I want to start this interview by saying that I believe this is the best interview in my little series. Dr. Black is candid and genuine in his extremely well-thought out answers to my questions. I hope that you all take the time to learn from him. I know I have.
Now, for the man who needs no introduction (at least to us bibliobloggers), Dave Black.
First, tell us a little about yourself.
What a way to start an interview! “Tell us about yourself.” I can see your readers now – “On no, not a personal testimony, not dullsville!” But I appreciate you beginning the interview this way, because there are many personal experiences in my life that have shaped my scholarship today.
Let me begin with a joke about the man who paid a visit to his shrink claiming to be suffering from an inferiority complex. After tests were run, the psychiatrist reported, “I have some interesting news for you.” “What’s that?” “It’s no complex,” he said. “You really are inferior.”
Growing up I always had a sense of not belonging, of somehow being inadequate and inferior to everyone else. My parents were hardly perfect – no parents are – and they ended up splitting when I was only three. It is almost impossible to calculate the effect that event had on me. I eventually discovered, after the grave and painful ramifications of making mistake after mistake, that it is only God whom I could count on and could commit myself to. He alone understood my dark side, my “complexes.” Does that make any sense? I remember reading for the first time Heb. 4:15: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses.” What comfort and strength I found in those words! His forgiveness gave me hope. His unconditional love gave me perspective. He had become the Father I had always longed for but never had. And still today, He is the most important Person in my life. I can honestly say, without any embarrassment whatsoever, that I could not make it through a single day without Jesus.
The moral of this isn’t difficult to grasp. Who I am – the “yourself” you asked about – is impossible to understand without understanding how important this relationship is to me. So if you want to understand Dave Black – how he thinks, why he writes what he does, what motivates him – you need to realize just what Jesus means to me. Am I helpless and hopeless? You bet I am! But in Christ I find my perfect sufficiency even as I limp along in life. (In fact, one day I may write my memoirs: Confessions of a Limping Surfer-Turned-Greek Prof, or some such silly title.)
What motivated you to enter your field of study? What keeps you going?
By “field of study” I assume you mean New Testament studies. I actually have interests that are much wider than that – as anyone who reads my blog will know. But as for the New Testament, there is only one reason I have made teaching Greek and New Testament my career, and that is the amazing grace of God. I was, as C. S. Lewis might have put it, “surprised by joy.”
The story begins in Hawaii, where I was hatched and raised. Growing up I had absolutely no interest in school. Zero, zilch, nada (to paraphrase a guy I once wrote a book about). Sure, I attended public institutions through high school, but I don’t remember a single thing I learned. I must have taken English, for example, but I don’t remember doing so. I spent all of my time at the beach. (You would too if you lived at Kailua Beach on Oahu.) My god was surfing, and my goddesses were Pipeline, Pupukea, Sunset Beach, Ala Moana, and Makaha. I surfed, on average, 365 days a year.
When I became 16, all of that changed. I clearly remember the day when, quite unexpectedly, the Lord put a love in my heart for His Word. (Some of you will remember that day in your own life.) From that day on I could not put the Bible down. Back then I was using a translation called Good News for Modern Man, line drawings and all. Although I was saved at the age of eight, I never really began to grow in my Christian life until I began to internalize God’s teachings for myself. Thus it was that, when I graduated from Kailua High School in 1970, I had a deep hunger to study the Bible. I asked everyone, “Where is the closest Bible College to Hawaii?” The answer: Biola College in Southern California. So in 1971 I left home for college, enrolling as a Bible major at Biola along with a whole bunch of other “Jesus Freaks” (as we called ourselves at that time).
Now, being a Bible major at Biola had one major drawback as far as I was concerned. It required not just one, but two years of Greek to graduate. Et moi? Do you think I had any German or Spanish or French in high school? Are you kidding? So by the time I got to Biola I was scared to death of foreign languages. Sure, I had spoken some Hawaiian growing up, but by the time I got to California all I could remember was “Aloha” and “Book ’em, Danno.” (Dumb joke.) Eventually I bit the bullet and enrolled (as a graduating senior!) in my first year Greek class, planning on taking my second year of Greek the summer after graduation (at that time, Biola let you graduate 6 units deficient). Well, I lasted exactly 3 weeks. I had a prof whose philosophy was, “Weed out all the dumb stupid idiots in the first few weeks and keep only the best students.” And it worked. We were dropping like flies. The problem was that the language was not taught on my level. A typical explanation went something like this: “This is how it works in Latin, so this is how it works in Greek.”
It was at this moment that I experienced an epiphany. Someone told me that Moody Bible Institute in Chicago had a Greek correspondence course and that it was accredited and would count for graduation. I enrolled, and a mere four months later I had completed both semesters of beginning Greek and had aced both courses – simply because the language was taught on my level. I proceeded to take my second year of Greek that summer, and one year later Dr. Harry Sturz, the head of Biola’s Greek Department, hired me to teach 11 units of Greek at Biola – and I’ve been teaching Greek ever since.
