FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–He doesn’t wear a headdress or a long robe nor does he carry a shepherd’s staff. But like Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, Rick Johnson shares a love of the Hebrew Scriptures, a love he is communicating to his students at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
For Johnson, teaching Old Testament is the result of a hunger to study the Bible that began after he was saved at 16. But his interest in the Bible began a few years earlier.
Born in Houston but raised in Lake Charles, La., Johnson heard from his father that his grandfather had read the Bible all the way through.
“That fascinated me,” he recalled. When he was 12, he attempted to do the same thing but only got to Deuteronomy.
In school, Johnson wanted to know everything about everything, from knowing how machines worked to taking chemistry because he was interested in the hows and whys of matter.
When he became a Christian, that same desire was directed toward the Bible — he wanted to understand it all.
The desire to learn God’s Word has been the driving force behind his teaching ministry, a ministry that includes being on the Southwestern faculty since 1992 and a full professor of Old Testament at the Fort Worth, Texas, campus since 1999.
Johnson earned a bachelor of arts in religion at Louisiana College, where he says he got a good foundation in Old Testament. He continued to build on that foundation at Southwestern, where he received a master of divinity in 1977 and a Ph.D. in 1983. As a student, he won the C.W. Brister Award and the Broadman Award.
Among the professors who influenced him were Old Testament professors Ralph L. Smith, David Garland and Boo Heflin and New Testament professor William Hendricks.
Part of Johnson’s desire to study the Old Testament, in fact, came from something Garland, who taught at Southwestern from 1958-91, told him while Johnson was a student. Garland said that one cannot understand the New Testament without an understanding of the Old.
“The more I’ve studied, the more I’ve found that to be true,” said Johnson. “The more I study the Old Testament, the more I see what New Testament writers are trying to say about Jesus.”
At seminary, Johnson focused on courses in biblical theology, because it “focuses on the ways of thought of individual Bible writers.” Instead of looking at texts piecemeal, biblical theology attempts to discover what concerns and beliefs unify all that a writer wrote.
“I finally found the kind of Bible study I was hungry for,” he said.
The writer’s unifying concerns and beliefs, said Johnson, help uncover the overall biblical message and are essential to applying biblical teachings in today’s context.
Johnson continues that quest for discovering the biblical message with his doctoral seminar in Old Testament theology and in the process is helping a new generation of scholars search the Scriptures.
In the yearlong seminar, Johnson encourages students to engage in vigorous discussions over Old Testament theology or what a scholar has had to say about textual issues. Some of the topics he has assigned students include aspects of God such as holiness, righteousness, love and wrath, as well as other topics like the Holy Spirit and creation.
The thrust of the class is the study of the teachings of the text in its Old Testament setting and then the study of what the text means for Christians in light of the New Testament, Johnson said.
The first semester focuses on reading contemporary, controversial works in the field and working with the original Hebrew text.
Miyon Chung, who audited the seminar last year, said she has gained a deeper understanding of God’s nature as revealed through his interaction with his people.
With Johnson teaching the class, she added, “You can’t get away with superficial work.
“He knows the material so well,” she said. “He’s like a walking concordance. He often knows what we’re trying to say better than we do.”
Essentially, the students teach themselves, Johnson said, adding that his role is to guide the dialogue that goes on between students. That combination of discussion and reading is consistent with Johnson’s teaching philosophy.
“In class, I try to force myself as well as my students to pay close attention to the text,” he said.
It is also important, he pointed out, to be precise and careful about what the text says and what the range of possible interpretations are.
Johnson has written several works on the Old Testament starting with his 1983 dissertation in which he explored the place of ethics in the theology of the Hebrew Scriptures. He has also written articles relating to the Old Testament in the Southwestern Journal of Theology looking at portions of Hosea and Amos and examining the role of faith and obedience.
When he’s not busy with his teaching duties, Johnson likes to explore his interests in novels, sports and astronomy, but perhaps one of his most enduring interests has been riding motorcycles. He learned to ride when he was 12, and for the next three years “it was all I could think about,” said Johnson, who now owns a Harley-Davidson.
Johnson is also a family man. His wife, Martha, is a math teacher at North Crowley High School. They have two daughters, Cherise, a freshman at Baylor University, and Victoria, a sophomore at North Crowley High School.
When Johnson reflects on what motivates him in his study and teaching, he always returns to his enduring desire to understand God’s message in the Bible.
“In the Bible, we have the answers to what life is all about,” he said. “It leads us to the One who created us and saved us. It’s exciting for me to help students find that in texts they see as difficult to understand, to help them see those issues the texts confront are also our issues.”