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Paul Spilsbury on Regent's DNA, Travel & Colourful Socks

December 15, 2015
"Colleges can never really transcend their own DNA: who you are is deeply embedded in how you were founded and what original things were put in place...Regent has this wonderful history founded on a vision and an idea."

Dr. Paul Spilsbury joined Regent College as Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament in August 2015. Dr. Spilsbury graduated from Regent in 1990 with a Master of Christian Studies. He went on to obtain a PhD in early Christian and Jewish history and literature from Cambridge. He was Professor of New Testament at Canadian Bible College in Regina, Saskatchewan, and later served as Vice President for Academic Affairs and Professor of New Testament at Ambrose University in Calgary. We sat down with Dr. Spilsbury to discuss his love for Regent, his new role, and his travels.

What is it about Regent that made you decide to return?

Well, it was the quality of the people, in the first place. The thing that sets Regent apart is that from the early days, it’s had the ability to attract really interesting people. And that’s because it was started by really interesting people.

Colleges can never really transcend their own DNA: who you are is deeply embedded in how you were founded and what original things were put in place. Schools, even generations later, will have a hard time transcending or moving away from how things were started, either positively or negatively. If you think about it as a building metaphor, it’s the foundation that sets the shape of the walls.

Regent has this wonderful history founded on a vision and an idea. The idea of Regent is very generative, because it’s about reaching out to the whole people of God, and serving the whole people of God. That means it’s got the possibility of doing things that are creative and open-ended and oriented towards the world, rather than just being cloistered inward.

Now, when I say that you can’t transcend the beginnings, it doesn’t mean that you have to be the same all the time. There has been a lot of change at Regent and even some turmoil—new ideas come and go—but I think most people would say when they come back to Regent after being away for a long time, “oh, it’s still Regent.” There’s still something about the place that’s exactly the same as before.

When you were a student here, what were some of the main things that you enjoyed?

I loved the community here. I had a good group of friends who hung out in each other’s homes. I loved the diversity of the student body. I came here thinking it would be interesting to meet this or that prof. But when I think back to it, I realize that a lot of my Regent experience turned on the other students.

I was quite young—22—when I started at Regent. Many others were quite a bit further along in life: there were lawyers and engineers and medical professionals. As I thought about what I wanted to do in the future, a lot of my ideas were formed by looking at what these other people were already doing with their lives.

I did have a very interesting job in my first year. At the time, my wife Bronwyn and I had absolutely no cash, so we lived a very simple kind of life. We arrived in Vancouver with enough money for one month’s rent. We went to this apartment building where we heard there was a vacancy and arranged that we could have the apartment. But when it came time to deliver the rent cheque, the owner said, “hold onto it for a while: I just fired my manager and I’m looking for a new manager.” And I said, “I’ll be the manager!” So right there, on the spot, I became the manager of this apartment block, for about 30 or 40 units.

You must have had a very honest face.

I guess. We didn’t have to pay any rent and the owner paid us well to live there, but the job itself was horrific. There were some very sketchy people living in the building and I was often caught between the warring factions with all kinds of people screaming at me. And then there was criminal activity going on in the building as well. It was quite an education. It lasted for one year. After that, the owner sold the building. We continued to live there, but I became a TA for Michael Green, who was a prof at the time. That was a much more sedate life.

You’ve gone from being a student to being academic dean. What is your current role in shaping the academic experience at Regent, and what are your goals for your time here?

I’m still in the process of learning where the community is and how the curriculum works. What I can do best is to shape processes and facilitate conversations. I don’t necessarily have a direct influence on the shape of things, other than to facilitate a properly functioning school.

Curriculum gets set through faculty conversations, both in faculty meetings and in the various committees that feed into the faculty council: the academic planning committee, for example. I’m usually either chairing those committees or on them, and my role is to ensure that those committees work properly.

You can have a lot of influence as academic dean, but it’s not necessarily direct control. Because Regent is a college, the process of determining the shape of the curriculum is more collegial. The dean works alongside the faculty members rather than telling them what to do. So the direction of the curriculum emerges as the product of ongoing conversations. It’s always in the process of being shaped and adjusted and reviewed and worried about and so on.

