Review of Andreas J. Kostenberger and Scott R. Swain, Father, Son and Spirit: The Trinity and John’s Gospel (New Studies in Biblical Theology 24; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
Since other reviewers have summarized and/or outlined the book, my aim in this review is to engage the content of the book more substantially in detail.
“Anachronism should be avoided” (p.21). These words from by Kostenberger and Swain offer a crucial warning regarding the subject of “the Trinity and the Gospel of John” that is the book’s focus. If the authors had heeded their own warning, I suspect that this review would be far more positive.
Kostenberger and Swain engage in a “trinitarian” reading of the Gospel, one that, in essence, interprets the Gospel as though the Nicene and Chalcedonian formulations could be presupposed as the text’s background. While such an approach is interesting, it is also strange, precisely because their book is not being written in the fourth century, but rather in the twenty-first. What sense can there be in writing a book that neither engages the distinctive questions of our own time (which are not precisely those of the Nicene fathers), nor seeks to interpret the Gospel first and foremost against the background of its own time? Mention of Philo is minimal, and other texts (like the Testament of Abraham) that might have shed further light on how a key agent of God might be thought to bear the divine name are nowhere mentioned. If discussion of key background material for the Gospel’s time and setting of composition are minimal, neither does the book really engage the debates of the pre-Nicene and Nicene era, and the way this Gospel was read and interpreted in that context.
The authors explain that one of their aims is to get beyond the distinction Gabler famously made between Biblical and Dogmatic theology (p.20). Yet no better method is proposed, and so the authors engage in what can only be called a “dogmatic” reading of John, one that assumes rather than demonstrates that the Nicene understanding of God as Trinity (as they themselves understand it) can be presupposed as the background for the Fourth Gospel. But as experts on the history of the Arian controversy will confirm, it is simply impossible to explain the duration and intensity of the debates of the third and fourth centuries if the answers to the questions that were at the heart of those debates had been clearly answered centuries earlier and enshrined in Scripture.
In other words, there is no doubt that it is possible to read the Gospel of John as a “trinitarian” document in the later Nicene sense. Christians have been doing so for many centuries. But Kostenberger and Swain seem to have no interest in asking why such a reading is preferable to others. That this approach became orthodox may be sufficient in some traditions. But if Kostenberger and Swain wish to reflect either a Protestant approach that is willing to re-evaluate doctrine by holding to Scripture as the ultimate authority, then they cannot simply engage in the common practice of reading John through the lens of the Nicene Creed. For Protestants, the evaluation would be expected to run in the other direction. But rather than try to make the case that a Trinitarian reading in the full and precise Nicene sense makes the best sense of this Gospel, instead we get what is at best a reader-response treatment, illustrating how a Protestant who wishes to adhere to Nicene orthodoxy might read (and write about) this Gospel. As a result, some of the most important and most interesting historical questions are not answered, such as how the author of this Gospel could write about Jesus as he does “without any sustained attempt at ajudicating the issue of how the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus can both be called theos” (p.60).
The authors call their approach “confessional criticism” and claim that it respects the “historical and cultural context” while also reading the text “with awe and wonder and with prayerful dependence on ‘the Spirit of truth’” (p.23). But merely claiming to do these things – whether being confessional, relying on the Spirit, or respecting the context of the Gospel – is not the same as actually doing them. Given the authors’ apparent lack of interest in engaging issues of historical and cultural context in any depth, one gets the sense that they are using a mere rhetorical ploy when they claim to do so. One then wonders whether the same might be true of their claim to treat the text with awe and to rely on the Spirit. Such language seems intended to impress conservative Evangelical readers, and perhaps even make it seem that reviewers who criticize the book are not fighting against men, but against God. But this attempt to shield themselves from criticism will not work, since the book is clearly open to criticism on a number of points, and few Christian reviewers are likely to agree to shift the blame for these shortcomings away from the human authors and onto “the Spirit of truth”. It would have been more honest, and more accurate, if they acknowledged that their reliance is most squarely on their presuppositions and those of their faith tradition. They might also have honestly said that they were striving to be open to and guided by the Spirit. But it would not have been at all inappropriately modest for them to acknowledge the possibility that, in their human frailty, they might not have fully attained their expressed aims, whether those of scholarship or of faith.
