Grant Osborne and the Passing of a Good Man

Grant-Osborne

Grant Osborne, the well-known New Testament scholar associated for most of his career with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, died in his sleep last Saturday, November 4, 2018, at 76 years old. I knew Grant for nearly forty years, first as my teacher, then as my mentor while I was his teaching assistant, and then as a colleague and friend. He was always an example of a godly man dedicated to God’s word.

Born on July 7, 1942 in Queens, New York, Grant never came across as your typical New Yorker, neither sounding nor acting like one. In fact, I did not even realize he was from New York until years later. Like me, Grant grew up in a home of musicians. Unlike me, Grant grew up to become a very accomplished musician himself, and as an adult even conducted performances of Handel’s oratorio Messiah. The family moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana during the Second World War, where they became Christians.

As anyone who ever knew Grant would expect, he took his faith very seriously, studying and memorizing the Bible. He attended Fort Wayne Bible College (which became Summit Christian College and then was purchased by Taylor University) and majored in missions and pastoral training, as well as going on a short-term missions trip to North Pakistan. Grant was plagued by asthma throughout his life, and this prevented his becoming a missionary. He instead became a pastor for several years in Ohio, and then attended Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS), where he received a M.A. in New Testament in 1971, studying with Richard Longenecker, who encouraged him to earn a Ph.D. in the UK.

Grant had the distinction of becoming I. Howard Marshall’s first doctoral student, writing on “History and Theology in the Resurrection Narratives: A Redactional Study” and completing the degree in 1974 at the University of Aberdeen. Grant then returned to North America, first teaching at Winnipeg Theological Seminary, now Providence Theological Seminary, in Manitoba, Canada, from 1974 to 1977, and then moving to TEDS. Grant taught at TEDS from 1977 until he retired in 2016, serving for an incredible and very productive thirty-nine years.

Grant traveled widely throughout much of his career. His travels took him to many different countries where he lectured, preached, taught, and studied. I am sure that these travels took their toll on him, and I noticed that in the later years his health seemed not to be as robust as it had once been. Grant also edited a number of different types of publications, such as a commentary series for InterVarsity Press.

I have many memories of Grant Osborne, beginning with my time at TEDS, where I too earned a M.A. (Grant was second reader of my thesis). I vividly remember taking a number of different courses from him, each one combining his enthusiasm for teaching, his voluminous printed notes bringing together and commenting upon the pertinent scholarship, and his sincere dedication to Scripture into a significant educational experience.

In one of these classes, affectionately called Leftovers (comprising the Johannine literature, Hebrews, and the General Epistles), I will never forget one day in particular. We were nearing the end of our discussion of John’s Gospel over several class sessions, and at the end of the period one student asked the proverbial seminary question—how does one preach this particular passage? At this point, after a short answer Grant spontaneously—well, spontaneously only in the sense of after thirty years of serious study—and extemporaneously launched into a very inspiring and moving sermon on the passage, simply based upon the study notes we all had in our hands. When he came to the end (the sermon was not short), I know that I was not the only student in complete amazement but also in complete awe of both the power of the biblical text and the inspiration of Grant as expositor. I doubt I have heard a sermon so sincere and powerful since.

I had the honor of being Grant’s teaching assistant for the 1981-1982 academic year. I did the usual assistant tasks, but the one that I enjoyed most was proofreading his forthcoming publications. As I proofread at one of the tables in the TEDS library, I would surreptitiously show some of my closest friends what I was reading, and I felt honored to be reading this material before others would have the chance—and to have the opportunity to help it to be as good as it could by editing and proofreading. One of these articles was his important study of genre, “Genre Criticism—Sensus Literalis,” published in the Trinity Journal (4 [1983] 1-27).

I also had the honor, along with Eckhard Schnabel, who was then a colleague of Grant’s at TEDS, of co-editing Grant’s Festschrift. This Festschrift, entitled On the Writing of Commentaries (Brill, 2013), was presented to Grant at the 2012 ETS meeting. I was sitting beside Grant in the front row as Eckhard was reading about the volume’s recipient before announcing his name. He had no idea that the volume was dedicated to him, until Eckhard made several comments that clearly indicated that it could be no one else but him. I could hear his exclamations as he slowly came to recognize that this work had been written and compiled for him. I have to say that it is an impressive volume—it treats an important subject of why and how and how well we have written commentaries and it includes a great collection of authors, many of them his former students—dedicated to an even more impressive and humble individual.

Grant was known to be an intentionally amenable man. One of his favorite solutions to an exegetical dispute was to choose “both/and.” He would use this answer in print and in the classroom. Some of us at the time thought that this was taking the easy way out for any theological conundrum. We much preferred to take clear sides and argue it out. However, I realize now that his answer was probably the more difficult one to take, because Grant ended up alone to defend his answer, rather than aligned with one side or another.

Grant was a well-known Arminian, and although this came through in a number of his publications, he never was as stridently assertive of this position as some in other camps have been in theirs. Calvinists tend to have tighter and neater theological systems (if such systems are what one is looking for), but Arminians tend to be easier people to be around, even if equally convinced of their theological position, and Grant was certainly one of these.

Grant did not, however, shy away from controversy. He wrote a number of important articles on redaction criticism early in his career that aroused sharp response in an evangelical world that was just coming to terms with higher criticism. He then later published a revised form of his doctoral dissertation as The Resurrection Narratives: A Redactional Study (Baker, 1984), which used the R-word soon after the controversy over another scholar’s using redaction in a commentary on Matthew led to unjust and unnecessary outcry. Grant also published some other works on this topic, as well as on a wide range of other subjects in New Testament studies. I don’t know how TEDS took the appearance of Grant’s book on redaction, but I am very glad that he continued to thrive there until his retirement.

Grant was also at the forefront of scholarship on more than just this occasion. His well-known textbook The Hermeneutical Spiral (IVP, 1991, 2006) began as class notes. I had just completed a M.A. in English before going to TEDS and so I appreciated the kinds of questions that were being raised in this class. I now recognize that not many other seminary students of the time, especially at evangelical institutions, were being exposed to the kinds of hermeneutical questions that we were forced to wrestle with in Grant’s classroom.

Grant was often overlooked within the New Testament department at TEDS and even wider evangelical scholarship. This is too bad, as time has told. Grant continued to produce scholarship that speaks to the church, with a resulting important cumulative effect on the valuation of his contribution, until he stands higher than many if not most of his one-time peers. His commentary on Revelation (Baker, 2002) evidences his overall approach to scholarship, but is only one of many commentaries that he wrote in the course of his career (he also wrote commentaries on Matthew, Mark, John, Romans, James, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude). I remember inviting him to serve as external examiner for one of my doctoral students, and he willingly came to McMaster Divinity College and did an excellent job of putting the candidate through the necessary paces. We then had a great lunch together and reminisced. I hoped to have him return as an examiner, but by then his health would not allow it.

Grant Osborne will probably be remembered as a scholar who wrote for the church. However, I think that this undervalues his contribution. He was often an early adapter of new ideas, even when others rejected them. More than that, he was a very fine classroom communicator, but most significant of all is that he was a genuinely nice and gracious individual who treated others with respect, whether they were senior or junior colleagues, and he took their ideas seriously, admitted to his own limitations, and gave recognition where appropriate. New Testament scholarship, and evangelical scholarship in particular, could benefit from more Grant Osbornes. This one, alas, is no longer with us.

— Stanley E. Porter

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