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Engaging John Together

By Timothy George

Not long ago I participated in a conference, “Engaging the Gospel of John, Engaging One Another: Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals.” This conference was sponsored by Paradosis Center, a fellowship of Catholics, Orthodox, and Evangelicals committed to theology and Scripture within the Great Tradition. Paradosis Center was begun several years ago through the collaboration of Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, two of our finest theologians. It is hosted by John Brown University in Arkansas and directed by Chad Raith.

The vision of Paradosis Center builds on the insight of St. Augustine that the erroneous reading of Scripture is not a mere failure of technical exegetical expertise. It results rather from a failure to engage the Bible in a way that builds up the two-fold love of God and our neighbors commended by Jesus. Pope John Paul II reminded us that genuine ecumenism involves the exchange of gifts as well as a sharing of ideas (Ut Unum Sint, 28). Paradosis Center aims to foster this kind of work in the midst of the ecclesial divisions that mar the face of the church in our world today. Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical scholars come together in dialogue in an effort to hear, teach, live, and pass on intact that doctrina which is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. In this context, I was honored to be an evangelical voice reflecting on the Gospel of John.

It may well be the case that the Gospel of John is the most beloved book in the entire New Testament among Christian peoples of every age and every tradition. That it holds such a place of high esteem among evangelicals is beyond question. I myself recall how, as a young boy first learning to read, it was the Gospel of John that riveted my attention: the poetry of it, the dazzling symbols of light and darkness, life and death, of the Word who was made flesh and dwelt among us—the Word who came from so far away, from the bosom of the Father, to embrace so deeply the realm of human troubles, finally to undergo death on the cross.

The first verse I learned to memorize was John 3:16, everyone’s favorite text in the New Testament until, as someone said, it was recently displaced by Matthew 7:1, “Judge not—anyone for any reason whatsoever!” On Easter Sunday, John 11—which was the theme of my talk—vied with John 20 as the sermon text of choice for preaching on the resurrection of Jesus. Funeral sermons were often based on John 14:1–3 where Jesus promised to prepare for his disciples a place of “many mansions” (KJV)—far better than the many spartan “rooms” of modern translations.

One reason why evangelicals have been so devoted to the Gospel of John is its explicitly evangelistic thrust. As a young Christian, I was taught to memorize what has been called the purpose statement of the entire Gospel, John 20:31: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The great Baptist missionary pioneer William Carey went to India in the 1790s with the intention of translating the Bible into Bengali in order to share the message of Christ with the indigenous people there. But he first issued a translation of the Gospel of John, which his helpers took into the rice fields and market towns of northern India. There are reports of some villagers coming to faith in Christ simply through reading Carey’s translation of the Gospel of John. They discovered in its pages, it was said, the One for whom they had been waiting all along.

Persons might have come to faith by simply reading John, but John itself cannot be read simply. From the second century on, when Tatian constructed his Diatessaron, the place of John within what Irenaeus called “the fourfold gospel” has been a difficult issue to unravel. How the Gospel “according (kata) to John” relates to the Gospel “according to Mark,” “according to Luke,” and “according to Matthew” is a question well known and much-debated. It did not take the rise of the historical-critical study of the Bible in the nineteenth century to point out this puzzle. Eusebius, Epiphanius, Origen, and Augustine, among others in the early Church, tried to explain the seeming discrepancies between John and the synoptics. Eusebius of Caesarea believed that John was aware of what Mark, Matthew, and Luke had written earlier, that John accepted their reports as true—but that John had a rather different and distinctive perspective to present. John set out to write what Clement of Alexandria called “a spiritual gospel,” not spiritual as opposed to historical but spiritual in the sense of containing a deeper, richer, more textured meaning than what might be found on the surface of the text. 

Among the ancient Christian writers, the two most prolific preachers, judging by the number of extant sermons we have from their hand, were St. Augustine—we have more than one thousand of his sermons—and St. John Chrysostom—we have more than eight hundred of his. Both left us extensive homilies on the Gospel of John. Augustine begins his series on John by comparing the Gospel to a high mountain, a reference back to Psalm 121:1: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” John is a high mountain on which we stand to see the wonders of God’s redemptive work. Even so, this is a mountain shrouded in mystery, for John the Gospel writer was a fallible, limited human. As Augustine put it: “I venture to say, my brethren, perhaps not John himself spoke of the matter as it is, but even he only as he was able; for it was man that spoke of God, inspired indeed by God, but still man . . . therefore, my brethren, if you would understand, lift up your eyes to this mountain, that is, raise yourselves up to the evangelist, rise to his meaning.”

Chrysostom uses another image. Reading John, he said, was like listening to beautiful music. To appreciate the symphony of John’s Gospel requires more than a brilliant mind well-trained in the theories of Plato and Pythagoras. No, appropriating John requires spiritual formation. Indeed, the Gospel writer himself “made ready his soul as some well-fashioned and jeweled lyre with strings of gold and yielded it for the utterance of something great and sublime to the spirit.” And so “if a man cannot learn well a melody on pipe or harp, unless he in every way strain his attention: how shall one, who sits as a listener to sounds mystical, be able to hear with a careless soul? . . . for it is not otherwise possible for a man to gain from hence anything great, except he have first so cleansed anew his soul.”

At the Paradosis conference, my fellow presenters included Fr. John Behr, Edith Humphrey, David Lyle Jeffrey, R. R. Reno, and Michael Root. I learned a great deal about the Gospel of John and its theology by engaging with these scholars all of whom are deeply committed to the Church. The Orthodox theologian, Fr. Georges Florovsky, taught us to think of ecumenicity in time as well as space. Doing theology this way—across time and across confessions—is an incentive to cultivate the love of God and of one another, an encounter that nurtures faith and builds up the Church.

Published at First Things, 2.9.15

Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.