Tuesday 16 March 2021

Was it a mistake that the ancient church (compilers of The Bible) decided to subordinate the Fourth Gospel?

I remember the first time I read a summary of the four gospels, back when I was a decade-long and active atheist in my mid-teens. The account was in the preface to the play Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw (who was also an atheist - albeit writing a play about early Christian martyrs).

I distinctly recall being astonished that this Gospel claimed to be written by one of Jesus's disciples, indeed the disciple who claimed that Jesus most loved him and to whom Jesus gave over the care of his mother. And that none of the other Gospels even claimed to be eye-witness accounts. 

I was surprised to find that there was an actual, contemporary, eye-witness account of Jesus, yet it was not (apparently) regarded any differently from the various other Gospels and Books of the New Testament...

Except, implicitly, it was down-graded and put on the average level; or even lower, because the Fourth Gospel was different from the other three, and was therefore repeatedly 'out-voted' and further down-graded when it disagreed. 

It was only a few years ago, and some time after I became a Christian, that I reached the conclusion that the whole history of Christianity had been shaped by this decision about how to regard the Fourth Gospel

A Christianity derived primarily from the Fourth Gospel has many and large differences from one derived from the traditional Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant and other denominations. These all accept the (undisclosed, unexamined) assumptions that all The Bible (or New Testament) should be regarded as equally authoritative and valid (or that in practice the Synoptic Gospels, or particular Pauline Epistles be given primacy to structure the other Books). 

Therefore, in practice, the Fourth Gospel has been implicitly regarded as 'nothing special'; Not the primary and best source. 

The question here is whether this subordination of the Fourth Gospel was an error or deliberate; and if it was deliberate - to what extent this was 1. Necessary, and/or 2. A Good Thing?

Without getting into historical detail (about which extremely little is known, anyway - and assuming the validity of secular history when applied to scripture is itself another kind of error!) I think it unlikely that the subordination of the Fourth Gospel was an error. I think it was deliberate. 

If it occurred to my 14 year old atheist self that surely the Fourth ought to be seen as the most important documentary evidence about Jesus; then I think it would have occurred to the people of the early Christian church who selected and compiled The Bible. 

Not least, by placing this first-written Gospel in fourth place; it must have been intended from the start that the Synoptic Gospels should structure our understanding of Jesus's nature, life and mission. 

There are several major consequences. Probably the most significant is that it is Matthew and Luke, with Paul, who provide the assumption that Christianity is primarily about a church: an institution; whereas this is contradicted when the Fourth Gospel is regarded as primary. Naturally, the church would notice this, and endorse the sources which validated itself. 

A second consequence is the expectation of the second coming of Jesus. This is described in Matthew and Luke (and no whisper of it in Mark or 'John' chapters 1-20, i.e. the original Gospel and the earliest Synoptic); and was apparently of extreme importance to the early church... To the extent that they were prepared to ride-out the apparent anomaly that it had not happened within the (normal, natural) lifespan of the disciples. 

A third consequence is the idea of Jesus as a divine being from his birth, and that his birth and early life - as well as death and resurrection - were in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. The Fourth Gospel specifically says Jesus was born in Nazareth not Bethlehem, and strongly assumes that he was a 'normal Man' until the baptism by John; whereas Matthew and Luke regard Jesus as a miraculous child, from before conception; whose life ticked-off prophecies all the way through.

My impression is that in order for there to be a Christian Church as an institution, and for that institution to achieve converts from Jews and Pagans and develop a coherent way of life, it was necessary to subordinate the Fourth Gospel. 

Was this a good or bad thing? My impression is that it was necessary, and 'therefore' Good; because at stage of the development of human consciousness (which Steiner terms the Intellectual Soul - a phase partway between Original Participation and the current stage of the Consciousness Soul), a church was the only form a religion could take

The choice those many hundreds of years ago was between Christianity as a church, or not at all. And given that Christianity needed to be a church in order to survive and thrive, that church must be 'about' something; and that 'something' could only be developed by subordinating the Fourth Gospel. 

But now, human consciousness has a very different form in the history and destiny of our development. We are in the Consciousness Soul, and need to be aiming at Final Participation

This explains why institutional churches have weakened and weakened, got further and further from being spiritually Christian; and the past year has seen the greatest, fastest and most profound collapse of the church-based Christian religion since it began

And this is exactly why the Fourth Gospel has, after nearly 2000 years, come to an acknowledgment of that primacy it always had. Now that churches are either gone or too weak to hold the Christian faith; the individual Christian has become 'Christianity'. 

The elements of the Synoptics and Epistles that necessarily dominated church-rooted Christianity have fallen-away; but can, and should, be replaced by a Christianity that takes its lead from the Fourth Gospel: a Romantic Christianity - which was, indeed, in its essence; the original Christianity as taught by the actual Jesus.



Ann K. said...

No mistake. The first three are for teaching catechumens the basics. The fourth is mystagogic, for teaching those who have been baptized and chrismated the mystical truths behind the basic facts.
Fr. Deacon Ezra does a masterful job of explaining in his series on John: https://stelijahokc.com/inquirers/john-the-mystagogic-gospel/

Bruce Charlton said...

