An Interview with F. F. Bruce

Saint Paul, Apostle of Freedom for Women and Men

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Until his retirement in 1978, Frederick Fyvie Bruce, 78, occupied the prestigious John Rylands Chair of Biblical Criticism and Exegesis at Manchester University in England. Today, he continues to be the dean of evangelical biblical scholars.

In 1951 he published a commentary on the Greek text of the Acts of the Apostles to launch what has since become a contemporary renaissance of evangelical theological research.

Generations of students have been helped by reading his little book The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable (IVP and Eerdmans), which has been regularly reprinted and revised for nearly a half century; and his New Testament History (Doubleday) has been a standard textbook in seminaries and colleges for twenty years. Lay people from all walks of life have appreciated his ability to translate the results of specialized studies into language that does not need a seminary degree to be able to understand, in books such as History of the Bible In English (Oxford University Press) and Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Eerdmans), while pastors and teachers around the world look forward eagerly to each new commentary or biblical study from his pen. The latest of these, on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians for the New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmans), will doubtless remain a standard work well into the next century.

A simple listing of Bruce’s publications runs to fifty-six pages of small print! He is the author of more than forty books and nearly two thousand articles and reviews. In recognition for his work he was given an honorary degree by his alma mater, Aberdeen University; and he is one of the few scholars to have been elected president of both the Society for Old Testament Study and the Society for New Testament Studies.

F. F. Bruce continues his prodigious writing projects from his study in his home in Buxton, Derbyshire, a charming spa in the North of England dating back to Roman times, where he lives with his wife Betty. He has become aware of a heart condition in the past few years and is doing his best to obey his doctor’s orders and avoiding the strain of public speaking engagements, but this does not keep him from revising old books and writing new ones. His most recent is a book on the canon of the New Testament, published by InterVarsity Press.

The following interview was conducted by W. Ward Gasque and Laurel Gasque, who recently visited with Professor and Mrs. Bruce in their home in England.

GASQUES: What has motivated you in your work over the years?

BRUCE: The chief motivation has been sheer interest in the Bible and its background, the history of the times, the geographical setting, and that sort of thing.

GASQUES:  Is this an interest that developed at a very early age?

BRUCE: Yes, as far back as I can remember.

GASQUES: You have taught Greek as well as the New Testament, and you have written extensively on the basis of the Greek text. Did you begin to study languages at an early age?

BRUCE: Earlier than people do now, I suppose. I started Latin at the age of eleven, and Greek at thirteen or fourteen. I am still studying them!

GASQUES: Your education at university was in the Greek and Latin classics rather than biblical studies. You did two undergraduate degrees, first at Aberdeen University in Scotland and then at Cambridge University in England. This is an unusual pattern for North Americans to understand. Why did you choose this course?

BRUCE: It was an academic tradition in Scottish universities at the time, particularly in the humanities, to go on to Oxford or Cambridge following completion of a degree in Scotland.

GASQUES: You subsequently started to do a Ph.D. but never finished. And that was not in theology.

BRUCE: Yes, at the University of Vienna I began a philological study of Roman slave-names.

GASQUES: Why did you not complete your doctorate?

BRUCE: I had an offer to take a university lectureship in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I seized it. Wisely, I think.

GASQUES: So even though you have supervised many Ph.D. students over the years, you have never earned a Ph.D. yourself.

BRUCE: No – and that has never been a disadvantage. I have often felt disposed to lecture some of my American colleagues and their students on what I call “the cult of the Ph.D.” The idea of the Ph.D. in itself sometimes seems to be more important than the actual work you do to get it!

GASQUES: What led you to decide upon an academic career?

BRUCE: I have never seriously thought of any other kind of career. It was the only kind of career that interested me, and I received every encouragement to pursue it.

GASQUES: How do you, as a Christian and as a scholar, approach the study of the Bible?

