Sunday, July 22, 2007

Synoptic and Johannine Christians talk past each other

At St. Augustine's we've been doing a series of Sunday forums on St. John's gospel - using old RSV Video Bible Study tapes from the '80's (love those wide lapels and aviator glasses!). Three things in particular emerged for me that are relevant to our current situation:

1. --John's community was quite isolated from other Christian groups and sometime during the preparation of its Gospel determined that it was the only community with the "Truth about Jesus". Essentially this gospel makes rather imperial "my way or the highway" claims with regard to Christian identity, belief, and practice. To be a Christian for the Johannine Community meant being a Johannine Christian (witness their attacks on Thomas "the Twin" as a way of attacking the community that gathered around Thomas or the Gospel of Thomas, for instance).

2. --In a time of persecution John's community was concerned about doctrine, its clarity, protection, and communication.

3. --Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where not primarily concerned about doctrine but were concerned about the experiential nature of faith - the encounter with the love and compassion of Jesus.

It seems to me that in a time when a community is threatened, and when concerns for its theological identity are central, it is more likely to fall back onto the Gospel of John with its isolationism and its concern for a doctrinal core. This is readily apparent in Irenaeus. While proclaiming the first Gospel canon by selecting (out of maybe hundreds) the "four pillars" (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) Irenaeus and the subsequent early Church understood John to be the central and most important pillar, with the other three as less significant, and gathered around it - the Christian Gospel tent was not a square but a triangle with a tall central pillar. John's gospel (with its concern for the protection and further formation of doctrine, especially against those who proposed different understandings) would remain central for a very long time.

So it could be said that when the Church is under threat, and doctrine is seen to be critical, John becomes the most important gospel.

And, on the other side, are the Synoptics. Beginning with Vatican II in the '60's, and copied the '79 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and other main-line Protestant denominations, a three year Sunday lectionary was adopted - Year A: Matthew, Year B: Mark, Year C: Luke, repeating, A, B, C, A, B, C, etc.

When you examine the lectionary in its entirety there is very little from John's Gospel.

We in the North Atlantic Community have become "Synoptic Christians".

For over 30 years our language as Christians has been formed around a vision of Christian faith that is less concerned with its settled doctrinal core, and more concerned with the experiential encounter with a loving and caring Jesus. At the same time, in the North Atlantic Community the Christian Churches have not seen any assault similar to that visited upon the early Church by emperors such as Nero and Diocletian. As a result we are much more able to tolerate diversity and see it as a "gospel value" because it is -- at least for the Synoptics.

Significant parts of Africa (including especially Nigeria, as we have heard so frequently from Abp. Akinola) _are_, however, concerned with doctrine and _are_ experiencing physical and theological threat - and the "theological threat" is doctrinal in nature.
---Doctrine, for them, becomes a central concern in their phenomenal growth in a culture of paganism where there are barely enough catechists to go around, let alone clergy.
---Doctrine becomes central to their deadly struggle with Islamic fundamentalism.

These African communities are much more likely to take the approach of John's community, or of Irenaeus: to draw away from a willingness to tolerate diversity, seeing it as a luxury they can ill-afford.

In these places it would be reasonable to argue that they have become "Johannine Christians".

In other parts of Africa - such as South Africa - where neither explosive growth or deadly enemies pose a threat the Anglican Community is able to be more tolerant, and is more likely to focus on Synoptic values.

While the alliance between some African and North American Christians seems logical there are significant differences that could well torpedo it. North American Christianity is not experiencing explosive growth, and North American Christianity is not experiencing deadly threat.

However, the affinity with the Gospel of John certainly does seem to be a common marker between North American conservatives and some African Christians.

All of this obviously has significant implications for our interactions. It would also help to explain why the responses to the diversity of much of the North Atlantic Community by some in Africa have been so virulent.


Bill Carroll said...

