Monday 22 October 2018

The new meaning of Command and Commandment in the Fourth Gospel

There is a sense in which the nature (and history) of Christian churches hinges upon understanding the implications of command and commandment. There is a sense in which the Fourth Gospel (of 'John') amounts to a redefinition, a change in meaning, of command/ ment, and thereby of the nature of what Jesus intended to happen after his death.

If we focus on the use of command/ ment in the Gospel, we can see than the early Old Testament assumption about what this means is subverted by its usage, until it is gradually made clear that the OT assumptions of the Master-servant, Law-obedience model of the relation between God and Men; needs to be replaced by a new 'model'.

In a nutshell: obedience unfolds and is redefined through the course of the Gospel. As Jesus explains (really very clearly, with repetitions in different words) just how he wishes his followers to behave and how they should relate to him, and to each other.

The wishes of Jesus are actually very obvious; but also very different indeed from how 'things turned out'. 

12: 49-50 - For I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. And I know that his commandment is life everlasting: whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak.

This first mention of commanding sounds much like the OT Master-servant relationship - command means law, law implies obedience - blind obedience when the reason for command has not been understood. A top-down model. But...

14:15 and 21 - If ye love me, keep my commandments... He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

So far - what Jesus says is still compatible with the OT - but wait!... Jesus introduces love; and this ought to make us suspect something new and different is going on; because love is not something that can be 'commanded' in the sense of ordered: a command to love cannot be obeyed. One cannot (think about it...) rationally make a Law to love.

The simple fact that we cannot obey an order to love is (I think) obvious once pointed-out; but has failed to register because (it seems) that the Ancient Hebrews operationalised 'love' as 'obedience' - and people (apparently) ceased to notice that obedience isn't really love... 

But Jesus is about to change this. What that fact of not-commandable-love means is that the first and primary two commandments - to love God and neighbour - cannot be 'commands' in the sense in which people usually tend to understand them. The concept of 'command' being used must be different from 'order' - and this is made clear later in the Fourth Gospel. 

From Chapter 15: 12-17 - This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. These things I command you, that ye love one another. If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love...

Here is Jesus's new understanding of what command means. To 'abide in love' means something like a harmony of purpose, based on mutual love. And this is clarified by Jesus telling the disciples explicitly that their relation is one of loving friends and Not of Master and servant; that they are not supposed to obey blindly without comprehension - but that he will provide the understanding that is necessary for the disciples to obey from loving harmony of purpose.  

Jesus is asking for love, faith, trust, friendship and loyalty - all of which is distinct from the obedience of a servant due to his Master. Duty may be ordered - but love cannot. 

Therefore, a man must want to be a member of Jesus's 'family'. The community of Jesus's followers is being envisaged as a group of mutually loving friends who mutually love Jesus - that is, as a Christian family, a family of Christians - whose harmony of purpose derives-from this love. And the disciples are specifically told that the proper relationship is not any more to be in the old command-and-obey; Master-and-servant form.

As things happened, a Christian Church was formed, a legalistic organisation based on the assumption that love could be commanded in the sense of being ordered by a Master, and that people could and should obey (if necessary, without comprehension) - like servants.

But it certainly looks as if Jesus went to considerable lengths to explain that this was not what he wanted from his disciples - and that he envisaged his followers as cohering like a family, not as an organisation (legally regulated); growing-from loving personal relationships and a high vision of (family-like) friendship.

Jesus seems to be instructing his discples to discard the OT Master-servant, order-obey, uncomprehending, legalistic relationship; and for it to be replaced by a harmony of purpose, based-on loving friendship, knowedge of Jesus (provided to each individually by the Holy Ghost) - and presumably 'enforced' by mutual loyalty (rather than duty) deriving from the characteristic loyalty among loving family members.

Note: from the above one can certainly see why it was decided to demote the Fourth Gospel to a subsidiary and dependent role - implicitly inferior to the Synoptics and Pauline Epistles. Because when I regard the Fourth Gospel as the most authoritative source on Jesus's life and teachings, and read it in isolation, it does seem to contradict a lot of what has come to be taken for granted - and presumably that fact or problem was noticed by the compilers of the Bible and early scholars - who decided implicitly to disregard the internal evidence of the primacy of the Fourth Gospel, in favour of embedding it in a mosaic of other authors.


Chiu ChunLing said...

