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Spring 2018 · Vol. 47 No. 1 · pp. 42–50 

An Interview with Elmer Martens and a Retrospective

Rick Bartlett

Say a little bit about your early years.

I was born on a Saskatchewan farm in 1930. My parents, Jacob H. and Susie Martens, had married in 1928, the year my grandpa built the house where we would live. He had come as an immigrant from Ukraine in 1904 when my dad was a babe in arms. My grandparents moved to British Columbia, and Dad and Mom moved in. Eventually three other sons became my brothers. I was on hand as my dad built the red-roofed barn on that place, our family farm for over one hundred years.

One can say too little about the nature of scripture; one can also say too much. Either way is not being true to scripture.

One incident from my boyhood particularly stands out. Diefenbaker Lake was nearby, and one day I tried some waterskiing. Either I didn’t know better or was lost in thought, but at one point I failed to let the {43} line drop in the water. As a result, I had no choice but to ski ashore onto some cactus plants. Unfortunately, I have no pictures of that hilarious adventure.

In high school I was good in math but not so good in English. So at the university (I was the second from our community to go) I enrolled in English. I remember getting a C+ on one of my first papers. Fortunately, there was a chance that one could go up from there!

Did you always want to be a professor?

No, I traveled a roundabout way to becoming an Old Testament professor. I was part of a graduating class of six from high school. My Dad had a plan for all of his children: all were to go to Bible school. Dad paid for the first year in full; second year, half; third year, one-third. So I went to Bethany Bible School in Hepburn, Saskatchewan, for three years. Were they wasted? Hard to tell, but I’m certain my life would have taken a different turn had I not gone there. I enjoyed singing in the choir, got into some leadership positions, and was the first editor of the yearbook.

I had become a Christian at age seven or so and had made teenage rededications, but at Bible school I continually heard a message of full surrender to Jesus. I heard it in chapel every day. I came to despise the song “Trust and Obey,” which it seemed we sang at every chapel. I struggled as a twenty-year-old because I wanted to live my own life! But the call kept coming to surrender. All for Jesus! I fought it with all my reasoning, perhaps because I had a premonition as to what this choice would mean.

In my third year, I skipped breakfast one day, skipped the morning prayer meeting and morning classes, and had it out with God by myself in a dormitory room. I really believed I knew what was best for my life. And when I finally submitted to God and said “Yes,” nothing momentous happened. However, within myself I knew I had crossed a line in my relationship with Jesus. When I preach to youth today I say to them, “Don’t cheat yourself by thinking that you can run your own life better than God can!” It was the best decision of my life. Without Bible school it may not have happened!

When years later I packed my belongings to leave home for a teaching job, my Mom told me, “Your Dad and I thought we would not be able to have children. We prayed and decided that if we had a child, we would dedicate that child to the Lord’s service.” So there! In the end what choice did I have?

After the university degree, I taught one year, mostly grades seven through nine, in a four-room school in Stewart Valley, one of Saskatchewan’s small towns, just north of Swift Current. I truly enjoyed teaching {44} but was restless that year, feeling a hard tug toward the ministry, which at that time meant going to seminary. In fact, from the age of seven or so I thought God had called me to be a minister.

When a family friend, G. W. Peters, showed up in Swift Current, he and I had a talk. And as we parted he said, “Remember, Elmer, God is no man’s debtor.” Looking back, I testify that Peters was absolutely right.

So, in 1955 when Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary (MBBS) opened in Fresno, California, I was one of the six or so enrolled in the first class. Seminary was a great experience, although coming as a philosophy graduate from the University of Saskatchewan where the stress was more on critical thinking, I hiccupped many times when I heard G. W. Peters belt out some of his dogmatic (and quite unsupported) theses. I remember thinking, “I am a university grad. You can’t just pontificate on a point and thereby make it true.” I might have quit seminary, but then . . . I met Phyllis Hiebert there and found a soul mate. One day I had noticed that her office door was open. We chatted. Our first date was a theater production at Fresno State University. I also took her to the graduation banquet. After school ended that year, I borrowed my brother’s car and made my way to Mt. Lake, Minnesota, to meet her family.

How did you discern God’s will for the next stage in your life?

Upon finishing at MBBS, now married to Phyllis, I had no nibble regarding a pastorate for which I had trained. So I began fussing with further education. I first applied to Fuller Seminary (Pasadena, California). Then out of the blue, an invitation came to be the pastor of the upstart Butler Avenue Mennonite Brethren Church in Fresno. Reverend B. J. Braun, first president of the seminary, and Reverend H. H. Friesen were coanchoring the church services. They were inviting various folk, including some seminary grads like me, to preach on Sundays. I was invited, I preached, and was shocked to get a call that week inquiring whether I might be available as a pastor. Had I had any idea that I was candidating, I would have gone out of my skin!

