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 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).

Ethics in the Johannine Literature? (Skinner)

FootwatshingAre there ethics in the Gospel and Epistles of John? The most common answer to this question among scholars has been a resounding, “no.” Scholars in search of ethical material in the NT have long overlooked or downplayed the potential contribution of the Gospel and Epistles of John. Noting that the Fourth Gospel in particular lacks the same sort of ethical emphases as the letters of Paul or the Synoptic Gospels, commentators have been quick to dismiss the Gospel as having little value for discussions of NT ethics. Expressing what has been a common view, one Johannine scholar has flatly asserted that, “the Fourth Gospel meets none of our expectations about the way ethics should be constructed.”[1] Others have gone so far as to deny that ethics can be found in the Johannine literature.[2] There is little doubt that previous commentators were correct in their assessment that the Johannine literature lacked the same explicit ethical instructions as the letters of Paul (e.g., Gal 5:16-26; 1 Cor 13:1-13), or the teachings of the Matthean (e.g. 5:1–7:29) or Lukan Jesus (e.g., 6:17-49). But isn’t this understanding of ethics necessarily narrow and shortsighted? Doesn’t such an approach prejudice the discussion from the outset?

Recent years have seen numerous attempts to revisit this discussion by shining a light on the “problem” of Johannine ethics.[3] Most notable among them is the volume edited by Jan van der Watt and Ruben Zimmerman, Rethinking the Ethics of John: Implicit Ethics in the Johannine Writings (WUNT II/291; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012). This volume is a necessary starting point for those wanting to look at the contemporary opinion on the presence and/or value of ethics in the Johannine literature.

I have been thinking and reading about these issues for the past four years or so, and I am currently co-editing a book with my friend, Sherri Brown (Creighton University) on the ethics of the Johannine literature (Fortress, 2017). I thought it might be good to begin discussing the topic here on the blog. I plan to spend some time over the next few weeks discussing the most important views on ethics vis-a-vis the Gospel and Epistles of John, followed by my own thoughts on the subject. Stay tuned.


[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.

[2] J. L. Houlden comes close to expressing this perspective: “Even when [John] speaks of the command to love and of doing what Jesus commands, John’s real concern is not primarily ethical at all. His concern is with the new condition of life conferred on the believers through Christ” (Ethics and the New Testament [Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973], 36).

[3] See, e.g., Jey J. Kanagaraj, “The Implied Ethics of the Fourth Gospel: A Reinterpretation of the Decalogue,” TynBul 52 (2001): 33-60; Hans Boersma, “A New Age Love Story: Worldview and Ethics in the Gospel of John,” CTJ 38 (2003): 103-119; Janos Bolyki, “Ethics in the Gospel of John,” AAntHung 44 (2004): 99-107; Jan G. van der Watt, “The Gospel of John’s Perception of Ethical Behaviour,” In die Skriflig 45 (2011): 431-47; Jan. G. van der Watt, “Ethics through the Power of Language: Some Explorations in the Gospel according to John,” in Ruben Zimmerman, Jan G. van der Watt, and Susanne Luther, eds., Moral Language in the New Testament: The Interrelatedness of Language and Ethics in Early Christian Writings, WUNT II/296 (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck 2010), 139-167, and from the same volume, Kobus Kok, “As the Father Has Sent Me, I Send You: Towards a Missional-Incarnational Ethos in John 4,” 168-96.