Wednesday, August 19, 2015

I (Still) Believe: James Dunn

This is now my fourth post on John Byron and Joel Lohr's, I (Still) Believe. Previous posts include:

Richard Bauckham
Walter Brueggemann
Ellen Davis

Today is my own Doktor Vater: Jimmy Dunn.

1. The chapter is titled well: "In Quest of Truth." Dunn is a thinker. Obviously all the scholars in this book are thinkers, but he is a thinker of a different sort. He is someone for whom the quest for truth is insatiable. And by truth, I mean the cold hard truth as ascertained by the most objective seeker with the most information.

Jimmy is the kindest of dialog partners. He is committed to respect to the other person in dialog. But he is about the truth. He does not pull punches. He mentions one of my favorite stories in the chapter, where he is teaching at the Pontifical Institute in Rome on Hebrews, and he basically tells a group of priests that there is no basis in Hebrews for the role they conceive themselves to have. The lecture doesn't finish. They have an emergency meeting in the evening where all the priests present basically argue with each other.

2. Dunn told me once that he felt a certain similarity between his pilgrimage and my own. He started out rather conservative--I don't know if we can use the word fundamentalist of his Scottish context or if that is more an American term. But his early days at Glasgow were conservative ones, and he even went forward at a Billy Graham rally in 1955. He was once given a scolding after preaching a sermon in which he indicated why the RSV is more appropriate to use than the KJV.

For a while he was in training to become a minister in the Church of Scotland. He studied with William Barclay in Glasgow. Before long, he began to sense that his calling was more along educational lines, and he went to get a doctorate at Cambridge under C. F. D. Moule.

Questions began to gnaw at him there. He never lost his faith, mind you. He says at the end of the chapter, "my faith remains strong." He was a Methodist lay preacher when I was in Durham and he and his wife Meta are now attending an Anglican Church in one of the most Anglo-Catholic dioceses in Europe (although theirs is straightforwardly Anglican). He has especially been interested in ecumenical conversations since his days at Cambridge.

3. Dunn's commitment to following the evidence wherever it leads--and not to hide or soften his conclusions--has made him difficult to classify. He has spoken at the Evangelical Theological Society, for example, which is quite conservative. One of my first connections with him was when he came to speak at Asbury--these were the kinds of institutions that invited him and the kinds of PhD students he had. He wrote a quasi-apologetic work, The Evidence for Jesus, and has written books highlighting how central the Holy Spirit was for the early church, indeed for Jesus. He's also written on Scripture.

So is he a conservative? He certainly feels comfortable around conservatives.

But he resists classifications like that. He's a scholar. He's not interested in those sorts of labels at all. He's interested in the truth.

So others of his books have been as challenging for students like me as they are compelling. Unity and Diversity in the New Testament and Christology in the Making may not be correct on everything, but they will rock your world. He somehow has seemed to address the very questions just coming onto the horizon such that he slakes the thirst of the student of the Bible who reads it in its historical context, time and time again.

4. I will leave it at that. Most of the chapter explores the train of thought of ideas that he addressed in writing throughout his career as a scholar. But even at Cambridge, the many questions led him to a thought from John Wesley: If your heart beats with mine in affirming 'Jesus is Lord,' give me your hand.


Doug said...

I think Chichester is a bit more variegated as a diocese than that!

Ken Schenck said...

Just going by what he said. :-)

John Byron said...

Actually, Loren Stuckenbruck is my Doctor Father.

Ken Schenck said...


Ken Schenck said...

I made a few tweaks on the diocese, as well as the focus of Dunn's critique in Rome.

Al DeFilippo said...

Thank you for the post. For more on John Wesley, I would like to invite you to the website for the book series, The Asbury Triptych Series. The trilogy based on the life of Francis Asbury, the young protégé of John Wesley and George Whitefield, opens with the book, Black Country. The opening novel in this three-book series details the amazing movement of Wesley and Whitefield in England and Ireland as well as its life-changing effect on a Great Britain sadly in need of transformation. Black Country also details the Wesleyan movement's effect on the future leader of Christianity in the American colonies, Francis Asbury. The website for the book series is Please enjoy the numerous articles on the website. Again, thank you, for the post.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Yes, Dunn's work is challenging to Evangelicals.

In his enormous tome, Jesus Remembered, he argued that The Gospel of John's narrative is not reliable, nor the claims it makes for Jesus' quasi-divine status. (In his earlier work, Evidence for Jesus, Dunn didn't imagine that Jesus spoke even one word reported in John.) Dunn admits there is little to support the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke, and little evidence that Jesus supported a mission to the gentiles, and no evidence that Jesus saw himself as any kind of messiah (the term does not even appear in Q), nor is there much left of the "Son of Man," except for a few uncertain eschatological allusions. Dunn argues that Jesus did not claim any title for himself. Jesus may have believed that he was going to die, but he did not believe he was dying to redeem the sins of the world. "If Jesus hoped for resurrection it was presumably to share in the general and final resurrection of the dead." There is astonishingly little support for what Jesus' last words were. There is a certain squirming as Dunn admits that Jesus believed in an imminent eschatological climax that, of course, did not happen. "Putting it bluntly, Jesus was proved wrong by the course of events." Then he goes on for four pages trying to argue that we shouldn't be too concerned about this. Dunn's account of the resurrection notes all of the weaknesses of the tradition: The link of Jesus' resurrection to a falsely imminent general resurrection, confusion as to what sort of Jesus the witnesses were seeing, a persistent theme of failure of the witnesses to recognize Jesus (in Matthew 28:17 the disciples are seeing him in Galilee yet "some doubted," not just Thomas), confusion as to where they were seeing Jesus (in Jerusalem and Galilee? on earth or in heaven?). Which is not to say that Dunn does not affirm the resurrection -- he does, but since he admits so many weaknesses and doubts concerning the written accounts he seems to prefer a visionary explanation.