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Hermeneutics in Action: Interpreting John's Gospel, by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird

Categories Biblical Studies Hermeneutics New Testament Studies

“The task of hermeneutics is to clarify this miracle of understanding, which is not a mysterious communion of souls, but sharing in a common meaning.” –Hans-Georg Gadamer [1]

The New Testament, we suggest, must be read so as to be understood. It isn’t the kind of “magic” book that simply bypasses the mind.

This means that the New Testament must be read within appropriate contexts, both the ancient contexts of its original setting and helpful and supportive contemporary contexts today. It must be “heard” within an acoustic which will allow its full overtones to stand out. It must be read with as little distortion as possible, and with as much sensitivity as possible to its different levels of meaning. It must be read so that the stories, and the Story, which it tells can be heard as stories, not as rambling ways of declaring unstoried “ideas.” It must be read without the assumption that we already know what it is going to say . . . And, for full appropriateness, it must be read in such a way as to set in motion the drama which it suggests. [2]

The New Testament Must be Read

The study of early Christianity, especially the theology of the whole movement and of key individuals within it, is conducted by means of the study of literature.

The New Testament is literature, not simply a pile of propositional nuggets waiting to be ordered into a systematic theology, [3] not an inchoate sequence of words designed to activate religious feelings. We must therefore enquire, in general terms at least, what literature does, how it works, and how best to treat it. Theologians need to take seriously the challenges proposed by literary theorists as to how texts generate and interrelate with beliefs.

What Is Meaning?

A proper place to start is with the idea of “meaning” itself. What do we mean when we say that biblical texts have meaning? What are we looking for? Where do we find it? Here we enter into the morass of debate about where “meaning” resides.

Whereas some want to find meaning at the horizon of the author, or the text, or the reader, we propose instead that a fully orbed hermeneutical strategy will lead us to affirm that all three components are involved in the communicative process. [4] It appears that authors intend, texts signify, and readers understand; and that “meaning” occurs in the fusion of all three.

Ultimately, “meaning” is the web of cognitive connections we make with the world behind the text, the world in the text, and the world we inhabit in front of the text. The more connections we make, and the thicker those connections appear to be, the more preferable is a particular meaning ascribed to the text because it explains more of the elements involved in the entire reading experience.

Fusing the Horizons of Author, Text, and Reader

According to Anthony C. Thiselton, interpreters sometimes remain locked into their own horizons, unable to read a text detached from their own time and tradition. However, the distance between interpreter and author is progressively closed by a “fusion” of horizons, fostered through a responsible reading of the text [5].

The best way to achieve this “fusion” is, we suggest, by getting into the historical background behind the text, pursuing the authorial intentions embedded inside the text (so far as we can—this is a matter of historical reconstruction, and as such always provisional though nonetheless vital), delving into the story within the text, and prayerfully striving to live out a faithful life in front of the text. Then, by drawing all these into a creative dialogue, we arrive at meanings and significances that can be tested and examined for their explanatory power and life-giving possibility (including ethical responsibility). In which case, as C. Christopher Spinks puts it: “Meaning is the mediation of God’s truth that takes place between authors, readers and the community of God of which they are all a part. [Meaning] is neither a determined object nor an open-ended idea.” [6]

How to Read the New Testament? A Hermeneutic of Love

The task for faithful readers is to engage in a sympathetic and yet inquisitive appropriation of the authors and texts of the New Testament. As a way forward, we suggest a possible hermeneutical model to consummate this fusion of horizons. It is a hermeneutic of love. [7] In love, at least in the idea of agapē as we find it in the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. The lover does not seek to remake the beloved into someone other than who he or she is. At this level, “love” will mean “attention”, the readiness to let the other be the other, the willingness to grow and change oneself in relation to the other.

When we apply this principle to all three components of the reading process, it will be possible to make a number of simultaneous affirmations and denials.

  • First, we need to do justice both to the fact that texts do not represent the whole of the author’s mind and to the fact that they nevertheless do tell us quite a bit about him or her.
  • Second, we need a theory that will do justice both to the fact that the author intended certain things and that the text may well contain other things—echoes, evocations, structures, and the like—that were not consciously present in the author’s mind.
  • Third, we need a theory that will do justice both to the fact that the reader is deeply involved in the communicative event and to the fact that the text is an entity on its own, not a plastic substance to be molded to the reader’s whim. If that is the case, then we should acknowledge that the author must be resurrected but not deified; that texts genuinely carry meaning like a hard-working mule, yet a text also inspires meaning like an iconic muse; and, while readers have rights, this does not license anarchy.

Until we grasp the place of the author, text, and reader in the formation of “meaning,” most of the present battles about reading the New Testament will be dialogues of the deaf, doomed to failure.

