A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters

July 9, 2012 — Leave a comment

9780310269861Somehow, the original publication of this book slipped under my radar. That, or perhaps I just wasn’t particularly interested when it did come out (I had recently gotten married and adjusting to a new lifestyle in fall 2009). In either case, I’ve gotten my hands on it now, and like pretty much everything I’ve read by Andreas Köstenberger, it’s a great book (see my review of Excellence and Invitation to Biblical Interpretation). Along with writing this volume, he is the general editor of the series, Biblical Theology of The New Testament (which also has a volume on Luke/Acts by Darrell Bock that I’ll review next month). That makes this book in many ways not just the first to be published, but the one that sets the pace for the rest to follow.

Overview

At first, the layout is a little confusing. Broadly speaking, it follows the trajectory of interpretation that Köstenberger and Patterson explain in Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: history, literature, theology. The bulk of the exegetical work typically occurs in the literature phase, but since this is intended to be a biblical theology of John’s Gospel and Letters and not a commentary, the bulk of this volume is devoted to phase 3 (theology). This can only be done after one has done close exegetical work in the text, and since Köstenberger has already written a commentary on John’s Gospel, this book is a collection of thematic excursions growing out of his exegetical endeavors.

It takes a while to get to those thematic excursions however. The first two parts of the book are devoted to the historical framework and literary foundations for John’s theology. Köstenberger not only situates John his own 1st century historical context, but sketches out the historical context of his own 21st century study of John within the larger field of biblical theology. With the framework in place, the reader is treated to chapters on the genre of John’s Gospel and Letters (chapter 2), linguistic and literary dimensions like vocabulary, style, and literary devices (chapter 3), and then a literary theological reading of first, the Gospel (chapter 4), and then the letters (chapter 5). Köstenberger is nothing if not thorough.

Part 3 then gets into the biblical theology proper, which is more what I was anticipating as a reader. Köstenberger actually talks about his creative approach to organization in his book Excellence, so I was somewhat prepared for it (and was part of what got me interested in reviewing this book). With his extensive reading of the Gospel and Letters, Köstenberger gathered many themes (through analysis of semantic domains) and then decided to organize them based on where they were most prominent in the Gospel. It ends up looking something like this:

  • Prolegomena (John’s worldview and use of Scripture, chapter 6)
  • John’s Purpose Statement in 20:30-31 (the purpose and nature of the “signs” in John’s gospel, chapter 7)
  • John’s Introduction in 1:1-18 (Creation, Trinitarian theology, salvation history, the cosmic trial motif, new messianic community, chapters 8-12)
  • John’s Turning Point in 13:1-3 (John’s love ethic, his theology of the cross and mission, chapters 13-15)

In this way you can see a kind of progression to the themes, almost in a systematic theological ordering. The exception would be that Köstenberger put eschatology right up front (chapter 7, which was something he commented on in Excellence). But from there notice it moves moves from Scripture to God to salvation to ecclesiology. What at first seems like an odd way to order the material turns out to use nexus points of thematic material in John’s writing to present his theology is almost systematic terms.

The final part, which is a single chapter just like the first, then connects John’s theology first, to the Synoptic Gospels, and then to Paul and the other New Testament writers. This is kind of like icing on the cake by this point of the book, but it helpful to see how Köstenberger’s understanding of John fits into the rest of the NT.

Strengths/Weaknesses

A big strength of the book is Köstenberger’s organizational prowess. Rather than just a loose collection thematic excursions in John’s Gospel and Letters, Köstenberger took the time to think of a creative and (hopefully) helpful way to organize his research. While I count it as a strength, some might consider it a weakness if for nothing else than the fact that at first glance it is somewhat confusing. If you can push through that though, you probably won’t be able to read John the same again.

In addition, he stays sharply focused on the primary sources, John’s Gospel and Letters, rather than trying to deftly navigate the occasionally choppy waters in the sea of secondary sources. Sure, he knows his way around those like a good scholar, but his primary focal point in the primary sources. He does bring in significant studies where appropriate, particularly in the chapter on The Cosmic Trial Motif that was brought to light by Andrew Lincoln’s study Truth on Trial: The Lawsuit Motif in the Fourth Gospel. Also helpful in this was regard was his interaction in the literary section with Paul Duke’s Irony in the Fourth Gospel.

Lastly, Köstenberger is not afraid to bust out a chart or two or five, and he is clearly a list guy (which I like). His writing style itself is very polished and clear, but it certainly helps that he enumerates all over the place and offers summary charts that you take a just few minutes to benefit from but probably took him hours to compile (e.g. the inventory of Johannine vocabulary and major semantic domains on pg. 129).

As for weaknesses, there are none that stick out to me, but perhaps I’m not enough of a Johannine scholar to have any bones to pick. If forced to pick one, I would just reiterate that while Köstenberger’s presentation is highly creative it is somewhat confusing initially. Additionally, if I were preaching through John’s Gospel or Letters, I would find myself index surfing all over the book the see what Köstenberger says about a specific passage. As a resource then, this is a great textbook for a class on Johannine theology, but for someone preaching through John, the benefits will require some digging.

Conclusion

That being said, I found Köstenberger’s book to be a valuable addition to my bookshelf. The meat of the book in part 3 is something I will probably come back to frequently and may even blog some of Köstenberger’s charts and lists. Particularly interesting to me was his case for the cleansing of the temple as the first sign thus making the raising of Lazarus the seventh sign to appear in the Gospel. Köstenberger present his case as tentative and awaiting “further scholarly discussion” (335), which gives his work the virtue of not just a collecting and systematizing of themes but actually bringing to light new insights into John’s message that can generate a response. Also interesting in this regard are Köstenberger’s comparison of the days of creation with the new creation inaugurated by Jesus at the start of his ministry (349-354), and how John “developed his theological presentation of Jesus” from the “quarry” of salvation historical themes such as creation, exodus, the exile, and various Jewish festivals and institutions (405-412).

Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in really exploring the theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. As Köstenberger displays, there is a richness to John’s writing that comes out upon close literary and theological analysis. If you’re interested in seeing that more for yourself, then this the book for you.

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Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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