Study Two: The Beloved Disciple's Thought (Continued)

On Giving the Beloved Disciple His Say

This brings us, finally, to the promised study of the Fourth Gospel, a study intended to demonstrate that the theology of the New Testament essentially prohibits not just sacramentalism but mystery religion in general. Our focus will be the sacraments, but we need also to catch the implications regarding the more inclusive issue of "mystery" per se (which is why we have just reviewed all those other varieties of mystery).

One way of demonstrating the nonsacramental character of New Testament thought is simply by pointing out that the New Testament does not speak sacramentally. The trouble with this, of course, is that it is "an argument from silence." And if you would give it a thought, you would realize that an argument from silence is very difficult to talk about. What can one say? The best I could do is quote the whole of the New Testament and let you note the absence of any positive interest in, or theology of, sacrament and mystery. So, suspecting that neither my publisher nor my readers are ready to put up with that, I am proceeding on my commitment to do a study from simply the Fourth Gospel.

I find it wise to mount this argument in two stages. (I have been told that one has a better chance of success by breaking down one's goal into separate objectives.) I first will argue that the Fourth Gospel (and by implication the rest of the New Testament) will allow no more than onesacrament. And then, after I have made that point, I will argue that not even that one should be called a "sacrament."

This study has a history. And, both because some of the people involved deserve credit and because it may be of interest and help to readers, I tell it. Not long ago, in doing research for another book, I discovered that Karl Barth had once said, "There is only one sacrament--the one who has himself risen from the dead." (I was curious to know what more he had said on the matter, but that was it.)

A few years before, regarding a different one of my books, I had been in correspondence with Karl Barth's son Markus--himself a professor of New Testament at the University of Basel in Switzerland. In one of his letters to me, quite by chance, Markus enclosed the sheet of his "Five Theses on the Lord's Supper"--and this told me he was working on the Supper.

Quite recently, I happened to enter into correspondence with Arthur Cochrane, an emeritus professor of theology from Dubuque Seminary. And what a unique contact he has turned out to be! First of all, he received at least part of his theological training under Karl Barth and is himself a Barth specialist. Second, he has been a longtime friend and colleague of Markus Barth, serving on the same faculty with him at two different seminaries. And third, Cochrane published his own quite nonsacramental book on the Supper about the same time I published mine (In Place of Sacraments, Eerdmans, 1972).

Well, not long ago Cochrane informed me that Markus Barth had just been at Dubuque lecturing on the Supper--the final paper of the series being "Jesus Christ, the One Sacrament (An Exposition of John 6)." That still didn't tell me a whole lot about what under the sun these Barth people were talking about, so Cochrane filled me in with about two sentences more. And it is on the basis of this exhaustive research that I come before you now.

Obviously, then, the present study is entirely my own. My guess is that it will pretty well coincide with (or, perhaps better, "supplement") what Karl Barth, Markus Barth, and Arthur Cochrane have had in mind--but I can't prove that to be the case. So, while I need to credit the Barths with having put me onto the idea, it must be kept clear that the following represents no one's thought other than mine.

As suggested earlier, this study does not depend upon or require much from Study One--except the point that the Beloved Disciple was a well-versed and quite capable philosopher-theologian. For present purposes, the importance of that point is as follows:

Regarding the New Testament position on sacramentalist mystery thinking, the silence of the Galilean Twelve (i.e., the absence of such thinking in the Synoptic tradition) surely should be attributed simply to their ignorance of the mode of thought, a mode too sophisticated to have come into their ken, a way of thinking that was beyond them and with which they likely had never had much if any contact. The absence of sacramentalist-mystery thinking in the Synoptics is easily explained--at the same time constituting an argument from silence that affords little or no help in the drawing of theological conclusions.

Of course, the Apostle Paul in his time did have the requisite background and contacts for being well familiar with mystery thinking--and it is clear that this was indeed the case with him. Nevertheless, Paul's tendency is simply to reject mystery thinking out of hand. He is the biblical writer most insistent that the gospel is essentially a revealer of mystery, a breaker of mystery, rather than a promoter and exploiter of the same. Paul clearly knows mystery thinking in a way the apostolic tradition does not, yet he never fully engages it, credits it, or formulates a careful response to it. He simply dismisses it.

