Lucas 27-8 (2000), 125-151.
Dr JA Thompson
Bowen, Blackbutt and Brisbane (1913 –1946)
John Arthur Thompson was born in 1913. When he was two, his parents moved from Bowen, near Townsville to Blackbutt, a small timber town about 200 km NW of Brisbane. His father went to Blackbutt to become Head Master of the State Primary School. From him, John learned to do his work properly. The primitive conditions of heating, lighting, cooking and much else provided other lessons for John. He was the eldest of five children and accepted the responsibility of setting a good example. At an early age, a certain seriousness manifested itself in other ways, including a passion for learning. John’s mother was community minded, supported the Country Women’s Association and encouraged her children to attend the occasional service in the Anglican Church.1 For his secondary education, John won the first of four scholarships and went to the Anglican Grammar School in Brisbane as a boarder.
The lessons of Blackbutt prepared John well for self-preservation at boarding school. ‘Churchie,’ as it was called, was run on the lines of the English Public School with much emphasis on manliness and facing challenges, both in the school’s spacious grounds and in the classroom. John took Latin and Rowing, both of which were dear to the Head Master, Canon William Morris. On 29 October, 1929, five days after John’s sixteenth birthday, the Great Depression struck most of the world, and certainly Australia.
But for the Head Master’s intervention, John would have had to leave school. Canon Morris enabled John to remain at ‘Churchie’ for two more years, which was virtually his second scholarship. Characteristically, he made the most of the opportunity; he became one of only five prefects, was Captain of Boats, won another scholarship to take him to the University of Queensland and won academic prizes for General Proficiency and Languages - note Languages.2
The ‘headmaster of the universe’ had more in store for John. Soon, early in 1930, Dr Howard Guinness arrived in Australia to establish Evangelical Christian activity in universities and secondary schools. In July, he preached in ‘Churchie’ Chapel. John committed his life to Christ. He began to read Scripture Union notes and mastered important books by TC Hammond and HE Guillebaud.
After three years at the University, John won his fourth scholarship which enabled him to work on for a MSc in Physics. On the campus he was one of a small group of dedicated Christians. They were true pioneers. They had very little of the help and encouragement that Evangelical groups enjoy on Australian campuses today. Times were hard, not only for an unpopular minority, but also for economic reasons. An event which affected his path for the rest of his life was his undergoing believer’s baptism by immersion and entry to the Baptist Church. John was offered a job in Geophysics, which would have taken him all over Queensland. He turned it down because he wanted to continue his Christian work both on campuses and in schools. He was appointed to teach Science at ‘Churchie’.
So we have a young man going to his first full time job, an underprivileged country-boy, determined and well organised, with parents who believed in education. Not surprisingly, there is much to follow.
John was immensely active in Crusader work, following the visits of Dr Howard Guinness in 1930 and 1933, and especially after leaving university as a full-time student. There is abundant
material from Queensland about his work in ‘drawing room meetings’,3 usually on Saturday evenings and holiday camps.4 Men and women remember these events happily and with gratitude. John had a conspicuous ability to encourage and set the young at ease by speaking to them as if they were a year or two older than they really were. John also led a Crusader group at ‘Churchie,’ which called for tact in a school which was the pride of an Anglo-Catholic Diocese. The Head Master trusted him and knew that John would not embarrass him. There was also committee work. John was Chairman of the CSSM and Crusader Union of Queensland which may have been the first state to merge Crusader work in independent schools and ISCF work in state schools. John believed firmly in this unification which followed in every other state except New South Wales. It was in his committee work that he met Marion Carmichael, the efficient and engaging secretary of one of the committees. They were married in the Brisbane Baptist Tabernacle in 1940. They became renowned for their hospitality, and other fruits of Christian dedication.
By the time John started work at ‘Churchie’ in 1936, the Second World war was looming. Once Japan entered the war in 1941 the threat of invasion meant more in Queensland than in other states. There was talk of the Brisbane Line,5 which might have to be defended. The only defensible line was the Brisbane River which was less than a kilometre from ‘Churchie’. American anti-aircraft guns occupied part of the school grounds. Official religious teaching was strongly affected by the school’s wartime setting and the Head Master’s traditional British and Anglican convictions. A flag pole called ‘the Churchill Post’ was placed beside the school chapel.
John’s eleven years at ‘Churchie’ presented a fine model for Christian employees. He did his work well. His traditional teaching methods were normal for those times. As coach of the school’s senior crews and 2IC of its large cadet corps he did far more than his share of extra-curricular work. When John told the Head Master of his desire to enlist for war service the Head Master would not release him.
‘Churchie’ boys, both Crusaders and others, have spoken and written warmly of John as encourager as well as teacher. He impressed a boy called Keith Rayner, a future Anglican Archbishop of Melbourne, who wrote to John years later in appreciation of John’s Divinity lessons at ‘Churchie’ on the Old Testament.6 Available also is a thesis written for ordination by a student at the Baptist Theological College of Queensland; it is about Louis Miller, a State High School boy whom John met daily on the train. Louis became an effective Baptist minister.7
Other work outside the school included laying the foundations of the Holland Park Baptist Church and work for the degrees of BA, majoring in History and Philosophy, and BEd, both through evening lectures at the University of Queensland, as well as the BD from the Melbourne College of Divinity, for which John taught himself Hebrew for three years. These studies helped to clarify the direction of his life and enlarge its possibilities. Here was a scholar, a teacher and a friend, especially of students, in the making.
