the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
John, Theology of
Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible
JOHN, THEOLOGY OF . It is the object of this article to give a brief account of St. John’s teaching as contained in his Gospel and Epistles. Without prejudging in any way the authorship of the Apocalypse, it will be more convenient that the doctrine of that book should be considered separately. Enough if it be said here that, despite the obvious and very striking difference in the form and style of the book, the underlying similarities between it and those to be now considered are no less remarkable. Careful students, not blinded by the symbolism and other peculiarities of the Revelation, who have concentrated attention upon its main ideas and principles, have come to the conclusion that if it did not proceed from the same pen that wrote the Gospel and Epistles, it belongs to the same school of Christian thought. See Revelation [Book of].
1. Some general characteristics of the teaching of St. John . (1) It was not in vain that the designation ‘the theologian’ was given to him, as in the title of the Apocalypse and elsewhere. The word means in this connexion that it was St. John’s habit to consider every subject from the point of view of the Divine . Not only is God to him the most real of all beings that should be true of every religious man but all the details of his very practical teaching are traced up to their origin in the nature and will of God. The opening of his Gospel is characteristic. History is viewed from the standpoint of eternity, the life of Jesus is to be narrated not from the point of view of mere human observation, but as a temporal manifestation of eternal realities. (2) But it must not for a moment be understood that the treatment of human affairs is vague, abstract, unreal . St. John has a firm hold upon the concrete, and his insight into the actual life and needs of men is penetrating and profound. He is not analytical as St. Paul is, nor does he deal with individual virtues and vices as does St. James. But in the unity and simplicity of a few great principles he reaches to the very heart of things. His method is often described as intuitive, contemplative, mystical. The use of these epithets may be justified, but it would be misleading to suppose that a teacher who views life from so high a vantage-ground sees less than others. The higher you climb up the mountain the farther you can see. Those who contrast the spiritual with the practical create a false antithesis. The spiritual teacher, and he alone, can perceive and deal with human nature, not according to its superficial appearances, but as it really is at its very core. (3) Only it must not be forgotten that the view thus taken of nature and conduct is ideal, absolute, uncompromising . The moral dualism which is characteristic of St. John is in accordance with the sentence from the great Judgment-seat. Light and darkness good and evil truth and falsehood life and death these are brought into sharp and relentless contrast. Half-tones, delicate distinctions, the subtle and gradual fining down of principles in the complex working of motives in human life, disappear in the blaze of light which St. John causes to stream in from another world. ‘He that is begotten of God cannot sin’ ( 1 John 3:9 ); he that ‘denieth the Son hath not the Father’ (2:23); ‘we are of God, the whole world lieth in the evil one’ (5:19). Such a mode of regarding life is not unreal, if only its point of view be borne in mind. In the drama of human society the sudden introduction of these absolute and irreconcilable principles of judgment would be destructive of distinctions which have an importance of their own, but the forces, as St. John describes them, are actually at work, and one day their fundamental and inalienable character will be made plain. (4) Another feature of St. John’s style and method which arrests attention at once is his characteristic use of certain words and phrases ‘witness’ (47 times), ‘truth,’ ‘signs,’ ‘world’ (78 times), ‘eternal life,’ ‘know’ (55), ‘believe’ (98), ‘glory,’ ‘judgment,’ are but specimens of many. They indicate a unity of thought and system in the writer which finds no precise parallel elsewhere in Scripture, the nearest approach, perhaps, being in the characteristic phraseology of Deuteronomy in the OT. St. John is not systematic in the sense of presenting his readers with carefully ordered reasoning a progressive argument compacted by links of logical demonstration. He sees life whole, and presents it as a whole. But all that belongs to human life falls within categories which, from the outset, are very clear and definite to his own mind. The Gospel is carefully constructed as an artistic whole, the First Epistle is not. But all the thoughts in both are presented in a setting prepared by the definite ideas of the writer. The molten metal of Christian thought and feeling has taken shape in the mould of a strikingly individual mind: the crystallization of the ideas is his work, and there is consequently a unity and system about his presentation of them which may be described as distinctly Johannine. The truth he taught was gained direct from the Master, and its form largely so. But in describing the teaching we shall use the name of the disciple.
