In Memoriam: Robert L. Thomas, ThD

imagesRobert L. Thomas, ThD, Professor Emeritus of New Testament at The Master’s Seminary, passed away the morning of September 6, 2017. He was born on June 4, 1928 in Atlanta, GA, graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering (this might explain his approach to Greek), and, after a brief stint in the military, studied at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he received his ThM and ThD degrees. He subsequently taught at Talbot Theological Seminary (now Talbot School of Theology) for a number of years and then The Master’s Seminary from which he retired. He was president of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in 1990, and is probably best known for his scholarship as the editor of the NASB Exhaustive Concordance, member of the translation committee of the NASB, and author of a two-volume commentary on Revelation published by Moody Press, as well as the author of several books.

I (Dave) was drawn to attend The Master’s Seminary because of Dr. Thomas. Prior to applying for seminary, I had read a book of his recommended to me by a mentor, in which he went into detailed Greek exegesis, and I wanted to learn how to analyze Greek at that level. During my time in seminary, I had the pleasure of taking a few courses with him. The most memorable course was Advanced Hermeneutics, where he, one other student, and I met every week during the semester to discuss major issues in NT hermeneutics. Many people know Dr. Thomas to be a hard-nosed, strict teacher in the classroom, and while that is not entirely untrue, I also knew him to be a kind and gracious man of God, full of conviction. This conviction sometimes (or often, depending on who you ask) came off in ways that others might not have appreciated or understood. But his love for students was evident in that he would host bi-weekly breakfasts at a local Denny’s near campus, and (when I was able to get there at 6:30am!) I had the privilege of joining him and talking with him about life, ministry, and scholarship, sometimes just the two of us.

The last time I saw Dr. Thomas was at the annual ETS meeting in San Diego (2014), where we happened to bump into each other and walked together to the alumni reception (he was 86 at the time). We enjoyed a brief, yet meaningful chat there. While he had been retired at the time, he talked about several projects he was working on, including a commentary on Thessalonians—his mind was still pretty fresh.

Although we did not see eye to eye on some issues, especially regarding Greek verbal aspect and the value of modern linguistics in hermeneutics, one major lesson I learned from him, which I will carry on and hope to instill in my own students, is the hard work-ethic and attention to detail that Dr. Thomas exemplified. The other lesson I learned from him is his obvious love and commitment to God that fueled his scholarship. For that, I am grateful to have studied under him, and now rejoice that, after being granted 89 years of life here on earth, he is now in heaven, face to face with his Savior.

I (Stan) met Bob for the first time around 1982 or 1983, when I was teaching a few courses at Biola University, after having finished my MA at TEDS in New Testament. I was continuing my study of Greek, and I heard that Bob had GRAMCORD on his own computer. I had used GRAMCORD during my time at TEDS, and was interested in continuing my work. Bob and I met, and he ran some searches for me on his computer. He was no doubt one of the first to have access to GRAMCORD and was anxious to use it in his own research. I appreciated the fact that he was enthusiastic to be able to share this tool with others, and he designed the several searches that I needed performed.

When I returned from my doctoral study and began to teach at Biola in the languages department, I learned that Bob and a number of his colleagues had departed from Talbot and were now part of a new institution called The Master’s Seminary. I never knew the details of their departure, but I realized that the departure of these key faculty members left Talbot a very different place than it had been. I leave it to others to judge whether it was a better or poorer place for the loss, but it certainly marked a change in theological emphasis and attitude. I was saddened that this had occurred, but I also had to admit that, although I no doubt disagreed with Bob on a number of theological issues, I respected his conviction that resulted in his move.

I did not see Bob very much after that. However, I do remember seeing him a couple of times at ETS meetings. At one of these, I remember talking with him about his recently completed manuscript on Revelation. He made sure that he let me know that he had read an article that I had written on the language of Revelation and that he had taken the argument into consideration in his commentary. I thanked him for doing this, and I greatly appreciated his taking the time to tell me. I noted later—with some sadness, although I understood the reasons—that when the Moody commentary series in which Bob’s Revelation commentary appeared was transferred to Baker his commentary remained at Moody and was not picked up by the new publisher. I always thought that that was perhaps a bit unfair, but publishers are what they are.

I never studied with Bob, but I am sure that there are many areas where we disagreed. In fact, on the basis of reading some of his works on a variety of topics, such as hermeneutics and interpretation of various issues, I know that we disagreed. I have, however, had several of his students continue their doctoral studies with me, and they have been well-prepared, especially in Greek, and have been willingly open to rethinking issues on the basis of solid argumentation. They have been especially interested in linguistics. Whatever our disagreements may have been, Bob clearly did a good job of challenging his students and preparing them to think through issues. I will always respect the fact that, even though we may have seen things differently, we were both primarily interested in faithfully interpreting the New Testament as God’s Word.

— David I. Yoon and Stanley E. Porter

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3 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Robert L. Thomas, ThD

  1. Pingback: How to Disagree: an Example – beliefspeak2

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