Melbourne: The Australian Institute of Archaeology (1947-1956)
John was 33 when he and Marion arrived in Melbourne in the first half of 1947. John had made the most of valuable experience as a country boy, a boy at boarding school in Brisbane, a university student in hard times and a schoolmaster and continuing student. Queensland had added encounters with such arresting personalities as Canon Morris, Dr Howard Guinness and Fred, later Dr Fred, Schwartz. Now in Melbourne he was to work for William Beasley. Such figures may affect us personally or as openers of gates or in both ways.
In early life William Beasley spent a year at Angas Bible College in Adelaide. “From there on, the Bible, both its message and its authenticity, became his major interest.” He applied for service with the China Inland Mission, but was rejected on health grounds. After Bible College in Adelaide he took a job with a transport company which eventually he controlled. He
prospered and gave generously to Christian causes. He died in his 88th year.
In the 1930s William Beasley visited Jericho on his way home from Europe and became fascinated by Biblical archaeology. He assembled a library and artifacts for a museum. In 1946 he founded the Australian Institute of Archaeology and appointed John Thompson as Director and himself as President. In 1952 he arranged for his business to become a nonprofit company which would direct its surpluses into the Institute.8
For John these were busy days. Not only was he expanding the exhibition in Collins Street and giving lectures in and beyond Melbourne. He was also taking courses and tutoring in the Department of Semitic Studies at the University of Melbourne. Thus John placed his foot in the door of the Department which would employ him full-time one day.
Among provincial Victorian cities visited was Warnambool. The Warnambool Standard of 25 August, 1947 reports his address. It is a thoughtful and sober statement which may well have been written by John himself.
John began his address to the Baptists of Warnambool by telling them, in the year 1947, that archaeology had discovered, over about 40 years, many places which had been described accurately in the Bible. Jericho, they found, did have one gate, houses in the walls for Rahab and others, nearby hills to which the spies could have fled and evidence of the great fire. The archaeologists had examined cuneiform tablets as well as buildings. John said there were tens of thousands of them. They included tributes which described customs in the land from which Abraham came as the Bible described them.
The conclusion of John’s Warnambool address was important because it expressed John’s view of the Bible: “Christians can be confident in this book of books, but the discoveries of archaeologists will never do for men the very thing the Bible indicates that they need above all else. For the Bible is not just a history book, or a science book, but it brings God’s message to men. It shows them
their true state in his sight. It tells them of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who died for their sin and wants to be their saviour.”9 John would repeat this view of the Bible over and over again.
It was not long before John found his way to the University of Melbourne. For him a university campus was a magnet. Remember the thirst for knowledge of the boy from Blackbutt? He studied Syriac, Arabic, Ethopic and Comparative Semitic Grammar. He tutored students in Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and Biblical Archaeology.10
In 1950-51, John was an honorary fellow of the American Schools of Oriental Research. He studied at its school in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. One of his first stops was the Cairo Museum, whose exhibits, mostly Egyptian, he described enthusiastically in a letter home. He was about to leave for Trans-Jordan and especially Dibon, which was on the Israelites’ route northward towards the promised land. The Cairo press was just then announcing “amazing excavations” at Roman Jericho, that is, the Jericho of the New Testament, and John was hoping to work there too.
On his return to Melbourne, John set to work on his MA thesis on “The significance of Trans-Jordan for the history of religion in the Bible”. It is not difficult to imagine John’s enthusiasm as he did his research and organised his findings. He now had his experience of the land itself, his association with fellow-workers at the American Schools and a finer grasp of the absorbing and fascinating languages of Bible lands. John gave one lecture a week on archaeology and the Bible at the Melbourne Bible Institute.
1954 brought a new venture. The museum of the Institute of Archaeology was moved to Little Bourke Street and was called ‘Ancient Times House’. It was described as “an excellent collection” in the entry on William Beasley in The Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography.11 Ancient Times House was opened in March, 1954. John was very busy organising displays and lecturing. According to The Age of 30 January, 1954, which
gave a spacious account of two Institution’s new quarters, John lectured for five nights a week on the historical background of the Bible and had other regular assignments. Steps were taken to attract the Council for Adult Education to a series on Biblical Archeology. Programs and displays were devised to attract school children.12 Ancient Times House is still open more than 40 years on.
For a few years in the mid 1940s John visited the Baptist College of New South Wales and lectured students for a week at the end of the first term. All regular lectures were cancelled. These lectures fascinated the students, at least one of whom subscribed to an expensive archaeological journal for many years. The Principal, GH Morling, began to encourage John to come to the Baptist Theological College of New South Wales as Old Testament Lecturer. The Principal argued that John would do more for his beloved field if he were to work in a Theological College and equip, say, ten men each year to go out to the churches, than if he continued to address meetings up and down the land. John and Marion characteristically obeyed this call even though it meant a significantly lower salary and cramped quarters close to those of high spirited young men.
In Melbourne, the Brighton Baptist Church had taken the place of the Holland Park Baptist Church. After John’s return from the Middle East in 1951, John and Marion lived at North Balwyn and worshipped at the emerging North Balwyn Church.
Sydney: Baptist Theological College of NSW (1957-60)
John began work as a Lecturer in Old Testament at the Baptist Theological College of New South Wales early in 1957. He had leave of absence from late in 1960 till mid 1963, during which time he read for a PhD at Cambridge. So his time at the College falls into two parts, the first at Ashfield before Cambridge and the second at Eastwood, after Cambridge. While in Sydney, John was ordained a Baptist Minister.
