Friday, September 26, 2008

Friday's with Craig Keener ... Part Seven

This is the seventh installment of an eight-part interview with Dr. Craig Keener, Professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania.

In today's installment, Craig pays tribute to three men who influenced him toward becoming a New Testament scholar.

Two of those men have been featured on this blog previously: a tribute to Gordon Fee can be read here, and an entry referencing Ben Aker can be read here.

In the interview, Craig mentions New Testament Survey tapes by Gordon Fee. A set of such tapes (an updated set, not the set Craig used almost 30 years ago) is available here.

JR: Knowing that you have great admiration for Gordon Fee (as I do, as well), I can't let this interview close without giving you an opportunity to explain something of what Gordon Fee has meant to you.

KEENER: When I was an undergraduate, three people most influenced me toward scholarship: Gordon Fee, Ben Aker and George Eldon Ladd (two Pentecostals and an evangelical whose theology of the kingdom informs the Vineyard movement). Ladd was extremely influential on me (through his writings), and I doubt that I would have become a scholar without his influence as well as that of the other two. Nevertheless, given the main issue at hand in this interview, I will focus on Gordon --- and, if you'll permit me, Ben.

I had been an atheist since at least age nine until my conversion, and had connected that posture to my other intellectual pursuits. After I was converted through an encounter with Christ, I initially viewed my mind as an idol and tried to suppress it while I let the church teach me. Unfortunately for that plan, as I was reading the Bible I kept noticing conflicts with what I was being taught, and having questions about what I was reading in the Bible. It was actually in my charismatic experiences with the Spirit that I began to hear God teaching me that I should use my mind. It was not my god, but it was a tool I could use in serving God. I still had all my unsettled questions left over from atheism that I then had to confront, which was a painful and lengthy process.

I had enrolled at Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, and one of my teachers was Ben Aker. I heard some prosperity-teaching-oriented students complain that Ben Aker just cared about the Bible, whereas real people of faith ought to be able to see the sick healed. (I later learned that my professors' rate of people being healed was comparable to that of the prosperity teachers.) So I was praying for Ben Aker that God would convict him, when suddenly the Holy Spirit convicted me instead. "I have given him the gift of teaching," I felt the Lord say, "and you need to listen to him." I signed up for three classes with Ben Aker the next semester. Things that God would teach me in prayer, I would hear from Ben Aker's exegesis the next week in class. I realized that one could hear God exegetically as well as charismatically, and learned from Scripture that the Spirit is behind both ways.

I had planned to attend Bible college for two years, then go out and preach, since God had called me to minister in His Word. But toward the end of those two years, I felt increasingly drawn to the example I saw in Ben Aker: a ministry of the Word that equipped other ministers of the Word. As I kept praying, I felt increasingly this direction in my calling, and felt that I should finish college. If I had known that the Lord was going to lead me through seminary and a Ph.D. after that, I might have balked! (But He did pay for it, though I needed to live very simply.)

Gordon Fee was about the only model we had for Pentecostal scholarship in the wider world that we had at the time. We had Pentecostal scholars who had given their whole lives to the Pentecostal movement, so we could have the opportunities we had in Bible college. But as far as an example of an open Pentecostal who was making a difference in larger evangelical and mainstream scholarship, Gordon Fee was the only one we knew of. Some people did not appreciate Gordon's determination to grapple with Scripture honestly in the larger academy, and one particularly dogmatic teacher was heard to denounce him as a "heretic." Once we heard that, those of us who were annoyed by that particular teacher's ranting against honest exegesis found Gordon Fee's New Testament survey tapes in our library. I listened to them over and over, taking notes more copiously than I could have if he were my professor.

One of my pet peeves at the school was that those who could voice their views publicly were pretribulational. With all due respect to those who disagree, including close friends of mine, I couldn't see it. I had tried to believe it, but as I kept reading Scripture it became clear to me that every single text used to support that teaching was out of context. An evangelist browbeat me into believing it as a young Christian, around 1976 or so. I answered every text he gave me with its context, but exasperated, he finally warned me that all men of God, like Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart, were pretrib, and I had been a Christian for just a year. Who did I think I was? I reluctantly conceded his point, but a few months later learned that no one until 1830 had even heard of the doctrine, so most men and women of God through history, as well as many today, did NOT believe the doctrine. That was a turning point in my life: I decided never to believe what someone told me the Bible said without honestly grappling with it myself. The Bible's authority was not just a doctrine to be placed alongside our other doctrines: it was the source for all true doctrine.

When I was going through Gordon Fee's tapes, he declared that someone who asserted that the church would not go through the tribulation had simply never read the New Testament. Because that was such an issue in my environment, I gravitated toward Gordon and toward Ladd's books, because I felt that they would do honest exegesis no matter what the popular opinion was. If my calling was to call believers back to Scripture, then that has to mean Scripture over denominational tradition, as well as Scripture over culture (a problem in some liberal churches) and over experience (a problem in some charismatic churches).

A lot of our graduates were going off to Gordon-Conwell to study with Gordon; I could not afford the move at the time, so I stayed, and Gordon soon left for Regent anyway. It was only years later, while I was doing my doctoral work at Duke and he came to speak in the area, that I was able to meet him in person and tell him what his example meant to me. In subsequent years I have gotten to know him better in person. When he mentored me, however, it was not in person (like Ben Aker) or through his books (like George Ladd). It was, amazingly enough, through his New Testament survey tapes in our library, which circulated like contraband in defiance of an overly dogmatic professor's criticisms. I guess that should be an encouragement to us that if we are faithful to what God called us to do, He is able to make a difference through us for the kingdom even in ways we cannot yet see.

NEXT FRIDAY'S QUESTION: Go ahead and tell us about George Ladd's influence on you. I know the readers will be fascinated.

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