Friday, November 19, 2010

The Clarity of the Scriptures in De Servo Arbitrio and Luther's writings on the Lord's Supper

(painting by Etienne Parrocel "St. Paul" 1770)


Luther maintains in his writings that the Scriptures are both clear (claritas Scripturae), accessible and intelligible.  The goal of this paper is not to present a comprehensive compilation of what Luther said regarding the clarity of Scripture, but rather to show through a few systematic passages, particularly in his writings concerning the Lord’s Supper and Bondage of the Will, what Luther meant and confessed by the assertion that Scripture is indeed clear.  It is difficult to take this on without saying anything of Luther’s understanding of epistemology and his hermeneutic in dealing with the Scriptures.  It of course was Luther’s firm belief that theology was wholly biblical, and that to encounter the Scriptures was to encounter the God who speaks and creates faith.  Theology is a matter of meditation, literally an “intercourse” with the text in a lifetime of suffering and prayer. 

It is my understanding that Luther’s faith and confession of Christ and Him crucified is inextricably linked with his view on the clarity of Scripture “There is no doubt that all the Scripture points to Christ alone.”[1]  The view that Holy Scripture interprets itself is presupposed by a confession that Christ is the content of the Scriptures – the sum and substance of divine revelation.  For the Christian, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament have been flung open by the person and work of Christ “The New Testament is nothing but a revelation of the Old; it is as if somebody had a sealed letter and later on broke it open.”[2]  Scripture possesses a unity similar to the two natures in Christ; that is, as Christ came to earth to become flesh for us, so he comes to us in the language of men revealing Himself in his written word.  Highlighting the sublime clarity and simplicity of the Scriptures, Luther writes in his preface to the Old Testament:


“Dismiss your own opinions and feelings, and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise to quench all pride.  Here you will find the swaddling clothes and the manger in which Christ lies, and to which the angel points the shepherds.  Simply and lowly are these swaddling clothes (of the Scriptures), but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them”.[3] 

Luther therefore does not relegate the Holy Scriptures to obscurity, but likens them to the swaddling clothes that were wrapped around the Christ child.  This view is in keeping with the Confessions, “These testimonies are so manifest that, to use the words of Augustine…they do not need an acute understanding, but only an attentive hearer.”[4]

It is especially in his polemical attacks on the methodology of his opponents that we see a highly crafted view on the clarity of the scripture.  Against Rome, he attacks the notion that Scripture is obscure, and can only be rightly penetrated by an allegorical or analogical interpretation.  This interpretive work is the work of the external church, the trained clergy, and the pope himself.  Only the papal church may establish canon and therefore the church stands above the Scripture as one who authenticates, validates, and interprets.  For Luther, the relationship must be reversed and Holy Scripture validates the church rather than the other way around.  He writes, “This queen must rule, and everyone must obey, and be subject to her.  The Pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or even an angel from heaven – these should not be masters, judges, or arbiters but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of Scripture.”[5]  Therefore Scripture itself is the highest authority and judge.  It must be said, however that Luther never advocates an individualistic isolation in Scriptural interpretation.  More so than Rome he believed that Scripture and church exist together in harmony.        

More than Rome, Luther is incredibly disturbed by the notion of the radical reformers, that whenever Scripture presents a doctrine at odds with empirical reality that another interpretation ought to be sought.  For the fanatics it was a peculiar gift of the Spirit to individuals apart from the external Word that was so infuriating for Luther.  Whereas Rome asserted that only Mother church could navigate the obscurity of Scripture, the radical reformers privatized their interpretation apart from the consensus of the church, good grammer, and logic (most importantly Scripture itself). In this way, the Spirit apart from the external and perspicuous text, held an authority above Scripture.  For Luther, it is in fact the Spirit that allows for clear interpretation of the Scriptures, and that it is the Spirit, bound up with the external Word of God that brings about its reception.  In Bondage of the Will the bold claim is made that the Scriptures have a clarity that cannot be denied.  This stands in direct conflict to Rome and the fanatics understanding that the Scriptures are themselves obscure.     

In “Against Latomus” (1521) Luther responds to the teachers at Louvain concerning good works, free will, and penance.  In it we see Luther developing an explanation of the clarity of Scripture against Latomus’ view that Scripture is ambiguous and unclear, needing an illumination by the interpretation of men:

“Shall we be perpetually enslaved and never breathe in Christian liberty, nor sigh from out of this Babylon for our Scriptures and our home?  Yet you say they were saints and illuminated the Scripture.  Who has shown that they made the Scriptures clearer – what if they obscured them?...But doesn’t obscure Scripture require an explanation?  Set aside the obscure and cling to the clear.  Further, who has proved that the fathers are not obscure?...The Scriptures are common to all, and are clear enough in respect to what is necessary for salvation, and are also obscure enough for inquiring minds.”[6]

