Tim Grass is an associate tutor at Spurgeon’s College, London, assistant editor for the Ecclesiastical History Society, and a resident of the Isle of Man, where he spends as much time as possible writing in the field of modern Christian history. He is also the author of F. F. Bruce: A Life, which is due out next week. In this post, Grass describes what it was like for him to write the biography of a man whose story might seem, at first glance, unremarkable — yet who was, on closer inspection, an extraordinary individual whose life continues to inspire those who knew him.
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At first glance, a New Testament scholar with conventional tastes who lived an uncontroversial life might seem to be an unpromising subject for a biography. In the Christian world we often like our biographies to be full of action — gripping page-turners which keep us awake late at night.
There is no way a biography of Frederick Fyvie Bruce (1910-90) could pass muster in that respect. Bruce’s academic career was one of steady and relatively straightforward progress, and he experienced no dramatic reverses, whether in terms of ecclesiastical heresy trials or institutional funding cutbacks.
Yet as I worked on the project, I found myself being gripped by Bruce’s story — not so much by the action, but rather by what I discovered of the man’s character. And it became evident that I wasn’t alone. Fairly near the beginning, an appeal for information and materials produced a response which almost overwhelmed me. From many parts of the world came e-mails, letters, books, photocopies and even the occasional sound recording. What’s more, some of the people I interviewed spoke with an unusual degree of emotion about their recollections of ‘F.F.B.’, as he was often known.
The emotion gave me pause for thought. Someone who excites such a reaction, years after his death, must have had some unusual, perhaps unique, personal qualities. The one which struck me most was his gift as a mentor – not that he ever seems to have used the word. Scholars would tell me about the advice or support he had given them at crucial moments. Lay Christians would testify to the confidence which his input had given them as they lived out their faith in a range of callings. One clergyman, who had grown up as a ‘young thug’ (his words) in a deprived area of a British city and left school with minimal qualifications, told me how Bruce had taken him under his wing, taught him how to study, and encouraged him as he sought ordination.
That last example spoke to me powerfully. At the time it happened, Bruce was an internationally renowned New Testament scholar, holding a professorial chair and carrying an unprecedented postgraduate supervisory load. He could have restricted his concern to those who inhabited the academic world, leaving others to care for those who were, we might say, “lower down the pile.” But the consistent testimony of fellow church members as well as academics was that he sought to serve and build up the wider church, looking beyond (though not discounting) ‘in-house’ academic concerns. I’m sure that’s one reason why his writings are so remarkably, almost deceptively, intelligible.
And he was ready to perform whatever tasks came to hand. I was told the story of a visiting academic who arrived at Bruce’s church one Sunday morning to encounter a little man in a boiler suit stoking up the heating system to ready it for the day’s services. He took a bit of convincing before he would believe that the little man was not the janitor but the great scholar whom he had come to see! Such a man as F. F. Bruce was secure enough not to worry about being undervalued, and that security in his own identity as a Christian believer, loved by God, freed him to give himself to others. I wish I had known him.