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.




Interview with Douglas Estes on How John Works (Skinner)

douglas-estesA few weeks back I mentioned the publication of a really great new book entitled, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Atlanta: SBL Press), co-edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. I was privileged to contribute one of the fifteen chapters to this volume, which boasts an international lineup of Johannine scholars. I recently had a chance to interview Douglas about the book. Here’s what he had to say.

1) With the proliferation of books in biblical studies, what makes this book special?

“This book is special because it fills in a needed gap between an in-depth commentary and a more topical survey of the Gospel’s features. How John Works is neither a commentary, nor a monograph; instead, it explores fifteen of the most important issues that makes John ‘work’ as a gospel. Each of these issues are part of the ‘narrative dynamics’ of the Gospel—what makes the story John’s story. Also what makes this book special is that it covers the Gospel in a wide-ranging way but without getting too bogged down in the details (as a commentary does, for good reasons, of course) or only looking at one issue (as a monograph does). (We could just say that ‘Chris being a contributor’ is what makes the book special—and while I agree!—it is not the only thing!)”

2) Who are the primary readers of this book; how do you see it being used?

“The original plan for How John Works was to create a textbook that students could use to understand how a narrative like the Fourth Gospel has proven so effective for almost two millennia. As Ruth and I were planning and editing the book, we kept coming back to the question “Will this help a student?” I see the book being used two ways: first, it can be used as a textbook in a NT Literature class, especially one where there is a focus on the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the Christian texts; and second, as a general introduction to the literary design of the Gospel.”

3) With such a broad group of scholars—literally from all over the world—with different backgrounds, do the chapters come together? Or are there notable divergences?

“One goal that Ruth and I had from the beginning is that the book would not be “just a book of essays.” To that end, we worked with SBL Press and our contributors to have unique voices that fit well together. Whether this would work in practice was a conversation point between a number of us during the process—but in my humble opinion, it actually worked very well. Each contributor brings a unique perspective, of course, but the perspectives do fit together very well and bring a complementary perspective to the whole book.”

4) What is one way that your thinking about the Gospel of John changed by putting together Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddthis How John Works?

“One way my thinking changed while working on this book is in the area of how important the literary study of this Gospel really is. As a scholar, I admit that I have always leaned more to the literary side of things than the historical (though I believe the separation between the two is often needlessly overblown). When we planned the book, as a textbook, I was thinking more that it would summarize important elements for students, and did not think about it cutting new ground. But, How John Works definitely does cut new ground. Sometimes literary approaches get knocked in scholarly circles as simplistic or limited, but editing this book reminded me how much that is not accurate—at least, when literary concerns are taken seriously, interact normally with historical concerns without artificial brackets, and address big issues in a profound way.”

5) How John Works covers fifteen ‘narrative dynamics’ found in John. Why fifteen? Are these the most important?

“This was a lengthy discussion that Ruth and I had as we were first putting the book together. There was nothing special about fifteen, though we knew that we wanted more than only a few. We also knew that it wouldn’t work to have, say, forty. So what we did was to try to pick the most important narrative dynamics, and we came out with about fifteen. Beyond that number, there were other narrative dynamics that would have been worthy of a chapter … but we wanted to be as broad as we were deep.”

6) Is there much more that can be said about the literary features of John? What is the future to this?

“Yes, there definitely is much more that can be said about the literary features of John. On the one hand, there are always details that some enterprising PhD student will discover in the process of writing their dissertation. Plus, there will also be plenty of opportunities in the future to do comparative studies of literary features with other ancient texts (which really has only begun, what with so many discoveries and recent, computerized access to them in the last century). On the other hand, there will always be a need for reevaluations and summarizations. As to the future, no, this is not the last word; I am hoping to start on a follow-up volume to this one in the near future, perhaps a Vol 2 of Storytelling in John, that will look at literary issues in John from a quite different perspective.”

Thanks to Douglas (and Ruth) for their great work on this book, and also to Douglas for answering our questions! Stay tuned because we are actually going to be giving away of copy of this book in the coming days. . . . .

