*This post begins with a brief book review, and then moves into the question about John’s Gospel.*
Walter Brueggemann is a well-known and respected OT scholar, however I’ve always thought of him as “liberal” and not sought anything by him out. When I came across a book by him at the used book store, I decided to give him a try, and the title caught my eye too: The Word Militant, Preaching a Decentering Word (Fortress Press, 2007). This book is a collection of essays or reflections on preaching in a “prophetic” way – that is, truly biblical preaching will often unsettle and even disturb as the OT prophetic books did for their original audience. Well, I agree. But this book did not impress me.
Brueggemann definitely had some accurate reflections and insightful comments on our modern secular culture and the challenge of preaching to those who lack biblical knowledge that was once commonplace and/or have been taken captive by the self-focus of the 20th century. At times he surprised me with thoughts that were more “conservative” than I expected, yet his “liberalism” came though and undermined the good content. Also, I just did not find the book practical enough. I do substitute preaching, and there really wasn’t much that will actually help me with preaching. I do realize he is a scholar and this was not intended to be a “how to” book, yet even so, I did not find much that will help me as a preacher. I can also see why much mainline preaching seems to lack “power” after reading this book!
Yet, evangelicalism is in a bad state, preaching wise. Recently I heard it said that “evangelicalism is the new mainline.” Sadly, I think this is accurate! I mention that so that it does not appear that I am the pot calling the kettle black. I am fully aware of the crisis within evangelicalism.
But I want to shift my focus and share two excerpts from Brueggemann – as a spring board to the book of John and the historical reliability of John. Does John’s theological purpose make the content of John less reliable or factually accurate?
Page 92: After mentioning the JEDP theory about the Pentateuch documents, Brueggemann says it is a much misunderstand and maligned theory, and it is mixture of faith and vested interest. Then he swings into the Synoptic Gospels. “In like manner the Synoptic Gospels are meditations of the old memory of the early church. The Gospel of Mark faces the challenge of Roman imperialism; Matthew takes up the question of the relationship between Christian and Jews…; and Luke struggles with the Gospel in the gentile world. These Gospel statements are clearly not theological absolutes…nor are they factual descriptions of what happened, but they are meditations that make available a new world in which the community may live joyously and faithfully.”
Page 144: “In the argument I have made, there are important interpretive issues to be considered by the preacher. I suggest that the Bible be understood as a set of models (paradigms) of reality made up of images situated in and contextualized by narratives. The narrative renderings of reality in the Bible (as elsewhere) are not factual reportage, but are inevitable artistic constructs that stand a distance from any ‘fact’ and are filtered through interest of a political kind.”
Hmmm. Bold added by me. There is some truth there, in that, the biblical authors were not just sitting down and writing straightforward news reports of events. They often did have a specific “angle” that they were writing from – whether theological or with a particular historical audience in mind. Yet why does that have to mean that they altered and changed the facts?? It does not have to mean that!! And here I will turn to the book of John that I am studying this New Year.
The book of John can be criticized in this way; since John had a distinct theological purpose, the accuracy of events in John can not be trusted. Two commentaries I am reading on John, both in their own way, counter this.
Leon Morris, in his commentary on John, has an extended section on this issue. Excerpts:
“That the writer of the Fourth Gospel has a serious theological purpose is surely beyond doubt…The question at issue is not whether John is interested in conveying theological meaning. It is rather whether he has completely subordinated his historical sense to this aim, or whether he has concern for facts as well as for theology. It is worth noticing at the outset that interpretation does not necessarily mean distortion of the facts. Indeed the absence of interpretation may sometimes mean distortion. Thus one can say with truth that ‘Nicholas Ridley was executed.’ But if this is all that one says a wrong impression may be conveyed. It means more to say, ‘Bishop Nicholas Ridley was burned at the stake’ and still more to say, ‘Bishop Nicholas Ridley was martyred.’ The last statement carries a fuller meaning than the earlier two. It may, of course, be disputed. That is the penalty one pays for the fuller light conveyed by the interpretive statement. There is a parallel here with John’s Gospel. It is undoubtedly an interpretive document. It selects its material omitting much that the other Gospels include, and including much that they do not. And if one does not agree with John’s view of Jesus much may be disputed (as it is by many radical scholars). But if John is right, if the Word was indeed made flesh and dwelt among us, then this interpretive document is of the utmost importance for those who want the fullest light of the facts.” (page 41)
“…From all this it appears that we ought not to think of John as a writer who is not at all interested in history. He is certainly a theologian, but he has a reverence for facts. There is no real reason for thinking he composed edifying stories which had theological meaning but bore little relationship to what had actually happened.” (page 47-48)
Morris goes on to consider historical reporting and writing in the ancient world, noting methods utilized, and says that ancient writers showed a respect for how things actually happened, and they did not regard themselves as having unlimited freedom in their writing when they recorded events. While there were legendary accounts in antiquity, not so among careful and honest writers, and John is a careful and honest writer. Morris says that John has a respect for the truth and “to say otherwise is to depart from the standards, not of our own day only, but of the first century.” (page 48)
“The very theological significance which John is trying to bring out demands that we take his history seriously…This point is very important. His theological purpose being what it is he cannot invent or distort history without making that purpose difficult or impossible of attainment.” (page 48-49)
- On that note, remember what Brueggemann said above! Note how much is lost when one does not see Scripture as necessarily recording historical events but as “artistic construct that stands a distance from any fact.” What power is there in that??
F.F. Bruce in his commentary on John takes critique and turns it into a powerful positive for the accuracy of John. Like Morris, he brings up that interpretation must take place when one records history. Interpretation, when a writer records history, may result in an abridgment or a summary or even paraphrase – and this does not mean inaccuracy, but can actually bring out the sense of something more fully.
And then I love how Bruce brings in the Holy Spirit and really turns the argument upside down. Divine inspiration is not needed to record a verbatim transcript! However, “to reproduce the words which were spirit and life to their first believing hearers in such a way that they continue to communicate their saving message and prove themselves to be spirit and life to men and women today, nineteen centuries after John wrote – that is the work of the Spirit of God. It is through the Spirit’s operation that, in William Temple’s words, ‘the mind of Jesus himself was what the Fourth Gospel disclosed,’ and it is through the illumination granted by the same Spirit that one may still recognize in the Gospel the authentic voice of Jesus.” (pages 16-17)
Wow – I just loved this from F.F. Bruce. How about you? Brilliant!
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Leon Morris and FF Bruce are superb scholars and have served the church well. Thanks for your notes.
You are welcome. I appreciate your comment.
I think we should take into consideration of who is John. I mean the Gospel of John was the same John who was exiled and received the visions of the book of Revelation right? So if we know if such a character who saw the end of the world and all of the metaphoric meanings behind the word, I think we can be safe to assume that it is factual