This is interesting, though I think we might have to complicate the analysis somewhat. There is a us-them, light-dark, dualistic tendency in the Johannine literature, esp. 1John, but there is also a tendency toward universalism. Much of progressive Anglican divinity (think especially of the preface to Lux Mundi and the work of Temple), finds a world affirming incarnationalism in John, even though John has concerns about "the world." Even ancient writers note that the world means different things (God's good creation vs. the world in rebellion) in different verses of John. I think that John, the fourfold Gospel canon, and all of Holy Scripture can support a plurality of readings. As David Tracy would say, these religious classics have a "permanent excess of meaning." So too does Jesus Christ himself, of which the Gospels are authoritative witnesses.

Among the Synoptics, Matthew might be seen as giving warrant to those who want to draw firm lines, especially with regard to orthopraxis. Look at the sections on Church discipline. Indeed, Matthew is the only Gospel that mentions the church at all.

I think the image of a fellowship of love gathered as Christ washes even the feet of the traitor, is John's principal contribution to the current debate, and it pushes against the schismatic tendencies of the self-appointed guardians of Orthodoxy.

At the same time, we need to hear the symphony of voices in the four Gospels in the broader biblical context, consult the developing Christian traditions, and examine all in light of Godly reason, before deciding what it means to follow the living Lord Jesus Christ today.

Caminante said...

Welcome to the blogosphere. Interesting concept, whcih I will ponder but think you're onto something.

fs said...

Thank you, Rev. Taber-Hamilton. It is indeed an interesting concept and has explanatory value, as well. I think one's favorite Gospel is an indicator of one's understanding of Christianity.

I'd be interested to read your take on why the Fundamentalists seem to prefer Paul and the OT to any of the Gospels, particularly the synoptics, if you ever feel like tackling the subject.

Frair John said...

While I found your argument compeling when I first read it, I'm afraid I'm unconvinced.
Mr Carroll's points outline some of my issues. I'm often quite vocal in my issues about droping John almost completly from the Lectionary, which is how it feels. Incarnational theology depends upon the whitness of the Johanine community.
Besides, the idea that we are now "Synoptic Christians" as opposed to "Johanine Christians" cuts a bit closly to Manicianism.

RFSJ said...

Fr. Hamilton,

I'm not sure I agree with your thesis regarding doctrine vis a vis African Christians. To be sure, R. Brown makes the point well that the Johannine community was seperate from others, but I've been under the understanding that the exclusion and exclusivity was due more to an anti-Jewish bias and anger about those who been put out of the synagogues than a bias against other Christian communities. In fact I don't think I've ever heard the bit about Thomas and a Thomasine community. My own thesis is that John 17 contains some overtures to the Pauline/Petrine community (perhaps at Ephesus) esp. in vv 20-26 and the "may they all be one, even as I and the Father are one" language.

I would consider myself a Johannine Christian - if we did nothing but read John every Sunday I'd be happy. John is definitely the most transcendent of the Gospels, but I think also gets the Incarnation better than the Matthew and Luke with the birth narratives.



Grandmère Mimi said...

I have always loved all four Gospels, but especially John.

I'd say that I was a combination of the two, a Johannine Christian and a Synoptic Christian.

However, I don't think that I have much in common with those who emphasize the doctrinal as opposed to the love and compassion of Jesus.

John contributes insights into the nature of God and Jesus that were left unexplored by the Synoptics. That's what I love about John.

I emphasize that I am a simple Episcopalian in the pew without special knowledge of the Scriptures.

Rowan The Dog said...

I think this is an interesting observation and may be helpful. But, here's why I am not totally buying:

These African communities are much more likely draw away from a willingness to tolerate diversity, seeing it as a luxury they can ill-afford.

See, my understanding is not that diversity is a luxury that the Global South would like to have, you know, if only circumstances permitted it. Peter Jasper is engaged in overt persecution of homosexuals, trying to out Shria the Moslems.

Not having diversity because you hate homosexuals is a lot different than just thinking that you can ill afford such a luxury.

Glad you are blogging!