The Riddles of John – Part 2, false tensions

In the previous Post I introduced and began to challenge an article by Paul Anderson discussing the alleged Riddles in John that in some way led up to the Trinity. Let’s move on to the idea that there are riddles within John. I don’t’ think there are, I think that John is actually quite clear in what he means as long as we don’t read into John later categories of thought. The first of the Johannian riddles posited in the article is about the divinity of Jesus, Anderson writes:

Is Jesus Human, Divine, or Both?

The question of Jesus’ humanity and divinity is more pronounced in John than any other single writing in the New Testament. Jesus is referred to as God, who was with God from the beginning—the very source of creation (Jn 1:1-2, 18), and yet the Word also became human flesh (1:14), and water and blood flowed forth from his side (19:34). The Johannine community attests having beheld his divine glory, and yet the eyewitness attests to having witnessed his fleshly humanity.

As I have shown elsewhere, (and here and here) the title of “God” does not always mean the same thing. Sometimes the word is referring to God Yahweh, the Most High God, sometimes it’s talking about other divine beings, such as angels, and it can even refer to very powerful human beings. So right off the bat we need to be careful when we ask the “Question is Jesus Divine?” The question that immediately should come next is “what do you mean by divine?” This question is extremely important, because it clarifies exactly what the claim is. Very often, an apologist will argue for divinity in the sense of being God Yahweh himself, and as evidence use texts that portray Jesus as “divine” or “exalted” in much more general sense that would apply to both an angel and even a powerful person.

Now as to the actual text citations Anderson uses, almost all of them would only defend a portrayal of Jesus as divine in the broadest sense (so for example the fact that Jesus is glorified does not bring you an inch closer to the Trinity, people other than Yahweh can be glorified). John 1:1 I’ve talked about before. John 20:28, is a text I may get into in a later post, however there is a very plausible reading that would not actually have Thomas calling Jesus God, but rather seeing the Father through Christ as foreshadowed earlier in John 14:1-14. Even if he does call Jesus God, the context in John 20 would lead one away from thinking that Thomas is calling Jesus Yahweh, since in the same chapter Jesus talks about his own God being the God of Mary (again, the word God isn’t always only applied to Yahweh), but again, that argument can be had later in more detail, perhaps in a later post. As for the “I am” statements in John, the idea that they are references to Exodus 3:14 is patently ridiculous. All one needs to do is read Exodus 3:14 in the LXX and compare it with the I am statements in John 8 to know this, more on this later, but needless to say the language simply doesn’t match at all. Also, the fact that Jesus knows his future, and his adversaries are subject to the will of God doesn’t tell us anything else, other than God is supreme and Jesus is a prophet.

Is there anything in John in conflict with Jesus being a human? Not at all. If we use the term “divine” correctly there is no conflict at all, Moses was, in a way, divine (Yahweh said he would be God to Pharaoh), the angels are, in a way divine, that doesn’t conflict with the humanity of Moses or the angelness of the angels. It is only when one uses divine as a category of being of which there is only one being (Yahweh) that we have a problem to be solved, but this is simply not the case in the gospel of John. Jesus is never talked about divine in that (very narrow) sense, so there is no riddle there to solve.

The second problem that Anderson says is found in John is the question of whether the father’s relationship to the son is subordinate, egalitarian or neither. He writes:

The Son’s Relation to the Father—Subordinate, Egalitarian, or Neither?

A most perplexing feature of the Father-Son relationship in John is the fact that it is hard to know whether John’s is a Theocentric Christology or a Christocentric Theology.[1] In revealing the Father’s love to the world, God is made known by the flesh-becoming Word. Therefore, the Son comes to make the Father known. Then again, the primary activity of the Father in John is the sending of the Son. Were it not for the “having-sent-me” work of the Father in John, the role of the Father would be diminished by half, if not more.

This question is different from the first one because the question is clear and the terms are immediately understandable. The problem is I don’t see it as a question in John. The subordination of Jesus is displayed all over John, and would be assumed by any casual reader unless there is some other strong reason to think otherwise, and there is none. The reasons Anderson gives are not really strong reasons at all.

