I. THE JEWISH FISHERMAN, THE CHRISTIAN DIVINE.
[Lincoln's Inn, Septuagesima Sunday, January 20, 1856.]
St. John I. 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
An eminent man, who died not long since in Germany, was wont to divide the life of the Church into three periods. That before the Reformation he called the Petrine; the three centuries since the Reformation, the Pauline; one he maintained was at hand, which would last to the end of this dispensation — that he named the Johannine. The classification is perhaps too ingenious to be true; and there are many reasons why we ought not to treat all the years before the sixteenth century as belonging to the same division. Nevertheless, there is something in the observation concerning St. John which has commended itself to minds of a very different order from his who put it into this shape. Some have supposed that St. John is to displace the earlier writers of the New Testament, because his teaching is more profound, or more charitable, or more simple than theirs. Some suppose that he was especially appointed to explain, unfold, bring out into their fullest light, all that previous Prophets and Apostles had presented under different aspects, in forms suitable to their own times and circumstances. Wide as this difference is, both may agree that the writings of St. John, much as they may have been studied until the point in time, deserve a fresh and a more earnest study. Both may hope that if they have been intended for the illumination of our days, the meaning of them may come forth to us with greater clearness than it did to our forefathers; not because we are wiser than they, but because a larger experience, perhaps an experience of more intense doubt and ignorance, may make us more ready to welcome the divine interpreter, and less eager to anticipate his discoveries by the conclusions which ask to be corrected by them.
There are three books in our canon which we attribute to St. John, besides the two short letters to Gaius and the Elect Lady. Of these, his Gospel appears to me a perfect summary of Christian Theology, his First Epistle of Christian Ethics, his Apocalypse of Christian Politics. I do not despair of seeing even this last book come forth, out of the hands of soothsayers and prognosticators, as a real lesson-book respecting the dealings of God with the nations, respecting the method and the issues of His righteous government. The craving there is in the minds of men for a faithful history of the past, which shall be also a faithful guide to the future, will surely be satisfied some day; this book may teach us how it shall be satisfied. It requires even less faith to expect that when we are tired of speculations about the maxims and principles of morality, which do not make our morality better, while yet their very failure convinces us that there are principles which we did not create and which must bind us, we may turn to an old and simple document, which sets plainly the commandment that has life — which tells us what the end of our existence is, what has deranged it, how each man may recover all that he has lost, and be what he was created to be.
I had thought at first that these Bible ethics might be more suitable to a congregation of men, busy in the world and valuing higher maxims only as they can test them by their application to its daily occasions, than what I have called by the more imposing name of Theology. I should have acted upon that thought if I had believed that St. John's theology was of that stamp which has made the word agreeable to schoolmen, offensive to those who would turn words into acts. If theology is a collection of dry husks, the granaries which contain those husks will be set on fire, and nothing will quench the fire till they be consumed. It is just because I find in St. John the grain which those husks sometimes conceal, for which they are sometimes a substitute; it is just because theology in his Gospel offers itself to us as a living root, out of which all living powers, living thoughts, living acts may develop themselves; it is just because there is nothing in him that is abstract, because that which is deep and eternal proves itself to be deep and eternal by entering into all the relations of time, by manifesting itself in all the common doings of men; it is therefore, I believe, that he makes his appeal, not to the man of technicalities, not to the school doctor, but to the simple wayfarer, and at the same time to the man of science who does not forget that he is a man and who expects to ascertain principles only by the honest method of experiment.
To all such, I am sure, the careful study of the fourth Gospel will prove of unspeakable worth and interest. A preacher may do much to hinder such study; he may also do something to promote it. He will hinder it if he seeks to make texts give out a sense which he has first put into them. He will hinder it if he seeks to stifle any doubts which the words themselves may excite; any that are suggested by the contradictions of the world, and the perplexities of the reader's own mind. He will hinder it if he breaks the continuity of the narration by taking a passage here and there to inculcate a particular moral, without considering how it is related to the passages that precede and that follow it and to the general scope of the Evangelist. He may promote it so far as he believes that he is a fellow-learner with those whom he is teaching; so far as he is convinced that the words of the Evangelist are clearer and diviner than any which he, of his own wit or by the help of inferior books, can put in their place; so far as he desires that his own eyes, and those of all students, may be purged that they may see what is actually in the words; so far as he believes that there is One who is above the words, above the writer of them, to whom they point, and from whom all the wisdom that is in them comes; so far as he trusts for himself, and encourages all to trust, that this Teacher wills us to come to the knowledge of His truth, and will withhold no help that we need in the pursuit of it. Urgently imploring the Holy Spirit of God to keep alive this temper in your minds and in mine, I would begin the examination of St. John's Gospel to-day, desiring, if God permit, that we may go through with it to the end.
