Frederick Dale Bruner’s massive and highly anticipated new commentary The Gospel of John is (at last!) in production and expected to arrive in our warehouse before the end of February. To celebrate the pending release, we’re posting a five-part guest series by Dr. Bruner on “the adventure of Gospel interpretation.” Here’s an outline of the series; we’ll add links as the articles go live.
I. How I Became a Gospel Interpreter (Part 1)
II. How I Became a Gospel Interpreter (Part 2)
III. The Special Responsibilities of Gospel Interpreters
IV. One Striking Experience in Seeking to Understand the Gospel of John
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I. How I Became a Gospel Interpreter (Part 1)
When my wife and I retired from Whitworth University in 1997, we came to Pasadena, California, where we live just four miles (a one-hour walk) from the wonderful new Hubbard Library at Fuller Theological Seminary. Most weekdays I take this hour walk to the library and go upstairs to a small but delightful seven-foot-square cubicle on the top floor at the far end of the library, where I revel in the privilege of having eight uninterrupted hours in which to study the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Exactly midway on this daily one-hour walk to the library I go through the campus of Cal Tech (The California Institute of Technology), and as I pass by the windowed rooms there, full of scientific instruments, papers, and paraphernalia, I think to myself, “someday, someone here in these buildings will discover something like a cure for cancer and many other marvelous gifts to humanity.” And I also think to myself (forgive my monomania): “Dale, you have the privilege today, just a half-hour away, of studying the single most important, transformational, and healing subject ever: the Gospel of the Great Invisible God’s historical coming to earth in the person, words, and works of God’s Eternal Son, the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Be grateful!”
On Sundays during the school year I have the privilege of teaching what I have been studying all week long to The Good News Class at First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, California, our family’s home church. I think many normal people would consider my regimen of six days of sequestered study and one day of coming out into the world — how far out into the world? into the Church! — to be a terribly boring and sorely confining life. Yet I find this little rhythm of six days studying, one day teaching, to be thrilling, exhilarating, and life-fulfilling! When I retired from University teaching, I retired, really and full-time, into my calling, not from my calling. So-called “retirement” has meant “full-fillment” for me.
I read somewhere that the life-motto of Logan Pearsall Smith, the Anglo-American essayist, was this: “People say ‘life’ is the thing, but I prefer reading.” I fully agree! In a discussion once, in my Good News Sunday School Class, about the various gifts and parts of the many-membered Body of Christ (hands, feet, eyes, ears, etc.), of which Paul speaks so eloquently and pictorially in his Epistles, I asked the class if they knew what their particular gifts in the body of Christ were and if they would share their convictions with the rest of us. It was fun to get the replies. My wife, only semi-discretely I believe, shared with the class that in her opinion, her husband had only one particular gift: “an iron butt,” to use her barely respectable phrase.
I do love to sit and to read and to write, quietly, all day long. My calling seems to me so much easier than that of a pastor, who must deal with people — so much easier than anyone else’s calling in the great and complex public world. Books never talk back to you. They obey your every request. You can relax and be yourself in their company all day long. You can even argue with them without getting into a fight.
But where did I get this strange predilection for wanting to be alone all day? Was the fact that my father was a very private person in the evenings and on weekends a formative factor? (After working in sales with Western Union Telegraph during the workweek, my father pretty much disappeared behind the newspaper in the evenings. On vacations, he would disappear all day long fishing.) Both my father and mother were very private people, and I rarely remember friends, other family, or neighbors being a part of our lives. Might this somewhat confined early home life have influenced me later to become, gradually, over the years, a kind of recluse myself? I wonder.
In the middle of my freshman year at Occidental College, I met Jesus Christ in a life-changing way at a New Year’s Weekend College Conference of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood held in a mountain camp called Forest Home. The college department class at this church became my new spiritual home. Dr. Henrietta C. Mears taught this class at the Hollywood Church for some thirty-five years in a thrillingly Christ-centered way, and I was privileged to be one of her students for four of the most formative years of my life.
At about the same time, a university student movement began at our Hollywood Presbyterian Church called Campus Crusade for Christ, conceived and led by Bill and Vonette Bright, who had themselves been deeply influenced by Dr. Mears. I joined Bill Bright’s evangelism classes, too. But I soon discovered, to my great discomfort, that my calling was not evangelism.
Let me tell you my most memorable evangelistic experience. I was far too reserved to talk about Christ with my classmates at Occidental College. But when Bill and his colleagues would tell about their frequent experiences of sharing Christ in personal conversations with people, often with perfect strangers, even on airplane rides with their newly-met fellow passengers, I was deeply convicted of my cowardice.
One Sunday night, as I was walking into the evening service at our church, I stopped, did an abrupt U-turn, and walked right back down the street to Hollywood Boulevard, just a block away. I said to myself enroute, “I am tired of being a coward; tonight I am going to witness to someone about Jesus Christ or die.” I prayed for the Lord’s leading as I went down the block. I then sat down on the bus bench at the southwest corner of Gower Street and Hollywood Boulevard, next to a United States Marine. I said to him, I think courteously, “Excuse me, but have you ever thought about Jesus Christ?” I will never forget his reply: “If you don’t get out of here in ten seconds,” he said, “I am going to smash you right in the mouth!” Now my father had taught me never to run away from a fight, but this would have been ridiculous. I left, quickly.
As I walked down Hollywood Boulevard, toward the famous intersection of Hollywood and Vine about three blocks away, I said to myself, “Bruner: You were a jerk to begin your conversation with the Marine like that. Get into a normal conversation with someone first, and then bring in Christ! But don’t wimp out tonight, Bruner. Tonight is a night of destiny for you: You’re going to become a witness to Christ tonight or die!” So I went to the next corner, on the other side of Hollywood Blvd. (out of the Marine’s sight, by the way!), sat down next to an older gentleman on a bus bench, and got into a normal conversation with him. And then the bus came and took him away. I began to wonder what kind of a Christian I was! I will not tell you of my other embarrassing experiences of trying to witness for Christ to others — at home with my own parents; at Princeton Seminary and University. Almost every time I tried direct evangelism I was a semi-disaster.
I was finally released from this bondage to a calling that was clearly not mine when I heard the reading of 1 Corinthians 12 in Princeton Seminary’s Miller Chapel, where the pastor read Paul’s familiar text: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of these gifts in everyone of his people. To each individual person is given some one particular manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (I Corinthians 12:4-7). Paul means: we all have different gifts!
Finally, my guilt for preferring study in the library to evangelism on the university campus began to recede. But I was still wondering about what my own particular spiritual gift might possibly be.