Yes, it’s that time again – time for another interview! This week we have Dr. Robert Yarbrough of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he is the chair of the New Testament Department and associate professor. He is also the author of books such as The Kregel Pictorial Guide to the New Testament, The Salvation-Historical Fallacy?, and 1-3 John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament).
First, tell us a little about yourself.
I’m starting my 25th year of teaching New Testament.
What motivated you to enter your field of study? What keeps you going?
In five years of logging in Montana and Idaho back in the 1970s, during which I was heavily involved in local church ministry, I realized my ignorance of Scripture. Eventually I pursued serious study of the New Testament, first at Wheaton Grad School and then at the University of Aberdeen.
I keep going for a lot of reasons: a sense of divine calling. The fulfillment of shared ministry with wonderful colleagues both at Trinity and around the world. The challenges and rewards of teaching and other interactions with students. The satisfaction of writing and editorial work that puts the fruit of faithful scholarship in the hands of readers at various levels. Applying things I’m learning in local church ministry and pastoral training internationally. Personal growth. Love of the subject matter.
What issues have you had to overcome along the way?
How do you get graduate degrees without going broke? (You don’t.) Can scholarship render any assured “knowledge” about anything given the multiplicity of methods and approaches, which seem to expand and mutate constantly? (Depends who you ask.) Why are parts of the world where biblical scholarship is the strongest seeing steep decline in church attendance and Christian societal presence, whereas areas of the world without the benefit of sophisticated theological training are witnessing phenomenal church growth? (I’m working on that one.)
What is your favorite passage of scripture?
That has varied over the years. The Proverbs are daily reading and an inexhaustible resource for perspective and rebuke. Jeremiah is magnetic because he really calls things like he sees and feels them, plus the ills he diagnoses seem alive and well in our own day. There’s no passage of the New Testament unworthy of a lifetime of study. I suppose the passages that hold highest fascination are those that say most about what I apprehend least: God in his eternal wisdom and heavenly majesty. This would mean doxological passages like Romans 16:25-27; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16; Revelation 15:2-4; and many more … not a few of which have close parallels in various Old Testament Psalms.
Can you divulge any information on any new publication or project on which you are working?
I just had the privilege of reading through Frank Thielman’s upcoming commentary on Ephesians in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series. It’s a fine piece of work and will be in high demand.
If there is one author/theologian that you believe everyone should read, who is it?
There isn’t. People are at different levels and vary drastically in what will benefit them.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing New Testament scholarship today?
To the extent it is a university enterprise, it faces the challenges (in funding, in its sense of mission, in social and political justification) that all Western higher education wrestles with at present. To the extent that it serves the church, New Testament scholarship is tied to the ecclesial vicissitudes of confessional bodies, eras, regions, continents, and increasingly the world at large. “New Testament scholarship” may think it is a big dog roaming at will, but when we look back we see how successive schools of thought were really tails being wagged by larger forces. Questions of intellectual integrity, theological/pastoral responsibility, and missiological accountability enter the picture for New Testament scholars who are willing to out themselves as Christian.
What areas do you think New Testament scholars will have to focus on in the next ten years?
New Testament scholars operate at so many levels in so many different places and capacities that any generalization I venture is sure to be more wrong than right. Everything depends, in each individual’s decisions, on who or what stands behind the “have to” in that question. Market forces? Publisher agendas? Personal reputation? Other purely pragmatic factors? Or can we discern and respond to higher priorities? Serving the expanding world church and equipping the North American church to rediscover and execute its mission come to mind.
Where do you believe are the best places for a student to study the New Testament either as an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral student?
Again, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Good decisions here require awareness of the options that are out there, courage to make the sacrifices that good decisions commonly require, and patience with the process of preparation. I felt a call to devote my life to spreading the gospel in 1975 at age 22. I had no idea that would mean academic teaching, which I did not begin until 1985. By that time some people my age had their fortunes made, or at least their houses paid for. There are many, many excellent places to learn, and the fact is that excellent education is more the result of what the student brings to the process and is willing to sacrifice to acquire than it is the bells-and-whistles or cachet of this or that institution. Having said that, the scholars who produce the books you find important are probably teaching at places that are worth looking at. Howard Marshall’s commentary on 1-3 John first attracted me to the University of Aberdeen, and that turned out to be an outstanding place, not simply because of the professors and resources but because of the location (beautiful!) and the network of dozens of other scholars with which my years at Aberdeen placed me.
Lastly, if there is one piece of advice you could give to someone entering New Testament scholarship, what would it be?
My esteemed professor J. Julius Scott, Jr. gave me this counsel when I was an MA student at Wheaton Grad School: “Stay as broad as you can as long as you can.” He meant: Read and work as much as possible in other areas—Old Testament studies, patristics, church history, historical theology, systematics, philosophy, social history both ancient and modern, etc. etc. Breakthroughs or at least creative work in New Testament studies can be greatly enhanced through insights spawned by acquaintance with other fields.
Thank you, Dr. Yarbrough, for taking the time to answer these questions. Your answers helped give me some perspective on things where I needed it. I appreciate that so much. To my readers, remember that if there is a particular New Testament scholar which you would like to see featured here, please let me know and I will do what I can.