It was a very busy time. The College was understaffed and his lecturing program very heavy. His quarters were cramped
and close to the students who were sometimes noisy and liked to empty buckets of water from windows and balconies. John was not without a sense of humor but found this kind of behavior hard to absorb. Among his contributions to the College at Ashfield was a vegetable farm west of the buildings.
John accepted many invitations to preach, to speak about archaeology and to play an important part in conferences, camps and school meetings for the Crusaders and ISCF. It was in those days that John, recalling Queensland days, encouraged a Crusader worker in Sydney: “God bless you in your Crusader work. It has borne rich fruit over the years.”13 John had the joy of addressing the Crusaders at Trinity Grammar School, Summer Hill, where a former schoolboy member of his Crusader group at ‘Churchie’, Noel Cannon, was the counsellor. As they parted at the Victoria Street gate he exhorted Noel, as he viewed the array of new buildings, to remain a Baptist despite the attractions of the Sydney Anglicans.14
John played an active part in the foundation of The Journal of Christian Education. Dr Anna Hogg, the editor, is said to have planned this publication while working for a PhD at the London Institute of Education in 1954 and 1955. John was an Assistant Editor when the first issue came out in 1958 and for the next 20 years. He was one of four Assistant Editors. Others were Bill Andersen, Harold Fallding and Roger Thorne. Bill has described John as a very significant foundation member of [the] editorial team.15 Edwin Judge replaced Roger Thorne after Roger was run down by a car and killed in Cooma.
Each issue of the Journal had a theme about which one of the Assistant Editors wrote an introductory overview. John Thompson edited the September 1965 number and made a reference “to the possibility of introducing courses in tertiary education which would be appropriate for theological training but non-sectarian in character”. John was commenting on an article in the Journal by Dr E Roberts-Thomson who, by 1965, was no longer Principal of the Baptist Theological College but “a Minister of the
Presbyterian Church”. John taught such a course when he returned to Melbourne. It was a course which included Judaeo-Christian and Islamic studies and is discussed more fully later.
So well did John organise what time he had that he was able to write three relatively short books on Archaeology. He combined these into one book, The Bible and Archaeology, which he published in 1962 while he was in Cambridge. Like his other books, it was reprinted. The most often reprinted was his book on ‘Deuteronomy.
We must always remember that John was a teacher as well as a scholar. “Gladly would he learn and gladly teach”, like Chaucer’s student in medieval Oxford. One of his students at the Baptist Theological College of NSW recalls his teaching methods. John built up confidence because he taught with authority and knew where he was going. He taught also with clarity. He was a great encourager; sometimes he wrote on a good essay, “Preach it man!”.
John’s teachings unsettled some, mostly on the conservative side. “Mostly”, because there have been those who saw him as too conservative. He was, in fact, his own man and not easily classified, but those who have looked into his life know that John Thompson is unshakably anchored to God’s Revelation of himself in the Bible as a whole.
A comprehensive account of John’s Old Testament concerns may be found in an article called “Interpreting the Old Testament” in the Journal Interchange in 1968,16 that is, after John went back to Melbourne in 1966. It had been the subject of the Annual Lecture of the ‘Inter-varsity Fellowship (Australia)’ in 1967. No doubt some of this material had been presented in John’s classes in Sydney.
John wanted his students to realise that the Bible deserved and demanded strenuous thought. In his important lecture of 1966 on Genesis 1-3, he reports that he once lectured weekly for 20 weeks on Genesis 1-3. There were matters of authorship, some of which did not require serious thought. For example, can we
believe that Moses wrote in Numbers 12:3, where it is written that “Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the Earth?” Then there were difficult questions on ethical practices and institutions such as genocide or polygamy or slavery which were apparently condemned by God. Others, here and there, have faced these and other questions as John has, among them in our own time an American Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann.17 James Orr18 had entered this field in 1909, at the other extremity of the 20th century. John Thompson faced these questions in the middle of our century now fading.
There were also questions of language. John wondered whether Elijah was fed by Arabs rather than by ravens. The Hebrews words leave out our vowels, but ‘Arab’ and ‘raven’ have similar consonants. (If English was like this, the words ‘hat’, ‘hit’, ‘hot’ and ‘hut’ would all look the same, so that a translator would have to look at the context of a sentence which used one of them). For John it was preferable to decide between ‘Arabs’ and ‘ravens’ by considering context, just as the translator of the account of the Flood thought that Noah was more likely to have cast ravens from the Ark than Arabs.
None of this was undermining God’s message to us in the Bible as a whole. It was only asking honest questions. He told a young Barry Newman that the man who followed truth wherever it led must face the possibility of losing friends.19 This was John’s own experience. The conversation was within a year of his presentation of his 1966 paper on Genesis 1-3.
His integrity remained firm. It was illustrated in his stand regarding authorship of the Book of Numbers, not only over Numbers 12.3, but over the commentary on the book that he wrote for The New Bible Commentary, 1970 Edition. French Evangelicals wanted it published in French; Inter-Varsity Press said it would not publish it unless John amended it to assert full Mosaic authorship. John refused to close his eyes to his convictions.20
Integrity could be costly but vindication of his work has come from a variety of sources. On one occasion John had to stand
in for Principal Morling. He addressed a meeting on Corinthians. After the meeting the eminent evangelist John Ridley came to John and apologised to him for being with his traducers and undertook to listen no more to them.21 There is vindication also in his books on Jeremiah and Deuteronomy being listed by Moore College students in consultation with faculty members “as being the best available in the field”. As for the Book of Jeremiah John’s book is the only one on this Moore College list. Naturally John’s books are in Morling’s lists. Since John’s time, Old Testament work at Morling has been led by two of John’s proteges, Victor Eldridge and Bill Leng. Later we shall see vindication again in the extraordinary welcome John was to enjoy with Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union Bible Study groups in the Cambridge Colleges.
