In Memoriam: John Sailhamer, Christian Biblical Academician (1946-2017)

By: Dr. Tracy McKenzie

John Sailhamer (Th.M., Dallas Theological Seminary, M.A. and Ph.D., UCLA) passed away Monday, January 9th after a protracted bout with a form of Parkinson-Plus. Sailhamer served as Professor of Old Testament at numerous institutions during his career, most recently at Gateway Baptist Theological Seminary, formerly Golden Gate Seminary, but also at such places as Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Trinity Evangelical Seminary. He also served as President of ETS in 2000.

Much could be said of Sailhamer’s career in teaching and publishing. He was beloved by his students, whom he inspired to a close reading of the Hebrew Bible. The numbers of his students who now serve in the academy—both inside and outside of evangelicalism—not to mention the pulpit, attest to his profound influence in the field through teaching and supervising PhD students. Besides several other books and articles, Sailhamer authored noteworthy books such as the NIV Compact Bible Commentary, Introduction to Old Testament Theology: A Canonical Approach, and Genesis in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary series. Some of his works reached a popular level; others were aimed at the academy.

Among the halls of his former institutions, Sailhamer was best known for his reticence to use sociocultural, geographical, and archaeological information, et al. in the service of understanding the biblical text. Students naively popularized this reticence as an unwillingness to use “history” when interpreting the Bible. For Sailhamer, it was not this simple; all matters of philology come into play in interpretation. But for those who thought each narrative, legal code, or prophecy—any Old Testament text in reality—validly conveyed meaning when understood against a putative setting external to the book given by an author, Sailhamer’s writings argue otherwise.

I had the opportunity to sit under Sailhamer’s teaching and influence in the classroom, in Sunday School, as a TA, and as a PhD student. Unlike storied situations about arguments with colleagues at former institutions, Sailhamer was like a patient, gracious grandfather with MDiv students and members of his Sunday School class. Even when questioned about his hermeneutic, Sailhamer’s eruditeness and years of classroom experience gave him the ability to persuade students graciously to his point of view.

Among the many experiences that might honor his memory and encourage readers to delve into his works, two quite contrary anecdotes come to mind. I won’t soon forget an experience I had with Sailhamer as a PhD student while also serving as his TA. I could knock on his door unannounced since I regularly picked up papers to grade. His secretary trusted me and would make copies when necessary. Of course, Sailhamer’s library was the envy of quite literally everyone I know. During my own research, I had come across a book unavailable in our library. After a careful search, there were only a few copies on the East Coast: one in William and Mary’s library; the other in Sailhamer’s office. He actually had two copies! One was a Xeroxed copy that had seen many years. The second was a hardback edition. Quite adroitly, I must say, I explained to him what I needed and why. I thought it was a slam-dunk. I explained that I could grab his duplicate and quickly have his secretary copy the needed pages. It would never be more than twenty steps away from its spot on his shelf and never out of the eyesight of his secretary. His hardback edition did not need to leave its sacred space. Without a hint of quibbling, he flatly said, “No. Your job is to find the books. Mine is to have them.” Sailhamer loved his books and his rule was that none of them ever left his office. My point? Sailhamer guarded his library because it was his fellowship with academicians and scholars in the distant past and from various cultures. It is quite ironic that now SEBTS houses the Sailhamer Library, which contains his many rare and scholarly books. I still cannot take books out of “his” library but I no longer have to knock. Later, that afternoon of the incident, he passed me in the parking lot and with half a smirk said, “Are we still friends?”

The second anecdote involves the inclusion of one of his articles in an edited edition. I happened to come into his office shortly after he received a request to include the article in a volume and he was excited in a way that I had not seen before. After reading the article many times since that day, I am beginning to understand his excitement because it, more than any other of his works, offers a revealing snapshot into what he was trying to accomplish in his scholarly pursuits. The article was his contribution to Ben Ollenburger’s Old Testament Theology: Flowering and Future. He had actually written that article pre-2000 for the Wheaton Theology Conference in April, 2000.[1] Interestingly enough, I attended that conference as my very first foray into the academic study of the Bible. It is in this article that Sailhamer attempts to deal with what is now arguably turning into a consensus in Old Testament studies: the way in which the Old Testament comments upon itself. To put the matter another way, scribes (and prophets?) continued to comment upon, expand, and clarify biblical texts until these texts, along with the scribal expansions, congealed into the books and sequence that we now call the Hebrew Bible or TaNaK. No other evangelical was trying to handle Scripture’s complexities while still maintaining a robust view of its inspiration. Other giants in the field of Old Testament Studies such as Michael Fishbane and I.L. Seligmann had already proposed such notions. In fact, an early conversation partner in Sailhamer’s pursuit was Abraham Geiger, a nineteenth century German Rabbi. His interaction with Geiger is yet another example of how his bookishness extended far beyond that of his own tradition and language. Books were his way of standing on the shoulders of giants. Perhaps it is time we stand on his.

