Having sensed a call to the ministry even before entering college, my plan had always been to go to seminary afterwards. The summer after graduation, however, these plans were suddenly but pleasantly put on hold for a year when I became engaged to a young lady with whom I had maintained a long-distance friendship over the years, Priscilla Godfrey of Sherbooke, Quebec. After devoting a year to wedding preparations and to deepening our relationship, we were married on May 23, 1981. (In the process, I became formally related to my future co-author, Stephen J. Godfrey, as his brother-in-law.)
I entered Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary that September. As a multidenominational evangelical seminary, Gordon-Conwell exposed me to a much broader range of Christian thinking and practice than I had yet encountered, all of it nevertheless falling solidly within the stream of historic Christian orthodoxy. I would soon discover, as I took classes in church history, that the evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, and Pentecostal groups with which I had become familiar, even though they appeared quite diverse from one another, were really very close cousins within the extended family of Christendom. I would meet greater and greater numbers of my other relatives in the faith as I engaged my professors and fellow students in the days ahead.
One of the most remarkable of these newly-discovered relatives was Dr. Meredith G. Kline. I took his Old Testament Hermeneutics course in my first semester at Gordon-Conwell, as did most students in those years. I sat back in awe as he spoke: He was brilliant, and a meticulous scholar, but his deep faith and Christlike character shone through everything he said and did. This was a rare combination. I felt it set a standard towards which I should aspire.
Much of what Dr. Kline presented in class was very challenging to me, but in a most welcome way. He was, for example, an Orthodox Presbyterian and as such a “Five-Point Calvinist.” (The Calvinist tradition stresses the sovereignty of God, as opposed to the “Arminian” tradition with which I was familiar, which stresses human freedom of will and consequent moral responsibility. The “five points” are total depravity, specifically, the fallenness of human reason; unconditional election; a limited atonement; the irresistibility of grace; and the perseverance of the saints, or their eternal security.)
Students would chuckle outside of class that Dr. Kline somehow found the elect and the reprobate on every page of Scripture. From him, and from other professors in the same theological tradition, I received a new appreciation for the grace of God by which alone we come to salvation. I did not embrace all of the “five points” in the end, such as the notion of a limited atonement, but in retrospect I recognize that my theological categories were helpfully broadened by the encounter.
This was not the main way Dr. Kline influenced me, however. His theological commitments, strong as they were, were not primary; he was first and foremost a biblical scholar, and he carried out his scholarship specifically through a careful reading of the text. His insightful reading of one text in particular, the account of the days of creation at the beginning of Genesis, changed forever the way I would understand that text, and the way I would henceforth read all others.
In a class lecture presenting research he had published in one of his early articles, “Because It Had Not Rained” from the Westminster Theological Journal, Dr. Kline explored and assessed the interpretations of Genesis 1 then current among evangelicals. This was a lecture he probably gave countless times, but hearing it was a watershed in my personal understanding of the Bible. These interpretations, he explained, arose in light of the need readers felt to reconcile the Bible’s apparent description of a recent creation with geologic evidence suggesting the earth was very old.
One of these interpretations was the so-called “gap theory,” which postulated that a very long period of time had transpired between the events described in the opening sentence of the Genesis creation account (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”) and in the next sentence (translated to read, “The earth became without form and void”). The former statement, in this interpretation, was a description of an original creation in which all of the dinosaurs and other extinct creatures known from fossils had lived, and the latter was a description of some catastrophe that had wiped out life on earth. The rest of the account of the “days of creation” was held to be actually the story of a re-creation. I had heard this interpretation before, in a “Jesus People” coffeehouse, but I had dismissed it, mostly because I saw no need to accommodate a long period of time in the story of creation, convinced as I was by young-earth claims.
Dr. Kline also took issue with this interpretation, but on very different grounds. He explained that, in keeping with the conventions of Hebrew literature, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” was just a summary introduction, like a headline or lead paragraph in modern journalistic writing. (Other examples of this literary convention abound in the Hebrew Scriptures; to cite one other instance, the statement later in Genesis, “Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more,” provides a summary introduction to the account that follows about Joseph sharing this dream with his brothers.
Proof that the opening statement was indeed a summary of the entire account, the “creation of the heavens and the earth,” could be found later in the account itself, in verses 7-8, where the creation of the “heavens” was described in more detail, and in verses 9-10, where the same was done for the creation of the “earth.” The cosmological implications, of course, were that gap theorists would have to argue for a total destruction and re-creation of the universe, not just the ruin and restoration of terrestrial life. But Dr. Kline did not find it necessary to draw out these implications. It was enough for him to show that these interpreters were reading literature badly.
This was probably the first time I’d ever seen that if we want to interpret the Bible accurately and credibly, we need to approach it on its own terms, that is, by understanding and respecting the literary conventions according to which it was written. The integration I had not made so far, between literature and the Bible, was now under way.