Your own academic work focuses on the NT and early church history: is that right?

Well, not quite. That’s what I’ve taught: part of my job before coming here was Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins. But my PhD was actually on a Jewish historian called Flavius Josephus, so much of my work is on early Judaism. That connects to the New Testament because the writers of the New Testament were themselves Jews: the whole world of early Judaism is very important for understanding the kind of ground out of which the early church grew.

Is there anything about Josephus that you would love the church to know?

In a broad sense, the thing that is very valuable to the church is to remind ourselves that Christianity is a historical phenomenon. And the way that this connects to Christian theology is in the doctrine of the incarnation. Our faith is rooted in stuff that happened.

Christianity is always a kind of interplay between our ideas and the things that actually happen in the world around us. There is a theological or philosophical side to it as well, of course, but a lot of the Bible is about things that happened. The book of Acts, for example, is about things that happened. The Gospels are about things that happened. And New Testament theology is about reflecting on the meaning of those events: how do they impinge on our life? What does it mean that Jesus died on the cross and then appeared again to people afterwards? Christian theology is always interacting with historical facts.

And so my academic work is partly as a historian, but always with an eye on the theological and cultural side, and on ideas developing out of that. Josephus is the most important extra-biblical historian of the 1st century for people who are interested in the origins of Christianity. It’s in Josephus that we learn about the temple, and about the Pharisees, and about Herod, and about the Romans. Most of what we read in textbooks about the world of the New Testament comes from Josephus.

Your interest in that world has led you to travel pretty extensively in the Middle East. Can you tell me a little about your travels?

Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel often to Greece and Turkey. I’ve been to Turkey probably 5 or 6 times, from Istanbul all the way to Diyarbakir. I’ve been to places like Haran, Odessa, Cappadocia (where the famous theologians were based in later times), and many other places in between.

I’ve also been to Israel numerous times, as well as to Jordan, Syria, and Egypt. With a former colleague from Ambrose, I studied Christian traditions in Ethiopia that date back to the 4th century. I’ve also travelled to to Armenia, Rome, and Malta – most of the places where the early church was based.

What’s the one place that you would commend to a Christian with a limited travel budget who is looking to engage with the historical church?

You definitely have to go to Israel. It’s accessible, there are lots of people going there, it’s easy to do, and it’s just wonderful to go. But one of the things I learned is that if you do go to Israel, it’s a good idea to try to go to one of the surrounding Arab countries as well. And you can’t only go to the Israeli part of Israel. You need to go to the West Bank, too. It’s not that one side is right and the other side is wrong, it’s just that you need to hear all the sides in order to get the big picture. The region is so complex now, politically and so on.

If at all possible, go to Jordan as well, or to Egypt. You can’t go to Syria at the moment. It’s just absolutely tragic, the places that are being affected by this terrible war. The places that I’ve been to in Syria were beautiful and interesting, and many of them have been directly attacked, including Palmyra: this beautiful gem in the desert.

It’s always important when you go to a place not to forget that people have lived there for 2000 years and they’re still there. We can’t just have this sort of antiquarian interest that doesn’t have any compassion and understanding of what people’s lives are like now. There are Christian communities that have been there for hundreds and hundreds of years. They often say that they feel completely neglected and misunderstood by the West, because the West is interested in their country for the antiquities or it’s caught up in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Westerners are always talking to Jews and Arab Muslims, but there are Christian Arabs too. And these communities are often so profoundly persecuted and badly treated in the conflicts that are going on.

One last question: I’ve heard you have a penchant for colourful socks. What’s the story with that?

Well, I guess I would say, you know, you just have to have a little flash of brilliance. I say to my students when they’re writing an essay that most of it just needs to be good, solid, and steady: get the facts, write carefully, write clear, short, sentences. But if you want to get an A, it has to have a spark, a flash of insight. The socks are like that—just a little flash of colour.

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