How to Read John Theologically
The Gospel of John has long been recognized a masterful theological writing, often paired with Romans as one of the most theological books in Scripture. Some of the earliest commentators in the church recognized the significant theology presented by the Fourth Gospel, giving it the title, “the Spiritual Gospel.” It is one thing, however, to describe John as a theological book, and quite another to prescribe how John is to be read theologically. The latter is the goal of this short essay. In order to read the Gospel of John theologically, one must read Christianly, canonically, confessionally, and creatively. We shall address each of these aspects in turn.
Reading John “Christianly”
First, reading John theologically requires that it be read Christianly. This aspect of reading John aligns itself to a doctrinally-derived understanding of the divine nature of Scripture. In short, it is to read with Christian presuppositions and principles. In contrast to minimizing or denying John’s divine origin or submit it to human procedures and perspectives that render mute its God-breathed words, reading Christianly means receiving John as the very words of God. To read John as part of Christian Scripture is to place it in a much larger communicative context than simply the first-century context in which it took on its literary “flesh.” Even more, “‘Scripture’ is a shorthand term for the nature and function of the biblical writings in a set of communicative acts which stretch from God’s merciful self-manifestation to the obedient hearing of the community of faith” (Webster, Holy Scripture, 5). Not to treat John as Scripture is itself a form of eisegesis, and it is a disobedient hearing of the text’s own claim and of the God by whom it was authored. In short, the divine identity of Scripture must be both the ground and the guide of a properly theological reading of John. The divine identity of Scripture must be both the ground and the guide of a properly theological reading of John. Click To Tweet
Reading John “Canonically”
Second, reading John theologically requires that it be read canonically. This aspect of reading John aligns itself to a doctrinally-derived understanding of the literary context of Scripture. To speak of “canon” is not simply to refer to the collection of biblical books, but to further explain Scripture’s function and identity. According to its function as canon, John cannot be treated as if it were a single unit. Without denying that the Gospel took on literary “flesh” in the context of a particular historical author and audience, as the Word of God it was always intended (doctrinally) to be read as part of a collection (the Bible). Since John makes up one of many parts of God’s intentional communicative Word, then it must be viewed as functioning cooperatively with the rest of God’s Word. This in no way denies that the Fourth Gospel had value and meaning for its particular historical context, only that its meaning is so tied to its larger canonical context that the latter extends and even explains the former. John is fully capable of singing a solo, but is heard best and most clearly when read as part of the full canonical choir of God.
Reading John “Confessionally”
Third, reading John theologically requires that it be read confessionally. This aspect of reading John aligns itself to a doctrinally-derived understanding of the subject matter of Scripture. A biblical understanding of the Bible not only grasps its proper nature (divine) and context (canon), but also its proper contents – the things to which it speaks and points. As much as John speaks with terms and topics of a first-century historical narrative, its words also address divine realities and truths that God himself speaks, and therefore subjects that must be grasped as God’s thoughts. Helpful here is Yeago (“New Testament and Nicene Dogma”), who explains that Scripture speaks not merely with concepts, the use of explicit words or terms, but also judgments, which can use a variety of concepts but in a manner that speaks beyond them. Using the doctrine of the Trinity as an example, the Bible never uses the term, but the relation depicted between the Father, Son, and Spirit make it a clear judgment of the biblical text, John included. In short, a proper theological posture toward John looks for and expects the self-presentation of God in and through the very words of the text.
Reading John “Creatively”
Finally, reading John theologically requires that it be read creatively. This aspect of reading John aligns itself to a doctrinally-derived understanding of the subtle intentions of Scripture. To speak of creativity is not to speak of fiction or fanciful agendas, but to read the text knowing full well that in both explicit and implicit ways God speaks about himself, the world, and us through the text. These topics are not to be forced or twisted from the text, but grasped with the Christian, canonical, and confessional convictions and insights that guide the eyes and soften the senses of the reader. This kind of reading is a subset of being a disciple. A theological reading of John is an intellectual and spiritual engagement with the living and gracious communication and self-presentation of God. It is no less than participation in the depths of the life of God by means of his Word to the world. To read creatively is listen carefully to the simple and subtle ways God speaks through the words of the text to his people, the church. Such a reading is not an act of force but of faith. Ultimately, the most competent theological reader of John will be the person who stands under (not over) it.
Reading John Theologically: The Baptisms of John and Jesus as an Example
A brief example may help put into action the four aspects of a theological reading of John. An apparent tension is presented in John 3 between John (the Baptist) and Jesus regarding the ministry of baptism. The point of tension between John and Jesus is fueled by a statement in 3:22, where the narrator informs the reader that Jesus was performing baptisms. If explaining the relation between the ministries of John and Jesus were not difficult enough, confusion is increased just over a dozen verses later, in 4:2, when the narrator explains that Jesus was not actually baptizing, but only his disciples were. Then why did 3:22 announce so unequivocally that Jesus was baptizing, with the third-person singular verb explicitly connecting the act of baptism to Jesus. That is, although Christ did not physically perform the baptism (according to 4:2), he is still named as the author of the baptism (according to 3:22).
Too often the gravitational force of our historical bent and training causes us to ignore this nuance, brushing past this oddity once confusion or contradiction is removed. While these verses may not be contradicting each other, they should not be interpreted as “offsetting penalties” in a football game, where neither are a foul and play (reading) ensues as if nothing happened. That is, once 4:2 explains away any confusion, too often 3:22 is functionally eclipsed of its narrative intention. Rather than having one explain the other, the dissonance created between 3:22 and 4:2 might be exactly the point, directing the reader to see a truth that extends beyond the historical action of an event to a textually-mediated theological reality regarding the actions of God.
When read carefully, the dissonance created between 3:22 and 4:2 pressures the reader to see the innate connection between Jesus and the ordinance/sacrament of baptism. All baptisms originate and are empowered by the work and person of Jesus Christ. This doctrinal truth is expressed by the Fourth Gospel not in propositions, but by the dissonance created by two seemingly contrasting statements in a historical narrative. While a historical-critical reading might lean toward resolving the conflict, a theological reading also assumes that the details in the text, even the seeming contradictions, are purposeful and intentional in what they intend to communication. Even more, a further assumption is that this scene, with all of its historical issues and details, is part of a greater divine communication that matches the rest of Scripture’s depiction of the doctrine of baptism. Interestingly, Calvin (against the Anabaptists) and Augustine (against the Donatists) used this text to refute those who denied the validity of a baptism because of a perceived problem with the baptizer. Jesus is (and has always been) the source and substance of Christian baptism.