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Life lessons: The value of Christian biography (I)

In times of struggle, we can look to the lives of those who have gone before us and take courage from the fact that their experiences can mirror our own. By Jacob Dunn.

Photo: [link]Debby Hudson[/link] Unsplash CC0.

This is part one of two of the paper  "Life lessons: The value of Christian biography". It was first published by the Jubilee Centre and re-published with permission.


George Hunsberger writes of a time in his life when, pastoring a church which was facing division, he was encouraged by the knowledge that Lesslie Newbigin had had a similar experience.

“Here biography touches biography…The encouragement I had drawn from Newbigin’s vision was deepened by discovering the companionship of his own experience with mine.” 1

Such is the power of Christian biography. In times of struggle and doubt, we can look to the lives of those who have gone before us and take courage from the fact that their experiences can mirror our own.

Their lives can encourage us, inspire us, and may even teach us lessons about how to live out our faith in the world today. This is particularly true for those involved in Christian social reform, who can draw on a rich heritage of “men and women who have been seized by the life and teaching of Jesus and, in the power of the spirit, have challenged… the inhumanity of unjust social orders.” 1

This paper will present an argument for the importance of studying the lives of past social reformers and suggest ways in which this study might be carried out.

I will first give a justification for the study of biographies and consider some key Bible passages in relation to the study of individual lives.

I will then discuss some ways of thinking about lives and concepts that should be borne in mind in the study of biographies.

I will conclude by making some suggestions about how we might go about studying lives, the key questions to ask, and some mistakes to be avoided.


The basis for studying lives

The Bible is filled with biographies. Indeed, it can be argued that substantial space in both the Old and New Testaments is taken up with accounts of the lives of “individuals who are found by God, who have been transformed by God, and who seek to tell others of God.”2

The Old Testament narrates the lives of Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David, among others. The New Testament narrates the most important life in scripture, and indeed in all history, that of Jesus. In addition to this it devotes a large amount of space to the life of Paul.

There is a substantial body of scholarship that regards the Gospels and the book of Acts as examples of ancient biography. Craig Keener argues that “In terms of recognizable ancient genres, the Gospels are like ancient biographies.

That is, the type of literary work from the Gospels’ era that they most resemble is the bios, or life of a subject – what we call… ancient biography.”3

The Gospels are distinguished from ancient novels by the fact they rely on prior sources, and also by the fact that novels mostly focus on figures from the distant past at the time of writing, rather than the immediate preceding generation as in the Gospels. 4

Keener also notes that the lack of verbatim recording of events does not present an obstacle to viewing the Gospels as biography. “Just as biographers could frame accounts in their own words and with their own emphases, so did prior traditions. No one… is claiming that the Gospels typically record Jesus’ words verbatim… In fact, the Gospels actually come closer to verbatim agreement than was common in ancient biographies and historiographies.” 5

Sean Adams has made a similar argument with regard to the book of Acts. Against the common view of Acts as a history of the early church, he persuasively argues that the book should be seen more properly as a collected biography.

Adams achieves this through a detailed analysis of the book of Acts, both in its external features – such as structure, size, and use of sources – and also its internal features, such as setting, style and presumed audience. 6

He concludes that the genre features of Acts point away from seeing it as an epic or a novel. While it does have some similarities to ancient historical writing, it is shorter than most histories and is organised around the presentation of characters.

Thus, it is more suitable to see it as a collected biography. 7 It should be noted that “genre classification by itself does not support or deny historical accuracy.” 8

Simply to recognize that certain books of scripture are presented in a particular way does not impact on their truth. From this discussion it may be seen that biography is a genre the Bible actually employs.

This is a clear statement of how much the lives of individual men and women matter to God, and it forms a key part of the biblical basis for studying lives.

A significant passage to consider in relation to biographies is Hebrews chapter 11. John Piper has called this passage “a divine mandate to read Christian biography.” 9

Throughout history, God has used many different individuals to give direction and inspiration to his people, and many of their lives have been recorded.

