Ron Julian impacted countless people through his live and recorded teachings at Reformation Fellowship (a church in Eugene) and influenced a generation of students at Gutenberg College. Ron is greatly missed by his family, the Reformation Fellowship and Gutenberg communities, and me. Ron was my teacher, colleague, and friend.
Ron’s impact on me, as on many others, centered on his love for teaching the Bible. The foundation for this teaching began very soon after Ron became a Christian at nineteen. He was struck then by the many differences in beliefs among Christians, so he began to study the Bible to sort out what it actually taught. This eventually led him to a church in Palo Alto and its Scribe School classes, which taught the original biblical languages as well as the historical background necessary for careful study of the Bible. Ron began to hone his skills in interpreting the Bible there.
Ron came to Eugene in August 1981 to teach at McKenzie Study Center’s School of Exegesis, which opened its doors in 1982 and continued in various forms throughout the 1980s. Like Scribe School, the program emphasized biblical exegesis. I was in the second class and sat under Ron as he taught us how to understand the Bible.
After the School of Exegesis, Ron continued to follow his love for teaching the Bible, both at McKenzie Study Center (MSC) and Reformation Fellowship, where he taught hundreds of sessions on the Bible. He also participated in a long-running radio show on biblical issues called “In Search of Truth.”
When Gutenberg College emerged from McKenzie Study Center in 1994, Ron became a tutor there to help the fledgling liberal arts college even though his passion remained studying and teaching the Bible. But Ron soon became a fan of Gutenberg’s liberal arts program, especially when he saw its impact on his son, Brian, and later his daughter, Erin, both of whom graduated from Gutenberg. Over the years, Ron taught Euclid, film and music seminars, writing, microexegesis (which included taking students through John’s Gospel and studying both poetry and biblical hermeneutics), Western Civilization and Great Conversation classes, and at many MSC/Gutenberg community classes, conferences, and institutes. In later years, he also served as a tutor for the two-year Classical Greek exam.
One of Ron’s greatest contributions to all who sat under his teaching, from the School of Exegesis to Gutenberg College, was his exceptional reading skills. Forty years after learning the skills for reading the Bible from Ron, I still marveled at his skill, whether he was reading Dostoevsky or the Gospel of John. He remains one of the best readers I have ever met.
Even more important to the Gutenberg community than Ron’s reading and teaching skills, however, was his willingness to be approachable, humble, and real with the students. He could empathize with many of their struggles, and during student evaluations, he would tell students about his own struggles as an undergraduate. Ron was genuinely human to his students and to his fellow tutors.
Ron’s absence from Gutenberg College will cast a long shadow over the community. He would say that others can fill his roles as well as or better than he could and that life at Gutenberg will go on. That may be so, but the college will never be the same. In our community, Ron was a foundational member; his presence shaped the college and the community for decades. His relationship with each member of the community was unique and irreplaceable. For me, his passing is the loss of a forty-year relationship. Ron was my teacher, colleague, and friend, and I miss him greatly.
I have been thinking back over the hundreds of articles and recordings that Ron completed over the years. While a great many have influenced me, one recording of his teaching on the Gospel of John stands out as the clearest statement of his calling. Ron’s project was to articulate the major themes in John’s Gospel, covering a chapter or more each session. However, his ninth talk (August 17, 2008), covered only one verse, John 8:58:
Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” (NASB)
As Ron explained it, the traditional interpretation of this verse understands Jesus to be making two claims:
- Jesus existed before Abraham.
- Jesus is identifying himself with God.
This interpretation seems straightforward and reasonable. If fact, why would anyone be inclined to go in another direction? Yet Ron did, in fact, suggest another option, one that he thought had stronger support.
The verse appears in the following context (verses 48-59):
The Jews answered him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he shall never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and the prophets also; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word, he shall never taste of death.’ Surely You are not greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets died too; whom do you make yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify Myself, My glory is nothing; it is My father who glorifies Me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God’; and you have not come to know Him, but I know Him, and if I say that I do not know Him, I shall be a liar like you, but I do know Him, and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” The Jews therefore said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” Therefore, they picked up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple. (NASB)
Ron begins his explanation of verse 58 by looking at Jesus’ “cryptic comment”: “…if anyone keeps My word, he shall never see death.” Both Ron’s interpretation and the traditional interpretation agree that the Jews misunderstand Jesus’ comment to mean that His followers will never physically die. They miss the true meaning of Jesus’ words: the one who keeps His word will be resurrected from death, never to die again.
Outraged, however, the Jews again accuse Jesus of having a demon because, of course, everyone dies: Abraham and the prophets physically died. Who does Jesus think He is? Jesus answers by saying that He does not glorify Himself; rather, He is glorified by the Father, whom He knows and whose word he keeps—unlike the Jews. He tells them that their father, Abraham, rejoiced to see His, Jesus’, day; Abraham saw it and was glad. Both Ron’s interpretation and the traditional interpretation agree that the Jews again misunderstand Jesus. They think he is claiming to be as old as Abraham. They miss the true meaning of Jesus’ words: Abraham understood the promises God made to him, which would be fulfilled through the Messiah, Jesus; Abraham was “joyfully anticipating the blessing to come.”