It is important to note that duty (in the true sense) cannot be arbitrarily commanded any more than love. Duty comes as a result of some response being due. Not because the recipient demands it, but because the Law (existing prior to both Man and God) does.

In this sense, love of God (and thus love for God's children) is a duty, and quite apart from God's love for us. And the punishment for failure to love is fixed, not by God's will, but by the Law against which God can never have any power, for obedience to the Law is the source of all divine power.

What the organized Christian Church forgot was that God is also subject to, rather than the arbitrary author of, the Law.

And this Law demands that none can receive salvation who do not love God. Indeed, as I often mention, salvation consists of nothing more or less than to love God and have the opportunity to worship in His divine presence. Not because God insists on reciprocation of His love for us, God would (and does) love us regardless of whether we love Him in return (and in a certain very important sense, despite the fact that we can never really love God enough to return His love). But because our love for God is our salvation.

God would, if it were possible, waive the requirement. Indeed, by virtue of Christ's atoning sacrifice, has already altered the original requirements so drastically as to make salvation possible where it had previously been impossible. God has moved Heaven and Earth to make it possible for us to love something, anything, about Him enough to not be damned by our lack of love.

But in the end we are the ones who must choose to love God. Because if we do not choose to do it, then what we are doing is not love. And if we do not love God, we will not love being with God in eternity.

That is the Law.

In a certain sense, it is probably better for us to obey blindly out of love of God rather than examine the commandments closely enough to realize that God is getting nothing out of the deal other than our happiness. Because there is simply nothing else at stake here, the only reason God cares that we obey the commandments is because doing so out of love will make us eligible for salvation, the only reason God cares about our salvation is because we will be far happier saved than damned. But to understand this makes the obedience more or less just for our own sake, which undermines the entire point.

If we insist on understanding that far, then we must go further and really love God enough to understand that the sorrow He feels for each and every damned soul is passionate and real. To say that God's love for us is the only reason He cares whether or not we are saved must not be taken to imply that it is at all a trivial reason in God's view (my own view is still that it is a very silly reason indeed, but I cannot deny that it is extraordinarily important to God).

It may even become necessary to understand better how each commandment is really for our own happiness, not just in demonstrating love for God but in terms of the commandments describing the sort of thing we should do if we want to avoid making ourselves miserable quite aside from whether we follow them for love of God or because they are just good advice. That is to say, by understanding how the commandments are an expression of God's love and concern for us, rather than seeing them as only a way for us to demonstrate our love for God, we may be able to really come to love God out of gratitude for giving them to us, even when we follow them only for love of ourselves.

Tobias said...

Careerists want absolute obedience from their 'inferiors', and the Church was/is no different. It is a wonder that the fourth gospel made it into the bible at all


Bruce Charlton said...

@CCL - A lot to disagree with there! - but too much for a blog comment.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, I disagree with about half of it myself. The fact is, the entirely unreasonable degree to which God loves humanity is one of the things that I don't especially love about God.

I love God because of God's obedience to the Law.

I tolerate God's efforts to shield His children from the full weight of the Law because He pays the price demanded by the Law. But I have yet to really love Him for going to so much trouble.

Still, I suppose I eventually must.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Simone de Beauvoir held that marriage is inherently obscene because it turns love into a legalistic institution and a duty, which love by its very nature cannot be. I once found this a compelling point until I somehow ended up married myself and learned from direct experience that it is holy and not obscene.

Love and duty may appear incompatible, but somehow they are not. What comes more naturally to a lover than the taking -- and demanding -- of vows?

Assuming that your opinion of marriage is similar to my own, you might consider giving the institutional Church the benefit of the doubt. The whole metaphor of the Church as the bride of Christ may be deeper and truer than people realize.

Chiu ChunLing said...

Well, marriage is a good analogy there.

You shouldn't just marry anyone.

Especially someone who clearly doesn't understand what marriage is (or worse, understands and intentionally subverts it). While it is true that love entails duty (and duty entails love), there is an ongoing struggle with those who want to reduce both to legal contracts.

The more "institutional" a church is, the more it falls into the enemy camp.

At the same time, rather than giving anyone the benefit of the doubt, you can always work on resolving your doubts. God does work in human affairs, including through people who are more comfortable (or at least adept) running an organization of some kind.

TheDoctorofOdoIsland said...

The common sense meaning of 'commandment', which in the Law and the Gospels is essentially the same, has always served me well and I'm confident it will continue to do so.
- Carter Craft