F.F. Bruce: A conservative liberal or a liberal conservative?

A Review of Tim Grass, F.F. Bruce: A Life (2011). 

Evangelical historians have chronicled “the Evangelical resurgence in Biblical Studies” during the twentieth century, and in that history F.F. Bruce played a central role. Several of the really good things from that “resurgence,” as well as some of the not-so-good things, go back to him. This biography speaks to these issues, but gently; probably too gently because, after all, who wants to violate the rules of collegiality and criticize a fellow scholar who is so congenial?

Bruce wrote a “sort of” autobiography in 1980 entitled, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past. Unfortunately, it’s not a very personal book and this new biography tells me that others had the same complaint. Yet in that work, Bruce tells us he has always found it difficult to write or speak publicly about the things ...that matter most to him. So we know he was a very reserved man. (Perhaps unfairly, John Piper leaped on that comment and said, essentially, “I don’t ever want to write or speak publicly except about those things that matter most to me.” Confusingly, toward the end of his life Eerdmans published a series of articles by Bruce and gave it the title, A Mind for What Matters.)

So... how do you write a biography about a shy man? Grass, a historian of Bruce's denominational affiliation, the (Plymouth) Brethren, quotes letters written by Bruce to close friends and family and Grass interviewed them, also. Still, the portrait he draws doesn't give me a good feel for what made Bruce tick. This is a fault in the biography, but I’m not sure Grass is really to blame. Bruce didn’t want to be the subject of writing or discussion that would satisfy people's curiosity.

Frederic Fyvie Bruce was born in 1910 in a small town in Scotland, the first of the seven children of Peter and Mary Bruce. Peter was an evangelist among the Scottish assemblies (as Brethren call their churches). He was known as an independent thinker, unafraid to take views that put him out of favor with many Brethren (like father, like son). Bruce says he imbibed Christ with his mother’s milk and was baptized and received into membership at age 18. Like many children of missionaries and pastors, Bruce never spoke much about (what the Puritans used to call) “personal religion.” Add in the reserve and stubbornness of a Scot and it’s a wonder we know anything personal about him.

In the Bruce home, money was scarce but books were plentiful, and Fred had a quick mind and a retentive memory. He won a scholarship to attend the University of Aberdeen with (possibly) the highest mark ever on the entrance exam. Indeed, one retired academic called Bruce “the most brilliant student of his generation” (p.19). He read Greek and Latin and the list of prizes he won is very impressive. Interestingly, he was a member of both the Inter-Varsity group at Aberdeen (an Evangelical group at the time) and the Student Christian Movement (a more liberal group). He received an M.A. in Classics from Aberdeen and then a B.A. from Cambridge. More scholarships allowed him to do post-graduate work at the University of Vienna. Bruce was thoroughly at home in Hebrew, Greek and Latin and reviewed books in French, German, Dutch, Italian and Spanish.

Bruce began his academic career in 1935 with a post at the University of Edinburgh teaching Greek. During his three years there, he married Betty, a fellow Aberdeen graduate, and their first child, Iain, was born. In 1938, they moved to England so Fred could take up a post in Greek at the University of Leeds. That same year Sheila, their second child, was born.

It was at Leeds that Bruce’s career changed direction. Theretofore, he had been trained in Classics and was a teacher of Greek. When the Second World War broke out (Fred could not serve due to asthma), he was asked to begin lecturing in the Greek New Testament to candidates for a degree in theology. This led to an eventual change of direction from Classics to Biblical Studies. Thus, it is important to note that Bruce had no formal training in theology and was largely self-taught in Biblical Studies (p.214). Posts at Sheffield University (12 years) and the University of Manchester (19 years) followed his nine years at Leeds.

Let me summarize the rest of his story and give some evaluation under several points:

- Fred was a lifelong student. While continuing as a professor, he took two more degrees, as well as a diploma in Hebrew.

- Bruce was an editor for Evangelical Quarterly, Yorkshire Celtic Studies, Palestine Exploration Quarterly, Christianity Today, and Eternity. He also served as the president of the Society for Old Testament Studies and its New Testament counterpart.