When I talk of St. John as a Theologian, I adopt the title which was given to him at a very early time. In our own day that title has awakened a suspicion about the genuineness of this Gospel. He is spoken of by the other Evangelists as a fisherman mending his father's nets; as one of two Apostles whom our Lord called Sons of Thunder; as giving some warrant for that designation by desiring to call fire from heaven upon a Samaritan village; as showing signs of a special ambition by his prayer that he himself and his brother might sit one on Christ's right hand and one on His left in His kingdom; as exhibiting the sectarian and exclusive temper of his nation, by forbidding a man to cast out devils in Christ's name who did not follow with His Apostles. Was there anything in these early characteristics to prepare one for expecting that he would be the divine, not of a Jewish synagogue but of a Christian Church? True, he is spoken of as being present on the Mount of Transfiguration, and in the Garden of Gethsemane. On both occasions his eyes were heavy, like those of the other disciples, with the sight of glory and the sight of suffering. When others abandoned and fled, he did so likewise. In the Acts of the Apostles he appears, no doubt, in a conspicuous position, but it is still expressly as a Jewish Apostle. If he is joined with St. Peter in healing the sick man, it is when they are going up to the Temple at the hour of prayer. He endures the reproaches and the scourges of the Sanhedrim. But after the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles, we hear no more of him; he vanishes out of sight. St. Paul calls him one of the Apostles of the Circumcision, but alludes to him no further. When we meet with him again, not in the sacred record but in the mist of ecclesiastical traditions, there are reports of him as adhering to the Jewish observance of the Passover, as in some sense representing the dignity of the high-priest. How could we suppose from such intimations that he would open a Gospel with the words I read to you in the text, words which seem to intimate an acquaintance with heathen speculation, even with a high philosophy? Does that language belong at all to the simplicity of the first century? Is it not much more in accordance with the spirit of the next age, when plain narratives were combining themselves with curious speculations, and Christian teachers were introducing what they had learnt in the porch or the academy among the doctrines and the exhortations which had been uttered to fishermen on the lake of Tiberias or to the crowds who were gathered round the mount?
From what I said of my reasons for selecting this Gospel as a subject for discourses in the pulpit, you will anticipate part of the answer which I should give to these suggestions. If the Gospel is what those who make them, say that it is, they are right. If its theology is of an abstract, artificial character, compounded of elements drawn from all heterogeneous sources, let it be attributed to an age — I do not determine whether the second century was or was not such an age — in which an artificial habit of mind prevailed, in which system-building had become a profession. If there are no traces of such a disposition in the fourth Gospel, — if it is, in its language, in the construction of its sentences, in the style of its narrative, the simplest of all the Gospels, — then we may have good cause to think that it savours more of the fisherman to whom it has been for so many ages ascribed, than of the learned convert from some Gentile school, the ingenious blender of Jewish and Gentile dogmas, whom critics of this age have imagined to be its manufacturer.
I do not, however, desire to avoid a part of the inquiry which these remarks may not seem at first to meet. All the accounts of St. John in the New Testament, all that we can guess of him from other sources, certainly lead us to think of him as one whose mind had been cast in the Hebrew mould, who had learnt the lore of a child of Abraham, who had not, in the same sense that St. Paul did, thrown himself among the inhabitants of the Greek cities, and become as 'one without law, that he might gain those that are without law.' St. John's position in the city of Ephesus, during his latter years, does not affect the opinion that he was essentially a Jew. Jerusalem had fallen, or was about to fall; nowhere, perhaps, would he be more likely to find a colony of men attached to the customs of his forefathers than in that city. Confessedly, he had no part in founding its Church or converting its Gentile inhabitants; that had been St. Paul's work. And we may admit without scruple the evidence, imperfect though it be, that St. John in that city did preserve some of the characteristics of his childhood and of his education, even when the world to which those strictly belonged was passing away.
How do these admissions affect our belief that he was the writer of the sentences which introduce the Gospel that bears his name? I believe they strengthen that belief exceedingly. I can conceive nothing more thoroughly Hebrew than these sentences. I pass over the resemblance, which will strike you all upon this day, between these verses and those at the commencement of the Book of Genesis; though the correspondence between their style and the style of Moses, is one of those internal correspondences which we feel the more strongly the more we reflect. But I would beg you to notice the essential difference between this kind of writing and that of any person who had been brought up in any school of philosophy whatsoever, whether one purely Greek, or where Greek and Hebrew elements were mixed as they were at Alexandria. Would you expect in such a person the broad, simple, assertive tone, 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'? Would not the true philosopher try to vindicate his name by proving that he was a seeker after wisdom? Would not the false philosopher, if he were ever so much inclined to dogmatise, at least produce some plausible arguments in support of any statements which he advanced? Where, but in the writings of the Old and New Testament, do you meet with such an adventurous proclamation as this? Where, even in the Books of the Old and New Testament, do you meet with one that is quite a parallel to it?
