Andreas J. Kostenberger. A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2009. Hardcover. 652pp. $39.99.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
This book represents one of the most exhaustive treatments of John’s Gospel and letters from the standpoint of Biblical Theology. It is the first installation in a series entitled, Biblical Theology of the New Testament, which shall be comprised of eight large volumes and of which Dr. Kostenberger is the series editor (26). The yet-undisclosed author of each volume has written at least one commentary or major monograph related to their field of study. Andreas Kostenberger fills this criterion abundantly, having written a commentary on John, a book on John’s theology of missions, co-authored a book on John’s Trinitarian theology, and numerous other monographs and articles. The result is a thorough treatment of the Apostle John’s contribution to New Testament Biblical Theology that is without peer in its field, written by a conservative scholar with an evident and refreshing devotion to Jesus Christ, who honors the divine authorship and authority of Scripture. The book is actually larger than it appears to be due to its irregular textbook size, thus addressing its subject matter in exhaustive fashion. This monumental work ought to serve as a benchmark for studies in Johanine theology for years to come, including up to date scholarly discussions along with rich material that will assist ministers in preaching through John’s Gospel and Letters.
Each author is the series is charged with presenting “a survey of recent scholarship and of the state of research, a treatment of the relevant introductory issues, a thematic commentary following the narrative flow of the document(s), a treatment of important individual themes, [and] a discussion of the relationship between particular writings and the rest of the New Testament and the Bible” (26). This series aims to provide a model “showing how Biblical Theology ought to be conducted” as well. Kostenberger follows this stated purpose closely, dividing his material into four major parts, sixteen chapters, and thirty-five sections.
Part I addresses the “historical framework for Johanine theology,” which includes a brief statement of the state of scholarship in relation John’s writings in the field of Biblical Theology, including a capable defense of Johanine authorship and the historical setting of his Gospel and letters (ch. 1, pp. 37-100. The book of Revelation shall be dealt with in a separate volume in this series). His bibliography (pp. 568-614) is impressive and demonstrates the extent of research lying behind Kostenberger’s text. Part II treats “literary foundations for Johanine theology,” including genre, style, vocabulary, literary devices, and structure (chs. 2-3, pp. 101-174). This is followed by a highly insightful literary-theological reading of John’s Gospel and letters (chs. 4 and 5, respectively, pp. 175-272). Part III focuses upon “major themes in Johanine theology.” It by far the largest section of the work and delves into Biblical Theology proper. This heading addresses John’s worldview and use of (Old Testament) Scripture (ch. 6, pp. 273-310), the importance of the seven “signs” for interpreting John’s Gospel (ch. 7, pp. 311-335), the relationship between Jesus as the divine Word and creation/new creation (ch. 8, pp. 336-354), John’s Trinitarianism (ch. 9, pp. 355-402), the place of John’s writings in the unfolding plan of redemptive history (ch. 10, pp. 403-435), the “cosmic trial motif” (ch. 11, pp. 436-456), the constitution of the New Messianic community as a replacement of Israel with a treatment of divine election and human responsibility (ch. 12. pp. 457-508), “the Johanine love ethic” (ch. 13, pp. 509-524), “John’s theology of the cross” as both a revelation of God and as a substitutionary atonement (ch. 14, pp. 525-538), and “John’s Trinitarian mission theology” (ch. 15, pp. 539-546). Part IV, which closes the work, relates the findings of Johanine theology to the remainder of the New Testament (ch. 16, pp. 547-565). This is followed by a brief conclusion (pp. 566-567). This brief survey indicates the breadth and scope of this book at a glance.
