ST. JOHN'S GOSPEL HISTORICAL NOT IDEOLOGICAL.
"That which we have heard." --- 1 John i. 1.
Our argument so far has been that St. John's Gospel is dominated by a central idea and by a theory which harmonises the great and many-sided life which it contains, and which is repeated again at the beginning of the Epistle in a form analogous to that in which it had been cast in the proœmium of the Gospel --- allowing for the difference between a history and a document of a more subjective character moulded upon that history.
There is one objection to the accuracy, almost to the veracity, of a life written from such a theory or point of view. It may disdain to be shackled by the bondage of facts. It may become an essay in which possibilities and speculations are mistaken for actual events, and history is superseded by metaphysics. It may degenerate into a romance or prose-poem; if the subject is religious, into a mystic effusion. In the case of the fourth Gospel the cycles in which the narrative moves, the unveiling as of the progress of a drama, are thought by some to confirm the suspicion awakened by the point of view given in its proœmium, and in the opening of the Epistle. The Gospel, it is said, is ideological. To us it appears that those who have entered most deeply into the spirit of St. John will most deeply feel the[Pg 89] significance of the two words which we place at the head of this discourse --- "which we have heard," "which we have seen with our very eyes," (which we contemplated with entranced gaze) "which our hands have handled."
More truly than any other, St. John could say of this letter in the words of an American poet:
"This is not a book --- It is I!"
In one so true, so simple, so profound, so oracular, there is a special reason for this prolonged appeal to the senses, and for the place which is assigned to each. In the fact that hearing stands first, there is a reference to one characteristic of that Gospel to which the Epistle throughout refers. Beyond the synoptical Evangelists, St. John records the words of Jesus. The position which hearing holds in the sentence, above and prior to sight and handling, indicates the reverential estimation in which the Apostle held his Master's teaching. The expression places us on solid historical ground, because it is a moral demonstration that one like St. John would not have dared to invent whole discourses and place them in the lips of Jesus. Thus in the "we have heard" there is a guarantee of the sincerity of the report of the discourses, which forms so large a proportion of the narrative that it practically guarantees the whole Gospel.
On this accusation of ideology against St. John's Gospel, let us make a further remark founded upon the Epistle.
It is said that the Gospel systematically subordinates chronological order and historical sequence of facts to the necessity imposed by the theory of the Word which stands in the forefront of the Epistle and Gospel.
But mystic ideology, indifference to historical veracity as compared with adherence to a conception or theory, is absolutely inconsistent with that strong, simple, severe appeal to the validity of the historical principle of belief upon sufficient evidence which pervades St. John's writings. His Gospel is a tissue woven of many lines of evidence. "Witness" stands in almost every page of that Gospel, and indeed is found there nearly as often as in the whole of the rest of the New Testament. The word occurs ten times in five short verses of the Epistle. There is no possibility of mistaking this prolixity of reiteration in a writer so simple and so sincere as our Apostle. The theologian is an historian. He has no intention of sacrificing history to dogma, and no necessity for doing so. His theory, and that alone, harmonises his facts. His facts have passed in the domain of human history, and have had that evidence of witness which proves that they did so.
A few of the stories of the earliest ages of Christianity have ever been repeated, and rightly so, as affording the most beautiful illustrations of St. John's character, the most simple and truthful idea of the impression left by his character and his work. His tender love for souls, his deathless desire to promote mutual love among his people, are enshrined in two anecdotes which the Church has never forgotten. It has scarcely been noticed that a tradition of not much later date (at least[Pg 91] as old as Tertullian, born probably about A.D. 150) credits St. John with a stern reverence for the accuracy of historical truth, and tells us what, in the estimation of those who were near him in time, the Apostle thought of the lawfulness of ideological religious romance. It was said that a presbyter of Asia Minor confessed that he was the author of certain apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla --- probably the same strange but unquestionably very ancient document with the same title which is still preserved. The man's motive does not seem to have been selfish. His work was apparently the composition of an ardent and romantic nature passionately attracted by a saint so wonderful as St. Paul. The tradition went on to assert that St. John without hesitation degraded this clerical romance-writer from his ministry. But the offence of the Asiatic presbyter would have been light indeed compared with that of[Pg 92] the mendacious Evangelist, who could have deliberately fabricated discourses and narrated miracles which he dared to attribute to the Incarnate Son of God. The guilt of publishing to the Church apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla would have paled before the crimson sin of forging a Gospel.
