An Interview with Peter Williams
I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr Peter Williams, Deputy Head of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, and a senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Aberdeen. This fall he succeeds Bruce Winter as warden of Tyndale House in the UK.
Many would agree with D. A. Carson’s response to the appointment: “I am delighted with this appointment. Not many scholars can speak competently across as many technical fields as can Pete. His resolute commitment to Christ and to his Gospel, combined with his administrative and people skills, make his appointment a cause for celebration. I anticipate that the best days of Tyndale House are still ahead.”
JT: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself—how God brought you to himself, your education, family, etc?
PW: I was born to Christian parents in London in 1970 and came to a personal faith around the age of 12, though it took a bit of time for it to show. I was blessed to be able to attend a good secondary school (= high school)—in Yorkshire, where I was given the opportunity to learn Latin (aged 12) and Greek (aged 14). Having discovered aged 16 that I was never going to be a good enough pianist to make a career of it, I resolved to be a Bible translator and went to the University of Cambridge to take my first degree in the subjects I thought would be most useful for Bible translation: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic. In my third year I first encountered serious academic study of the Bible and became perturbed by the fact that it seemed that so few who were studying the Bible held to its authority in a way that I recognized, and I soon felt drawn not to be a Bible translator but to be an evangelical scholar in order to play my part in advancing confessional scholarship. I steered towards OT study and took an MPhil in Hebrew Studies including study of various Northwest Semitic languages and thereafter a PhD on the Syriac version of 1 Kings. I then had a one year postdoctoral position in the Divinity Faculty in Cambridge studying Hebrew terms for weapons and words for salvation (!) and thereafter was appointed Research Fellow in OT at Tyndale House (1998–2003) while teaching Hebrew and OT in the University’s Faculty of Oriental Studies as an Affiliated (= Adjunct) Lecturer. That job came to an end and I felt compelled to stay in Europe, yet the only job I could find was a temporary post in NT at the University of Aberdeen. I took the plunge and applied, was appointed, and was shortly thereafter made permanent. I had four wonderful years teaching NT alongside great colleagues in Aberdeen and becoming a Senior Lecturer before sensing that I should apply for the position of Warden of Tyndale House. I would have been perfectly happy to stay in Aberdeen, but I took the offer of the post as guidance that I should accept. Looking back on all this I find it amazing how I was led through stages of thinking I was going to do something else (be a Bible translator, OT scholar, NT scholar) only to find that I am now responsible for a library and research community in which interests in both Testaments and in languages related to Bible study are highly useful.
In 1996 I married Kathryn, whom I had met on mission in Belgium, and who ‘happened’ also to be studying at Jesus College, Cambridge, at the same time as me. We’ve returned to do mission in Belgium every summer since then. We now have Magdalena (6) and Leo (2).
JT: What are your current research interests?
PW: I’m currently researching Tatian’s Diatessaron and the structure of the opening of John’s Gospel (whatever you do, don’t talk about it having a prologue!). I should be giving papers on both at this November’s Society of Biblical Literature congress.
JT: You’ve taught both OT at Cambridge and NT at Aberdeen. What’s your first academic love?
Well, I came to the Testaments in canonical order, but I find it impossible to say which I love more. I am fascinated by anything to do with the Bible, but think that within a few years I may well be doing more in OT than in NT (however, I’ve been wrong before now about my future).
JT: Why did you want to leave teaching in order to be the warden of Tyndale House?
PW: Giving up regular teaching was the hardest part of leaving Aberdeen. I love teaching. I’ve already had chances to teach in my first month down here and will be glad of the opportunities for itinerant teaching that being warden allows. Why did I consider applying for the position at Tyndale?—because I’m passionate about the future direction of evangelical biblical scholarship. By 1994 I wanted personally to devote myself to being an evangelical biblical scholar. Now, however, I have an opportunity to encourage others to do so.
JT: Tell us a bit about Tyndale House—how it started and what it has accomplished?
PW: Tyndale House was started in 1944 when a number of leading Christians in Britain felt that there was a dearth in serious evangelical biblical scholarship and they resolved to set up a residential study centre and library to encourage that. At first the work was fairly small, but over the years it has grown so that it is now one of the most significant libraries in Biblical Studies in the world. Since no one is allowed to take books out of the library everyone has to come to the community. Those carrying out academic research on the Bible can stay on site and rent a desk where they can stay for their sabbatical. Most of the students who do PhDs in Biblical Studies at Cambridge carry out the bulk of their research at Tyndale House, but students and senior scholars from many other institutions also spend varying lengths of time at Tyndale. The conviction behind Tyndale has always been that confessional scholarship is best carried out within a believing community. In recent years, under my predecessor Bruce Winter, Tyndale has forged a number of connections with the University of Cambridge, including some joint appointments, such as that of Dr Peter Head, who teaches NT in the Divinity Faculty, and a formal affiliation to St Edmund’s College.
