This is a report on a paper presented by Prof Richard Bauckham, formerly of University St Andrews and fellow of the British Academy, at the New Testament Research Seminar, Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University, 13th of February 2012. The list of forthcoming papers in the NT Research Seminars at Durham University can be found here.
Prof Bauckham’s paper was written as a companion to his essay on ‘individualism’ in the Gospel of John, which he presented at the British New Testament Conference (Nottingham, 2011). In the present paper, Prof Bauckham offers a fresh interpretation of John’s usage of the ‘oneness’ language (focussing on the word ἕν), and assesses its relevance for understanding the divine and human community. He examines the Scriptural uses of the community language, with a special emphasis on Jesus’ prayer in John 17, and also the developments of this language in systematic theology.
The word ‘one’
According to Prof Bauckham, in 12 instances in 8 Johannine texts, the word ‘one’ becomes a very potent theological term. Although one might be compelled to regard this word as straight-forward, this initial impression is in fact wrong, as it is used by John at least in two different ways.
It possesses two different kinds of significances: a) to express uniqueness/singularity (there is only one); b) to signify unity or something unified (they are one, as one, or united). When we look for the theological significances of this word, it is essentially important to bear in mind these two meanings.
The word ‘one’ is hugely potent theologically in the Jewish Second-Temple readings (Deut 6:4; Ezekiel 37:16-22, 24; Micah 2:12; Hosea 1:11; Isaiah 45:20a), as it appears in the Shema (pg 2). In Bauckham’s view, any passage that says ‘God is one’ represents an echo of the Shema, which was central to the Jewish theology of the time. The other reading of ‘God is unified’ does not appear anywhere in the Jewish texts. It seems that this dimension was not in their interest, and does not appear even in Philo. For the late Second-Temple Judaism ‘God is one’ can only mean ‘God is unique’. In the course of the Old Testament history, the unified kingdom of Solomon was split into two different kingdoms (Israel and Judah). In reference to the use of ‘one’ as referring to the unity God’s people, the reuniting of God’s people appears in these texts with reference to the northern and southern tribes. When these prophets speak of Israel as ‘one’, they clearly mean unified. And although God’s people are one, the understanding of the word in these texts is that God’s people are also ‘unique’. Unified people live under a unique ruler; they are unified by the ‘one’ leader. Another text, the Blessing 10 of Amidah (or Shmoneh Esreh), is an important liturgical prayer that goes back in some form to the first century. Amidah in first century usage would include a prayer for the re-gathering of the people into ‘one’. The second recension (or the Ashkenazi version of Babylonian origin) echoes the text of Micah 2:12. Whether or not with regard to the unification, the prophetic passages such as these are present in the Jewish liturgies. Most importantly, the passages from the Second Temple such as Josephus (Ant 4.201), 2 Baruch 48:23-24, Philo (Spec 4:159, 1:52; Virt 35) and Ephesians 4:4-6, are the most relevant to the present analysis. These passages link the two tribes of Israel by means of ‘one Temple’, ‘one God’, ‘one Law’, and ‘one People’. God’s people are unified through their allegiance to their ‘one’ God, whose ‘one’ Law they all obey, and in whose ‘one’ Temple they gather to worship him. In Philo, the devotion unites the people through love, whereas in Ephesians 4, we have the reception of this idea of ‘unity’ in a Christian context.
The re-uniting of God’s people
Turning to the Gospel of John, the idea of ‘Oneness’ with regard to the people of God is found 6 times. They all represent clear echoes of the passages previously considered from the prophets. The people need to be gathered together, and Jesus prays that they should become completely one (17:11, 21a, 22b-23b). The most obvious connection with the prophets is in 10:16b, where Jesus identifies himself with the ‘one shepherd’. Two divided parts of the people of God will be united, and this idea is related to the ‘oneness’ of their leader. In Ezekiel, the two tribes are the northern and the southern, whereas in John, they point to the Jewish and gentile ‘tribes’. In this Johannine context it seems that the people of God should be united not only by their ‘one’ leader, but moreover by the fact that the ‘shepherd’ gives his life for the ‘flock’. John could have said ‘to gather the dispersed people of God’ (as it appears in LXX), but he chose to formulate it as ‘to gather into one’, because he presumably wanted to utilise here the word ‘one’. The language of 11:52a is a direct reference to the prophets, and he must be transmuting the meaning, with regards not only to the Jews, but also to the gentiles. These passages connect the ‘uniqueness’ with the ‘uniting’ of the people of God. In ch. 17 we have a more remarkable thought, from the unity of the people of God to the unity of God.
