IT IS customary for an exceptionally distinguished professor of theology to crown a career of research and reflection with a commentary on St John’s Gospel, but this book, the fruit of two decades of engagement, stands out in several ways. The atmosphere is conversational: it works not verse by verse, but chapter by chapter, and is explicitly in conversation not only with the whole Bible, but constantly with more recent literature, given every few pages in sidebars.
It is concerned with the theological and spiritual issues of the Gospel, leaving aside tiresome technical and historical questions that have been worried over repeatedly and fruitlessly for the sake of winning a point. It builds quietly and peaceably on a host of great predecessors, but does not hesitate to use and promote studies of less well-known writers. Above all, it does not disguise the fact that the author has a profound love and real affection for his subject, and the importance of the message in life of the individual and the community.
From beginning to end, the Gospel probes the question, Who is this Jesus? An overarching answer is given in the Prologue, which is pronounced both disciplined and daring. A variety of titles are proposed by the group of disciples as they gather towards the end of chapter 1; this will be expanded throughout the Gospel. A key term is “to seek”. This bursts forth in chapter 2 with two headlines, Cana as a sign of abundant life, and the rejection in the Temple as a headline for the drama of conflict, two basic themes of the Gospel.
A most significant chapter is provided by the conversation with Nicodemus, in which John exchanges the Synoptic emphasis on the Kingdom of God for an abundance of light, truth, love, and water. John avoids all language of power, secular authority, and apocalyptic, continuing the offer of abundance of life in three waves of teaching (verses 3, 5, and 11), in the last of which the post-resurrectional stance of so much of the language is evident: is it Jesus or the author speaking?
Next, the conversation with the Samaritan is the high point of the rich biblical theme of life-giving water, in which God is the fountain of living water and of the Spirit.
The rich theme of “Who is Jesus?” is pursued in one inspiring chapter after another. In John 5, Jesus is shown as being not equal to the Father (which would suggest independence), but identical. On John 17, this affectionate intimacy of Father and Son is expressed by the juxtaposition of me and se (“me” and “you”), seven times repeated. In contrast, in the crucifixion scene, the humiliation of Jesus is emphasised by the quiet: no noise, no loud cry, no portents.
This contrasts all the more triumphantly with the strongest statement in the New Testament of the divinity of the Risen Christ, doubting Thomas’s “My Lord and my God.” An unexpected richness on John 21 is the emphasis on the ongoing and active presence of the Risen Christ in the community: no word of Christ departing, only joy in the abundance of fish after the greeting “It is the Lord,” the continuing presence of the Lord through love, not by sight, but by belief and ardour.
This book repays repeated reading and re-reading. Even the footnotes contribute a wealth of theology. Only the cross-referencing is skimped.
Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.
The Gospel of John: A theological commentary
David F. Ford
Baker Academic £37.99
Church Times Bookshop £32.99