To understand John it is necessary only to bring together what he has said to people and what others, who have known him over the years, have said or written. It is appropriate to recall his thoughtful words in Warnambool in 1947. Referring to the Bible he said: “Christians can be confident in this book of books, but the discoveries of archaeologists will never do for men the very thing the Bible indicates that they need above all else. For the Bible is not just a history book, or a science book, but it brings God’s message to men. It shows them their true state in his sight. It tells them of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, who died for their sin and wants to be their Saviour.”
Anyone who thinks John abandoned that view, expressed over fifty years ago, should have ears and eyes open for his accounts of his counselling of students in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Melbourne University in the late 1960s or 1970s.
In 1999, a highly competent authority, Dr Victor Eldridge, described John as “Evangelistic as an old-fashioned open-air preacher” and finally that “scholarship to John was one thing, but in his personal devotion he was as evangelical in practice as the most conservative of his critics.”22 Such a man will not deal with the Bible irresponsibly.
One of John’s favorite Sankey Hymns runs:
I am not skilled to understand
what God hath willed, what God hath planned;
I only know at his right hand
is one who is my Saviour.23
Impressive for a man with seven university degrees.
Cambridge: PhD Work (1960-63)
John and Marion arrived in Cambridge in the English autumn of 1960. John has rarely talked about natural beauty but he is likely to have been touched by colourful and falling leaves along the River Cam, while scanning critically the techniques of college crews on that busy waterway. More important were the libraries, the lectures open to all on a vast range of disciplines and scholarly people from all over the world.
Quite apart from these perennial attractions there was a special development which must have contributed to John’s Cambridge experience. Evangelical Christianity had awakened on the intellectual front. Donald Robinson, later Archbishop of Sydney, described it as “immensely stimulating”.
Tyndale House,24 established in Cambridge in 1945, was the geographical centre of this movement which had its origin in the 1930s. A 15-page statement concerning Tyndale House is available on the Internet, where the House describes itself as “an international centre for Biblical Research, founded in a spirit of loyalty to the historic Christian faith. It is a community of scholars working mostly at post-graduate level.”
A few years ago, John Stott, who preached for many years to large congregations at All Souls, Langham Place, told a meeting that Tyndale House was the main reason for a resurgence in Evangelism. He was asked for the main reason in question time and gave this answer unhesitatingly. This happened in April, 1993.25
When John was in Cambridge there were many young Australians there - some not so young as others. Leon Morris was Warden of Tyndale House. Also there were Donald Robinson,
Brian Dickey, later, the Editor of The Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, Bruce Smith and others. There were firm links between Tyndale House and the Sydney Evangelicals. Scholarly Journals such as the Journal of Christian Education (1958) and the Journal of Religious History (1960) and Interchange (1968) were appearing in Sydney.
There were interactions (rather than links) between Tyndale House and movements towards serious scholarship centred on Free Churchmen such as Martyn Lloyd Jones, the compelling Congregational preacher at Westminster Chapel. Both he and the pioneers of Tyndale House were profoundly interested in the Puritans of the 17th and 18th centuries, amongst whom the English Baptists took shape.
John Thompson gave the Tyndale Lecture in 1963 on a subject which was part of his PhD thesis. The subject of the thesis was “The Vocabulary of the Covenant in the Old Testament”. His supervisor was Professor David Winton-Thomas, a linguist deeply interested in languages current in the world of Abraham.
Frequently John visited Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union groups in the residential colleges. One night a week he would expound the Bible to a group in a college for a whole term of eight weeks. His leadership was well received. John visited between ten and fifteen colleges. In some terms he must have visited two or more colleges each week as he was in Cambridge for only nine terms. He liked to explore the theme of the people of God in both the Old and New Testament. One recalls his treatment of Ephraim who was denounced by Hosea for mixing himself with the people. In this way John used the Old Testament to enrich lessons on how the New Testament people should conduct themselves. John also made good use of the Cambridge University Library to collect material for his Jeremiah book.
For John, the Old Testament was emphatically, not an end in itself. A quarter of his addresses, “Interpreting the Old Testament”, given in 1967, is headed “The Old Testament, a Christian Book”. More than anything else John wanted to exalt Christ.
Unlike some scholarly Christians who attended student churches in their youth, John and Marion were faithful to one of the local churches, Zion Chapel. For John and Marion, this was a higher priority than going to and fro to hear reputedly distinguished preachers.
The Thompsons’ gift for hospitality was exercised in Cambridge. From time to time, they entertained two young Australians, Brian Dickey and David Klines. “John,” writes Brian, “was a painstaking scholar, a wise old bird” and “John and Marion together … a loving and friendly couple who gave their food and lounge room generously to lonely Australians who felt a bit out of the mainstream.”26 John and Marion had once served with Brian in a Crusader Camp on Lake Macquarie in January, 1960. Typically, John was following a fellow-worker’s progress.
Sydney: Baptist Theological College of NSW (1963-1965)
John and Marion returned to the Baptist College of NSW in the second half of 1963. Their College and their church were now at Eastwood. They remained for only two years, much of which was under the shadow of the events later in 1963 which led to Principal Roberts-Thompson’s resignation after only three years.