- Bruce never learned to drive and rode the train to work, using his time to grade papers and proofread the English translation of the massive 10-volume Theologisches Worterbuch zum Neuen Testament, an amazing accomplishment.

- Bruce maintained an active speaking schedule in many different churches, often speaking at young people’s meetings. He also served his assembly (local church) as an elder.

- Bruce read his lectures in a dull monotone and many found him boring. Research students waited for his occasional “asides” when he left his manuscript.

- Fred was a meticulous researcher and his footnotes were known to be unfailingly accurate. Not everyone checks his or her references.

- Bruce wrote over 40 books, and articles too numerous to mention. He began writing books because he needed the money.

- Over 2,000 book reviews came from his pen. That adds up to 40 books a year for 50 years. Astounding. Yet he was almost never critical of an author when writing a review and thus they are of limited value. Everyone loved Fred.

- William Barclay denied the deity of Jesus and was also a universalist. Yet Bruce told one student, “Willie loves the Lord and that’s enough for me” (p.176). Where was his discernment? How can an elder say that?

- Bruce's commentaries excel in philological detail, concern to demonstrate the historical accuracy of the text, a paucity of theology, and an avoidance of pressing issues. If I have a theological question, I don’t go to Bruce.

- On critical issues, he claimed to follow wherever the evidence led, regardless of the implications for the faith. This is a conceit, almost a claim to be a thoroughly objective scholar. Many of his views were out of step with Evangelical theology and he did his best to hide these from public view: the authorship of the Pentateuch and the Pastorals, the dating of Daniel, and three Isaiahs. One IVCF General Secretary called him a “conservative liberal” (p.219).

- On Biblical inspiration, Bruce claimed to draw his view from the phenomena of Scripture, not like inerrantists who (he claimed) imposed a narrow view on the text. John Wenham claimed he neglected to study Christ’s view of Scripture.

- I wish Grass had mentioned Bruce’s enthusiastic endorsement of CRC renegade, Neal Punt, in CT’s classified ads in the 1980s. Punt claimed that everyone would be saved except those who consciously refuse Christ.

- Fred became increasingly strident on the liberty proclaimed by Paul. He “elevated freedom to the status of a hermeneutical principle.” When two possible interpretations existed, the one that promoted freedom was correct (p.193).

- When Ward and Laurel Gasque interviewed Fred for Christianity Today, it is clear he reads all of Scripture through the lens of Galatians 3:28 (“neither male nor female in Christ”) and finds (questionable) ways of dismissing other Biblical texts that would limit a woman’s exercise of her gifts. The Gasques, in their effort to make Bruce look good, ask several follow up questions to allow him “to clarify matters,” but he refused to play nice. These details are not mentioned since they show Fred to be an extremist and not the even-handed scholar who followed the evidence “wherever it led” Grass wanted to portray.

- For all his irenicism, Bruce was a divisive figure, within Inter-Varsity, the assemblies, and Evangelicalism as a whole (p.215).

- Bruce took great pains to demonstrate the historical reliability of the New Testament writings and how they will stand up to critical scrutiny. May this be his most enduring legacy.

Even with all that I’ve written above, I commend the books of F.F. Bruce to you, especially pastors and teachers. Read them critically, but read them. I always learn something from his writings.

David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. He currently lives in Lusaka, Zambia with his wife, Terri, and serves as the dean of the Seminary at the African Christian University. He is a career missionary with Mission to The World in Zambia.

Comments

Dear David,

As you know, I have many volumes by Bruce.

Do I read them? No. Do I recommend them to others? No. Would I buy them again? No. But my seminary's Old and New Testament profs when I was getting my M.Div., Fee and Stuart and Michaels and Scholer, all were agreed that Bruce was at the top of the heap of important Biblical scholars, so now I own the books of the man who was at the top of the heap of important Biblical scholars.