In the New Testament, then, it is the Beloved Disciple who is left to carry the ball--and carry it he does, to one of the most spectacular touchdowns of Scripture. He is intellectually equipped and can do mystery thinking with the best of them--fully capable of addressing either intellectualist-Jewish mysticism or any of the philosophic or religious Hellenistic varieties. In fact, he is so good at it that, to the present day, the adherents of all our previously listed varieties of Christian mysticism tend to gravitate to the Fourth Gospel for their mystery terminology, for their rationales, for moral support. With its "divine communication," its philosophical conceptualizing of God, its intellectualism, and what all, the Fourth Gospel commonly is read as the most mystical (and sacramental) book of the New Testament--and likewise, the Beloved Disciple as the author most knowledgeable about, appreciative of, and sympathetic toward mystical religion.

All that may very well be true, but it is now my hope to demonstrate that the Beloved Disciple is showing this mystical friendliness deliberately, as a means of setting up these and all other mystics for the kill. As soon as they get within reach, what he is set to do is give them the old straight-arm right under the chin--as he negotiates an end run that whisks the gospel right past them and over the goal line. And it is precisely this straight-arm that right now is giving me procedural difficulty. My first thought had been to build my whole scriptural argument and reveal the straight-arm only at the very end-as the climax, denouement, and hook of the study. Yet presently my opinion is that readers will need to know about the straight-arm in order to see what the Beloved Disciple--is about and where his argument is leading. So what I am choosing to do is reveal the secret now--while reserving the right to come back and preach a bit on the subject at the conclusion of the discussion.

The Fourth Gospel Prologue (Jn. 1:1-18)

Whether or not the Prologue is built over an earlier Hymn to the Logos--this strikes me as an entirely incidental question. However, I do think I see what the writer is up to--whether he is reworking a previously existent text or not. I propose that he is working his way along a spectrum from one pole to the other, from LOGOS (the Word) in verse 1 to FLESH in verse 14--"Logos" and "Flesh" being indeed polar opposites. The Logos, for its part, epitomizes that which is most general, abstract, transcendent, ethereal, incomprehensible, and mysterious-while the Flesh, for its part, epitomizes that which is most specific, real, mundane, down-to-earth, and concrete. I don't know that the writer could have found any two terms that would better express the polarity.

Readers of Hebrew background likely would have identified the Logos with "the word" by which God originally "spoke" the created universe into being, while readers of Greek persuasion would have recognized it as a term of divine intermediation from out of their own Hellenist philosophies. Yet, doubtless, any educated practitioners of sophisticated religion would have welcomed and promptly clambered aboard this train of thought--which, I suggest, is precisely what the writer wanted them to do. He was getting to his readers by "speaking their language."

The first five verses of the passage present the Logos entirely on the level (and at the pole) of abstract and ideal conceptualizations. What, for instance, might the existence of a Word (a Logos) signify when separated from the act of any particular speaker's speaking it? And the text's proceeding to equate the Logos with Life and then with Light (two of the continuing and pervasive themes of this Gospel, by the way--though never again presented on this level of abstraction)--this is very much to keep things at the pole of intellectualist philosophizing. What, here, might Life be when there is no reference to any actual creature's being "alive"? And what might Light be when the reference is obviously to something quite different from actual photons? There is nothing in those five verses that can be pinned down, that is in any way specifiable, discernible, or definable. There is no way of testing whether any of it is for real or whether it is all only theological idea and imagining.

I suggest, then, that the writer's first move away from the Logos pole and toward the Flesh pole (and one giant step for God kind it is) comes in the using of personal pronouns for the Logos. Our problem will be in determining just where this switch actually is made. Certainly the nouns themselves (whether "Word," "Life," or "Light") would normally call for the impersonal "it" and as much as prohibit the personal "he" (or "she" even). And there is nothing in these five verses to as much as hint that a personal "he" might be either accurate or appropriate. Moreover, the Greek term in question is itself ambiguous: it can be translated as either a personal "him" or an impersonal "it." So my hunch is that the English translators are wrong in going to the personal pronoun as early as verse 2. I think it would better be held off until verse 10; it's not until that point that there is any contextual justification for understanding the Logos to be a personal (a person-like) entity.