BRUCE: I think I should have to distinguish between academic study and more general study. At one level – and perhaps this is the most important level – I approach the Bible with a readiness, and an expectation, to hear the voice of God there. But there is no conflict between that more devotional use of the Bible and its academic study. Over the years I have played a pretty full part in Bible ministry in churches – preeminently, of course, in the local church that I happened to be associated with at any particular time – and what I have tried to do in this ministry has been to combine the two approaches. I have sought to make available to my hearers, in a form that they can assimilate, the results of my academic study, while at the same time trying to enable them, like myself, to recognize and apply the voice of God in holy Scripture.

GASQUES: Some years ago you objected to being labeled a “conservative evangelical.” You said you preferred to be known as an “unhyphenated evangelical.” What did you mean by that?

BRUCE: Conservatism is not of the essence of my position. If many of my critical conclusions, for example, are described as being conservative, they are so not because they are conservative, nor because I am conservative, but because I believe them to be the conclusions to which the evidence points. If they are conservative, then none the worse for that.

GASQUES: And what do you mean by “evangelical”?

BRUCE: An evangelical is someone who believes in the God who justifies the ungodly [Romans 4:5]. To believe in Him, and nothing more nor less, is to be evangelical. That is evangelicalism in what might be called the Lutheran tradition.

GASQUES: How do you draw the line between those who are evangelical and those who are not?

BRUCE: Those who are not have a defective view of the work of salvation and of the sovereignty of divine grace in the saving process. Anything that begins to allow for an element of merit or human achievement in the work of salvation is, to that extent, non-evangelical.

GASQUES: Your work over the years might be described as a love affair with the writings of the Apostle Paul, in that you have written commentaries on every one of his epistles as well as on the Acts of the Apostles, which sets them in their historical setting. What do you think are Paul’s major legacies to the church?

BRUCE: That’s a big question [Long pause.] My hesitation to answer quickly lies in my unwillingness to say anything that might seem to do Paul less than justice. But, of course, anything I say about him would do him less than justice!

I believe his main legacy is his law-free gospel, his affirmation that the grace of God, which he declares is available on equal terms and manifested in an equal degree among human beings of every kind. When he says that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free person, neither male nor female” [Galatians 3:28], he is saying that distinctions of those kinds are simply irrelevant where the gospel is concerned, and where Christian witness, life, and fellowship are concerned.

GASQUES: Your major work on Paul was published as Paul the Apostle of the Free Spirit in England. In America it was entitled Paul the Apostle of the Heart Set Free. How did these two different titles come about?

BRUCE: The first was my own choice. I had in mind the words of Psalm 51[:12], where the psalmist prays, “Uphold me with thy free spirit!” When my American publisher undertook to market it in the USA, it was thought that the expression “free spirit” had associations which might obscure the main thrust of the book from the intended reading public. It was said to represent either a particular brand of gas for automobiles or a class of hippy. I thought at the time that Paul may have been regarded as a sort of hippy in his day! When the book was reviewed very graciously sometime later by Professor Paul Minear of Yale, he pointed out that “heart” in the title was used in a non-Pauline sense. I could not agree more, but this expression was not my own choice.

GASQUES: How have you been able to resolve the apparent conflict between Paul’s theology of freedom and the social manifestations of people who adhere to Paul but who obviously are not free in either their personal lives or in their manner of relating to people in the world?

BRUCE: If they are obviously not free, they don’t adhere to Paul! They may think they do, but they haven’t begun to learn what Paul means by “the liberty with which Christ has set his people free” [Galatians 5:1].

GASQUES: Why do you suppose that there is this fearfulness among Christians who profess to follow Paul?

BRUCE: Many people, including many Christians, are afraid of liberty. They are afraid of having too much liberty themselves; and they’re certainly afraid of letting other people, especially younger people, have too much liberty. Think of the dangers that liberty might lead them into! It seems much better to move in predestinate grooves.

GASQUES: What is your source of confidence? Does it come directly from your theology?

BRUCE: Yes, certainly. From Christ as mediated through Paul, who had an exceptional insight into the mind of Christ and realized that in Christ and nowhere else is true freedom to be found. Among all the followers of Christ, I suppose there has never been a more emancipated soul than the soul of Paul.

GASQUES: What has been Paul’s influence on western thought?

BRUCE: Paul’s influence on western thought has been very profound, indeed. Perhaps it has been chiefly as mediated through Augustine. For Augustine has probably had greater influence on western thought over the centuries than any other single thinker.

