Reviewed by Andreas J. Kӧstenberger
During the course of a busy academic year, I often find it difficult to read certain books that I am not required to read for my scholarly writing or teaching. So I put those aside for the following July or August when things typically slow down and mark them as summer reading. This includes scholarly biographies and other books of interest to the New Testament or biblical scholar. This year, books such as these included the following three: Stanley Porter’s Constantine Tischendorf: The Life and Work of a 19th Century Bible Hunter (London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2015); Neil Bach’s Leon Morris: One Man’s Fight for Love and Truth (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2015); and David A. deSilva’s Day of Atonement: A Novel of the Maccabean Revolt (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2015). Perusing deSilva’s volume was helpful in stirring my historically informed imagination in preparing to teach a Ph.D. seminar on Ancient Jewish and Greco-Roman Literature. But my primary engagement was with the two scholarly biographies on Leon Morris and Constantine Tischendorf.
Leon Morris (1914–2006) was a remarkable man of God and also a very good scholar. An Australian, he was a pioneer in evangelical scholarship. He is perhaps best known for his commentary on John’s Gospel in the NICNT series (1971, rev. ed. 1995) and his revised dissertation The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (1955) in which, among other things, he sought to overturn the replacement of the term “propitiation” (averting God’s wrath) with “expiation” (removal of sin) proposed by the influential British scholar C. H. Dodd and adopted by the Revised Standard Version (RSV).
The author of this biography is Neil Bach, who chairs the Leon and Mildred Morris Foundation, so this is clearly a sympathetic (though not inaccurate) biography. Bach does a very good job in providing a lot of pertinent data culled from various sources including Morris’s personal papers. As one who was asked to share some of my own personal reflections on Morris’s influence on my scholarship in blog form and later presented a paper on Morris’s contribution to Johannine studies for the ETS Johannine Literature Section (hopefully to be published in a monograph on eight seminal Johannine scholars), I greatly appreciate this useful compendium of information on Morris’s life and scholarly career, published only after I did my research. Prior to the publication of Bach’s volume, there was only an article by David Hubbard of Fuller Seminary, one of Morris’s closest American friends and allies, and a few other essays and shorter pieces on Morris. Bach’s biography is thus a helpful step forward in getting better acquainted with the life and work of Leon Morris.
In a recent Ph.D. seminar on “Faith and Scholarship,” I used the Morris biography alongside John A. D’Elia’s A Place at the Table: George Eldon Ladd and the Rehabilitation of Evangelical Scholarship in America, which made for a fascinating study in comparison and contrast. Both Ladd (1911–1982) and Morris were pioneers of evangelical biblical scholarship and made a significant contribution to biblical and New Testament studies. (Interestingly, both are mentioned by William Baird only once in a passing footnote [vol. 3, p. 534, n. 205], which is more indicative of Baird’s historical-critical litmus test in assessing a scholar’s contribution than reflecting a scholar’s actual significance in a given field of study.) At the same time, as readers of D’Elia’s volume are well aware, Ladd, at a turning point in his personal and scholarly life, was deeply impacted by a negative review (by Norman Perrin) of what he hoped would be his seminal contribution to biblical scholarship and toward the end of his life descended into increased drinking and disillusionment. His relationship with members of his family and involvement with the local church were strained as well. In this way, Ladd’s life serves as a morality tale of what may happen when someone makes scholarship a sort of idol and seeks to validate their existence by the reception of their scholarly work.
Leon Morris provides a refreshing contrast. Coming from a wholesome family background, Morris, throughout his entire life which spanned almost an entire century (Morris died at age 92), was consistently modest and self-deprecating. People said he was hard to interview because if he had nothing to say, he said nothing. At the same time, Morris was a man of courage and conviction. As mentioned, he rose to the defense of the biblical teaching on Jesus’s work on the cross and the propitiation for sin Jesus’s death provided over against some of the leading scholars and translations of his day. Morris was a capable scholar, as his commentaries on John’s Gospel and the Thessalonian epistles attest, but he was also very loyal to Ridley College in Melbourne and served as administrator there for many years. In fact, he was so loyal that he turned down more lucrative and prestigious offers in England and the United States. In addition, Morris was a committed churchman, regularly engaging in preaching and teaching ministry. He had close evangelistic ties with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Crusade and was a main speaker at the Second International Congress on World Evangelism in Manila in 1989.
