Ethics in the Johannine Literature, Part 2 (Skinner)

Jesus and DisciplesA few days back I mentioned that I was going to be sharing a few posts on the ethics of the Johannine literature. Over the next few posts I want to take a brief look at the three most commonly articulated views on the presence or value of ethics in the Johannine literature, followed by some of my own reflections. The views we will consider are as follows: (1) the Johannine literature is essentially devoid of ethical material; (2) the ethics of the Johannine literature are exclusive and sectarian, sometimes also described as negative or oppositional; (3) the ethics of the Johannine literature are inclusive and appropriate for incorporation into broader schemes of Christian ethics or moral theology.[1] Today we will look at the first of these views.

(1) There are no ethics in the Johannine literature

The notion that the writings of John are devoid of ethical material has been a strongly held position for decades. Only recently has that near consensus been seriously challenged. As has already been mentioned, scholarly engagement with NT ethics has long suffered from a restricted definition of what constitutes ethical instruction and this has no doubt set the lines for understanding John’s contribution to the discussion (or lack thereof). As a means of illustrating this we turn to a quotation from the well-known NT scholar, John P. Meier. On the issue of John’s ethics, Meier opines:

Apart from the love that imitates Jesus’ love for his own, John’s Gospel is practically amoral. We look in vain for the equivalents of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, oaths and vows, almsgiving, prayer, fasting, or the multitude of other specific moral directives strewn across the pages of Matthew’s Gospel. Everything comes down to imitating Jesus’ love for his disciples; what concrete and specific actions should flow from this love are largely left unspoken.[2]

Note that Meier’s critique of John includes a seemingly fixed definition of ethics. He provides specific categories (Jesus must discuss moral issues like divorce or religious issues like prayer) and modes of instruction (what he terms “specific moral directives”). Further, his definition excludes anything implicit in the narrative that those without a preconceived notion of ethics might consider useful in evaluating the moral world of the Fourth Gospel.

Meier’s negative assessment is one among many similar examples that we could introduce as evidence here.[3] If we approach the Johannine literature looking for an ethics that consists of explicit references to moral conduct, the observation of a set of rules, or the development of a series of virtues, there is a good chance that we will come away from our search disappointed. There is an equally good chance of our concluding that John has nothing to contribute to a conversation about NT ethics.[4] Thus before we are able to analyze the Johannine literature in new and potentially constructive ways, we must move beyond the standard definition of ethics that has long been applied to other NT literature. Noting the patristic proclivity for finding the Fourth Gospel in high regard for the development of moral character, Wannenwetsch asserts that there are “powerful and specifically modern biases that trigger the suspicion that with John we cannot do the sort of ethics we think we should be doing today.”[5] It behooves us to think more broadly and across different historical, social, and theological contexts in our evaluation of the potential value of the Johannine literature for doing ethics.

In a recent comprehensive overview of the field, Ruben Zimmerman has sought to challenge the “outdated consensus” that the Gospel of John contains no ethics. Concluding his survey of recent scholarship, he writes:

The fact that research into New Testament ethics has concentrated on paraenetic text segments, which are not found in the Gospel of John and very infrequently in the Letters of John, has led scholars to disregard the fact that ancient ethical discourse was much less interested in the clarification of individual questions than has been perceived within the scope of New Testament research. The separation of theology and ethics does not correspond to ancient thinking, but instead reflects a structure of perception that was introduced by Rudolf Bultmann in order to describe Pauline ethics as an indicative-imperative schema.[6]

I find myself in substantial agreement with Zimmerman’s observation, though I think we could state it more forcefully: Our obsession with Paul’s letters and their consistent emphasis on explicit ethical instruction has not merely influenced but rather tainted our ability to see other material in the NT as ethical. We must move beyond the categories established by scholarship for speaking of NT ethics if we will effectively find ethics in the Johannine literature.

In our next post we will look at the second view mentioned above: the ethics of the Johannine literature are exclusive and sectarian, sometimes also described as negative or oppositional.

______________________________________

[1] For a recent comprehensive survey of this subject, see Jan G. van der Watt, “Ethics and Ethos in the Gospel according to John,” ZNW 97 (2006): 147-175; and Ruben Zimmerman, “Is There Ethics in the Gospel of John?,” in Jan van der Watt and Ruben Zimmermann, Rethinking the Ethics of John (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 44-80.

[2] John P. Meier, “Love in Q and John: Love of Enemies, Love of One Another,” Mid-Stream 40 (2001): 47-48 (emphasis added).

[3] See the exhaustive survey of this particular judgment in Zimmerman, “Is There Ethics in the Gospel of John?,” 44-57.

[4] Boersma notes that we “must beware of the pitfall of simply combing his gospel in search for statements indicating a concern for broader moral or social issues. Such a search can only end up in disappointment. One looks in vain for explicit statements on the environment, on the treatment of the economically marginalized, or on Christian involvement in politics” (Boersma, “A New Age Love Story,” 104-5).

[5] Bernd Wannenwetsch, “Political Love: Why John’s Gospel is not as Barren for Contemporary Ethics as it Might Appear,” in Kenneth Mtata, ed., “You Have the Words of Eternal Life”: Transformative Readings of the Gospel of John from a Lutheran Perspective (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2012), 93-94 (emphasis added).

[6] Ruben Zimmerman, “Is There Ethics in the Gospel of John? Challenging an Outdated Consensus,” in van der Watt and Zimmerman, eds., Rethinking the Ethics of John, 61-62 (emphasis added).

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3 thoughts on “Ethics in the Johannine Literature, Part 2 (Skinner)

  1. “Everything comes down to imitating Jesus’ love for his disciples; what concrete and specific actions should flow from this love are largely left unspoken.[2]”

    What more is needed ? Unspoken ? Ethics are love are spoken silently as we live in Christian testimony in our daily routines of life. Christian “rules” are not written and need not be. There are no rules but faith is an attitude, a direction, a way of living we ingest by the Light of the Holy Spirit. “What would Jesus do?” is our complete moral compass.

  2. Good to see this series, which I will highlight for my class! If you have not done so already, you may also want to check out Jan van der Watt’s discussion of ethics in his Introduction to the Johannine Gospel and Letters, which may complement his more advanced contributions (pp. 51-65, esp. 59-65).

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