Holloway on… The Gospel of St John
The title of St John the Evangelist is the Disciple whom Jesus loved, and one suggests that
the full meaning and import of this title and its relationship to Christ answers many a
‘radical’ and minimalising exegesis of the scriptures, especially in all that pertains to the
true and literal Divinity of Christ. What does this title mean? Was it simply an expression
of a deeper personal and natural love between Jesus Christ and the youngest and most
virginal of the Twelve? Was it simply a personal relationship and affection, or did it mark
a special relationship for a work or function also in the Church, as in the case of the
relationship of Christ to St. Peter? Did the others in some vague way expect that this
especial love between Jesus Christ and John meant that he would be given some special
office or work to do?
St John’s special office
The evidence to suggest that even among the Twelve this special love of Christ for John
implied an office or vocation over and above being one of the Twelve stands in two things.
The title and the relationship as fact evokes no obvious jealousy among the Twelve. The
request of the mother of the sons of Zebedee for places of especial honour for her
sons, “one at your right hand and one at your left” did provoke such jealousy and anger.
Christ repudiated both the request, and the type of relationship to Him it presumed. His
disciples were not, in the Kingdom, to think or to behave like the Lords of the nations. The
relationship of Christ to St John was not it seems one of purely human preference, even
less of favouritism. It was a love so clearly spiritual, though not for that fact less tender
and fulfilling, that it evoked reverence and acceptance. John both deserved this love, and
the love given and received between Christ and St John suggested an office to come, and
made him the obvious one for such an office.
The same nuance of vague expectation comes across for this writer, in the beautiful
drama which closes the Gospel according to John. Peter has been humbled into the
dust and deeply grieved as well. In this humiliation he makes his own act of perfect and
humble contrition, in self-abandonment to the Master: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” “ Lord you know all things, you know that I love you”… “ Feed my sheep!” Then, as the Master prophesies the manner of Peter’s own death in His likeness, and says “follow Me”, Peter sees John following as well. “Lord, and what is this man going to do?” he asks. The whole context implies that just as Peter has now received back his former office and position among the Twelve, so also he expects that this man whom Christ loved in some deeper way, will also have some special work or office among the disciples. Peter is told, not for the first time, to mind his own work and mission and not to be inquisitive about another’s vocation. The question of Peter does however point to a reality in the relationship of John to Christ, and the presumptions that arose out of it. We have no reason to think that others among the Twelve would not have the same thought and expectation in their minds. We ask ourselves what was the special significance in the relationship of Christ to John the apostle, and what was the office and function in the Church which required his election to some especial love.
The Intuition of the Divine
There is only one Personality in Jesus Christ, the divine personality of God pre-existent made Son of Man for us. In any deep and truly spiritual love, it is the personality, and its quality, which is the object of the loving and the centre of the sheer joy in the possession of that loving of another. In the Beatific Vision there will be knowledge of God as He is and possession of God as He is in love: the knowing and loving will be total joy, which is to say utter fulfilment of very being. While St. John did not enjoy the beatific possession of God in Christ in the special relationship he had to Him, the analogy is directly helpful. John entered by the knowledge of faith and wisdom into a unique intuition of the Divinity of Our Lord. This possession communicated between them a special knowledge and a special love. It was to understand and later to express in his gospel the Divinity of Christ in Christ’s own way of expressing and speaking of Himself, that John was formed and taught in a relationship of understanding with love, unique even among the Twelve.
The love given by Christ to the “beloved disciple” and the love returned by the beloved disciple to the Master was indeed more than a natural love, in even the deepest and most noble sense of a natural love. Christ was doing more than form the mind and heart of John to know Him and love Him: He was forming a mind and a love in John that would be the very closest expression in a disciple of Christ’s own manner of knowing, speaking and loving in His, Christ’s, own human psyche. We will see later that this would have a unique and tremendous significance in John’s portrayal and expression of what Jesus said about Himself, and the words and ideas in which Jesus spoke about Himself, both when He confronted the Temple Establishment, and when He prayed to the Father at the Last Supper. John was trained and formed to be almost a ‘mirror image’ of Jesus Christ.