In the course of chapter 11, the writer of Hebrews calls to mind a number of figures from the Old Testament in order to encourage the believing community in the present. All of these figures are commended as examples of faith, a faith that is “the reality of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen” (Heb. 11:1, CSB).

David Peterson writes that this faith “behaves in a way that is consistent with the character of God and the promises that he has made, demonstrating the relevance of what we do not see…to life in the present.” 10

The writer of the letter gives a long list of figures from the Old Testament, beginning with Abel, Enoch and Noah, then going into detail about the actions of Abraham and his descendants, and then Moses and those associated with him.

He ends with several shorter descriptions of Judges and prophets, and of David. This “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) is seen as an encouragement to the believing community as they face trials.

The believers may be alienated from the culture around them, they may be ill-treated or persecuted, but they can still be encouraged by the persevering faith of those who came before them.

This encouragement to perseverance forms another part of the biblical basis for the study of biographies. Mary Healy has also argued that “we should not make the mistake of thinking that the roll call ended with the Old Testament or when Hebrews was written; it has continued throughout the centuries and into our own times.

The Church in our age has witnessed countless miracles of faith and countless triumphs of unbroken faith in the midst of apparent defeat.” 11

Thus Hebrews 11 is not merely a call to remember the major figures of the Old Testament, but also a call to remember the lives of those who have shown great faith throughout time and all over the world, up to the present.

In addition to the many biblical calls to record, remember and call to mind the past, studying biographies can also provide reflections on leadership and the character required of leaders. “Leaders who have the character and resilience to thrive in the midst of adversity are not born, they are formed by the choices they make.” 12

Studying the lives of public leaders, and the choices they have made in the course of their careers, can give an insight into how leaders develop over time. In particular, many public leaders we now consider great have been formed through adversity.

The choices through which they were formed were made under high pressure. To understand how they faced such adversity, and the role of challenge and struggle in shaping their lives, may be helpful in understanding the role of struggle in shaping social reformers today.

Perhaps most importantly, biography can provide a touchstone for evaluating the leaders of today. Of course, this is not to argue that today’s public leaders should be discredited because they compare unfavourably with those of the past, but studying the lives of former leaders and what made them effective can provide insights into the character of leaders against which we might test those of today.

Robert Clinton has emphasised the importance for leaders of studying the lives and writings of others in order to develop their own leadership capabilities. “[The] ability to learn for one’s own life from the lessons seen in the lives of others is vicarious learning… Biographies of leaders should be a regular part of one’s literary diet.” 13

The study of biographies can not only contribute to our understanding of leadership in the abstract but can also help leaders to improve on their own practices by seeking lessons from the lives of others.

Several theologians have conducted research into the possibilities of biography to aid theological reflection. James McClendon argues that story is a method of expression uniquely suited to theology.

Biography is a particular form of story which is “distinguished by being always a human story, and always (in intention) a true story.” 14 McClendon calls attention to specific, compelling lives as a way of understanding the human experience of God.

There are particular lives which are striking, which attract us, and in which the core doctrines of the Christian faith can be seen to be lived out. Through their striking qualities, or the things they achieved, such lives prove the reality of the “things not seen” of Hebrews 11.

McClendon draws upon the work of Catholic scholar Romano Guardini to argue that “saints serve as models for new ways of being Christian, opening paths which many others will follow.” 15

Particularly relevant to the study of social reformers is his comment that “there is a particular saintly task for today, and that is the task of changing or reshaping the world God has entrusted to human beings.” 16

Work such as this clearly demonstrates the value of individual lives, as well as the potential for biography to go beyond being encouraging stories to become a method of seriously addressing theological questions.

Writing about his father, theologian Gregory Jones writes that “I couldn’t explain his life adequately without pointing to his belief in the God of Jesus Christ.” 17 Some writers have sought to take this thinking further and suggest that certain holy lives can actually function as evidence for the existence of God.

Robert MacSwain identifies three forms of what he calls the hagiological argument for God’s existence. First, the propositional form, a technical argument in which the existence of God is inferred from certain behaviours, such as radical sacrifice.

