“aha” moments: biblical scholars (and pastors) tell their stories (8): Michael Ruffin

“aha” moments: biblical scholars (and pastors) tell their stories (8): Michael Ruffin July 14, 2014

Michael L. Ruffin (MDiv and PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia and former professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of Prayer 365, Living on the Edge: Preaching Advent in Year C, and Living Between The Advents.

This is the first post in this series by someone whose career has been primarily as a pastor (hence the slight title change).


I was raised in the small town of Barnesville, Georgia, where I was born in 1958. My parents were high school-educated textile mill workers who loved the Lord, who loved their only child, and who loved their church. As a result, my presence at the church was perpetual.

The church was the Midway Baptist Church, a nominally Southern Baptist Church with Independent (fundamentalist, pre-millennial, and all that) Baptist leanings that was located several miles from town on City Pond Road (although throughout my childhood I thought it was on County Maintained Road since the only sign on it said “County Maintained”). In ninety-five percent of the families at Midway, at least one and often both adults worked in a mill; I can remember just a small handful of people who had any education beyond high school.

Our pastor, the now late and much missed but then beloved Rev. Herman J. “Bill” Coleman, was an energetically evangelistic preacher and caring pastor who had no college or seminary training; I don’t think he finished high school.

Preacher Bill, as everyone called him, would have been shocked and dismayed had he ever been exposed to any sort of critical approach to the Bible. Once I saw an ad in one of my comic books for a book containing “Lost Books of the Bible”; I asked Preacher Bill what he thought about that and he said, “That’s the imagination of some man’s mind!” I imagine that’s what he would have said had someone tried to describe the Documentary Hypothesis to him.

When I was fourteen I announced to my church family that I had been called to preach; a couple of years later I found myself in Macon at Mercer University, then the flagship university of Georgia Baptists (but now free of denominational entanglement).

During my first semester in the fall of 1975 I enrolled in “Introduction to the Old Testament” which was taught by Dr. Howard P. Giddens, then a sixty-something year old professor who some ten years earlier had come back to his alma mater to teach after many years of service as a pastor. The textbooks for the course were the Oxford Annotated Edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and James King West’s Introduction to the Old Testament.

Within the first couple of weeks we had covered many significant introductory matters, including the Documentary Hypothesis. My head was set to spinning.

On a trip home I decided to broach with my Baptist deacon, long-time men’s Sunday School class-teaching father the subject of the liberalism to which I was being subjected. I figured (and probably hoped) that he would tell me to go pack my bags, come back home, and enroll in some safe state school.

The conversation went like this:

Me: “Do you know what Dr. Giddens and my textbook say about the Pentateuch?”

Dad: “About the what?”

Me: “The Pentateuch. The Torah. The first five books of the Old Testament.”

Dad: “Oh. No, what do they say?”

Me: “That Moses didn’t write everything in those books.”

Dad: “Really?”

Me: “Yes, really.”

Dad: “Huh. Well, I always wondered how Moses managed to write about his own death.”

And that is how it took a college professor with a Th.D., an introductory Hebrew Bible textbook, and my high school-educated textile mill-working father to open my eyes to all the biblical wonders to which they are still being opened …

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  • Brian P.

    Great story.

    I greatly appreciate the family aspect of the story. Often, these stories of conversion, ah-hah, confusion, and resolution and growth can feel detached in their individualism.

    For me personally, I had many of these ah-hahs relatively late in life, in my early 40s. Socially, my family is set in a commonplace conservative Evangelical experience that–in my opinion–uses and needs incidental and willful ignorance to thrive.

    No one in my family would want to talk about the Documentary Hypothesis, or textual criticism, or anything in general that wouldn’t be comforting and confirming of the type and nature of faith held. My megachurch pastoral staff has more exposure than your Preacher Bill, but yet they are limited in their theological and experiential exposure even within the Christian faith, never mind the ways of thinking within other religions or non-theistic world views.

    I go to church with family. The megachurch production quality is really good. The lyrics of the song service are 7-11 songs, the kind that repeats the same 7 words 11 times. The preaching is to the audience. Think Preacher Bill with high quality production (actually it’s not quite that bad as someone can have more historic, pre-Darby faith at my church). I do my best to tune out the whole experience.

    Related to my personal church-going experience, I wonder things such as this:

    – How does a scholar receive a popular sermon?
    – How does a scholar discuss matters of faith with family?

    Personally, I could imagine myself being more entertained by a Preacher Bill (as curiosity) than being inspired by a Preacher Bill (as father). Personally, I could imagine myself being unable to discuss Preacher Bill’s sermon with my family over Sunday dinner. Personally, I could also imagine a Preacher Bill not wanting to waste his time learning about things not clearly propelling forward his sense of calling and mission.

