Review: I (Still) Believe

i still believe

I (Still) BelieveJohn Byron and Joel N. Lohr, editors. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.

Summary: Seventeen narratives of scholars who address the question of whether academic study of the Bible is a threat to one’s faith.

One of the ironies of seminary studies are the popular stories of those who went off to seminary only to lose their faith. I’ve seen that happen. The question may be asked, “is academic study of the Bible a threat to the student’s faith?”

The seventeen prominent scholars who contributed to this volume (as well as the two editors) answer this question with a resounding no! The editors provided a series of questions regarding the academic journeys of the scholars, instances where their studies posed challenges to their faith and ways their lives have been enriched by their studies, the role of the church in their work, and the advice they would give aspiring scholars.

Richard Bauckham’s response typifies those in this volume:

All this seems to me relevant to the fact that I have never experienced anything like a “crisis of faith” through my study of the Bible–or through any other kind of study, for that matter. There seems to me nothing remarkable about that fact, but people sometimes find it surprising….I think it may be helpful if I go back behind my work to the deeper roots of my faith. I have always loved God (p. 23).

What struck me through these narratives was that the scholars are marked by this abiding love for God and God’s scriptures, a love that began in childhood for some, following conversion for others, but has remained through their lives and scholarly journeys. Some grew up in fundamentalist circles, which often seems deadly for academic studies, but in this case, the experience was one of loving the Bible from sword drills to family devotions.

That does not mean that they did not face challenges to their faith. The greatest challenges were life experiences, particularly the loss of loved ones, as for example narrated by R.W.L. Moberly in the loss of his wife. He concludes:

Probably the greatest challenge that any Christian scholar faces, however, is not different from that which any believer faces: How can I keep my first love fresh? Love for God and love for one’s subject can both become dulled over time. There is no simple solution. For me, at least, it is a matter of life-long learning: learning to bring together head and heart, learning to pursue both truth and goodness, and learning to recognize that any and every place and time and situation is where, in the words of Moses, I must choose life (p. 210).

I saw several other recurring themes in the work. One was the importance of mentors who modeled both faith and scholarship. Names like C.F.D Moule, Brevard Childs, and James Muilenberg came up over and over. There were a host of others as well.

Another was an intellectual openness coupled with a commitment to the authority and inspiration of scripture. For many who came out of fundamentalism, their understanding of the nature of the trustworthiness of scripture changed over time. For many, the constructions of inerrancy they grew up with became inadequate to their understanding of the kind of book the Bible is. This did not mean a rejection of the Bible, if anything scripture grew in its authority and influence in these scholars’ lives.

Reading about the academic journeys of these scholars, from their studies to their teaching was fascinating. Sometimes there were setbacks, particularly when convictions no longer conformed to their institutions. Many of the narratives detail the scholarly questions, publications, and insights these scholars pursued over the course of their academic careers. For some, there were corresponding journeys in the church communions of which they were part. For example Edith Humphreys describes her journey from the Salvation Army, through Anglicanism, to the Orthodox Church.

These scholars see their work as in service to the church and often enriched by their participation in its ministry. Beverly Roberts Gaventa speaks pointedly about the ethos of self-promotion she sometimes sees in the field while the church often offers up thin gruel. On the other hand, Scot McKnight writes about his congregation, one in which his children and grandchildren are part:

It is of great significance to Kris and me that we are handing on our faith to our children and their children–in the context of worship and fellowship. What is doing on there is propped up by an academic career of teaching and writing, but what goes on transcends an academic career. It is there–under the preached Word and in the Eucharist–that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring forgiveness and justification. When my grandkids become adults and begin to think about me as their grandfather I want them to say that their grandfather was always talking about Jesus, even on the golf course or during baseball games (p. 171).