I was torn between two options: graduate school at Fuller or pastor at Butler. I asked to meet with B. J. Braun in his office at the seminary. We walked through the options, then he prayed with me and ended by quoting Lamentations 3:27: “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth” (KJV). I came home to Phyllis, told her I was closeting myself in my office, and planned not to emerge until I heard from God. When discerning God’s will, how does one proceed? In my experience: follow the routine, which was to read a chapter from a day-to-day devotional. So I settled behind my desk, picked up the book, and turned to the devotional for the day, which to my surprise had for its biblical text, {45} “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth”! I was overcome by the presence of God, lingered, prayed, and emerged to tell Phyllis, “I have the answer. It’s the pastorate.”

So you spent this time at Butler in pastoral ministry. How did you end up teaching Old Testament?

After seminary and after pastoring for eight satisfying years at Butler Church, I became restless. One thing that concerned me was the education I saw happening at the local state university. It seemed to me that young people there were being brainwashed, and then I, as a pastor, was left to pick up the pieces. I wondered whether I might teach at the university level and offer a different kind of influence.

I enrolled in a PhD program in philosophical theology at Claremont Graduate School. My goal was to teach humanities and religion in a public college or university. I loved the philosophical conversation and challenges. But here J. B. Toews entered my story with a “wonderful plan for my life.” There is need at the seminary, J. B. said, for an Old Testament professor.

He was persistent. J. B. wrote letters, visited, telephoned . . . and he opined that I was not really cut of philosophical cloth, I was a preacher. So, since I was brought up to think that the voice of the church was the voice of God, I changed majors. At that time, I was studying Process philosophy with one of world’s renowned philosophers, John Cobb. I was doing okay. After the first semester, I went to him rather sheepishly to say I was changing degrees. He made the point that everyone works with a philosophy, but so many live with a philosophy unexamined. My change would mean an extra year.

In my Old Testament program I had some stellar instructors, like Dr. William Brownlee of Dead Sea scrolls fame, and Dr. Rolf Knierim from Germany, a student of Gerhard von Rad, one of the greatest. For my doctorate, I wrote a thesis titled, “Motivations for the Promise of Israel’s Restoration to the Land in Jeremiah and Ezekiel.” 1 I left the school in 1970, was given some time at MBBS for further work, and was awarded the PhD in 1972. I was forty-two. My advice: if you can’t finish a PhD by age forty, don’t bother.

What type of theological questions did you have to deal with in your time at MBBS?

When I was serving as president of MBBS, there was a culture-wide controversy in the United States regarding the Bible. A book had been written by Harold Lindsell titled, The Battle for the Bible, promoting a position of complete inerrancy of the scriptures. 2 A meeting of {46} evangelicals had been held in Chicago, and they had issued a statement on inerrancy. 3 The Mennonite Brethren (MB) constituency across the country was bristling with debate. At that time, a pastor in Larson, Montana, was making a lot of noise on the topic. Eventually J. B. Toews, John E. Toews, and I met with the MB Board of Reference and Council. For my part, I spoke farmer language, which gave me an advantage. On a combine or disc, one has ball bearings. If you run them too loose, they will vibrate and shatter. If too tight, they heat up and make trouble. My point: one can say too little about the nature of scripture; one can also say too much. Either way is not being true to scripture.

A bit later at the 1978 MB General Conference, I gave my first president’s report. A pastor from Denver rose to say,

I have four young men who are headed to seminary. Whether they will come to Fresno depends on your answer to my question. The Board of Reference and Counsel earlier presented their position: “We regard the Bible . . . as the inspired Word of God. The Bible is an infallible, inerrant rule of life and faith for us and for all mankind.” A delegate previously asked: “Does this also apply or include the scientific, geographical, and historical sections of scripture?” The answer was, “Yes.” My question to the seminary is: Would you also give an affirmative answer to that?