2. The doctrine of God which underlies these books is as sublime in its lofty monotheism as it is distinctively ‘Christian’ in its manifestation and unfolding. No writer of Scripture insists more strongly upon the unity and absoluteness of the only God ( John 5:44 ), ‘the only true God’ (17:3), whom ‘no man hath seen at any time’ (1:18); yet none more completely recognizes the eternal Sonship of the Son, the fulness of the Godhead seen in Christ, the personality and Divine offices of the Holy Spirit. It is to St. John that we owe the three great utterances, ‘God is Spirit’ ( John 4:24 ), ‘God is Light’ ( 1 John 1:5 ), ‘God is Love’ ( 1 John 4:8; 1 John 4:16 ).
The deductions drawn from the doctrine of the spirituality of God show the importance of its practical aspects. God as Spirit is not remote from men, but this conception of His essence brings Him, though invisible, nearer to men than ever. God as Light exhibits Himself to us as truth, holiness, and righteousness. Some interpreters understand the phrase as designating the metaphysical being of God, others His self-revelation and self-impartation. The context, however, points rather to the ineffable purity of His nature and the need of holiness in those who profess to hold fellowship with Him. That God is loving unto every man, or at least to Israel, was no new doctrine when John taught; but up to that time none had ever pronounced the words in their profound simplicity ‘God is Love.’ John himself could never have conceived the thought; he learned it from his Master. But if the form in which he expressed it is accurate and what Christian can question it? , it ‘makes one thing of all theology.’ Love is not so much an attribute of God as a name for Himself in the intimate and changeless essence of His being. That there is the slightest inconsistency between the Divine love and the Divine righteousness is incredible; but if God is love, no manifestation of God’s justice can ever contradict this quintessential principle of His inmost nature. Again, the words that follow the statement show that in the Apostle’s mind the practical aspects of the doctrine were prominent. Contemplation with him does not mean speculation. Abstract a priori deductions from a theologonmenon are not in St. John’s thought: his conclusions are, ‘He that loveth not knoweth not God’ ( 1 John 4:8 ), ‘We also ought to love one another’ (v. 11). Nor does this high teaching exclude careful discrimination. The love of the Father to the Son, His love to the world as the basis of all salvation, the closer sympathy and fellowship which He grants to believers as His own children, are not confused with one another. But the statement that God is love goes behind all these for the moment, and teaches that the principle of self-impartation is essential, energetic, and ever operating in the Divine nature, and that it is in itself the source of all life, all purifying energy, and all that love which constitutes at the same time the binding and the motive power of the whole universe.
