Friday, May 22, 2009

Canonical Implications In John's Gospel

Jesus' comments in chapters 14-16 of John's gospel are often cited in canonical discussions. That's understandable, since Jesus says much in those chapters about the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the disciples, as well as other issues relevant to the New Testament canon.

Often, however, a verse like John 14:26 or 16:13 will be cited without much of an explanation, if any, of how the verse allegedly is relevant. What does "all things" in John 14:26 refer to? What does it mean to be "guided into all the truth" (John 16:13)? How do such passages supposedly lead us to the conclusion that the writings of the disciples should be considered scripture?

Much of what's said about the disciples in John 14-16 either is said of other Christians elsewhere or seems like it could be applied to other Christians in some sense. Other passages use similar language. 1 John 2:27 refers to Christians in general as having been "taught about all things", much like what's said of the disciples in John 14:26. As the disciples are referred to as having been with Jesus "from the beginning" (John 15:27), so also Christians in general are referred to as having had some of the teachings of Christianity "from the beginning" (1 John 2:24, 3:11, 2 John 6). Couldn't we apply the concept of being "guided into all the truth" (John 16:13) to all Christians in some way? Don't we all have the Holy Spirit?

Others want us to apply passages like John 16:13 to later church leaders. Because of John 16:13, we know that a particular denomination or other post-apostolic group will be infallible in some manner.

It's true that some of what's said in John 14-16 is applied to other Christians in other passages of scripture or can reasonably be assumed to apply to other Christians in some way. But there's a tendency in many circles to underestimate the significance of the apostles in these chapters and overestimate the significance of other Christians. D.A. Carson writes:

"This specific reference to Jesus' earthly ministry [in John 15:27] shows that the disciples primarily in view are the first eyewitnesses; only derivatively (though certainly derivatively) can this be applied to later Christians....the unique elements in the ministry of the first disciples, unique because under God these disciples alone mediate the transition in salvation-historical developments, are largely ignored in favour of finding immediate significance in each statement for the church at large. Such emphases reflect the contemporary scholarly mood, which tends to quarry the Gospels, including John, for lessons in ecclesiology and discipleship, largely ignoring the unique elements in the Gospel presentations that make them cry out to be read with other foci paramount: above all Christ and the dawning of the promised eschatological era, consequent upon his death and resurrection." (The Gospel According To John [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991], pp. 529, 542)

A passage like John 14-16 and a document like 1 John or 2 John are addressing different contexts. John 14-16 is addressing Jesus' communication of His revelation to the world through the apostles (John 13:20, 15:27, 17:20). 1 John is addressing the life of the Christian who has already received that revelation from the apostles (1 John 1:1-5).

While 1 John refers to teachings known to Christians "from the beginning", that beginning isn't the same as the beginning of John 15:27. Not all Christians were with Jesus from the beginning of His earthly ministry (Acts 1:21-22). The phrase "from the beginning" has different reference points in different contexts. The fact that all Christians have been with Christ from some other sort of beginning doesn't make a passage like John 15:27 applicable to all Christians.

We could say that all Christians are "guided into all the truth" (John 16:13) in some sense, but the context suggests that the concept is being defined in a way that would only be fully applicable to the apostles. In addition to the contextual factors mentioned above, John 16:13 goes on to make an apparent reference to revelation of future events ("He will disclose to you what is to come"). Not all Christians receive information about future events directly from the Holy Spirit. While the phrase "what is to come" could be interpreted as a reference to events that were in the future at that point, but would be past events when they were disclosed by the Holy Spirit, it's more natural to read the phrase as a reference to prophecy. Nothing in the text or context suggests that we should limit "what is to come" to events that were still to come only at that point in time, but would be past events at the time of the disclosure. And we know that the apostles did receive knowledge of future events from the Holy Spirit, such as in the book of Revelation.

The broader implications of that last point should be emphasized. We know a lot about what happened after the events of John 14-16. We ought to interpret the passage with that context in mind. Given what that larger context tells us about the uniqueness of the apostles and what sort of activity they were involved in after the time of John 14-16, it doesn't make sense to read that passage as referring to the apostles as having the same relationship, or nearly the same relationship, with the Holy Spirit as other Christians. Just as we today refer to all Christians as having the guidance of the Holy Spirit, yet distinguish between the guidance received by the average Christian and that received by a prophet or apostle, the same distinction could have been made by the Biblical authors. And surely it was. There are some similarities between the two types of guidance, often highly vague similarities and sometimes closer similarities, with the same or similar terminology used. But there are differences as well.

Even within John 14-16 and its surrounding context in the gospel of John, we're repeatedly told that Jesus is addressing His disciples (13:5, 16:29). He interacts with them as individuals (13:6, 13:25, 14:5, 14:8, 14:22). He makes references to them that wouldn't be applicable to all Christians or the leadership of a post-apostolic denomination (14:26, 15:27, 16:32). Jesus is preparing a group of agents who are qualified to testify on His behalf in a manner in which other Christians, especially those of later generations, cannot (13:20, 14:26, 15:27, 17:20).

What, then, are we to make of phrases like "He will teach you all things" (14:26) and "He will guide you into all the truth" (16:13)? I don't think we know all of the answers. But we have some idea of what was meant, and what we do know has some significance for the canon.