Edward Roberts-Thomson grew up in the north-west of Tasmania, which is one of the most conservative regions in Australia. His theological education, which was considerable, was in Melbourne and Bristol. By the time he came to Sydney he held the degrees of BTh from Whitley (1934), BA (Honours) in 1940 and MA (1954), both from Bristol, and BD (1951) and DD (1958) both from MDC. His MA thesis was on “Baptists and Disciples of Christ”. His DD thesis was entitled “With hands outstretched”.
Dr Roberts-Thomson came to Sydney from Auckland where he had been Principal of the Baptist Theological College of New Zealand since 1953. He had been minister at Hamilton, Victoria, the Hobart Tabernacle, from which he had leave for service as an RAAF Chaplain, and Brunswick, Victoria.27
The Principal-Elect was declared to be “God’s man”, by some of the nominators. “God’s man”, however, became apprehensive before he came to Sydney. An eye-witness discovered this in Melbourne during Easter 1961,28 only one month before he was due to start in Sydney. It was supposed by many that the Principal-Elect’s interest in the World Council of Churches and his views on the Second Coming would upset NSW Baptists.
There was another reason for his apprehension. This was the invention late in 1960 of the office of Dean of the College in Sydney. It was a plausible appointment to have someone at the College to supervise the erection of buildings on the new site at Eastwood. But, what were the Dean’s powers? Were they adequately defined? Who was the Dean?
The first and only Dean to be appointed was Rev Neville Andersen, who returned from Bengal in 1958 after more than 20 years service with ABMS.
On 30 August, 1960 the College Council invited Rev Andersen to be Secretary of the Council after the coming Assembly and Dean of the College from 1 January, 1961, which was four months before the due arrival date of Dr Roberts-Thompson. For duties within the College the Dean would be answerable to the Principal; for duties outside, which included the building of a new College, he would be answerable to the Council of which he was Secretary. A new secretary was elected after a short time.29
So two mistakes had been made. Firstly, there was the recommendation of “God’s man” without finding out that he was enthusiastic about the World Council of Churches and that he held views about the second coming which were likely to disturb Baptists in Sydney, where second advent teaching had abounded between the wars. The second mistake was to appoint a Dean only four months before the new Principal was to take office and, in so doing, to fail to define adequately the duties of the Dean.
Late in 1963 Rev Harry Orr, who had been prominent among the nominators, became President of the Baptist Union of New South Wales and Dr John Thompson reappeared in Sydney from Cambridge.
It was clear that John was a supporter of the Principal. The nominators, or most of them, were no longer certain that they had found the right man for the position of Principal.
After the Assembly of 1963, feelings heightened. An eye-witness, who attended his first College Council Meeting, shortly after that assembly, recalls being instructed on how to vote for places on the Executive of the College Council, before he sat down. This included the office of Secretary of the Council, to which office Mervyn Henderson was elected. The eye witness also recalls the chairmanship of Rev Colin Campbell who controlled calmly and fairly meetings which could have been disorderly and unedifying. He was also a diligent Chairman between meetings, for which he prepared thoroughly. The churches of NSW owe Colin Campbell a big “thank you”.
The Principal resigned a few months later. Rev Gilbert Wright was appointed Principal and Dr John Thompson Vice-Principal. John remained for two years. He was not sorry to go but not hasty in going. He could see little hope in Sydney for the scholarship he wanted to pursue. He was appointed Senior Lecturer in the Department of Semitic Studies - soon Department of Middle Eastern Studies - at Melbourne University.
It is good to know that the essential work of the College went on. Bill Leng was one of many whose enthusiasm for Old Testament studies was aroused by John Thompson. It was an enthusiasm steered by John’s deep and wise knowledge, his understanding of his subject, his clarity and the dry sense of humor which made his lectures enjoyable. There were no frills or gimmicks.
Melbourne: University of Melbourne, Department of Middle Eastern Studies (1966-78), and Retirement
On entering Melbourne for the second time, John and Marion Thompson lived at North Box Hill. Their interest in friends old and new expanded. Many have occupied the spare room at the end of the corridor and have enjoyed breakfast,
conversation, the reading of Scripture Union notes and prayer, much of it intercessory.
After a few years the Thompsons built a library which was about ten metres long. It invaded one side of the garden, which John liked to tend in accordance with scientific method. The library contained an abundance of books, many of them harder to pick up than put down. A visitor once asked how he should write or speak of Ecclesiastes 12.1, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”. “Oh,” replied John, “you need to know about the wisdom literature of the Middle East. Have a look at this - and this.” Soon there was a pile of thick volumes beside the fearful visitor.
From their early days in North Box Hill, John and Marion worshipped at the Balwyn Baptist Church. There he preached many sermons and led many Bible studies in a period exceeding 30 years. So the Thompsons continued their faithfulness to the local Baptist church, which went back to Greenslopes and continued through Holland Park, Brighton (in Melbourne), North Balwyn, Ashfield, Zion Chapel and Eastwood to Balwyn. Was it because of his deep conviction concerning the Covenant people of God which he traced from Abraham and sought in these local congregations?
In 1966 John began his work in the Department of Semitic Studies, soon to be renamed the Department of Middle-Eastern Studies, in Melbourne University. During that year he visited Persia, now Iran, for archeological work in the company of his departmental head, Dr John Bowman, who had an interest in a minority Christian group in Azerbaijan, in the North-West corner of Persia, or Iran. They found and measured and photographed 13th century buildings inhabited by monks. John took a course in surveying to enhance his contribution to the expedition.