And then look at the contents of the sentence. What have you been hearing of, all through the Psalms and the Prophets, but of God's word, which was to give Joshua courage, which David delighted in and fed upon, which was a fire in the heart of Jeremiah? On the surface of the Bible this language encounters you. I mean, that your eye cannot wander over a page without being arrested by expressions of the kind; you become so familiar with it that you forget the peculiarity of it. But if you stop for a moment to think, you will perceive that whenever the word of God is spoken of, something most vital and most inward is intended. It is a quick, penetrating power, entering into the man, affecting his heart and his reins, standing out in the sharpest contrast to the idols which speak to the eye. The 'word of God' is the favourite expression in the writers of the Old Testament, because they are testifying of an invisible Lord who speaks to man's spirit; because they are denouncing all attempts to make the objects of men's senses into their lords. How frightful, then, to an old Prophet would have been the thought of confounding the mere letters of a book, which could be seen, handled, copied out, with the words of the Lord! No doubt these words might have characters found for them; they might be handed down in these characters from age to age: it would be a glorious witness of their enduring quality if they were so. But it would remain unalterably true, that as words coming forth from the mouth of God, and not to return to Him void, they addressed themselves to the wills, hearts, consciences of men; into these only could they enter.
Where did they proceed? Solomon, the wise king, had spoken of a divine Wisdom, from which his was derived. He had spoken of that Wisdom as brought up with God — as His counsellor — as an object to be sought for, embraced, loved by men. The Prophets had spoken of the Word of God coming to them. The Word ruled them, searched them, judged them. They were not the speakers; the Word was the speaker. Could such language be uttered continually in the ears of earnest men and be disregarded? It was not disregarded; it moulded the very heart of all true Israelites. But soon it was forced upon them in another way. After the Babylonian captivity, they were brought into contact with heathens; they were obliged to learn what heathens had been thinking of. Elsewhere they heard of great mythological conceptions, of the Lion, the Eagle, the Ox, the Man, which represent different aspects of the Divinity. But in the city of Alexandria they heard how Greek sages, in their struggle to get rid of mythological fancies, had spoken of a Logos or Reason in themselves, which lifted them above themselves. It was strangely connected with the power of speech; it pointed to the very source of speech and thought. It was often described as an eye, blinded in most, and yet of which those in whom it was open could only say, 'It makes us know what the privilege is of being men, what the responsibility. Now we are sure that man has something to do with the Divinity, as all the traditions of our fathers tell us that he has. But what he has to do with the Divinity, who can inform us? for the traditions only bewilder us when they try to explain.' Was it strange that a Jew should say to himself, 'Why, my oracles have been telling me from the very first of a Word that speaks to men, a Word of God; a Word that withdraws them from the idolatry of sense, and the pursuit of sensible things; a Word that has taught them how to rule themselves; a Word that has taught them how they may seek after their Creator, and hold converse with Him.' Men of cultivation as well as of honesty might be easily overwhelmed by this twofold discovery; they might vacillate between their Gentile lore and their Jewish; they might mix them sometimes confusedly together; they might resort to allegories for the sake of explaining the connection, which the simpler student of either would reject as unsatisfactory and frivolous.
These descriptions apply, in some measure, to those commentaries on the Old Testament which are contained in the Apocryphal books called 'The Wisdom of Solomon,' and 'Ecclesiasticus.' The characteristic of these books is their recognition of a divine Wisdom, which the writers sometimes speak of as if it were abstract, quite as often as if it were personal and substantial. These modes of speech are confessedly derived from the Scriptures. They speak of no history but the Hebrew history; probably they were acquainted with no other. Still it is probable that they were holding dialogue with Gentiles, perhaps were explaining the Hebrew books to them. But all the peculiarities I have mentioned became far more marked and definite in Philo the Alexandrian, who was an old man when he went on an embassy from the Alexandrian Jews to Caligula. In him the idea of a divine Word, who unites God and man, and holds converse with the spirit of man, becomes the ground of all his thoughts. Every book in the Bible speaks to him of such a Being. The belief in Him alone explains to him the life of patriarchs, lawgivers, prophets. Yet he admits that such a Being must also have been the source of all wisdom to Gentile philosophers. It is his privilege, as a Jew, to explain to them their own conceptions of such a Being. Moses could declare that that was which Plato felt must be.