3. The Logos . The object for which the Gospel was written, we are told, was that men might believe that Jesus was not only the Christ, but also the Son of God. The former belief would not necessarily change their views of the Godhead; the latter, if intelligently held and interpreted in the light of Thomas’ confession (for instance), would undoubtedly affect in some direction the intense monotheism of one who was born and bred a Jew. Was it possible to believe that in Jesus God Himself was incarnate, and at the same time to believe completely and ardently in the unity of God? The answer of the writer is given substantially in the Prologue, in the doctrine of the Eternal Word. It is unnecessary to discuss in detail whence John derived the word Logos : the doctrine was practically his own. There can be little question that the Memra of the Targums, based on the usage of such passages as Psalms 33:6; Psalms 147:15 , and Isaiah 55:11 , formed the foundation of the idea, and it is tolerably certain that the connotation attaching to the word had been modified by Philo’s use of it. It does not follow, however, that St. John uses the word either as the Psalmist did, or as the paraphrast or the Alexandrian philosopher employed it. Taking a word which his hearers and readers understood, he put his own stamp upon it. Philo and St. John both drew from Hebrew sources. Philo employed an expression which suited his philosophy because of its meaning ‘reason,’ and it was employed by him mainly in a metaphysical sense. St. John, however, availed himself of another meaning of the Greek word Logos , and he emphasizes the Divine ‘utterance,’ which reveals the mind and will of God Himself, giving a personal and historical interpretation to the phrase. The Word, according to the teaching of the Prologue, is Eternal, Divine, the Mediator of creation, the Light of mankind throughout history; and in the latter days the Word made flesh, tabernacling amongst men, is the Only-begotten from the Father full of grace and truth. This cardinal doctrine once laid down, there is no further reference to it in the Gospel, and in the only other places in NT where a similar expression is used ( 1 John 1:1 and Revelation 19:13 ) it is employed with a difference. Even in the Prologue the conception of the Word is not abstract and philosophical, but when the introduction to the Gospel is finished, the idea never appears again; the narrative of the only Son, revealing for the first time the Father in all His fulness, proceeds as if no account of the Logos had been given. When the basis of the Gospel story has been laid in a deep doctrine of the Eternal Godhead, the idea has done its work, and in the actual narrative it is discarded accordingly. The Christology of St. John would be quite incomplete without his doctrine of the Logos, but it is not dependent on this. Christ’s unique Personality as Son of God may be fully known from His life on earth, but the Prologue gives to the narrative of His ministry in the flesh a background of history and of eternity. In all ages the Logos was the medium of Divine revelation, as He had been of creation itself, and of the Godhead before the world was. Pre-temporal existence and pre-incarnate operation having been described with sublime brevity, the Evangelist proceeds calmly with the story to which this forms an august introduction. See also art. Logos.
4. The Fatherhood of God, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit . It is unnecessary to point out how influential the Prologue has been in the history of Christian thought, but it is well to remember also that to St. John more than to any other writer we owe the development of the Christian doctrine of the Godhead, as modified by the above cardinal conceptions. The doctrines of the Fatherhood of God and of the Holy Spirit as a Divine Person do not indeed depend upon the witness of St. John. The Synoptists and St. Paul, not to speak of other NT writers, would furnish a perfectly adequate basis for these vital truths of Christian faith. But neither would have influenced Christian thought so profoundly, and neither would have been so clearly understood, without St. John’s teaching and Christ’s words as reported by him. The meaning of the term ‘Son of God’ as applied to Jesus is brought to light by the Fourth Gospel. Without it we might well have failed to gain an adequate conception of Fatherhood and Sonship as eternal elements in the Divine nature, and the unique relationship between the Father and the Son Incarnate is brought out in the fifth and other chapters of the Gospel as nowhere else. So with the Christian doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The whole of Scripture bears its testimony. Even in the OT more is said of the Spirit of God than is often recognized, and the teaching of St. Paul and St. Luke is full of instruction. But without the farewell discourses of Christ to His Apostles as recorded in John 14:1-31; John 15:1-27; John 16:1-33 , our ideas of His Person and office would be comparatively meagre. The very term ‘Paraclete,’ not found outside the Gospel and 1 Ep., is itself a revelation. The personality of the Spirit and His distinctness from the Father and the Son, whilst Himself one with them, are elucidated with great clearness in these chapters. On the other hand, in his Epistle, St. John has much less to say than St. Paul of the Spirit in relation to the life of the believer.
