Some of the teachers that influenced me most at Regent College had done their doctoral work at Oxford University. So, sometime in my third year at Regent, I toyed with the idea of pursuing a doctorate at Oxford too. I ran the idea by John Nolland, a New Testament lecturer who had become a friend and mentor.
I remember we were seated at a bench next to the road on the University Boulevard side of Regent College (before the present building was erected). It was a windy morning. He looked at me and said that my doing a PhD was going to be a stretch. (I had been his TA for a semester and he knew the quality of my work.) When I suggested I do a practical doctorate like a DMin, he said that that was more within my abilities. He was right of course, and I struggled to complete even my DMin. I will always remember this encounter as a key moment in my vocational journey. Like many of the faculty at Regent, John was both teacher and mentor.
John was my teacher. He gave me a love and a deep understanding of the Gospel of Luke. It remains my favourite Gospel. Key passages like The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Emmaus Road Encounter, The Birth Narratives, appear often in my preaching and help undergird my life and ministry. He went on to write a three-volume commentary on Luke for the Word Commentary series. I am a proud owner of a set he gifted me.
Perhaps his most important contribution to my learning was his course on Biblical Criticism. Regent has a clear commitment to the Bible as God’s Word and to the Protestant Canon (66 books) as divinely assembled by God and therefore God’s inspired Word to us. But we were also guided to understanding the Bible as human documents and we were to question the text to ask what the author meant when he wrote a book/text. I was particularly helped by his teaching on redaction criticism. (This is an approach that is still controversial in some circles. Here is a good write up on the subject).
Redaction criticism asks: what did the final writer/author/editor have in mind when he put together the text we now have in the Bible? Clearly some editing had gone on in some of the books. For example, there are places where different Gospels are referring to the same incident but different details are presented/highlighted. This would make sense if the writer were shaping the material for a specific audience for a specific purpose. Dr Nolland assured us that though we may not always have the ipsissima verba (actual words) of Christ, careful exegesis means we have access to the ipsissima vox (actual voice/message) of Christ. Indeed, he reminded us that we must believe that the Holy Spirit inspired all the people involved in the writing of the text we now have in our Bible. His teaching helped me hear Christ’s voice with clarity all these years.
Biblical languages were my thorn in the flesh at Regent. He patiently guided me through Greek Readings (2nd year Greek). This too has helped me read the New Testament with greater nuance.
While I appreciated the teaching of John, in many ways it was his mentoring that proved crucial in my journey through seminary. I have already referred to one incident, how he saved me from a disastrous attempt to pursue a PhD. But there were many other moments when his guidance proved key in my growth. Coming from an education in Malaysia and Singapore, I had majored in the sciences early in my formal education. Coming to Regent meant being thrown into a humanities education context that I was ill prepared for. John came from Australia, from a Commonwealth country whose education system was much closer to Malaysia’s and Singapore’s. And he came from a science background. He understood my struggles and fears in my early days in Regent and helped me navigate those difficult days.
He also taught me about grief. I was very confused about why I felt blue and all at sea in my early days in Regent. After all, I was finally at a school whose vision I embraced, with a faculty I admired and wanted to learn from. And Vancouver was this beautiful city. So why was I not happy? Why was I feeling blue? I posed the question to John and he asked me to list down all the things I had left behind to come to Regent. (This was a pre-Zoom, pre-WhatsApp age.) I realised that I had left family and friends, and my job as a dentist among other things. He said that all losses, even if it led to a desired direction, would cause grief. That was so helpful for me to understand what was going on in those early days.
There were also moments when I felt sorry for myself. On one occasion I had suffered from a long bout of ’flu and was really behind in my Greek Readings. I voiced my frustration to him. He opened his drawer and took out a letter. He said it was a letter from a friend in Kuala Lumpur. His friend was dying from brain cancer. Well, that put my “problems” in perspective.
John would eventually leave Regent to continue his teaching and research at Trinity College, Bristol, in the UK. I suspect he was more at home there. But I will always be grateful that he was at Regent when I was there. It gives me great joy to be able to acknowledge how much he shaped my life and ministry.