@AK - I know that is the traditional explanation; but I do not believe it is true; not least because the Fourth Gospel is the simplest. It only seems 'mystical' if one has first decided to give the Synoptics greater authority.

Francis Berger said...

Outstanding post!

For a moment there I thought you were going to say that it *was* a mistake for the church fathers to relegate the Fourth Gospel in the manner they had.

As you note, the church was necessary for the development of Christian consciousness; without it, Christianity probably would not have survived. Early Christianity was, apparently, very eschatological. Most believers sincerely thought the world would end and that Christ would return in their lifetimes. When this did not occur, Christianity faced somewhat of an internal crisis. To keep Christianity going, Christian consciousness required some form of external structured authority, especially after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West (the same could be said for the Byzantines).

Over the following millennium, church consciousness splintered, fractured, and eventually fell away. There is barely any trace of it left now, which is why a hard return to traditional church Christianity cannot work and will not work.

As you so sum up so well in the final two paragraphs of this post, the only viable forward is to return to the original Christianity Jesus taught in the Fourth Gospel. Unfortunately, this viable way forward will be extremely difficult because it is too straightforward, too simple, and too clear.

Chris said...

You have awakened ‘forgiveness’ of the first three gospels. I never quite knew what to do with them as I read them. Now I see them as perfect for their time, which is ending.

Wurmbrand said...

So the ancient Church preserved St. John's Gospel always, from the beginning, why? You wouldn't have the Fourth Gospel if not for the Church.

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - I think AK answered your question. The Fourth Gospel became the basis of the esoteric, meditative stream in Christianity.

Alex said...

What role does the Fatima sun miracle play in your thinking, Bruce?

I just can't ignore a massive sign from God - seen by thousands of people - as a signal that He wants us to go in a particular direction - as far as I'm aware other denominations haven't had any miracles like that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alex - I have written a few times about Fatima


Bruce Charlton said...

@Frank - A great difficulty is that we are putting forward (what we believe to be) a third possibility than the usual dichotomy of religious traditionalism versus secular leftism.

But a lot of people do not believe there really is a third possibility (often because traditional and unexamined metaphysics only allows for two possibilities), and so put us into one or other of the usual categories.

Traditionalists assume that the only alternative is leftism - either explicit, covert, or perhaps delusionally self-concealed (as with those people who believe they are Christians, but are actually trying to create space for their particular sexual desires).

I suppose this has to do with motivation. There are indeed only two types of motivation (with or against God) - but you and I believe that being motivated 'with God' points away from traditionalism... By necessity, especially since 2020; but also by divinely-intended destiny.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Alex - I regard miracles as mainly directed at individuals, personally experienced for 'private consumption':



whitney said...

Alex, Have you heard of Our Lady of Las Lajas in Columbia. It's extraordinary. Here's a link it's not a painting it's actually the color of the Rock. And the Wikipedia entry is hilarious because they don't even want to touch it this is only thing they say about the image itself

"and a mysterious mural of which nobody knows the origins"


Joseph A. said...

I think that the Gospel of John is indeed privileged, at least in the Orthodox tradition. (I know your Lazarus theory, but I'll respond in keeping with the traditional view of John's authorship [or dictation-ship]). John was the only one of the twelve not martyred. He survived long enough to know or at least to meet several generations of Church leaders. I think of Polycarp, for example, who was well known to second century fathers -- one of the bridges/links through the early age of the non-Judean Church.

Also, the readings from the fourth gospel have something like "Rule, Britannia" at the Proms status. Consider Pascha, for example -- the feast of feasts. The darkest darkness falls late Saturday, as we remember the crucified Christ. All the lights are put out. All is quiet (well, you know, a baby and a sneeze are bound to echo). Then, everyone leaves the temple and begins the Paschal procession. The faithful later gather outside in front of the church in the wee early morning hours, singing hymns and proclaiming the resurrection. Then, the priest reads the beginning of John's gospel. Even without the reverence given Saint John the Theologian (a title in the East even more elevated and restricted than the West's Doctors of the Church), this moment alone refutes your theory. It is very powerful -- the most distilled, purest teaching in the Christian religion at a special time during its most sacred and joyous liturgical celebration. For it marks the resurrection and the triumphant return of God's people into the Church. The gospel of John is our trumpet around the walls of Jericho . . . the anthem of the Church on the move.

As far as Western Christianity goes, I always thought that it significant that the gospel lectern was in the shape of an eagle -- the symbol of John. That certainly sounds pretty special.

Bruce Charlton said...

@JA - "I think that the Gospel of John is indeed privileged, at least in the Orthodox tradition."

Yes indeed - but nonetheless, in a *very* different way than if that Gospel had been used as the primary source of knowledge about the nature of Jesus's mission.

Orthodoxy assumes the constancy of human nature, whereas my interpretation is based on the assumption that human nature has changed (I think due to changes in the nature of souls incarnated through history) - purposively, as part of God's plan.

James Higham said...

Most interesting question - the witness of the Lord.