I thought this a quite wonderful collection, particularly for one considering theological studies. The narratives highlight the grace of God, the orientations of our hearts, the providence of God in one’s career, and the delights of research and teaching and an intellectual life open to the Spirit of God, motivated by the love of God, and the centrality of the risen Christ. They invite the pursuit of this work for its own sake, trusting the guidance of God, warning of the uncertainties of academic careers. It left me with a fresh appreciation for the work of these scholars, and the deep life of faith that motivates so many of them.


I received this book as a gift from John Byron, executive dean and vice president of Ashland Theological Seminary, where I was privileged to pursue my own theological studies. The views expressed in this review are my own.

Review: A Week in the Life of a Slave

a week in the life of a slave

A Week in the Life of a Slave (A Week in the Life Series), John Byron. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A creative re-telling of the story of runaway slave Onesimus that casts light on the institution of slavery in Greco-Roman society and the church’s response.

Onesimus. Philemon. These two names are associated with Paul’s shortest letter. One wonders at times why it was included. It seems to be a personal appeal for Onesimus, a runaway slave, who during his time with Paul became a follower of Jesus. He appeals for Onesimus to receive him back as a brother, and charge any debt or wrong to Paul. A beautiful appeal to reconcile a runaway slave to his master, a fellow Christian. Just a personal letter? Perhaps, but it is also addressed to the church that meets in Philemon’s home (v. 2). Is there a larger message for the church from the apostle who taught there is “neither slave nor free. . . but you are one in Christ” (Galatians 3:28).

These questions and many more John Byron explores in this newest contribution to the “A Week in the Life Series.” Through both a creative re-telling of story and the sidebars, Byron casts light on the institution of slavery in the Roman empire. We learn how people became slaves, how they were treated, their status, even when freed, and what a serious matter it was for a slave to run away. Beyond flogging, a slave could likely be sold, usually into inferior conditions with even less chance of obtaining his liberty.

Byron tells the story through the cast of characters we find in the letter, and a few others, including a prison superintendent who is a believer, who at risk to himself allows Paul to see Onesimus long enough that he can understand and believe the gospel. In doing so, he posits an Ephesian imprisonment, which makes sense with its proximity to Colossae. He includes Luke and Demas and Epaphras who shares his imprisonment. Demas hosts a church in his home and shelters Onesimus, who witnesses the mingling of slaves and free persons in worship.

Byron explores what it might have been like for churches to grapple with the question of the inclusion of believing slaves in their worship. He creates a contrast between Ephesus where all are brothers in Christ when they gather for worship, and Colossae and the church in Philemon’s home, where slaves are excluded–until Archippus (a kind of overseer or bishop of churches in the Lycus valley) challenges their practice, and their socially stratified worship. One begins to grasp how “neither slave nor free” in worship was itself an incredibly radical step.

Many who discuss the issue of slavery in the New Testament argue that an infant church couldn’t challenge this powerful institution. I appreciate that Byron doesn’t make this argument, which can ring hollow. Rather he shows what it was like for early house churches to take the first steps to press out their theological convictions about oneness in Christ into eating and worshiping together, steps that in themselves broke with established social convention.

We don’t know what Philemon did with regard to the legal offense of running away. Paul only appeals and doesn’t offer a specific course of action. But Byron picks up on the legend that the Bishop Onesimus mentioned in Ignatius’s letter to the Ephesians. If that were so, at some point Philemon granted this runaway his freedom. One wonders if the Philemon-Onesimus incident was something of a watershed moment with implications beyond their immediate relations. Was this perhaps the reason for the letter’s preservation. Did Bishop Onesimus, as Byron writes the story, have something to do with the letter’s preservation?

These are plausible speculations at best. What Byron’s book does so well for us is bring to life the Greco-Roman institution of slavery, perhaps different in treatment from American slavery, but nevertheless demeaning of the personhood of the enslaved. We grasp the risks Paul, and all who helped shelter Onesimus ran. We begin to understand the costly counter-cultural actions of a nascent church that shelters, welcomes at table, and worship, the slave, calling him “brother” and her “sister.” We only are left wondering why it took the church another eighteen centuries to follow the arc of their theology to its ultimate conclusion in practice and law.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.