The extent of the authors’ interest in the historical and religious context of the Gospel of John appears to be their reading of Bauckham (with a dash of Hurtado thrown in for good measure). They rely heavily, and uncritically, on Bauckham at all points apart from the one that does not suit their presuppositions, namely Bauckham’s conclusion that John son of Zebedee was not the Gospel’s author (pp.27,29,31-39). As one might expect under such circumstances, the authors claim, on the basis of Bauckham’s notion of “divine identity”, that, on the one hand, a plurality within God was an option left open by Jewish monotheism in this time, while on the other hand, no one within Judaism before the rise of Christianity actually explored these possibilities. How likely is it that a concept that does not appear in the text, nor other texts from that time, and was coined relatively recently, will provide the background to and the solution to the perplexities of Johannine Christology? Once again, a lack of familiarity with the relevant background material leads Kostenberger and Swain to make claims such as that “calling Jesus ‘God’ stretched the boundaries of first-century Jewish monotheism” (p.49). What needs to be explained is why, if one were to replace “Jesus” in the quotation with “Moses” or “an angel” the problem apparently vanished for first-century Jewish monotheists. As I argued in John’s Apologetic Christology, and treat in still more detail in my forthcoming book The Only True God, it seems to be the application of such language to Jesus, rather than the language itself more generally considered, that was the crux of the issue for the author of the Fourth Gospel and his opponents.
The claim of Kostenberger and Swain to be reading this Gospel in its canonical context is likewise not without problems that require further discussion and justification. They affirm at one point that, from the perspective of the Gospel of John, “the Jews’ monotheism proves to be too rigid to accomodate a plurality of persons within the one Godhead” (p.54). If one reads Deuteronomy or Second Isaiah, for instance, one does not get the impression that these Jewish Scriptures taught that monotheism ought to be flexible. If one is to read “canonically”, one must address why the appropriate approach is to let John (and the Nicene Creed) be one’s guide to Deuteronomy, rather than vice versa. And if one is to argue that progressive revelation leads one to rethink monotheism in light of the Gospel of John, then it must be explained why the New Testament authors never come right out and say so. Why is there nothing in the New Testament that explicitly calls upon monotheists to rethink and reinterpret monotheism? The possibility that such calls are absent because John did not view Jewish monotheism as too rigid deserves serious consideration.
There are other aspects of their treatment of earlier parts of the canon that may raise eyebrows, as for instance on p.79, where the Jewish religion, called “inferior” because “under it, no one could see God”, is denigrated as “Moses’ system”. It may be that Christians ought to follow Jesus’ lead in being open to the possibility that various elements – perhaps even monotheism? – that are expressed in the Jewish Scriptures are merely what “Moses” gave “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Matthew 19:8), but this can scarcely be done in passing, and would certainly lead us quite far from the outlook of the Fourth Gospel. In fact, there is a case to be made that “canonical criticism” ought to mean more than merely reading later parts of the canon back into earlier ones as though things ought to have been clear all along. Yet that often seems to be the outlook of this book (see e.g. p.82).
Nor is the treatment of other parts of the New Testament much better, for instance when the authors claim (p.40) that Christians always viewed Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation as conferring on him a status he already had (Phil. 2:6-11, at the very least, is open to other interpretations); or when it is asserted that “The parable of the wicked tenants…makes clear that Jesus was God’s Son sent into this world from above” (p.39), which ignores the fact that others are sent in the parable, and the difference between servants and sons is one of relationship to the father, not origin or species. But of course, pressing the parable to such allegorical extremes will inevitably lead to odd conclusions. My point is simply that the authors take things for granted as self evident in parts of the Bible which are not at all self evident, unless one already presupposes that such is the meaning of the texts, and no other meaning is worthy of serious consideration. It is the failure to discuss alternatives that makes the “conclusions” the authors draw seem particularly unpersuasive, since it is easy to continue to hold to one’s presuppositions if one never gives other possibilities a careful examination.