[1] The article, “Biblical Theology and the Composition of the Hebrew Bible” was first published in Scott Hafemann’s edited volume from the conference, Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2002), 25–37.


Dr. Tracy McKenzie is Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.

Briefly Noted: Christ is Better than Anything Rome Can Give—or Martyrdom Can Take Away

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on February 25, 2013.]

One of the most striking memories of my childhood is a small newsletter that carried the photograph of an emaciated elderly man. Beneath the photo was a story detailing this man’s arrest at the hands of the Russian secret police for the crime of worshiping Christ together with other believers in an “underground” church. This man’s story was the first of many stories I read about in the newsletters my parents received several times per year during the last years before the fall of the Soviet Union. I learned of believers who were dragged from their homes, thrown in concentration camps, tortured, and killed because they worshiped in underground churches, owned Bibles, shared the gospel, and pledged allegiance to an Authority higher than the Soviet state.

In the evenings, when my father called the whole family into the living room for evening devotions, sometimes he would read from one of the newsletters. We would listen to the stories and then pray together for these Christians who loved God and worshiped him even under the threat of persecution and death. I always wondered what it was that enabled these men and women to stand strong in the face of such pain and horror. What power did they possess that I did not have? What had they experienced in their relationship with God that I had not? It seemed to me that their brutally oppressive environment was in one sense a blessing—it forced them to reflect upon the value and worth of Christ. They were compelled to determine whether Christ was indeed supremely precious, even more valuable than other good things in life such as friends, family, freedom, health, and long life. And their answer was clear: intimacy with Christ is better than anything that life could give or that suffering, persecution, and death could take away. They believed—upon the backdrop of extreme risk—that they had entered into relationship with the one true and living God, that he should be worshiped supremely, and that all of life was to be lived under his reign.[1]

Continue reading…

On Russell Moore, Evangelicals, and Political Engagement

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on January 27, 2014.]

The sharp-sighted cultural commentator Russell Moore strikes again. In “Evangelical Retreat?”, published in the December edition of First Things, he responds to the concern that younger Evangelicals’ drift away from conservative political activism is underlain by closet liberalism, political disinterest, or perhaps some other infelicity.[1] His answer, which I think is correct, is that most young Evangelicals are not withdrawing; instead, they are engaging in ways which are more deeply theological and ecclesial.

Moore begins by noting certain concerns expressed by Christians outside of the Evangelical orbit: “Dispensationalist fascination with prophecy has waned in recent years, as Evangelicals seem to be recalibrating to the larger church tradition on eschatology. But I find that in talking to Catholic and Orthodox friends, some of them fear a Rapture of a different kind. They worry that Evangelical Christians will soon evacuate not the earth but the public square” (p. 46). The concern stems from several factors, and central among them is the breakdown of the religious right as a centering force for Evangelical cultural impact. In the wake of this breakdown, where and how will Evangelicals engage the culture? Will they try? This is a concern held not only by Catholic friends, but also by old veterans of the Moral Majority.

Moore notes that “engaging the culture” has changed in Evangelicalism because the present generation defines these terms differently from previous generations. No longer does “engage the culture” mean “get out the vote.” Rather, young Evangelicals regularly engage the culture at the congregational level primarily and the political level secondarily. As Moore points out, “They focus on helping the poor by, among other things, working for marriage stability [the healthy union of one man and one woman], family accountability [including the sanctity of life], and personal responsibility [the practice of purity and community]” (p. 46). These actions are underlain by deep and profound theological and ecclesial concerns.

For this generation of Evangelicals, faithful and appropriate public action sprouts from the rich soil of orthodox theology. Moore observes:

As Evangelicalism grows increasingly estranged from American culture––especially from the evaporating culture of the Bible Belt––it grows increasingly committed to the ‘strangest’ aspects of the evangel itself: atonement, resurrection, reconciliation, and so on. Some younger Evangelicals’ flight impulse from issues deemed ‘political’ isn’t a move to the political left as much as a move to the theological right. (p. 46)

In this case, “engaging the culture” will not look like Evangelical public action of the past. “As a matter of fact, today the center of American Evangelicalism is, theologically speaking, to the right of the old religious right.” Evangelicals have begun to realize slowly “that they are no ‘moral majority’” in America (p. 47). So a more expansive theology, rooted especially in the Reformed Tradition, has replaced extensive campaigning.