Book Notice: How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel (Skinner)

Estes Sheridan Front Cover.inddI am pleased to make mention of a soon-to-be-published book from SBL Press edited by Douglas Estes and Ruth Sheridan. It’s called, How John Works: Storytelling in the Fourth Gospel. The book went to press yesterday and should be available on October 7. Here’s a brief description:

“In this book, a group of international scholars go in detail to explain how the author of the Gospel of John uses a variety of narrative strategies to best tell his story. More than a commentary, this book offers a glimpse at the way an ancient author created and used narrative features such as genre, character, style, persuasion, and even time and space to shape a dramatic story of the life of Jesus.”

Features of the book include:

  • An introduction to the Fourth Gospel through its narrative features and dynamics
  • Fifteen features of story design that comprise the Gospel of John
  • Short, targeted essays about how John works that can be used as starting points for the study of other Gospels/texts

Here’s the table of contents:

  1. Genre, Harold W. Attridge

2. Style, Dan Nässelqvist

3. Time, Douglas Estes

4. Space, Susanne Luther

5. Point of View, James L. Resseguie

6. Plot, Kasper Bro Larsen

7. Characterization, Christopher W. Skinner

8. Protagonist, Mark W. G. Stibbe

9. Imagery, Dorothy A. Lee

10. Scripture, Rekha M. Chennattu

11. Rhetoric, Alicia D. Myers

12. Persuasion, Ruth Sheridan

13. Closure, Francis J. Moloney

14. Audience, Edward W. Klink III

15. Culture, Charles E. Hill

We will have more on this book in due course. We will post an interview with the editors and possibly even have a giveaway. Stay tuned…….

John’s Use of Matthew, Part One (Skinner)

BarkerA few posts back I mentioned that I received in the mail, James Barker‘s revised dissertation, John’s Use of Matthew. I couldn’t wait to dig in and it has been a rewarding read so far. In fact, this is one of the most engagingly written academic books I have read in some time. Perhaps this judgement is due to my own interest in the subject, but much of it is also due to Barker’s careful argument and concise writing. Today I only want to consider the first two chapters, mainly because blogging through the book in sections rather than all at once holds me accountable to be precise in representing and evaluating Barker’s argument. Such arguments are intricate and deserve careful scrutiny. Before I begin discussing the book I should also self-disclose. When I first began my graduate studies in the gospels, I held the opinion that John was independent of the Synoptics. While in my doctoral program, I became persuaded (largely through arguments offered in commentaries by C.K. Barrett, Joel Marcus, and others) that John was, at the very least, familiar with Mark and possibly Luke. Of course, Matthew usually gets short shrift in that scenario and this is something Barker takes head on. He aims to demonstrate that John both knew and made use of Matthew’s written gospel.

After a brief introduction in which he lays out the argument of each chapter (xv-xix), Barker’s first chapter (pp. 1-14) provides an abbreviated though representative Forschungsbericht on the question of John’s knowledge of Matthew, beginning with the first seventeen hundred years of interpretation and ending with the various shifts that have occurred in the past two hundred years. It is worth noting that the shifts in scholarly opinion in the last two centuries alone include the “consensus” that John knew Mark and Luke but not Matthew, followed by the “consensus” of Johannine independence, followed by the present state in which various opinions hold sway among scholars. Barker’s book bounds into this present state of uncertainty with careful and judicious argumentation that begs to be taken seriously. The lack of a present consensus provides Barker with an opportunity to have his argument heard.

In chapter 2, Barker sets forth his redaction-critical methodology, which relies heavily upon Helmut Koester’s principle that when an interpreter observes words or phrases deriving from the author or redactor of a gospel writing, that interpreter must assume the existence of a written source. In other words, if elements of Matthean redaction can be located in John-Synoptic parallels, there is a strong likelihood that those parallels derive from a written form of Matthew’s gospel. Against this backdrop he examines three previously adduced John-Matthew parallels: John 12:25/Matt 10:39; John 4:46b-54/Matt 8:5-13; John 20:11-18/Matt 28:9-10. He notes that the first of these does not meet Koester’s redaction criterion, while the other two do. Throughout this chapter, Barker is particularly adept at both anticipating objections to his argument and clarifying the nuances of his own approach. Of particular importance to his argument is his insistence that while John used Matthew’s Gospel, he did not intend to supplant Matthew (a common argument given the vast differences between the two narratives). Instead he argues that a practice known as oppositio in imitando should inform our understanding of John’s use of Matthew; to demonstrate this approach, he discusses how later infancy gospels used and built upon the legacies of (what eventually became) canonical birth narratives while arguing that supplanting those gospels would have been an unrealistic goal. One can read, for instance, the Protoevangelium of James and recognize the author’s instructive and corrective instincts vis-a-vis the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke. It is unlikely, however, that the Protoevangelium of James was meant to supplant or replace either Matthew or Luke. Instead, it was meant to stand alongside and complement the others. This is illustrative of how Barker views John’s intentions toward Matthew.