Second, the perceptual form, in which one “feels” the presence of God when with a particular individual. Third, the performative form, in which a person can be said to embody and exemplify holiness over the course of their life. 18

Drawing on the work of Anglican theologian Austin Farrer, MacSwain argues that holy lives argue for the existence of God not by logic, but by witness; they become “incarnate arguments”. 19

The central point of all three forms of this argument is that it is impossible to explain certain lives if God does not exist. Many individuals may be cited as examples of this kind of holy life, and it may be hoped that some of us might have encountered such people in our own lives.

MacSwain mainly writes with reference to living individuals, but I believe his argument may be extended to past individuals as well. Studying such lives and what has constituted holiness for them may give greater insight into what holiness looks like in our time.

It is also important to remember that holy lives are not always the kind of extraordinary lives that are remembered, and that the kind of holiness of which MacSwain writes may equally be exemplified in those ordinary, faithful individuals who are not known to biographers.


Thinking about lives

Human lives are unique and complex. Every life contains a detailed, multifaceted collection of experiences and a rich network of relationships. This discussion cannot therefore be seen as absolute or universal.

What I hope to do here is to explain several concepts and ideas that I believe are useful in thinking about the various dimensions of a human life.

A key idea to be borne in mind when thinking about biographies is the need to see a life as a single unified narrative, rather than dividing it into separate episodes or roles.

MacIntyre discusses the modern tendency to break lives up into separate aspects, rather than seeing them as a whole:“work is divided from leisure, private life from public life, the corporate from the personal… And all these separations have been achieved so that it is the distinctiveness of each and not the unity of the life of the individual who passes through those parts in terms of which we are taught to think and feel.” 20

This separation of life into distinct stages and roles results in a tendency to view human actions in an atomistic way, without seeing that each action is necessarily connected to others.

Instead of this separation, there is a need to understand that human actions find their meaning within particular social settings. “We cannot… characterize behaviour independently of intentions, and we cannot characterize intentions independently of the settings which make those intentions intelligible both to agents themselves and to others.” 21

MacIntyre uses the term “setting” in a fairly broad sense to include institutions, practices, and other milieux in which human agents find themselves. Actions become intelligible by being placed in relation to the history of the individual performing the action and the history of the setting or settings in which they belong.

It is therefore necessary to see individual lives as a unified whole in order to understand how the actions of individuals make sense within the overarching narrative of their lives.

Applying this idea of narrative and unity to the study of biographies is helpful in ensuring that we do not see the biographies of significant figures as merely a series of events, but rather as complete narratives in which one action is invariably connected to others.

More broadly, conceiving of biographical study in terms of narrative emphasises the need to go “beyond the mere cataloging [sic] of events, offering instead an interpretation of those events that finds ways of linking them together within a bigger picture.” 22

In studying the biographies of social reformers and public leaders, it is necessary to recognize that they do not exist independently of their social and cultural context.

“Biographies of leaders or activists must set the central performance of their subjects in the context of the political conditions that produce them, the society in and on which they operate, their race, class, nationality, and gender, and the many other figures who surround them.” 23

Theologian Miroslav Volf has framed this idea in terms of a distinction between social agents and social arrangements. “Social arrangements” refer to proposals for the kind of society we ought to create, whereas “social agents” refers to the kind of people we need to be in order to live in harmony with others. 24

For Volf, we must “concentrate less on social arrangements and more on fostering the kind of social agents capable of envisioning and creating just, truthful, and peaceful societies, and on shaping a cultural climate in which such agents will thrive.” 25

Following sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, Volf argues that modernity has shifted responsibility away from the self and toward supra-individual bureaucracies, and postmodernity has fostered a sense of fragmentation and disengagement in relationships.

Sustained reflection on the character of social agents and how they are to exist within postmodern social arrangements is therefore necessary.

The study of biographies may be a useful tool in aiding such reflection enabling understanding of the kind of qualities such agents exhibit and thinking about how such qualities may be nurtured and developed.