Such theology also undergirds a more rigorous church polity and accountability. “Unlike the Bible-Belt congregation of the twentieth century, the new kind of Evangelical church has strict membership requirements . . . The pastor typically preaches forty-five minutes to an hour of verse-by-verse exposition . . . He is pro-life and pro-marriage” (p. 47). The challenge for many “young Evangelical” pastors and elders (a growing trend, too) is not whether to teach all that Jesus has commanded (Matt 28:19–20), but whether public engagement fits within the mission of the local church. This is because he has most likely seen attempts at packaging “a transcendent message for decidedly worldly, and often cynical, purposes of pulling the levels of power” (p. 47).

With every theology and polity comes a worldview, or vice versa. As such, Moore observes, “To understand the Evangelical tension on public engagement, one must understand that Evangelicals are a narrative-driven people.” This refers to the biblical narrative but also to personal narratives. Personal testimonies demonstrate the reasons young Evangelicals worship, for example, in Reformed and liturgically oriented churches. These churches are decidedly different from, for example, the theologically vacuous and/or super casual churches in which they grew up. And as Moore notes, “What’s true at the personal level is true also at the level of the movement” (p. 48).

Moore also clarifies that the term “young Evangelical” is also confusing for many. The theological conservatives of whom he speaks are quite different from the “young Evangelicals” often sought out by the national media. “It would be a mistake to lump the convictional Evangelicals of whom I speak with the professional dissidents who make a living marketing mainline Protestant shibboleths to Evangelical college audiences by questioning everything from biblical inerrancy to a Christian sexual ethic” (p. 46). So “liberal” does not describe the “young Evangelicals” of whom Moore writes.

The current status and ethos of Evangelicalism, then, reflects a return to the evangel. “Evangelical Christianity, it seems, is moving back to a confessional centering on the Gospel.” But this does not mean that such “Gospel-centered Evangelicals” should retreat from public engagement (p. 48). The past mistakes caused by divorcing the Gospel from the kingdom cannot and must not be repeated. How then do we engage?

Moore argues for prophetic distance and prophetic engagement. He contends that the increasing secularization of America “ . . . will ensure that Christianity must either capitulate or engage. The engagement will not be at the level of voters’ guides or consumer boycotts––and thank God. The engagement will be first congregational . . . ” (p. 49). Moore also encourages Evangelicals to look to Rome for help: “Rome’s witness to a Christian sexual ethic will keep the question alive . . . .” Likewise, though, Evangelicals can remind Catholics that natural law is as good as far as it goes, but that the universe “is shaped around the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (p. 50). So Evangelicals are still here, still engaging, albeit in new, more theological ways. “You can call that a ‘Rapture’ if you want, but don’t call it a ‘retreat’” (p. 50).

I agree with Moore’s assessment, and add only a few thoughts.

First, I hope that Evangelicals in general, and Southern Baptist Evangelicals in particular, will take Moore’s lead, learning from him how to engage in public political conversation in ways that are not only theologically robust but also gracious and kind. If we fail to do so, the resulting combination of theological vacuity and dispositional snark will kill our gospel witness. If we succeed in doing so, the potent combination of truth and kindness in civil discourse portrays the gospel faithfully and strengthens our ability to be persuasive.

Second, I hope that Evangelicals will not neglect the fact that politics is a function (and a part) of culture, and at the heart of culture is religion. Religion’s influence expands outward across the entirety of culture (through the arts, the sciences, business, schools and universities, sports, home life, the public square, etc.), and it is this entire culture-religion complex which influences and underpins the political sector. For this reason, Christian “political” involvement must be “political” in the very broad sense (concern for the public well-being, including the spheres of culture listed above) as well as the narrow sense (concern with public policy, public administration, etc).

Third, such broad-based political engagement does not, of course, preclude activism, but such action must always come from something deeper and broader. We have a hope that paves the way for us to simultaneously move forward with boldness and lay down our swords to pursue interactions in a civil manner. We aren’t fighting to protect a Kingdom that is dependent on us for its very survival. We are on mission as part of a Kingdom that is already here.

[1] Russell Moore, “Evangelical Retreat?” First Things (Dec 2013: 45–50).


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