    I can imagine that some readers of this blog are somehow in somewhat similar situations where they’ve experienced inner break-though but not yet outer break-throughs.

    Dr Ruffin, is your dad still alive? How honestly did or do you talk with him?

    • Michael L. Ruffin

      Thanks, Brian. No, my dad died suddenly about four years after we had that conversation. So I unfortunately did not have many subsequent in-depth conversations with him. I was too busy for the rest of my college career, I guess. It’s too bad. It would have been interesting to talk about my seminary experiences with him. He was a very smart and insightful man …

      • Brian P.

        Thanks for sharing that. My dad is still alive. He often speaks with me of matters of faith. Often I wish I could tell him of my faith journey. But there’s no way he’d ever understand.

        • Michael L. Ruffin

          I think mine would have understood to a point. My mother, though, who died right before I started college–she would have still loved me but would have thought I’d lost my mind (and maybe my soul) …

          • Brian P.

            I think if I were truthful to my family and extended family they’d think both too. And if I were truthful to myself, I’d ponder only the possible loss of the former. / Phil 1

            May your parents rest in peace.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Brian, I’m saddened you have to put up with such a service every Sunday . . .not meaning to get too personal, but have you not been able to discuss with your wife about the family attending somewhere else? I’m honestly curious.

      • Brian P.

        Tried that.

        We visited a number of churches several years ago. For a while, we attended an Anglican church. The priest remains a good friend. We also attended a Presbyterian church for a while. I think she found out they were on the wrong side of the SSM divide in her God’s opinion. Other churches we visited include Episcopal, Eastern Orthodox, and Messianic Jewish.

        I think I would get more out of progressive theology and/or higher churchmanship of liturgy. Perhaps it’s snobbery but theological awareness and aesthetic seem to matter to me. That and a Gospel centered in cruciform living as a way.

        I think my wife trusts the megachurch experience.

  • Xenia

    Loved this.

  • Randy

    Wow! This article is really….boring!

    However, the “documentary hypothesis” questions the testimony of Jesus.
    Jesus said in Mark 12: 26“…have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?” Jesus states plainly that Moses wrote the account of the burning bush in Exodus 3. Peter and Paul testified that Moses wrote the books of the Pentateuch. Peter, in Acts 3: 22 comments on Deut. 18: 15 and shows that Moses was the writer of that passage. Paul, in Romans 10: 5 says, “For Moses describeth…,” and then quotes Leviticus 18: 5. Jewish tradition credits Moses as the author of the Pentateuch.The “documentary hypothesis” is only a hypothesis. It has never been proved, no matter how many liberal theologians claim that it has been. Of course, Moses didn’t write about his own death. It is only one chapter that he didn’t have to write, being Deut. 34. Joshua probably penned that chapter. But, that doesn’t take away from the fact that Moses wrote the rest of the Pentateuch.

    • Brian P.


      To me, for various reasons, it seems much more likely those first-century Palestinians Jews were wrong about various historical facts.

      • Randy

        Such as…?

        • Brian P.

          Paul for instance, he may have believed in a historical Adam. Or Luke, his Jesus refers to the days of Noah which could be a historical reference. The author of the Gospel of John has Jesus saying that Moses “wrote of me.” These NT references can, and commonly are, interpreted as historical claims.

          Personally, I don’t believe the Adam of Genesis is historical, principally for mainstream genetic and archaeological reasons. I don’t believe Noah’s flood of Genesis is historical for mainstream genetic and archaeological reasons. I don’t believe Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch is historical for reasons of mainstream textual criticism.

          There would be more, certainly. I’d defer to the experts in their fields to elaborate any more than this.

          To me, that the Bible is full of myth, legend, fiction, faith, and hope seems so obvious as to not need that much explanation. That I once tried to read it in other ways and out of piety, I can understand there are different perspectives.

          • Randy

            Well, the Bible is my final authority regardless of what “mainstream” ideas there are out there. It is the inspired, inerrant, infallible, preserved Word of God.

          • Brian P.

            I might have unintentionally stirred up something to invite a response with scare quotes around mainstream. Also, the phrasing of “out there” seems to be an emotional or other further distancing from yourself.

            By mainstream, I could describe elements within. These include such as a basis of evidence. For instance, it might be that diligent study of the world doesn’t conflict with, but in fact may reveal, the nature of the Creator of that world. Another element of mainstream might be that there are checks and balances and peer review processes, based upon the assumption that human learning (or even receipt of revelation) processes are limited by who and what we are–of limited senses, of limited cognitive capabilities, even fallen if you will. For instance, self-correcting processes have enabled retirement of theories with less explanatory power with replacement with other ideas that explain more things or explain things better. Another element of mainstream, might be that there is cross-discipline confirmation. For instance, biological and archaeological evidence both seem to align (and correct and confirm) with each other.