I tell men preparing for the ministry that you own commentaries like Bruce on Acts so you can avoid making a fool of yourself. But you don't preach anything they've written because there's nothing to preach in anything they've written. Only qualifications and specifications and scholarly perambulations and other qualifications and specifications. To quote a friend of mine, it's like eating the Sahara Desert.

When I preached through Acts, I read Bruce each week and sometimes found an interesting curiosity, but the meat was always elsewhere.

The Bruce books are still in my library so men who like that sort of thing know that I'm the sort of man who collects that sort of thing. If someone really can't read or understand Calvin or Luther or Matthew Henry or J. C. Ryle or commentaries in Banner of Truth's Geneva Commentary Series; if he must have things spelled out for him in easy English with a smattering of helpful scholarly points to keep him from being easily understood by hoi polloi sitting in the pews; I'd recommend guys like DA and Gordon (don't you just love a man humble enough to allow people to use his name?) over FF. But concerning sex, stay away from all three of them.

Dad used to say you can't expect as much from men on the other side of the Atlantic. Their cultural context and education have left them with a weak doctrine of Scripture, and it was Bruce he used as his prime example.

Life is too short to study Scripture under the tutelage of a man who denies the infallibility of the Word of God. Most of what the Bible says is clear. That's the problem we have with IT. Something about the clinical smell of the fanatics of scientific exegesis makes me pine for that old Protestant doctrine of the perspicuity of Scripture and the commentaries given birth to under that doctrine.

Love,

No real disagreements, Tim. I've sold a few of my Bruce commentaries when I've whittled down my collection. Among recent commentators he's not a first choice on any book. If I preached through Acts, Hebrews or Galatians, I doubt I'd use him much. Maybe not at all. You read more broadly than me in doing sermon prep.

So, which of his books would I actually commend? His book on the history of the early church, "The Spreading Flame." His "New Testament History." His little book, "Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?" was helpful to me decades ago. Other than that, you have to read a lot to find a little tidbit. I found several in "Peter, Stephen, James and John," that I read recently.

One added note. Reading the Bruce biography made wonder if I should just read dead guys. Love,  DW

Dear David,

Good distinction between history and commentaries. I'm with you that his history can be helpful.

Love,

I'm with Tim.

I would add one negative comment, not about F.F. Bruce, but over how well he has been received in Reformed circles. When I was at RTS more than 20 years ago, I definitely had the impression that Bruce was admired in part by our professors because Bruce was accepted, and even admired, in so-called main-stream scholarship. That is, F.F. Bruce had received something that they also longed for - the approval of the establishment. This is not a very compelling reason to read a man's works.

Dear David Booth: You're no doubt correct. Recommending Bruce is often like tipping your hat to the "scholarly community," almost like genuflecting when you enter a Catholic Church.

You may want to do a search on this blog for a review of a biography of George Eldon Ladd.

Warmly,  David

Actually, I just remembered what prompted my desire to read (old) dead guys. It wasn't the Bruce biography but it may bear repeating here.

While in the States, I picked up a copy of "Theological Interpretation of the New Testament," edited by Kevin Vanhoozer. It's really an excerpt from a larger dictionary he edited. This one is a book by book survey of the NT.

Kevin was just starting to teach at TEDS when I was just leaving (as a student), but we got to know each other a bit. His wife, a French woman, became a Christian through the witness of her church and the Operation Mobilization team that was working with it at the time. I was in the same region when I worked for them in 1977-78 in the south of France. It was nice to be able to tell her about ten years later, "I prayed for you as Christ was being formed in you."

Anyway, I recently read a few of the chapters from the book Kevin edited. It has a confusing format and the chapter on Revelation was nearly incoherent. It was so bad, I wrote some brief comments on the last page of the chapter to remind myself of how bad it was.

After reading that chapter, I asked myself, why do I not just read old dead guys? Why am I spending time reading this junk?

Reading time is precious, but the quality of books out there is shaped by the health of the church. Right now, the church in the west is not very healthy and so, predictably, the quality of books out there is not very good. So … read the books that have stood the test of time. C.S. Lewis used to say, read two old books for every new one you read.