Jesus’ response to this second misunderstanding in verse 58—“…before Abraham was born, I am”—is where Ron’s interpretation and the traditional interpretation diverge. Ron explained that the traditional interpretation essentially says this: “Jesus responds, ‘Well, I didn’t say that I was as old as Abraham, but since you mention it, yeah, I’m older than Abraham. In fact, I’m God.’” Many who hold the traditional interpretation go in that direction because they understand Jesus to be quoting Exodus 3:14 where God tells Moses His name is “I AM.”
Ron, however, did not understand Jesus to be quoting Exodus 3:14, and he even questioned the traditional interpretation of the clause in Exodus. Ron also pointed to Jesus’ use of “I am” (ἐγώ εἰμι) in the rest of John’s Gospel, including verses 8:24 and 8:28 where the NASB translates the Greek phrase as “I am He.” Ron saw what he describes as a “verbal habit” of Jesus in the Gospel of John: when Jesus says “I am” by itself, He means “I am He,” “I am the Messiah.” In verse 58, then, Ron interprets Jesus to be responding to the Jews by saying in essence, “Even before Abraham was born, it has always been God’s intent to save the world through me, the Messiah.”
At this point in his talk, Ron shifted gears. He said, “I often come along and say, ‘Everyone thinks this says X, but I think it says Y.’ Am I just a contrarian? Do I have an agenda? How do I come up with this stuff?” He then proceeded to give a little background about himself and lay out his calling. This is the part that I have reflected on over the last few months thinking about Ron. This is the part that makes it so memorable for me.
I hear Ron’s voice as he tells how his initial Christian experience was Luther-like in the sense that Ron, too, believed himself an unforgivable sinner. God could not save him. As he talked with Christians about what was true and how to live, he got a million different answers. Everyone disagreed about what the Bible said. Ron concluded that there were no clear answers. A pivotal point in his life was taking a class on biblical interpretation that Jack Crabtree taught at Scribe School. Jack taught that being a good reader of the Bible was being a good reader, period. Ron understood what it meant to be a good reader, and it became his calling to apply his ability to read to the Bible. He learned the original languages, the background, and the importance of context.
It took Ron years to figure out how he was going to relate to God and the Bible. He captured it in three “fundamental conclusions”:
- God is real, and the Bible is His inerrant word.
- The Bible can be understood by reading it as we would read any other difficult book.
- I will not pretend to understand what the Bible says if I do not understand it. Be patient and humble.
In Ron’s view, understanding the Bible is a project given to the whole Church (all the followers of Jesus) throughout history. Tradition is the cumulative efforts of the Church, and Ron valued what those who came before had said. “But,” he said, “the fact is I can’t claim to be convinced by a particular argument that someone in the Church has made until I have made it my own. I am trying to listen to them respectfully, but ultimately, they need to point me to the Bible and show me why I should listen to them.”
This brief portion of his teaching at Reformation Fellowship on that Sunday is my most vivid memory of Ron’s teaching. He captured much of who he was and what his calling was.
Returning to John 8:58: Ron saw that the preponderance of evidence supported his interpretation rather than the traditional interpretation, and he saw two advantages to his option: (1) It takes Jesus’ phrase “I am” in the way He commonly used it; and (2) Jesus’ response to the Jews is not going off on a rabbit trail (Jesus’ preexistence) created by the Jews’ misunderstanding; rather it is directly related to what Jesus has been saying: Abraham rejoiced to see His day because from the beginning the Messiah Jesus has always been the One through whom God intended to save the world.
I think Ron’s interpretation fits the context better. However, my goal is not to claim that Ron’s interpretation is a slam dunk but rather to emphasize that context is very important. Ron’s motivation was not to defend or refute a cherished doctrine—in the case of John 8:58, the divinity of Jesus—but to try to understand the passage in its context. What did the author mean when he wrote the passage? Arriving at the author’s intent was central to Ron’s process of understanding the Bible, and it is central to what we do at Gutenberg College.
The implications of accepting Ron’s interpretation are not that we must reject the divinity of Jesus; rather, we should simply see that John 8:58 is not addressing the issue. Many other verses in the Bible discuss the divinity of Jesus. To establish a doctrine, however, we need to examine all the relevant verses in their contexts.
Ron knew his audience; some people, he knew, would assume that accepting his interpretation meant not accepting the divinity of Christ. For this reason, he immediately followed his conclusion by saying that he believed that Jesus was the Messiah and that He was divine, “the image of the invisible God.” Ron wanted what he was saying—and not saying—to be clear. He was very skilled at reading his audience.
Ron Julian’s life was centered on teaching the Bible. That was his calling. He honed his skill of interpretation to a high level, and he was one of the best readers I have ever met. He clearly articulated what he was sure something said, but he also articulated what he was not sure about. As a result, he had a great impact on a lot of people’s lives. We, the Gutenberg College community, are fortunate that Ron was so willing to share his time with us. We will all miss him greatly.