He mentions the “I and the father are one” verses as an example of egalitarianism, which makes no sense given how John uses the same concept to talk about the oneness of the apostles with Jesus and God in John 17. If we use those verses to defend egalitarianism, we would end up not with a trinity, but at minimum a fifteenity. We also have the verses where God gives Jesus all sorts of power, glory and so on, except none of this implies egalitarianism, in fact it’s the opposite, if person A is in the position to give Person B all sorts of power, then Person A is necessarily superior to Person B. None of the scriptures citied by Anderson conflict with the clear view that Jesus is subordinate to God. No matter how high Jesus is glorified, no matter how much authority and power he is given, he is glorified by God and given authority and power by God and is thus subordinate to God.

The third problem brought up by Anderson is about the proceeding of the Holy Spirit, something that, for the purpose of this post, I don’t really want to get into.

Anderson’s article attempts to look at John as a dialectic gospel. As was pointed out earlier, all the conflicts within the gospel depend on very specific, and I think implausible, interpretations. So for example, Anderson says:

The Son is to be regarded as equal to the Father precisely because he does and says nothing on his own, but only what the Father commands.

The last word there should put that idea to rest, if one commands and the other obeys you do not have an egalitarian relationship. Nevertheless, the interpretation is placed there by Paul Anderson in order to create a problem, a problem that can then eventually be solved by the Trinity. Another example of this is Anderson’s reading of the “I am” sayings he writes:

While the distinctive form of the Johannine I-Am sayings is not found in the Synoptics, none of John’s nine metaphors is absent from the speech of the Synoptic Jesus. Therefore, we have in John the evangelist’s periphrastic rendering of Jesus’ mission in terms rooted in historical memory but crafted to suit the teaching ministry of the evangelist.[2] Additionally, the absolute renderings of Jesus’ I-Am sayings of Jesus are not exclusive to John; they are also found in the Synoptics, including allusions to the theophany of Moses before the burning bush in Exodus 3:14 (Mk 6:50; 12:26; 14:61-62). These associations, plausibly connected to the historical ministry of Jesus, given their independent attestation in the Synoptics and John, nonetheless took on new meanings within the developing Johannine as encounters with the spirit of the risen Christ caused deepened reflection on the meaning of Jesus as the Messiah-Christ in post-resurrection consciousness. This is where the Johannine Prologue emerged as a fitting communal confession—plausibly devised by the Johannine Elder as a means of affirming the witness of the Beloved Disciple, designed to lead later audiences into experiential encounter as witnessed to in the Johannine narrative. It was thus added to the narrative as a means of engaging later audiences with its subject—seeking to evoke an existential encounter as a means of furthering dialectical experience and subsequent reflection.

Each of the verses listed in Mark have really nothing in common, Mark 6:50 says:

for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” “θαρσεῖτε, ἐγώ εἰμι· μὴ φοβεῖσθε.”

Jesus here says “ἐγώ εἰμι” but is this some title? No obviously not, he’s simply saying don’t be afraid “it’s me.” ἐγώ εἰμι is the common Greek term for self-reference, it is not a Divine title at all. Then we have Mark 12:26:

And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? “Ἐγὼ ὁ Θεὸς Ἀβραὰμ καὶ Θεὸς Ἰσαὰκ καὶ Θεὸς Ἰακώβ;”

Now this is a Quote from Exodus 3:15, but Jesus is in no way referring the scripture to himself, he’s defending the concept of the resurrection, using the verse the way anyone else could and would use it. Now let’s go to Mark 14:61-62:

But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” 62 Jesus said, “I am; and

‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

“ἐγώ εἰμι, καὶ ὄψεσθε τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκ δεξιῶν καθήμενον τῆς δυνάμεως καὶ

ἐρχόμενον μετὰ τῶν νεφελῶν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ.”

Again, this use of ἐγώ εἰμι is no reference to a title, no reference to Exodus 3, it is simply a regular answer to the question presented to him.

The problem with using ἐγώ εἰμι statements in themselves as some sort of title is that ἐγώ εἰμι is the regular Greek way to self-reference, it’s extremely common. Also, and more importantly, it is never used as an actual divine title in the LXX, the divine title in Exodus 3:14 is ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν, and the actual “I am” part, which is used by itself is not ἐγώ εἰμι but rather ὁ ὤν.