Outer and Inner Catechesis
Peter knew and loved Our Lord with a loyal, brave, and indefatigable love. It was not a love without weakness or without incoherence. Time and again we are told of the Twelve that “they did not understand the meaning of these words”. If to Peter was given in the power of the keys, a humble and utterly steadfast courage in keeping and expressing the doctrine of Christ, and to Paul was given the understanding to a supreme degree of the philosophical and theological evolution through time of the Mystery of the divine Economy in Christ, to John was given in an especial degree the intuition in recognition and love of the Divine Person in Himself. This would do more than place between them a unique communion of love; it would also cause John to remember and value supremely those moments and meanings in which Christ taught Himself to men in His Divinity, and in all its tremendous claims and impact. In this perhaps, as much as anything else, lies the distinction between the Christ of the catechesis of the people, the Christ of the Synoptics, and the Christ the Son of God literally and utterly so, in the bosom, or being, of the Father. This was the Christ of the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, the Christ of the vine and the branches, the Christ that is to say of the direct life of grace, the inner as well as the outer Way, Truth, and Life.
Vocation of John to Modern Man
The vocation of St. John as the apostle of the Divinity of Christ’s one person has fed and powered the true development of the doctrine of the Church at all times, not least in the first centuries in which the true doctrine of both the divinity and the humanity are hammered out in great Councils, and the concepts are refined in the fires of contrary heresy against either the full Divinity or the full Humanity of Christ. His vocation is uniquely important to us at the present time, in the age of Bultmannism, one might say. For the testimony of St. John to the transcendent and pre-existent Divine being of Jesus Christ sticks in the gullet of the modern, ‘radical’ or ‘liberal’ scripture scholar. They take refuge in the claim that John can be ignored, his Gospel is very late, it is in any case the rewritten symposium of a mass of fragments, welded together by devoted disciples. It is too, they say, not a direct account of the actual sense of Jesus words, but the late theologising of John upon events and confrontations in the life of the Master. John has, by secondary reflection come to see the meaning of Jesus and His life and being, and has rewritten the themes, the events and the allocutions of Jesus to the Father (as in John, chapters 13 to 17) on a wider canvas which is itself a ‘development’ not only of the doctrine of Christ, but also of the very facts themselves. They would say that John has taken the same sort of spiritual ‘licence’ with the actual events of Jesus, as a consortium of film directors might take with some heroic theme from history, an heroic theme perhaps from the Bible itself. After all, Hollywood did much the same with the theme of Moses, and of Solomon, even of the life of Christ Himself, and all with reverence and excellent intentions.
The Coherence of John
The argument against this modern position, which is often taught in even Catholic colleges to the students of theology, consists first in the stark coherence of St. John, and the spare, intense build-up to a confrontation with the official Jewish mind, or even the expectation of the people themselves, which could never have been the natural development of the mind of any orthodox Jew. Take for instance the setting of chapter six in St. John, the promise of the giving of the Bread of Heaven, in the context of the recent feeding of the multitude with ‘bread of life’ and with the mention of the Manna, as the frail type of the One Bread, whose flesh, given for the Life of the World, is Jesus Christ in person. The whole idea is totally alien, in a realistic and factual sense, to anything an orthodox Jew, or even any man or woman of sound common sense, could possibly conceive or ‘develop’ in their own human mind. No wonder so many went away, finally shocked into abandoning this man and all He stood for. Peter also and the Twelve were beaten to their knees, to the ultimate motives, in what they had seen and known, of their belief and trust in Jesus.
There was also Christ’s own amazing line in confirmation: “it is the Divinity, the Spirit that quickens, the flesh profits nothing. The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and Life . . . what if you shall see the Son of Man ascending up where He was before?” People who have never in their lives thought about God as literally enfleshed, do not speak that way. No pious Jew could have thought about it that way, from the development of his own mind. No Muslim could think that way about God now. The whole passage on the promise of the Eucharist makes no sense, it is the raving of a madman, unless it makes the one, total blinding sense of a relationship of God’s own being to man’s spiritual being, should God, the Life of Man, be made flesh. It makes perfect sense if John got this from Christ. It makes nonsense as the development of a beautiful metaphor that John has exaggerated. If Jesus were “divine in as much as He is perfectly and fully human” only — then as a devout Jew and a unique prophet he would not have spoken about “drinking my blood”. As a metaphor, such a thought, in direct breach of the Law of Moses, would be a horrible blasphemy. It makes sense only if He who was the Bread of Life, and the True Vine, really and factually meant what He said.
