Wednesday 20 April 2016

The centrality of John's gospel to reading and understanding the Bible

It is clear that modern people - me included - find it very difficult to 'read the Bible' - even if that reading is largely restricted to the New Testament.

The experience is too often confusing rather than enlightening, misleading rather than clarifying; and the reigning rival paradigms for reading the Bible - either regarding the book as 'inerrant' on a line-by-line basis, or else regarding it as if it was just another historical document to be dissected by scholars - both do more harm than good by regarding the text as if it were a mosaic composed of detachable and autonomous words and sayings.

Here is a concrete suggestion that I have been using for a while: I regard John's gospel as the central text of the Bible, and read outwards from that to the other Synoptic gospels, the rest of the New Testament, and then to the Old - regarding them mainly in terms of explaining and expanding the message of John.

The reasons I regard John's gospel is central are manyfold: that it was written by a disciple, eyewitness and participant in the events; the disciple that Jesus most loved and who was most faithful to Jesus; the only disciple who remained loyal and did not hide after Jesus's arrest; the only disciple who was present at the crucifixion, standing with the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene - where Jesus from the cross entrusted to John the care of His mother; who responded to Mary Magdalene's news of the risen Christ and who ran faster than Simon Peter to arrive first at the opened tomb; the disciple who did not die but is still alive today and with us - ministering until the second coming; and the Biblical author whose gospel is unmatched in its beauty, coherence and the goodness and newness of its message.

I think that reading John as a whole (in the Authorised Version, the King James Bible - which is the only divinely-inspired English translation) gives us the gospel, the good news which Christ was; and does this in a way that is uniquely authoritative, and at the level of the highest poetry - which is the only language capable of whole-truth.

John's Gospel is the very heart of the Christian message: and surely that is what we most need and the obvious place for our understanding to be located.


Anonymous said...

I was thinking about this recently, while reading Talmage's Jesus the Christ. Although he covers all four accounts of Jesus ministry, John's Gospel is the overwhelming feature of the work. He seems to have appreciated its importance in not only informing us of Christ's character but in presenting the clearest depiction of the Christian message in all of scripture. Since Jesus himself is the center of the Christian religion, it is indeed true that the greatest witness to his works and teachings would be the heart of the Bible.
- Carter Craft

Seeker said...

"the only divinely-inspired English translation"

It is interesting that you think so. I always marvel at the poetry and the prose in the KJ version, not just because it is so great, but because the translation was drawn together by a committee of 47 people. God must have directed their hearts as well as their minds, and put their egos on hold, because in my experience any committee that goes beyond about eight people disintegrates into factions and confusion, and the resulting product is usually contemptible.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

The modern scholarly consensus is that John the latest and least reliable of the four gospels, but the evidence for this conclusion is surprisingly weak. It basically boils down to the fact that John differs substantially from the synoptics -- but that's precisely what we should expect from an author who is reporting his own recollections independently rather than compiling and revising existing documents (which is apparently what the authors of Matthew and Luke did). My opinion is that John is the only gospel that may be substantially the work of an eyewitness.

Matthew is also traditionally ascribed to an eyewitness (though, unlike John, it makes no such claim internally), but I don't buy it. I consider Matthew the least reliable of the gospels. Matthew relies heavily on the non-eyewitness Mark and on clumsy misinterpretations of Old Testament prophecies (such as in the ridiculous passage where he has Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys simultaneously!), and nothing about it suggests recollections of firsthand experience.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Well, I don't want to use John as a stick with which to beat the other gospels - but I am pleased to know you agree with the main point.

This business of how to read the Bible is one which is a real issue for many thoughtful Christians. I don't consider the matter to be all that complicated - but there does have to be some kind of prioritizing since it is in practice impossible for any 'normal person' to get a comprehensive overview of the Bible as-a-whole, taking into account the obviously different genres of different parts and the needs for reading the Old Testament through the New.

In practice, there are clear differences in prioritizing - which are often denied and may be implicit - for example conservative Protestants usually interpret the Bible through certain of Paul's Epistles especially Romans, taking them a line at a time.

Perhaps controversially, I think many evangelicals have the best simple and accessible approach among mainstream Christians, in working from the Gospels and having a Jesus-focused Christianity - but they tend to neglect the Big Picture in favour of trying to build up from a multitude of details (and also they tend towards inerrant literalism, as an attempted bulwark against liberalization and secularism).

Plus, they nearly always - and without even recognizing the fact, see the whole of Christianity through a Classical Philosophical lens, as you know from your LDS days - which ends up with a God that is described in abstract definitional terms more like that of the other major monotheism; but somehow trying to make this incomprehensible all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent deity a God whose primary attribute is Love.

It is a combination so difficult as to be in practice metastable - either collapsing in one direction into the harsh, irritable and vengeful, mysterious and abstract tyrant of pure monotheism; or dissolving into the mushy and useless liberal, non-deity of 'gentle-Jesus meek and mild', the teacher and good-example (ranged alongside many other such persons).

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I agree with you on the impossibility of reconciling Aristotle's God with the Bible's. I've been reading Fr. Frederick Copleston's 9-volume history of philosophy, and just yesterday I came across this rather astonishing bit of Thomism:

"Every creature, by the very fact that it is created, has a real relation to God as Creator. But one cannot argue the other way round, that God has a real relation to the creature. Such a relation in God would either be identical with the divine substance or it would be an accident in God; but the divine substance cannot be necessarily related to creatures, since in that case God would depend in some way on creatures for His very existence, while on the other hand God, as absolutely simple, cannot receive or possess accidents. The statement that God as Creator has no real relation to creatures certainly sounds rather strange at first hearing, as it might seem to follow that God has no care for His creatures; but it is a strictly logical conclusion from St. Thomas's metaphysic and doctrine of the divine Nature."

This sounds like a devastating Christian critique of Thomism, but in fact the author is himself a Thomist as well as being a Catholic priest! If a metaphysical argument leads to the conclusion that God cannot, strictly speaking, be said to love us, a Christian should consider that a reductio ad absurdum and reconsider his premises -- but somehow many Christians don't.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - Indeed. The obvious soluton is to drop the metaphysics, but there is a extreme reluctance to do so - almost a terror. My guess is that it is a superstitious terror of seeming to limit the power of God: a fear of evoking divine wrath (which itself gives the lie to a belief in God as Love).

Therefore - for real and well motivated Christians - the whole thing is made 'a mystery' - which is fine, so far as it goes; but Joseph Smith found a better solution!

This is, perhaps, one of the reasons that the Mormon Restoration was necessary - although Mormon metaphysics also makes clear that changing the definition of God as omni and creator from nothing has many other implications - for example making reality into a dynamic and progressive thing, happening in time - God's reality (his good) expanding into an unformed, chaotic universe.

Initially it must have seemed that by rejecting the traditional metaphysics, Mormonism was grossly weakening God, therefore weakening the Christian foundations - but 170 years implies otherwise.

AdamW said...

My intuition told me John was the earliest Gospel... it was only later I found out that historians dispute this claim. Certainly it is unlike the others. I understand that many over the years have identified it as the greatest.
Reading the Bible as simple literal history is largely unhelpful. The best advice I have seen (I will dig out the source) suggested that every passage should be read in four modes simultaneously: literal, metaphorical, moral and anagogical (pertaining to future Life in heaven).
But there's a lot of material. Recently I have found it helpful to divide the books by type: the Jewish law/history, the prophets, the poetry, the Gospels and the Letters. Makes it look like less of an unapproachable mountain. Also puts the Revelation next to Ezekiel and Daniel...