This is a very helpful review and helpful comments.

Just looking on google books it is curious to see that he attended Hebron brethren assembly. I'm based in Aberdeen and actually went there not so long ago, it's about 20mins from where I live:

http://www.hebron-evangelical.co.uk/index.php/about-hebron/history

It is/was a more progressive brethren assembly if it is fair to use that word, hence the name change to 'church' (or chapel) which is common thing for the more progressive assembles to do. They would not call themselves an 'assembly' now - that term designates the more traditional ones that hold more tightly to the old practices. I don't know it's stance back in Bruce's day.

As for the Brethren assembly F.F. Bruce attended in Edinburgh is also still in existence, I have not attended it but went as far as going to their website when I was based in Edinburgh. In F.F. Bruce's time it seems to have been a more progressive Brethren assembly, being one of the first to adopt the name 'chapel' according to the bio.

So even from his choice of brethren assemblies, there seem to be indications that it reflected some of his own theological sympathies/trajectories, even though to many other evangelicals some of the practices of brethren assemblies seem quite conservative.

My only experience of reading F.F. Bruce is his New Century Bible commentary on 1&2 Corinthians (1971). I read the parts about male and female (chp 11 and 14). I found it very mushy, which was surprising to those who know the standard practice in Brethren assemblies concerning these matters.

Your hunches are exactly correct, Henry, and Grass talks about that in the biography. Bruce was consciously going against (many of) the beliefs and practices (of many) of the Brethren and was trying to change things in the assemblies. A few assemblies agreed with him; most did not.

Dear Henry,

Interesting details, brother. Concerning the visible patriarchalism of even the more progressive assemblies, it's often true that men who are feminist in their commitments on paper are quite authoritarian in their practise and life. It's often true, also, that men who are patriarchal on paper are quite effeminate in their practise and life.

Some years ago, I had the privilege of preaching at an assembly in Pennsylvania and the thing that struck me was the youthfulness and large number of worshippers in the first part of the service, but the small number of aged persons who communed, afterwards. Sad.

Love and gratitude to you, dear brother. Truly.

I feel a bit like I'm poking my nose in to have a word with the men at their cigars and brandy after dinner ...

When I was involved with "Christians for Biblical Equality", you heard his name invoked every time the biblical legitimacy of "egalitarianism" was questioned. You were never allowed to forget he had signed the statement:

http://www.cbeinternational.org/files/u1/smwbe/english.pdf

>>like I'm poking my nose in...

Never, dear sister. You belong like few others. With love,

" You belong like few others..."

Especially if you bring along a VSOP. A Frapin or Paul Beau will do quite nicely. Either greatly extends one's ability to discuss these matters and still to keep a cordial mien. A votre sante!

the thing that struck me was the youthfulness and large number of worshippers in the first part of the service, but the small number of aged persons who communed

I take it you are referring to the double-service practice that has been adopted by many brethren assemblies wishing to modernise? That is, a 'normal' preaching service followed by their traditional participatory communion service? Here in the UK these brethren churches do it the other way round (breaking of bread service first, normal 'family' service second) - and the same occurs, the communion service is overwhelmingly (though not solely) attended by the older generation. My hunch is that the younger folk don't quite know what to do with women keeping their peace in church:).

Interestingly, with regard to patriarchy-on-paper, I spoke to a brethren girl who held to all their traditions, including that most horrible(!) one of the ladies keeping quiet in church, and she told me she didn't know the reason why God wanted them to do it "but it was in the bible and we can't pick and choose". Whilst on one level her obedience might be commended, I largely found it quite sad. Here was one of the few remaining girls left in the UK who would obey this particularly difficult verse in the bible, without a grudge, and yet it didn't make any sense to her why she was doing it. The outer shell of obedience to the rule existed but the kernel inside - the principle of feminine deference and submission (the actual reason Paul gave) - was utterly lost on her - and quite understandably so - it didn't make any sense in the everyday lives of what she saw all around her. I don't think I would be mistaken to say that this is typical in many  brethren churches where these practices are mere vestiges of patriarchy. (Much) better to have the kernel and not the shell than the shell and not the kernel. But I hope that one day churches will once again have both.

