[K:NWTS 7/1 (May 1992) 37-42]

The Structure of John's Gospel The Present State of the Question

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Two years ago, we featured a highly complimentary review of a book which charted the structure of John's gospel in a new and refreshing manner. George Mlakuzhyil's The Christocentric Literary Structure of the Fourth Gospel was described as a book with which to be reckoned (cf. Kerux 5:1 [May 1990]: 47-50).

The responses are now beginning to appear. Last summer, the Scandanavian journal, Studia Theologia, featured a major critique of Mlakuzhyil by Gunnar Ostenstad entitled "The Structure of the Fourth Gospel: Can it be Defined Objectively?" (Vol. 45 [1991]: 33-55). While acknowledging the brilliant contribution of Mlakuzhyil, Ostenstad launches major criticisms of the work. His is the first significant interaction with the Indian scholar (to my knowledge), but it will not be the last (in my opinion). Ostenstad has recognized that Mlakuzhyil's book is so important that it will serve as the point of reference for all future work on the fourth gospel. His critique is a tribute to the fact that Mlakuzhyil's fundamental thesis of a Christocentric literary structure pervading John's gospel cannot be ignored.

Fallout from this research will be refreshingly new approaches to this gospel which soars like the eagle (as the early church fathers were wont to portray the gospel of the Beloved Disciple). New commentaries will incorporate Mlakuzhyil's insights; Bible study materials will be different; and the preaching of this marvellous gospel will be revitalized in the hearing of those congregations whose pastors have "eyes to see, ears to hear and hearts to understand." In all candor, it must now be said—any work (or even preaching) on the fourth gospel which fails to take account of Mlakuzhyil's work is irresponsible. Preachers of the word neglect this volume to the impoverishment of their flocks.

Ostenstad's positive evaluation of Mlakuzhyil's book leads him to several very "conservative" conclusions about the gospel. First, the unity of the gospel is staunchly defended on the grounds of its structural integrity. This means that from Prologue (Jn. 1:1-18) to Epilogue (21:25, according to Ostenstad), the gospel is a unified whole. Form critical and redaction critical analysis of the fourth gospel is dead! Passe! Hopelessly pedestrian and old fashioned! While we do not suppose that these advocates of liberal, higher critical methods will blithely roll over and play dead, we nonetheless predict that it will take nothing less than a critical resurrection from the dead to rekindle the old Bultmannian (form critical) and redaction critical (J. Louis Martyn) approaches. Even the recent 599 page volume by John Ashton, Understanding The Fourth Gospel (Oxford), is hopelessly out of step with these newer, more modern methods. Ashton continues to look to Germany and Rudolf Bultmann for his interpretation. Has no one told him, Bultmann is dead!! Nor does the Biblical world look any longer to Germany to dominate scholarly research. Like the Berlin Wall, the German critical citadel is crumbling. Newer structural approaches are indirectly apologetic of a traditional (conservative) consensus: the fourth gospel is a unity, not a form critical patch-work of disparate community theologies (i.e., disciples of John the Baptist versus disciples of Jesus). Nor is it a hodge-podge of editors/redactors modifying and inserting their peculiar "Johannine" theologies into the gospel.

This modern shift in biblical studies debuted in the early 1980s. The monopoly of the historical-critical method eroded with a wave of new literary approaches: narrative criticism; rhetorical criticism (actually, older than the 80s); reader-response criticism. While still rooted in modern subjectivism and post-Enlightenment epistemology, these new methods were committed to exploring the text of Scripture as we have it (synchronic methodology), not attempting to reconstruct it from some hoary mythological past (diachronic methodology).

With respect to the gospel of John, contemporary scholars are saying (what conservatives have long said, but without the same penetration and acute literary-theological analysis) that the pericopes of John's gospel are coherent as they stand. Are we approaching a consensus re the structure and literary integrity of the fourth gospel? Ostenstad's dialogue with Mlakuzhyil is certainly a contribution towards that end.

Second, this unified composition is the work of the "Evangelist" whom Ostenstad dares to associate with John, the son of Zebedee. This stunning conclusion is undergirded by a careful analysis of structural patterns which reflect on the "Beloved Disciple." Describing him as a literary artist of the highest caliber, Ostenstad defends the well-conceived plan for his gospel as a work of consummate literary genius. Ostenstad dismisses reductional theories as "dubious," while noting that the patterns discovered in the gospel must be attributed to the design of the author. While qualifying slightly his endorsement of the son of Zebedee (cf. p. 52), he nonetheless unqualifiedly regards the gospel as the work of an "eyewitness."

Finally, theological consensus and unity is traced throughout the gospel in a magnificent pattern of backward and forward cross references. Ostenstad's indubitable contribution here is to focus the gospel Christologically upon the Bearer of Light and Life to the cosmos—i.e., the Logos/Word, Son of God, Messiah—he who is One with the Father. Taking Jn. 8:12-12:50 as the central section of the gospel, Ostenstad argues that the remainder of the book is oriented concentrically around this central section. Part One consists of 1:19-2:25; Part Two, 3:1-4:54; Part Three, 5:1-7:52. Part Four is the Central Section (8:12-12:50). Part Five spans 13:1-17:26; Part Six is the Johannine Passion Narrative, 18:1-19:42; Part Seven includes 20:1-21:24. The whole is flanked by the Prologue (1:1-18) and the Epilogue (21:25).