5. On the subjects of sin and salvation , St. John’s teaching harmonizes fully with that of the NT generally, whilst he maintains an individual note of his own, and brings out certain aspects of Christ’s teaching as none of the Synoptists does. To him we owe the definition, ‘sin is lawlessness’ ( 1 John 3:4 ). He describes sin in the singular as a principle, rather than actual sins in the concrete. No dark lists enumerating the Protean forms of sin, such as are found in St. Paul, occur in St. John, but he emphasizes with tremendous power the contrast between flesh and spirit, between light and darkness. The perennial conflict between these is hinted at in the Prologue, and it is terribly manifest alike in the ministry of the Saviour and in the life of the Christian in the world. To St. John’s writings chiefly we owe the idea of ‘the world as a dark and dire enemy,’ vague and shadowy in outline, but most formidable in its opposition to the love of the Father and the light of the life of sonship. The shades of meaning in which ‘world’ is employed vary (see John 8:23 , John 12:31 , John 17:14; John 17:25 , John 18:36 and 1 John 2:15-16 ). The existence of evil spirits and their connexion with the sin of man are dwelt on by St. John in his own way. He does not dwell on the phenomena of demoniacal possession, but he has much to say of ‘the devil’ or ‘the evil one’ as a personal embodiment of the principle and power of evil. Upon his doctrine of Antichrist and ‘the sin unto death’ we cannot now dwell.
Potent as are the forces of evil, perfect conquest over them may be gained. The victory has already been virtually won by Christ as the all-sufficient Saviour, who as Son of God was manifested that He might undo or annul the works of the devil (1 John 3:8 ). His object was not to condemn the world, but to save it ( John 3:17 ). That the Cross of Christ was the centre of His work, and His death the means through which eternal life was obtained for men, is made abundantly clear from several different points of view. John the Baptist points to the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world ( John 1:29 ). The Son of Man is to be ‘lifted up’ like the serpent in the wilderness ( John 3:14 ), and will draw all men unto Himself ( John 12:32 ). He gives His flesh for the life of the world ( John 6:51 ). Only those who ‘eat his flesh’ and ‘drink his blood’ have eternal life ( John 6:53-56 ). He is the propitiation for the sins of the world ( 1 John 2:2; 1 John 4:10 ), and it is His blood that cleanses from all sin those who walk in the light and have fellowship with the Father and the Son ( 1 John 1:7 ). St. John dwells but little on the legal aspects of sin and atonement; his doctrine on these matters is characteristic, confirming, whilst in supplements, the doctrines of St. Paul concerning justification and sanctification. What Paul describes as entire sanctification John eulogizes as perfect love two names for the same full salvation, two paths to the same consummate goal.
It is most instructive to compare St. Paul and St. John in their references to faith and love. No student of these two great twin brethren in Christ could decide which of them deserves to be called the Apostle of faith, or which the Apostle of love. St. John uses the word ‘faith’ only once (1 John 5:4 ), but the verb ‘believe’ occurs nearly 200 times in his writings, and his usage of it is more plastic and versatile than that of St. Paul or the writer of Hebrews. Again, if the word ‘love’ occurs much more frequently in St. John, he has composed no such hymn in its honour as is found in 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 . The light he exhibits as a simple white ray St. Paul disperses into all the colours of the rainbow. The shades of meaning in St. John’s use of the word ‘believe’ and his delicate distinction between two Greek words for ‘love’ deserve careful study.
