Monday, January 20, 2014

John holds the key

Christianity in the West is in a bit of trouble, as Christina Odone opines. While on my blog holiday I have done a bit of thinking. Nothing remarkable, but definitely seasonal: Epiphany is the time for thinking about the scope of the gospel. For the whole world, for Gentiles and Jews, for everyone. Today's (as I write, Sunday 19 January) Isaiah reading, 49:1-7, talks of the servnt, aka Jesus, being a light for the Gentiles and salvation being for the world, all of it, even the marginal, edgy regions such as New Zealand. (OK, New Zealand isn't actually mentioned, but it is implied).

So, back to basics: what is the gospel and how are we going to communicate it? These questions are the big questions for Anglicans in 2014, not you know what issue or who is really an Anglican (see previous post). Our life is way more urgent than that!

Having just read a superb book Mawson and the Ice Men of the Heroic Age: Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen by Peter Fitzsimons, a possible analogy is this. In a restaurant offering a choice between dog meat and more familiar chicken, beef or lamb, a diner might take some time to contemplate the possibilities, including working out what a civilised (i.e. Anglican) person would choose. Circa 1912, in the midst of an Antarctic blizzard, miles from the next food depot, with no food left on the sledge, there is only one question to ask, and that is the urgent question. Which is the weakest dog? The answer to the question is shot. And eaten.

Our Anglican problem (at least in these islands but I sense elsewhere as well) is that we act as though we are in the restaurant when the reality is a post-Christendom blizzard in which we have few options if we are to survive.

Now it would be rather grand and unattractively ego-centric to proffer 'my' answer to the situation. But I wonder if it might be acceptable to encourage a new look at John's Gospel and humbly suggest, as many Christians have done through the centuries, that John offers some exceptional gospel theology in his theological gospel, by which we might profit?

Given that John has generated quite a few words through Christian history, I confine myself with supreme discipline to two brief observations here. More may follow in subsequent posts ...

(1) Whatever we make of why John makes his distinctive offering (internal division within the Johannine church(es), attempt to marry Jewish Christianity with true insights from Greek philosophy, dissatisfaction with other gospel presentations, etc), John is crystal clear - 20:30-31 - that he writes to lead people to belief in Jesus Christ. That is, John's Gospel models for every church wrestling with the challenges of some new situation the possibility of finding a new expression of the gospel which connects with that new situation.*

(2) John's gospel highlights the issue of God. In a world of competing claims about God, including the claim that there is no God, John makes the claim that in and through Jesus we can know truly (and truthfully) the unseeable God (1:18) - indeed we can know that God exists because Jesus' claims about God were validated. In the twenty-first century Western Christianity could die but, if so, it will not be replaced by atheism but by other religions making different claims about who God is. One future for, say, Western Anglicanism, is to work on Johnannine lines, steadily making the case that God is this and not that.

What do you think?

*One explanation of John's Gospel in relation to the Synoptics, which accounts for its similarities to and differences from them, is that with the similarities, John is saying, 'Look, my gospel is the same gospel about the same Jesus.' With the differences, John is saying, 'Think with me, penetrate deeply into the meaning of the familiar gospel, and, look, is this not what the gospel means?' (Another idea I am toying with is that John's Gospel is among the earliest commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels).


Bryden Black said...

A delightful approach to the FG: that it is a sort of commentary upon the others - which were almost certainly known by the author(s) of FG; Richard Bauckham has surely addressed that matter, among others, re all four Gospels.

Confining ourselves to the Prologue and addressing a pressing issue for our day: creation.

1. As the first volume of McGrath’s magnum opus, A Scientific Theology, stresses, “nature” is not a self-evident phenomenon; we all “view it as ...” something, which something is culturally mediated. “Creation” is a Christian theological construction (shared somewhat with Jews and Muslims - but only somewhat). I.e. (and back to another thread) the natural world is NOT the result of happenstance, of mere ‘natural selection’ (however it might have come to exist). Nor is it to be viewed via the theology of Hollywood’s “Avatar”, as appealing as that evidently might be. “Gaia” theology cannot save the planet, nor us humans. No; as per St Augustine for example: this created world is sheer gift, and as such the primary response of us humans is initially that of wonder and praise. But even that response is not self-evident, nor self-generating. We need to be taught it! That’s why Augustine quotes again and again in Confessions the Psalms (especially at strategic junctures in the text) - which are God’s words given to us. The word of God is our “schooling” (Athanasius).

2. That’s why Jn 1:1-18 is mostly hymnic in form - in praise of God the Creator whose Word uniquely mediates both the fact of creation and its revelation. Thereafter, we may only truly know this gift of grace if another act of (re)creation and revelation occurs: vv.12-13 - which is predicated upon vv.14-18 for its realization.

3. But such divine “glory” as the theatre of creation displays (Calvin), by means of our “recognition and acknowledgment” as part and parcel of our “faith” response (Barth), knows also another set of responses - denial (vv.10-11). Here again Augustine may be our magister or teacher: the word “confession’ has about it a necessary dual meaning, of both praise and acknowledgment of fault/sin. And here again the FG has much to offer (though going beyond the Prologue now to summarize the entire drama). Glory is manifested as the Son is lifted up, and lifted up both literally on a Roman gibbet and by the Father’s granting the Son to be raised to Newness of Life. The scandal of creation as divine gift (to any secularist, that is) is only magnified by the even greater scandal of divine glory via the Crucified Son - which will counter most other religious claims to ‘glory’. For such true “glory” readily “atones” for our rebellion and sin (1 Jn after Jn 3:16) ...

