John: witness and theologian

Written by John Painter Reviewed By Leon Morris

It is good to have this book from the pen of Dr Painter, an Australian who has taught at Moore College in Sydney, at St John’s College in Durham and who is now at the University of Cape Town, where he is Associate Professor of Religious Studies. It is to be hoped that this book is but the forerunner of many, for clearly the author has much to give us. He is introduced in a Foreword written by Professor C. K. Barrett, who points to the multiplicity of writings on the Fourth Gospel in recent years and the difficulty, if not impossibility, of keeping up with them all. He sees Dr Painter as a guide who will help us find our way in this difficult area.

It is well for us to be clear that the writer is concerned simply to state his views on John’s theology, else we may find cause for complaint. For example, the opening discussion on authorship is very short (less than two pages) and does not come to grips with the problem. Dr Painter very quickly accepts the view that John did not write the Gospel but originated the tradition which found its expression in that document as the result of the work of ‘a school of disciples’. There is, of course, nothing revolutionary about this, but anyone interested in the problem of authorship will feel that there is no real discussion of the problem. We should be clear that Dr Painter is not giving us a scholarly treatment of Johannine problems but stating in summary form his understanding of the theology of the Fourth Evangelist.

In setting forth this understanding Dr Painter usually does not give his reasons nor does he discuss alternative views. He has clearly read widely but he does not bring the wealth of his reading into his writing. He refers often to Bultmann but only occasionally to anyone else. This is disconcerting for, while no-one familiar with the Johannine scene would want to belittle the great German, it is also the case that Bultmann is not the only one to have asked significant questions. It is clear that limitations of space weighed heavily on the author and that he has had to omit much. As an example, he accepts the translation of John 1:1, ‘The Word was divine’, but supports this only by pointing to the absence of the definite article (p. 57). This is an exceedingly cursory treatment of a complex problem (I have just been reading another treatment of the same words which carefully gives reasons for and against six different ways of taking the Greek). Similarly there is a dogmatic rejection of the interpretation of John 7:37 which the author opposes and an acceptance of his own view with no examination of the evidence and only a parenthetical ‘so Bultmann’ in support (p. 65). The condensed style does not make for easy reading and now and then makes the argument difficult to follow. I doubt whether anyone unfamiliar with Westcott, for example, could follow the brief discussion of that scholar’s view on p. 108.

The book then must be taken as a statement of John’s teaching from the standpoint of one who is familiar with modern discussions and who is concerned to state his conclusions without supporting argument. Understood in this way the book is valuable. There are some excellent sections such as that in which Dr Painter discusses Johannine teaching on love. There are some good things about glory (though perhaps more emphasis might have been given to the thought that true glory is to be seen in humble service, and especially in the cross). I found much of value in the discussions of faith and of knowledge.

It could be wished that this book was fuller and that it contained more discussion of alternative points of view. But we must be grateful for a fine summary of Johannine teaching as it comes home to one modern thinker.

Leon Morris

Ridley College, Melbourne, Australia