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Koester, Craig R.
The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008. xiv + 245. $21.00.
According to Craig Koester, to read the Gospel of John theologically is to ask a series of questions. “Who is the God about whom Jesus speaks? Who does the Gospel say that Jesus is? And how does the Gospel understand life, death, sin and faith?” Koester finds these issues coming up again and again in the narrative of John’s Gospel, each time disclosing a fresh dimension of these themes. He believes, therefore, that the best approach to a theology of the Gospel of John is to draw on the Gospel as a whole.
Many theologies of John have approached the theology of the book from other directions. Typically scholars of John approach the book in terms of its relation to the Old Testament or other ancient sources. John’s theology is detected in how he adapted these other sources to the story of Jesus. Without disparaging these other approaches, Koester chooses to limit himself to careful attention to the text of John as we have it. The theology of John emerges in relation to the narrative as a whole.
Interestingly, however, he does not limit himself to the theological language of the Gospel’s author. Instead, he approaches John’s theology primarily on the basis of classical categories such as God, Christ, humanity, sin, Spirit and faith. However, he breaks each of these down using categories drawn from the Gospel itself, such as word, light, life, flesh, world, truth and witness. This unusual intersection of John’s language and classical themes, is, however, extremely successful, in my opinion. The outcome is by far the most fruitful and interesting theology of John I have read.
The book is elegantly written, a model of clarity and organization. I don’t mean to suggest that the book is light reading. It is not. But Koester has thought deeply about scores of recognizable themes in the Gospel and has brought fresh wording and insight to bear on them. In the process he has a knack for contemporary analogies that clarify inner connections within the Gospel without over-simplifying. Koester uses an economy of language, saying much in a few words. While the writing is understandable, it is not suitable for speed reading! To put it in other words, the more you know about the Fourth Gospel, the more you will appreciate this book. Koester repeatedly illuminates connections and themes in this book in a way that made me marvel that I had not seen things that way before. You could say he points out the obvious, except the obvious wasn’t obvious before he pointed it out. Biblical theology doesn’t get any better than this.
The power of Koester’s language is better experienced than described. Let me share a few gems, with the page numbers on which they can be found. “A witness speaks in contexts where the truth is disputed.” (34) “The enslaving power of sin might be compared to addiction, where a chemical distorts the way people see reality and overpowers their will, taking away the freedom to do something other than what the addiction demands. The relationship to the chemical becomes the primary relationship, distorting all other relationships.” (74) “The prologue takes readers to an elevated vantage point, where they can see things that those confined to the flat plain below cannot see.” (98) Regarding John 13:1-3 Koester writes: “John says that God put all things in Jesus’ hands, and Jesus now uses his hands to wash the disciples’ feet, apparently including the feet of Judas.” (117) In context these statements are even more powerful than they are in isolation.
A few more gems: “Sins and their consequences hem people in, so that they cannot move forward without some act of release. This is what forgiveness provides.” (159) Koester’s ...
summary of the challenge of faith as expressed in the Gospel: “(The author) calls readers to believe in a God whom they have not seen by believing in a Jesus whom they have not seen (20:29)!” (171) “If people are created for life, they will seek whatever they think will bring it. The issue is not whether people will seek life—that is a given. The issue is where their pursuit of life will take them and where their faith will be centered.” (171) “To say that those who believe have life now, and those who do what is good will have life in the future, is to understand that faith shapes action.” (178) With reference to death and resurrection comes the provocative statement, “Someone who falls asleep can remain in the care of someone else until he or she is awakened.” (182) Regarding John 13:31-35, Koester writes: “The traditional commandment makes self-love the standard. People are to love others as they love themselves. In the new commandment, the basis and the standard is the love that Jesus gives.” (194) “Abiding means wholeness in relationship. It points to a relationship that endures rather than one that is transient.” (195)
I found the following combination of statements very powerful: “Theologically, the empty tomb is a presupposition for resurrection faith, but it is not the basis of resurrection faith. Such faith requires an encounter with the risen Jesus himself. . . . The Gospel speaks to those who have not seen the risen Jesus (20:29), and Mary’s story shows that seeing the tomb, seeing the angels, and even seeing Jesus himself do not guarantee faith. Like Mary, others will be called to faith by the risen Jesus. . . . The call to resurrection faith occurs, for people of later generations, when the message about the risen Jesus is made effective by the risen Jesus.” (125-126)
Let me summarize the flow of the book as a whole. After a short introduction to the Fourth Gospel and the history of its theological interpretation, Koester offers a chapter on the theme of God in John’s Gospel. The purpose of the Gospel is to make God known through the story of Jesus. Everyone in the story presumes that there is a God but their ideas about God conflict. The Gospel assumes that God has spoken in the Scriptures and in Jesus, yet both forms of communication can be misunderstood. So the message of Jesus must be conveyed, not only by a description of his actions, but through the interpretation that the Gospel brings. It is the combination of action and interpretation that truly reveals what God is like.
The next chapter focuses on the world and its people. The Gospel is a good place to explore people because all sorts of people are found in it. The people in John ask who Jesus is, but their encounters with Jesus also disclose who they are. John does not work with a dualistic view in which people have an immortal soul that can be separated from the mortal body. In death the whole person dies. And all human beings, whether Jews, Gentiles or Samaritans, are all enslaved to sin and in need of what Jesus provides.
The fourth chapter focuses on the identity of Jesus. This is brought out in a series of stages. On first encounter, people see Jesus as a human being, a Jewish teacher. Further engagement convinces them that he is a prophet, then they recognize him as the Messiah. But even these latter stages are not adequate for the author of the Gospel. Full understanding of Jesus requires people to see him as one with God, the one who reveals the glory of God in human terms and experience.