            The basis of my knowledge may or may not be inspired. I have a high degree of confidence that it is neither inerrant or infallible. That said, I would hope to think that some of my ideas are researched, considered, integrated, and malleable.

            In fact, I feel sufficiently comfortable in this that I am willing to take the existential wager. I am comfortable that if there is a God this is all good and perhaps even a humble foundation of knowledge upon which to create a compassionate life.

            I understand you may disagree and perhaps even pity or despise me. I invite other readers though to consider and reconsider what kind of faith and life he or she wants to have. I personally can testify that embracing truth, self-honesty, and compassion the way I do now is much more fulfilling than the propped up “faith” I once had.

        • Stephen W

          Well, there’s the fact they were apparently reading from the King James version of the OT, which we know to be less accurate than more modern translations :p

          • Randy

            The King James Version is more accurate then all the modern day perversions. It uses the formal, verbal equivalence as opposed to dynamic equivalence used by the others starting with the corrupt Westcott and Hort 1881 who didn’t even know Greek and Hebrew! All the modern versions came from this corrupt text.

          • Eric Weiss

            Rhymes with “roll.”

          • Brian P.

            Smells like “bull.”

          • toddh

            I’ll vote this up just for the sheer goofiness of it all.

        • I can say a big “Amen” to Brian P’s comment. Even with a 3-year M.Div. degree from a highly respected Evangelical seminary, on top of 30 units of Bible/Greek from Biola U., I read the Bible as basically historical and accepted traditional assumptions such as Mosaic authorship, etc. Such an overly-theological (and narrowly defined) approach I finally, after ongoing and closer examination, was compelled to abandon…. Had to learn to read the Bible in a quite different light… in one way, a much more Jewish light, as is appropriate certainly for the OT, and even for the NT (tho I’m still Christian, of “progressive” or “Process” type). I realize it’s a scary process for many, but an inevitable one if one wants to keep growing and deepening through life, gaining rather than diminishing in consistency of beliefs. (To put that “negatively” and abstractly, getting rid of pesky “cognitive dissonance”.)

          • Brian P.

            Hey, I’m still a Christian too! At least of the that’s-who-I-want-to-be-like type. Actually… I may only be a Christian for the first time. I think I may have had to eject that fear of eternal conscious torment if not believing the unbelievable before I was able to decide who I wanted to be when I grow up.

            Personally, I find questions like:

            – Whom shall I be like?
            – Whom might “God” be like?
            – How shall the world be made right?

            Much more spiritual and challenging than:

            – What mythology must I believe as non-mythology?
            – What non-history must I believe as history?

            If God’s more interested in the latter list… Just sayin’…

          • Brian, good additions! (And I hope Randy is still “listening in”, but for you): I meant “still a Xn” in relation to finally seeing/appreciating the Jewish way of thinking and speaking. I’ve finally come to see that the Jewish-Christian split only began in the 1st century, not becoming “complete” (nearly) for another 2-3 centuries…. And that involved most Jews continuing an evolving-tradition approach to understanding God already old by the time of Jesus. It was/is not much like the orthodox Christian one developed gradually over 3 centuries and largely “locked in” by the church-state “merger” of the 4th century.

            That all is just historical tracing to elaborate my point about “us” not getting the Jewish perspective and way of reading and using their ancient Scriptures. And one further elaboration: So the reasons Judaism went one way and Christianity another is broader than just acceptance of Jesus (Yeshua) as Messiah.

            As to your point about relative spiritual or challenging points, I agree, without diminishing the importance of clear and consistent thinking. In that vein, James has become one of my favorite biblical books. It reads as “Christian” mainly in expecting “the Lord’s return” (actually “appearing”) soon, and otherwise it lines up real well with Jewish teaching and ways of approach to living, minus dietary rules and such. And lots of good “religious psychology and sociology” in it also!

          • Brian P.

            On the other side of the timeline, recently I’ve been reading on the Hellenistic influences in the first couple centuries BC. I’m reading Litwa’s new book right now. In many ways, it appears that Jesus of Nazareth is memorialized by the Gospelists in ways consistent with expectations of Mediterranean gods. Not only was mainstream Christianity quite under Jewish influence in the first centuries, earlier Judaism was under significant Hellenizing influences in the prior centuries.