GASQUES: Has Paul’s thought been mediated accurately by Augustine?

BRUCE: Not altogether. Augustine did not have quite the same appreciation of Christian liberty that Paul had. Even though Augustine was one of the greatest interpreters of Paul – as [the theologian Adolf] Harnack said of Marcion [whom he considered the greatest interpreter of Paul] – “even he misunderstood him”!

GASQUES: Who do you think have been the most accurate interpreters of Paul?

BRUCE: Certainly the great reformers, Luther, for example. Or John and Charles Wesley in the eighteenth century. Paul played such a dominant part in their conversion experience that they could not help assimilating the very heart of Pauline teaching and communicating it to others.

GASQUES: Do you think the current theologies of liberation – for example, Latin American and feminist theologies – are correct in applying Paul’s theology of freedom to social and political issues?

BRUCE: Basically, yes. The liberation that is at the very heart of the Pauline gospel can’t be restricted in any way. It must have its social implications and applications. I do not know too much about liberation theology, but it does sometimes seem to be linked to a Marxist interpretation of history, and of human life, which is quite different from the Pauline approach.

GASQUES:  You seem to interpret Paul as a liberator, if not a revolutionary. But many others see  him as a conservative – one who wanted to keep people in their places, who tells slaves to be satisfied with their position in society and women to be silent and forbids them from having positions of leadership in the church. Their interpretation of Paul is of one who is anything but a liberator of people!

BRUCE: Paul’s attitude to slavery must be seen in the context of the social condition of the time. There was no point in telling slaves to rebel against their condition of bondage. They were in no position to do anything about it. What he did was to show, as the Stoics of his day also did, in a way, that a slave can be a free person, just as truly as a sociologically free person is very often a slave. Slavery and freedom are matters of the inner life, primarily, and a person’s economic or societal position is not of the first importance.

GASQUES: How would this apply to the role of women?

BRUCE: Paul’s teaching is that so far as religious status and function are concerned, there is no difference between men and women.

GASQUES: What about in practice? Does he not limit women’s role in leadership and in teaching in the church, and in leadership in society?

BRUCE: No. If we have regard to the place that women have in Paul’s circle, he seems to make no distinction at all between men and women among his fellow workers. Men receive praise, and women receive praise for their collaboration with him in the gospel ministry, without any suggestion that there is a subtle distinction between the one and the other in respect of status or function. Anything in Paul’s writings that might seem to run contrary to this must be viewed in the light of the main thrust of his teaching and should be looked at with quite critical scrutiny.

GASQUES: Your church tradition [the Plymouth Brethren] does not have formal ordination for men or women. However, if you were in a church that did make a distinction between clergy and laity, would you support the idea that women, as well as men, should be ordained as pastors, even bishops?

BRUCE: The point is that I could not countenance a position which makes a distinction of principle in church service between men and women. My own understanding of Christian priesthood is quite different from the understanding that dominates so much of the current discussion of the subject. If, as evangelical Christians generally believe, Christian priesthood is a privilege in which all believers share, there can be no reason that a Christian woman should not exercise her priesthood on the same terms as a Christian man.

GASQUES: How do you interpret I Timothy 2:9-15, which suggests that women are not to teach?

BRUCE: I’m not quite sure about whether I Timothy 2 was written by Paul. But even if it is taken as a statement by Paul himself, it is merely a statement of practice at a particular time.

GASQUES: So you would not regard it as a canon law for the Christian church for all time.

BRUCE: No. I think when you look at Christian history, you observe a tendency to pick and choose the church regulations from the Pastoral Epistles and to choose between those precepts which have been taken over as permanent canon law and those which have been set aside as being only for that particular age.

GASQUES: How do you answer people who say that you are doing the same thing, picking and choosing among the various doctrines of the New Testament, using one strand of Paul’s teaching to set aside another strand of the Pauline tradition?

BRUCE: If there is any substance in that criticism, then the strand that I am choosing is the strand that contains the foundation principles of Paul’s teaching in the light of which those other passages must be understood.

GASQUES: What about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, where Paul suggests that women should be quiet in church?