After these first two chapters, I am left with the impression that, at the very least, I have not given John’s use of Matthew enough serious consideration. I have finished chapter three and I’m looking forward to finishing the book this weekend and to having my views tested further. Stay tuned……

Ethics in the Johannine Literature, Part Four (Skinner)

apostlesIn our last post we looked at the view that ethics can be found in the Johannine Literature but they are, by and large, sectarian or exclusively inward-looking. I want to begin considering some of the more constructive and/or positive ways in which scholars have conceived of Johannine ethics in recent years. This will be the final approach covered in our survey, though I intend to discuss it in several different posts.

3) The ethics of the Johannine literature are broad, inclusive, or valuable for the construction of Christian ethics or moral theology

The South African scholar, Jan van der Watt, has been particularly important to this more constructive movement, as he has helped bring forth three different volumes in the series, Contexts and Norms of New Testament Ethics, a wider project on various ethical concerns in the NT (two of these have been co-edited with the German scholar, Ruben Zimmerman).[1] One of the three volumes in this series focuses primarily on Johannine ethics, exploring “how the narrated text reveals an underlying value system and ethical reflection sui generis, which can retrospectively be classified as ‘ethics’ or better as ‘implicit ethics.’”[2] Seeking to challenge the contention that the Johannine literature has no ethics, van der Watt notes that, “by means of narration, there is a coherent reflection on values and behavior” embedded within the Johannine literature.[3] Such an approach constitutes a step beyond traditional approaches that sought to identify ethical concerns apart from sustained exegetical treatments. In other words, more detailed engagement with the wider narrative of the gospel or underlying narrative of the epistles has the potential to offer new insights and provide a fuller understanding of John’s implicit ethics. Several contributions within these three volumes argue for a largely favorable understanding of the ethics implied in the Johannine writings.

For example, in his chapter from the second volume in the series, Kobus Kok argues for a “missional-incarnational ethos.” He uses Jesus’ interaction with the Samaritan woman (John 4) as the basis upon which to describe the Gospel as a “narrative of moral language.”[4] He writes, “As Christians, the basis or motivation of our being is built on the basis of a particular understanding of God, the world and God’s story of the world.”[5] After a detailed exegesis of John 4, Kok wonders whether this particular story can be connected at the macro-level to the sending of the disciples and wider notion of “mission” in the narrative. He ultimately concludes in the affirmative:

[I]t could thus be argued that those who seek to speak of moral language in John (at least on the textual level) should probably also include the reality of a missional-incarnational ethos that will transcend all boundaries (cultural, social, economical, racial, etc.) to show love and be accepting of everyone. From the investigation above, it becomes clear that the narrative of Jesus and the Samaritan woman should be integrated not only with the sending motive and ethos of the Son, but also with the imperative of the missional ethos of the followers of Jesus (cf. John 20:21). Together these elements form an inclusive moral language or ethical paradigm of mission and give the reader a full and integrated picture of the essence of behavior in following the way of Jesus.[6]

The tone of Kok’s chapter is similar to others in these volumes. By and large there are two overarching ideas in many of the chapters in all three monographs: (1) there ARE ethics in the Johannine Literature, and (2) they are more inclusive than recent scholarship has led us to believe.  In our next post we will consider other constructive approaches that have emerged from within a “broadly evangelical” framework.


[1] See Jan G. van der Watt, ed., Identity, Ethics, and Ethos in the New Testament, BZNW 141 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2006); Zimmerman, van der Watt, and Luther, eds., Moral Language in the New Testament: The Interrelatedness of Language and Ethics in Early Christian Writings; van der Watt and Zimmerman, eds., Rethinking the Ethics of John: Implicit Ethics in the Johannine Writings (2012).

