doctoral students from all over the world; and his fame was such that he also lectured all over the world, not to mention the worldwide circulation of his many books and articles, both scholarly and popular. They lacked very much theological development and practical application, but their clarity of style and down-to-earth explanations of what our ancient texts meant have drawn much admiration and reflect his classical training.

In the evangelical world at large, FFB's influence diminished with the rise to prominence of Martin Lloyd-Jones and especially of John R. W. Stott, neither of them a scholar of FFB's caliber but richly gifted in other respects. Grass judges correctly that FFB paved the way for evangelicals' acceptance of critical methods in biblical research and for the acceptance of evangelicals in the wide world of biblical scholarship. He was not alone in doing so, however. One thinks of the Americans Ned B. Stonehouse and George E. Ladd among others.

My own association with FFB has led me to review mainly his life as delineated in Grass' book, rather than to evaluate Grass' treatment as such. (It is very good.) I hope to be forgiven for having interjected reminiscences of mine, but their occasions were so few as to be memorable. A last reminiscence: During the oral defense of my dissertation the external examiner, who was theologically liberal, asked me a question rather obviously designed to test my theology. Before I could answer, FFB told him, "We're here to examine Mr. Gundry's scholarship, not his theology." End of interrogation. Thank you, Professor Bruce.

Robert Gundry is a scholar-in-residence and professor emeritus at Westmont College.

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