Remembering James Dunn and the Time I Got to Write a Book with Him

The world of New Testament Studies was saddened last week to learn of the passing of James D. G. Dunn, one of the premier scholars in biblical scholarship. Many touching tributes have been written, including those by Scot McKnight (with some words from Jeff Wisdom), Nijay Gupta, James Ernest, Loren Stuckenbruck, James McGrath, and B. J. Oropeza.

Dunn meant a great deal to me. While I did not have the privilege of knowing him well, I did end up having the privilege of working on a book with him. To honor him, I thought it appropriate to share a bit of that story.

First, some background.

I was a teenager when I was first exposed to Dunn’s work in the 1990s. The first book of his that I read was, Jesus, Paul, and the Law: Studies in Mark and Galatians (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1990). I remember being fascinated by it and poring over it. I still have my beat up, old copy.

I went on to work through countless other volumes written by Dunn. I could not even begin to calculate the number of hours I have invested studying his works. In graduate school, one of my favorites of his was The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). It remains one of his most important contributions.

You can therefore imagine my delight, when, as a doctoral student at Fuller Theological Seminary, I heard that James Dunn himself would be visiting our campus. The year was 2006. I made sure I got my chance to meet him. We had a brief exchange in which he was gracious and encouraging. Though I was nervous about looking like too much of a fan-boy, I nevertheless asked him to sign my copy of The Theology of St. Paul. He smiled and obliged.

Fast forward to 2012. Alan Stanley contacted me and told me he was editing a new book in Zondervan’s Counterpoint series: Four Views on the Role of Good Works at the Final Judgment. Alan asked if I was interested in representing the Catholic perspective in the volume. My jaw dropped when he told me that one of the other contributors would be James D. G. Dunn . Not only would I get to write a piece and respond to an article written by him, but Dunn himself would also write a response to my own contribution.

I was also honored to engage other scholars in the book, namely, Tom Schreiner and Robert Wilkin. While this was also a privilege, I must admit that the opportunity to work with Dunn, a scholar I had long learned from, was beyond exciting to me. Of course, I enthusiastically agreed and began working on my piece.

The more I thought about it, however, I became nervous. If Dunn wrote a devastating critique of my piece, I wondered if I would ever recover.

When his response to my article arrived in my inbox, I felt overwhelmed with both gratitude and anxiety. It began with a heading, “Areas of Agreement”. I will never forget what it was like to read his lines lines:

“I found myself warming to Michael Barber’s ‘Catholic perspective.’ It is ecumenical: it effectively chops down the ‘dividing wall’ between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, which has prevented mutual respect and bred suspicion as to the gospel of both and the faithfulness of each to biblical teaching. Grace as a fundamental to both systems, even, arguably (as Barber suggests), more fundamental to Catholic teaching.”

James D. G. Dunn, “Response to Michael P. Barber” in Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment, ed. Alan Stanley, with James D. G. Dunn, Thomas Schreiner, and Robert Wilkin (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), p. 197.

His response continued with a heading, Jesus is Close to Jewish Soteriology.” When I saw this, I was thrilled. One of the major things I had learned from Dunn’s work was how to read the New Testament in light of Second Temple Judaism. To see that he recognized that my piece was informed by such work meant a great deal to me. He wrote of my argument:

It is biblical: The Protestant dismissal of the Old Testament’s and early Judaism’s soteriology, too often dismissed as ‘works righteousness’ and ‘synergistic,’ is shown clearly to be at best misleading since it is so much of a piece with Jesus’ own teaching on reward.

Dunn, “Response to Michael P. Barber”, p. 197.

He later identifies what he found especially helpful:

Perhaps most important, Barber has no inhibitions in trying to show how the legal analogy of justification and judgment and the schema of incorporation in/into Christ can be held together in fruitful integration. Even if we might quibble over use of terms like “merit,” Jesus’ readiness to use the concept of “reward” should surely go a long way to calm any excessive Protestant sensitivities on that score.

Dunn, “Response to Michael P. Barber”, p. 198.

Dunn went on to note in appreciation my appeal to Nathan Eubank’s work, of which he said, “I too have been impressed. . .” (p. 198).

To be sure, Dunn had “a few notes of disquiet.” As I had expected, he expressed the need for caution in respecting the differences between Paul and the other New Testament authors, especially James. Anticipating that he might have something to say along these lines, I addressed this in my response to his piece. I knew his work so well that I was sure this would be something he would raise.

He also expressed being “a little nervous” about my statement that faith “is still an act performed by the believer.” Of course, the issue of divine and human agency in New Testament soteriology is still hotly debated. In addition, he also wished I had said more about the relationship of faith to baptism. He was correct about this and I wish I had said more about that. I think my recent treatment of these issues in Paul, A New Covenant Jew, which I co-wrote with Brant Pitre and John Kincaid, would have furthered are conversation on these fronts.

In the end, Dunn’s response was fair and considered. I learned from it and was so grateful for what he had written.

When the book appeared, I was humbled and honored. What an honor!

After the project was completed, I had a very nice email exchange with him. As you would expect, he was incredibly encouraging. I ended up running into him at a Society of Biblical Literature conference and we had a brief conversation. It was an honor to meet him again, this time not as simply a fan-boy graduate student, but as a co-author of sorts. He was, once again, very kind and encouraging.

Dunn was a giant. Few scholars make lasting contributions to the field. Dunn has not only accomplished that, but has also done so in multiple areas. Among other things, he has helped to shape the larger conversation not only about Paul, but also about Jesus.

Even more importantly, as the tributes to him written by those who knew him attest, he truly sought to model a faithful perspective. What I learned from his books will forever stay with me. But even more, I will remember the personal exchanges I had with him. He was truly a gentleman and a scholar.

May perpetual light shine upon him.

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