It may also help us to understand particular social arrangements through reflecting on the context of the lives we study. We cannot understand the lives of past social reformers without understanding the times in which they lived, and understanding their lives can, in turn, help us to understand their contexts and reflect on the social arrangements which enable social reformers to operate.

It is also important to note that there are no agent-free arrangements, or arrangement-free agents. Just as social reformers are able to act upon the social arrangements in which they find themselves in order to produce change in their societies, those same societies also act to shape them.

Biographical subjects can sometimes become entwined with their cultural context to such a degree that their life story becomes a subject of political debate. 26 Discussion of the lives of certain leaders almost inevitably leads to debate over national myths and character.

The life of Nelson Mandela, for example, has become deeply entwined with the history and character of South Africa. He exerted a huge influence on his nation through his fight against apartheid, but was himself also deeply shaped by his experience of the apartheid regime. In a very real sense,

Mandela would not have been the man and the social reformer that he was without the South African context that shaped him. The connections between social reformers and their contexts can be complex.

It can be difficult to discern to what extent they are shaped by the times and cultures in which they live, and to what extent they are able to transcend them in order to effect change.

Much has been written about this problem of the relationship between social agents and structures, and it continues to be a major issue in several academic disciplines.

Applying this way of thinking to the study of lives will help us understand that social reformers are embedded in particular contexts, and it is necessary to understand their relationship to these contexts in order to do justice to understanding their lives.

An additional concept that is significant in thinking about lives is the idea of calling. Many individuals whose lives are recorded in the Bible were called by God for specific purposes, to go to particular places or preach to certain peoples.

Gordon T. Smith argues that we can understand God’s call in three distinct ways. The first is a general call to be a Christian: God invites every one of us to come to know him through Jesus and to respond to his love in service to others.

Second, there is a specific call, some defining purpose, a unique way in which each of us is called to serve in the world. While all believers are called to love God and others, each of us is called to live out this love in different ways. Third, we are called to respond each day to the tasks and demands God has set before us. 27

This idea of calling can be very useful in understanding the meaning of lives and the work God has given each individual to do. The second calling Smith identifies is the most relevant to considering the call of social reformers to politics, activism, or public leadership.

Many people engaged in social reform have a clear sense that it is something God has called them to do. Os Guinness has expanded on the relevance of calling to public life, and especially to politics.

He argues that the “calling directly counters the great modern pressure towards privatization because of its insistence that Jesus Christ is lord of every sphere of life.” 28 Calling challenges the modern tendency to privatize Christian faith by exhorting Christians to live out their faith in the public square.

In addition, calling counters the tendency for public Christian faith to become politicized by insisting that Christians are to be “in the world but not of it”. “Christian engagement with politics should always be marked by tension between allegiance to Christ and identification with any party, movement platform, or agenda.” 29

Thinking about the role calling played in the lives of social reformers can help us to understand how they saw their own work and mission in the world.

William Wilberforce recalled the time when he first realised the evil of slavery; “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.” 30

Many other social reformers have spoken of such a moment of calling or awakening and described how this led them to seek the reform of their societies. Other reformers have written of how their sense of calling provided comfort in the midst of struggles.

Abraham Kuyper wrote to his daughter that “my calling is high, my task is glorious. Above my bed hangs a crucifix, and when I look up there it is as if the Lord is asking me every night: “What is your struggle next to my bitter cup?” His service is so exalting and glorious.” 31

They may have gone through many struggles or faced opposition, but the sense of God’s call on their lives has often motivated social reformers to continue in spite of difficulty.

MacIntyre’s insistence on viewing individuals lives as a unified whole carries a further implication; that there should be no distinction between public and private selves. Integrity is a concept which has come under much discussion in recent years and is very relevant to thinking about the nature of lives.

The term “integrity” derives from the Latin “integer”, meaning “working well, integrated, intact and uncorrupted”. 32 John Stott defines a person of integrity as one for whom there is “no dichotomy between their public and private lives, between what they profess and what they practice, between their words and deeds.” 33

However, many social reformers and Christian leaders have complex personal lives and are sometimes deeply flawed individuals. Often information emerges after their deaths, which may tarnish their public image.