[2] van der Watt, “Preface,” in Rethinking the Ethics of John, x.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kok, “As the Father Has Sent Me, I Send You,” 169.

[5] Ibid., 171.

[6] Ibid., 193 (emphasis added).


Ethics in the Johannine Literature, Part 3 (Skinner)

The TwelveIn the last post we looked at the old scholarly consensus that the Johannine literature lacks ethics altogether. Today we will look at the second of three major views.

(2) The ethics of the Johannine literature are sectarian, exclusive, negative, or oppositional

For the past five decades, scholars have paid particular attention to the sectarian nature of the Johannine literature. Beginning in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, a handful of scholars began setting forth serious historical reconstructions of the Johannine community. In particular, the groundbreaking work of J. Louis Martyn (along with important contributions from Raymond E. Brown, Wayne Meeks, D. Moody Smith, and R. Alan Culpepper) revolutionized contemporary readings of the Fourth Gospel; their work continues to be foundational for modern understandings of Johannine sectarianism.[1]

Martyn’s argument for a two-level reading of the Fourth Gospel was a watershed moment in contemporary Johannine studies, shaping the way scholars understood the Sitz im Leben of the community.[2] Martyn argued that the Johannine community was embroiled in a theological controversy with the local synagogue, a claim he attempted to validate through an examination of three passages in which the term aposunagōgos (“out of the synagogue”) is used (John 9:22; 12:42; 16:2).[3] There is no need to rehearse the finer points of Martyn’s theory here, as it has been a topic of nearly continuous conversation in Johannine studies. Suffice it to say that while there remains debate over the details of Martyn’s proposal, there is still fairly wide acceptance of the two-level hypothesis.[4]

Related to the claim that Johannine ethics are sectarian and exclusive is the observation that the Johannine literature is oppositional inasmuch as it is rooted in the pitting of different groups against one another. In the Gospel a group known simply as “the Jews” (Greek: hoi Ioudaioi) is consistently at odds with Jesus, while the Epistles portray a conflict within the community that has led to a departure of some Jesus-followers who hold a different Christological point of view. These observations have led some to conclude that the ethics of the Johannine literature do not reflect the universal quality of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere in the NT. For example, Luke’s Jesus encourages his followers to love their neighbors (10:25-37), while Matthew’s Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies (5:43-45), both of which can be applied universally. However, both the Johannine Jesus and the author(s) of the Epistles encourage love for “one another.”[5] In the context of the Johannine community’s ongoing conflicts, is this the same sort of inclusive love we see in Matthew and Luke, or is there an inherent tribalism embedded in this love?

In his analysis of the love relationships in the Gospel and 1 John, Fernando Segovia examined Johannine love language against the backdrop of the community’s proposed history. Segovia groups John’s love commands into seven distinct categories: (1) the Father’s love for Jesus, (2) the Father’s love for the disciples, (3) Jesus’ love for the Father, (4) Jesus’ love for the disciples, (5) the disciples’ love for the Father, (6) the disciples’ love for Jesus, and (7) the disciples’ love for each other.[6] His broader interest in the study was to better understand the redaction of the Fourth Gospel vis-à-vis 1 John, though he also argued for the sectarian character of the love commands expressed in these writings.[7] In this same vein, Wayne Meeks has commented that the “only rule [of the Johannine Jesus] is ‘love one another,’ and that rule is both vague in its application and narrowly circumscribed, being limited solely to those who are firmly within the Johannine circle.”[8] Ernst Kasemann has written that there “is no indication in John that love for one’s brother would also include love toward one’s neighbour.”[9] Similarly, Frank Matera wonders, “What is the content of this love? How do disciples exercise this love in real life situations? Whom does this love include? Is this a universal love such as is found in the Gospel of Luke, or has love become exclusive and sectarian in the Fourth Gospel?[10] Thus, one serious implication from observations about the various community conflicts is that while there are ethics in the Johannine literature, they are not suitable within the broader context of what could be termed “Christian” instruction. In a well-known denunciation of John’s “moral bankruptcy,” Jack T. Sanders has written:

Precisely because such [fundamentalist] groups, however, now exist in sufficient abundance to be visible, perhaps the weakness and moral bankruptcy of the Johannine ethics can be seen more clearly. Here is not a Christianity that considers that loving is the same as fulfilling the law (Paul) or that the good Samaritan parable represents a demand (Luke) to stop and render even first aid to the man who has been robbed, beaten, and left there for dead. Johannine Christianity is interested only in whether he believes. “Are you saved, brother?” the Johannine Christian asks the man bleeding to death on the side of the road. “Are you concerned about your soul?” “Do you believe that Jesus is the one who came down from God” “If you believe, you will have eternal life,” promises the Johannine Christian, while the dying man’s blood stains the ground.[11]

While there is some truth to this rhetorically powerful caricature, we can confidently say that Sanders has substituted one contemporary appropriation of the Gospel of John with the gospel itself.

The same sort of criticism Sanders raises against fundamentalist readings of John could also be raised against the egregious examples of anti-Judaism that have been justified by some readings of the Fourth Gospel over the centuries. While there is no doubt that many illegitimate actions have been justified by specific contextual readings of the NT, as we move forward in our series of posts we will keep our reflections on the nature of Johannine ethics in the context of the history of the Johannine community rather than specific appropriations of Johannine texts.[12]

The recent history of research has produced countless similar denunciations of Johannine ethics. While the most prominent arguments in favor of recognizing ethics in the Johannine literature have also argued that those ethics are negative, sectarian or inward looking, more recent treatments have argued that the ethics of the Johannine literature are positive and potentially viable within broader schemes of Christian ethics. Our next post will consider some of those arguments.


[1] See in chronological order, J. Louis Martyn, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968); Wayne A. Meeks, “The Man from Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism,” JBL 91 (1972): D. Moody Smith, “Johannine Christianity: Some Reflections on Its Character and Delineation,” NTS 21 (1974-1975): R. Alan Culpepper, The Johannine School, SBLDS 26 (Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1975); and Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple: The Lives, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (New York: Paulist, 1979).

[2] John Ashton has written that Martyn’s book was “the most important single work on the Gospel since Bultmann’s commentary” (Understanding the Fourth Gospel [Oxford: Clarendon, 1991], 107).

[3] Among those who doubt the existence of a Johannine community are Richard Bauckham and his former student, Edward W. Klink. See also the recent proposal of Urban C. von Wahlde, Gnosticism, Docetism, and the Judaisms of the First Century: The Search for the Wider Context of the Johannine Literature and Why It Matters, LNTS 517 (London: Bloomsbury/T&T Clark, 2015).

[4] For a recent treatment of these questions, see Jonathan Bernier, Aposynagōgos and the Historical Jesus in John: Rethinking the Historicity of the Johannine Expulsion Passages, BIS (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[5] E.g., John 13:34-35; 15:12, 17; 1 John 3:11, 14, 16, 23; 4:7,11.

[6] Fernando F. Segovia, Love Relationships in the Johannine Traditions: Agapē/Agapan in 1 John and the Fourth Gospel, SBLDS 58 (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1982).

[7] In a related study, Segovia notes that “number of recent exegetical studies on the different levels of the Johannine tradition have adopted the position that the community behind that tradition was consistently ‘sectarian’ in nature” (Fernando F. Segovia, “The Love and Hatred of Jesus and Johannine Sectarianism,” CBQ 43 [1981]: 258).

[8] Meeks, “Ethics of the Fourth Evangelist,” 318.

[9] Ernst Kasemann, The Testament of Jesus: A Study of the Gospel of John in Light of Chapter 17, trans. Gerhard Krodel (London, SCM, 1968), 59. Similar denunciations abound. See Mary E. Clarkson, “The Ethics of the Fourth Gospel,” Anglican Theological Review 31 (1949): 112-15; Victor Paul Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1972), 144-48; Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (San Francicso: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 139-40.

[10] Frank J. Matera, New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1996), 92 (emphasis added).

[11] Jack T. Sanders, Ethics in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 99-100 (emphasis added).

[12] A conspicuous example of using NT texts to justify illegitimate behavior can be found by looking at the arguments of American slaveholders against those advocating for the abolition of slavery. Slaveholders commonly used Pauline statements about “slaves obeying their masters” (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22; Tit 2:9) to justify slavery as a God-ordained institution.


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).