I should also add that the strange comment that Brethren men tend to avoid wearing beards, it is not seen as being particularly godly. I sometimes think this pervasive beardlessness of their men doesn't quite fit their particular bill.

Someone should get Doug Wilson, or perhaps his son, to write a children's novel about the time in history when "God took away their beards." It would make for a great bedtime story.

Henry - I am not sure how the Brethren are now regarded in Britain - in Scotland, I don't know of any churches which use "Brethren" in their name - but in New Zealand, they have had a reputation for never, ever, changing anything.

At university we used to joke how many (Open) Brethren it would take to change a lightbulb, to which the answer was, "change??!!" Actually, it was a joke that many of my Open Brethren friends used to tell at their own tradition's expense. I mention that because it might explain the situation you describe, whereby the shell (in this case, the commitment to patriarchy) remains although the underlying kernel has disappeared.

The other thing which is lost on me is why you would have separate services for communion and then everything else.

"... why you would have separate services for communion and then everything else ..."

I'm no expert in the history of worship, but in the Western catholic (note the small "c") tradition, worship has (so far as I've ever known or read about) been construed as the administration of two ministries -- the Word (including Scripture reading, teaching/preaching, and prayers) and the Sacrament (a reference to what we Anglicans would call the Eucharist, or the Holy Communion).

In the history of Anglican communion, these two ministries are often separated, though orders of service for either are detailed in the Prayer Book. In other words, a Sunday worship service might simply be the ministry of the Word, and the service would follow the order for Morning Prayer (a service order laid out in the Prayer Book). Or, Sunday worship might be Holy Eucharist, which in its essential elements includes the Communion, less generous lections, fewer prayers, and no sermon. At St. Athanasius, we ordinarily do both every Sunday -- Morning Prayer and Holy Eucharist, in that order. The Communion, therefore, is the natural climax to the service.

When the men of the parish meet for prayer on Wednesday evenings, we follow the order of service for Evening Prayer, with no sermon -- simply the singing of the Psalm appointed in the lectionary, along with other appointed readings, sung canticles, and then the prayers.

My observation is that various Christian communities, from denominations down to individual congregations, will emphasize either the Word or Sacrament, diminishing the presence and significance of the one not majored on. Think, for example, of churches which observe communion once every three months, or even once a year; or, on the other hand, "high" church worship where 90 percent of the time is spent on the communion while the sermon is barely a skim-milk sort of devotional about five minutes long if it is present at all!

So, while they may seem sectarian and much in the minority of Christians, it sounds to me as if the Brethren (as described above) are pretty much "mainstream." 

Father Bill, the Brethren came out of the Anglican church in the 1820s and 1830s. Perhaps the key issue concerned taking the Lord's Supper. The Brethren thought any group of believers meeting together should be able to do this, like your Thursday evening Bible study. The Anglicans said, "no. The Lord's Supper is is one of the church's sacraments."

Interesting how over a century and a half later, they come down with a pretty similar liturgy.

To Fr Bill - right, thanx for your insight on this. Interesting (and certainly explains a few things).

Ross, as far as I understand the brethren didn't originally have these two distinct services on a Sunday morning. Originally it was just the breaking of bread service in the morning and then an evangelistic sermon in the evening service (and this is still the case with the more traditional assemblies - if you are in Edinburgh then Gorgie Gospel Hall on Smithfield street is one of these more traditional ones. Be sure to have a suit and tie and if you are a stranger to them you will have to sit in the back and let the bread and wine pass you by!).

As far as I gather the idea behind the breaking of bread service included the belief that in the NT breaking of bread was done weekly by the disciples and that 1 Corinthians 14:26 indicated a participatory service ("when you come together brothers, each one of you has a hymn, a lesson...") where many men could share rather than just a minister running the show. They are strongly anti-clerical and their initial impetus was to return the church back to New Testament practices. One of their temptations is to pride themselves on being more biblical than other churches.

