James D.G. Dunn

James D.G. Dunn is a renowned British New Testament scholar. Dunn is similar to the other evangelical scholars I’ve interviewed on this blog in the past. Namely . . .

Ben Witherington

Craig Keener

N.T. Wright

Scot McKnight

While I don’t agree with Dunn on everything (no more than I agree with the aforementioned scholars on everything), he has made some important contributions to historical Jesus studies and Christian theology.

I caught up with Jimmy recently to interview him on his work. You will find my favorite James D. G. Dunn books on my Best Christian Academic Books & Commentary List. Be sure to check them out. 

Here’s the interview.

You’ve written many highly acclaimed works of NT scholarship. What do you consider to be your three most important works and why.

James D.G. Dunn: Hard to decide. Baptism in the Holy Spirit (1970) has played an important role in bringing Pentecostal concerns into the academic forum. Jesus and the Spirit (1975) stressed the central role of experience in the shaping of Christianity. Unity and Diversity in the NT (1977) highlighted an important but too neglected feature of the NT and provided a breakthrough for many in their understanding of scripture.

My Romans commentary for Word (1988) was the fruit of the most intensive work I have ever done. The Partings of the Ways between Christianity and Judaism (1991) helped to reopen the most important facet of earliest Christianity’s development. 

Next to Jesus and the Spirit, I guess I am best pleased with The Theology of Paul the Apostle (1998), a summarizing of 40+ years of fascination with Paul. And the first two volumes of my Christianity in the Making trilogy, Jesus Remembered (2003) and Beginning from Jerusalem (2009) may fairly be regarded as the climax of my work – so far.

Who have been the scholars and/or authors that have had the greatest influence on your thinking and understanding of the NT and the Christian life?

James D.G. Dunn:  Paul the Apostle, J. B. Lightfoot, C. F. D. (Charlie) Moule, Eduard Schweizer, Ernst Kaesemann, Martin Hengel.

You’ve written a great deal about the historical Jesus. What is it about Jesus that thrills, amazes, or compels you the most?

James D.G. Dunn: His self-sacrificial commitment to his mission and the kingdom of God, the character of his relationships (‘friend of sinners’), the sharpness of his insight and teaching, his penetration through the surface to the deeper issues in any instance, his readiness to sum up the second table of the law in the summary command to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.

Anyone who is saying something significant today is going to be misrepresented by detractors. What are the 3 main misrepresentations or objections to your work among evangelical Christians, and what are your responses to those misrepresentations or objections?

James D.G. Dunn: (1) That I deny or diminish the divinity/deity of Christ in questioning the usual concept of his pre-existence; (2) that in the ‘new perspective on Paul’ I deny Paul’s/the Reformation’s basic teaching on justification by faith’; (3) that I diminish or deny the authority of scripture.

Responses to the above:

(1) I think all the problems in speaking of the divinity/deity of Christ arise from our inadequate efforts to conceptualize and speak of the mystery of the triune God. The problems are caused by our unwillingness to recognize the inadequacy of our language and our inevitable use of analogy and metaphor in speaking of God. The language becomes problematic when we insist in taking the language in a literal sense, that is, when we try to encapsulate the mystery of divine being into our all too human categories.

‘Person’ is the obvious example. You will not need reminding that the creeds use ‘person’ in a technical way, which is NOT the same as what we mean in our daily use of ‘person’. At the same time, we naturally think of Jesus as a person, but in our modern sense of person.

The trouble comes when we transfer the sense of Jesus of Nazareth as person to the three persons of the Trinity. That way we destroy what the Fathers were trying to do when speaking of God as three persons. For a person as Jesus of Nazareth was/is a person means inevitably that we no longer think of God as Trinity but have become tri-theists, having a concept of God as three distinct individuals as you and I are distinct individuals. By failing to appreciate the mystery of God adequately we undermine Christian monotheism.

My concern in the pre-existence issue is that we do the same. Pre-existence belongs only to God, because God alone is Creator, so God alone pre-exists creation. I have absolutely no difficulty in speaking of divine Wisdom and Logos as pre-existent – because Wisdom/Logos are ways of speaking of God in action, in creation, in revelation, in redemption. Jesus however, as John 1.14 puts it, is the Word become flesh.

So one can speak of the pre-existent Logos, but one cannot so speak properly of Jesus as pre-existent, unless we mean that the incarnation pre-existed the incarnation. Incarnation is God become man; God is pre-existent, but is the man that God became? What do we lose if we retroject the incarnation to before creation? The metaphor of ‘generation’ becomes less clear, since ‘eternal generation’ is one of the places where our analogical imagery simply cannot be taken literally.

More important, we undermine the very concept of ‘incarnation’, losing, indeed, something vital in the uniqueness of Jesus, the incarnate Word, as God’s revelation of himself in a particular historical time and place. The pre-existence of Jesus is rather like the Jesus = Yahweh claim – a too simplistic formulation which actually creates more theological problems than it is attempting to solve.

