GOD IN THE FOURTH GOSPELWritten by Tord Larsson Reviewed By John A. MacLeod
Larsson makes a bold claim when he suggests that no one has yet written a book on the ‘notion of God’ in the Gospel of John, ‘the neglected factor in New Testament theology’. He may well, however, be right. While many scholars have made theological comments on the theology of God with reference to the Fourth Gospel, there appears to have been no sustained work in this field apart from some monographs by Howard (1931), Ashton (1991) and Schmithals (1992).
This dissertation is very structured, perhaps too clinically so. The advantage of this, however, is that one is able to follow the train of thought very easily, if somewhat predictably. In what is a ‘Hermeneutical Study of the History of Interpretations’. Larson first presents the historical, descriptive part of his dissertation: ‘an exhaustive and systematic investigation of six representatives of three important periods of New Testament interpretation’. These representatives are: Martin Luther and John Calvin (when the supremacy of the words of the Bible was greater than ever), Brooke Foss Westcott and Heinrich Julius Holtzmann (the nineteenth century historical-critical period), Rudolf Bultmann and Raymond Brown (‘the natural choices for the twentieth century’). All of these have, of course, written a commentary of John which is the main focus of Larsson’s research. Larsson introduces each of his chosen writers with attention to relevant bibliographical detail.
Having described what ‘notion of God’ each commentator presents, he analyses their methods and presuppositions. This last section on methods and presuppositions is particularly useful in the case of each commentator, especially Bultmann. The chapter on Luther contains many quotations in German that are translated (though rather far away in an appendix at the back of the book). Why this practice was not followed with respect to Holtzmann and Bultmann is not clear.
The book usefully demonstrates the different hermeneutical approaches taken by various writers to the study of John. Calvin and Luther were very clear on their presupposition. While the strength of Westcott was that he focused on individual words, his weakness was that he failed to draw the material together. Holtzmann prided himself on what he thought was a presupposition-less approach to the text. By contrast with Westcott, his work is much more linear and theological in its presentation of God. Most page space is devoted to Bultmann. Larsson gives a fine summary of Bultmann’s hermeneutical approach to John in terms of the concept of revelation. It becomes evident that Bultmann’s theology has largely stemmed from his work of John. Larsson, a Swedish Lutheran pastor, somewhat reluctantly admits that Bultmann’s interpretations are at times more adequate than the others with reference to the ‘notion of God’ in the Fourth Gospel. He is quite dismissive of Raymond Brown’s commentary, at this level, in that it barely mentions the ‘notion of God’.
Larsson’s final section seeks to make comparisons and evaluations listing areas of diversity (glory, the principle of accommodation, and passivity or otherwise) and consensus (e.g., revelation, hiddenness, love, creatorship, closeness and binitarianism). Here, as Larsson begins to evaluate, it becomes clear that presuppositions concerning the background to the writing of the Gospel, authorship and one’s general philosophical world-view greatly affect one’s hermeneutical approach to a text.
The book does not interact with other scholarship very much, not even in the last evaluative section. Nevertheless, it is very useful as an approach to hermeneutics using a particular theme (which ought to be of importance). By presenting the matter as he has done (one theme, several commentators) the differences in presupposition and method are seen as having quite astonishing effects on interpretation and the emphases one makes or does not make.
John A. MacLeod
Free Church College, Edinburgh