Fortunately, in anticipation of such a stir, the faculty had hammered out a statement. This is how I answered (in part):

We believe that the Bible is a God-breathed book. We do not presume to understand the mystery of divine inspiration and hold that all human efforts to define this mystery are more or less inadequate. . . . We believe that in the statements that it makes concerning geography and science it is reliable and authoritative in the sense in which in everyday common language we speak about it. . . . We are hesitant to push the word inerrancy inasmuch as that word has been used in our day with a definition that speaks of a scientific precision, and if this scientific precision is an aspect that we wish to claim for the Bible, then we claim more than what the Bible itself says. We hold that the Bible is reliable in terms of history and science, but it will be problematic, and we will back ourselves into a corner, nor does the Bible claim for itself that we need to work in terms of twentieth-century scientific precision on the question of science or geography or history.

A leader in the conference met me later at the recess and said, “That answer will cost you something like $50,000 in support.” {47}

Are there specific parts of your story that you would like to share that give a deeper glimpse into your life?

After eight years as pastor at Butler, I resigned. A new church building had been built, and I felt it was the right time to move on to Claremont Graduate School. In applying for their PhD program, I had read (incorrectly) that I was to get a medical exam. I was thirty-six and had never had one before. I went to see Dr. Matlock. The routine exam found an oversized wart. The doctor asked if I had always had it? I had not, so he insisted he needed to scoop it out. I protested that we had company coming for dinner. He continued to insist, and the dinner guests were kept waiting.

Two days later both Phyllis and I were called in. The doctor diagnosed that I had cancer of the lymphatic system, a case of melanoma. He proposed an operation in the upper leg area to see how far the cancer had progressed. I am a bit thickheaded in such matters. I started to review my calendar in my head and replied, “I would have time next week.” The doctor stated, “You don’t know how serious this is! I have reserved a bed for you the day after tomorrow.”

Later at Claremont, I had a new doctor. He reviewed my chart and told me, “By the statistics, you should not be alive.” But fifty years later, I am still alive! That awareness brings a certain consciousness that I am living on borrowed time, or, better, I am living on bonus time.

What practical words of advice can you offer those at the beginning of their academic careers or who might be considering whether or not to pursue an academic career?

Learn to exegete your context. It is important to promote rigorous scholarship while at the same time understanding the context and complexities of the people you are teaching. For example, one time I was teaching in Africa alongside a professor from Pennsylvania who taught theology. I observed these Africans sitting there politely, trying to figure out the ins and outs of the Western European Reformation. I purposed at that time that I wouldn’t do the same thing to any international students I taught in the future.

I appreciate biblical theology, which has a wider appeal, but even there I had to rethink. For example, salvation for us Westerners has to do with absolution. For us, sin and guilt is the problem. In contrast, for a group of Congolese, salvation is about the shame of transgressing social taboos. I also learned that deliverance for the African is deliverance from powers, evil powers. Biblical theology helps address the real needs of people in their context more clearly than understanding the Protestant Reformation ever could. {48}

When I think back on my life, I’d say from my experience that a professor’s life is intellectually demanding. A pastor’s life, however, is emotionally demanding, sometimes almost exhausting.


I edited the above interview of Elmer Martens, who passed away suddenly in September 2016 at age eighty-six, using excerpts from a presentation he gave to the Council of Senior Professionals in fall 2014 as well as memories from my experiences as his son-in-law for thirty-one years. First and foremost, Elmer saw himself intimately connected with the church—everything he did was for and about the local church. To see him in any other way, as primarily a scholar for example, is to miss the most important part of who he was. He longed to see the church thrive.

Elmer placed tremendous importance on the voice of church leaders representing the voice of God. When G. W. Peters or J. B. Toews pushed and challenged Elmer regarding his life direction, he acquiesced, and his entire life was changed as a result. Was this the right decision? No one can really say. Did the world lose a Christian philosopher, or did it gain an Old Testament scholar?

Regardless of the answer to these questions, Elmer was a person who pushed for excellence—himself, his children, and his students. Anyone who had the privilege of spending time in one of Elmer’s classes (myself included) knew that he demanded a lot. Why? For him, it was important that a lived faith could be explained. He knew that everyone had a theology, as his Claremont professor stated about philosophy, but not many had taken the time to think it through. Elmer wanted all his students to think it through.

As I’ve been writing this article, the sons and daughters of Elmer and Phyllis are taking care of final cleaning and removing items so their house can be sold. Sorting through over sixty years of memorabilia, a few things became obvious. First, Elmer and Phyllis loved their family. There were hundreds of slides in carousels, photos of the family and the four children growing up. And boxes of video tapes and prints. The couple were proud of their children and it showed.

Second, Elmer and Phyllis loved the world. The house was filled with mementos that could only have been found in other countries: wood carvings from Africa, special plates from China, brightly decorated cloth from India, silk clothing from Asia. The house was museum-like, not because they were special art collectors, but because wherever {49} they traveled they made such an impact on people that they were gifted with items that they treasured and displayed.