This has been the case with Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, and the artist Eric Gill, among others. More recently it has been the case with figures such as Ravi Zacharias and Jean Vanier.

It is therefore important to reflect on how we face the flaws in Christian leaders, especially when they emerge too late for the individuals themselves to take responsibility for them. To begin to address such flaws, we should “concede that the church is indeed a fallible enactment of beloved community.” 34

Every Christian is fallen, we are all affected by sin and this sin manifests in our lives in various ways. The flaws of past leaders need not disqualify them as subjects of study but can teach us lessons about what not to do, or about what we can do differently today.

James Eglinton has distinguished between what he calls “commemorative biographies” and “critical biographies”.

A commemorative biography simply seeks to showcase a particular figure as great, with the result that character flaws, or things which do not fit the commemorative narrative of the biographer, tend to be omitted.

A critical biography, on the other hand, engages deeply with primary sources in order to tell the story of an individual “warts and all”. 35

When we study the life of an individual, it is therefore necessary to engage with every aspect of their lives, both good and bad, in order to develop as complete an understanding of who they were as possible.

Jacob Dunn is one of the participants in the Jubilee Centre's 2020/21 SAGE Graduate Programme. He has a degree in Theology from the University of Glasgow.

This paper was first published on the website of the Jubilee Centre and re-published with permission.



1. Trevor Beeson, Rebels and Reformers: Christian Renewal in the Twentieth Century, (London: SCM Press 1999), x.

2.  Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books 2019), 11.

3.  Craig S. Keener, Christobiography: Memory, History, and the Reliability of the Gospels, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 2019), 1.

4.  Craig S. Keener, interviewed by Christopher Reese, “The Gospels are Fact, Not Folklore”, Christianity Today, October 2019,

5.  Ibid.

6.  Sean A. Adams, The Genre of Acts and Collected Biography, Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 156, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2018), 116-171.

7.  Ibid., 170-171.

8.  Ibid., 22.

9.  John Piper, Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, (Nashville: Christian Focus 2003), 89.

10.  David G. Peterson, Hebrews, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries vol. 15, (London: Inter-Varsity Press England 2020), 259.

11.  Mary Healy, Hebrews, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2016), 255.

12.  Mercedes McGuire, “Public Leaders and the Slow Formation of Character”, 2019,

13. J. Robert Clinton, The Making of a Leader, (Colorado Springs: Navpress 1988), 141.

14.  James Wm. McClendon, Biography as Theology: How Life Stories Can Remake Today’s Theology, (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock 2002), 159.

15.  Ibid., 157.

16.  Ibid.

17. L. Gregory Jones “For all the Saints: Autobiography in Christian Theology”, The Asbury Theological Journal 47, no.1 (Spring 1992), 30.

18.  Robert MacSwain, “The Saint is Our Evidence”, 2019,

19.  Robert MacSwain, Solved by Sacrifice: Austin Farrer, Fideism and the Evidence of Faith, (Leuven: Peeters 2013), 228.

20. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 2nd ed., (London: Gerald Duckworth & Co. 1985), 204.

21. Ibid., 206.

22. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics, 26.

23.  Hermione Lee, Biography: A Very Short Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009), 104.

24. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation, (Nashville: Abingdon Press 1996), 20-21.

25.  Ibid., 21 (emphasis original).

26.  Lee, Biography, 107.

27.  Gordon T. Smith, Courage and Calling: Embracing Your God Given Potential, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 2011), 9-10.

28.  Os Guinness, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Purpose of Your Life, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson 2003), 156.

29.  Ibid., 158.

30.  Ray Setterfield, “William Wilberforce’s Fight Against Slavery”, 2020,

31.  Quoted in Guinness, The Call, 155.

32.  Rodney Green, “Integrity”, Cambridge Papers 27 no. 1, (March 2018),

33.  Quoted in Green, “Integrity”.

34.  Richard Shumack, “Flawed Heroes of Faith”, Eternity, October 2018,

35. Reformed Forum, “A Critical Biography”, YouTube Video, 2:36, September 2020,




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