The death of my friend Professor James D.G. Dunn, aged 80, brought back many memories not just of his extraordinary range of achievements in biblical scholarship but in his humanity and passion for biblical mission and ministry.

I was a young preacher in my early twenties, when with gentleness and a twinkle in his eye, he clinically dissected one of my sermons and summarized by saying, ‘You concentrated too much on Jesus’! This was a somewhat surprising comment from a scholar who had and would spend much of his academic career exploring the historical Jesus, and to a bible-believing evangelical who received it as outrageous. His analysis was twofold. First, I had not paid enough attention to the text of the Bible reading using it as a pretext for a worthy presentation of Jesus which obscured the complex and challenging questions. Second, my doctrine of the Spirit was woefully inadequate for someone who claimed to be an orthodox Christian.

This was symptomatic of a formative relationship where I was learning much but was being challenged on my understanding of what it really meant to be a biblical Christian. I knew Jimmy and his wife Meta from being in the same weekly small group in our local Methodist church in Durham. They lived humble, hospitable lives and had a special concern for university students. As we studied the Bible together Jimmy skilfully wove his scholarship and discipleship into the group without dominating or insisting on giving the final word.

When I felt God calling me to be preacher, it seemed natural that Jimmy would be my mentor as we shared services together in small Methodist chapels in the North East of England. It probably helped me that at the time I was a physics rather than a theology student or I might have been overwhelmed with having such a person listen to my first sermons. In fact, preaching in such chapels at the time had certain challenges. In one congregation of no more than 30 I looked up from the pulpit to see Dunn in the front row, his illustrious predecessor CK Barrett a couple of rows behind and then was told afterwards that the small chap in the back row was CEB Cranfield. I’m glad that I had the naivety of being a scientist in my early twenties!

Other obituaries will rightly point out Jimmy’s achievements as one of the best known New Testament scholars of his generation by detailing his monumental works exploring the historical Jesus and the new perspective on Paul. Alongside this much can be said of his work in developing the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University into a major player on the world stage, and the interaction with his peers and research students. Yet there is one further part to his legacy which should not be neglected. That is he both challenged and encouraged orthodox belief and practice with the Christian church.

Using Scripture Honestly

First, he challenged a use of scripture which depended on unjustified caricatures to bolster missional objectives. This was initially focused in avoiding misleading caricatures of Judaism by Christians and a careful charting of sociological and theological continuities and discontinuities (The Partings of the Ways Between Christianity and Judaism, 1991, The New Perspective on Paul, 2007). Instead, he argued that the early church found in the gospel the energy and vision to bridge ethnic boundaries rather than to paint the other as enemy (Beginning from Jerusalem, 2008; Neither Jew nor Greek, 2015).

This approach of listening carefully to the stories and experiences of the other has some interesting consequences. He headed a controversial but detailed report to the British Methodist Conference on the organization of Freemasonry concluding that it was incompatible with Christianity. He also brought together a group of academics and practitioners to reflect on the nature of mission amongst the unemployed, rural life, schools, mental health issues and new forms of church (The Kingdom of God and the North East of England, 1986). This approach to missiology of confidence in Jesus while moving beyond stereotypes and listening carefully to people’s stories remains so important in our own contemporary context of #MeToo , Black Lives Matter, issues around sexuality and how to relate both to global expressions of Christianity and other faith communities.

Historical Reasoning and the Faith

Second, in an era where reader response in biblical scholarship and post-modernity as an apologetic strategy was growing, he continually emphasized the importance of historical reasoning for the birth and nurture of faith. He held together his scholarship and his Christian faith in an enriching relationship, being open to their mutual questioning. This was exemplified in his preaching and teaching within the Christian church and his involvement of questions of the gospel in the public square. He was a licensed Church of Scotland minister and while in Durham he preached and led worship regularly in the Methodist circuit of churches often with small congregations.