What keeps me going? Good question! After all, I’ve been teaching Greek for 33 years. One thing keeps me motivated: I have never lost my excitement for the language. I read it every day (along with Latin, German, French, etc. – but my Greek always comes first). I once heard that the great A. T. Robertson insisted on teaching at least one section of beginning Greek every semester at Southern Seminary just to keep himself fresh and excited about the language. I guess I’m wired the same way. Sometimes I teach two sections of beginning Greek in a semester. You see, unless a good foundation is laid, the student’s experience in intermediate Greek will be terrible. I just love seeing Greek students fall in love with the language just as I did so many years ago. And the icing on the cake is seeing some of my students go on to get their doctorates and eventually teach Greek themselves.
What issues have you had to overcome along the way?
God has been extremely gracious to me and my family through the years. I have never lacked for a good teaching job. I have never lacked for a publisher willing to publish my books. I have never experienced anything but kindness and goodness in my relationships with my peers, colleagues, and students. At the same time, there have been occasions for repentance and brokenness, a growth of grace and a turning away from traditions to more biblical ways of thinking. I have learned to ask myself how I can get on with the challenge of Acts 1:8, Matt. 28:19-20, and Mark 16:15. I have found myself becoming more and more a Great Commission Christian, a “resident alien,” if you will, on this earth, willing to go places where just a few years ago I would never have considered as a mission field. Missions involves a sense of personal responsibility, and I am gradually learning to take ownership of God’s bigger vision and task in this world.
What is your favorite passage of Scripture?
I can tell you without any hesitation. It is John 13. Oh, the scandal of the Gospel! Oh, how I love the abandoned, crucified Messiah! And today this same Jesus is calling me to continue His mission of radical, sacrificial love in the world. The suffering Jesus has become the paradigm for my own Christian life, and I think I am finally beginning to learn what it means to follow the downward path of Jesus. I conclude my book The Jesus Paradigm with these words:
That is why it is dangerous for you to read this book. The more we know about the kingdom, the greater our obligation to live for it. We are not called to be Americans. We are not called to be Baptists. We are not called to be Republicans or Democrats. We are called to be foot-washers. If you feel like you are a failure in this regard, join the club. But don’t despair. Jesus is quick to notice every simple effort to please him. And we please him most when we make sacrificial service in his name the core, not the caboose, of our lives.
Can you divulge any information on any new publication or project on which you are currently working?
Sure. There are three:
1) Godworld: Enter at Your Own Risk is a sequel to The Jesus Paradigm.
2) Hebrews and Paul Compared. I am probably the only person on the planet who defends the Pauline authorship (though not necessarily penmanship) of Hebrews. Thus far I have found numerous affinities (conceptual, lexical, rhetorical, etc.) between Paul and the book of Hebrews. This does not prove the Paulinity of Hebrews, of course. (That must be done with the external evidence.) By the way, I’m thinking that this will be the first book I will publish online as an e-book.
3) I hope to contribute another manuscript to Energion’s Areopagus series (my first title in that series is called Christian Archy.)
If there is one author/theologian that you believe everyone should read, who is it?
I have read a lot of good stuff in New Testament studies in the past few years, but I’ve never read anything better than the works of Jacque Ellul. Ellul was a French philosopher/theologian who witnessed with dismay as the Christian faith crumbled all about him in his native France. He became convinced that evangelicals were parading under false colors. Historic orthodoxy, he argued, had been diminished by heretical departures from the true faith. With the establishment of Christendom, a poisonous stream of error had begun to permeate true Christianity. In his books, especially The Subversion of Christianity, Ellul made a solid case for historic, biblical, self-abnegating Christianity. I remember reading Ellul and feeling as though I had just been paralyzed by a bee sting. It brought me to my knees, crushed and bruised. For, you see, I had come to accept Christendom, had embodied it in fact, with all its pomp and circumstance, its pride and statism. But through a “severe mercy” (again Lewis) I was forced to do what I think is one of the most difficult things for a scholar to do. I slowed down and began to sink my roots deep into life’s enduring values – family, community, service, self-sacrifice. Let me tell you, that is a message I think many of us New Testament students need to hear today.
What do you think are the biggest problems facing New Testament scholarship today?
Mark Twain once said, “Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.” Does New Testament scholarship have a dark side? You bet it does! It has bents and tendencies that are very unhealthy.
Let me mention just two. A friend of mine, who graduated from an evangelical seminary with his doctorate, told me that he felt pressured to espouse the accepted party line on synoptic origins if he wanted to get through his program. Every once in a while I hear stories like that. How tragic! There is no substitute for total honesty. Listen, our major goal as New Testament students is not to be published or to become famous but to be faithful. That, I think, cuts against the grain of the academy today. It’s what I call “evangelical group think” – the refusal to examine the evidence for ourselves and then have the courage to go wherever the evidence points us.