In the same year, John wrote an important article called “Genesis 1-3: Science? History? Theology?” It was published in Theological Review, Vol 3, No 1, 1966. John regards it as important, as do two competent scholars not known to one another,
Dr Barry Newman and Dr Helen Joynt, one in Sydney and one in Melbourne.
It was a good year for John. The scholar is very happy when he has the time and freedom from interruptions to consult his beloved books and journals and other sources and to produce his findings. This was especially so in 1966 which included his field work in Persia.
Among matters raised in Genesis 1-3, two are noted here. One was to do with the firmament of Genesis 1.6. Is there a rigid or firm - hence firmanent - layer between the waters on the earth and the waters above? The scientist in John did not like this idea but some Hebrews scholars have continued to insist that the Hebrew allowed no other translation. The NIV, first published in 1973 uses the word “expanse” instead of the word “firmament”.
A second matter raised in John’s article had to do with the presentation of the Creation. John supported - he did not originate - an account of the creation which was not a narrative of six consecutive days but an arrangement of the six days into three groups. Day one was about the creation of light and day four about the greater light and lesser light. Day two was about the expanse and day five about the birds that flew in the expanse and the creatures of the sea. Day three was about the dry land and plant life which grew on the land and day six about land animals and mankind. Rev Paul Harrison took this position in a series of sermons preached in the Brisbane Baptist Tabernacle. Back at MBI the principal went over John’s paper with his studies in the following days and recommended amendments.
John’s first year at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Melbourne University was pleasantly eventful. He went to Persia and he wrote his paper of Genesis 1-3, which was perhaps his most important writing.
But it was not long before scholarly pursuits were interrupted. The Department Middle Eastern Studies was a busy place. John’s promotion from Senior Lecturer to Reader brought many responsibilities. He was in Israel on study leave
for linguistic and archeological work in 1972-73. In 1970 and 1974 to 76 he was Chairman of the Department - at a time when that office was becoming increasingly vexatious in the world’s universities. People were beginning to ask whether departments such as his were cost-effective. John’s answer was to keep the numbers up by giving lectures which were attractive and of substance. Supporters of the Department hope their opponents found out that the Commonwealth Department of Immigration sent for John for his expert advice on the translation of documents from the Middle East.
There were certainty students who appreciated John and his work among them. There was Helen Joynt,30 who wrote in 1978, when John retired from the University, that John “inspired many students to take a more serious look at the Bible, exciting them by the power and significance of its message and encouraging a good number to continue their investigations to post-graduate level.” Helen first met John in his Hebrew class at Melbourne Bible Institute on her way to a BD. Later John supervised her for MA work and later for her PhD work on “Commentaries on Psalms by a 12th century Syriac Bishop”.
The Department offered a comprehensive course which made considerable demands on John and others who taught it. The course spanned the Ancient Middle-East, Judaeo-Christian Studies, the Archeology of Palestine and the Modern Middle East. It attracted a colourful variety of people which included young radicals interested in the Middle East, Evangelical Christians, people interested in comparative religion, Roman Catholics, possibly including Jesuits who moved from the house at Watsonia to the precincts of Melbourne in 1969, and a number of mature students young enough in heart to be there.
Of those years Helen also tells of John’s interest in students and their friends and relations. To all the evidence we have of this activity in Brisbane, Sydney and Cambridge, Helen adds her recollection of John’s kindness31 to her sister and brother, and Bill Leng recalls John’s prayers for his daughter.
Bill Leng was another appreciative student, whom John taught at the New South Wales College in 1963 and 1964 and later at Melbourne University. At Melbourne John supervised Bill’s work for his MA, which Bill completed in 1980 on “prophetic symbolic actions”, especially on the part of Jeremiah, who, for example, threw a pot on the ground in order to convince the people of Jerusalem that the coming judgement would be most severe. Bill had five years with the Overseas Missionary Fellowship from 1965 to 1970 in teaching roles in Singapore and Hong Kong. John the scholar and teacher was also the friend and spoke at Bill’s commissioning service before he went to Singapore.
Sometimes John counselled university students. One of them asked John whether he believed in the inspiration of scripture. He told her that God must communicate if we are to know anything about God and that we must listen to the Bible theologically and allow ourselves to be judged by its divine contents. Another young woman was troubled because the History School was undermining her confidence in the historicity of Abraham and others. He told her to read the Bible theologically so that it touched her conscience. At the end of the year she tanked John for showing her what the Bible was. John’s influence had brought her to faith in Christ and to her man.
We must be reminded that John Thompson was a teacher, a lecturer and a supervisor. There was his work in secondary school, theological college and university. He was a splendid, painstaking, honest and well-read scholar, but was much more, for he made of himself a great teacher and sometimes a life-long friend of his students.
Before we enquire into John’s teaching at Melbourne University it is necessary to recall the science teacher at ‘Churchie’ and the Old Testament Lecturer at the Baptist College of New South Wales. At ‘Churchie’ he always taught the second streams. His thought about his teaching methods was stimulated by his work for a BEd in Brisbane. Dr Bill Andersen, who was working with John in the SCCM and Crusader Union of Queensland in 1946
testifies to the serious attention John gave to his craft.32 In those days his methods were most traditional. A former pupil writes of his “disciplined adherence to the syllabus,”33 his well organized notes and class tests and the boys’ acceptance of this orderly state of affairs which gave them confidence that they could do the work.
By the end of his time at ‘Churchie’, John’s understanding of teaching was crystallising. He addressed an Evangelical Union houseparty at Bundanoon in December, 1945. A number of students who heard him spent their lives happily and productively as teachers in state or independent schools. John looked for teachers who loved young people, were Christians, knew their subject, were well-informed and were active in the co-curricular activities of their schools.
