Bible, Christianity, Speculative Theology

Bruce Charlton and John’s Gospel

Over the past few months, Bruce Charlton has been reading John’s Gospel exclusively in order to better understand the meaning of Jesus. He’s come to some startling conclusions. He compiled them all here. In his final post reporting on this process, he made these observations:

I regard the Fourth Gospel as chronologically the first, and qualitatively the most authoritative, source on the life and teachings of Jesus. As I read and re-read, I found that the discipline created a situation as if the Fourth Gospel was the only scripture.

And indeed, whenever I turned to other Gospels, or to the Epistles and Revelation, they looked very much inferior; very much like rag-bag collections of theology, memoirs, theories and folk tales about Jesus; and of very mixed validity – since many things in them contradict the Fourth Gospel…

This downgrading [of John’s gospel through church history and in academic theology] seems inevitable, given that the Fourth Gospel provides no authority for churches, nor for a priesthood, nor for celibacy, nor for the ritual communal life that has often dominated Christian practice; the Gospel’s vision of the Christian life is highly individual, personal, un-institutional. 

In the Fourth Gospel; Christians are seen to more like a new kind of family, than a new version of ancient religions. 

And the historical church has mostly portrayed Jesus as a rescuer of an otherwise-doomed Mankind – a double-negative description, with Jesus negating the negative state of a ‘fallen’ world. Whereas the Fourth Gospel shows a Jesus dealing with individual persons to enhance their existence – a positive addition to human possibility, with Jesus making possible a qualitative transformation of mortal to divine Life.

I think it’s best to portray apparently contrasting pictures in the Bible as complementary. I will say that John’s gospel does include hints of the institution of a Church:

  1. In John 20:19-23, Jesus gives a specific group of people a form of authority with respect to distributing God’s benefaction. Jesus is still the Way, but the disciples are ways to the way in an institutional manner.
  2. In John 15:9-17, there is a distinction made between general disciples and believers (those who became loyal students of Jesus) and his inner circle of potential preachers (whom Jesus instructs specifically to reap the harvest of potential believers in John 14:31-38). To be a friend of Jesus is, in John’s gospel, to follow his commands but it also carries the connotation of being one of those to whom he revealed the secrets of his ministry (the 12 and maybe a few others).
  3. John’s gospel was written and given to a trusted individual or groupwith an implication that it needed to be read, copied, and even explained (see 1 John 1:1-4). In other words, there was a church with institutional features that supported the writing and transmission of John’s gospel.

Charlton’s points are helpful, but may need some tweaking. His article and collection of articles are certainly worth reading. He’s thinking big ideas about Jesus, which is something that few these days dare to do.

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