So when actually examined in the Greek there are no places in the New Testament where Jesus applies the divine title from Exodus 3:14 to himself. What is being done by Anderson is connections are being made, where none exists, and then these made up connections, when inconsistent with the larger narrative of the Gospels, are subsequently labeled as dialectical tensions.

Anderson says also:

As the Johannine narrative is embraced among Gentile believers, in addition to Jewish ones, the Jewish agency motif gets translated into Hellenistic-friendly terms—fitting especially well with understandings of the divine Logos as taught by the likes of Heraclitus and Philo. Perhaps influenced by the Christological hymns of Colossians 1:15-21 and Hebrews 1:1-4, this worship-confession was then added to a final edition of the Johannine narrative by the compiler, connecting the Son with the Father in pre-existent and cosmos-effecting ways.

It is especially the Johannine Prologue that determined the patristic discussions of Jesus’ divinity and humanity and his relation to the Father. The Word was with God and the Word was God, so the Johannine evangel proclaims (Jn 1:1-2). Further, the Son’s role in creation and pre-existent oneness with the Father, reflecting a cross-cultural expansion of John’s agency motif, contributed to heated theological discussions over the ensuing centuries. John’s presentations of Jesus’ will and that of his Father being in tension contributed to monothelite debates, just as John’s tensive Christology contributed to adoptionistic, Apollinarian, and monophysite debates. What contributed most powerfully to the inference of distinctive persons regarding the Father and the Son is John’s presentation of Jesus’ relation to the Father and his representative mission. Therefore, it is precisely because of John’s presentation of Jesus’ agency as sent by the Father, carrying out his will and returning to the one who sent him, that Trinitarian discussions were forced to envision individuated faces and persons within a unitive Godhead. In that sense, the Jewish agency motif never really was excluded from Trinitarian discussions; it was simply modified and incorporated into the ensuing discussions.

There are a few things missed out here, one is the fact that Philo of Alexandria was a thoroughly Jewish writer, just as Jewish as the Pharisees, the fact that he used Hellenistic language and concepts doesn’t change that. Judaism was not a monolithic religion; there were several different types of Judaism at the time. In addition, it’s important to point out that Philo was just as influenced by Jewish Wisdom literature in his creation of his Philo theology as he was influenced by Greek Philosophy.

That being said, when we look at the Prologue, and we actually include the clear influence of Philo(esque) Theology, no tension need be assumed. A second God, created, through which all things were made, fits perfectly in John and the Cultural Context. The only problem comes when you insist on interpreting “oneness” as ontological oneness, despite there being absolutely no evidence in John for that usage of “oneness.” There is evidence within the text itself that the “oneness” is not ontological since you would have to include the apostles in that “oneness” according to John 17 (which is a problem, unless you take a very literal view of the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of Theosis). The problem also comes when you insist on a strict and literal view of monotheism, a view that first century Jews never held. The view has to be that anyone or thing which rightly holds the title of God must be Yahweh himself for the argument to work. As I have pointed out before, that is a thoroughly unbiblical view.

In the conclusion, Anderson gives us a very telling quote:

Given that the source of orthodox theology has as its Johannine roots a living and dynamic set of factors, the question is how to restore the Johannine tensions to later understandings—moving living faith to orthodox creeds…and back again.[3] To do so implies not simply viewing John’s narrative in Trinitarian perspective, but also viewing Trinitarian theology in Johannine perspective.

Not only do many theologians read the trinity into John, they also in turn, read John into the trinity, which solidifies the language and concepts of John as Trinitarian whether or not they are such. We don’t want to read doctrine into scripture, or read scripture into doctrine, we want to read scripture, and understand scripture, on its own terms, and then build a doctrine above that, but that doctrine should never be imposed on scripture, or adjusted to the language of scripture. Too often a doctrine is simply re worded to fit scripture, without actually examining whether or not the doctrine itself should be done away with or completely changed, scripture must be allowed to talk on its own terms.

The Riddles of John – Part 2, false tensions

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