6 . The true believer in Christ enters upon a new life . The nature of this life is fully unfolded in St. John’s writings, in terms which show an essential agreement with other parts of NT, but which are at the same time distinctively his own. The doctrine of the New Birth is one example of this. The Gospel gives a full account of the discourse of Christ with Nicodemus on this subject, but both Gospel and Epistle contain many of the Apostle’s own statements, which show no slavish imitation on his part either of the words of the Master or of Paul, but present his own views as a Christian teacher consistently worked out. In the Prologue the contrast between natural birth ‘of blood, of the will of the flesh, of the will of man,’ and the being spiritually ‘born of God,’ is very marked. Those whose life has been thus renewed are described as ‘having the right to become children of God,’ and the condition is the ‘receiving’ or ‘believing on the name’ of Him who, as Word of God, had come into the world. The phrase used for the most part in John 3:1-36 and in 1 Jn. is ‘begotten again’ or ‘anew’ or ‘from above.’ The word ‘begotten,’ not employed thus by other NT writers, lays stress on the primary origin of the new life, not so much on its changed character. Two participles are employed in Greek, one of which emphasizes the initial act, the other the resulting state. But all the passages, including especially 1 John 2:29; 1Jn 3:9; 1 John 5:1; 1 John 5:18 , draw a very sharp contrast between the new life which the believer in Christ enjoys and the natural life of the ordinary man. He to whom the new life has been imparted is a new being. He ‘doeth righteousness,’ he ‘does not commit sin,’ he ‘cannot sin,’ because he has been begotten of God and ‘his seed abideth in him.’ Love and knowledge are marks of this new begetting, and the new life is given to ‘whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ.’ Some difficulty attaches to the interpretation of one clause in 1 John 5:18 , but it is clear from that verse that he who enjoys the new life ‘doth not sin,’ and that ‘the evil one toucheth him not.’ The change is mysterious, but very real, and the term used by St. John to indicate this relation ‘children,’ instead of ‘sons’ as is usual with St. Paul lays stress upon the close and intimate personal bond thus created, rather than upon the status and privileges of sonship. St. John, as we might expect, emphasizes the vital, not the legal, element; believers are not merely called children, ‘such we are’ ( 1 John 3:1-2 ) and cannot be otherwise. When new life has actually been infused, it must manifest its characteristic qualities.
The nature of the Christian’s vital union with God in Christ is illustrated from different points of view. Our Lord’s allegory not parable of the Vine and the Branches is full of instruction, but no analogy drawn from vegetable life suffices adequately to describe the fellowship between Christ and His disciples; this is rather to be moulded after the pattern of the spiritual fellowship between the Father and the Son (John 15:9; John 17:21-23 ); and the terms ‘communion’ and ‘abiding’ are strongly characteristic of the First Epistle (1:3, 2:6, 27, 28, 3:24, 4:12 etc.). The strong phrases of John 6:1-71 , ‘eating the flesh’ and ‘drinking the blood’ of Christ, are employed, partly to express the extreme closeness of the appropriation of Christ Himself by the believer, partly to emphasize the benefits of His sacrificial work, as the faithful receive in the Lord’s Supper the symbols of His broken body and blood poured out for men.
Lest, however, what might be called the mystical element in John’s theology should be exaggerated, it is well to note that the balance is redressed by the stress laid upon love in its most practical forms. Love of the world that is, the bestowal of supreme regard upon the passing attractions of things outward and visible is absolutely inconsistent with real love to the Father and real life in Christ ( 1 John 2:15-17 ). Similarly strong language is used as regards social relationships and the love of others; for the word ‘brother’ must not be narrowed down to mean exclusively those who belong to the Christian communion. No man whose life in relation to men is not actuated by love can be said to walk in the light ( 1 John 2:9-10 ); hatred is murder ( 1 John 3:12; 1 John 3:15 ); willingness to help another in need is a test of true love, nominal and professed affection will not suffice ( 1 John 3:17-18 ); a man who professes to love God and does not manifest a spirit of loving helpfulness adds falsehood to his other sins ‘he is a liar’ ( 1 John 4:20 ). The frequent repetition of some of these phrases and their interchange with others, such as ‘doing righteousness,’ ‘walking in the truth,’ ‘being in the light,’ ‘abiding in him,’ ‘God abiding in us,’ and the like, show that St. John is dealing with the very central core of spiritual life, and that for him, as for St. Paul, it is true that ‘he that loveth his neighbour hath fulfilled the law â€¦ for love is the fulfilment of the law.’