At the Baptist Theological College of New South Wales a young Victor Eldridge noted that John taught with authority and clarity and built confidence. To this we may add Bill Leng’s recollections of John’s dry sense of humour in both Sydney and Melbourne. This added to the popularity of his lectures in the Department of Middle Eastern Studies during the time when it was necessary for the department to keep up its numbers. John’s famous blackboard map of the Bible lands is well remembered for its two lines, one for the Mediterranean coast with its bulge at Mount Carmel and one line for the Jordan with the Sea of Galilee looking like a roundabout and the Dead Sea like a parking area at the end of a road.
At Melbourne University the classroom was still a serious place. No time was wasted. Essays were set and marked promptly. Lectures were objective and without devotional content. As in Sydney John taught with authority as one who really knew his subject. We may conclude this journey of a splendid teacher in three states of Australia with an observation from Helen Joynt, who reports that John “soon saw where people were and showed them where they had to be”. John attributed this principle to Alcuin of York, the eighth century scholar and teacher well versed in both Celtic and Roman Christianity.
The scholar, teacher and friend was also an author. The Deuteronomy book, his best seller, came out in 1974 while he was at Melbourne University. DJ Wiseman, Professor of Semitic Languages at London University, wrote cautiously in the general preface, “Dr John Thompson has shown how many elements are obviously Mosaic and discusses others which may have been added subsequently”. He described John’s commentary as “a helpful and relevant text” and “written with the authority of one who is well versed in the many philological and archaeological findings ...”
As retirement, due in 1978, approached, John withdrew from his responsibility in The Journal of Christian Education and Wycliff Bible Translators,33 after almost but not quite after twenty and thirty years of service respectively.
After retirement from the University John continued his work at Ridley College, where he remained for eight years. Here was opportunity to share his immense experience of Hebrew and sometimes of Aramaic with students, but without the stresses of working in the University. He prepared students not only for the BTh of the Australian College of Theology but also for higher degrees such as its MTh or London University’s BD and, in his own words, one or two for a PhD.
At Ridley there was more time for writing. In 1980 the Jeremiah Book came out and in 1986 the handsome Life in Bible Times. In 1988 he brought his work at Ridley to a close - at the age of 75. John continued to work on the Chronicles book, publication of which was delayed through a stroke till 1994.
So there were still his books and friends, the home at North Box Hill and the local Baptist Church. John and Marion have continued to hear from people whose friendship goes back for decades or even half a century. Comes the letter unexpected, the phone call, the wedding invitation, news of the births of children and grand children, cards at Christmas, post cards from near and far and, of course, visitors. Bread cast upon the waters has returned after many days.
John’s five books alone provide enough material for a lecture. It is worth reflecting on the distinguished Old Testament scholars who have associated themselves with John’s work. FF Bruce wrote the foreword to The Bible and Archaeology. DJ Wiseman wrote the general preface to the Deuteronomy book. John was invited by EJ Young to write a book on I and II Samuel but was invited to write his book on Jeremiah after that formidable conservative scholar’s death. This he reports in the preface to his own book on Jeremiah. This preface reveals his profound attachment to the Prophet Jeremiah. Clearly he is very precious to John. John’s language is almost ‘unthompsonic’ as he recalls most imaginatively his first visit to the area where Jeremiah’s village Anathoth once stood.
I can still recall quite vividly the first visit I made to the modern Arab village of Anata, which must represent the approximate site of Jeremiah’s village of Anathoth. The whole village seemed to be a blaze of almond blossoms in every direction. I climbed a high fence and plucked a half dozen almond kernels left over from the last season to take home to Australia as a useful teaching aid. In fancy I saw Jeremiah toiling across the intervening hills on his three-mile walk into Jerusalem to take up his stand in the temple courtyard and preach his Temple Sermon. I have returned again and again to that sermon for my own preaching over the years, but not alone to the Temple Sermon. The whole book still seems alive and is a never ending source of instruction to me, and I would hope to those whom I have taught.
It has been a rare privilege to write the commentary that follows. It is my hope and prayer that readers of this volume may enter a little into the experiences of that lonely figure of the late seventh and early sixth centuries BC and to catch something of the deep significance of his call to his own people to be true to their covenant Lord and to live in conformity with this covenant.34
The Handbook of Life in Bible Times is lavishly illustrated with colourful photographs, diagrams and maps, most of them skillfully set out on the same pages as the text which they illuminate. As Jeremiah’s birthplace brought the book of Jeremiah
to life, so the handbook adds immensely to our understanding of the literature and people of the Bible.
The remaining book, Chronicles, did not come out till 1994. It was delayed because John had to undergo eye surgery and suffered a stroke. He was determined to recover the full use of his right hand and complied obediently with the directions of the physiotherapist who required him to exercise his fingers in small circles. A reminder of self discipline, one of the keys to his life.
John Arthur Thompson: A Reflection
Some biography is valuable for the insight it provides into events in which the subject took part. John Thompson made history and saw it being made. He was a pioneer of Evangelical Christian work on the campuses and in the schools of Australia; he was one of the leaders of the move to unite Crusaders and ISCF which occurred everywhere in Australia but New South Wales (and raises the question of why Sydney was different); he played a leading part in the promotion of biblical archaeology in Australia; he must have contributed much to Wycliffe Bible Translators with whom he worked for 30 years; and his work at the Baptist Theological College of NSW has given direction to the teaching there of Old Testament for nearly half a century. John was close to others who were making history in Tyndale House during his Cambridge days and he was at Melbourne University at the time when new forces were beginning to affect universities everywhere.