What has it achieved?—this is more a question for Judgment Day, but what we can say is that if you look at serious publications on the Bible (dictionaries, commentaries, translations, books) you will find that a large number of the authors have spent time at Tyndale House. I seem to remember the ESV translators working together at Tyndale! Moreover, it is clear that the number of evangelicals in University positions in the UK and elsewhere seems to have increased through the influence of Tyndale House. Many of the faculty at leading evangelical seminaries in the USA have studied at Tyndale.
JT: What is your vision for Tyndale House?
PW: I believe that Tyndale House exists to develop evangelical biblical scholars and evangelical biblical scholarship. I would like, quite simply, for Tyndale to play its part in increasing the number of bright, humble, sane, passionate, evangelical scholars who are deeply learned and contribute to the church and to the articulation of the faith in a wider culture.
More specifically, I’d like to see confessional scholarship clearly outstripping non-confessional scholarship in its quality and rigor. We should want evangelical scholars to be trained to a higher standard than other scholars. If others decide that one Masters degree is enough before the PhD, maybe we should require two (for instance, one in each Testament). It would be great to have the resources to be able to fund young scholars to study to a higher standard. I would also love to be in a position for us to have more post-doctoral research fellows (we currently have three) and to take on major publication projects such as a large-scale treatment of the NT canon, which is proving such fertile ground for contemporary myth-makers. Perhaps we could be involved in setting up more University appointments, not just in Cambridge, but also in other Universities in the UK.
JT: How does the church fit into this vision? Or more broadly, what do you see as the proper relationship between the church and the academy?
PW: All Christians in the academy must see themselves as serving the church and must make themselves accountable to the church. I don’t think this means that all their writing should be aimed at typical church audiences. Ultimately we should aim for all the academy to become church!
JT: Evangelicals are used to receiving financial appeals for ministries and missions? Why would—or should—they want to support an institution where dissertations are written that most of them will never read?
PW: It may be disheartening for PhD students to learn, but it is not particularly likely nowadays that many people will read their dissertation. Their dissertation, I think, is primarily a chance for them to develop personally, to become learned, and then to put their learning at the disposal of others. Even a well-published scholar is generally more likely to influence people through their speaking and personal interaction than through their writing. However, in our information-overloaded society there is simply no way that we can afford not to have well-trained guides for the church in all areas of knowledge and especially in Biblical Studies. As thousands of people excavate in the Middle East each summer and as others work away in archives, masses of data come to light, and we need believing scholars to be in the midst of these discoveries in order that they should not be misinterpreted. Christians accept that it may take vast sums of money to train a soldier or a doctor, and yet sometimes we are unwilling to accept that, if we want Bible scholars as well trained as our medical specialists, it is also going to involve serious investment. Investing in Christian scholarship is a long-term strategy and will usually seem less appealing than more obvious and apparently pressing needs. However, if the church does not have robust scholarship then it will be highly vulnerable to false ideas. Evangelicals need to divide up their giving in sensible proportions, giving some to urgent and immediate causes, but also making adequate provision for ministries that tend only to yield fruit in the longer term.
JT: If people wanted to support Tyndale House financially or otherwise, how could they do so?
PW: We need people—the right people—to be coming forward as biblical scholars. Perhaps some people even need to be pushed! It is easier to give someone with the right character the education than someone with the education the right character. However, we also need donations if we are to be able to support students and to create post-doctoral positions. At Tyndale House we also have the enormous challenge of needing to expand the library in the next couple of years (lack of space for new books is reaching a critical level) and to raise money for that. If anyone does feel led to give even a small sum then donations can be sent to
Cambridge, CB3 9BA, UK.
However, above all this we need prayer, especially for wisdom as we consider what publication projects might be taken on in the future. If the Lord is not building Tyndale House then ’tis all in vain.
JT: I’d love for the days ahead to be one of greater partnership between the academy and the church, advancing the cause of truth for the glory of God. I’d encourage individuals and churches to consider supporting Tyndale House and its vision for evangelical scholarship. What a great thing it would be if the Lord used small donations from average folks like you and me to help Tyndale House raise £2million for its next phase of ministry!
Wayne Grudem also points out that Americans can send tax-deductible donations in dollars to:
American Friends of Tyndale House, Cambridge
PO Box 4920
Orlando, FL 32802-4920