That way, the change of pronoun would coincide with the writer's second big move away from the abstraction of Logos and toward the specificity of Flesh. I take it that the verse-9 statement about the true Light's "coming into the world" has reference to a specific, concrete, down-to-earth event in history--is itself a preliminary synonym of the verse-14 Logos becoming Flesh and dwelling among us. I take verse 9 to intend this rather than intending some mysterious, timeless, undetectable action of the Logos by which God is forever percolating his divinity into the human world (as much of modern theology would have it). Either way, though, the next two verses go on to specify that the world summarily rejected this coming of the Logos. And from this we must conclude that abstract theories about world divinization are discredited in any case (because the world has not accepted any coming of the Logos).

However, I propose a different reading of this reference to the world's resisting the coming of the Logos. By its very nature as "religion," human religiousness of whatever variety welcomes arid supports the conceptualizations and thought forms of the Logos pole. "God," "the gods," "ultimate reality," "transcendent being," and the like--all these are fine and dandy (as long as things stay at this level). The Divine is thus kept vague, distant, and nonspecific enough that the human agents retain full control of their "religion." No, it is only when the true Light (which will show up human darkness for what it is) threatens to "come into the world" (i.e., to get specific and down-to-earth)--it is only then that the world (including especially the religious world) quickly decides to know him and receive himnot.

My particularistic reading (rather than the generalist one) is made as much as certain when we see that Jn. 3:16-21 is a post-Logos-became-Flesh statement, the precise parallel of our present passage, the pre-Logos-became-Flesh statement here in Jn. 1:9-13. Jn. 3:17 has God "sending" the Son into the world, whereas Jn. 1:9 has the true Logos/Light "coming" into the world-but the idea is the same. Then Jn. 3:l9ff has this Son being the light that is "hated," language quite equivalent to that of John 1:10ff., which presents the Logos/Light being "received not." What the author first states abstractly about the Logos/Light he proceeds to make explicit as a reference to Jesus of Nazareth. I consider it beyond dispute that he recognizes no Logosian enlightenment of the world other than what came (and continues to come) through the flesh of Jesus. And I find no justification at all for the Fourth Gospel's being used (as it long has been used) as a source for abstract, philosophical, generalized theologies. After his initial jump to the Flesh pole, the writer establishes that as his position and never once makes any move back toward Logosian speculation.

The move of the Logos toward becoming Flesh is the most threatening thing that could happen to human religion. When God concretely takes control, the first result is that we humans lose control over our own religion.

With verse 14, then, the writer completes his traversal from LOGOS to FLESH--this in telling us that the Logos (presumably without remainder) has become flesh and dwelt among us. And note well, this journey from pole to pole has not been presented as an account of the writer's personal theological development. Not at all; he presumes to be speaking as a witness of God's own journey and action. It is God who, in historical actuality, has changed himself from Logos to Flesh. The case is not at all that of a theologian changing his personal perception of God.

It follows that the called-for human response must be that of religionists henceforth dropping all their religious efforts to know God as nondiscrete Logos and now seeking to know him rather as that entirely discrete Flesh which he became to no other purpose than that we might know him in spirit and in truth. The whole religious crew that clambered aboard with the writer's first verse have all jumped ship by the time he gets into port in verse l4--or, more likely, they have perversely expounded his text to make it agree with their "religious ideas" rather than his "historical claim." Yet it is plain that, in the eyes of the writer, the Logos' becoming Flesh and dwelling among us marks the greatest and most gracious action God has ever taken (and perhaps could ever take) on behalf of humanity.