For Luther the Christian life is shaped by the Word of God that comes in promises.  Faith receives those promises and we recognize His presence where He desires to be found.  For Luther there is a perversity in seeking God outside of this Word (Scripture) and promise.  He insists, “God does not deal, nor has he ever dealt, with man otherwise than through a word of promise, as I have said.  We in turn cannot deal with God otherwise than through faith in the Word of his promise.”[7]  This Word and promise in the Scriptures are indispensible in the Christian life, so that we hear and receive from the God preached and revealed, rather than the hidden God, in all his terrifying indecipherability.  The advent of Jesus in the New Testament has blown the doors off any last locked or inaccessible clarity for Luther.  After all, the Word has been made flesh to be among us as Lord and God.  Faith in the clear promise of God is rooted in the self-giving of Christ, whose Words do in fact call forth life and bring it into existence.  Receiving the gifts of God is based upon His clear Words rather than human reason alone.  He writes:

“When we are dealing with the works and words of God, reason and all human wisdom must submit to being taken captive, as St. Paul teaches in II Corinthians 10:5, must allow themselves to be blinded and led, directed, taught, and instructed lest we presume to be God’s judges in his words, for we shall surely lose out when we try to judge him in his words as Psalm 50 testifies.”[8]

It must be noted that Luther in no way slights reason in Biblical interpretation, but highly esteems it as the handmaiden of faith.  Reason attends to the clarity of God’s word in a ministerial way, with humility and faith, being led by the Word.  Those who challenged the clarity of Scripture were not simply playing with a secondary order of doctrine for Luther but assaulting the Gospel itself.[9]

In Luther’s treatises on the Lord’s Supper, he associates the clarity of the Scripture with the concrete form of the biblical text.  Placed in a given context, words have a definite meaning which can be discerned and appropriated.  Luther writes in 1520 regarding the Roman practice of withholding the cup:

“But there are good grounds for my view, and this above all – no violence is to be done to the words of God, whether by man or angel.  They are to be retained in their simplest meaning as far as possible.  Unless the context manifestly compels it, they are not to be understood apart from their grammatical and proper sense, lest we give our adversaries occasion to make a mockery of the Scriptures.”[10]

Therefore, unless the context compels an interpretation outside the sensus literalis, the text must stand in its clear meaning.  When Luther writes against Zwingli regarding the Lord’s Supper he insists that the text must stand, “For the text must be quite unambiguous and plain, and must have one single, definite interpretation if it is to form the basis of a clear and definite article of faith.”  If an alternative interpretation outside the literal sense is to be taken, it must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore the onus of proof must lie with the him who produces the new interpretation:     

“Not only are they under obligation to prove from Scripture that “body” is the same as “sign of the body,” and that “is” is the same as “represent or signify,” but one thing more: even though they should produce such an example in one passage of Scripture (which, however, is impossible), they are still under obligation to prove that it is necessarily so here in the Supper as well, that “body” is “sign of the body”…Our present quarrel is not primarily whether somewhere in the Scriptures “body” means “sign of the body,” but whether in this text of the Super it has this meaning.”[11] 

Luther requires that Zwingli not only prove that a metaphorical use is used elsewhere in the Scriptures, but that it is also employed here in the Supper.  This is especially difficult given that Luther had also debunked Zwingli’s use of metaphor concerning the “I am” saying of Jesus, being expressed in terms of being or “essence” rather than mere representation.[12]

Luther also observes that God deals with his people moving from type to anti-type, from sign to reality.  This movement never moves backward.  Therefore, to go from the Lord’s Supper back to its sign is preposterous.  For this reason Luther rejects Oecolampadius’ spiritual interpretation as “a backward-pointing, inverted trope.”[13]   

In De Servo Arbitro, Luther deals in greater detail with the question of Scriptures’ clarity.  In Erasmus’ diatribe his arguments are quite enticing.  He is interested in humanism, education, peace throughout the land, and Christian love.  Precise conformity on various doctrines is not a matter of life and death for Erasmus and obscure parts of Scripture need not be poked at and investigated.  Some things in Scripture simply need not be discussed for the sake of peace and harmony, “How many questions, or rather squabbles, have arisen over the distinction of person, the mode of generation, the distinction between filiation and procession; what a fuss has been raised in the world by the wrangle about the conception of the virgin as Theotokos!  I ask what profit has there been so far from these laborious inquiries, except that with the loss of harmony we love one another the less, while seeking to be wiser than we need.”[14]  Erasmus does in fact attribute to scripture a clarity when Scripture “simply confesses” certain matters of dogma, but does not seek to explicate how such doctrines can be.  His diatribe begins with this rather shadowy commentary on the obscurity of Scripture:

“For there are some secret places in the Holy Scriptures into which God has not wished us to penetrate more deeply and, if we try to do so, then the deeper we go, the darker and darker it becomes, by which means we are led to acknowledge the unsearchable majesty of the divine wisdom, and the weakness of the human mind.  It is like that cavern near Corycos of which Pomponius Mela tells, which begins by attracting and drawing the visitor by its pleasing aspect, and then as one goes deeper, a certain horror and majesty of the divine presence that inhabits the places makes one draw back”[15]

This must be contrasted with Luther’s view cited earlier where he likens the Scriptures to the “swaddling clothes of Jesus.”  This view that the Scripture is murky and unintelligible, more than anything, seems to move Luther into his more furious polemical chastisement of Erasmus, whom as far as Luther is concerned, is only increasing the power and authority of the papacy.  Luther chides Erasmus for seeking a cardinals hate from the Pope.  It is due to the erroneous assumption of obscurity that Rome finds it necessary to appeal to the fathers, the council, and the pope and final arbiter of Scripture:

“It is on this account also that I have hitherto attacked the pope, in whose kingdom nothing is more commonly stated or more generally accepted than the idea that the Scriptures are obscure and ambiguous, so that the spirit to interpret them must be sought from the Apostolic See of Rome.  Nothing more pernicious could be said that this, for it has led ungodly men to set themselves above the Scriptures and to fabricate whatever they pleased, until the Scriptures have been completely trampled down and we have been believing and teaching nothing but the dreams of madmen.  In a word, that saying is no human invention, but a virus sent into the world by the incredible malice of the prince of all demons himself.”[16]  

Luther goes on to suggest the entire work of the diatribe is to cast doubt upon the clarity of the Scriptures and to frighten people away from reliance upon the Scriptures and to rather rely wholly on Rome.[17]  Luther vehemently attacks and dismantles the idea that much of Scripture is indeed obscure. 
  
After Luther goes to task on the hiddenness of the church, he approaches a central argument on the internal and external clarity of the text.  If popes, the councils, and the fathers cannot be believed, wherein does the Christian find any certainty?  All spirits are to be tested and proved by two judgments – one an internal clarity and the other an external clarity.  Internal clarity is found “whereby through the Holy Spirit or a special gift of God, anyone who is enlightened concerning himself and his own salvation, judges and discerns with the greatest certainty the dogmas and opinions of all men.”[18]  This inner clarity takes place solely by the Holy Spirit who in His activity makes use of Scripture and reveals the true meaning of a text.  Concerning this inner clarity “no man perceives one iota of what is in the Scripture unless he has the Spirit of God.  All men have a darkened heart, so that even if they can recite everything in Scripture, and know how to quote it, yet they apprehend and truly understand nothing of it.  They neither believe in God, nor that they themselves are creatures of God.”  In this way, a blind sinner is encountered by the Word of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Although this grace comes extra nos, it nevertheless enters man and converts him to a saving faith.  In this way, a man is awakened individually and comes to believe internally that the external Word and promises of God are for him.  This conversion and internal clarity of course is never a mere episodic event but one that takes place during a lifetime of prayer, meditation, and suffering.  Luther writes to Erasmus: “For it is not due to the weakness of the human mind (as you make out) that the words of God are not understood, but, on the contrary, nothing is more fitted for understanding the words of God than such weakness; for it was for the sake of the weak and to the weak that Christ both came and sends his word.  It is due to the malice of Satan, who sits enthroned in our weakness, resisting the Word of God.  If Satan were not at work, the whole world of men would be converted by a single word of God once heard, and there would be no need of more.”[19]

Luther speaks of the external clarity synonymously with an “external judgment” that in turn, “belongs to the public ministry of the Word and to the outward office, and is chiefly the concern of leaders and preachers of the Word.”[20]  The questions then arises, where do leaders and preachers of the Word find this clarity?  They return back to the Scriptures themselves, for the confession (for Luther) is that the Holy Scriptures are “a spiritual light far brighter than the sun itself, especially in things that are necessary for salvation.”  Luther points out that this appeal to the “outward office” as an arena for external clarity is not a novel idea, pointing to Deuteronomy 17:8 “If any case arises requiring decision between one kind of homicide and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another, any case within your towns that is too difficult for you, then you shall arise and go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose.”  This outer clarity eliminates the need for other factors (pope, councils, etc.) to understand Scriptures literal sense.  His understanding of the public ministry of the Word presupposes that the Scriptures are clear.  Luther can even make the bold claim that with respect to the whole of Scripture, “I will not have any part of it called obscure.”[21]  Scripture does not need the light that comes from the interpreters.  It shines in its own light.  For this reason any pagan may understand the clear external Word, “For even if I were a Turk, Jew, or heathen, who held nothing of the Christian faith and yet heard or read such Scripture concerning the Sacrament, I would have to say: ‘I indeed do not believe in the Christian doctrine, but this I must say: If they want to be Christians and adhere to their doctrine, then they must believe that Christ’s body and blood are eaten and drunk bodily in the bread and wine.” 

Though Luther does point to the consensus of the church and the “outward office” of the Word, I would hesitate to assert that he weaves external clarity solely to the pastoral office of minister.  His understanding of the office of the Word is broader and more universal in scope, inviting all Christians into its activity, “If you are speaking of the external clarity, nothing at all is left dark or doubtful, but everything contained in the Scriptures is brought out by the word into the clear light of day and explained to all the world.”[22]

The distinction Luther gives to the clarity of Scripture does not make him insensitive or ignorant of the wide range of ways that words can be used.  He was well aware of the debates relating to signification,[23] and the legitimate use of allegory and metaphor and he makes plenty of allowance for it when the context permits it.  It seems that Luther’s discipline and restraint in the use of metaphor and allegory is his great strength, being set against a backdrop of mystic and highly allegorized spiritual interpretation.  The obligation of proof lies with those who claim that a spiritual interpretation is necessary, not with those who are content with the words as they read.[24] 

Luther also takes careful consideration of the context of Scriptural passages.  It is true that he believed in the clear and lucid words of the biblical text, yet he never insisted that the words exist by themselves, for they occur within the larger body of Scripture itself.  The grammar, syntax, and context all matter.  In fact isolating the words of Scripture from the context was precisely was Luther identified as a stratagem of his opponents:
 