Third, Elmer and Phyllis lived simply. Apart from the items that were priceless (because they were given in relationship and love), the house and its furnishings were nice, but simple. This was not a home where one would feel like they didn’t belong, where you couldn’t relax and just be.

Fourth, Elmer and Phyllis loved their community. They reached out to their community through neighborhood Bible studies, community events, and helping their neighbors. When others moved out of the neighborhood because its social and economic demographics had changed, Elmer and Phyllis stayed and loved the new people who moved in.

Fifth, Elmer and Phyllis loved their church and the wider Mennonite Brethren family. They were part of North Fresno MB church for many years and ministered there up to their last days. Phyllis played organ and Elmer continued to teach and preach occasionally, and even served on various committees. Looking through Bibles, we found one with the latest copy of Rejoice, the MB Mission prayer calendar, and one other prayer guide. I know from personal experience that every morning they would read the devotional and pray together at breakfast.

Sixth, Elmer and Phyllis loved the life of the mind. The house was full of books, magazines, and files from both of them, on a wide variety of topics. Both were published authors. Elmer’s work includes God’s Design: A Focus on Old Testament Theology (1st ed., 1981; 4th ed., 2015), which was published in the United States (Wipf & Stock) and Great Britain (InterVarsity) and was also translated into Korean and Russian. He was editor (with Gerhard Hasel and Ben C. Ollenburger) of The Flowering of Old Testament Theology (Eisenbrauns, 1992), and recipient of an honorary volume edited by Jon Isaak, The Old Testament in the Life of God’s People (Eisenbrauns, 2009). His Old Testament Theology, an extensive bibliography of scholarly resources, was published by Baker in 1997, while his Jeremiah, the first in the Believers Church Bible Commentary series for which he served for many years as Old Testament editor, was published in 1986 by Herald Press. Elmer served on the translation team of the New American Standard Bible and assisted with the New King James Version, the International Children’s Bible, and the New Living Translation. An issue of Direction, of which Elmer was longtime general editor, was dedicated to him (vol. 25, no. 2, 1996) and contains an almost exhaustive bibliography of his publications to that date (pp. 73–85). It includes essays in edited collections, journal articles, and book reviews, in addition to many pieces that appeared in church and community publications. {50}

Seventh, in his later years, Elmer sought to be a blessing. Around the time of his death, I heard about half a dozen similar stories. Elmer had gone to visit an individual, a family member, faculty person, church member, and had spent time praying for them. As he left, he blessed them by reciting a psalm (he had memorized many). Over and over I heard what an impact this had made on those he visited.

Finally, one week before his passing, Elmer submitted a paper to be presented at the 2016 Institute for Biblical Research conference. He entitled it, “Toward a Whole-Bible Theology: The Power and Promise of the Loss-Restoration Paradigm as Anchored in Jeremiah 32.” 4 These words from Elmer have helped me immensely in dealing with my own loss of a father-in-law, mentor, advisor, and friend.


  1. Elmer A. Martens, “Motivations for the Promise of Restoration to the Land in Jeremiah and Ezekiel” (PhD Dissertation, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, Calif., 1972, 373 pp.).
  2. Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
  3. “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978).
  4. I was able to deliver the paper at the conference on Elmer’s behalf, November 2016 in San Antonio, Texas. To summarize its contents, the loss-restoration paradigm has the potential of reframing popular ideology in two directions: (1) a corrective to negative perceptions about the nature of God, and (2) a corrective to the church’s narrow definition of salvation. Moreover, theologically speaking, the loss-restoration paradigm binds the two testaments together, for they describe the same reality and stir hope. The God depicted in both testaments is a God of newness. Loss, whether of relationships or property, is not to be the final word. Beyond loss, if God is in it, the prospect of restoration is hope-inspiring. This indeed was how Elmer lived his life.
Elmer Martens was Professor Emeritus of Old Testament and President Emeritus of Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, Fresno, California. His doctorate in Old Testament was from Claremont Graduate School. He taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Southern Baptist Seminary, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and served as Old Testament editor of the Believers Church Bible Commentary series and as general editor of Direction. He and his wife Phyllis were members of the North Fresno Mennonite Brethren congregation, the parents of four children, and grandparents to nine grandchildren. Rick Bartlett, Elmer’s son-in-law, received his MDiv from Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary, and his DMin from George Fox Evangelical Seminary. He is currently Director of Theological Education and Assistant Professor of Ministry at Tabor College (Wichita campus).

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