Monday, February 29, 2016

A New Biography of Leon Morris: Brief Review

Neil Bach, Leon Morris: One Man’s Fight for Love and Truth (Milton Keynes: Paternoster/Authentic, 2015).

Neil Bach has written a very informative biography of Leon Morris, with a fascinating photograph on the front cover, which I read over the weekend. Of course Leon Morris was not a textual critic, but he was a pioneering evangelical New Testament scholar. He was also Australian (of course), went to Cambridge to do a PhD, and he also (relatively briefly in his case) worked at Tyndale House in Cambridge (other than that our careers diverge, as he wrote 50 books, became extremely wealthy, and was the Principal of a thriving theological college). For most of his career he was associated with Ridley College in Melbourne. But I came across him on only a couple of occasions (since he retired in 1979 and I started sudying theology in 1981). Firstly, I am pretty sure I remember him introducing J.I Packer before a talk Packer gave at an event in Melbourne. Secondly, I went with a group of friends to hear him give three talks on the atonement in a church in Melbourne (direct from a small Greek New Testament). And thirdly, my first teaching stint involved giving lectures on a Thursday morning straight after Leon Morris had finished a lecture. So we passed in the hallway every day for a term.

Leon Morris was a prolific writer (50 books published with over 2 million total sales), a very solid lecturer (his lecture notes were much valued when I was a student - in a different institution), a committed evangelical Anglican, and this book does a good job in tracing his history and influence (although “claimed influence” might be a better way to put it as no real attempt is made to document things). I found out why his middle name was “Lamb” (something I had always linked with his interest in the cross and Jesus as the lamb of God - which is quite wrong), I found out how many books he wrote and where he travelled and what talks he gave (those three talks on the atonement I heard must have been given a hundred times, no wonder they were so good). It is to some extent more of a chronicle than anything - a lot of detail comes straight from diaries and other primary sources (boxes and boxes of correspondence etc.). It is a good way to fill in gaps about your knowledge of Leon Morris, and institutions with which he was involved (especially Ridley College, Tyndale House, and evangelical Anglicanism in Australia that is not of a Sydney type). I especially enjoyed reading about Morris’ involvement with Billy Graham crusades in Melbourne (in 1959 and 1969), which had a huge influence on many Christians in Melbourne. I also learnt that he was regarded as a bit of an Americanophile - Leon Morris went to the USA several times, and generally moving quite happily between Fuller, TEDS and Westminster. He was also firmly on the side of the ordination of women to positions of church leadership (which I hadn’t been that conscious of before).

Another section which I found very informative was a discussion of a 10 day conference on the Authority of Scripture held in Boston (USA) in 1966 (pp. 136-142), which I knew of but had never read much about. This was primarily a conference of evangelical biblical scholars on the inspiration and authority of Scripture in view of the actual phenomena of Scripture. It is actually part of the backdrop for the later Chicago Conference on Biblical Inerrancy (in 1978). The earlier conference, where biblical scholars predominated, came to no generally agreed conclusion (especially as regards things like “inerrancy”), the proceedings were never published (collectively anyway), and it has had little influence; the later conference, where systematic theologians and church historians predominated, had more influence (if less biblical balance). Leon Morris kept a diary of the conference, and all the papers are held in the Wheaton College library, so there are resources there of interest to historians.

There are a couple of useful little gems related to Morris’ very disciplined work habits that are helpful to ponder (5 minute breaks every hour; always completing one page of writing a day; never sending a book to the publisher without it going through at least three drafts; doing the same talk in many different places; keeping a detailed running total of book sales, etc.), and the centrality of his Greek New Testament to everything he did (praying, teaching, preaching, writing) has always been an encouragement.

The book is well written, but verges on the deferential towards its subject - it is certainly not a critical biography. Some criticisms of Morris are voiced, but the reader is quickly either re-assured or moved on. For example, Morris is portrayed as the man who took on Dodd on the atonement and won the argument (e.g. pp. 61-66). But we are also told that Morris only met Dodd once, when they sat next to each other at a dinner during which they barely spoke to each other. The major question as to whether the word study approach in Morris’ fundamental work, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, really delivers what is claimed of it, is never even posed. (Speaking personally, I have found the argument in The Cross in the New Testament - showing how important the death of Christ is across the entire NT - a very helpful supplement to the detailed word studies in The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross.)  Major problems in handling staff relationships at Ridley (not exactly an unusual occurrence in theological colleges) are mentioned only briefly. The lack of scholarly interaction in many of his books is also raised briefly (by D.A. Carson) but not really probed. Generally friends and colleagues are quoted as proving the quality and influence of Morris’ published works. Critical reviews of his books are never mentioned (despite the very interesting controversy that arose over Morris’ citation techniques in his John commentary, which elicited a response from Morris). It is certainly reasonable that the first biography of a Christian leader will be positive towards his life and work, but it ought to be possible to probe strengths and weaknesses, to acknowledge legacies that need to be built upon and improved in various ways, to acknowledge sins that persist alongside the Saviour who saves. The author quotes from many memorial tributes written soon after Morris’ death (in 2006), but these, quite rightly, are expressions of thankfulness and written by close friends. As historical sources though, they ought to be weighed more critically than they are here. I noticed only a couple of typos (Tyndale House is at 36 Selwyn Gardens, not 16, p. 47 [up-date: see comments below]; and I am pretty sure that Peter Adam’s funeral sermon entitled ‘By grace, by Christ, by blood, by faith’ was not on Romans 3.9-16 but more likely on Rom 3.19-26, p. 235); there is a bibliography of Leon Morris’ books (but not a complete bibliography of all his published work).

There is also not much of an internal narrative offered here. That may reflect the nature of the man and the sources available - diaries which describe types of aircraft flown in, but not how anyone felt at the time; but there are major issues where the reader is left a bit in the dark. This is true both on fundamental and tagential issues. What was it that drew Morris time and time again to talk and write about the cross of Christ? How did he and Mildred feel about their lack of children? What did he do to relax? Why did he make the decisions he did, in terms of jobs, projects, etc? Why did he save so much money (ending his life with $8 million dollars invested)? How did he feel about things? Did he really fight for truth and love? (this is more a question to the author, as I wasn’t that convinced by the subtitle as a thread through the book)

All in all a very enjoyable book to read, highly recommended.


  1. Interesting indeed. According to Noble's history p. 48, 36 Selwyn Gardens used to be numbered 16. Not sure why it changed.

  2. Ah, thanks for that Pete. I guess perhaps new buildings in between the older buildings or some such thing. Bach does refer to Noble's book a few times, or it could have come from Morris' diaries of course.

  3. So what's on the table in the photo?

  4. Good question, I was puzzling over that. It could almost be a manuscript! Judging by other photos in the book and a description of his study I would guess it was taken maybe in the late 1980s in Morris' study at home. The pose is rather unusual compared with other pictures in the book - very confident and relaxed.

  5. What are you? A socialist or something?

  6. Re the wealth, perhaps he was worried about a government raid on pension funds!

  7. Many thanks. I've spent a lot of time with Morris' NICNT commentary on John and his Studies in the Fourth Gospel over recent months, and have much appreciated such. I found Morris' views refreshing when read in contrast to the newer NICNT commentary on John by Michaels.

    There is a lot of theology packed into these technical commentaries, setting these scholars apart, which leads to my question - what is the perceived difference between a biblical scholar, and a theologian, as referenced above?

  8. See here for an interesting blog/summary by the author: