A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters

A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters

by Andreas J. Kostenberger
A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters introduces the first volume in the BTNT series. Building on many years of research and study in Johannine literature, Andreas Köstenberger not only furnishes an exhaustive theology of John’s Gospel and letters, but also provides a detailed study of major themes and relates them to the Synoptic Gospels and other


A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters introduces the first volume in the BTNT series. Building on many years of research and study in Johannine literature, Andreas Köstenberger not only furnishes an exhaustive theology of John’s Gospel and letters, but also provides a detailed study of major themes and relates them to the Synoptic Gospels and other New Testament books. Readers will gain an in-depth and holistic grasp of Johannine theology in the larger context of the Bible.

D. A. Carson (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) says about Köstenberger’s volume that “for the comprehensiveness of its coverage in the field of Johannine theology (Gospel and Letters), there is nothing to compare to this work.”

I. Howard Marshall (University of Aberdeen) writes, “This book is a ‘first’ in many ways: the first volume that sets the pattern for the quality and style of the new Biblical Theology of the New Testament series published by Zondervan; the first major volume to be devoted specifically to the theology of John’s Gospel and Letters at a high academic level; and the first volume to do so on the basis that here we have an interpretation of John’s theology composed by an eyewitness of the life and passion of Jesus.”

The Biblical Theology of the New Testament Series
The Biblical Theology of the New Testament (BTNT) series provides upper college and seminary-level textbooks for students of New Testament theology, interpretation, and exegesis. Pastors and discerning theology readers alike will also benefit from this series. Written at the highest level of academic excellence by recognized experts in the field, the BTNT series not only offers a comprehensive exploration of the theology of every book of the New Testament, including introductory issues and major themes, but also shows how each book relates to the broad picture of New Testament theology.

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A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters

The Word, the Christ, the Son of God
By Andreas J. Köstenberger


Copyright © 2009 Andreas J. Köstenberger
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-310-26986-1

Chapter One

Johannine and Biblical Theology

1.1 Introduction

What a wonderful challenge and opportunity it is to write a Johannine theology! This is the body of Scripture anchored in the gospel Clement of Alexandria called a "spiritual Gospel" (pneumatikon euangelion), and this gospel, in turn, has moved countless hearts to recognize their need for Christ and nurtured many to greater heights in their spiritual pilgrimage. Markus Bockmuehl has recently made a case for the importance of Wirkungsgeschichte (a study of a work's "history of effects" on later interpreters) in biblical studies, and John's writings have indeed had a profound impact on Christian theology and spirituality that is second to few (if any) biblical or other works.

1.2 The "Spiritual Gospel"

1.2.1 History of Scholarship

In the recent history of interpretation, Clement's reference to John as a "spiritual gospel" has frequently been taken to imply that John is less interested in historical matters than the Synoptics, and a chasm began to open up between John as a "spiritual" (i.e., nonhistorical) gospel and the Synoptics as more reliable historical accounts. However, taking "spiritual" as "nonhistorical" is of doubtful merit. More likely, by observing that John was "conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the [Synoptic?] Gospels" already, Clement sought to draw attention to the profound theological reflection present in John's gospel without intending to disparage the historical nature of his account. Indeed, John deepens the reader's understanding of the significance of Jesus' life and work by focusing on a small number of pivotal items such as the identity of Jesus, the necessity of faith, and the universal scope of Christ's redemptive work.

Understood this way, there is every reason to believe that John, as a "spiritual gospel" — in the sense of being an interpretive account that brings out more fully the spiritual significance of the events and teachings it features — is grounded firmly in actual historical events, for it is only on such that theological reflection can properly be based. Most likely, in his theological reflection John took his departure from the "outward facts" set forth in the Synoptics rather than disregarding or contradicting them. His account commences with the Baptist's witness to Jesus (John 1:6 – 8, 15) and the incarnation (1:14). These events, in turn, are grounded in previous salvation history such as the tabernacle (1:14) or the giving of the law through Moses (1:17). What is more, in framing his narrative, the evangelist uses eyewitness language to testify to these events: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.... For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (emphasis added).

In this sense, then, John is a "spiritual gospel": it is the product of profound theological reflection, which, in turn, is grounded in actual historical events through which God acted in salvation history. However, the last half millennium of human thought has bequeathed several unfortunate dichotomies on biblical scholarship. The separation between history and theology has led to a gradual disparagement of John's historical reliability and moved the gospel's genre closer to myth and legend.

Another dichotomy passed on to the contemporary interpreter is that between religion and theology. If theology is understood as reflection on actual divine revelation, religion, by contrast, is conceived as the result of the human quest for meaning and as the evolution of human consciousness of a higher power. Thus Johann Salomo Semler sought to blend pietism with rationalism by separating theology as an historical, objective academic discipline from religion, which, he held, was subjective and based on personal experience.

