Johannine Ethics: Coming Soon! (Skinner)

In just over two weeks, my forthcoming book, Johannine Ethics: The Moral World of the Gospel and Epistles of John (co-edited with my friend, Sherri Brown of Creighton University) will appear with Fortress Press. We have been planning and working on this book for over three years now. This is the eighth book project I have been able to shepherd through to completion and I am as eager to hold this book in my hands as I have been with any previous project.

It has long been held that the Fourth Gospel in particular possesses nothing that could be considered “normative ethics” within the world of earliest Christianity. Wayne Meeks has given clear exposition to this idea when he writes that “the Fourth Gospel meets none of our expectations about the way ethics should be constructed.”[1] We would contend that much scholarly emphasis on ethical teaching in the NT (and John’s relative lack) is rooted in either/both (1) a limited definition of what constituted “ethics” in the ancient world, or/and (2) an overemphasis on an indicative/imperative schema similar to the categories used by Bultmann in his description of Pauline ethics. After a “state of the question” essay in which I trace the major views currently operative in discussions of Johannine ethics, the book is divided into three sections: (1) “Johannine Imperatives,” (2) “Implied Ethics in the Johannine Literature,” and (3) “Moving Forward.” Sherri and I were pleased to be able to assemble an international cast of leading Johannine scholars for this project and we are both quite pleased with the final product. We hope those interested in the subject matter will also be pleased. (Be sure to pick up a copy or two at AAR/SBL in a few weeks!)

Here’s the Table of Contents:

1. (How) Can We Talk About Johannine Ethics? Looking Back and Moving Forward
Christopher W. Skinner

Part 1: The Johannine Imperatives
2. Believing in the Gospel of John: The Ethical Imperative to Becoming Children of God
Sherri Brown
3. Love One Another: The Johannine Love Command in the Farewell Discourse
Christopher W. Skinner
4. “Follow Me”: A Life-Giving Ethical Imperative
Raymond F. Collins

Part 2: Implied Ethics in the Johannine Literature
5. The Creation Ethics of the Gospel of John
R. Alan Culpepper
6. Love Embodied in Action: Ethics and Incarnation in the Gospel of John
Jaime Clark-Soles
7. The Lyin’ King? Deception and Christology in the Gospel of John
Adele Reinhartz
8. John’s Implicit Ethic of Enemy-Love
Michael J. Gorman
9. Just Opponents? Ambiguity, Empathy, and the Jews in the Gospel of John
Alicia D. Myers
10. The Johannine Request to “Come and See” and an Ethic of Love
Toan Do
11. God, Eschatology, and “This World”: Ethics in the Gospel of John
Francis J. Moloney, SDB

Part 3: Moving Forward
12. Genre, Rhetoric, and Moral Efficacy: Approaching Johannine Ethics in Light of Plutarch’s Lives and the Progymnasmata
Lindsey Trozzo
13. Creation, Ethics, and the Gospel of John
Dorothy A. Lee
14. Virtue Ethics and the Johannine Writings
Cornelis Bennema

15. Moving the Conversation Forward: Johannine Ethics in Prospect
Christopher W. Skinner and Sherri Brown


[1] Wayne A. Meeks, “The Ethics of the Fourth Evangelist,” in R. Alan Culpepper and C. Clifton Black, eds., Exploring the Gospel of John: In Honor of D. Moody Smith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 320.





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).

Several New-ish Volumes of Note (Skinner)

CroninI am nearly always in the process of reviewing multiple books. I have recently finished a few that I am about to submit reviews for and wanted to mention them here.

The first is Sonya Shetty Cronin’s revised dissertation (Florida State University), entitled Raymond Brown, ‘The Jews’, and the Gospel of John (LNTS 504; Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015). As with many books that began their lives as dissertations, this is not the type of volume just anyone will be interested in buying. The subject matter is sufficiently narrow to limit this book to scholars and graduate students. However, the book is a solid historical study of Brown’s evolution on the matter of hoi Ioudaioi in the Fourth Gospel. Shetty examines Brown’s writings–both pastoral and academic–from 1960 to 1997, with several posthumous writings thrown in. The major argument of the book is that in his post-Vatican II context (which helped facilitate interfaith dialogue and sensitivity between Catholics and Jews), Brown evolved drastically over time in his view of “the Jews” in John. Cronin shows that in the 1960s, Brown started from a position that could potentially be called “anti-Jewish,” but which, at the very least, lacked nuance. By the time of his untimely death in 1998, Brown had reached a nuanced stand that helped him (and his readers) stay aware of and avoid potential anti-Judaism in teaching and preaching John. The book is interesting and fairly well-written but shows the signs (especially in its redundancies) of having been a dissertation. There is one thing that really drove me crazy about this book: Cronin misspells Frank Moloney’s name (as Maloney) at least 15 times. Inasmuch as Moloney was the editor and shaper of Brown’s most important posthumous publication (and a preeminent Johannine scholar in his own right), one would have thought such an important detail would not have been overlooked. Overall, however, I do feel that I can recommend this book for those interested in the subject matter. The idea for this study is interesting, especially for those interested in the legacy of one of America’s most important Catholic biblical scholars.