Now, "flesh" denotes simply specific and concrete historical existence and is not a particular reference to the blood-bearing body tissues that constituted the physical form of Jesus of Nazareth (an idea that shall later be developed in detail). Thus, there is no suggestion that even though Jesus be the incarnate Logos, this "flesh of Jesus" (i.e., his body tissue) was in any way unique. I doubt that an autopsy would have produced any evidence in this regard. However, with Jesus' historical-existence "flesh," the case is just the opposite. So it is here that the incarnation of the Logos is located--in how Jesus historically acted and behaved, in the character of personal existence he demonstrated.

And the writer proceeds to list the unique features that mark this particular Logos-Flesh. The flesh of Jesus, he tells us, is full of "grace," "truth," and "glory" (glory as of "an only-begotten of the Father"--just so is the uniqueness emphasized). And the implication simply must be that grace, truth, and glory are things one can never hope to find as natural endowments of normal human flesh (i.e., of customary human historical existence). Thus, as verses 16-17 have it, if ever any hint of these qualities is to be found within (or can be attributed to) normal human flesh, it is because the person involved has picked them up by his flesh having rubbed against the Logos-Flesh of Jesus--it is only through deliberate and intimate contact that this sort of infection spreads. And for sure, an individual with that infection will be the very last to claim it as the glory of his natural humanity--and the very first to claim it, instead, as the grace of God received through none other than the fleshly Jesus of Nazareth.

The writer finally capsulizes and concludes his line of thought with verse 18: "No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known." That is, no one has ever come to an effective "knowing of God" through specious efforts at mastering the Logos as Logos. No, at that pole, God is entirely beyond us. So, if God is ever to be truly known, it will have to be through the Logos that has become Flesh in Jesus--for that is the only way in which God has chosen fully to offer himself and make himself accessible to us.

Finally, none of the preceding is to be understood as Vernard Eller's propounding his ideas; rather, it is my best effort at letting the Beloved Disciple speak for himself. I hope that those who want to argue will choose to argue with him-remembering that he was the contemporary in the best position and best qualified to interpret Jesus.

The Lord's Supper without Sacraments (Jn. 13:1-30)

With that Prologue straight-arm now revealed, we are ready to work through a careful argument that will time and again bring us right back to Jn. 1:14. As we proceed, our focus will be upon that particular mystery of a sacramental Lord's Supper, though the larger range of mystery thinking will still be constantly in view. So, first, some specific observations about the Beloved Disciple's treatment of the Supper.

The Fourth Gospel has an account of a last supper of Jesus with his disciples precisely where the Synoptics and Paul also have it (the one difference raises a question about whether or not that Thursday evening--although what Jews would know as the first hours of Friday--was also the time of the Jewish Passover meal). Yet, regarding that supper, the Fourth Gospel recounts only the footwashing and a meal (no bread and cup), whereas the other sources recount only the bread and cup with a meal (no footwashing). At the same time, the Fourth Gospel is quite specific in placing the Beloved Disciple in the account as an eyewitness to, and actual participant in, that supper. Obviously, then, the tradition stemming from that Beloved Disciple had to have been fully aware that that supper had also included the actions of the bread and cup. Thus, the Fourth Gospel's omission of the bread and cup must have been deliberate--there being no way of explaining it as accident or ignorance.

The question then comes: "Why? Why would the Beloved Disciple want to leave out of his account the very actions the other witnesses counted as central?" The only answer I can see is that, given the mind-set of the Beloved Disciple against mystery thinking, he was perturbed enough about what he saw as the sacramental misuse of the bread and cup in his day (i.e., toward the end of the first century) that he decided not to include in his Gospel anything that could possibly be used in support of such sacramentalism.

However, it will be at another point of our argument that this omission of the bread and cup becomes crucial. The question will be whether John 6 is meant to refer to the Eucharist. And at least one aspect of the answer will be that it is highly unlikely that an author concerned enough to omit the referent (the institution of the bread and cup) would, at another point, make reference to what he had deliberately left out.

