Reviews of

Johannine Ethics

In Christopher Skinner, Ethics, Fortress Press, Gospel of John, Johannine Epistles, John, Matt N. Williams, NT Ethics, Sherri Brown on July 13, 2018 at 1:34 am


2018.07.10 | Christopher Skinner and Sherri Brown (eds). Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017. 319 pp.

Reviewed by Matt N. Williams, Durham University.

This volume sees Fortress Press enter the debate surrounding Johannine ethics, a debate that has been increasingly active since the 2012 German publication of Rethinking the Ethics of John. As the editors, Christopher Skinner and Sherri Brown, make clear in their introduction and conclusion, the whole question of John’s ethics is turning out to be far more fertile ground for research than traditionally assumed. This corresponds to Alan Culpepper’s analysis of the situation two decades ago, which perceived this as a general shift of focus in John scholarship. The early preoccupation with theological matters was overtaken by historical matters and now ethical ones in response to society-wide moral concerns regarding pluralism and ‘the Jews’ especially. Whilst these two issues are rarely pushed to centre stage in these essays, sensitivity regarding them plays a consistent, if subtle, role in the shape of the discussion—in which Culpepper himself is one of the major names amongst the thirteen contributors.

The main body of the book is divided into three parts, with the first, ‘The Johannine Imperatives’, dealing with the most explicit layer of ethical material in the literature. Brown herself opens with an exploration of the command to believe, characterises in Old Testament terms as a summons to covenant participation that ‘this evangelist incorporates [as] metaphor’ (p. 7). She then embarks on a tour of the Gospel, pointing out the features of this theme and ending up somewhat unexpectedly with Martin Luther King’s homiletic exhortation to spiritual rebirth. Fellow editor Skinner continues this dismantling of a sectarian portrayal in his examination of the ‘love command’, aiming to show that its narrative unfolding reveals its predominantly universal and normative character. This conclusion is presented as an alternative to an interpretation based on the more oppositional statements (found especially in the First Epistle, which he does not discuss). Raymond Collins seeks to draw out the ethical implications of ‘following’, arguing that it goes beyond a willingness to simply be ‘with’ Jesus and entails undergoing an education in what it means to live in his ‘light’. Disciples thus learn how to pursue, and in turn lead others into, ‘life’, which Collins conceives as a holistic rather than narrowly ‘spiritual’ concept.

Part 2 moves beyond the direct commands to look at the implied ethics in the Johannine literature. Opening this section is Culpepper’s exploration of creation ethics, which ranges from Bonhoeffer to Second Temple wisdom literature to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Like Brown, he understands John to be deeply rooted in the Jewish Scriptures, and especially its espousal of God’s creating activity, which undergirds the portrayal of Jesus as one whose offer of love is universal in scope. A similarly incarnational focus plays out in Jaime Clark-Soles’s interrogation of the Gospel from the perspective of disability studies. Despite the liberative potential that he identifies through this study, she is the first to strike a critical note as he points to John’s unhelpful association of physical blindness with spiritual incomprehension. A critical tone is also evident in Adele Reinhartz’s essay on deception and christology, with the conclusion that lying is seen in the Johannine world to be a justified means to the end of revealing the truth of God in his Son. Thus Jesus, at least as presented in John, is an unsuitable candidate for exemplary status. Michael Gorman’s contribution is a more straightforwardly positive attempt to exonerate the Gospel from characterisations of Johannine love as narrow and limited. Like Skinner, Gorman sees John’s narrative as having a key role to play in this and he emphasises the missional character of Jesus’ life, whose exemplary function (contra Reinhartz) is inscribed in the very nature of the bios genre.

With Alicia Myers’s piece we have the first explicit treatment of the Jews in John, which again draws on generic features to bring out the ambiguity in their characterisation with relation to Jesus. This is, she argues, a deliberate strategy on the author’s part not to highlight their culpability, but rather the intrinsic difficulty of accepting the incarnational event (to which the Gospel attests) as God’s action in the world. For Toan Do, too much of a focus on intellectual understanding is already evidence of deep incomprehension in its prioritisation of cognition over love. His careful reading reveals that characters are called to express devotion (to ‘come and see’) priorto undergoing the theological development manifest in Christological confession. Francis Moloney rounds off this, the longest of the three parts, by evoking the eschatological frame for the first time, a frame comprised by ‘a number of relationships that begin and end in God’ (p. 200, emphasis his). Juxtaposition of realised and ‘traditional’ (future) elements of eschatology should not be viewed as an irresolvable contradiction but as part of a two-pronged motivation to live by sacrificial love.

