A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters

  • Andreas J. Koestenberger
  • May 19, 2011
  • Series: Volume 14 - 2011
Book Cover-Theology of John - Denver Journal Book

Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Biblical Theology of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009. 652 pp. ISBN 978-0-310-26986-1.

This is the first in what Zondervan projects to be an eight-volume series on New Testament biblical theology. If all entries are written by scholars as skilled in their contributions as Dr. Köstenberger is for Johannine studies, the series will be a landmark one. The bibliography in this volume alone lists forty-two entries that Köstenberger has written, co-written, or edited, many of which consider some aspect of the writings attributed to John. Here is a scholar who has studied this corpus for many years and has formed careful and well-reasoned judgments—some of which go against the current standard views. For the record, Dr. Köstenberger directs the Ph.D. program and serves as a New Testament professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also the editor for this Zondervan series.

The book is hefty and well-organized into four parts; the detailed table of contents runs to fifteen pages. Part 1 lays the historical framework for considering Johannine theology (in one chapter). Part 2 addresses literary foundations for Johannine theology (four chapters). Part 3 considers what Köstenberger views as the major themes in Johannine theology (ten chapters). Part 4 addresses Johannine theology and the canon of Scripture in the final chapter. The book also includes twenty-eight tables or figures that helpfully illustrate various findings or compilations of data along the way, although most occur in Part 3.

Part 1 accomplishes what many commentaries seek to do in their introductions—setting “John’s” writings in their historical context. He rejects the older view that that drives a wedge between history and theology when reading John. Nor does reading John literarily mean one must reject its historical nature and reliability. Köstenberger embraces N.T. Wright’s “critical realism” in order “to adopt a hermeneutical model that affirms the various component parts of the interpretive process in proper balance and proportion” (p. 42).  That requires a careful balancing of theology, history, and language/literature in assessing John’s contribution. One outcome of this enterprise is Köstenberger’s conclusion that the so-called community hypothesis for the sources and composition of John’s gospel (notably R. Brown and J. L. Martyn) should be jettisoned.

Pace such stalwarts as C.K. Barrett, G.R. Beasley-Murray, R. Brown and R. Schnackenburg among others, Köstenberger defends the traditional view that John the apostle and son of Zebedee authored the fourth gospel in the mid-AD 80s or early AD 90s from Ephesus. While he does interact with R. Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, it seems that Köstenberger “solves” the thorny issues surrounding authorship, including the “Beloved Disciple” issue, far too quickly (and his BECNT on John provides even less defense of apostolic authorship). Finally, he argues that the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 serves as the most plausible context for the Gospel’s composition, its Christology, and its apologetic purpose.

As to destination, Köstenberger concludes that John wrote primarily to Diaspora Jews and Gentiles, though beyond that to all Christians. As to purpose, “In the wake of the temple’s destruction, John likely saw a window of opportunity for Jewish evangelism, seeking to encourage fellow believers to reach out to their Jewish and Gentile neighbors in the Diaspora” (p. 84). Yet Köstenberger does not limit the book’s purpose to evangelism, seeing the edification of believers as also important. He also attributes the Johannine epistles to John the apostle, also with an Ephesian provenance written in the early to mid-AD 90s—probably after the Gospel.

Space precludes a detailed analysis of the subsequent three parts of this well-researched and well-documented volume. (There’s hardly a page without a footnote; many have multiple citations—I found one with ten!) A few highlights must suffice. In part 3 Köstenberger discusses the genre of John’s gospel and the letters—in dialogue with Greco-Roman bioi as well as Jewish historiography. The Gospel bears many more parallels to Jewish writings (and OT narratives) than it does to Greek biographies.

He assesses John’s style, vocabulary, literary devices, narrative strategies, and what seem like many dozens of all possible features that John employs to tell his story of Jesus. This is a rich store of materials that bears much reflection for contemporary readers of John. Köstenberger shows how paying attention to these literary features sheds important light on what John has accomplished. In the final one hundred pages of this section Köstenberger undertakes a literary-theological reading that moves sequentially right through the entire Gospel, and then John’s letters.

All that sets the stage for the main course: part 3 and the catalogue of John’s major themes (274 pages in total). We must be content with a list here to whet the readers’ appetites for their own thorough engagement with Köstenberger: John’s worldview and use of Scripture; the Messiah and his signs (including the search for the seventh or additional signs); the word: creation and new creation; God: Father, Son, and Spirit; salvation history: Jesus’ fulfillment of festal symbolism; the cosmic trial motif; the new messianic community; the Johannine love ethic; theology of the cross; and the Trinitarian mission. Here’s the theological “meat” in John’s treatment of the Jesus story.

In part 4 Köstenberger compares John’s theology with that of other New Testament voices, especially the synoptic gospels but minimally also with Paul and the others. This part comprises fewer than twenty pages.

But with so much territory to cover I felt in places that Köstenberger succumbed to making assertions in the main text while allowing his footnotes to carry their defense, if any. Sensitized to this because of my own work in one area, I will include an example. Köstenberger engages in a discussion of “divine sovereignty and human responsibility.” Of course, everyone sees God’s sovereignty and human responsibility as compatible. The biblical evidence clearly affirms both. But what Köstenberger wants to find compatible is divine determinism (although he does not use this language) and human responsibility. That’s a huge philosophical conundrum. I felt that Köstenberger fell into the trap of facilely harmonizing the two with this conclusion: “On a human level, this may be counterintuitive and hard to understand, if not appear to militate against human notions of fairness” (p. 459), as if there were only one way to interpret the relevant biblical texts. As one might suspect from the title he gives to this section, he builds fondly on D.A. Carson’s thesis published as Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility. So, according to Köstenberger, we find that God prevents certain ones from believing while granting the ability to believe to only some, despite what John 3:16 and 12:32 seem to affirm, not to mention the rich store of theological weight that Köstenberger gave to God’s and Jesus’ love. If one would go to the commentaries and other studies of the relevant texts, one would discover much more disagreement about this than Köstenberger allows. But then, he might complain, a book already of this size can’t engage every exegetical debate. But he does, in my mind, skew John’s theology in a one-sided direction in too cut-and-dried a manner.

This is certainly a minor fly in a completely fragrant ointment of a book. To usurp a Johannine text, in my reading of this book “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3; NASB). Köstenberger sets the bar high for biblical theologies. If he does this much with a gospel and three short letters, what might one expect for the study of Paul? I guess we’ll have to await that volume’s (or will it be volumes’?) appearance! If one wants a careful and reliable analysis of John’s contribution to the New Testament theological enterprise, one will be well-served by Professor Köstenberger. Scholars and seminary seminars on the theology of John will welcome the appearance of this volume. Its massive size will probably deter more casual readers.

William W. Klein, Ph.D.
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
May 2011

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