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

Error message

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. Formerly serving in theological education in Africa with Mission to the World, he and his wife currently live in their hometown of Bloomington, IN.