            Personally, I like James too (Luther be damned I suppose). That and especially the book of Ecclesiates. Sometime, I think I can have a more “Biblical” (er, at least selectively) faith than the Evangelicals who have the canon flat in its simplistic harmonization.

          • Interesting! If I had more free time, I’d want to read that soon as well… like Ehrman’s, “How Jesus Became God”… The interaction about that one I’ve followed some, but without reading the book itself. However, I’ve read sev. of Ehrman’s others…. I’ve no doubt, btw, that he is a thorough and careful scholar altho he generally writes in a readable, somewhat simplified way for a lay audience (or the undergrads he teaches all the time).

            I will msg. you on FB re. a possible review of the book for my blog. And I love your phrase: “have the canon flat in its simplistic harmonization.” Well stated!

          • Rory Tyer

            for what it’s worth, someone like Larry Hurtado is a much more reliable guide to early Christian history than Ehrman is

          • I’ve not read any books by Hurtado… only brief comments and maybe an article or two. But I certainly hear him mentioned a lot, and recommended mainly by “traditionalists”. So I presume his orientation is generally more “favorable” toward traditional/orthodox viewpoints, at least in terms of theology, than is Ehrman’s. That, in itself, would not make him LESS reliable in my mind… I’d have to deal with specifics and see his work over a good range of topics. But since I don’t have time to do that, and am not inclined to dig further in this area right now, would you mind summarizing why you consider him a “more reliable guide…”?

            On the matter of Ehrman’s reliability, I can’t find any significant issues, data points, etc., in which I’ve found him to be in error or promoting unfounded or speculative conclusions. Similarly, though I’ve read and heard him “countered” by other scholars, I’ve not seen them catch him in a clear error or misjudgment that I can recall either… certainly some disagreement, of course, but nothing that would lead to what I understand to be less than “reliable”. Do you have any you’d like to point out? I honestly would listen and check the context, if possible.

            And BTW, though I’ve read in, or read all of, a good number of Ehrman’s books, his overall input to my understanding of early Christian history is a very small percentage… entering rather late in my study of the topic. I’ve been at it since at least around age 15 (nearly 50 years ago), and more on the “historical critical” side for “only” about 20 years. But I find Ehrman offers incisive and sometimes new, deeper research on some topics than I come across in other sources, from any angle of approach (interpretive paradigm, theology, etc.). He openly “locates” himself as agnostic and from there manages to keep his personal beliefs apart from his historical study and analysis more than most.

          • Brian P.

            I like Ehrman and have read a number of his books but not yet this latest.

            I used to like him even more. Then I watched a few of his presentations online. I have this habit where I like to listen to living authors just to hear their voices and watch their mannerism before reading a book of theirs.

            Anyhow, I watched a few of Ehrman’s presentations and he tends to laugh at his own jokes. It made reading his writings less pleasurable, or maybe more guilty in its pleasure.

            Yet, it also let me see him more as a human, still healing from his pains of discovery.

          • Yes, as to “still healing”… I don’t think of my earlier learning and experiences as necessarily still needing healing from. They are a mixed bag, and did produce some “loss of opportunity” or misguidance, but also positives. Ehrman strikes me as passionate but in a very controlled way… such that he has learned to use measured and careful criticism of those still believing what he long ago left behind. “Criticism” is there, but is often quite subtle. Mostly, he goes about presenting historical information that serves as corrective to the many wrong assumptions and misdirections of orthodoxy, and that without making theological pronouncements.

          • Brian P.

            Ehrman is a great popularizer. I think he may have a couple of significant effects.

            First, I think his popularization has created a commercially viable venue for the knowledge of the seminary to make its way to pew without the middleman of the pulpit. If the Reformation put the Bible in the hands of the inquisitive plowman, the Internet and Barnes & Noble have put its textual criticism in the hands of the inquisitive knowledge worker.

            Second, I think he may (or may not as I’m not really sure) have an influence of putting textual criticism under the umbrella of historical studies. Is textual criticism an activity in the field of theology? In the field of literature? Religious studies? Where and how will it fit in, in the future? Ehrman likes to position himself as “just a historian” with the “tools of a historian.” What credentials does he actually have in the field of history? Regardless, I wonder if he will have an influence of increasing the mooring between textual criticism and historical methods. I’m a detached layman and wonder what those in the know would think.

          • I like your going to Ehrman’s larger effects (than any single book or set of historical analyses). I think if he had to stop today (I think he’s “only” 58, and hopefully has many more years), his impact would carry on. And I’m eager for where he goes yet.

