The Ethical Vision in the Gospel and Letters of John – By Wendy E.S. North

Wendy E.S. North on eds. Jan G. van der Watt & Ruben Zimmermann’s Rethinking the Ethics of John

Bart D. Ehrman and Michael W. Holmes, Rethinking the Ethics of John: “Implicit Ethics” in the Johannine Writings, 2012, 395 pp., $154
Jan G. van der Watt and Ruben Zimmermann, Rethinking the Ethics of John: “Implicit Ethics” in the Johannine Writings, 2012, 395 pp., $154

We search the Gospel of John in vain for the systematic presentation of ethical teaching that we find in the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew. Jesus’s commandment on love of others forms the second element in his Double Love Command — to love God and to love others — in all three Synoptic Gospels, but the Fourth Gospel is more reticent.  Jesus’s radical injunction to love one’s enemy in Matthew and Luke is absent in John. The love commanded by John’s Jesus is strictly in-house, with the disciples bidden to love not enemies but one another (John 13:34; 15:12; 1 John 3:23). The Johannine authors’ attitude is also decidedly unloving towards those outside the circle, disowning opponents as “children of the devil,” “antichrists,” and “deceivers,” and as part of a world not to be loved (John 8:44; 1 John 2:15, 18; 3:10; 2 John 7). Is the Gospel of John — the most Christologically significant and theologically profound of our New Testament four — party to a restricted, ethically deficient vision? Rethinking the Ethics of John contends that these negative conclusions have been based on narrow readings of the evidence and that ethical reference in the Johannine writings is implicit rather than systematically presented. The collection uses new methodological approaches to read Johannine ethics more positively.

One of the least helpful ways of negotiating John’s Gospel, or any other, is to isolate individual texts and assume one has captured the whole. Reuben Zimmermann tackles directly what he dubs the “outdated consensus” that the Fourth Gospel offers nothing of ethical value and demonstrates with ease its poverty by pointing to a wealth of evidence in John, ranging from the Gospel’s vocabulary of action to its focus on the ethics of friendship. This subtler and more complex engagement with John’s text is also adopted by Volker Rabens, who echoes Zimmermann’s work on friendship ethics and also points to the Gospel’s considerable focus on the intimate bonds of family and friendship. On this basis, Rabens argues that the experience of an intimate relationship of love, derived from God and extended to believers through Jesus, is perceived in the Gospel as the empowering force that issues in ethical behaviour. This more comprehensive approach to interpreting John is entirely in keeping with the broader, more thematic character of this Gospel.

When it comes to the cultural matrix of the Fourth Gospel’s ethics, none of us will get far without first recognizing that its author was steeped in Judaism and its scriptures. Contrary to some influential scholarly opinion, William Loader properly insists that the Jewish Law is not in any way disparaged. In relation to ethics, however, in John the basis has shifted from the Torah to Christ. The same Jesus-centered orientation informs Jan van der Watt’s investigation. Like Loader, van der Watt accepts that there is no negative view of the Law here. The difference between author and opponents lies in the perspective from which the Law is interpreted: the author’s perspective is governed by the new revelation of God brought by Jesus. These contributions show that when all the evidence is balanced John’s relation to Judaism and its scriptures is decidedly more sanguine. This Gospel may have Jesus as its centerpiece, but no text is more permeated with allusions to the Jewish scriptures than John’s.

But why is it that the Johannine authors, while stressing Jesus’s “new” commandment of love, consistently display unbridled hostility towards opponents? Tom Thatcher’s study tackles this crucial question. In an appeal to social memory theory, Thatcher proposes that the Johannine group determined their value system by appropriating the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. Conflict between groups could be seen as a normal part of life experience, and these authors could repudiate without conscience the opposition as the devil’s kind. Thatcher’s proposal makes a great deal of sense. The author of 1 John — who rarely cites scripture directly — refers specifically to the murderous Cain, who was of the evil one, and the remarkably similar argument in John 8, where Jesus accuses his opponents of being fathered by the devil with his murderous intent, suggests the same scriptural backdrop.

For all this excellent work, however, there is more variation in quality among these contributions than one might expect from a volume belonging to this prestigious series. In some cases the approach to interpreting these texts is superficial and unconsidered. To deduce that the signs in the Gospel exemplify Jesus’s obedience to his mother and care for those in need (Karakolis) seriously underestimates the profundity of John’s presentation of Jesus’s miracles. Other essays readily assume a supercessionist viewpoint, claiming that Jesus supplants the Torah and is superior to it (Glicksman), that the Torah is obsolete and of no value to the Christian community (Lund), and that believers are encouraged to leave the Jewish ethic behind (Karakolis). In a Gospel crafted by a Jew that refers neither to Christians nor to the Church and never opposes Law with grace, one strongly suspects that the full picture has gone unappreciated. By the same Jewish token, one may object to applying the language of divinity and humanity to Jesus in John (Schnelle), since this hints at later Church doctrine rather than reflects original context.

This brings me to my final comment, which concerns the Johannine references to the love command. In his superb introductory essay, Michael Labahn points to the scriptural background to Johannine ethics, drawing attention specifically to two key texts: the “great commandment” in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength”; and the injunction to love one’s neighbor in Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Together, these form the Double Love Command that is central to Jesus’s teaching in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 10:29-31, etc.). Since the commandment to love one another in John and 1 John is plainly a version of the second element in that teaching, one cannot imagine that these authors were unaware of that tradition or of its scriptural roots. Nor could they have been oblivious to its ethical implication: love practiced towards one’s fellow is a measure of one’s love of God. A glance at 1 John 4:20-21 confirms that they were keenly sensitive to this dimension: “If anyone says, ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, he is a liar! For whoever does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. This commandment too we have from him, that whoever loves God loves his brother also.”

It is unfortunate that the index to this entire volume lists only one reference each to the Deuteronomy and Leviticus texts and five in all to the relevant Synoptic passages. The author of the Gospel, who could have known Jesus’s injunction to love one’s enemy, perhaps omitted it not because he rejected the radical idea but because he selected only what was appropriate to the circumstances of his readership at the time. As Paul Anderson aptly expresses it in his essay, the Johannine tradition applies this central teaching of Jesus where it counts most — within the community of faith.

List of contributors and titles can be found here.