Morris was a conciliator, putting the cross at the center of his scholarship and personal ministry. At a conference in Boston on the author of Scripture in 1966, organized to discuss inerrancy which was beginning to divide evangelical flagship institutions such as Fuller Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Morris lamented the lack of consensus. For his part, he happily taught at both institutions multiple times and sustained close friendships with David Hubbard at Fuller and Don Carson at Trinity (curiously, there is no mention in the book I could find of the New Testament Introduction Morris co-authored with Don Carson and Doug Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995; 2nd ed. by Carson and Moo, 2005]).
In essence, Morris seemed to trust God to guide him in his next step. He had no grand plan or career scheme laid out for himself but simply took matters as they came, accepting invitations to teach, preach, or write in various parts of the world. For someone who spent as much time at one institution—Ridley College—Morris traveled a great deal. In this way, he served the global church and connected multiple worlds of scholarship. Like reading Ladd’s biography, learning about Morris’s life and work is like being treated to a slice of evangelical history. It is truly amazing with how many key figures and institutions these two men intersected throughout their long and illustrious careers. What is more, not only do the biographies of these two scholars provide an intriguing case study in contrasts, Bach’s volume documents that the two scholars actually met in person at Fuller Seminary at one point. During a trip to North America in 1959–61, shortly before he accepted the wardenship at Tyndale House in Cambridge, Morris lectured at Fuller.
As Bach tells the story, “Ladd was on record as attributing the renaissance of conservative scholarship in measure to the name of ‘Leon Morris.’ Leon sensed that some of the Fuller men felt undervalued in the wider conservative Christian community. Ladd had had a couple of his articles rejected for publication and had to find other outlets, and he interpreted this as a lack of recognition. Leon noted: ‘I felt though that the Fuller men are all unduly on the defensive. They have built better than they know’” (p. 91). Intriguingly, Morris seems to have picked up on Ladd’s insecurity and desire to be awarded a “place at the table” by the critical scholarly establishment, confirming a critical juncture in the narrative of Ladd’s life woven by his biographer.
By contrast, Morris appears not to have been driven by a desire to prove himself to the critical scholarly establishment. In working on my own paper on Morris, I came across the following quote in Morris’s Studies in the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1969, pp. 9–11; my personal copy is signed by Leon Morris):
The conservative evangelical who writes seriously on biblical topics is apt to find himself the target of a certain amount of criticism. If he decides simply to state the facts as he sees them, and to be silent about the works of more radical critics, he finds himself accused of obscurantism. If, on the other hand, he decides to take notice of what others have been writing, and to quote them, he may find himself accused of citing authors who do not really agree with his essential position … in facing this issue I felt that I am unrepentant. I unhesitatingly adopt the second-mentioned course. I read books by men of all sorts of opinions and profit not least from those with whom I disagree most fundamentally.
He elaborates, “Your conservative, it is held, is the slave of his presuppositions. He is bound to reach certain conclusions. Therefore his arguments need not be taken seriously. …” Morris’s conclusion is this:
In writing in this way I am not claiming that I have some way of resolving the conflict. Nor do I claim to have done what so many others have failed to do, namely achieve the perfect balance between recognizing the consequences of inspiration and the use of the critical method. It is rather that I, as a conservative evangelical, want to assure the reader that I have made a serious attempt to deal with the great questions raised in this book. I have not tried to defend any preconceived position or to follow a party line. As far as I am able, I have let the facts lead me where they will. I have little hope that the typical modern scholar will have much patience with this book …. But I ask him to see this as a work meant as seriously as is his own. And I ask him to deal with the argument on its merits, and not simply to assume that I am engaging in special pleading. He is, of course, free to disagree with me fundamentally. But I want to assure him that at the least this is a sincere effort to grapple with the problems on the basis of the evidence.