These considerations upon St. John's prolonged and circumstantial claim to personal acquaintance with the Word made flesh, confirmed by every avenue of communication between man and man --- and first in order by the hearing of that sweet yet awful teaching --- point to the fourth Gospel again and again. And the simple assertion --- "that which we have heard" --- accounts for one characteristic of the fourth Gospel which would otherwise be a perplexing enigma --- its dramatic vividness and consistency.
This dramatic truth of St. John's narrative, manifested in various developments, deserves careful consideration. There are three notes in the fourth Gospel which indicate either a consummate dramatic instinct or a most faithful record. (1) The delineation of individual characters. The Evangelist tells us with no unmeaning distinction, that Jesus "knew all men, and knew what is in man!" For some persons take an apparently profound view of human nature in the abstract. They pass for being sages so long as they confine themselves to sounding generalizations, but they are convicted on the field of life and experience. They claim to know what is in man; but they know it vaguely, as one might be in possession of the outlines of a map, yet totally ignorant of most places within its limits. Others, who mostly affect to be keen men of the world, refrain from generalizations; but they have an insight, which at[Pg 93] times is startling, into the characters of the individual men who cross their path. There is a sense in which they superficially seem to know all men, but their knowledge after all is capricious and limited. One class affects to know men, but does not even affect to know man; the other class knows something about man, but is lost in the infinite variety of the world of real men. Our Lord knew both --- both the abstract ultimate principles of human nature and the subtle distinctions which mark off every human character from every other. Of this peculiar knowledge he who was brought into the most intimate communion with the Great Teacher was made in some degree a partaker in the course of His earthly ministry. With how few touches yet how clearly are delineated the Baptist, Nathanael, the Samaritan woman, the blind man, Philip, Thomas, Martha and Mary, Pilate! (2) More particularly the appropriateness and consistency of the language used by the various persons introduced in the narrative is, in the case of a writer like St. John, a multiplied proof of historical veracity. For instance, of St. Thomas[Pg 94] only one single sentence, containing seven words, is preserved, outside the memorable narrative in the twentieth chapter; yet how unmistakably does that brief sentence indicate the same character --- tender, impetuous, loving, yet ever inclined to take the darker view of things because from the very excess of its affection it cannot believe in that which it most desires, and demands accumulated and convincing proof of its own happiness. (3) Further, the language of our Lord which St. John preserves is both morally and intellectually a marvellous witness to the proof of his assertion here in the outset of his Epistle.
This may be exemplified by an illustration from modern literature. Victor Hugo, in his Légende des Siècles, has in one passage only placed in our Lord's lips a few words which are not found in the Evangelist. Every one will at once feel that these words ring hollow, that there is in them something exaggerated and factitious --- and that although the dramatist had the advantage of having a type of style already constructed for him. People talk as if the representation in detail of a perfect character were a comparatively easy performance. Yet every such representation shows some flaw when[Pg 95] closely inspected. For instance, a character in which Shakespeare so evidently delighted as Buckingham, whose end is so noble and martyr-like, is thus described, when on his trial, by a sympathising witness:
"'How did he bear himself?' 'When he was bought again to the bar, to hear, His knell rung out, his judgment, he was struck With such an agony, he sweat extremely, And something spoke in choler, ill and hasty; But he fell to himself again, and sweetly In all the rest show'd a most noble patience.'"
Our argument comes to this point. Here is one man of all but the highest rank in dramatic genius, who utterly fails to invent even one sentence which could possibly be taken for an utterance of our Lord. Here is another, the most transcendent in the same order whom the human race has ever known, who tacitly confesses the impossibility of representing a character which shall be "one entire and perfect chrysolite," without speck or flaw. Take yet another instance. Sir Walter Scott appeals for "the fair licence due to the author of a fictitious composition;" and admits that he "cannot pretend to the observation of complete accuracy even in outward costume, much less in the more important points of language and manners." But St. John was evidently a man of no such pretensions as these kings of the human imagination --- no Scott or Victor Hugo, much less a Shakespeare. How then --- except[Pg 96] on the assumption of his being a faithful reporter, of his recording words actually spoken, and witnessing incidents which he had seen with his very eyes and contemplated with loving and admiring reverence --- can we account for his having given us long successions of sentences, continuous discourses in which we trace a certain unity and adaptation; and a character which stands alone among all recorded in history or conceived in fiction, by presenting to us an excellence faultless in every detail? We assert that the one answer to this question is boldly given us by St. John in the forefront of his Epistle --- "That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes --- concerning the Word who is the Life --- declare we to you."
