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Leon Morris Remembered on His 100th Birthday: "This is Not a History"

Categories Theology

Today we remember Leon Morris, whom Michael F. Bird calls "arguably Australia's greatest biblical scholar." Morris would have celebrated his 100th birthday today.

Morris (1914-2006) became an important figure in evangelical New Testament scholarship during the latter half of the 20th century. He wrote more than 50 books; was the first Australian elected to the Society for New Testament Studies; and participated in translating the NIV Bible.

You can find several reflections of Leon Morris online, including these:

In honor of Morris' centenary, here's a salient excerpt from his book New Testament Theology (Zondervan, 1990). Pay special attention to paragraph three — where Morris includes a challenge to any of us who try to build "a theology of Peter, or James..."

The question inevitably arises concerning how far we are to repeat what the New Testament writers have said and how far we are to interpret it. Is our primary concern with "what they meant" or with "what they mean"? There is no substitute for pursuing the former question. We must make a sincere attempt to find the meaning the authors conveyed when they wrote their books in their own historical situations. But, of course, as we do so some element of interpretation is inevitable. We read these writings across a barrier of many centuries and from a standpoint of a very different culture. We make every effort to allow for this, but we never succeed perfectly. In this book I am striving hard to find out what the New Testament authors meant, and this not as an academic exercise, but as the necessary prelude to our understanding of what their writings mean for us today.

We must bear in mind that the writers of the New Testament books were not writing set theological pieces. They were concerned with the needs of the churches for which they wrote. those churches already had the Old Testament, but these new writings became in time the most significant part of the Scriptures of the believing community. As such, they should be studied in their own right, and these questions should be asked: What do these writings mean? What is the theology they express or imply? What is of permanent validity in them? ...

[This book] is not a history of New Testament times, nor an account of New Testament religion. Nor does it proceed from a view that the New Testament was written as theology. As I have just said, the New Testament writers wrote to meet the needs of the churches of their day as they saw them. But what they wrote should not be understood as a series of random reflections. Behind all these books is the deep conviction, the deep theological conviction, that God has acted in Christ. In other words, there is theology behind all the New Testament writings. We cannot write a theology of Peter or James or even of Paul, for in no case do we have sufficient material, or even even an indication that the writer is giving us what he sees as most important for Christian theology. They are all occasional writings. But these writings are theologically informed, and we do well to take seriously the ideas expressed or implied in them.

We can't resist sharing one more brief excerpt from New Testament Theology.

The Christian theologian ... becomes involved in his subject. [Robert] Morgan points out that "a theologian does not have the same freedom as a historian. He cannot say that this was how the tradition understood Christianity, but that is not a live option for him. If he is to remain a Christian theologian, he must be able to claim continuity with the tradition, and that means weaving the pattern of his own position with threads received from the past." [Nature of New Testament Theology, p. 41.] In some measure all Christians are involved in this task of identifying the threads in the New Testament and weaving them into a pattern. It may be that none of us will be completely successful; we are not big enough and our grasp is not comprehensive enough to accomplish the task. It may even be that some will see the task as an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable. But at least what we are trying to do in a study like this is to come to grips with th teaching of the whole New Testament. We are trying to be, not Paulinists or followers of John or of the Synoptic theologians, but theologians of the New Testament.

From Leon Morris' New Testament Theology.

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