But a biography must do more than record what his subject did. Similar work may be done by dissimilar people. The biographer must understand their motivations and consequent priorities.
When Dr Howard Guinness visited ‘Churchie’ Chapel in 1930 he brought the young John Thompson face to face with God’s supreme revelation of himself in Jesus Christ. John accepted and obeyed the absolute taught that confronted him. These events and those that followed in his years at the University of Queensland and his old school heightened his goals and pressed into service
habits of self-discipline, acceptance of responsibility and love of learning which were exercised at home and boarding school.
John was a scholar and a teacher in the making. While teaching at ‘Churchie’, he added degrees in Arts, Divinity and Education to his MSc. There was much contact with the young. John’s Arts degree increased the range of students with whom he could converse. A degree in Divinity followed. We shall return to it. After Divinity came a degree in Education. John was interested not only in conveying information; he was also deeply interested in the responses of young people of dissimilar backgrounds, intellectual ability and ways of thinking and expressing themselves. John grew in the understanding of them; mutual respect and life-long friendships often followed. The scholar who became a teacher was also a friend.
Some intellectually versatile people do not succeed in integrating their diverse scholarly interests. For John, science, history, biblical studies and the arts of communication fell into place. By the time he left Brisbane in 1947, Old Testament studies were becoming central and other disciplines contributory.
The centrality of Old Testament studies motivated his moves between the Eastern states of Australia and between Australia and Europe or the Middle East. All sojourns increased and enriched his knowledge and his longing to share it. Melbourne offered him work in Middle Eastern Studies which, among other things, contributed to his work for his Master’s degree; it also gave him the opportunity to publicise Biblical Archaeology. John moved to Sydney believing that a theological college was an important opportunity to teach Old Testament. Cambridge was immensely stimulating and his doctoral degree opened doors to a senior academic post in Melbourne, where he continued his scholarly labours and brought out four of his five excellent books.
His life was much wider than these things. We must remember the faithfulness of John and Marion to a long list of Baptist churches where they had opportunity to minister to people who were not scholars or teachers but were also the people of God.
John’s story is seriously incomplete without the recognition of Marion. The great handbook is dedicated “to my wife Marion who has assisted me in many ways over many years”. In her own right, Marion, whose people came from Scotland, typifies the Scottish lady “with the frit of the granite and the sweetness of the little hills”.
* This is a revised version of a lecture delivered at the Annual General Meeting of the Baptist Historical Society of New South Wales on 6 May, 1999. Peter Young is a retired school teacher.1. Letters from Jean Barrie, sister of John Thompson to author, March to May, 1998, some undated.
2. Issues of The Viking, 1929-31, magazine of ‘Churchie’.
3. Letters supplied by Mr David Walker, Revd David Todd, Revd Ron Herbert and Dr Colin Webster, all of whom knew John Thompson through Crusaders. Letters early 1998.
4. The same sources as note 3, with the addition of Revd Basil Blake, April, 1998.
5. It was alleged by the Hon Eddie Ward, the Member for East Sydney, that the first government of Prime Minister Robert Menzies proposed to defend Australia at the latitude of Brisbane. There was in fact a plan which listed places which must be defended, but it included Darwin which was a long way north of Brisbane. Information from Australia in the War of 1939-45, Vol. 5, South-West Pacific Area: First Year, written by Dudley McCarthy, and published 1959.
6. Letter from Archbishop Rayner to the author, 30 March, 1998.
7. Thesis held by Mrs Jean Barrie, sister of John Thompson.
8. Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, 1994. Article on William Beasley, 32-3.
9. The Warnambool Standard, 25 August, 1947.
10. The Record, Spring, 1978; 25 August, 1947.
11. The Australian Dictionary of Evangelical Biography, 1994, 32-3.
12. The Age, 30 January, 1954.
13. Letter from John Thompson to the author. Letter now lost, probably early 1960s.
14. Telephone interview between author and Noel Cannon. Late 1997.
15. Letter to the author, 9 February, 1998.
16. Interchange, Vol 1, No 3, 1968.
17. Lecture to SIFT by Revd Andrew Katay, 7 November, 1998.
18. The Problem of the Old Testament, London, 1909.
19. Interviews between Dr Barry Newman and author, April, 1999.
20. Tape recording interview of John Thompson, V251 and V252, CSAC Archives, Robert Menzies College.
22. Letter to the author, April, 1999.
23. Sankey’s Sacred Songs and Solos, No 849.
24. Conversation with Mr Orlando Saer, son-in-law of Dr Bruce Winter, Warden of Tyndale House, February, 1999.
25. See Alister McGrath’s biography of Dr James I Packer, To Know and Serve God, Hodder and Stoughton, 1997.
26. Letter to the author.
27. Telephone interview with Mrs. Rosemary Freeman, daughter of Dr Edward Roberts-Thompson.
28. For ‘eye-witness’ read the author, whose source in Melbourne was Revd Joshua Robertson, the Pastor of his childhood and youth.
29. Minutes of Council of Baptist Theological College of New South Wales.
30. The Record, Spring 1978.
31. Telephone conversation between Helen Joynt and the author, February, 1999.
32. Letter to the author, 6 February, 1998.
33. Revd Ron Herbert, long letter to the author, undated, circa April, 1998.
34. Author’s preface, in JA Thompson, The Book of Jeremiah, Eerdmans, 1981.
© EHAA and Southern Cross College, 2005