It is unclear in what sense and to what extent the authors manage to uphold classic orthodoxy, since the subject of the Trinity as defined in later centuries is in fact given little treatment in its own right, and we learn little about precisely what the term “Trinitarian”, when used in something more than its most general sense, means for the authors. Perhaps it is precisely because the authors seem unwilling to take seriously the gap between the ancient context of both the Gospel and the creeds and our own today (a gap which is at the heart of Gabler’s classic distinction), that so many aspects of the subject are left unaddressed. For instance, the notion of “persons” as relates to the Trinity (as distinct from the meaning of “persons” in modern English) is never adequately explained or clarified. The authors are concerned to avoid presenting a “social Trinity” which is akin to a “divine committee” (p.174 n.48). Yet it is precisely the language of interpersonal relationships and family that had been at the heart of the “Trinitarian reading” of John throughout the book. And so apart from questions about the authors’ exegesis (or eisegesis) with respect to Johannine theology and Christology, we also find that the absence of a philosophical and theological explanation of how the authors understand the doctrine of the Trinity leaves a confusion that transcends matters of exegesis and enters the realm of systematic theology (a distinction the authors eschew to the detriment of the book’s clarity). And in one of the few instances, towards the end of the book, when such theological concerns are brought squarely into the picture, they are allowed to overshadow what the Fourth Gospel actually says (see e.g. p.184).
The authors regularly ignore verses that do not fit their presuppositions, while in others they show themselves unwilling to accept and do justice to what might seem to be the plain meaning of the text. For instance, the authors treat John 3:13 as though it says that others ascended but only one descended (p.86). They make no attempt to argue that the usual translations are wrong, and show no awareness that they are stating the opposite of what is found in the Gospel, which is that no one ascended except for the one who (also) descended, the Son of Man. Likewise the depiction of Jesus addressing the Father as “the only true God” is glossed over more than once (e.g. p.57), but we never learn how the authors’ Christology and theology makes sense of that verse. And while much is made of Jesus having “life in himself” (5:21), there is no discussion of the significance of the fact that it is said that the Father has given this to the son – except in a footnote (p.90 n.46), where this is applied to the “eternal generation of the son”, a concept that can scarcely be said to be found treated explicitly in John’s Gospel. Although mention is made of points of contrast between John’s Gospel and other parts of the New Testament (see e.g. p.80, or p.174 n.47), ultimately justice is never done to the fact that this could represent either theological development, or a distinctive point of view, on the part of this author, nor is any explanation offered of why this should be the case.
My own understanding of the role of the Biblical scholar is to help readers today to understand the text in its original historical and cultural setting, and often this involves explaining why the Biblical author doesn’t say what we might have expected him to, had he written later (e.g. in our own time). This book by Kostenberger and Swain disappoints on both counts. It is simply not enough to write, as they do in a footnote, that “Though John does not ‘say’ the Spirit is God, he certainly ‘shows’ that the Spirit is God” (p.135 n.3). Surely, if this Gospel is such a key document in introducing Trinitarianism into the world, it is appropriate to ask why it is so subtle. Why does the doctrine of the later church have to be puzzled out and pieced together from John’s Gospel and other sources? Why does John, like the other New Testament authors, never say “Here’s how you need to rethink this whole notion of monotheism”? An answer to these questions can perhaps be given, in terms of the historical changes and new issues that intervened between the writing of this Gospel and the formulation of the later creeds. But an unwillingness to speak of development and change in doctrine, with all the complexities that brings into the picture, leaves Kostenberger and Swain with little choice but to simply read their own understanding of Nicene and Chalcedonian doctrine into John. And the result, alas, is a hodge-podge that neither makes sense of the Gospel in its own setting, nor clarifies precisely how it was read by the Nicene Fathers, nor interacts with the precise issues many of us are wrestling with today.
Much more could be said about the book, since having failed to do justice to the aforementioned central issues, the authors nonetheless do not refrain from attempting in a short space to also tackle issues such as missiology, the place of the Holy Spirit (or lack thereof) in other religions, and the filioque clause. Although there are parts of the book that may be genuinely interesting, I cannot think of anything contained in it that cannot be found elsewhere, and what is more, found elsewhere in the context of a treatment that offers (and in some cases melds) more rigorous scholarship, more historical sensitivity, greater clarity of expression, and/or greater humility about our frailties and shortcomings as human interpreters, the latter being the very reason Christians normally emphasize our need to rely on the Spirit.
The book notes early on (p.20) the lack of book-length treatments of the subject of the Trinity in the Gospel of John. Those eager for an adequate book on the subject will, it seems, have longer to wait for a study that does justice to the complexities of the exegetical, theological and historical aspects of the subject.