“But our fanatics proceed the other way around: they tear out of a text an obscure ambiguous word which pleases their fancy, ignore the context, and then run around trying to use it to make a lucid, clear text obscure and ambiguous, and then claim that is it the pure truth.  This is the method of the devil, who is lord of darkness and tries with darkness to extinguish the light…Not that the Scriptures are obscure; but their imagination is blind and lazy, so that it cannot view the clear words correctly, just as a lazy man does not open his eyes to see the real light but takes a glimmer to be the light.”[25]       

All of Scripture, therefore has a unity that cannot be compromised or compartmentalized.  If individual passages need clarity, the corpus of Holy Scripture will shed light for the individual passage within it.  As has already been noted, this unity was possible because Christ, for Luther was the very heart and center of the Scriptures.  The Scriptures ultimately hold one author, the Holy Spirit. 
   
In Bondage of the Will Luther also asserts that the clarity of the Scriptures is also disturbed by a refusal to properly distinguish between the Law and Gospel.  These two fundamental ways that God encounters his people is essential to rightly understanding Scripture.  Luther observes that Erasmus in his Diatribe “makes no distinction whatever between expressions of the Law and of the Gospel; for she is so blind and ignorant that she does not know what law and gospel are.”[26]  In Erasmus’ attempt to support the free will, Luther accuses him of making the Law out of the Gospel and the Gospel out of the Law, “Such a person is bound to confound everything – heaven and hell, life and death – and he will take no pains to know anything at all about Christ.”[27]  Therefore, the mark a discerning hearer of Scripture must see that there are words of law and words of grace that cannot be fuddled up.  Luther warns that the result of Diatribe failing to observe the distinction between words of promise and of law: “If that is how in our blindness we wish to read and understand the Scriptures, what wonder is it if they are obscure and ambiguous?[28]       

Concerning the clarity of Scripture and its authority, a word must be said about Luther’s view of the oral word.  The clarity of the Scriptures and Gospel were first and foremost to be preached.  He emphasized the priority of the oral proclamation of preaching and teaching in the life of the church.  God encounters His people in a living Word of promise:

“So it is not all in keeping with the New Testament to write books on Christian doctrine.  Rather in all places there should be fine, goodly, learned, spiritual, diligent preachers without books, who extract the living Word from the old Scripture and unceasingly inculcate it into the people, just as the apostles did.  For before they wrote, they first of all preached to the people by word of mouth and converted them.”[29]

We see that in these writings Luther is absolutely convinced that without constraint by the ordinary rules of grammar there could be no certainty for interpretation.  It is evident that he regarded the very words of the text themselves, understood naturally and in terms of their context, as clear and lucid.  He never tries to prove this clarity in a purely empirical way or through experience.  There is for Luther, a great chasm at times between the preached and written Word of God and the daily experience of the Christian.  The clear Word and promise of God is often in fact at odds with daily experience and life under the cross.  Therefore, like all other aspects of Luther’s theology, even a confession of the clarity of the Scriptures fits under a “theology of the cross,” and is thereby lived out in tension until the Resurrection.           


[1] LW 35:132.
[2] LW 52:41
[3] LW 35:236
[4] Apology, Trigl., p. 129,133.
[5] AE 26:58
[6] LW, 32, p. 217
[7] LW 36:42
[8] LW 37:296
[9] LW 37: 162
[10] LW 36:30
[11] LW 37:34-35
[12] Ibid., p. 255-257
[13] LW 37:253
[14] Rupp., p. 40.
[15] Rupp., p. 38. 
[16] Rupp,Gordon. Luther and Erasmus: Free Will and Salvation. Library of Christian Classics. Philadephia: The Westminster Press, 1995.
[17] Rupp., p. 168.
[18] Rupp., p. 159.
[19] Rupp., p. 167.

[21] Rupp., p. 163.
[22] Ibid., p. 164
[23] LW 37:253
[24] Ibid., p. 209
[25] LW 37:96
[26] Rupp., p. 194
[27] Ibid., p. 197
[28] Ibid., p. 198
[29] AE 33:26

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Our Baby

The Juridical Character of the Fourth Gospel

(painting: El Greco "The Apostle St. John the Evangelist" 1606)

