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Interview with Craig Keener

The interview today is with Dr. Craig Keener, professor of New Testament at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Keener is the author of several books including Revelation (NIVAC), The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Paul, Women, and Wives, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, and the soon to be released The Historical Jesus of the Gospels.

When I asked Dr. Keener to participate in this interview I did not expect his response to be so open. He only chose half of my interview questions, however he has answered these with such heart that I am thoroughly impressed with the man. Please enjoy.

Craig Keener

First, tell us a little about yourself.

Let me tell you the two most significant events.  First, I was converted from atheism through some fundamentalist Bible college students who shared Christ with me.  They did not always give sound answers (when I asked them how the dinosaur bones got there, they said, “The devil put them there”), but God uses people who are available, and they gave me the gospel.  I argued with them and walked away in outward disgust, but inwardly the Holy Spirit was working on me.  I had studied many religions and philosophies, paging through the encyclopedia and reading ancient sources like Plato.  But this was something different.  I got home, but God would not stop dealing with me until I either accepted or rejected Him.  The presence of God in that room was overwhelming, more intense than any human presence I had ever experienced.  Finally I collapsed to my knees.  I confessed that I did not understand how Jesus dying and rising for me could “save” me (what the students had shared with me from Scripture), but if that was what God was saying, I would believe it.  But, I added, I did not know how to be saved; so if God wished to save me, He was going to have to do it.  At that point I felt something surging through my body like I had never felt before.  (I know this does not happen with everyone; I am merely recounting what happened to me.)  I arose a new person, determined to follow Christ for the rest of my life (and forever).

Second, I am married to Dr. Medine Moussounga Keener.  We were friends in graduate school, but after she finished her Ph.D. she returned to her home country, Congo-Brazzaville, and afterward spent 18 months as a war refugee.  Every day for those 18 months I was praying frantically for her safety, not knowing whether she was alive or dead, but sometimes feeling an assurance that God had a plan for her and for us.  After she emerged safely from the forest, we reestablished contact.  Our marriage was delayed and we missed the first wedding date due to complications with immigration procedures—not least of these being that right after 9/11 the nearest immigration center was shut down due to an anthrax scare, our file got lost between the U.S. immigration service and the consulate, etc.  I doubt that many couples were as relieved as we were to finally get married (smile)!

What motivated you to enter your field of study? What keeps you going?

I loved to learn the Bible from soon after my conversion.  Actually, I had no choice at the beginning—I was totally unchurched, and the children in Sunday School knew more about the Bible than I did.  But eventually there was a time in my life when I was averaging about forty chapters a day, reading through the New Testament each week or through the Bible in a month.

I loved the academic study of the Bible, but I also loved sharing Christ with people on the street, the same way I had come to Christ.  A critical factor that eventually convinced me to go on for doctoral work was meeting so many people on the street who had half-baked objections to Christianity that they had gotten from some class or television program quoting some “experts.”  Most of what they brought up was nonsense, but I realized that, even if I was winning a few people to Christ per week, I was not able to keep up with the “damage” that was being done by false experts.  (This was before the days of the “Jesus Seminar”; the cases I have in mind were sometimes further out than the Jesus Seminar, though without the marketing!)  I loved doing honest scholarship.  Along the way I learned that scholarship is not always driven by academic integrity, though—there is a lot of “politics.”  I grew disillusioned for awhile because I expected better from scholarship.  But I eventually realized that it remains a useful tool, provided one works from a position of genuine integrity and fair-mindedness.

What issues have you had to overcome along the way?

In some places (not all), I faced prejudice because I was not from the more elite background some others were—I had not gone to an elite school and I was living on the edge of poverty most of the way through school.  But the latter was the bigger problem; just about everywhere I went beyond the undergraduate level I faced financial challenges.  During seminary I lived in a cockroach-infested basement apartment that flooded (and stank for a week) when it rained too much; I often walked five miles to my university French and German classes to save the 50 cents bus fare; I ate as sparingly and cheaply as possible (usually ten dollars a week at the beginning), and during my first year of graduate work got as low as 132 pounds (I am 5’11”).  I worked in a fast-food restaurant, etc. (for which job I am grateful), and there were many sacrifices (though my family also helped when possible).  I couldn’t afford a computer until my dissertation stage, so editing my work was much more difficult for me than for most of my peers.

