An Interview with James McGrath (part 3)

This is my third installment into an interview I had with Dr. James McGrath earlier this month. The first part can be viewed here and the second can be seen here.

Dustin: One of the things I notice when comparing John to the former three Gospels is there there is an emphasis in John with this ἀποσυνάγωγος (“to be put out of the synagogue”) word, which is only coined in John and not found in any prior literature. Scholars have tended to see with these references, among others, that the Johannine community consisted of former members of Judaism who converted to Christianity, who now find themselves in dialogue with the synagogue down the street (whether in Ephesus or somewhere else, it is difficult to tell as we attempt to reconstruct the social situation which precipitated the Fourth Gospel). On top of that we have scholars who argue that there are multiple sources within John. I recently purchased the three commentaries on John and the Letters in the Eerdmans Critical Commentary series (here, here, and here) where it is argued, in detailed commentary, what each of the reconstructed layers of tradition meant. I’m sure for some interpreters this sort of reconstruction is useful but I wonder how one can even confidently argue to know what the three layers of tradition actually said when we don’t possess any of the individual sources. The point is that John is difficult and complicated, to say the least. I laugh when I see street preachers give out these condensed versions of the Bible, often times with just the Gospel of John in it.

JM: But there is a simplicity to it. On the one hand, there is the old analogy of the magical pool where children can paddle in it and adults can swim in it. If we start pulling on the strands and looking beneath the surface we do find that it is deep, complicated, and mysterious. Yet you also have Light, Love, Word…

Dustin: It seems very black and white, light or dark, ‘of God’ or ‘of the world.’

JM: Yeah.

Dustin: You also have this word kosmos, which most John scholars I think are correct in pointing out that this does not refer to the third rock from the sun but rather this present evil society which is opposed to what God and Jesus (and the Johannine Community) are doing. Therefore you get phrases like “you are of this world,” or “you are not of this world,” etc. It is interesting that you have these phrases on the lips of Jesus saying “I came into the world,” “I am leaving the world,” and “I am not of this world.” Then the disciples are also “not of this world.”

JM: (nods) Mmmhmm.

Dustin: So, to read this language as referring to some literal preexistence of Jesus seems problematic. I remember reading through John’s Gospel noting that Jesus came into the world, is leaving the world, and the disciples are leaving this world. I don’t know if this is a sectarian motif. I remember reading in your book John’s Apologetic Christology where you ask how the things Jesus was doing would have been viewed by the Jews. Is he being a rebellious son by claiming divine prerogatives which might bring dishonor onto God? If so, Jesus deserves to be stoned. However, if Jesus really is the appointed human agent, the shaliach, the one who has been empowered to do these things, which the Messiah could do within many contemporary Jewish messianic expectations, then the argument turns into whether or not Jesus really is God’s appointed agent. You quote from the Apocalypse of Abraham where Yahoel has the name of YHWH within it as an angel, and there seems to be no compromise to monotheism with this title. We seem all of these themes in a Christian document and yet they can still say things in John 5:44 about “the one and only God” and 17:3, “this is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God” with Jesus Christ being distinct from that category. I recall JAT JATRobinson made a statement in his book Twelve More New Testament Studies which says something to the effect that “John is an undeviating witness to Jewish unitary monotheism.” Of course that hasn’t caught on with modern scholars but I wish they would give him another look.

JM: I think there is a sense in which there is an acknowledgement of that. I am not persuaded by not entirely happy with how things are being formulated in the splitting of the Shema or talks concerning the divine identity as Richard Bauckham does. At the very least there have been several people, including Bauckham, who said that what the early Christians were saying was not controversial in that context. I don’t think they make the persuasive case that christology as they are understanding it, Bauckham and others, would not have been controversial. I think they realize that there is a sense in which monotheism doesn’t seem to be the issue in they way that others have understood it. So there is some reaction to it, but I am not happy with how they are formulating a response to that. It seems like there is some acknowledgement to they. There are some steps which, perhaps, an optimist could view as a positive direction.

Dustin: Yes, I see. I am aware that no interpreter can go to the text completely objective. Everyone comes to the text with some presuppositions and background, often from religious settings. People that are persuaded by a particular theological viewpoint often read those beliefs into the text.

JM: (nods) Mmmhmm.

Dustin: Scholars that teach at institutions which require them to believe a set of beliefs will regularly read those views into the text.

JM: (nods) Mmmhmm.

Dustin: I don’t think that is helpful because it makes me ask whether their books expound what they really think they text says or what their conservative institution teaches. We live in a time when academic integrity is a real issue, especially in light of the recent Bryan College discussion online. But I recognize, for those who are in those situations where they struggle to be honest with where they seem the evidence pointing for fear of their job, that its tough.

JM: I grew up…well, my background is a long story. I came to a personal faith within conservative evangelical and evangelical circles, so that’s where I started out. I came into my high education with that perspective. It may be that, because the positions I have now are different that those I had from my upbringing, it has allowed a little more flexibility. On the other hand, sometimes when one comes to something later they become a little more stauncher. I’m not sure what helped and what didn’t. I’m not fully able to see these things about myself they way we can see them clearly in other people. If you can spot these things, by all means tell me.

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One thought on “An Interview with James McGrath (part 3)

  1. I don’t get it…McGrath says he is not “persuaded” and unhappy with his fellow Evangelical scholars YET…in his One True God he lauds the Trinity and seems to criticize the “lonely man” aspects of the One God of Jewish-Christianity?

    “From a theological perspective, the idea of the Trinity is an EXTREMELY HELPFUL one in maintaining something that all monotheistic traditions have claimed to be true: that God is eternal and that God’s nature is love. How can one person alone, a monad, be intrinsically loving? It is hard to imagine. The doctrine of the Trinity avoids the lonely solitude of oneness and the exclusiveness of the relationship between two, and incorporates into the very nature of God the idea of interpersonal relationships of love. This was not part of the thinking of either early Judaism or earliest Christianity. However, it is a SPECTACULARLY HELPFUL and INSPIRING development which may therefore be justified, if not on biblical grounds, then on its necessity for maintaining the intelligibility of certain other key concepts about the divine that are intrinsic to both Judaism and Christianity.”
    The One True God, p. 101.

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