Like his predecessor C.K. Barrett, this was an important part of his vocation. He spoke at numerous clergy and preaching conferences across the theological spectrum unashamedly emphazising the importance of a deep engagement with the biblical text. In the early 1980s, a British television program Jesus: the Evidence gained notoriety in the same way that The Myth of God Incarnate did a couple of decades earlier. He responded with an expanded version of a set of public lectures originally given in Durham (The Evidence for Jesus, 1985).

This was not the classic style of apologetics often offered by the evangelical tradition of opposing or debunking critics. In a measured way, he set out both to correct where the program had been misleading but at the same time to take seriously the critical questions that the theological academy was asking about the Gospels. Drawing on his own theological journey which had been in part stimulated by The Myth of God Incarnate, he was more than fair to the present state of New Testament scholarship while weaving in his own assessment of the historical questions and their relationship to faith. This was theology in the public square completely consistent with his influential academic work which argued for a recognition of greater historical accuracy in the Jesus tradition than many of his contemporaries would allow (Christology in the Making 1980, Jesus Remembered, 2003: The Oral Gospel Tradition, 2015).

Unity and Mission

Third, his understanding of mission and ministry continued to be shaped by his conviction that the New Testament portrayed a missional church where complex and often unstructured unity was characteristic of practice and doctrine (Unity and Diversity in the New Testament, 1977). He sought to be at home in whatever local church seemed to an avenue for service and ministry, but found an overemphasis on the authority of clergy and tradition difficult. He refused to be labelled and this may have been one of the reasons that he did not fit into rigid UK definitions or communities of evangelical or liberal. He was intensely committed to ecumenism in building relationships and finding common ground, rather than reducing or stifling diversity. He was convinced that fundamental to such unity and diversity in a missional church was the role of theologically equipped leadership.

This led him with Anglican colleagues Tony Thisleton and David Day to create a new Methodist theological college, the Wesley Study Centre, in partnership with the Anglican theological college Cranmer Hall within St John’s College in Durham University. Over 25 years this developed into an outstanding initiative where Methodists trained for ordination uniquely alongside both evangelical Anglicans and Roman Catholic priests from Ushaw College. But his passion was not just for clergy. For many years he urged churches to take the training and equipping of laity seriously seeing the biblical precedent of ministry and mission being the work of the whole people of God.

Recovering the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

Fourth, his early work on religious experience in the New Testament and in formative years of the charismatic movement (Baptism in the Spirit, 1970; Jesus and the Spirit, 1975) provided an important foundation which is sometimes not fully recognized. This recovery of the doctrine of the Spirit within scripture built bridges between the academy and renewal movements within the church. Theologians gained more confidence in an emphasis on the doctrine of the Spirit and Trinitarian theology. Within evangelicalism, reformed and charismatic groups often divided, although not fully agreeing with Dunn’s understanding, found areas of conversation and learning.

Jimmy was a frustrating character to many within evangelicalism. Not on a personal level where his infectious curiosity and warm personality endeared him to all. He was frustrating to evangelicals because they were not too sure whether he was friend or foe. His passion for Jesus and the mission of the church was easy to recognize in his preaching, teaching and indeed academic work.

But he did not tick the right boxes in terms of biblical authority, unity or inspiration. Perhaps it was his honesty in valuing the historical approach of the academy and his ability not to shy away from difficult questions. But I suspect that his emphasis on the role of the Spirit is also at play. In the book, which grew out of the Griffith Thomas Lectures at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, Dunn explores the interpretation of New Testament texts (The Living Word, 1987). Alongside standard hermeneutical issues the second edition added new essays on bridging the gap between the academy and the church, preaching scripture, and a concluding chapter on the Bible as living tradition. Here scripture is seen in much more dynamic ways than sometimes evangelicals would allow and this dynamic is due to the work of the Spirit in and through scripture.

Now that this young preacher within the evangelical tradition has become an old preacher in the evangelical tradition, I am immensely grateful for Jimmy’s friendship, mentoring and challenges – which have always fruitful in showing me more of Jesus and the mission of the church.

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Posted by David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is Principal of St John’s College and Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University.