Volume 30 - Issue 3

Sherlock Holmes and the Curious Case of the Missing Book

By Carl Trueman

It was in the winter of ’04 that I arrived at 221b Baker Street to find Holmes standing at the window, gazing over a snow covered London and chewing on the stem of his trusty pipe. Clearly exhausted by the demands of the events surrounding the grisly case of the Psychic Cat of Kuala Lumpur (a tale for which the world is not yet ready), he seemed preoccupied.

After a few minutes of silence, he declared, somewhat rhetorically (or so it seemed), ‘It is indeed a curious thing.’

‘What is that, Holmes?’ I replied.

Holmes spun round and looked me in the eye. ‘Why, the missing book, Watson! The missing book! Like the dog that did not bark, so often in these cases it is that which should be there, but which so emphatically is not, that provides the most important details.’

The missing book? I had, as usual kept a careful eye on the newspapers. The society pages had been full of the normal gossip and trivia; and there had been the typical round of petty crimes; but I had seen no reference anywhere to a missing book. Perhaps, I thought, some wealthy private book collector had been relieved of a volume of exceptional rarity; or maybe some society figure had found that a diary or journal of particular sensitivity had gone missing. ‘Has there been a theft?’ I asked.

‘In a manner speaking it is a curious thing, my friend, when a book which has enjoyed authority and common currency for so long should so dramatically have disappeared from the public arena.’

‘Come, come Holmes.’ I said, somewhat exasperated that my friend, while apparently addressing me, seemed rather to be speaking to himself. ‘Tell me, of what book are you speaking?’

Holmes drew deeply on his pipe and then blew a perfect smoke ring into the air. ‘Why, The Gospel of John, my dear old friend. It is surely a strange and somewhat disturbing thing that a book which the church recognised so early in its history as being an authoritative part of the biblical canon has over recent years all but disappeared from some of the most influential Christological writings, even in apparently evangelical quarters.’

‘Why, Holmes, that’s preposterous!’ I declared. ‘So many crucial theological doctrines are stated in the Gospel of John that, if this book has truly gone missing, the world of Christian belief stands in serious jeopardy.

‘Aah, Watson. I can always rely on the blunt common sense of the British medical man to see the obvious things which those of more subtle minds can tend to miss. You are, of course, absolutely correct. The doctrine of the Trinity—that doctrine which defines the very particular identity of the Christian God over against all impostors—becomes incalculably more difficult to defend once John has gone missing. Then there are the other cardinal points of orthodoxy—the messianic self consciousness of Jesus, the christological hope of Israel in the Old Testament … The construction of Christologies based on only the Synoptic Gospels will be highly deviant in a number of ways that are potentially lethal to the gospel. Souls will die, Watson, mark my words. Souls will surely die.’

‘But who would do such a thing?’ I asked, the full terror Holmes’s words dawning on me. ‘Who would steal the Gospel of John when the testimony of history is so much in the book’s favour, and the implications of such a theft for the Good News are so devastating?’

‘I suspect my old rival, Professor Moriarty. For years now he has been laying the groundwork for this theft, arguing that John’s worldview was too heavily influenced by Greek thought and by ontological categories. He claims that it thus represents a layer of philosophical paganism which distorts the simple message of the gospel.’ Holmes put down his pipe and strolled over to his violin case. His hands stroked the black lacquer. He removed the Stradivarius and began to play.

At length, I responded. ‘That’s true, but he was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for that. If I remember, the judge declared that his arguments were among the most criminally specious he had ever heard.’

‘True, Watson, true. But, as you know, Moriarty is such an outwardly pleasant, urbane and learned man that the governor of his prison allowed him to leave after serving only part of his sentence. Thus, last Tuesday, he was once again, I am told, a free man. Within hours of his release, the Gospel of John started to disappear even from some well-known evangelical theologies. Inspector Lestrade has rounded up the usual suspects and started interviewing them. Some of them are talking already. It would appear that a variety of reasons has been given for the disappearances. Some have trotted out the hackneyed Hellenism argument; others have argued that to construct a purely Synoptic Christology is no more or less controversial than to construct one using all four gospels; a number have argued that John is self-evidently not ‘history’ in the way that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are. Then there are a few who argue that theology is really narrative, and that the kind of ontological questions introduced by the Gospel of John are not consistent with the basic thrust of redemptive history.’

‘My, my, Holmes. This is disturbing. What can be done to counter such arguments before it’s too late?’

‘Several lines of refutation suggest themselves.’ Holmes replaced the violin in its case and gazed out of the window. ‘The Hellenism argument is the most tedious’, he sighed. ‘It has been dealt with so many times over the years that I find I have no interest in mounting a refutation.’

‘But what about those who say that to build a Christology on four gospels is just as controversial a theological move as to build one of three? This would seem a reasonable point to make, Holmes, would it not?’

Holmes chuckled. ‘Superficially plausible but utterly wrongheaded. As usual, my dear fellow, you see the alleged scholarly rationale but you do not observe the theological presuppositions. When the church has recognised four gospels as authoritative since at least the time of Irenaeus in the second century, it is those who opt for the three rather than the four who make the contentious and highly theological and philosophical move. For anyone who takes biblical authority seriously, four is the biblical default; three requires extra-biblical philosophical justification.’

