A Conversation with Abraham Malherbe
The life of Abraham Malherbe embodies striking contrasts.
Mention any group of distinguished Bible scholars in Churches of Christ and Malherbe inevitably is on the short list. The Buckingham Professor Emeritus of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale University, he is internationally known as a scholar of Greco-Roman New Testament backgrounds, and he and his students are known as the Yale School of New Testament.
Not a typical profile for a devoted church worker, who, with his wife, Phyllis, has been a member of the Whitney Avenue Church of Christ in North Haven, Conn., since the family moved to Yale in 1970.
Yet, in the mid-20th century Malherbe’s name became synonymous with “modernist” — the term used in Churches of Christ to describe scholars thought to be rejecting their heritage and involvement in it.
Colleagues say Malherbe is considered the first biblical scholar from Churches of Christ to be recognized internationally.
A native of South Africa, he was converted by Eldred Echols, who encouraged him to study at Abilene Christian University in Texas. After graduation there, Malherbe studied at Harvard University and returned to teach at ACU from 1963-69.
During his Yale tenure, 10 students from Churches of Christ completed doctoral work under him. When Yale sought a senior scholar in recent years, three of six finalists — and the person selected for the post — were ACU graduates and Malherbe’s former Yale students.
Yale is presently working to fully endow the Malherbe Graduate Fellowship in his honor.
Why is biblical scholarship needed?
Biblical scholarship, when viewed as the attempt to discover the original meaning of a text by situating the text in its original context, has been a natural part of the Restoration Movement from its inception.
The discipline requires a sound knowledge of the languages in which the Bible was written as well as the historical, social and cultural contexts of the texts we read. Such scholarship is especially needed by those who seek to discover what it is that they wish to restore.
But it also restrains us from falling into the trap of reading into the text what we wish to find there.
Why is biblical scholarship needed particularly in the context of the church?
The institutions of higher learning that prepare our ministers particularly need to develop this scholarship vigorously and unabashedly at this moment in our history, for it seems to me that churches in our fellowship are more and more sliding into a kind of evangelicalism that appeals more to one’s affective than cognitive side.
What has been your own scholarly focus over the years, and do you think it has had an impact on the lives of Christians?
Biblical scholarship is not irrelevant to the lives of Christians, nor should it be confined to the professional’s study.
On the contrary, it can be of tremendous value in recapturing and presenting with freshness and excitement the world in which the Bible came into being, and thus illuminate the text.
For example, my own areas of specialization have been the Greek and Roman world of early Christianity. I have been particularly interested in the culture, social realities, and philosophy and the literary forms in which it was disseminated.
This might seem so arcane as to guarantee my isolation.
Quite the contrary has been true. I receive many more requests from churches of all sorts to lecture or teach the New Testament than I can accept. People are surprised and delighted to discover that there are more similarities between themselves and folk in the first century than they could have imagined, and as the biblical text takes on new meaning.
Some of my books have proved to be successful precisely because they succeeded in presenting first Christians vividly. One of the books has been used as far away as in Burundi and as near as in Detroit in studies of how a church could be nurtured from its very beginning.
During the 1950s and 1960s, some in our fellowship were alarmed by “modernism,” and in some circles you were said to be promoting it. What are your reflections on that era?
By “modernism” people really meant theological liberalism. A number of things contributed to my being viewed as a “modernist.”
First, I had gone to Harvard, which had a bad reputation in conservative circles in our fellowship. A number of people who had “lost their faith” or “left the church,” as it was put, had gone to Harvard through the years.
It was really an erroneous view that Harvard was responsible for their departure; they were already on the way out and Harvard was merely a stage on their progress.
LeMoine and Jack Lewis had also attended Harvard, as did, later, Everett Ferguson, Tom Olbricht, Jimmy Roberts and others, who have continued to serve the church. Another factor was that when I returned to teach at ACU, I insisted on rigorous exegetical study of the text, which proved to be threatening to some folk.
Pat Harrell and I had founded the Restoration Quarterly in 1957 while students at Harvard, and the journal raised some flags, no matter that it was edited by J. W. Roberts and published articles by professors in our colleges. Nowadays, faculty at our Christian colleges take the method that was promoted by RQ for granted.
I have never found high academic standards a threat to faith or the church.
I have been associated with Ivy League universities for forty-two years as student and professor, and during that time Phyllis and I have constantly served the local congregation without every having been challenged on theological grounds by the people who knew us.
Name some of the persons who have had a part in making scholarship more acceptable in our fellowship. What are their fields of specialization.
