John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

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Lee Harmon, the author of John’s Gospel, is eminently qualified to write about this topic. His specialty is in studies of Jesus, and he has previously written a book about Revelation. He understands first century Jewish and Greek culture, as well as the biblical and historical context of the gospels.

Lee is a self-confessed liberal, but labels seldom tell the whole story. For that matter, even evangelical scholars can be liberal while rejecting that label. Every Christian should first know the Bible, then exercise discernment in all matters. I must note, however, that some of Lee’s other writings indicate that he thinks any religion can be a path to God. This unorthodox belief is solidly refuted by Bible verses such as John 14:6 and Acts 17:30.

Too often, liberal historians try to turn us all into skeptics, or perhaps even into unbelievers. Lee has enough respect for the Bible and the Person of Jesus Christ to not do that. Like John himself, Lee has written "so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God" (Jn. 20:31).

Lee is well-read enough to have taken conservative scholarship into account. Too many scholars get into a rut in which they limit their education mainly to either conservative or liberal views. Like most conservatives, Lee credits the same John with having been a disciple (later an apostle) of Jesus, and with having written both Revelation and John.

I don’t agree with Lee’s dating of the writing of Revelation and the gospels. However, this is an area in which even conservative scholars often disagree. Like Lee, I think some New Testament passages refer to the fall of Jerusalem. I believe these passages were prophetic, not written after the fact. Incidentally, my perspective is known as preterism.

In John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened, Lee treats the gospel of John objectively, with due consideration to the aforementioned biblical and historical context. Lee appreciates that John claims that his gospel is an eyewitness account (Jn. 21:24), and that he intentionally made it quite different from the other three gospels.

The primary way in which Lee emphasizes the differences is by having made Matthew, the author of the first gospel, present at the dictation of John’s gospel. Even though their conversations are fictional, it’s easy to imagine Matthew being surprised or shocked at some of John’s teachings. We easily miss these important differences if our main interest is in harmonizing the gospels.

The inclusion of the story about the writing of John’s gospel keeps this book from being another boring dissertation on the Bible. This story helps us appreciate the real people who deliberated on what we now know quite literally as “gospel truth.” Lee interrupts the story periodically to present some of the most professional and scholarly views on the gospels.

Lee appreciates the symbolism in John, which can often be a stumbling block to biblical literalists. They tend to be biased against non-literal meaning in the Bible, even when it can be supported from other Scripture passages. This is further explained in my own book, Return to Genesis.

Lee also understands that the Jews expected their Messiah to establish an earthly kingdom. This is far different from the belief of modern Christians that this world is (and always will be) evil, and that we must place all our hopes on entering an other-worldly heaven after death.

Even though Lee and I would disagree on the relevance and meaning of the kingdom of God for Christians today, he appreciates the rich history behind this concept. Personally, I fail to see how God is glorified by theories that He plans to judge the world; trash this earth; and start over again with a physically “new” earth. A non-literal reading of the Bible reveals that God intended to renew the earth through believers, for we are His “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17).

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Lee has achieved a formidable accomplishment, in that John’s Gospel should have nearly universal appeal. Everyone from curious unbelievers to devout Christians will find much to admire about the fourth gospel, and little reason to be offended—unless it be from the life and message of Christ Himself.

 

 

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commision’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Another Step Forward for the Evangelical Mind

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It’s been nearly 20 years since historian Mark Noll published his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Famous for its opening line, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,” Noll criticized Evangelicalism for its excessive pragmatism and the scholarly embarrassment of several of its most cherished beliefs. In particular, Noll named Dispensationalism and young earth creationism as especially worthy of criticism.

Stigmatized painting by Paul Klee

(on the cover of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind)

Noll would likely be pleased by the direction of the work of Martin Pierce. In his ambitious new volume Return to Genesis. Pierce, an independent scholar, takes on Dispensationalism, young earth creationism, and a host of other evangelical foibles while attempting positively to construct a more nuanced and consistently faithful reading of the Bible and Christian theology, and applying both to contemporary culture.

Return to Genesis is a sprawling work of over 600 pages, but it is written for the thoughtful lay reader. Perhaps the strongest and most original parts of the book are its sections on the nature of poetic language in Genesis and Pierce’s far-reaching view of the Kingdom of God as a holistic reality that encompasses all of creation and history.

The Book of Genesis, says Pierce, is divinely inspired in such a way that it conveys historical narrative within the contours of Hebrew parallelisms. The poetry and metaphors provide insights which help us understand that Genesis never depicted a six-day creation, a 10,000 year old earth, or a global flood. There can be compatibility in the deepest sense between science and Scripture. Moreover, the lens of poetry brings a depth to the reading of Genesis that engages the reader at the level of heart and emotion as well as mind.

Regarding the Kingdom of God in Scripture, Pierce thoroughly critiques Dispensationalism’s escapism, its negative and fatalistic view of history, and its uncritical Zionism. In its place, Pierce leans toward a positive, postmillennial view of history in which the Kingdom of God will be fully established on earth with the faithful acting as God’s servants in its establishment. In one place, Pierce explores the virtues of the Reconstructionist version of postmillennial thinking, but he does not buy into it fully. Indeed, a strength of Pierce’s writing is his persistent independence from theological labels. He explores, praises and critiques a variety of perspectives, but will not be subsumed completely under any label (except perhaps that of “biblical Christian”).

Return is more than just a book of theology. Throughout, Pierce makes practical application of his major insights to Christian living in contemporary culture. There are applicatory sections on the family, on relating faith to culture, on political involvement, on pursuing justice, and on the quest to find unity among Christians. One finds strong echoes here of the famed quote of the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper, who said “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

As one who frequently teaches in seminaries, it has been fascinating for me to observe the many scholars and leaders who have taken up Mark Noll’s call for the re-development of the evangelical mind. Return to Genesis is one man’s labor of love not only to further that quest, but to renew Christians in the process.

David Greiser is a pastor and part time seminary professor. He lives in Baltimore.