Friedrich Schleiermacher, likewise, building on Immanuel Kant's distinction between metaphysics and practical morality, drew the same distinction between religion as a phenomenon of feeling and experience, "the sense of absolute dependence on God," and theology as intellectual reflection about God. After him, Karl Bretschneider (who in 1820 threw down the gauntlet by challenging the historical reliability of John's gospel), the Tübingen School (which favored a late, second-century date for John's gospel), and others applied critical reason to the biblical documents, questioning their historical reliability, while others sought to retain the spiritual relevance of the Scriptures, including John's gospel.

However, salvaging John's spiritual message appeared possible only by jettisoning his historical reliability, whether through Rudolf Bultmann's demythologization program (on which see further below) or the setting aside of the gospel in historical Jesus research. Thus this gospel, which had exerted such powerful influence throughout the centuries, not least in the formation of the early Chris tian creeds, was increasingly marginalized. The gospel, the emerging consensus had it, was of great devotional and theological value, but lacked a proper historical foundation. It appeared that John had suffered irreparable damage at the hands of skeptical scholars, having been dissected by critics of all stripes whether by applying source, form, redaction, or some other form of "higher" criticism.

In the past several decades, however, some have come to view this approach to John's gospel as misguided, advocating the study of the final text of John's gospel. A new breed of literary, narrative critics read the gospel holistically with a view toward appreciating its narrative features. At the same time, however, this "new" way of reading John's gospel — in fact, these literary critics were by no means the first to read the gospel as story — proceeded frequently only after both "legs" of the interpreter had been amputated by historical critics, and literary readings were conducted on the basis of a self-chosen agnosticism, if not negative assessment, of John's historical nature.

1.2.2 The Road Ahead

Where does Johannine scholarship go from here? As mentioned, the historicity of John's gospel has been widely diminished by modern scholarship. Even though some have sought to overcome its alleged lack of historical grounding by accentuating its literary nature, such efforts are ultimately unsatisfactory. If, as mentioned, the Johannine narrative were found to rest on a precarious historical foundation, this would have major negative consequences for the veracity of its theological, christological, and soteriological assertions. It is therefore imperative to assess the historical value of John's gospel, not least because mere literary readings fall short of doing full justice to the historical nature of Christianity and the gospel's claim of eyewitness testimony.

In one's scholarship, it will be essential to transcend the above-mentioned dichotomies between the spiritual and the historical, and theology and religion, and to consider the possibility that John's gospel is deeply nurturing spiritually precisely because it is grounded in an accurate historical portrayal of what actually took place in and through the life of Jesus Christ. This does not necessarily entail the rejection of historical methodologies or literary approaches where these serve to shed light on the setting of John's writings and on the contours of John's message.

In conducting one's research, it will also be vital for one's primary loyalties not to be to the critical establishment or to the current academic guild and its scholarly paradigms and methods. In fact, anyone looking at the state of Johannine research today will observe that the field is in a considerable state of disarray. D. A. Carson has spoken of the "balkanization" of Johannine studies — that is, its lapse into increasing fragmentation and disintegration into various interpretive enclaves.

In many ways, the state of Johannine studies resembles that described in George Guthrie's delightful parody of "busy boats in the bay":

The bay has gotten crowded and we must ask what we are to do about it. As we observe the frenetic activity in the bay, it occurs to us that some connections do exist between some of the boats. They can even be seen stealing bait from one another from time to time. Yet, for the most part, those in the boats fish in their own part of the bay either ignoring or glancing briefly at the other boats to decry what seem from a distance very small catches indeed.

How, then, shall John's Gospel be read? In a bold proposal, N. T. Wright calls for the adoption of a form of "critical realism" and the development of nothing less than a "new epistemology." While this is not the place to flesh out this proposal, I resonate with these sentiments in many ways. As Johannine scholarship moves into the future, it should take care not to build uncritically on the dubious legacy of its historical-critical forebears. Rather than attempt to construct a new edifice on top of a structurally unsound foundation, students of John's writings will be wise to eschew false dichotomies, to acknowledge the undeniable faith dimension in biblical scholarship, and to adopt a hermeneutical model that affirms the various component parts of the interpretive process in proper balance and proportion.

1.3 Prolegomena

1.3.1 The Hermeneutical Triad

Interpreters of Scripture are faced with three inescapable realities they need to address in their interpretive practice: (1) the reality of God and his revelation in Scripture (theology); (2) the existence of texts containing that revelation that require interpretation (language and literature); and (3) the reality of history, or, more specifically, salvation history, that is, the fact that God's revelation to humans, which is conveyed by the biblical texts, took place in human history. The writings of Scripture did not come into being in a vacuum; they were written by people with specific beliefs, convictions, and experiences.