I will be careful and largely confine myself to mentioning only individuals in my own field and the related one of early Christianity who have attained considerable international visibility.
In addition to Ferguson and Olbricht, are Carl Holladay, John Fitzgerald and Michael White. There are others, like Jimmy Roberts and John Willis in Old Testament, with a slew of younger colleagues, who are making substantial contributions.
Most of these scholars did their graduate work at Harvard, and more recently at Yale, especially in New Testament. It need not surprise that it is in biblical studies and early church history that we have excelled, but it is surprising that there are not as many church historians as one might expect.
Our strengths were always our solid foundation in the ancient biblical and cognate languages and a firm grasp on history. The foundation for further language study was laid in our Christian college preparation, and our interest in the history of early Christianity was a given.
I think it unfortunate that such preparation is no longer as strong as it used to be.
What is your assessment of current theological scholarship in our fellowship?
Until recently, such fields as theology and ethics have not exerted an attraction, but they are attracting bright young people who are launching into areas in which they had not received substantial preparation in Christian colleges. I am impressed by the work in Restoration history done by Richard Hughes, Douglas Foster, and of course, David Edwin Harrell. And then, of course, there is our Renaissance man, Tom Olbricht, who is always ready to prod and stimulate.
I am always happy when I see a publication in major journals by members of the church, or increasingly, books published by major publishing houses.
I am equally gratified by the articles of high quality I see published in the Restoration Quarterly written by, I assume, young scholars whose names I do not know, and by some of the incisive book reviews in the same journal.
What trends do you detect in theological scholarship in our fellowship?
This is an impossibly broad question to answer, but let me take a stab at it. I have the impression that scholars who teach in our Christian institutions are more directly applying their energy to what they perceive to be the needs of the church than was done previously.
Analysis of the condition of the church receives substantial attention, and a genuine desire to describe us as we in fact are is evident. That means that our fellowship is recognized to embrace a diversity unimaginable to earlier generations.
In fact, what the borders of the fellowship are or should be seem to be up for grabs. So far, I have been impressed by the descriptive power of my friends engaged in this enterprise, but I await suggestions about what norms should apply when conceiving of the church and its practices.
In this connection, I am particularly interested in how those norms will be arrived at, and how they will be biblically and theologically informed. I wish for something more rigorous than the occasional discussions about hermeneutics that I have heard from time to time.
We have moved from the canons of direct command, approved example and necessary inference, which, I suspect, were more widely held than is presently admitted to have been the case.
But I am unaware, perhaps because I do not know enough of the discussion, of anything that has emerged that is as compelling as those canons were to former generations. I would not be surprised to detect an uneasiness today about a hermeneutic that would call for contours of the church so distinctive that a challenge might be posed to the spirit of fraternal, not to say ecumenical, acceptance that we have discovered.
The scholarship of persons in our fellowship who do not teach in our Christian institutions is also important to the church. Quite frequently, they have trained and are training some of the persons who will teach in those institutions.
Equally important, they demonstrate that scholarship of the highest calibre is not in tension with membership in a fellowship that has been thought narrow mindedly fundamentalistic.
And their influence as scholars, and sometimes as administrators, within their institutions and the international learned societies of which they are members, is not to be discounted, for their religious affiliation does not go unnoticed.
I am claiming that, while their published scholarship is not directly addressed to the needs of the church, it does not mean that as scholars their work is irrelevant to the church.
For many, they are models as Christian scholars. In addition, they frequently preach and lecture to churches and institutions in our fellowship, serve on review committees and consult, promote Christian scholarship through such enterprises as the Christian Scholarship Foundation, conceived and administered by Carl Holladay, which provides scholarships for students in our fellowship who pursue doctoral studies. The enumeration of their contributions can go on and on.
What are some of your concerns as you view our fellowship?
I have already alluded to what is my major concern, our cozying up to those evangelicals who put a premium on feeling at the expense of reason.
This is not an indictment of all evangelicals, for there are differences among them. Having discovered the Holy Spirit, grace and mercy, however, evangelical priorities and language have come to suffuse much of the preaching in our fellowship.
That, combined with the style of preaching, common in all churches these days, that is narratival and anecdotal rather than expository, results in sermons that are as theologically thin gruel as are many of the so-called praise songs we sing.
It seems that the goal of many services is to achieve an emotional response without imparting biblical knowledge. When the same, non-expository approach is followed in a church’s Bible classes, any Restorationist nuance easily disappears.