No more comprehensive phrase, however, to describe in brief the blessings of the gospel is to be found in St. John’s theology than ‘ eternal life .’ It occurs 17 times in the Gospel and 6 times in the First Epistle, while ‘life’ with substantially the same meaning is found much more frequently. ‘Life’ means for St. John that fulness of possession and enjoyment which alone realizes the great ends for which existence has been given to men, and it is to be realized only in the fulfilment of the highest human ideals through union with God in Christ. Eternal ‘life’ means this rich existence in perpetuity; sometimes it includes immortality, sometimes it distinctly refers to that which may be enjoyed here and now. In the latter case it is not unlike what is called in 1 Timothy 6:19 ‘the life which is life indeed.’ It is defined in John 17:3 as consisting in the knowledge of God and Christ, where knowledge must certainly imply not a mere intellectual acquaintance, but a practical attainment in experience, including a state of heart and will as well as of mind, which makes God in Christ to be a true possession of the soul that fellowship with God which constitutes the supreme possession for man upon the earth. But a contrast is drawn, e.g. in John 3:16 and John 10:28 , between ‘eternal life’ and ‘perishing’ or ‘moral ruin’; and in one of St. John’s sharp and startling contrasts, the choice open to man is described as including only these two solemn alternatives ‘He that believeth on the Son hath eternal life; but he that believeth not the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth on him’ ( John 3:36 ). The idea thus broached carries us beyond the boundaries of earthly existence; according to Christ’s teaching, whoever keeps His word ‘shall never taste of death’ ( John 8:52 ), and ‘though he die, yet shall he live’ ( John 11:25 ). Knowledge of God and union with Christ impart to the believer a type of being which is not subject to the chances and changes of temporal existence, but is in itself unending, imperishable, so that in comparison with it no other kind of life deserves the name.
7 . This opens up naturally the question of St. John’s Eschatology . It has already been said (see p. 482 a ) that some critics find an inherent contradiction between St. John’s view of judgment and that set forth by the Synoptists, and it has been pointed out in reply that he recognizes ‘judgment’ not merely as here and now present in history, but as still to be anticipated in its final form in the life beyond the grave. Similar statements have been made in reference to Christ’s ‘coming’ and the ‘resurrection.’ That each of these three events is recognized as still in the future, to be anticipated as coming to pass at the end of the world, or at ‘the last day,’ is clear from such passages as the following: ‘judgment’ in John 12:48 and 1 John 4:17; ‘coming’ in John 14:3 and 1 John 2:18; 1 John 2:28; ‘resurrection’ in John 5:28-29; John 6:39-40; John 11:24 etc. But it cannot be questioned that St. John, much more than St. Paul or the Synoptists, uses these words in a spiritual sense to indicate a coming to earth in the course of history, a spiritual visitation which may be called a ‘coming’ of Christ (see John 14:18; John 14:23; John 14:28 and perhaps John 21:22 ), as well as a judgment which was virtually pronounced in Christ’s lifetime ( John 12:31 etc.). Similarly, in John 5:21 it is said that ‘the Son quickeneth whom he will,’ where the reference cannot be to life beyond the grave a view which is confirmed by John 5:22-23 , where we are told that he who hears Christ’s word has passed from death to life, does not come into judgment, and that ‘the hour now is’ in which the dead shall hear His voice and live. There is nothing in these descriptions of present spiritual blessing to interfere with the explicit statement that after death there shall be a resurrection of life and a resurrection of judgment ( John 5:29 ), any more than our Saviour intended to deny Martha’s statement concerning the resurrection at the last day, when He said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ ( John 11:25 ).
It may perhaps be fairly said that St. John in the Gospel and Epistles lays emphasis upon the present spiritual blessings of salvation rather than upon future eschatological events described by means of the sensuous and material symbolism characteristic of the Apocalypse. But the two ideas, so far from being inconsistent, confirm one another. The man who believes in the present moral government of God in the world is assured that there must be a great day of consummation hereafter; while he who is assured that God will vindicate Himself by some Great Assize in the future life cannot surely imagine that meantime He has left the history of the world in moral confusion. The spiritual man knows that the future lies hid in the hints and suggestions of the present; he is certain also that such hints and suggestions must find their perfect realization and issue in a consummation yet to come. No Christian teacher has understood the deep-lying unity between the material and the spiritual, the present and the future, the temporal and the eternal, more completely than St. John ‘the divine.’
W. T. Davison.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'John, Theology of'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​j/john-theology-of.html. 1909.