Any review of such an extensive work must of necessity be limited in scope. For this reason, this author shall single out some noteworthy features as well as a few critical observations. First, Kostenberger’s treatment of John’s presentation of the Triune nature of God is very insightful, particularly in light of the contemporary resurgence of interest in Trinitarianism. Trinitarian references pervade the book and the author consistently demonstrates the manner in which John presented his Gospel in terms of all three Persons of the Godhead. For example, the important Johanine concepts of “truth” (p. 288) and “glory” (p. 295) are rooted in the revelation of all three Persons, both together and distinctly. In addition to this pervasive emphasis, chapters nine and fifteen explore this topic in its own right. The former addresses allusions to the Shema and Jewish monotheism in John’s Gospel, followed by a discussion of the nature and function of each divine Person distinctly both in respect to being and to economy in the revelation and work of redemption. Kostenberger’s treatment of God the Father is more full than most and it serves as the basis of the interrelationship of the three Persons as well as the corresponding relationship between the Triune God and believers (370-379). Chapter fifteen, “John’s Trinitarian mission theology,” makes the important point that the overarching goal of John’s Trinitarianism is to establish the pattern and the necessity of the mission of the Christian Church to an unbelieving world. Just as the Father sent the Son into a hostile and unbelieving world so that whosoever believes should not perish but have everlasting life (Jn. 3:16), so Jesus sends His disciples into the same world with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit (who is sent by the Father and the Son) in order to spread His Gospel. While the mission of Christ is both unique and foundational, it provides a pattern for the subsequent mission of the Church, which has the privilege of extending the message of salvation to all at the initiative of the Triune God (pp. 539-546).
Second, the section treating the importance of Jesus’ “signs” for the proper interpretation of John’s Gospel yield fruitful insights. While most scholars are agree as to the importance of the major “signs” in John’s Gospel, there is no consensus regarding the number of those signs. While six great “signs” are agreed upon (i.e., changing water into wine, healing the nobleman’s son, healing the lame man, feeding the multitude, healing the blind man, and the raising of Lazarus), some, such as Leon Morris, make Jesus’ walking on water a seventh sign, whereas others, such as D.A. Carson, include the resurrection as the greatest sign of all (324). Kostenberger argues that the primary problem is one of definition. Building upon the foundation of the Old Testament, he argues that signs are not necessarily to be equated with miracles, but that they “function to authenticate the divine messengers” (325). Based upon this fact, he proposes three criteria for Johanine signs: they must be public works of Jesus, they must be explicitly identified as “signs” in John’s Gospel, and they reveal the glory of God in Jesus “as God’s authentic representative” (326-327). For this reason, he suggests that the temple clearing of chapter two should be included as the seventh sign, since it meets all three criteria (333). Walking on water, while miraculous, is ruled out because it was neither public nor was it referred to as a “sign.” Jesus’ resurrection is not a “sign,” but rather the thing that is signified by the resurrection of Lazarus. The importance of including the temple clearing among the Johanine “signs” is that points to the fact that Jesus replaces the Jewish temple as God’s divine representative and that Jesus has now become the central “location” or focus of divine worship (333-335). This notion blends together well with the author’s assertion that part of the purpose of the Gospel of John was an effective evangelistic appeal to Jews following the destruction of their temple in AD 70 after hope of rebuilding had been abandoned (60-72).
Third, Kostenberger includes a masterful discussion of John’s salvation-historical perspective in chapter ten. With heavy dependence on John’s use of Old Testament events, imagery, and festal symbolism, he demonstrates that John held together the unity of biblical revelation and redemptive history as culminated in the Person and work of Christ (esp. pp. 403, 422). He notes that this “is at best a minority position” in present scholarship (403). Nevertheless, the weight of evidence presented in this chapter is decisive and it ought to serve as a starting point for future discussions of this important theme. This chapter expands the idea of Jesus as the replacement of the Jewish temple as well (422-435).