All must see, if we had not positive evidence of the fact, how much such thoughts, coming forth at such a time, must have affected Jews, may have affected Gentiles. Yet Philo wrote avowedly for the learned. He wished to put himself at a distance from all others. It was a satisfaction to him that he could, by the use of dark allegories, keep the profane vulgar at a distance. How, then, could his thoughts blend with those of the men who came preaching that One who was called a carpenter's son, One who had chosen fishermen as His disciples, was the King of men and the Son of God? 'To the poor the gospel is preached,' was the maxim which they were to exhibit in their lessons and their lives. How could such doctrines as Philo's be addressed to the poor?
And yet the disciples were obliged to speak of Jesus as the Son of Man who sowed the word in men's hearts, which sprang up and bore fruit, thirty and sixty and an hundredfold. They were obliged to speak of Jesus, the Son of Man, as opening a kingdom of heaven which was within men. They were obliged to speak of that kingdom as the kingdom of His Father. They were obliged to say that the Son of Man had opened it to all, because He was also the Son of God. They were obliged to say that they could only testify of this kingdom because He had given them the Spirit of His Father. And when St. Paul learnt that he, the Hebrew of the Hebrews, was called to be the Apostle of the Gentiles, it was 'by a revelation of the Son of God in him' Whom he was 'to preach to the Gentiles.' To the Corinthians, among whom he had determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified, he still spoke of Jesus Christ as the 'Wisdom of God' and the 'Power of God.' To the Ephesians he spoke of their having 'been chosen in Him before the foundation of the world, that they might be holy, and without blame before Him in love.'
What was the consequence? Jews said, 'You are exalting a man into the place of God; you are denying the words which you were taught on your mother's knee, "The Lord our God is one Lord."' Gentiles said, 'You are robbing us of the belief we have had of friendly beings of another world, who have sympathised with ours, who have had loving converse with sages and heroes, who have mixed with us as men among men.' Philosophers said, 'What has your teaching to do with all those glimpses of light in the reason which wise men have spoken of, which they have been sure that they received?' Disciples of Philo asked, 'What has this human Teacher of yours to do with that Word of God whom our master discovered in all the history of the Old Testament?' Disciples of John the Baptist (still numerous, and probably much connected with the Alexandrian teachers, as in the instance of Apollos) said, 'Our master preached repentance and turning to the living God. You say he spoke also of a Teacher who was to come after him. Do you mean that he wished us to turn away from the living God to this future Teacher?' Christian men began to ask themselves whether Jesus Christ was not the Son of God, because He was born in a wonderful manner of the Virgin? They began to dream of Him as a demigod, or a superior angel, half human, half divine. Other Christians began to boast that they were sons of God only because they were baptized men, and that their sonship was a sentence upon all the world before them and around them. A cloud of opinions — vapours gathered from all quarters — was floating about in the world; was nowhere, perhaps, denser than in the great emporium of Ephesus. A great convulsion was at hand. St. Paul had said a great apostasy was at hand.
Then, if we may believe the tradition of centuries, spoke out the old man of Ephesus, the Galilean fisherman, the Son of Thunder, — he whose brother had been taken by an early death to the right hand of his Master, — he who was himself to linger till the end of the age, — the passionate Jew, who had desired fire to come from heaven; — then spoke he who had been on the Mount, and in the Garden, and at the Last Supper: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men; and the light shines in darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the light. He was not that light, but was sent to bear witness of that light. That was the true light which lighteth every man that comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came to His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God; which were born not of flesh, nor of blood, nor of the will of man, but of God.'
Except at the close of the first century, when the Old Testament age was passing into the New, I conceive these verses could not have been written. Except by the most earnest of Jews, the most simple of Christian Apostles, I believe they could not have been written. But if they are, as they are sometimes supposed to be, merely a doctrinal proem to an actual Gospel, I admit they must have proceeded from some one else. I hope to show you hereafter that they explain every narrative which follows, as every narrative which follows illustrates them. I hope you will find that the whole Gospel is a Theology just as much as these verses; because it is a Gospel to mankind, a Gospel to the conscience of each man, from God and concerning God.
From the Gospel of St. John by FREDERICK DENISON MAURICE, M.A, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Combridge. Published by MACMILLAN AND CO in 1882; Produced by Charlene Taylor, Julia Neufeld and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2012.
Insights of the past for the present
Gospel of St. John - F.D. Maurice
ON THE BOOK SHELF
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