Essay / Theology

R. T. France (1938-2012), New Testament Scholar

Last week, R. T. France passed away. There are notices of his passing at several Bible blogs, including this one at the Evangelical Textual Criticism site. France taught in numerous places over the years, and wrote many helpful works. Evangelical Bible scholars can testify to his substantive contribution to the field. I want to praise his power as a communicator.

Speaking as a systematic theologian, I have long appreciated France’s ability to explain how his expert knowledge of New Testament critical issues went together with his evangelical commitments about the Bible. He was a great communicator, who understood that somebody in the guild of advanced Biblical scholarship needs to pay attention to how that scholarship got explained to interested Christians. From his 1975 article “Inerrancy and New Testament Exegesis” in the first issue of Themelios, to his magisterial 2007 thousand-page commentary on Matthew, France was clear and candid about how to work with integrity in the two worlds of faithful and critical Bible study.

In the 1975 article, France responded to J.I. Packer’s doctrine of Scripture thus:

To turn from Dr Packer’s article to the average Gospel commentary is to enter a different world, a world of alleged synoptic contradictions, misunderstandings, myths and legends, a world where ‘Jesus said’ means ‘Here is a helpful thought’, a world in which the scholar stands in judgment over the primitive views and historiographical incompetence of the Gospel writers. Coming from the warm security of an all-embracing doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, the evangelical student finds himself all at sea. Can he survive in these waters? Should he be here at all?

Perhaps France’s special gift was not just maintaining this integrity, but taking the next step and communicating it well to non-experts. He obliquely described his own ministry when he lamented how rarely such a task was taken up:

The professional scholars tend to press doggedly on with their researches without considering how their results are likely to affect the evangelical public… There is need for care in presenting our material so that the non-specialist reader will not be misled. It is an exercise in communication, which is sadly not always the scholar’s greatest aptitude. So unnecessary hostility is sometimes created towards new interpretations because they have not been presented with sufficient care and consideration for the natural reactions of the ordinary Christian.

France proceeded, throughout his life, to show how to handle evidence and assess claims the right way, so as not to be torn apart by jumping between the two worlds. On a whole range of critical issues related to the gospels of Mark and Matthew, France’s have been my go-to commentaries. To take one example, see how wise and balanced he is in his assessment of redaction criticism in the (very short!) introduction to his Matthew commentary:

I am more reluctant than many other interpreters to speak simply of how Matthew has ‘redacted’ Mark’s material or to attempt in Q material to discern how Matthew has ‘adapted’ the common tradition. I regard the Marcan and Lucan parallels as other witnesses to the traditions Matthew had available, but not necessarily as his direct sources. Where he differs from them, it may be because he is deliberately altering the tradition in a rather different form.

While I’m praising France’s Matthew commentary, by the way, I can’t resist pointing readers to what he says about the tension between north and south in the first century. His remarks about it have been summarized by Justin Taylor here, but he weaves the north-south sensibility throughout the entire commentary where appropriate.

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