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.