Grouped in the third division are those essays representing approaches that, in the editors’ opinion, point to particularly fruitful areas of future study. Lindsey Trozzo takes Myers’ and Gorman’s engagement with genre to a more detailed level as she compares the function of John’s form to that of Plutarch. She concludes that the latter’s moralistic design incorporates an aesthetic consideration that also informs the Johannine view of ethics as rooted in ‘unity with God through belief in Jesus’ (p. 238). With Dorothy Lee’s contribution, we have another appeal to what is implied in John’s narrative, expressing the concern shared with Culpepper over creation ethics but doing so more polemically by targeting Western anthropocentrism and individualism. Jesus’ ministry is accordingly seen as an act of new (communal) creation rather than the salvation of disembodied ‘souls’. Closing the volume is Cornelis Bennema who, like Trozzo, also published a monograph on Johannine ethics in 2017. Bennema calls on Greco-Roman virtue ethics in order to show that John’s schema has a parallel structure and depicts Jesus as the one through belief in whom engenders a virtuous life in the believer.

As will be readily apparent in the account thus far offered, Johannine Ethicsis laudable in the range of issues that it engages. What stands out as an even more impressive feature of this volume is how the contributors endeavour to move from the exegetical and historical minutiae of New Testament studies, ostensibly of little practical relevance, to addressing urgent ethical questions. Not all manage to be equally disciplined in this progression, but Clark-Soles and Reinhartz provide high points with their treatment of syntax in John 12:3-4 (p. 102) and the scribal tradition of John 7 (pp. 120f) respectively. However you evaluate these and other textual arguments, the essays cannot be accused of carelessness with the Johannine text in the attempt to push tendentious ethical points. In fact, where the contributions are slightly thin, as is the case with part 1, the problem is that there is too much biblical reference and not enough analytical discussion. Conversely, where questionable conclusions are drawn, it is not for lack of exegetical rigour, but rather the function of wider ideological presuppositions. Two cases in point are the aforementioned pieces by Clark-Soles and Reinhartz. In the former case, some theological nuance in relation to ‘impairment’ could help disentangle the idea of diversity in creation from the pervasive impact of the fall, whilst the latter’s idea of what is ‘exemplary’ is too simplistic. One need look no further than the currently ubiquitous Bonhoeffer and his conspirative involvement to illustrate how Jesus’ purported flexibility regarding ‘truth’ could be viewed as exemplary.

Overall, this is a well-presented book, and its relatively large print combined with frequent subheadings make for straightforward reading. The division between the second and third sections is somewhat arbitrary, seeing that the three last essays could also be methodologically categorised under ‘implied’ ethics. Nonetheless, the debate is moved into several areas hitherto virtually untouched by Johannine scholarship and some interesting avenues of exploration are suggested. To the four identified by the editors themselves (denoting literary, reception historical, sociological and historical concerns respectively, pp. 283-86), one could add that attention to the political and economic significance of John’s ethics could be broadened. More fundamentally, it is worth considering a deeper engagement with the ideological roots underlying the centuries-long minimising of ethics in the ‘spiritual Gospel’. Too often (as the index attests), Jack Sanders’ stereotyped depiction of John’s other-worldly concern is taken as a foil against which nearly any ethical schema seems to be an improvement. But this risks being facile. Sanders was not an influential Johannine scholar, and his readily quotable short work on New Testament ethics does not substantially engage the crucial issues that one would need to address in order to properly understand and respond to the ‘amoral’ depiction he offers. Instead, one might dig back down through Rudolf Bultmann into Luther’s ‘two Kingdoms’, for example, in order to unearth the fundamental dualisms so hermeneutically significant for modern Johannine interpretation. Accordingly, the ‘theological’ and ‘ethical’ or ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’ could be coherently formulated within the Johannine Christological framework, which is universally recognised to be the starting point for ethics. This is no mere exercise in historical curiosity; without it, the enthusiastic pursuit of Johannine ethics is equally vulnerable to the chief theological pitfall of the previous tendency to neglect it, namely the tendency to operate with binaries external and inimical to the text itself.

Matt N. Williams
Durham University
matthew.n.williams [at]


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