Then there is another implication to which we should give attention. If, as claimed, the Beloved Disciple was an eyewitness of and actual participant in the supper, then his account of the footwashing establishes that as historical fact just as much as the other accounts establish the bread and cup as such. The Synoptic omission of the footwashing no more disproves its having happened than the Fourth Gospel's omission of the Eucharist disproves its having happened. Both actions enjoy equally strong attestation, and the conclusion must be that both took place in the upper room. Also, in the Fourth Gospel account, Jesus is reported as saying, "If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (13:14-15).

In light of the textual evidence, I must admit that I can't begin to follow the churchly logic which says that Jesus instituted the bread and cup as a continuing ritual but not the footwashing, that he established the bread and cup as a "sacrament" but not the footwashing. I fail to see how the two rites can be given any difference of standing at all; I don't see why the case shouldn't be that either we accept both as sacraments or we accept neither as sacraments.

The Woman at the Well (4:1-26)

Now, in pursuit of the idea that Jesus Christ is himself the one sacrament, we go to John 4--as something of a preliminary and warm-up for the main bout of John 6. My feeling is that the Beloved Disciple deliberately structured things this way; in chapter 4 he simply plants the seeds that will come to full flower only in chapter 6.

However, for our purposes, chapter 4 does carry one distinct advantage. Because it is all about the "living water," I don't know that anyone has ever tried to argue its having reference to the sacraments. The Eucharist, of course, doesn't involve water, and when the talk is all about drinking the water, it is difficult even to make it a reference to the bath of baptism.

Yet follow the Beloved Disciple's line of thought. A woman of Samaria comes to the well she regularly comes to--this in order to draw the sort of water she regularly draws there. Upon arriving she discovers a man of perfectly normal flesh feeling a very fleshly thirst for the very sort of water she has come to draw. The scene--entirely specific and down-to-earth--is the farthest possible thing from mystery.

In the ensuing conversation, this entirely fleshly man tells her that it would be just as natural for him to satisfy her thirst of spirit by giving her of his water as it would he natural for her to satisfy his physical thirst by giving him of the well water. He says that whoever drinks of his "living water" will never thirst, will have eternal life--and that it is all there for the drinking.

The point, I think, is one with that of the Prologue: all that is needed for our meeting God and coming to know him is the flesh of Jesus (the fleshly Jesus). That's the true way of "divine communication," of worshiping "in spirit and truth" (vv. 23-24). This being so, any attempts to "mysticize" the transaction with the religious paraphernalia of mysterious gnosis, mysterious states of feeling, mysterious priests and sacrament--these are entirely beside the point and completely out of order. True worship is as specific and down-to-earth as drinking water, and has nothing whatever to do with mysteriously proper sacraments administered by proper priests at proper sanctuaries on proper mountains (Jn. 4:21).

Yet actually, this account is quite restrained; what is of interest is the number of things the author does not tell us here but will tell us in chapter 6. For instance, here nothing is said about our coming into relation to God--only about receiving eternal life. To which the Beloved Disciple might respond, "Meeting God, receiving eternal life: same difference." Strangely enough, despite the numerous "I am" statements this Gospel attributes to Jesus, there is no "I am the living water." The closest thing to it is "the water that I shall give," and if Jesus means to be making a distinction between himself and his water, he offers no help as to what it might be. However, later in the Gospel (7:37-39), there is a word strongly reminiscent of the living-water discourse:

"Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive; for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.

Here, identifying "living water" with "the Spirit" solves one problem while creating another. In his offering living water to the woman, Jesus certainly gives the impression that the drinking of it is an immediate possibility for her--not that it must await his glorification and a particular coming of the Spirit. Perhaps the Beloved Disciple's response in this case would be, "Jesus, living water, the Spirit: same difference. State it as you will, it's all one sacrament, not three."

Finally, the living-water discourse does not use the term "flesh," the key word of both the Prologue behind us and chapter 6 ahead. Perhaps the Beloved Disciple would respond, "Use the term 'flesh' or simply portray Jesus in the flesh: same difference." In any case, it seems clear that chapter 4 is a trial run preparing us for the real go of chapter 6--to which there obviously is nothing now to do but go.

Copyright (c) 1987