This brings me to another problem I see in the guild, and that is its atomization or fragmentization or over-specialization. Why is it that, just because you may have written a dissertation on the Gospel of John, from that point on you are a “Johannine” scholar and rarely move outside of that circle in your research or writing? To me, the purpose of a doctoral program is to equip you for a lifetime of research and writing in any area of the New Testament that interests you.
What areas do you think New Testament scholars will have to focus on in the next ten years?
I think the main challenge for conservative New Testament scholarship in the foreseeable future can be summarized in one word: relevance. Where are the conservative New Testament scholars who are addressing the pressing social issues of the day? For example, conservative Christianity in America has always had an acknowledged combative streak – a war hawkishness, an Armageddonism that some people (like myself) find repugnant. The problem is that American evangelicals who are committed to theories of the “end times” are usually also committed to the absolute truth of the Bible. While I am firmly committed to the latter position, I am highly skeptical about the former. Armageddonism produces a crusading, simplistic form of Christianity that I find nowhere in the New Testament. It has led to a reckless global crusade between the forces of “good” (i.e., the United States) and the forces of “evil” (variously defined, but usually meaning Islamic states). What is especially ironic to me is that, although the GOP and the theocratic elements of the religious right took a beating in 2008, not much has changed in U.S. foreign policy since the election of Barack Obama. The delusion that the U.S. is somehow different – “American exceptionalism” it is sometimes called – will undoubtedly be called upon again and again to justify yet more hawkish behavior in the Middle East. In the meantime, the U.S. debt predicament goes from bad to worse as the cult of borrowing money continues to infect the nation. I devoted an entire chapter in The Jesus Paradigm to this issue, drawing heavily upon the works of Ellul and a few other evangelicals – but I’d like to see more of us engaging the problem head on.
Where do you believe are the best places for a student to study the New Testament either as an undergraduate, graduate, or doctoral student?
Well, with your permission I’d like to answer only the last part of your question. Whenever I speak with a student about doing doctoral studies in the field of New Testament, I always go through a set of three questions. The first is this: Do you want a seminary doctorate or a university doctorate? This is a fundamental issue that one has to come to grips with before setting out on the perilous journey of doctoral studies. For what it’s worth, my opinion is that a university doctorate is hands down a better quality experience than a seminary doctorate.
The second question is this: Where would you like to study – here or abroad? As you might imagine, I always ask students to seriously consider travelling overseas for their doctorate. The advantages of a foreign doctorate are too many to discuss here, but it goes without saying that you are getting two educations for the price of one. Speaking personally, studying in a German-speaking university was a wonderful challenge for me, and I learned much from Swiss culture about the strengths and weaknesses of my own culture at home.
The final question, and by far the most important one, is: With whom do you want to study? It is my conviction that Christian education is essentially likeness education: we become like the person with whom we study. (Jesus says as much in Luke 6:40, my favorite verse as a teacher.) So, if you have gone through the first two questions and then decide to study, let’s say, Old Testament specifically under Robert Cole (Ph.D., UCLA) here at SEBTS because you respect him so much, I’d say go for it.
Lastly, if there is one piece of advice you could give to someone entering New Testament scholarship, what would it be?
Expect surprises, especially in the ways in which you yourself will grow and change throughout the years. Right now my wife and I are suffering through her cancer together. Some days it seems like we mount up with wings like an eagle. Other days we do well just to survive. Why keep on? Why fight depression and fear? Why continue to trust the Lord? I’ll tell you why. It’s because Jesus is not through with us yet. He desires to reproduce His life in us, replacing a fragile faith with a tough set of convictions. “Suffering produces perseverance,” wrote Paul. It tempers and polishes us. It reminds us that we still need to grow in grace. And so we persevere, willing to accept whatever comes, facing it head on, seeing the Lord’s hand in it all. God is giving me an opportunity to practice what I’ve preached all these years in my sermons and publications, beginning with my doctoral dissertation (Paul, Apostle of Weakness). In the past I had great admiration for people who remained strong in the midst of cancer. Now it’s my turn. Enough of theory! It’s time to put the New Testament into action.
Thank you so much, Dr. Black, for how much you poured into this interview. And thank you for following Christ where He leads. If it wasn’t for my own Greek prof teaching me the language with the use of your grammar, I don’t think I’d have the love of Greek that I have today.
To my readers, I leave you with Dr. Black’s statement to me at the end of the interview. I hope you take it to heart.
Forgive me, Matt, for such a lengthy interview. Admittedly, I’ve spoken quite openly. I do hope and pray that something I’ve said might help students to have an honest estimation of themselves and of their gifts and abilities in the Body of Christ.