One of my major concerns in that by treating the analogical/metaphorical language we use to speak of God in a clunky, literal and pedantic way, we undermine Christian monotheism.

(2) The ‘new perspective’ has been misunderstood at the essential point. It did not set itself in antithesis to an ‘old’ perspective (the Lutheran emphasis on ‘justification by faith’), although some of the early expressions of it could allow that implication.

No, it was pointing to a missing or neglected dimension of Paul’s teaching on justification by faith. That Paul’s formulation of the teaching, justification by faith alone, arose out of his objections to Peter and others trying to ‘compel’ Gentile believers to observe commandments which the former regarded as essential to membership of the people of God (‘works of the law’) (Gal. 2.1-16).

That Paul’s gospel was not only about individual sinners finding peace with God, but was also, and centrally, about the grace of God in Christ reaching beyond his fellow Jews to include Gentiles, and that the goal of God’s redemptive purpose was that all, Jew and Gentile, should worship God together (Rom. 15.8-12). Eph. 2.1-3.6 needs to be expounded as a whole.

(3) I take my understanding of scripture as scripture from the phenomenon of scripture itself. For example, that includes the recognition that the biblical writers used poetry as well as prose, used symbol and metaphor as well as literal statement, and presumably expected their auditors/readers to realize this and interpret their words accordingly. That includes the recognition that the NT believers regarded many (OT) scriptures as now passe and of less relevance; the full implications of a text like 1 Cor. 7.19 need to be thought through.

And it includes the recognition that, as the Gospel traditions make abundantly clear, the Evangelists were much concerned about the substance or gist of the story or teaching, but not much concerned about the details of each telling. Paul could evidently regard even some teaching of Jesus as less than sufficient for a new situation (1 Cor. 7.10-15; 9.14-18). Fundamentalists of every generation need ever to be reminded that ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (2 Cor. 3.6).

You are one of the most prolific writers of our time. Talk about your writing routines. What does a normal day and/or week look like in the writing of James D.G. Dunn?

James D.G. Dunn: There is no ‘normal’ day or week, since grandparental obligations are irregular and preaching/lecturing is more occasional than before I retired. Since I have had to downsize my library in the move from Durham to Chichester (7,000 down to 3,000 volumes), and the local university library lacks a lot of technical works, my work pattern is constrained by accessibility of resources.

But when I am able to spend some time at my desk I will ‘normally’ spend much/most of the morning with correspondence, including references and responses to particular requests, like yours; and most of the afternoon on whatever writing project I am engaged on.

That will include essays for Festschriften or other invited essay collections, preparation for some lecture or sermon, reading some manuscript sent to me for possible publication. But hopefully I will manage to clear time for sustained work on my major research project on Christianity in the Making (see below).

When I turn to a theme or text, my goal is to interact with the NT (or other) texts directly, to draft an outline of what the theme or text evokes in response to questions which arise from the theme/text or in relation to it. Only then will I turn to commentaries, monographs, etc., to see what I’ve missed, or to sharpen my ‘take’ on it, or to dialogue with major alternative views. Much as I will benefit from them, I don’t want them to be the lens through which I read the text/issue; the chief formative influence should come from the text itself.

What can we expect to come from your pen over the next 5 years? Give us a brief peek into each volume.

James D.G. Dunn: In press at present is a collection of my essays on The Oral Gospel Tradition, which I hope Eerdmans will be able to bring out next year. A good many essays and articles are also in the pipeline, on a wide variety of NT themes/issues; I should say ‘No’ more regularly and more firmly!

But my main preoccupation, God willing, will be the third volume of Christianity in the Making, provisionally entitled A Contested Identity, which will take the story up to Irenaeus. Target date for completion is 2014, so a publication, all going well, in 2015 or 2016.

Order Jesus, Paul, and the Gospels by James D.G. Dunn in paperback

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See my favorite titles by James D.G. Dunn along with other scholars and theologians



  1. says

    Frank, thanks for the interview! When I read the title I said “wow, James D.G. Dunn!” I really liked his take on Romans 12 and the sense used in describing the functions, especially rethinking the translation of “if it is leadership, let him govern diligently” to a more appropriate translation of “caring with zest.” Totally changed my perspective, :).

  2. Jim says

    I thought his comments (1 above) were very helpful and useful on the so-called “trinity”. I have often wondered why you continue to use this over and over in your lessons and writing when you are obviously picking up later ideas arising not from the NT. Although, possibly not considered “pagan” you must find the term useful. I just wondered if Dunn’s thoughts seem to be a little more helpful in this regard. I do appreciate your openness and more than willing to expose Dunn’s perspective.

    • says

      I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Dunn believes in a triune God. He even uses that phrase. In fact, that’s the term I use myself as well as “Godhead.” I rarely use the word “Trinity.” Also, my views — as well as that of C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, Scot McKnight, Stanley Grenz, the Reformers, etc. — on the triune nature of God are rooted squarely in NT revelation. See my post on the Triune Nature of God as it clarifies these matters and gives sources.

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