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Book Review – F.F. Bruce: A Life by Tim Grass

11 Jan

Possibly the Most Influential New Testament Scholar of the 20th Century

Shortly after being “called” to the ministry at the age of seventeen I remember talking with a Christian bookstore owner and asked him, “of all these books in the store – which authors would you recommend?” He answered quickly and without hesitation, “Anything by F.F. Bruce, you simply can’t go wrong with F.F. Bruce.” That short little conversation took place in 1985, just five years before Professor Bruce went home to be with the Lord. Since then, I’ve gone on to purchase 40 of Bruce’s 50 published books (25 are still in print as of this review).

In reading F.F. Bruce’s books I always found him to be clear, textually illuminating, and always helping me in understanding the context and cultural factors elucidating my interpretation of the text. In reading this book the author highlights three aspects of Bruce’s life: his influence on the worldwide Brethren movement, his academic achievements, and his overall influence in the evangelical movement – especially as a world class scholar who was respected by liberals and conservatives alike.

It is very likely that my forefathers on my paternal side came in contact or ran in similar circles with F.F. Bruce’s family who were very heavily involved in ministry and missions throughout Scotland. My grandfather was a Plymouth Brethren “faith missionary” who grew up in Scotland, immigrated to Belfast in Ireland, and then was a life long missionary in Argentina. I personally have never been involved in an “assembly” as they call their gatherings – but have had the opportunity to speak at their gatherings on several occasions in Argentina.

One of the things I am personally grateful for is the Brethren’s focus on reading, studying, memorizing, and teaching the Scriptures. I believe that Grass brings this out early in the book and it was Bruce’s knowledge of, and love for the Scriptures that made him such an outstanding Biblical scholar. One of the things I will be eternally grateful for is that the love for the Scriptures that the Brethren have passed down from generation to generation. Peter Bruce passed down to his son this advice that served him well for his entire life, “never accept anything offered in the way of the Christian faith unless you see it clearly for yourself in the Scriptures.”

Bruce was known not for being a theologian, but a classicist, linguist, and biblical scholar. He was a prolific author, editor, and reviewer of over 2,000 books – mostly technical. He was the doctoral advisor to some of the finest scholars of the 20th century on into the 21st century.

In reading this book there were three primary lessons I learned from F.F. Bruce.

He was what former student Ward Gasque (and great NT scholar in his own right) called an “unhyphenated evangelical.” Even though he was brought up, and involved in Brethren Assemblies he did not tow-the-line in any particular system or practice. He was leery of buying into any system of theology. He was more concerned with being “biblical” in getting at the sense of the author’s original and cultural intent. Tim Grass writes, “The issues which, for Bruce, were non-negotiable may be summarized as the reliability of the New Testament, the person and work of Christ, the Christian life as one of forgiveness and liberty as befits those who are being led by the Spirit, and the right and duty of every believer to use whatever gifts God has given them.”

F.F. Bruce was very charitable, gentle, and respected those he disagreed with, and those who disagreed with him. He seemed to be genuinely humble, teachable, and diplomatic (in a loving sense, not in a political sense). Therefore, as a result of reading about Bruce, in my own reviews, teaching, writing, I will seek to see the positive side more than the negative side of things. He was a bridge builder in his involvement in the Brethren church, among fellow professors, and in the academic arena.

I love what J.I. Packer had to say about Bruce, “No Christian was ever more free of narrow bigotry, prejudice and eccentricity in the views he held and the way he held them; no man ever did more to demonstrate how evangelical faith and total academic integrity may walk hand in hand.”

F.F. Bruce was passionate about the gospel and for people to read about, hear about, and discover Jesus and for them to have a personal relationship with him. He would spend countless hours answering questions, replying to letters, and speaking, writing, and teaching at every possible opportunity to talk about Jesus. Even though he spoke in a monotone, and often read his lectures and sermons, he had a deep passion to communicate the gospel. From Bruce, we learn to focus on what we can do, not what we can’t do for the sake of Christ. He was a tireless worker as an editor, writer, speaker, involved in the lives of his students, and in the academic world for the cause of Christ.

Lastly, as person, Laurel Gasque (a well respected cultural historian) described Bruce as “the most genuinely free person I have ever known.” I think this is what most stood out to me about F.F. Bruce in this biography. He was brilliant, prolific, and well respected. However, he saw himself as a common man and would do anything that was asked of him by others. He seemed to have had a tremendous amount of confidence in God’s sovereignty and that no little assignment or task was beneath his dignity for him to always do his best.

I am grateful for my heritage and for men like F.F. Bruce who have served the Lord well with his mind and soul. I hope that many young Bible scholars, pastors, and missionaries will be inspired by his life and work. Many consider his biography on the Apostle “Paul: The Heart of the Apostle Set Free” to be his Magnum Opus. He truly was like the Paul the Apostle in so many ways – tireless in his work and love for the churches, expounding on and writing for the cause of the gospel, and at home with students, academics, intellectuals, and lay people. And yet he did all this with great joy and with much freedom – unfettered by anything other than a desire to please his Lord and Savior.

I close this review/tribute with the words of Robert Mounce, who sums up why he believes Bruce was so influential:

“It is evident…that Bruce lays before us no new and innovative perspectives. Concern for historical accuracy coupled with a high view of the Biblical text inevitably restricts the role of the imagination, that prime mover in theological and higher critical ‘breakthroughs.’ Bruce’s lasting contribution to Pauline studies is his careful and informed treatment of the life and the letters of Paul in their historical, social, religious and cultural setting. The fact that his interpretations are traditional has no bearing on the question of their value for Biblical study. We are indebted to F.F. Bruce for his lifelong commitment to a balanced and biblical interpretation of the life and thought of the apostle Paul.”

I am indebted to Tim Grass for this labor of love on F.F. Bruce. I am grateful to have learned more about my own heritage as a beneficiary of the Brethren movement, as an evangelical, and as a lover of the Word, a teacher in the church, and an evangelist with a pastor’s heart for the sake of Christ.

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