This reviewer’s criticism of this masterful work shall be reduced to a single head that highlights the potentially inherent limitations of Biblical Theology as a discipline. While being vital to biblical interpretation, mere exegesis and Biblical Theology can have unintended negative consequences. Exegesis explains biblical data in individual contexts. Biblical Theology expands this process by summarizing the findings of biblical data with respect to a particular book or collection of books from Scripture. However, failing to draw systematic conclusions from this data, which is admittedly beyond the scope of Biblical Theology to some extent, often results in ambiguity or potential error. For instance, chapter nine (“God: Father, Son, and Spirit), in spite of all of the strengths mentioned above, is an inadequate presentation of the Triune nature of God. It is not incorrect or unorthodox, but it is liable to various interpretations due to its failure formulate a systematic definition of the doctrine of the Trinity. The author clearly establishes the fact that Jewish monotheism is the foundation of John’s theology, that each of the Three Persons is treated as divine, and that interrelationship between the Persons with the resultant economic order of operation is irreversible. This fails to rule out historical heresies such as Modalism, in which each of the three Persons are divine and follow as distinct economic order of operation in history, yet which denies the reality of three distinct personal subsistences (although the distinction of Persons is vindicated somewhat on pp. 541-543). It could be demonstrated that Modalism is contrary to the data of the Gospel of John, but not without making further distinctions and theological definitions that are of necessity derived from Systematic and Historical Theology. Kostenberger seems to recognize this fact implicitly by his very use of the term “Trinity,” which is not Johanine but originated with the early Church father, Tertullian.
A similar problem exists in Kostenberger’s treatment of election, the new birth, and faith. He maintains first that election in John precedes faith, and that it is not based upon even a foreseen faith (458). Then, he asserts that the new birth follows and results from faith (460). Next, he argues that the statement regarding being drawn to the Christ in John six refers to predestination (461), which both implicitly contradicts his earlier statements concerning election and predestination as the eternal plan of God and confuses predestination with what is ordinarily referred to as “effectual calling.” In the following discussion, he notes that the Holy Spirit “moves a person to faith in Christ” (462) and that “spiritual birth is not the result of human initiative, but of supernatural origin” (472). Finally, in footnote sixty of the same page, he gives mild approval to the idea that regeneration logically precedes faith, followed by a denial of the entire discussion by an appeal to the fact that John did not intend there to be any temporal order of events in the application of salvation. In spite of this last qualification, the fact that Kostenberger saw the need to address on the basis of his interaction with the text of John’s Gospel the question of the logical (not temporal) order in which salvation is applied is very telling. Does the text itself imply the need to address the question of an ordo salutis, which is typically a question addressed by Systematic Theology? Surprisingly, he seems to miss the rather obvious observation (in light of the rest of this book) that “seeing” in John refers to the removal of spiritual blindness through faith in Christ (John 9:35-41). Therefore, when Jesus tells Nicodemus that unless he is first born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God, the necessary conclusion is that the new birth is necessary in order to believe in Jesus Christ. In this case, admitting an order salutis would have helped and clarified exegesis rather than hindered it.
The point is that it seems unhealthy to detach Biblical Theology (or any other branch of theological study) from the rest of the theological disciplines. While it is necessary and valuable to treat each discipline separately, it is neither helpful nor desirable to sever them completely. Exegesis and Biblical Theology without at least some Systematic Theology and the analogia scriptura with other biblical authors is like building the foundation of a structure followed by the skeleton of the building without ever finishing the project. The work may be stable and able to sustain a magnificent building, but it will ever remain incomplete and unfit for use. After all, is it not our doctrinal and systematic conclusions that we drawn from exegesis and Biblical Theology that make us Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopaleans, and, even more fundamentally, Christians?
This book is a necessary starting point for any serious study of Johanine theology. It should be particularly helpful to those who plan to teach or to preach through the Gospel of John as a preliminary study. Ministers who struggle to find the time to plan ahead would do well to read this book either before or during a sermon series on John’s Gospel or letters, thus providing them with a theological overview and plan that will provide them with direction through the whole book. Moreover, Kostenberger is a devout believer in Jesus Christ and his closing sentence is worth citing: “Thank you for joining me on this journey, embarked on not primarily by a scholar seeking to master the gospel but by a worshiper and disciple longing to be mastered by it. Soli Deo Gloria!” (567).
The review above was first published in The Mid-America Journal of Theology, vol. 22 (2011): 209-21.