Essay / Misc.

Leon Morris, 1914-2006

New Testament scholar Leon Morris died earlier this week at age 92. In Morris’ obituary, Peter Adam says:

He wrote over fifty books of theology and biblical commentary which have sold nearly two million copies worldwide and been translated into many languages. … He was well-known throughout the Christian world as a careful, conservative biblical scholar. Extraordinarily, Morris received no formal theological education, apart from two years of supervision for his doctorate in Cambridge. He was self-taught theologian who brought his rigorous and disciplined training in scientific enquiry to his study of the Bible and theology.

Of Morris’ “over fifty books,” I’ve only read a couple. I worked through his big commentary on John a few years ago, and it has stayed high on my list of John commentaries I recommend when asked.

I have especially profited from his 1965 book The Cross in the New Testament, a 400-page study of a subject which, if you need any convincing, Morris will convince you is the center of the New Testament gospel. It seems like every five years or so the church goes through another wave of criticism in which influential pastors, Bible scholars, or theologians breathlessly announce that they’ve looked into the matter and discovered that the death of Christ isn’t the main thing after all. The most recent such outbreak was messily entangled with Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and featured movie reviews which started by critiquing the movie (fair enough) but soon enough devolved into dismissals of the centrality of Christ’s crucifixion for the Christian faith. These demotions of the cross always bring out the latent fundamentalist in me, who it turns out is always hiding just under the urbane theological veneer, humming “The Old Rugged Cross” and hearing the echo of a prophetic sermon in the Foursquare Church of my upbringing in the seventies: “Just wait and see,” warned the preacher, “they’ll find a way to take the blood out of the Bible. The devil can’t stand that blood.” Don’t get me started. Instead, get Leon Morris started:

Leon Morris, with passion and patience, made the case for the cross over the course of his scholarly career. “In view of the way theological knowledge advances,” he wrote, “it is well that from time to time someone should seek to evaluate the total witness of scripture to this key doctrine. The atonement is the crucial doctrine of the faith. Unless we are right here it matters little, or so it seems to me, what we are like elsewhere.” Morris wrote with a tone of reserve, sought balance in his presentation, and tended toward understatements. He had a tendency to state his points in a sober tone in the main text, but then tuck into the footnotes the more arresting comments and zingers. Speaking of footnotes, his reference footnotes in The Cross in the New Testament range so widely that it seems he must have read every book on the cross ever written, and taken notes.

Leon Morris was a model of evangelical theological scholarship, and I pray that some young thinkers are prepared to step into the gap this 92 year old’s departure leaves in our ranks.

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