Michael Low, a good friend of mine, is finishing his studies at Regent College, Vancouver. He has kindly accepted the role of being a living epistle — I have asked him to convey my greetings to the Regent faculty who had blessed me when I was there (1981–1985). Recently, he conveyed my greetings and affection to Dr Sven Soderlund. Dr Soderlund blessed me in many ways during my time at Regent. One key way was the very fact that he was a Pentecostal who had a PhD in biblical studies from the University of Glasgow.
In the churches in Malaysia at that time (early ’80s), evangelicals who took Bible scholarship seriously, and charismatics/Pentecostals moved in different circles and were often suspicious of each other. Evangelicals were concerned that charismatics/Pentecostals built their beliefs from their experiences and not from a careful exegesis of the Scriptures. Charismatics/Pentecostals were worried that traditional evangelicals didn’t take the Spirit seriously and were not living and ministering in His power. I remember when I told some charismatic friends that I was going to study (at) Regent, one of them told me he was concerned that if I filled my head with too much knowledge, there would be no place for the Spirit.
So I left for Regent with this dichotomy between Word and Spirit. Then I met teachers like Sven and others like him and saw that it was possible to integrate Word and Spirit. It gave me hope, and a commitment to bring this sort of healthy integration back home. Of course Christianity in Malaysia and Singapore has since moved far beyond such dichotomies. But the sort of piety and scholarship modelled by teachers like Sven were ground breaking for me at that time. I didn’t have such models in Malaysia and Singapore back then.
But Sven also blessed me in many other ways. He had a deeply pastoral heart. Although I only took one course with him, he always inquired after my welfare. The school was operating from two ex-fraternity houses then and you tended to bump into people all the time. Every time we met he would pause and ask, “How are you?” And he would take the time to listen to your answer and give words of encouragement. Regent, with faculty like Sven, taught me that education Jesus’s way must be relational, a conviction that continues to guide my teaching today.
And as I have mentioned in a recent ecommentary, my approach to hermeneutics – how I interpret the Bible – was shaped by an article that Sven wrote for Crux, the Regent magazine. Based on an exposition of the encounter between Jesus and the two disciples on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24), Sven reminded us that Bible study must be personal; it is an attempt to hear the living Christ speak to us. We are not just encountering ideas, we are encountering a Person. But Bible study also requires hard thinking, seeking to interpret the Bible with proper interpretative principles. Jesus opened the minds of His disciples (v. 45). And Bible study must be transformational. It must burn our hearts and change them (v. 32).
So I owe Sven big time and I am glad that Michael conveyed my wishes to him. More and more I am convinced that the church must move beyond unnecessary divisions as we seek to share Christ in a world decimated by divisions. While we all must still be true to the Word, the various groups in the church can do a much better job of reaching out to each other in humility and mutual learning, to move away from unnecessary “either, ors” when we should be “both, and”. I will always be grateful to Sven Soderlund and others like him who showed me that this can actually be done.