In sum, this hermeneutic of love is a lectio catholica semper reformanda (a reading of and for and in the whole church, but a reading which is always in need of revising and reforming, even as such readings themselves should revise and reform the church). Such a reading seeks to be faithful to what is received, while always open to the possibility of challenge and correction.

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Applied Hermeneutics: Interpreting John’s Gospel

[What insights arise from implementing the hermeneutical approach described above? The second part of this article illustrates the answer, in a brief-but-meaty introduction to the Gospel According to John, from N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird.

This is not a how-to of hermeneutics, it simply reveals some results or “fruit” of Wright and Bird’s hermeneutical strategy. Here’s an outline of the rest of the article’s contents:

  1. Comparing John to Other New Testament Texts
  2. John’s Purpose
  3. John and the Big Picture

For Wright and Bird’s more comprehensive introduction to John, including contextual-critical matters, see chapter 27 in their book The New Testament in Its World. –Zondervan Academic Blog Editors]

1. Comparing John to Other New Testament Texts

John stands out from the rest of the New Testament. With Paul we are in the seminar room: arguing things out, looking up references, taking notes, and then being pushed out into the world to preach the gospel to the nations. Matthew takes us into the synagogue, where the people of God are learning to recognize Jesus as their king, their Emmanuel. Mark writes a short tract, challenging his readers with the very idea of a crucified king and turning it into a handbook on discipleship for followers of the servant-king. Luke addresses the educated Greek world of his day and paints a big picture of God’s purposes through Israel’s Messiah for the whole world.

John, by contrast, takes us up the mountain, and says quietly: “Look—from here, on a clear day, you can see for ever.” We beheld his glory, glory as of the father’s only son. John does not include the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, as the other evangelists do. But there is a sense in which John’s whole story is about the transfiguration. He invites us to be still and know; to look again into the human face of Jesus of Nazareth, until the awesome knowledge comes over us, wave upon terrifying wave, that we are looking into the human face of the living God.

Part of the point, then, is that John is teaching us to discern the presence of God in the mess and muddle of historical reality. No apologies, then, for plunging into the questions the book inevitably raises. John’s gospel is in some ways remarkably like the three synoptic gospels, yet in other ways it is very unlike them. Why? What account can we give of this? [8]

The similarities are clear. John and the synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) share a comparable genre; they rely on a common intertext, the scriptures of Israel, as they narrate the same story . . .

But then there are the stark differences. How long was Jesus’ public career, and where was it located? John has his dramatic Temple-action near the beginning; the synoptics put it near the end. [9] There are also theological differences: the Johannine Jesus appears more forthright and explicit about his divine status than the Jesus of the synoptics, and the Johannine Jesus talks more about “eternal life” than the “kingdom of God” (though there is overlap on both). [10] The Johannine Jesus uses discourses rather than parables (though some may be “buried”—parables woven into discourses like the image of the “apprentice son” in John 5:19–23).

John is clearly making a distinctive, unique contribution.

Why should this be so? What did John think he was doing?

2. John’s Purpose

  • First, John was writing a new Genesis. His whole book, opening with the words “In the beginning,” which echo Genesis 1:1, is about how the world’s creator has come at last to remake his world. John 20 is about Jesus’ resurrection, but every sentence breathes the life of “the first day of the week,” the start of new creation. And if John hints that his prologue is heralding a new version of Genesis 1, then the equivalent of the climax of that great chapter, the creation of humans in the divine image, is precisely when the Word becomes flesh. John 1:14 corresponds to Genesis 1:26–28: the one through whom the world was made now becomes the one through whom the world is rescued and remade. This theme runs throughout the gospel, reaching its own climax in John 19:5 when Pilate declares “Here’s the man!”
  • Second, John was also writing a new Exodus. Moses led the people out of Egypt and gave them the Torah, to prepare them for God coming in person to dwell with them (in the tabernacle) and to lead them to their inheritance. Now “the Word became flesh and [literally translated] ‘tabernacled in our midst’” (John 1:14). Jesus is the place where the one God has come to dwell among us and to reveal his true glory. The whole gospel resonates with this temple-theme, reaching a climax in the “Farewell Discourses” (John 13–17) when Jesus’ followers, too, become temple-people by the promise that God’s own spirit will come to dwell in them.
  • Third, as a result, John was also writing about Pentecost. John bears witness to what he remembers, but his memory of Jesus is augmented and animated by the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, who will “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:26). John, it seems, sees himself as part of a Jewish movement that has experienced the fulfilment of Israel’s hopes in Israel’s Messiah, and as someone who has received the gift of YHWH’s own spirit from this Messiah.