The unity of God
Prof Bauckham argues that it can be assumed that any use of the word ‘one’ God would be referred to as being taken from the Shema, but in John 17 it means something different from the previous Jewish usage. The word ‘one’, which here is expressed by the neuter ἕν, has a dimension of ‘unity’ which here must be intended. Jesus refers to the unification in ‘one’ of the Father and the Son. This remarkable adaptation of the Shema is obviously not unique in the NT. Paul uses it in 1Cor 8:4, which is an interpretation of the Shema, but not a repudiation of the Shema. Paul affirms the Shema, but reformulates it to incorporate the belief of the unity of Jesus and the Father. Where this formulation differs from John is that here Paul does not name the Father and the Son, whereas John, in 10:30, expresses a community of persons internal to God. The reaction of the Jewish leaders to this is to accuse Jesus of blasphemy. Jesus’ self defence is again considered blasphemous (10:38). The so-called in-one-another language, a term coined by Prof Bauckham, refers to a unique community. Not only community of will and works, but together with the illusion of the Shema, it points to a relation of intimacy. The statement that the Son ‘is in the bosom of the Father’ (1:18) strengthens this argument. Jesus’ prayer in ch. 17 shows the intention of Jesus that the believers become one. This prayer occurs not less than 4 times: 17:11; 21-23, 26; and in the climactic expression ‘perfectly [or, better, perfected] into one’ from 17:23. The unity is a dynamic, and not lethargic, process to be completed only eschatologically. The early language does not maintain a passive, but an active state, they have to become one. Early references to ‘unity’ are here integrated. The meaning of kathos (as) is no more that a comparative, meaning ‘in same way’ that the Father and Son are one; the statement states the resemblance. The ‘in-one-another’ language is seen as closely connected with the ‘one’ prayer. Jesus never says that believers will be in-one-another, but, as in vv. 21, 22-23, 26, in unity with God. From the loving community of God flows the love that is directed to the disciples.
The social Trinity
John’s unity language had also a strong influence in the systematic theology, which goes far beyond the gospel. The passages examined that use the ‘oneness’ language are Binitarian rather than Trinitarian. The language in John does not extend to the Spirit, but refers only to the Son, Father and the community. The Trinitarian development extends the language used in John, but Trinitarian formulations are to be found elsewhere in the NT. Prof Bauckham emphasises that this language is extended, and that it is important to restate this extension. Social Trinity represents an interpretation of the Patristic doctrine of the Trinity, a community of love between the three persons. Systematic theologians such as Karl Rahner, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, John Ziziulas, or Ernst Wolf, amongst many others, share the doctrine of the social trinity. Their views have four common elements: a) they do not give priority to the one substance over the three persons; b) they understand the three persons as relating subjects; c) they use the concept of perichoresis (or Interpenetration) to point to a kind of relation that constitutes their unity; d) they see a correspondence between this unity and the one within the community of believers. The doctrine of perichoresis corresponds to the ‘in-one-another’ language in John. They see the divine unity not as something prior to the relationships between the divine persons. It is not three-theism, because these persons are constituted as persons within this unity. As for the correspondence between divine and human community, the idea that the trinity provides a model according to which the human community should form is inadequate. The unity between Father and Son is much more intimate than the unity of humans, reducing the unity between the divine persons to the possibility of applying the same unity to the human persons. Rather, this correspondence to human community is meant as participation to the divine community, as an inviting unity.
From divine community to the world
The whole theology of John stems from this unity of the divine persons, and from here derives the Gospel’s soteriology, ecclesiology, and the church’s mission to the world. These aspects were analysed in the prayer of Jesus from John 17. Jesus prays twice that the believers become one, so that others may believe. The loving community witnesses the loving community in Christ, for the entire world to see. This aspect is already hinted at in the commandment to love one another the same way Jesus loves them (John 13:34; 15:12,17). Loving one another is the human community’s correspondence to the divine community. The world will recognise God’s love as it is reflected in the human community. Earth and heaven are united through the sending of the Son. God loves the world greatly (3:16), and by the end of chapter 17 we know that this love creates the loving community of the disciples of Jesus; this love reaches the whole world.
Justin A. Mihoc,
Department of Theology and Religion, Durham University