In contrast to Ladd (though it is true that Ladd, too, was often undaunted by his critics, especially dispensationalists), one senses in Morris a healthy dose of self-confidence that cannot be easily shaken by his higher-critical academic peers. In this he serves as a scholarly model for conservative evangelicals who are committed to wedding serious academic research with a high view of Scripture.
A second recent scholarly biography is Stanley Porter’s work on Constantine Tischendorf (1815–1874), timed to appear during the 200th anniversary year of Tischendorf’s birth. Tischendorf is best known for his discovery of Codex Sinaiticus at St. Catherine’s Monastery. Porter does not provide a full-fledged biography but rather sets out to rehabilitate Tischendorf against the charge that he resorted to unethical or deceptive means in securing the scrolls containing Codex Sinaiticus. He contends that Tischendorf acted ethically and was driven by a sincere desire to establish the reliability of the biblical witness. He also believes Tischendorf’s contribution, not only as a Bible hunter but also as a text critic and scholar, is often not sufficiently appreciated. Not only did Tischendorf prove instrumental in the publication of Codex Sinaiticus, he also sought to make Codex Vaticanus accessible to the public. In addition, he discovered or rediscovered and published numerous biblical manuscripts found in various libraries and other locations around the world. In assessing Tischendorf’s scholarly impact, Porter discusses his significant contributions to paleography, textual criticism, the Greek OT and NT, and higher criticism and theology.
After surveying the life and work of Tischendorf in Part One of his book, Porter provides an introduction to Tischendorf’s volume When Were Our Gospels Written? followed by a reprint of the translation of this work which includes an introductory account of Tischendorf’s discovery of what came to be known as Codex Sinaiticus. In many ways, one senses that Porter’s biography of Tischendorf serves to present a role model of serious academic work which is motivated by genuine Christian faith. In his rigorous pursuit of the evidence, his high degree of competence in amassing his impressive publication record, and his desire to establish the reliability of the Bible, Tischendorf’s life work stands as an abiding monument of industry, sacrifice, and commitment to technical biblical research.
Clearly, Leon Morris and Constantine Tischendorf inhabited radically different worlds, whether chronologically, culturally, geographically, ecclesiastically, or otherwise. Some may be drawn more to the example of Tischendorf who exemplifies scholarly rigor in the academic pursuit of the evidence. Others may resonate more with Leon Morris who was consistently faithful in what he was called to do, whether mission work, academic administration, service in the local church, classroom teaching, or scholarly writing. In the end, each of us must strive to determine our own unique calling from God. Toward this end, reading scholarly biographies such as those on Leon Morris, George Eldon Ladd, or Constantine Tischendorf can be highly instructive.
In the session on faith and scholarship I teach regularly to Ph.D. students, as mentioned, I have students read the biographies on Morris and Ladd (and may well have them read that on Tischendorf in the future). Then, I have them write a reflection paper on the lessons they’ve learned from the lives and scholarly careers of these men in light of a book I have written, Excellence: The Character of God and the Pursuit of Scholarly Virtue (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011). I have found that this exercise can have a cathartic, clarifying, and eminently constructive effect for many. All of us need role models, and often we learn as much from negative examples as from positive ones. Balancing faith and scholarship, as well as family and ministry, including scholarship, is not an easy challenge. We can be grateful to be able to walk in the footsteps of those who, like Morris, Ladd, and Tischendorf, have gone before us—pioneers of rigorous, Bible-believing scholarship—as we give our lives to the pursuit of God’s greater glory, whatever our calling from him may be.
Andreas J. Kӧstenberger, Ph.D., is founder of Biblical Foundations™ (www.biblicalfoundations.org) and Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, where he served as Director for Ph.D. Studies for 12 years. He is also New Testament review editor for Books-At-A-Glance.
Buy the books
Leon Morris: One Man’s Fight for Love and Truth
Constantine Tischendorf: The Life and Work of a 19th Century Bible Hunter