            I haven’t studied textual criticism in any depth. My understanding, however, is that “lower” criticism, that of tracing and comparing actual early texts in ancient languages, tends to not be revealing a lot that is new. More discoveries are certainly possible, but not that likely, absent an unexpected find of the likes of the Nag Hammadi Library or DSS. The main action seems to be “higher” criticism… analysis within generally-the-same Greek (or other) texts, and related lit. of the time (some of which IS new, thanks to Ehrman and others digging deeper, as you know).

            I also don’t think we are nearly done with re-examination of Christian origins in general… a sort of “historical Early Church” study akin to the “historical Jesus” one spanning over 2 centuries. The latter is heavily worked over and hard to disclose much new… the former, to the extent of my knowledge, is not. Only a few years ago the Jesus Seminar folks shifted into a “Christian Origins” Seminar (or a similar title). I’ve not read a lot of the substantial work they produced, and little of it has gotten down to the lay level as far as I know.

          • Andrew Dowling

            “If the Reformation put the Bible in the hands of the inquisitive
            plowman, the Internet and Barnes & Noble have put its textual
            criticism in the hands of the inquisitive knowledge worker.”

            Ha, too true.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I’ve always found it interesting that the only NT epistle which fully echoes the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospels is James (although Paul has chunks of it here and there).

    • John

      Randy, I honestly can’t tell if you are serious, or if you are having a little fun at our expense by constructing an embarrassing parody. Can you clarify please 🙂

      • Brian P.

        John, you can click on Randy’s name to see past posts under the account. There’s another comment on an Enns entry about five months ago.

        Perhaps you might be interested in (or already familiar with) what’s called Poe’s Law: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poe's_law

        Regardless, leading with a “your spiritual journey is boring” may not win too many converts.

      • Randy

        I am very serious. A parody…? Can you clarify please?

        • John

          Ha ha. No you’re not. Your make-believe paragraph above about “Westcott and Hort” gave you away. Nice try though 🙂

          • Randy

            How is it make-believe? Do you know anything about who they were and what they believed?

    • Mark K

      I have long assumed that when the NT speaks of the book of Moses this is a metonymy for Torah: a figure of speech as Chisholm (Exegesis to Exposition), for example, cites someone using “the White House said” to mean, “the President or those who speak using his authority” said.

      Similarly, in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham tells the suffering, formerly rich man that his brothers could listen to “Moses and the prophets.” This seems clear to me that Jesus, speaking as Abraham, is refrerring to the Torah and the Prophets (navi’im), the first two of the three sections of the Hebrew Scriptures. None of this seems particularity difficult to parse.

  • tee kay

    That’s the beauty of the bible.
    No matter how much you think you know there will always be “aha moments”
    One subject that has many people confused is…
    The mark of the beast, but is there really a need for confusion?

    • Brian P.

      As I was saying…

    • Andrew Dowling

      Completely off-topic. And your Youtube links . .answering questions no-one is asking . . . slow the page down for everyone else.

  • Mark K

    Michael, I love the conversation you had with your father. Seems he was well grounded in the real world and passed that along to you. My own father was incapable of such a conversation, so I can appreciate it all the more. And the surrogate fathers I found were horrified when I wanted to go to a grad school outside of the Dallas Th. Seminary “family.” It took me 30 additional years to get to the place your father, your professor, and your textbook took you early on. I’m glad for you and those you shepherd.

    • Mark, thanks for your comment. I’m another, along with Brian P., below, and many others, who only in our 40s (sometimes later) came to “drastically” (from the earlier perspective) rethink our theology, our world-and-life view, etc. In my case, after Evan. seminary education, ministry and much independent study, etc.

      And this thought just hit me: It’s a wonder how pastors, IF they are reading much on the Net or elsewhere (many books also are similarly eye-opening), can continue, outwardly unruffled, preaching inerrancy, penal substitutionary atonement coupled with conscious eternal torment, etc. That is, if they are seeing that not just a few or a few dozen or even a few hundred, but literally thousands of biblically well-educated people (pastors and others) are “ringing the changes” toward more universalist or “grace-filled” views of God and the Bible. NOT “rebelling against God” but against human systems that tend to limit and wrongly encapsulate God and the Bible.

      It’s true (and unfortunate, to me) that a few “apostates” like us go to the extreme of atheism, but my sense is that that is the small minority indeed…. Many more of us retain one kind or another of faith (thus not having “lost our faith”… merely re-defined it). Much of my re-thinking and insights along the way are open to public view, via posts such as these and my own blogging… which I’ve found an important part of finding a new kind of community, in addition to transplanting to Progressive Christianity in a more local way (specifically United Church of Christ).

      • Brian P.

        There are pretty good stats on pastors surfing porn. I can’t help but wonder how much they’re surfing theology online.

        Getting them to admit to or talk about one seems about as implausible as the other.