After a chapter on the death and resurrection of Jesus (which contains many of the above quotes), in which he re-emphasizes the wholistic nature of humanity, the sixth chapter explores the Spirit in the Gospel of John. While Jesus came to bring life to his followers, after his ministry ended, they could no longer see him or hear him. It is the Spirit that provides a real sense of the risen Christ and his Father to the believing community. The first task of the Spirit is to make the ...
identity of Jesus known. He is more than a mere man and his claims are true. Therefore, wherever someone comes to know the risen Christ, it is evident that the Spirit of God is at work. It is the Spirit that evokes the faith that gives life. While baptism leads to life it is not the water of the baptism that brings life, but the presence of the Spirit in the baptism that brings life. In a real sense the Spirit continues Jesus’ work without taking Jesus’ place.
In my opinion, the very best part of the book is the first half of the chapter on faith (163-174). While firmly grounded in the text and setting of the entire Gospel, Koester offers the clearest explanation of how faith works and the practical struggle for faith in today’s world that I have ever read. This part of the book brilliantly blurs the line between scholarship and devotional writing, along the lines of Richard Hays or Tom Wright. I will attempt to summarize the key points of the chapter here.
Koester correctly points out that the author of the Gospel deliberately addresses the faith issues of future generations (20:30-31). The miraculous “signs” in the Gospel do not, in themselves, bring about faith in Jesus. In fact, they can even create pseudo-faith or opposition (2:23-25; 5:16; 9:16). Everyone sees the “signs” from a different point of view. Characters in the Gospel respond positively to Jesus’ signs if they have already been brought to faith through the words from or about Jesus. It is the words that bring faith, not the “signs.” The signs can only confirm faith. Readers who live after the resurrection of Jesus cannot see the actions of the earthly Jesus. Yet they have what is essential. They have received the words from and about Jesus through the Gospel.
Readers of the Gospel are like the royal official of John 4:46-54. They have received the promise of life from Jesus, but they will not know whether that promise is true before believing in it. The only way to find out is to trust in the promise and move forward. That is what the official did. The question of the Gospel is whether the readers will do the same. For the man born blind in chapter nine, the birth of faith brings only conflict and dislocation. For him, as well as for readers of the Gospel, faith means believing in a Jesus they cannot see in the face of conflicts that they can see. Through the Gospel the signs of Jesus come to the reader in verbal form. They need not look elsewhere for wonders to believe in. John’s text has all the works and words that they need to come to faith.
For John, faith is the context in which genuine understanding develops. Those who show an initial trust in Jesus do not have all their questions answered at the outset. They come to understand Jesus as they follow him. So if faith is the context in which understanding develops, relationship with a Jesus we cannot see can begin in the absence of understanding. It is triggered by the words and works of Jesus and acted upon by his surrogate, the Holy Spirit. To those of a modernistic world-view, Koester’s outline of faith in John’s Gospel may seem naive in a scientific world. But a younger, post-modern generation will find the stories of the Gospel fertile ground for faith.
The book closes with a chapter on discipleship. Koester points out that Jesus’ first words in the Gospel are “What are you looking for?” and “Come and see” (1:38-39). His last words are “Follow me” (21:22). The implication of both is the same. To be in relationship with Jesus is to go with him. The life of Jesus’ disciple is not so much bound up with abstract teachings as with a living relationship with Jesus. John’s Gospel gives disciples very little specific instruction in what they are to do or not to do. Instead they are to observe what Jesus does and that is the norm for how they are to treat others. This is amply illustrated in the footwashing story of John 13, where the disciples are told that they are to behave as he has behaved.
The reason Jesus is called “The Way” is because he spoke about going the way himself ...
before he spoke about being the way for the sake of his disciples. The way that Jesus goes is the way of the cross. According to the Gospel, Jesus went the way of the cross for the whole human race (1:29). That means the whole human race is called to discipleship. The whole human race is invited to follow Jesus in the way of the cross.
This raises the final point of the book. In a pluralistic world many are uncomfortable with any book that claims to offer “the way,” as John’s Gospel does. But Koester appeals to them to hear the Gospel out more carefully. He notes that there is a tension there between the particular and the universal. On the universal side, the Gospel assumes that sin separates all people from God. This is the basic dimension of the human condition. But on the particular side, Jesus is seen as the one and only way, truth and life. He is not the way because he conveys information about God. He is the way because in his death and resurrection, he uniquely conveys the love of God to people separated from God. In today’s world this is the great offense of the gospel and the Gospel of John.
Koester points out, however, that John was no stranger to pluralism. The Greco-Roman world had a great variety of religious traditions. The people depicted in the Gospel had many different ideas about God and those ideas were often in conflict. In the face of that, John’s Gospel nevertheless asserts that God is known in a definitive way through what God has done in Jesus. To make the message less particular would make it less radical, it would mean the love of God is for some and not for others. This John cannot say. If human beings have no innate way of generating a relationship with God, the question of the Gospel remains for all, “What will you do with this Jesus?” In Koester’s book, this message of the Gospel continues to challenge and disturb.
As one who has written a couple of books on the Gospel of John, I find Koester’s scholarship impeccable. As one who loves to blur the line between scholarship and popular devotional writing, I was deeply nourished by this book. Those who don’t mind the blurring between great scholarship and great writing, this book will be a challenging read but an extremely rewarding one.
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