Which is ironic when it comes to the matter of cessationism as they are historically very strongly cessationist (although it is fascinating to note that the massively influential British House Church movement - which is pervasively charismatic - including networks like Pioneer (Gerald Coates), Newfrontiers (Terry Virgo), Ground Level (Stuart Bell), Covenant Ministries (Bryn Jones), Icthus (Roger Forster), Salt and Light (Barney Coombs), actually traces a good deal of its roots back to the Brethren via a man named Arthur Wallis (author of 'In the Day of Thy Power' and 'God's Chosen Fast'). He was originally Brethren and upon discovering the charismatic life left but retained all the Brethren emphasis on NT practices and saw the charismatic as a logical extension of this emphasis. I have his biography (unread yet) and from my initial reading he seemed to be a huge force for good in the British New Church Movement, although many (but not all) of the younger upcoming leaders could not stomach his more conservative views on many matters. But he seems to have been a man of genuine holiness. I recently acquired the entire set of 'Restoration' magazine on a CD (one of the movements primary magazines) - and I'm very curious to trace back many of the current practices to the DNA found in this publication that went out to thousands of leaders back in those days. For example - ever wondered where Newfrontiers got its complementarianism from in the early days? - Terry Virgo was strongly influenced by Arthur Wallis. Anyway, that was a bit of an aside.

I'm fairly sure the reason why in more recent times many brethren assemblies began the second service in the morning is to make their assemblies more able to draw others to their churches who might find the traditional breaking of bread service a turn-off. So you have this strange grouping in their churches of the ones that come to the breaking of bread service and the ones that don't. Most usually stay on for the second service.

And your right, they rarely often refer to themselves as 'Brethren' - I think they shy away from denominational-ism, preferring just the terms Christian and assembly / meeting.

The brethren are self-confessedly in decline today. But if you scan through the 'Assemblies address book' (you can usually find an older version online, I bought the most recent 2006 version for about £2.50 from one of their websites) you will see that there are a huge number of assemblies scattered over most of the UK. Many of these have very few numbers in them today. They are particularly prevalent in Northern Ireland I believe.

In fact John Lennox (author of "God's Undertaker") is from a Brethren background. Other famous folk from the Brethren include Jim Elliot and George Muller.

Hi Henry - thanx for this. The background is helpful.

I was one of the last Ph.D. students of F.F. Bruce at the University of Manchester. When I knew him, I could not call him an Evangelical, as he had essentially denied the Bible.

An approximate memory of conversations I had with Bruce:

One of the first things he said to me was how Paul over-argued himself. In his Ehrhardt Seminar someone was presenting a paper in which it was implicit that the gospels writers contradicted each other on the resurrection. I queried whether indeed this was so or if one or more of the writers were wrong. Bruce rejoined, "We all see through a glass darkly." Once I asked him if he were compelled to believe what scripture said, and he replied, "If Paul said it." I think Bruce would better be classified as Neo-evangelical.

Incidentally, he failed at an attempt to get a Ph.D. in Austria. That may have helped him, as he was then able to publish the parts of that dissertation as original work. And in England when I was there it seemed that having publications counted much more than having a Ph.D. in obtaining a faculty position. They had persons who never got a Ph.D. supervising Ph.D. students and sitting as examiners of Ph.D. candidates.

I should add that in Bruce's book on Paul published around 1978, Paul Apostle of the Heart Set Free, he appears to deny the resurrection on 2 Corinthians 5, as if Paul changed his mind since 1 Corinthians 15 and came around to the POV that there is no physical resurrection, just living on in a spirit existence in Heaven.

Correction to the above: I wrote: "I think Bruce would better be classified as Neo-evangelical." I should have said, "I think Bruce would better be classified as Neo-orthodox, sympathetic with Karl Barth.

Hi Gum. What is your real name?
Warmly, David

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