Introduction
The Four Evangelists all devote a similar amount of material to Jesus’ trial before the Roman and Jewish authorities.  The trial, crucifixion are central for all writers, however, only in the Fourth Gospel does the whole narrative proceed as one sweeping cosmic trial between God and the world, with Jesus standing at the very center.  The Word of God comes to His own people and they do not accept him (1:11), and though He comes to save the world, he also comes to condemn the lack of belief and to expose evil (3:17-21).  The narrative of “signs” either evoke belief or unbelief.  The verb πιστεύω occurs ninety-eight times in the Fourth Gospel, and is employed always with reference to Christ as the object of faith.  It seems to me that John may be the most “forensic” of all books in the canon, due to its consistent testimonial and evidential character.  This paper is far from being an exhaustive treatment on this theme, and will aim to explore the breadth of the juridical nature of the Fourth Gospel and implications for the church today.       
It is difficult to begin to grasp the agenda of John’s Gospel if the reader does not take seriously his intent, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in you” (20:30-31).  These verses expressing the intent and purpose of the book, bring to mind the image of a lawyer sifting and selecting the most compelling article of evidence to the jury, who then must decide what they believe.  This begs the question, who is the intended audience in the case?  Is the case made primarily to strengthen and comfirm those within the Johannine community itself, or is it intended for new converts outside the community, maybe the Samaritans?  It has also been proposed that the testimony of John’s Gospel is a skillful apologetic to the Jews who remained curious about Jesus and needed to be brought out of the synagogue worship to confess.[1]  It seems to me however, that the Fourth Gospel is broader and more universal in scope than any of the synoptics.  Bultmann does not see in John any such limited missionary activity to a specific group of non-believers:
So far as the Evangelist is concerned it is irrelevant whether the possible readers are already ‘Christians,’ or are not yet such; for to him the faith of ‘Christians’ is not a conviction that is present once for all, but it must perpetually make sure of itself anew, and therefore must continually hear the word anew.[2]
John concludes his account with these parting words: “This is the disciple who testifying (μαρτυρέω) to these things and has written them down, and we know that his testimony (μαρτυρία) is true” (21:24).  In John’s account he is speaking of the person and work of Jesus Christ – His life, death, and resurrection.  Whereas the synoptics make consistent reference of Jesus work as “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον), John never uses the word.  From Matthew, Mark, and especially Luke, the idea of “Gospel,” as good news to be eagerly received by the Mediterranean world is prevalent.  There is a great deal of optimism about the spread of the gospel with choral motets and composed hymns to fulfilled OT prophecies.  An argument can be made that John does not really provide a “Gospel” in the case of the synoptics, but rather a case and testimony.  If John’s account is known as a book of signs we may as well consider it a collection of evidence by key eye-witnesses.  The “evidence” that I hope to highlight suggests that John is not presenting an account of good news necessarily, although it truly is good news, but rather an account of judgment and wrath between those who come to believe in Jesus and those who refuse.
The central trial between God and “the world” in the person of Jesus is not just presented in His arrest and trial but in a series of confrontations with people who either receive or reject Him.  Each encounter is a sort of dramatic vignette between Jesus and each witness.  Each encounter also holds an intimacy with Jesus, unparalleled by the synoptics.  The Fourth Evangelist holds a series of encounters each with minor variations.  Either one is called to believe the testimony, escape judgment, and therefore receive life, or one will bring judgment upon himself by rejecting the message.  In the juridical narrative, either witnesses certify Jesus’ status as the Son of God, the truth and the light, or those who encounter Him accuse, judge, and execute Him.  

Prologue
It is of utmost importance that John make an appeal and case for his own credibility and status as a writer.  His prologue may be the most dramatic introduction to any book in the Bible, while appealing to the Genesis and Wisdom tradition.  Culpepper observes that John is making use of Jewish and Hellenistic Jewish rhetorical strategies, given that before an orderly account, he must establish his credibility (ethos), identify favor with a audience (pathos), and lay out a convincing discourse of arguments and evidence in favor of his claims (logos).  Culpepper notes John’s use of self-authenticating rhetorical strategies.
The gospel makes use of virtually all of the devices available for heightening the credibility and authority of a narrative: appeal to tradition, a reliable narrator, inspiration (the Paraclete), eyewitness testimony, the authority of an esteemed figure (the Beloved Disciple), and the approval of a community.  Internally, the provision of historical, geographical, and descriptive detail which is either demonstrably true of verisimilar serves to confirm the claims the narrative makes for itself.[3]
It is Culpepper’s observation that John makes an extremely wide use of “literary weapons” in order to persuade, move, and convince the hearer that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and Son of God. 
John the Baptist has unparalleled significance as “witness” in the Fourth Gospel.  The prologue in fact emphasizes John’s identity of witness even above his status as “John the Baptizer.”[4]  The presentation of John the Baptist in the Fourth Gospel has a significantly different emphasis than that of the Synoptics.  Whereas the Synoptics note John the Baptist’s clothing, fiery preaching, eating habits, baptism, incarceration, and beheading, John has rather one concern – that witness that he bears to Christ.  John’s work of baptizing is no doubt secondary, as the baptism of Jesus is even omitted in favor of repeated reference to his witness (1:7, 8, 15, 19, 32; 34:26, 5:33). 
There is also stress laid on precisely what John the witness is not.  There is a strong repudiation that he “was not the light” but rather a shining λύχνος.  One of the primary goals of John’s Gospel is to refute the exaggerated claims made by the sectarians of John the Baptist.[5]  Was John the Baptist thought of as “the light” – as day dawns from on high to those who sit in darkness, as referenced in Isaiah, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (9:2).  The Fourth Gospel certainly seeks to rectify whatever misunderstanding may have taken place regarding the role of John the Baptist in pointing to Jesus as the Messiah.  The Prologue hymn seems to bracket together the witness (μαρτυρία) with the Isaiah voice in the wilderness proclaiming the coming light.  This of course is not unique in the Fourth Gospel but shared by Matthew in his showing Jesus to be the fulfillment of OT prophecy concerning light (4:16).  I am interested whether the themes of light shining in darkness also makes an elucidation of the juridical metaphors, and the on-going case in the fourth Gospel.  It does not seem pure speculation to understand the crucial witness of John the Baptist as pointing to the light and bringing to light the eye-witness proof that Jesus is the Son of God.  Today, even in our understanding of the legal system it seems normative to grammatically speak of “bringing to light of the evidence” and so forth.  I have not discovered any commentaries or articles exploring the light themes as an expression of the juridical proceedings in John’s Gospel.
            The Fourth Evangelist closes out the testimony of John the Baptist in the context of a dispute between his disciples and a Jew concerning purification.  John likely knowing that he was unable to provide the true purification, gives a final witness to the identity of Jesus.  John the Baptist has one function – to serve as μαρτύριον, and in turn introduce Israel to her Messiah.  He likens his role to a friend of the bridegroom, who hears him and rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.  Therefore, John by his own admission is to decrease as all eyes moves toward Jesus, who is the true light.  Now that the identity of Jesus is revealed and witnessed, his joy is now “complete” as he has borne witness to the truth.
           