Convergence of St John with St Paul
The same point could be made concerning the first chapter, the Prologue as it is called, of the Gospel of St. John. The only degree of development it contains is in the poetic excellence of the thought and its expression. It is sparse, taut, wholly excellent, and it speaks a doctrine never before spoken on earth. Interestingly enough the doctrine of St. John, if it is analysed, is the same as that of St. Paul to the Colossians and to the Ephesians for instance. It is the doctrine of the Mystery of God, the divine Word, in whom all things do consist and hold together, who holds the primacy in all things, enfleshed at the end of time as the Heir of the Ages and the final manifestation of the meaning of Creation and of the saving intentions of God for all His creatures, the angels and mankind. Paul certainly could not have learnt it from John; Paul’s busy, breathless, intense and far-flung line of life barely crossed that of John the Evangelist. In both we see one vision, but that of John is more perfect as the revelation of what and who Jesus is in Himself, and His personal meaning and feeling for ourselves, for “the men Thou gavest Me” (John 17:24.). The Prologue of St. John does not represent the manner in which an idea of Divinity, worked out by the sane human mind, could and would come across by a human theologising and by development through long years afterwards. It is too perfect, too terse, too beautiful, and too utterly coherent in itself. It is comprehensible for one thing, only if Jesus was and is pre-existent in the Godhead before the Incarnation, and in that Reality of God knows, wills, and sees all His meaning and purpose in the world of men. Then, He comes unto His own, and His own receive Him not, and the stark majesty and tragedy of the Mission of Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man, begins to unfold.
Both the Christ of Faith and the Christ of History
What Paul expresses a little breathlessly, in an unrevised way, but often with moments of literary majesty, of the Mission of Christ in Creation and unto Creation, St. John expresses with a terse and perfect poetry of the inner Life of Christ in Himself, unto His Father and unto men as individuals. There is a literary development here, but not a development proceeding from the dynamism of human concoction, of the notion of Christ’s Divinity in itself. If we want to know how that would develop we can read it and find it in the Gnostics, against whom the Gospel of St John was the great rock of support and document of clarity of the Fathers of the Church. If we want to know how the mind of man, working on its own and from its own human psychology would deal and does deal with the Divine in Christ, we have it in the presentation of many modern and Rationalist thinkers. We have it, one would suggest, in the meditations of Hans Kung, in Christ Sein for instance.
God and man
The human mind that abstracts from the realism and intuition of St. John, to theologise its own version of the Jesus of History as distinct from the Jesus of Faith, must always end up with a supreme Prophet who is less than the transcendent divine, who is not pre-existent to the Universe and Creation, and who at the very highest is ‘divine’ only as a supreme emanation of a ‘holy and noble consciousness’ at the root of being itself, and identified with Creation itself. In other words, at its very best the mind of man alone, will come up either with a prophet who is more than a Mahomet, or with Pantheism. What St. John gives us is the psychological truth of The One who was God and Man in the unity of One Person, and gives us the work, teaching, claim, and impact of Him who was both, at one and the same time the Christ of Faith and the Christ of History.
Formed from within
John was there, and more than there as Annas and Caiaphas were there, or Judas for that matter; — John was formed from within, by a unique relationship of personal formation from Jesus Christ, to treasure and value the things that Jesus said and did which expressed Jesus’s divine being and relationship to the Father and the Holy Spirit. John was formed also to so treasure their import and significance that he could, and did, express in the words of Christ and the manner of speaking and thinking of Christ, the reality of the Word made Flesh.
This is the first half of Fr Holloway’s Editorial in the May/June 1983 issue of Faith Magazine.