Ostenstad as well as Mlakuzhyil enable us to see the gospel as an organic whole, unfolding according to a carefully conceived literary and theological design. The incarnation of the Logos is not only retrospectively oriented towards the previous promises of the history of redemption; his incarnation is the narrative of Christological revelation in the fulness of time. From the call of his disciples in Part One (1:19-2:15) to the commissioning of those disciples after the resurrection (Part Seven, 20:1-21:24), this gospel displays "witness" in relation to the Witness to the Father. From the discourse with Nicodemus about water and the spirit (as well as the "living water" discourses with the woman at the well, Part Three, 3:1-4:54) to the Passion narrative in Part Six in which "water and blood" pour from the side of the lifted-up Savior-Messiah (19:34), rebirth through the fluids of the new age in Christ ("blood," "water") is the means of transition through which the Son of God himself enters into his glory (and his sons and daughters with him). From the Bread of Life discourse and the conflict with the Jews at the Feast of Tabernacles (Part Three, 5:1-7:52) to the Lord's Supper and so-called High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (Part Five, 13:1-17:26), feeding or feasting upon the Son of Man is represented in such a way as to be the focal mediation of his precious life. The Central Section (Part Four, 8:12-12:50) brings together light and dark motifs. Light for the blind; blind darkness for the Pharisees (9). Life-light for the dead (Lazarus); death-darkness for the Jews (12). In between, the light-bringing shepherd contrasts with the death-bringing thieves and hirelings (10).

The structural analyses offered by Ostenstad and Mlakuzhyil converge in one central point. The heart of John's gospel is Jesus Christ, the very Son of the living God. Precisely this point makes the intricate structural analyses relevant to the task of the preacher. If we find Jesus at the center of every text of Scripture, it is because "our Lord and our God" is the very heartbeat of "all Scripture." Every text reveals Jesus Christ to us, and any preacher who thinks otherwise has made the Scriptures of "none effect." We may have all the preacher agendas we wish—church growth, health and wealth, save America, theonomy, cross-cultural relevance—it is all wood, hay and stubble if Christ is not the verbally explicit center and focus of our preaching. Ostenstad and Mlakuzhyil will not allow us to escape from the centrality of Christ in the fourth gospel. The structure centers on Christ; the literary movement centers on Christ; the theological development is Christocentric. Indeed the very barometer of preaching this gospel from every text in it may be measured by—did the preacher preach Christ as the center of his message?!

Dear readers, the Christians to whom John originally penned this magnificent gospel were in a world of religious/cultic growth, health and wealth, save the republic (or the empire), absolutization of Roman law, multi-national and multi-cultural hegemony. They did not go to church to hear more of these things; nor did they go to church to hear the pastor incorporate these things into his message. Those first readers (and hearers) of John's gospel were hungry and thirsty for Christ—their spiritual meat and drink. They were darkness seeking the Light of the World. They were guilty, unworthy sinners in need of a Lamb to bear their transgressions. They eagerly read this gospel of the Christ, the Son of God, because he gave them what their world could not!

The precious privilege of the modern pulpit is to declare this same Jesus Christ to the people of God of the end of the age. Ostenstad and Mlakuzhyil enable us to preach him—to direct our people to him from Prologue to Epilogue. But the dimension of our Savior's person and work is enriched—marvelously enriched—by these new literary approaches. We conservatives ought to be ecstatic, in the main, about these new methods. Our preaching may once again put flesh on this stirring gospel. Our words may now be bursts of rich and tender displays of the Jesus who stands in the temple as the eschatological Temple; of the Christ who heals the blind man because unseeing eyes in union with him see all things in the new light of his glory; of the Jesus who greets his disciples at the close of this gospel (even as he greeted them at its beginning) in order to dispel the enigma of his wondrous incarnation and resurrection. Ostenstad and Mlakuzhyil will not permit us to preach bare doctrinal sermons on John's gospel; will not allow us to reduce the fourth gospel to moralistic topics; will not tolerate any kind of reductionism to any preacher's private agenda. For every attempt to reduce this gospel to any other than Christ is a prostitution of the gospel.

Preachers are increasingly without excuse. If they do not preach Christ from the fourth gospel, it is because they will not preach Christ. If they will not preach Christ, it is because they do not regard him as the center of the preaching task. Stubborn, willful, moralistic preachers must read these works by Ostenstad and Mlakuzhyil—and repent! And then, by the grace of God, they must resolve to preach no other than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in order that their people may believe on his name and have life—life more abundant than they have ever known—the life of the age to come, in the here and now. That is what it is to preach Christ!

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California