John is providing an epitome of Jesus’ life, written by one who has experienced the streams of living water promised by Jesus to his followers, with the story expounded in the co-ordinates of Israel’s scripture. This is no bland bios, with the sayings of a famous teacher strung together in a loose narrative framework. John has written a theologically creative and spiritually rich fusion of personal memory and Pentecostal faith, suffused with scriptural motifs that together make the point: this is the fulfilment of Israel’s hope, which means that this is therefore the way creation itself is renewed, and, crowning it all, this is what it looked like when Israel’s God, the creator, came in person to do what only he could do. John thus artistically blends together the life of Jesus with the love of God revealed in Jesus. He offers historical testimony married to the spirit of truth, allowing the scriptural voice to serve as the background harmony to the living voice of the spirit. The Johannine gospel yields a creative blend of memory, mystery, and midrash. [11] The Johannine Jesus is what Jesus looks like viewed through the lens of the spirit, the paraclete. While John 20:22 has been nicknamed the “Johannine Pentecost,” in a sense the entire book is a Johannine Pentecost. The spirit uses Israel’s scriptures and John’s testimony to reveal who Jesus was and is—and who he is calling his followers to be, and what he is commissioning them to do.

The gospel of John sets out several vital biblical themes. There is rich teaching about God as father and his love for his world. There are clear warnings about the evil and darkness that have invaded God’s world, and about the tragic unbelief of so many Judeans in the face of divine witnesses. John has more to say about the spirit than all the other gospels put together, generating a strong theme about discipleship, which stems from faith in God and issues in love for others, and about the God-breathed mission to the wider world. John’s Jesus regularly refers to salvation in terms of “eternal life”—presumably, as elsewhere in the New Testament, “the life of the age to come,” not a Platonic dream beyond space, time, and matter.

But the heart of John’s thematic world is christology. John constructs a christological cascade, presenting Jesus as the father’s supreme agent, the heaven-sent son, the pre-existent Word who is enfleshed with full humanity. Jesus feels human fatigue; he weeps human tears; he really was and is a Galilean rabbi, a prophet—and Israel’s Messiah. As the son of man, Jesus is the nexus between heaven and earth, the object of divine worship. His crucifixion radiates God’s glory, the glory of utter self-giving love. [12] At climactic moments Jesus is said to be “equal with God,” the “I am” associated with the divine name, and even confessed as “my Lord and my God.” [13] He is differentiated from the father, and yet is one with the father, even though he is neither the father in a human mode, nor a second god in addition to the father. Ernst Käsemann famously believed that John’s figure of Jesus was ‘God striding across the earth’, but this is a radical misunderstanding. John well understands the dialectic tension between Jesus as vere homo et vere deus (truly man and truly God). [14] In John’s account, the one true God of Israel is revealed in the fully and genuinely human Jesus of Nazareth. What is more, that is part of the theological point, not a mere concession within an otherwise “divine-only” view of Jesus. Humans were made in God’s image. When Pilate says “Behold the man,” he is voicing what John wants to say every bit as much as when he writes “King of the Jews” above Jesus’ head—or as when John’s Caiaphas declares that it is expedient for one man to die for the people. [15]

3. John and the Big Picture

We could spend a day, a night, or a lifetime plumbing the theological insights, historical details, and spiritual depth of John’s gospel. For those who are already committed to living within the story John is telling, a few things present themselves for consideration.

The gospel of John is the big book of faith. It is about believing, not just because of remarkable signs, but because one accepts the verdict of the witnesses: God sent Jesus, Jesus is God’s son, the son has returned to the father, and the father sends the spirit of the son. This gospel calls us to faith: a rich, deep faith, an energetic faith, a faith that abides in Jesus the Messiah, a faith that can survive denials and doubts, a faith that can overcome the world because Jesus has already overcome it for us. This believing constitutes a special kind of knowledge: a spiritual knowing, knowing the truth, knowing a person who is the embodiment of truth, and enjoying the freedom that this truth brings.

One cannot ignore the clear christological core of the gospel of John. This is not a book about a generalized spirituality or religious outlook on life. It is about Jesus himself from first to last. The book is written by a disciple whose passion for Jesus is intoxicating. The Jesus of the fourth gospel is to be believed, trusted, obeyed, and worshipped. Why? Because he has the words of eternal life. He laid down his life for his friends. He is the good shepherd, the lamb of God, the true vine. He is the door between our world and the new creation. Jesus is not merely one option on a religious smorgasbord. He is unique, unprecedented, cosmically singular. He is not a way up the mountain; he made the mountain in the first place! He is the way, the truth, and the life. The way for all people, Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, and whosoever will believe in him. John bids us believe the exclusive claims of the all-inclusive savior.

To that we must add that, like all the New Testament stories, this story isn’t only about Jesus. It’s about us as well. Jesus is lifted up to draw us all to himself, and to enable us to be for the world what he was for Israel. The prologue says that “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God” (John 1:12). Or, again: in John 7:38 Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” There is the creation-image once again (Genesis 2:10–14), and also the Temple-image (Ezekiel 47:1–12); only now, the rivers of living water that flow out of the new-creation Temple of God come, not just from Jesus, but from all those who believe in him, who follow him, who become in their turn the channels through which his healing love can flow to the world. Therefore the risen Jesus says, in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (NRSV). And he breathes on the disciples, as God breathed upon Adam and Eve in the beginning, and gives them his own spirit, his own breath of life.