von WahldeThe second book I want to mention is Cam von Wahlde’s recent monograph, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century (LNTS 517; Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015). This book aims to question various proposals about the cultural and religious backgrounds against which the Johannine literature appeared. Thus he discusses Gnosticism, Docetism, and various forms of Judaism before arriving at his own proposal. I have always been a big fan of von Wahlde’s work, and as is the case with much of his previous work, I have really enjoyed reading this book, though I don’t know for sure where I stand on some of his conclusions. As many readers will know, von Wahlde has a massive three-volume commentary on the Gospel and Epistles in which he provides a detailed proposal for understanding three different editions of the Gospel. The first portion of the book is largely dependent upon the reader’s awareness and understanding of his previous proposal in the commentary (which he attempts to summarize briefly in the book’s beginning). I do feel as though von Wahlde’s argument is quite compelling in places but a bigger problem I have is with the speculative nature of much of the argument. (This concern is not so much rooted in mistrust of von Wahlde’s work but in my own discomfort with many source- and redaction-critical proposals.) In order for you to buy his argument (which again, is often compelling), you must be able to understand and accept much of his construct of the stages of Fourth Gospel formation. At the end of the day, this is a very helpful volume in many ways. As one would expect, the breadth of von Wahlde’s research and awareness of the pertinent issues is unassailable. This is definitely a must-have for those doing research in Johannine studies.

HarstineThe third book I want to mention briefly is Stan Harstine’s, A History of the Two-Hundred Year Scholarly Debate About the Purpose of the Prologue to the Gospel of John (Edwin Mellen, 2015). This is admittedly a long title for such a short book! In a brief 124 pages, Harstine looks at the history of scholarship on the Prologue (John 1:1-18) from the late 1700s up to the present day (Chapter One) with a specific focus on arguments about the relationship of the Prologue to the “gospel proper ” (John 1:19-20:31). In Chapter Two he identifies eight central concerns raised by scholars over the centuries, offering “pro” and “con” for each. Then in Chapter Three he presents his own concern for an overlooked issue: themes common to both the Prologue and the gospel proper. He concludes the book (Chapter Four) with an example of how his unaddressed concern might look in gospel exegesis. He calls this a “helical reading,” which utilizes elements of both synchronic and diachronic approaches to exegesis. Harstine has done good work in pointing us to a discussion that needs further examination. The express purpose of the book is to provide information that will serve as a starting point for future dialogue. Since the book contains material that has not been pulled together elsewhere, I think he is successful in this aim.

BarkerNext up is James Barker’s recent offering, John’s Use of Matthew (Fortress, 2015). I just received this book in my campus mailbox last week. I intend to provide a full-scale review in due course. I really like what I have read from James, so I’m looking forward to seeing his full argument. Since I have only looked at the book, I have nothing substantive to say at this time, though I do want to make a comment about the book’s layout. I have said this in recent weeks and I’ve heard others express the same sentiment: what is up Fortress Press’s new spacing and fonts? They are unattractive to say the least. (I say this not only as one who regularly reads and reviews books in the field, but also as one who is currently working on a book with Fortress!)

New Book: Urban C. von Wahlde, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century (Skinner)

von WahldeOver the past year or so I have been transitioning into research on the various reconstructions of the Johannine community and how those reconstructions impact our understanding of the ethics of the Johannine literature. To that end, I am currently co-editing a book for Fortress Press with my friend, Sherri Brown on the (mostly implicit) ethics of the Johannine literature, and working up a proposal for an authored monograph on history and ethics in the Johannine community. More on that anon….. Of obvious importance to any reconstruction of the Johannine community is understanding the background and content of the Christological claims being made by the so-called “secessionists” in 1 John. Yesterday I saw that Urban von Wahlde–whose work on the Johannine literature I have very much appreciated–has just published a new book with LNTS entitled, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century. Here’s a description:

In this book von Wahlde provides an exploration of three distinct cultural and religious backgrounds against which scholars have frequently proposed that the Gospel and Letters of John are to be read and understood.

von Wahlde examines each of these three possibilities in turn, and shows how they may be regarded as plausible or implausible depending upon the evidence available. von Wahlde shows that there are features within the Gospel and/or Letters of John that do in fact suggest that they were influenced either by Gnosticism, Docetism or one of the variant forms of Judaism. However, in each case, while some of the evidence suggests a particular background, von Wahlde shows that it is equally evident that not all of the evidence can be seen to suggest the same background. Through an examination of the origins and purpose of the gospel, and drawing on the conclusions of his well-regarded commentary on the Johannine literature, von Wahlde presents a new way of understanding the Gospel in its wider contexts.

I’m hoping I can convince the peeps at T & T Clark to send along a copy, which I will not only use for my own research but happily review for the blog.