But the Lord helped me, providing my basic needs to get me through every single semester.  I will give two of the more dramatic examples.  The day before I was going to call Duke and tell them that I could not afford to come, the money was provided.  (Until then I think that I had roughly one dollar.)  When I graduated, despite my persistent prayers I could not find a teaching position initially (and had a lot of good company in that regard).  One Sunday night I figured out how much I would need to live on that year, so I and especially my research files would not be on the street, and then gave up in despair.  Where would I find enough hours in a fast-food restaurant to pay that?  (I had pastored before, but because it was a small congregation I had refused pay).  The next afternoon, less than 24 hours after I had figured out how much I would need to live on, InterVarsity Press called me and offered me an advance on my proposed Bible Background Commentary.  I had written two academic books before that one without an advance, so this was a surprise.  More stunning, though, was how much they offered: exactly what I had decided the night before that I needed to live on.  Once I had finished the bulk of that book’s rough draft the next year, based on my research files (though I still had considerably more work to do on it), a teaching position opened up for me.

Coming through the difficulties has given me a serious commitment to my work, an understanding that it is not to be taken for granted.  That I spent so much time in study that could have been spent in ministry also makes me committed to doing my best to make sure that it was worth this investment of time.  Knowing that living in this country gave me opportunities that many brothers and sisters elsewhere, of equal potential, never had (including library facilities), makes me work extra hard and seek to serve them with these gifts that rightfully belong to them, too.  And seeing how God provided is a frequent reminder of how I ought to keep trusting God to make the work count.  Now of course, having said all this, you would think that I ought to have perfect trust in God by now.  But I am still learning.  I find totally believable the narratives of Israelites who, having seen God’s wonders, still failed to trust God in the wilderness.  It is God who is faithful; I am learning to be faithful from His wonderful faithfulness.

Of course I could have answered your question differently, in terms of philosophic and other issues along the way, some of which were very pressing for a new convert from atheism, and in dialogue with some scholars who had taken the opposite trajectory as myself (one had moved from Christianity to atheism).  But I focused my answer on what I thought would be of greatest value to most of our readers here.

Can you divulge any information on any new publication or project on which you are working?

I have two books coming out in fall 2009: a commentary on Romans (Cascade) and The Historical Jesus of the Gospels (Eerdmans).  I have an Acts commentary, probably three volumes, currently in editing with Hendrickson.  I thought it would be out earlier but am not speculating on its schedule now; that’s what I get for writing such a long book (the publisher is working as quickly as they can!)

The book that I am working on now addresses miracles.  Some discount the historical plausibility of the Gospels and Acts because they reject the possibility of miracles reported there.  Much of this way of thinking goes back to the arguments of David Hume (which, if taken at face value, look very much like circular arguments!)  I am seeking to challenge that prejudice.

If there is one author/theologian that you believe everyone should read, who is it?

If you mean one that everyone should read, that would have to be the Bible (smile).

My thanks go out to Dr. Keener for being such a gracious participant in this interview. Your story is inspiring to me, and I’m sure many of my readers. My favorite quote here:

Now of course, having said all this, you would think that I ought to have perfect trust in God by now.  But I am still learning.

To my readers, let me know what you think of this interview. Don’t forget to keep those requests coming. If it weren’t for Jason asking to see Dr. Keener here, it might not have happened for a while longer. Any other questions you would like to see asked as well, just let me know.



10 Responses

  1. This is probably the most enlightening interview yet. It’s always refreshing to hear of the real-life struggles of those whom we often hold in high regard, to know that they struggled with life and faith and continue to do so. Great interview!

    PS–That “dinosaur-bone” comment was hilarious!

  2. Excellent! If there is an author anyone should read, Keener is one of them – the tone you see in this book is the basic tone you see in a lot of his books (a blend of pastoral care and academic rigor).

    So other books he has you all need to consider too are Gift and Giver on the person of the Holy Spirit, and 3 Crucial Questions about the Holy Spirit so you can get some healthy solid biblical scholarship on the person and work of the Holy Spirit along with a solid understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as most Pentecostals and Charismatics see it.

    Glad to say too he went to the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary! (MA and MDiv)

    • You are most definitely right! There are several books that I did not mention, authored by Dr. Keener, that are also important. Glad you brought a few of them up.

  3. Just one more reason to love Craig Keener! Great interview!

  4. best one so far.

  5. […] you want a feel for his humility, check out these two interviews: with Matt at Broadcast Depth and with Nijay Gupta (Part I and Part […]

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