The whole amazing story of Jesus, with all its multiple levels, is thus given to be our story as we follow him. This is John’s ultimate vision of the nature of Christian discipleship. At the end of John 21, after Jesus’ strange and beautiful conversation with Peter, he issues that haunting summons: don’t think about the person standing next to you; your call is simply to follow me (21:22). Because of the cross, Jesus offers us, here and now, his own sonship; his own spirit; his own mission to the world. The love which he incarnated, by which we are saved, is to become the love which fills us beyond capacity and flows out to heal the world; so that the Word may become flesh once more, and dwell (not just among us, but) within us. Having beheld his glory, we must then reveal his glory, glory as of the beloved children of the father, full of grace and truth.

***

This article was adapted from The New Testament in Its World by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird. For a fuller introduction to John, see chapter 27 of The New Testament in Its World. The book is:

  • N. T. Wright's first comprehensive study of the entire New Testament and Christian origins in a single volume.
  • Your passageway to what Jesus and the first Christians believed about God and the world.
  • A major reference work to help you enter the New Testament story and live it out today.

Order your copy today.

Notes

  1. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London: Seabury, 1975), 292.
  2. This article’s introduction is based on N. T. Wright’s book The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) as quoted in The New Testament in Its World (London: SPCK; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2019) by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird. The rest of this article is adapted from The New Testament in Its World. [–ZA Blog Editors’ note.]
  3. The only exceptions to this rule are the occasional relevant coin, inscription, or other archaeological find. Some parts of ancient history have plenty of such "material evidence," but the early Jesus-followers, who neither minted coins nor carved inscriptions, didn’t leave such things behind them. [ZA Blog Editors add: We should not take Wright and Bird to mean the New Testament is only or merely literature; for example, in The New Testament in Its World they also write, “The challenge in studying the New Testament today is to do justice to both . . . history and theology alike, disregarding neither and constantly seeking their intended fusion.” This fusion is exemplified throughout their book The New Testament in Its World.]
  4. A point acknowledged even by conservative commentators like Andreas Köstenberger and Richard D. Patterson. See their Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011) 57–8, and urged similarly by Anthony C. Thiselton in Thiselton on Hermeneutics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006), 607–24.
  5. Anthony C. Thiselton, The Two Horizons (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1980), 439–40.
  6. C. Christopher Spinks, The Bible and the Crisis of Meaning (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 182–3.
  7. Augustine, Christian Doctrine, 1.36: “Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation on them as does not tend to build up into this twofold love of God and neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.” See similarly on hermeneutics and love, Francis Watson’s Text, Church, and World (Edinburgh: T&T clark, 1994), 265–87; Ulrich Luz’s Matthew in History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) 91–6; Kevin Vanhoozer’s Is There a Meaning in This Text? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998) 32, 282).
  8. See Michael F. Bird’s “Synoptics and John” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Second Edition) edited by J. B. Green, J. K. Brown, and N. Perrin (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013), 920–4. For a well-rounded account of the mutual interdependence of John and the synoptics, see Richard J. Bauckham’s Gospel of Glory (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015), 185–201.
  9. A problem the early church was well aware of; see Tertullian’s Adversus Marcionem 4.2; Eusebius’ Historia Ecclesiastica 3.24.11–13. [For other examples of narrative and theological differences, see The New Testament in Its World, 649–50. –ZA Blog editor’s note.]
  10. E.g., Mark 10:17 (“eternal life”); John 3:3, 5 (“kingdom of God”).
  11. See also Tom Thatcher’s “Remembering Jesus: John’s Negative Christology” [(The Messiah in the Old and New Testaments, edited by S. E. Porter; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans 2007), 173–4] who describes John’s unique portrait of Jesus this way: “John’s Christology, his image of Jesus, emerges at the intersection of three currents: the recall of things that the historical Jesus presumably did and said; a post-resurrection understanding of Jesus’ ultimate destiny; and a messianic interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, not only specific passages but the entire text taken as a whole. The interplay of memory, faith, and Scripture may therefore be viewed as John’s christological formulae, the generative matrix through which he developed statements about Jesus’ messianic identity.”
  12. See John 1:51; 3:13; 9:35–38; 12:23; 13:1–2, 31.
  13. See John 5:18; 8:58; 10:32; 20:28.
  14. See Ernst Käsemann’s The Testament of Jesus (Philadephia: Fortress, 1968), 73; Martin Hengel’s The Johannine Question (London: SCM, 1989), 99.
  15. See John 19:5, 19; 11:49–53.

Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash.

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