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.