 John and the Synoptics
Richards Bauckham has made a case that John is more concerned with a precise historiographical account than the synoptics.[6]  It seems clear that there is a very conscious, defined, and detailed chronology and topography.  Bauckham briefly highlights some of these precise details, “not just in Galilee, but in Cana or Capernaum; not just in Jerusalem but at the pool of Bethesda near the Sheep Gate; not just in the temple but in Solomon’s Portico.”[7]  The Gospel as a whole, is also structured around key Jewish festivals such as Passover (chapters 2, 6, 11-20), the Tent festival (chapters 7-8) and Hanukkah (chapter 10).  It seems to me that Bauckham’s observations concerning eyewitness testimony translate into an important element of the juridical concept of trial and sure testimony.  In any credible trial, precise historical details are indispensible in developing the case.
This brings to mind unique details, such as the foot race to the empty tomb.  Here Simon Peter takes careful note of particular details (“evidence”): “He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself” (20:6-7).  Whereas John often excludes certain details more common in the Synoptics, it seems to me, that he omits or expands and amplifies based upon how that detail relates to the chief point of the case: in this case Jesus’ resurrection.  If one was seeking to set forth the finest evidence and testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and therefore his identity as verifiable Son of God, it seems an exceptionally relevant inclusion by an eye-witness.  Based upon the evidence of the empty tomb and the neatly folded up shroud we soon find that the disciple “saw and believed.”   
    