So Peter; if these initial musings are anything to go by, the FG offers some staggering material for radical engagement with the 21st C context. The test of course will be our own engagement with this Word of Life: can we/will we be able to embody and display it powerfully/authoritatively (1:12) enough?! For we shall surely have to if the opposition the FG speaks of eventuates also! Yet to date we (some of us) suffer little direct opposition as our light is too dim - perhaps ...

Eric said...

Isaiah 49 begins "Listen to me, you islands" - so NZ is certainly covered.

Anonymous said...

Hello, Peter: I hope you've had a reviving holiday and a not-too-stressful house move; I trust you will take fewer years than my wife and I do to unpack or discover where we put that prized possession or book.
I am not too sure (except in the loosest sense) of the idea of John writing a 'commentary on the Synoptics', as if he had a copy of one or other before him; but he is certainly presenting his own 'take' on the Jesus-tradition that necessarily intersects with the Synoptics, including at some linguistic-thematic levels. Two examples that have always struck me are:
1. the names 'Siloam' and theme of specific judgment for sin in Luke and John;
2. the names 'Lazarus' and theme of resurrection and faith in Luke and John.
David Wenham produced a long essay some years ago on shared language and themes between the Synoptics and John (esp. how the 'I am' language of John often reflects the imagery of the Synoptic parables), while a very interesting essay came out in JTS in 1998 by B. Capper, 'With the oldest monks', which develops a meditative Essene Christianity. argument.
And via Titusonenine you can find a new video lecture by Richard Bauckham on 'The one' in John's Gospel, which intersects also with Bauckham's earlier work (in 'God Crucified') on the Shema in 1 Cor 8.6.
I'll let you get pack to unpacking!


Peter Carrell said...

Both the promises and the judgments of Isaiah our ours, Eric!

Peter Carrell said...

Thanks Martin
Yes, pretty much unpacked and settled in our new home. No treasures lost ... most located!

It is, of course, completely speculative, that John is a commentary on the other gospels. The strongest example (so far, it seems to me) is the prologue which quite effectively comments on Mark 1:1 and the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, to say nothing of Matthew 4 on light in the darkness.

Otherwise, yes, there are very intriguing linguistic-thematic aspects to consider.

Also: if John is a commentary on the other gospels, it is a commentary in the form of a gospel ...

Anonymous said...

Here's an excerpt from Wenham's booklet:
His major claim is that John is spelling out in explicit detail the Christological claims of the Synoptic tradition.
Stephen Noll has written somewhere on the web a piece on pre-existence in the prologue/proem in Mark 1.1f.


Unknown said...

Peter, I like your supposition that John represents a reflection upon the synoptics in a new context. Further, I also like your suggestion that John gives us an example and inspiration for a revived and confident Christian witness for the "western" church.

Your post also brought to mind, two other authors. The first is the Lutheran theologian Gordon Lathrop who has developed the idea that each of the gospels represents an effort to reform the assembly in order to refocus christian experience and witness on the Christ.

The second is the novelist Reynolds Price, whose book "Three Gospels" was crucially important in my own choice for Christ. In it, he offers a personal translation of Mark, John and a third gospel according to Reynolds Price.

I believe the Gospels to be central to faith life, but also as examples showing us how to respond to God's eternal grace seen in new ways.

Jon White

MichaelA said...

I don't think there is any hard evidence that St John knew the three "synoptic" gospels, although it is often speculated that he did.

I believe the "commentary" theory started as a result of 19th and 20th century liberal scholarship, which confidently pontificated that John's gospel was written in the late 2nd century AD. For those who accepted that premise, it was a logical step to conclude that it must have been written with consideration of the three earlier gospels, which by that stage were among the most widespread documents in the Roman world (judging by the large number of fragments found dating from 1st and 2nd centuries AD).

But that theory collapsed like a pack of cards with the discovery of fragments of two manuscripts of John dated to the early second century. Most scholars now agree that John's gospel is 1st century. That still leaves the question of the precise year. There is some reason to think that it is pre-70 AD (some of the passages are consistent with Jerusalem still being intact, and not the devastated ruin that Titus left). So it could have been dated any time, even before the other gospels were written. It was not always listed as the fourth gospel by the early church. But we do not know for sure.

The main objection to the "commentary" theory is that John hardly comments on them at all – despite a few celebrated and oft-cited examples, large slabs of his gospel have no obvious correlation to the others. Many if not most of the events he chooses to include are not those in the synoptics. He virtually goes out of his way to ignore them. For example, if John meant to comment on the numerous parables recorded in the synoptic gospels his method of doing so (i.e. by failing to mention any parables) is passing strange.

Secondly, the nature of his gospel is original – he emphasises the fact that he is an eye-witness to the events he describes on at least three occasions. This is a fresh account.

Thirdly, the structure of his gospel is thematic, which doesn't seem like the most suitable way to comment on e.g. Luke's gospel.

Finally, John states what his purpose is in writing the gospel (at 20:31), and that purpose on its face does not depend on the other gospels in any way. Indeed, it implies that one may come to salvation by reading John's gospel independently of other books.

Food for thought.

Peter Carrell said...

All you say is food for thought, Michael.

I do not think a 'commentary' approach requires a second century dating. There are ways in which Matthew is a commentary on Mark and Luke on Mark and Matthew, yet the likelihood is that all were written within 10 years.

I don't think the 'John doesn't touch on the parables' or'John is thematic' changes the possibility of his gospel being a commentary on the others: e.g. the 'I am' statements are comments on the miracles and parables.

In our day we see different kinds of commentaries being written, including 'theological exegesis'. Was John a precursor to such?

But, agreed, a commentary (if it be so) with an evangelistic purpose, and with original eye-witness material.

MichaelA said...

Good points...