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The Revd Professor Dennis Eric Nineham

27 May 2016

Controversalist: the Revd Professor Dennis Nineham

Controversalist: the Revd Professor Dennis Nineham

Canon Anthony Harvey writes:
THE Revd Dennis Nineham, who died on 8 May, aged 94, was one of the best-known theological scholars of his generation. Yet he is remembered more for his leading part in the controversies of the time — raising questions that have still by no means gone away — than for solid academic achievement.

Indeed, he was appointed to his first chair, in King’s College, London, on the strength of almost no published work. When he moved from there to take up the Regius Professorship of Divinity in Cambridge in 1964, he was so conscious of the oddity (as it might seem) that the occupant of such a distinguished chair might possess no higher degree than an MA in his subject, that he modestly applied for an Oxford BD; he was viva’d by two of his colleagues, a public occasion that was eagerly attended by many who wished to see and hear this notable controversialist in action.

Dennis Eric Nineham was born in Southampton, and educated at King Edward VI School. Having gained a scholarship to The Queen’s College, Oxford, he obtained a triple First in classical literature, history, philosophy, and theology. After brief training for ordination at Lincoln Theological College, he returned to Queen’s as an assistant chaplain in 1944, becoming Chaplain and Fellow in 1946. It was from there (still without any notable publications to his name) that he was appointed to the newly created chair at King’s, London, where he played an important part in building up the department to become one of the leading theological centres in the country.

During his ten-year tenure (1954-64), first as Professor of Biblical and Historical Theology at King’s, and then as Professor of Divinity in London University, he published his first substantial book, a commentary on St Mark’s Gospel (1963). But this was no ordinary academic publication. It was among the first published by Penguin Books in the series (which he edited) of Pelican Commentaries, aimed at a wide readership, and intended to bring modern critical study of the Gospels to the attention of “ordinary people”. In academic terms, it broke no new ground; but in terms of stimulating wider awareness of the questions now being raised by scholars, particularly about the historicity of the Gospel narratives, it was a notable achievement.

Appointed to Cambridge in 1964, Nineham was a welcome colleague for those theologians who were already starting to raise radical questions about the meaning and relevance of their subject. It was during his time as Warden of Keble College, Oxford, from 1969 to 1979, however, that, alongside his duties in college administration and his membership of the General Synod and the C of E’s Doctrine Commission, he published his first book on biblical criticism, The Use and Abuse of the Bible (1976). In this, he argued (as he did consistently throughout his career) that the Church’s interpretation of biblical texts had always been influenced by the culture and presuppositions of the time, and that the present situation of “galloping cultural change” demanded a similar, and more radical, change of approach. It was an argument that he briefly presented again in his “Epilogue” to the widely read and (at the time) hugely controversial symposium The Myth of God Incarnate (1977).

After ten years at Keble, Nineham was appointed to the Professorship of Theology at the University of Bristol, where he had more time to devote himself to academic work. In retirement, he completed a substantial piece of research on Christianity in ninth-century Franconia, published in 1993 as Christianity Medieval and Modern. He used this period as a case–history to show the extent to which social and cultural factors moulded people’s beliefs and practices into a shape that would be barely recognised today as Christianity, with the implication (hardly worked out at all in the book) that we should be aware of such influences on our Christian faith today.

A sense of dismay at the way in which teachers and preachers still seemed unaware of such pressures, and were failing to reformulate their interpretation of Christianity accordingly, together with shock at the ignorance (as he saw it) of “ordinary people” about the advances of critical study of the Bible, were the guiding threads that led him to be one of the leading and most respected controversialists in the world of post-war academic theology.

But none of this prevented his exercising considerable influence in church affairs, both publicly in the Synod, and privately through advising on appointments. With a consistently charming manner, and signal loyalty to former pupils, he shared with his wife, Ruth, who predeceased him, a well-deserved reputation for gracious hospitality and warm friendship.

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