He continued: ‘Of course, on one level, it is clear—indeed, somewhat obvious even to most children in Sunday School—that each of the Gospels tells the story of Jesus from a different perspective, placing the emphasis in different places. There is nothing wrong, therefore, with producing books which deal with, say, the Christology of the Synoptics, or of John or of Matthew, etc. As long as the writer keeps in mind that each Gospel is ultimately not teaching anything which is inconsistent with any other of the Gospels, and all conclusions are checked for consistency with the teaching of the whole of canonical Scripture, then such studies can be Bible. The problem is, of course, that even evangelical scholars have increasingly judged John’s teaching as having little or no significance for the Synoptics. This has allowed them to construct arguments which deny things clearly taught in John, such as pre-existence and messianic self-consciousness.’

Holmes had a reputation for being notoriously arrogant, and his next comment indicated why: ‘The only surprise to me is that so many evangelical scholars seem so ignorant of history that they can seriously make this case about Hellenism and about privileging the Synoptics over John, as if it were some kind of original insight and not a hackneyed old heresy. Still, isn’t that always the case? Yesterday’s tired old liberalisms, today’s cutting-edge evangelicalism.’

‘Holmes,’ I protested, ‘You can be insufferably arrogant at times!’

‘Just because I am insufferably arrogant does not make my comments on biblical scholarship necessarily untrue, my dear chap. As to this business of John not being history in the manner of, say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, this argument too is not of particularly recent vintage. It is built rather upon Enlightenment notions of what does and does not constitute historical writing. The whole thesis is thus somewhat modernist, and should be equally implausible both to orthodox evangelicals and postmodern historians. At least, it should be so in theory. Strange to tell the selective attitude to the Enlightenment exhibited by many evangelicals and postmodern pundits means that the Gospel of John has continued to suffer from the suspicion of not teaching the truth in any manners straightforward or otherwise. This has left it very vulnerable to being stolen.’

‘True enough, Holmes. But what about the argument that a Christology built upon the synoptic gospels in more true to the basic narrative structure of truth as exhibited in the redemptive historical structure of the Bible?’

Holmes picked up his pipe once more. ‘As to the notion of narrative, when this is introduced as being the overarching device for expressing truth, or as guiding all Bible teaching, then an alien philosophical framework is being introduced as an a priori principle for reading Scripture. Certainly, there is much narrative in Scripture, but to use this as the only axiomatic model for understanding and explicating the gospel is fallacious. First, this approach ignores the fact that much of the Bible is not narratival in structure.

‘Second, this kind of approach fails to historicise itself by understanding that the use of narrative in this way arises in the context of modern, and metaphysical, anti-ontological philosophy. It is potentially just as enslaved to unbiblical philosophical paradigms as any of the early Greek Apologists.

‘Third, to make a radically narratival redemptive historical approach to Scripture into an all-embracing, methodologically exclusive ideology is an absurd act of shortsighted, unbiblical, anti-historical intellectual hubris it confuses an insight, a tool, with the whole toolkit. Doing theology by using nothing more than redemptive history is like trying to build a house from the ground up, armed only with a hammer. Futile, old chap, utterly futile.

‘Fourth, it fails to realise that narratives themselves only have coherence transcendence when co-ordinated with the kind of transcendent ontology and metaphysics taught in the Gospel of John.’

At this, I could contain myself no longer. ‘But if we lose ontology and metaphysics, Holmes, then, if you are right, surely we will also lose universality?’ I exclaimed.

‘How true, Watson. Each community ends up with its own narrative. The Baptist, the Anglican, the Presbyterian, the Mennonite, the Catholic, even the White Supremacist—all have their own community narratives, and none can be critiqued from the outside. Even immanent critique based upon internal inconsistency becomes virtually impossible. If you relegate or reject all evidence in the canon which might militate against your pet theories, of course, you can get away with saying anything.’

‘The implications are terrifying, Holmes.’ My mind was racing, filled with thoughts of all that the church now stood to lose.

‘Indeed, indeed. The pre-existence of the Son; the messianic self-consciousness of Jesus; the hope of Israel; the trinitarian nature of God; even, as I have implied, the universal call, demand and promise of the gospel are rendered highly questionable. All are disappearing even from the pages of evangelical biblical theologies. And while the Gospel of John remains missing, we have little material with which to fight back.’

Holmes’ eyes blazed and he spoke with an urgency I have only heard on a handful of occasions. ‘The game’s afoot, Watson. The gospel is in jeopardy and the most frightening aspect of this whole case is, it is in danger from the very people who have been charged to protect, defend and proclaim it. If we cannot persuade the next generation of evangelical thinkers that the missing gospel must be found, then it is all over for Christianity as we know it. This, my dear fellow, is a four pipe problem.’

With that, Holmes returned to gazing out of the window and I knew it was time for him to think and for me leave. I pulled on my coat, went back out into the snow. The wind seemed even colder than it had when I arrived. I hailed a hansom cab and headed back to my rooms, with Holmes’ words echoing in my mind: ‘Souls will die, Watson, mark my words. Souls will surely die.’

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.