Witnesses
Jesus discourse on His Sabbath work (5:31-40) provides a helpful look into the Johnannine theme of witness.  When Jesus is accused of being His own witness concerning the infraction of healing at the pool on the Sabbath, he provides a list of His key witnesses.  Brown makes the connection here with Deut 19:15, where it is states that a man cannot be convicted of a crime on the testimony of one witness.[8]  Deut 17:6 and Num 35:30 demand that the testimony of several witnesses are necessary in the case of a trial regarding the capital offense – in this case the breaking of the Sabbath.  Matthew 18:16 also makes clear that several witnesses must confirm a case against one guilty of a serious transgression.  John however, is not using witnesses to condemn a man but rather to confirm another’s testimony. 
The Jews seeking to accuse Jesus often appeal to these OT legal principles, “You are your own witness, and your testimony cannot be verified” (8:13).  In response, it seems that Jesus meets these accusations and challenges, and in fact takes them seriously, recognizing the prescriptions of the Law.  Jesus, in response, provides four key witnesses, appealing to the testimony of John the Baptist (vs. 35-37), His own miracles (vs. 36), the Father Himself (vs. 37-38), as well as the witness of the Scriptures (vs. 39).  The appeal to John as chief witness can hardly be overemphasized (as noted earlier).  John the Baptist is the “man sent from God” to “bear witness to the truth,” a “burning and shining lamp,” in order that “all might believe through him.”  Next, Jesus sets forth is own miracles that provide a clear testimony of his actions – healing on the Sabbath.  The works that He has been given to do are the works given by the Father Himself.  Jesus testifies that He is in fact doing these works, which themselves “bear witness” about his true identity.  The next appeal of Jesus surely would have been the most shocking to His hearers, for He appeals to the testimony of the Father Himself, “And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me.  His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen (vs. 37).  It seems unclear whether we ought to look to a particular testimony of the Father at a theophony-type event or if this refers more to the authority of Jesus throughout His entire ministry.  It may be a reference to His baptism, although in John there is no voice from heaven that is recorded.  It seems more plausible and in keeping with the narrative that this testimony is also linked with the belief of those confessing Jesus as the Son of God.  In 1 John v.9-10 we see this connection: “This is the testimony that God has given about His Son.  He who believes in the Son of God has this testimony within Himself.”  The fourth witness is the Scriptures (vs. 39), likely the Law itself.  Raymond Brown has the following observation of this fourfold testimony set forth by Jesus:
But it is obvious that nowhere in the Synoptic Gospels do we find such a logical and completely developed apologetic for Jesus’ claims.  We may well surmise, then, that what we have in John is the product of the apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic of the Christian Church against the Jewish objections to Christ, an apologetic grounded in Jesus’ own arguments, but now systematized.  The whole of chapter five fits in vey well with the purpose of the Gospel to persuade Jewish Christians to leave the synagogue and openly to profess their faith in Jesus.[9]   
The Johannine Jews however, remain unbelieving and form a striking contrast to those whose the signs and come to believe.  By the Jews stubborn refusal to take the evidence seriously, they shut themselves off from eternal life, and display an ignorance of the true meaning of their own scriptures.  Given the appeal to their own scriptures, in addition to the signs of Jesus, and the multiple testimonies, why do Jews fail to believe?  John makes frequent use of the “witness of the Father,” also that “no man can come to me, unless the Father whom has sent me draws him” (6:44).  Therefore, besides the clear and external testimony and work of Jesus Himself there is a witness of the Father whom exercises an internal divine witness that leads to faith.
            Jesus ends the discourse in chapter 5 by appealing to Moses as a prosecuting witness in the charge against the Jews.  The Jews are at fault when they cite Moses to oppose Christ (vs. 45).  Jesus responds that Moses “wrote of me,” not calling to mind a few Messianic references but rather the totality of the Law, which point to Him alone.  Due to the Jews’ refusal to see, Moses ultimately becomes their accuser, “There is one who accuses you: Moses on whom you have set your hope.  For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me.  But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (vs. 45-47).      
            The lawsuit over Jesus’ claims become much more intensified with the Jews, likely after his bread of life discourse.  The Jewish leaders are now making moves to have him arrested and put to death (7:1), as Jesus makes his case against the ‘world,’ “I testify of it that’s its works are evil” (7:7).  The debates that follow are formed by three critical groups, the Jews (7:14-24), some of the inhabitants of Jerusalem (7:25-31), and the chief priests and Pharisees (7:32-36).  Jesus’ dialogue with the Jews asserts two things.  First, the person who desires to do God’s will must recognize the source of Christ’s teaching.  Second, the devotion of Christ to the Father who sent him is a “sign” of his truthfulness.  The great irony is that though they profess a full devotion to the Torah, they are preparing to murder the one who has come to fulfill it.  Here, we see Jesus boldly accusing and rendering a verdict.  Judgment is God’s business.     
It is noteworthy that double amen in John occurs 25 times.  This has usually been read simply to indicate a great emphasis, that something is indeed ‘verily’ true.  The use ‘Amen’ in the Old Testament however, is used commonly as a customary response to a promise, curse, or blessing, in a juridical context.  In Deuteronomy 27, the six tribes of Mount Ebal respond to each curse by saying “Amen.” (vs. 15-26).  Another response is to an oath taken in Nehemiah when a litany of charges is leveled against those who deal in corruption.  The crowd yells out “Amen” to the charges (5:13).  In John’s account, the amen is always in its double form, and is only said by Jesus, prior to a “truly I say to you.”  The amen serves as an expression of witness and sure testimony.    
Some scholars note a very close parable between the fourth Gospel and Isaiah chapters 40-55.  In fact, Dr. Allison A. Trites in The New Testament Concept of Witness has dedicated a whole book specifically to this parallel.  In Isaiah a great controversy in the form of a lawsuit takes places in which Yahweh and His witnesses are placed beside the gods of the nations and their supporters.  The false gods and the nations are challenged to produce a case and are invited to set their best witnesses and arguments forward to prove that they can stand.  Their inability to make a case, witnessed by their silence, is evidence that they cannot stand and must forfeit the case.   
Israel has been judged for her unfaithfulness and rejection in the relationship with Yahweh (43:21-28).  Those who are in error however, are invited to repent and recognize that Yahweh is Lord.  Against the false gods, Yahweh is the accuser.  The charges leveled against Yahweh cannot be proved and no witnesses can defend the false gods and “the world”(46:2).  It is the observation of Trites, that in the sustained lawsuit it is really a lawsuit between “God and the world.”  God is represented by Israel and the world is represented by the pagan nations.  The debate is over Yahweh, as creator and true Lord of history:
The lawsuit between God and the world involves parties who serve both as witnesses and as advocates, and in this respect Isaiah 40-55 follows the general practice of the Old Testament legal assembly.  It is the task of the witnesses not only to attest the face but also to convince the opposite side of the truth of them…Isaiah 40-55 think of Israel both as God’s witness and servant.  This combination appears later in the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus and the disciples are described in this dual capacity.[10]    
In the Gospel of John, the debate is over the Messiahship and divine Sonship of Jesus (3:15-16, 20:31).  Of course in the Fourth Gospel it is the Jews who step into the role of the pagan unbelievers, as God Himself, comes into their midst to conduct His own case and trial.  It is Trites observation that the debates with the Jews all follow OT legal assembly rubrics and take the form of a contest between the hostile unbelieving world and God.         
The work of the Holy Spirit appears to be interpreted in a juridical way in the Fourth Gospel.  Not only is a παράκλητος a juridical term (“to call alongside”), but his activity is in perfect keeping with the term.  In John’s Gospel there is a heightened confession of the Holy Spirit as “advocate” and “witness.”  We see this also in the Johannine Epistles, notably 1 John 5:6, “And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth.”  John’s use of the word is akin to a defense attorney, not simply in defense of Christ, who must be accused but rather as an attorney who will console the disciples at Pentecost but also condemn the unbelieving world. The role of the paraclete is that of a prosecuting attorney proving the world guilty.  Brown writes:
We find that no one translation of paracletos captures the complexity of the functions, forensic and otherwise, that this figure has.  The Paraclete is a witness in defense of Jesus and a spokesman for him in the context of his trial by his enemies; the Paraclete is a consoler of the disciples for he takes Jesus’ place among them; the Paraclete is a teacher and guide of the disciples and thus their helper.[11] 
If we take seriously the possibility that the Johannine community was in fact “sectarian,” or at least somewhat isolated, there seems to be reason for the amplified role the Paraclete in such a community.  If the key eye-witnesses, particularly the Beloved Disciple himself were to die, a critical connection needed to be maintained with the person and work of Jesus.  The Paraclete is needed in a community whom is oppressed and in some ways is cut off.  After all, the Paraclete dwells within all Christians who love Jesus and keep His commandments (14:17).  
The fourth Gospel is also commonly known as the “book of signs.”[12]  After Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, the Jews demand a sign, “What sign can you show us, for doing these things!” (2:18).  It was expected that Jesus produce ‘signs,’ thereby serving as evidence for his claim of divine Sonship.  In the consciousness of the Jews there was certainly an expectation that a true prophet provides signs that verify his identity as an agent of God.  When Moses sensed his difficulty God enagled him to perform works or signs.  The words of Jesus: “but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (10:38).  That is to say “accept the evidence presented to you that you may know!’ 
The use of “signs” in John’s Gospel must be carefully distinguished from the signs in the Synoptics.  The narratives of miracles in the Synoptics most always end with a description of amazement of fear of the crowds.  In the Fourth Gospel, this reaction to the miracles and signs is simply non-existent, being replaced by the reaction that people simply come to “believe” (2:11, 4:48, 54; 6:2; 11:45; 12:18-19).  The Fourth Gospel is also consistent in calling all the miracles, signs (σημεῖον).  These signs are not a cause for amazement or fear but are consistently linked with people “believing” and therefore coming to a saving faith (or refusing to believe and being condemned).  Given that the signs of Jesus all lead toward belief, the narrative is indeed structured that the greater miracle is in fact the belief itself.
It has been observed that there are seven signs of Jesus, following John the Baptist’s testimony and the conversion of the disciple.[13]  Fortna organizes the sequence as follows: the miracle at Cana (John 2); Jesus and the Samaritan woman (4:1-42); a nobleman’s son healed (4:43-54); a man of a thirty-eight year illness is healed (chap. 5).  This is followed by the feeding of the multitude (chap. 6); a man born blind from birth is healed (chap. 9); Lazarus is raised (chap. 11); a miraculous draft of fish (chap. 21).  Fortna groups the healing of the men together.  The final sign is the death and resurrection of Jesus. 
In John 11 the raising of Lazarus seems to present a dramatic climax to Jesus’ signs.  In the cosmic trial in John, this sign seems to have a great deal of weight and evidential value, as we find that many of the Jews saw what He did and “believed in Him” (11:45).  Now, even the enemies of Jesus are forced to acknowledge the miracle, even while they miss the obvious significance.  The Pharisees call a meeting (συνέδριον, note legal assembly) to put Jesus to death.  By Christ’s crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, Jesus at last overcomes the world.  His claims and status are vindicated, and God’s case is won.  Now, in John’s Gospel the case for Jesus is made individually to its hearers, as the Father and Spirit continue to testify on Jesus’ behalf.          
  There is much about the juridical character of the Fourth Gospel that might help shape and inform life in the church today.  The Johannine community is at odds with the world.  The optimism about the Gospel of Jesus’ going to the ends of the earth and claiming the whole Mediterranean world is heavily contrasted with John’s theology of opposition from “the Jews” and “the world.”  The world is not simply some unplowed field waiting to be tilled, watered, and harvested.  The world is inherently against Jesus and has met judgment by its rejection of Him, preferring light to darkness.  The themes of bearing witness, believing, and coming to faith dominate the narrative.  The amplified teachings on love inform how the church lives in community and in relation to the world.  As hostility to the church heightens, particularly in the Western world, it seems to me that the Fourth Gospel serves as a model to inform how a community lives within the tension caused by rejection from outside.         



[1] Brown, Raymond Edward. The Community of the Beloved Disciple (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), pp. 72-73
[2] R. Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), pp. 698-699.
[3] R.A. Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (FFNT, 1; Philadephia, Fortress Press, 1983), pp. 48-49. 
[4] εἰς μαρτυρίαν signifies “for witness,” not to be a witness.”  It is the activity of witnessing rather than the man who receives the emphasis. 
[5] For extended commentary see R.E. Brown, The Gospel according to John (Vol. 2., Garden City., 1966), Intro. V:LXVII-LXX. 
[6] Bauckham, Richards. Testimony of the Beloved Disciple, The: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007.
[7] Ibid., p. 99
[8] Brown, p. 223
[9] Brown, vol. 2, p. 228
[10] A.A. Trites, The New Testament Concept of Witness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).
[11] Brown, vol. II, p. 1137
[12] Speculation on the existence of a source(s) of signs predating the Fourth Gospel goes back to the beginning of the 20th century and reaches a high point with Rudolf Bultmann’s Das Evangelium des Johannes.  This work proposed a “signs source”
[13] Fortna, Robert Tomson. The Gospel of Signs: A Reconstruction of the Narrative Source Underlying the Fourth Gospel. Cambridge University Press, 1970.