In essence, therefore, the interpretive task consists of considering each of the three major elements of the "hermeneutical triad" in proper balance: history, language or literature, and theology, with the first two elements being foundational and theology occupying the apex.

While theology — discerning the spiritual message of Scripture — is at the pinnacle of biblical interpretation, an appreciation of both the historical-cultural background of a particular text and of the Bible's linguistic and literary features is essential. The history of interpretation has shown the flaws in approaches that neglect any one, or two, of the three poles of the "hermeneutical triad."

During the Enlightenment, many became disenchanted with the supernatural element in Scripture, such as the miracles performed by Moses or Jesus. Increasingly, the very possibility of miracles was questioned, and anti-supernaturalism often prevailed. A new view of science led to the interpretation of the biblical creation and miracle stories as "myths." This included Jesus' resurrection, even though Paul and other NT writers insisted that the resurrection is essential to the Chris tian faith. Over time, this rationalistic mindset gave rise to a pronounced skepticism toward the scriptural data and led to the development of the historical-critical method with its commensurate criteria for assessing the historicity of biblical texts.

One particularly telling expression of this approach is the effort by the twentieth-century theologian Rudolf Bultmann to "demythologize" Scripture in order to salvage an existentialist core of the Christian message. For many proponents of the historical-critical method, the question of history became detached from the biblical text, and "Wie es eigentlich gewesen ist" — "How it actually happened," the German theologian von Ranke's definition of history — became the preeminent preoccupation of biblical scholars. Assessing the historicity of the events recorded in Scripture largely replaced the study of the actual text of the Bible, a development trenchantly chronicled in Hans Frei's Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. The historical-critical method therefore serves as an exemplar of an undue emphasis on history at the expense of the Bible's linguistic, literary, and theological dimensions.

In the wake of Frei's work, however, the pendulum swung to the other extreme. Increasingly, historical skepticism toward the historicity of events depicted in the Bible led to a mere literary study of Scripture as any other book. In this approach, aptly labeled "aesthetic theology" by Kevin Vanhoozer, students of Scripture focused unilaterally on the various literary features of the biblical text while excluding historical questions from the scope of their investigation. Biblical scholarship was transmuted into narrative criticism or various other forms of literary criticism, and while interesting literary insights were gained, Scripture's historical moorings were unduly neglected, resulting in imbalanced interpretative outcomes once again. Postmodernism, for its part, cast the very notion of truth as a mere function of sociological factors rather than in terms of correspondence to facts and reality.

In assessing the merits of literary approaches to Scripture, it must be remembered that texts do not have a theology; people — authors — do. This shows the limitations of methods that leave largely in abeyance the question of authorship while focusing on a written text regardless of the adjudication of authorship or other matters intrinsic to the historical setting of a given document. This does not mean that the author's larger-than-life presence should be used to override and overshadow what is expressly stated in the text; the text should be regarded as the place where the author expresses his theology. Yet the text is not autonomous; it did not create itself. People, including authors, for their part, are shaped by beliefs and formative experiences. N. T. Wright provides a fitting illustration of the relationship between texts and history when he compares it to eating a piece of fruit, noting that it is impossible to cleanly peel away the skin without some of the fruit attaching to it. It is similar with texts that cannot be completely sanitized or divorced from history.

Yet other approaches abandoned the notion of historicity while retaining the centrality of theology. Adherents to this school of thought maintained that theological truth was not contingent on the truthfulness of Scripture in depicting various phenomena and events. The resurrection was redefined as an existential experience of new life through faith in the individual apart from the historical resurrection of Jesus following his crucifixion. Personal regeneration upon faith in Christ was recast as the result of an existential encounter with God through the reading of Scripture. These examples illustrate approaches to theology that inadequately recognize the fundamental role of history in the investigation of Scripture. While, as mentioned, theology is properly placed at the pinnacle of biblical interpretation, it must be built on the foundation of a proper appreciation of the historical, linguistic, and literary dimensions of Scripture if a valid and balanced interpretive outcome is to be attained.

For this reason the "hermeneutical triad" constitutes the most satisfying overall framework from which to proceed in order to explore the theology of John's gospel and letters. Rather than being pitted against one another, history, language and literature, and theology each have a vital place in the study of Scripture. If the interpreter is willing to pay attention to each of these dimensions of biblical interpretation and is prepared to follow the text's directions rather than setting out on one's own whim, he or she will be equipped to take their proper place in submission to Scripture and affirm with young Samuel, "Speak, for your servant is listening" (1 Sam 3:10).


Excerpted from A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters by Andreas J. Köstenberger Copyright © 2009 by Andreas J. Köstenberger. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Andreas Köstenberger is Senior Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He is the author of numerous works on John, including his commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament series, "John" in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, and “John” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary.

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