BRUCE: In the same chapter, he indicates certain occasions when men should be quiet or silent in church also! My own view about 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 is very similar to the view expressed by Gordon Fee in his recent commentary [in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1987)], namely, that the textual evidence throws doubt on the authenticity of the words “let your women keep silence in the churches.”

But even if they are part of the original text of Paul’s letter, they have relevance only to the uttering of prophecies in church, where women are advised not to question publicly and vocally the interpretation of prophetic utterances. In most of our churches today, we don’t have prophetic utterances  of the kind envisaged in 1 Corinthians 14. Therefore, the application of that negative injunction does not apply.

In general, where there are divided opinions about the interpretation of a Pauline passage, that interpretation which runs along the line of liberty is much more likely to be true to Paul’s intention than one which smacks of bondage or legalism.

GASQUES:  What about Paul’s use of the term kephale [head] in 1 Corinthians 11:3, where man is said to be the head of the woman, and in Ephesians 5:23, where the husband is described as the head of his wife? Does not this imply women’s subordination to men?

BRUCE: No. It implies that the head is the source of the being of the other party in question. Paul is referring to the Genesis story of Eve’s being formed out of Adam’s side. In that sense, the husband was the source of the wife’s being. This suggests priority in terms of existence but not otherwise.

GASQUES: What books have influenced you most in your life, other than the Bible?

BRUCE: Some of the great Christian biographies have influenced my life, especially among them the memoir of Anthony Norris Groves, the early Brethren missionary; the life of William Robertson Smith by J. S. Chrystal; and John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua.

GASQUES: As you look back over your life of nearly four score years thus far, are there any special joys that you would like to recall?

BRUCE: On a personal level one of the greatest would be the joy of being married to my wife, Betty, for fifty-two years! In terms of my academic life, by far and away my great joy is the contemplation of  my former students.

GASQUES: What word of advice would you give to a young woman or man seeking to be faithful to Christ in today’s world?

BRUCE: Whatever your work in life is, do it in a spirit of obedience and service to Christ.

GASQUES: What would you say to one who sensed a call to the professional ministry of the church?

BRUCE: By all means, go ahead. Seek to serve Christ in the professional ministry. Now, one may think that that is a very easy thing to do. My friends in the professional ministry would probably say it is one of the hardest things to do, to maintain the professional ministry and, at the same time, to maintain the freshness of one’s commitment to Christ and one’s desire to serve him. Of course, I know many have succeeded wonderfully in this matter, but I think they all would say, as Paul said, “Not I but the grace of God which was with me” [ 1 Corinthians 15:10].

GASQUES: If someone wished to embark on a career of teaching the Bible as you have done, what word of advice would you give them?

BRUCE: Again, go ahead and do it –if you have been given the necessary gifts and are willing to take time to develop the linguistic tools and do the historical study necessary to understand the Bible in its original setting as a basis for applying its lessons to our contemporary setting.

GASQUES: What do you think Christians can do to further the cause of peace in the world?

BRUCE: They could start by living peaceably one with another, showing themselves to be, in reality, as they are in the divine purpose, a fellowship of reconciliation, a community of those who, having experienced the reconciling power of God in their own lives, proclaim his message of reconciliation to others, in the widest conceivable sense.

GASQUES: Having observed you over the years, our impression is that you have a great sense of confidence and certainly an independence of spirit. Why do you think this is so?

BRUCE: Independence of spirit may largely be the result of my having always been in a position where my personal comfort, income, and the like were not affected by what I affirmed. A person who always has to be looking over his shoulder lest someone who is in a position to harm him may be breathing down his neck has to mind his step in a way that is quite strange to me.

GASQUES: Has your father’s influence on your life been an influence in this?

BRUCE: In teaching me to think for myself, not to believe a thing just because some preacher says it is so, unless I see it clearly for myself – that was excellent advice. There are some people who will swallow what the most eloquent preacher says.

GASQUES: What have you learned in the past fifty-two years from your wife?

BRUCE: Now if I started to tell you that, you’d miss your plane!

GASQUES: Thank you very much.

BRUCE: You’re very welcome.

 

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