A phrase like "all things" or "all the truth" would refer to an "all" within a limited context. Omniscience, an attribute unique to God and something that the apostles repeatedly deny having, isn't in view. Apparently, some sort of revelatory category is in mind, similar to the "all things" Jesus refers to in 15:15. As Jesus communicated all that He had been sent to communicate, so would the apostles.

Keep in mind two of the themes of this passage that I've discussed above: the guidance of the Holy Spirit and prophecy (John 16:13). Both are often associated with scripture (2 Peter 1:21). As I mentioned in my last post in this canon series, the early Christians would sometimes refer to the Old Testament as "the prophets". Jesus' comments in John 14-16 address more than what the apostles wrote, but their writings would be included.

Compare some of what Jesus said in this passage and its surrounding context to John's comments at the close of his gospel. Note the highlighted words:

"you are My disciples...But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you....When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify about Me, and you will testify also...I do not ask on behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word" (13:35, 14:26, 15:26-27, 17:20)

"these have been written so that you may believe...This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and wrote these things, and we know that his testimony is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written." (20:31, 21:24-25)

John is one of Jesus' disciples, one of those Jesus addressed in John 14-16. Notice that he first introduces himself as the beloved disciple shortly before the passage in question (13:23). The reader knows, therefore, that the author was one of the recipients of Jesus' promises in John 14-16. Jesus said that His disciples would testify, and John testifies through his gospel. Jesus said that His disciples would be guided by the Spirit of truth, so John's readers know that his testimony is true. Jesus said that the Spirit would "bring to your remembrance all that I said to you", and John tells us that he knows of much more than he's recorded in his gospel.

It seems that John saw his gospel as a fulfillment of what Jesus spoke about in John 14-16. Craig Keener writes:

"Many scholars, such as Marinus de Jonge, have contended that the Fourth Gospel argues for its own inspiration: 'The Fourth Gospel presents itself as the result of the teaching and the recalling activity of the Spirit within the community of disciples leading to a deeper and fuller insight into all that Jesus as the Son revealed during his stay on earth.' Muller similarly suggests that John felt that Jesus' word continued to work in his Gospel, and Dietzfelbinger, that it claims to be inspired by the Paraclete. Some have gone so far as to identify the author and the Paraclete (see below), but even if this position goes beyond the evidence, the close association of functions indicates that the author felt that the Paraclete was inspiring his writing....If 1 John assumes or interprets the Jesus tradition in this Gospel, then the Gospel was functioning as scripture in Johannine circles at an early stage....The inspiring Spirit was generally associated with prophecy [John 16:13] in early Judaism...the inspiration aspect of the Spirit imparted to Jesus' followers is significant to the composition of the Fourth Gospel, for if it does not purport to be a recollection and proclamation of Jesus (cf. 14:26), what does it purport to be?...The concept of the Gospel's inspiration is not a corollary of the later process of canonization in early Christianity. The writer and first readers of the Fourth Gospel undoubtedly assumed its inspiration, and thus ceded the document authority because they affirmed that Jesus stood behind and spoke in the document....Whether they viewed it as authoritative in the way that Scripture was (John 2:22; 20:31) is less clear; cf. 2 Pet 3:16" (The Gospel Of John: A Commentary, Vol. 1 [Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003], pp. 116-117, 122, n. 320 on p. 122)

John's gospel doesn't identify itself as scripture as clearly as 2 Peter 3 identifies Paul's letters as scripture, but it seems likely that the document was viewed as such by John and his earliest readers. We know that it was widely viewed as scripture among Christians of the second century.

Four other documents are attributed to John, and other documents are attributed to other disciples who were part of the audience Jesus addressed in John 14-16. The widespread early Christian consensus that such documents are scripture makes more sense if Jesus taught such a high view of the apostles and, by implication, their writings.

Would all of the apostles' writings be scripture, or just some? When Peter comments on Paul's letters, he refers to all of them as scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16). Peter's error in Galatians 2 seems to have been an error of action, not teaching, and we don't have any apostolic correction of a New Testament document like Paul's correction of Peter. The apostles considered themselves capable of sin (1 Corinthians 4:4) and sometimes included themselves in references to sin in the Christian life (James 3:2, 1 John 2:1-2), but the New Testament documents aren't in the same category as an apostle's thoughts or his competence in mathematics or giving directions to get from one location to another, for example. What we have in the New Testament are documents written with the intention of addressing the Christian faith and perceived as an exercise of apostolic authority by those who received the documents. I don't know of any means by which the early Christians claimed to distinguish between true and false apostolic teaching, and I don't know of any document that was widely considered apostolic without being considered scripture. Whatever some individuals may have thought about some documents that didn't make it into the canon, the general trend seems to have been to include every apostolic document, as I outlined in my last post. As Serapion put it, in the context of addressing documents attributed to the apostles, "we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ" (Eusebius, Church History, 6:12). Such a high view of their writings seems to make more sense of what Jesus said about the role of the apostles as His messengers (Matthew 10:40, John 13:20) and what the apostles said about their own teachings and writings. What Jesus and the apostles said about apostolic authority and the manner in which the early Christians responded to the apostolic documents are better explained if the writings of the apostles were intended to be scripture rather than a mixture of truth and error.

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