St. John's mode of writing history may profitably be contrasted with that of one who in his own line was a great master, as it has been ably criticised by a distinguished statesman. Voltaire's historical masterpiece is a portion of the life of Maria Theresa, which is unquestionably[Pg 97] written from a partly ideological point of view. For, those who have patience to go back to the "sources," and to compare Voltaire's narrative with them, will see the process by which a literary master has produced his effect. The writer works as if he were composing a classical tragedy restricted to the unities of time and place. The three days of the coronation and of the successive votes are brought into one effect, of which we are made to feel that it is due to a magic inspiration of Maria Theresa. Yet, as the great historical critic to whom we refer proceeds to demonstrate, a different charm, very much more real because it comes from truth, may be found in literal historical accuracy without this academic rouge. Writers more conscientious than Voltaire would not have assumed that Maria Theresa was degraded by a husband who was inferior to her. They would not have substituted some pretty and pretentious phrases for the genuine emotion not quite veiled under the official Latin of the Queen. "However high a thing art may be, reality, truth, which is the work of God, is higher!" It is this conviction, this entire intense adhesion to truth, this childlike ingenuousness which has made St. John as an historian attain the higher region which is usually reached by genius alone --- which has given us narratives and passages whose ideal beauty or awe is so transcendent or solemn, whose pictorial grandeur or pathos is so inexhaustible, whose philosophical depth is so unfathomable.
He stands with spell-bound delight before his work[Pg 98] without the disappointment which ever attends upon men of genius; because that work is not drawn from himself, because he can say three words --- which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have gazed upon.
Ch. i. 2, 4.
Ver. 2. Us, we.] "The nominative plural first person is not always of majesty but often of modesty, when we share our privilege and dignity with others" (Grotius). The context must decide what shade of meaning is to be read into the text, e.g., here it is the we of modesty, as also (very tenderly and beautifully) in ii. 1, 2, v. 5. It rises into majesty with the majestic, "we announce."
Ver. 4. "These things."] Not even the fellowship with the Church and with the Father and with the Son is so much in the Apostle's intention here as the record in the Gospel.
We write to you.] In days when men's minds were still freshly full of the privilege of free access to the Scriptures, these words suggested (and they naturally enough do so still) the use of the written word, and the guilt of the Church or of individuals in neglecting it. This has been well expressed by an old divine. "That which is able to give us full joy must not be deficient in anything which conduceth to our happiness; but the holy Scriptures give fulness of joy, and therefore the way to happiness is perfectly laid down in them. The major of this syllogism is so clear, that it needs no probation; for who can or will deny, that full joy is only to be had in a state of bliss? The minor is plain from this scripture, and may thus be drawn forth. That which the Apostles aimed at in, may doubtless be attained to by, their writings; for they being inspired of God, it is no other than the end that God purposed in inspiring which they had in writing; and either God Himself is wanting in the means which He has designed for this end, or these writings contain in them what will yield fulness of joy, and to that end bring us to a state of blessedness.
"How odious is the profaneness of those Christians who[Pg 99] neglect the holy Scriptures, and give themselves to reading other books! How many precious hours do many spend, and that not only on work days, but holy days, in foolish romances, fabulous histories, lascivious poems! And why this, but that they may be cheered and delighted, when as full joy is only to be had in these holy books. Alas, the joy you find in those writings is perhaps pernicious, such as tickles your lust, and promoteth contemplative wickedness. At the best it is but vain, such as only pleases the fancy and affecteth the wit; whereas these holy writings (to use David's expression, Psalm xix. 8), are 'right, rejoicing the heart.' Again, are there not many who more set by Plutarch's morals, Seneca's epistles, and suchlike books, than they do by the holy Scriptures? It is true, there are excellent truths in those moral writings of the heathen, but yet they are far short of these sacred books. Those may comfort against outward trouble, but not against inward fears; they may rejoice the mind, but cannot quiet the conscience; they may kindle some flashy sparkles of joy, but they cannot warm the soul with a lasting fire of solid consolation. And truly, if ever God give you a spiritual ear to judge of things correctly, you will then acknowledge there are no bells like to those of Aaron, no harp like to that of David, no trumpet like to that of Isaiah, no pipes like to those of the Apostles." (First Epistle of St. John, unfolded and applied by Nathaniel Hardy, D.D., Dean of Rochester, about 1660.)
From The Epistles Of St. John by WILLIAM ALEXANDER, D.D., D.C.L. Oxon., Hon. LL.D. Dublin, published by Hodder and Stoughton, 27, Paternoster Row, MDCCCXCVI Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Epistles of John 1/2 - W. Alexander
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.