Sunday, July 3, 2016

The 2016-17 Horizons Bible Study "Who is Jesus? - a continuing review- "According to John"

Picture by Ethan McHenry

Judy Yates Siker, in the fourth lesson, “According to John,” of the Presbyterian  Women’s Bible study, Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes, seemingly gives the reader a truthful picture of Jesus. After all, she writes, “In this forth Gospel we will see a very different Jesus. It is here, in fact, that we begin to see that Jesus and God are one.” And she goes on to write about Jesus as ‘pre-existent, creator, lamb of God, I Am and Son of Man.

But still, there is that phrase in her sentence, ‘a very different Jesus.’ Different than what? Different than the Jesus of the synoptic gospels. Siker has already, in her other lessons, pictured Jesus as Prophet of God, (Luke), the Jewish Messiah who is teacher, (Matthew), and God’s Son who suffers (Mark). And as I pointed out in my review of the other lessons, he is all of that. But even in the other Gospels Jesus is God, a truth that Siker fails to include in her earlier lessons.

Added to this concern is Siker’s attempt to see the Gospel of John as careening too far away from a balanced view of the person of Jesus. She writes, “In this lesson, we will see how John reaches for as many titles and metaphors as he can gather, to portray Jesus as more of a divine figure than a human one.”

So, for the moment, putting aside the main sections of Siker’s lesson four, I intend to answer a question that has been troubling me and perhaps troubling my readers. Why is Siker presenting her material in this manner, and how is it that she acknowledges the truthfulness of Jesus as God in the Gospel of John but does not acknowledge it in the other Gospels? What is the foundational teaching that under girds such a view of the Gospels? And where does the view that there are different variations of Jesus in the different Gospels lead?

In three places within the fourth lesson a book is recommended to the reader. First, Siker writes, “It is evident from the start that John’s [Gospel] is a different sort of story. John’s Gospel has been called—and rightly so—a “maverick” Gospel, for here is a portrait of Jesus unlike any of his three predecessors.” In a side note about the difference between John and the synoptic gospels there is this suggestion, “I suggest reading Robert Kysar’s book, John, the Maverick Gospel.” In another note about the separation of the early Christians from the Jews there is, once again, a reference to Kysar’s book. And finally in both the endnotes and the bibliography John, the Maverick Gospel is listed.[1]

This isn’t the place to write a whole review of the book but it certainly clarifies where the author of Who is Jesus? What a difference a Lens Makes obtained some of her central ideas.

Kysar, in his book, gives an explanation about the Christology of the New Testament as well as how the material of the Gospels was formed. And his view of the Christology of John is confusing to say the least.

Kysar believes there are three types of Christology in the New Testament. There is “Adoptionistic Christology which as Kysar puts it “suggests that Jesus was a man who, because of his obedience to God, was adopted as God’s Messiah.” He believes this is the earliest view of Jesus but is only “faintly” found in the New Testament. He offers Acts 2:36; 3:13; and Romans 1:3-4.

The second type Kysar sees as Agency Christology and believes it is more common. Jesus was sent as a representative “to perform a revelatory and saving function.” He finds this even in John. The third type is Incarnational Christology which is “to claim the divine nature of Christ and at the same time to claim that this divine Christ has taken a human form.” So Kysar, like Siker, believes that each Gospel holds differing views of the person of Jesus.

But Kysar’s view of the incarnational Christ is certainly problematic, although he, like Siker, takes the time to consider all of Jesus’ identities in the Gospel of John.  His final view of John’s Christology is a long quote but it is important even though confusing. I place it here:

“The evangelist recognizes that the founder is the Father’s Son. All the statements that assert the divinity of Christ are qualified by the fact that he is the Father’s Son, not the Father’s own self. This author is no systematic theologian but she or he is theologically sophisticated enough to make clear that Christ is not to be confused with God. Christ is divine and participates in the very being of God, but is distinct and subordinate to the Father. He is the expressive dimension of God’s being, or the Son who is fully obedient to and sent by the Father. Our author recognizes that whatever the incarnation of the Logos means, it cannot mean that a human being is in every way fully the being of God. …” (Italics mine) (68)

Kysar goes on to state that in John’s Gospel Christ is the functional equivalent of God.

Kysar commits two miserable actions with his words. He demotes Jesus, yet designates him God in word and action for the ‘community.’ Jesus, although called divine, he makes less than God and the community no longer encounters the living and personal God in a real way. Instead of being the Church hidden in Christ and therefore embraced by the Father, it is a community who encounters a lesser divine being who is related to and sent by God. Because Jesus is fully human Kysar does not reckon him to be fully God.[2]

And how do the various Gospels shape their stories about Jesus? Kysar, writing of the Gospel of John and believing that an oral tradition about Jesus had already been formed, states:

“This is to suggest that the creation of the literary gospel form was not so much the genius of the author of the written material (the Gospels of Mark and John) but the gradual and less-than-deliberate effort of the early Christian community to preserve the materials that it had at its disposal. The oral tradition, then based on historical recollection of Jesus of Nazareth, shaped itself into gospel. By filling out the historical material with legend, myth, and new teachings from what they believed to be the living Christ, the early Christians gradually shaped the gospel form in the preliterary tradition. (30)

So it is the various early Christian communities who supposedly had differing views of Jesus. According to Kysar the Johannine community’s faith experience of Christ and their search for identity informed their Christology. Kysar writes, “In a faithful and creative way, the author of this document rethought the answers to fundamental questions regarding the nature and function of the Christian movement. In this way, the Fourth Evangelist did what each constructive religious thinker must do in every new period of history and what we are called to do today.” (69)

Here then is the outcome of a view of the New Testament’s understanding of Jesus that includes multiple variations on his identity rather than affirming the unity of the scriptural portrait of Jesus. Believing that it is the community and its experience and needs that shaped the Gospels the door is open for reshaping the good news in different times and cultures. And this is seemingly one of Siker’s understandings as the reader will find when they reach the last lesson, “According to contemporary Cultural Interpretations.”


[1] Robert Kysar,  John, the Maverick Gospel, third edition, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2007).
[2] It should be noted here that Kysar is attempting to split the two natures of Jesus, fully human, fully divine. I explained this problem in my first review. Jesus Christ is both fully human and fully God. Those two things cannot be separated when speaking of Jesus.


Anonymous said...

I guess Arianism is alive and well after all.

David Fischler
Woodbridge VA

Jodie said...


Not sure what your objection really is. There can be no doubt that each of the Gospels portrays a different image of Jesus, and illuminates him with different lighting. It's just a simple fact. As there is no doubt that Paul provides yet a different portrait than the Gospels, and different again from Hebrews and the other authors of the New Testament. That is why all of their writings are included in Cannon.

Do you worry they might be presented as contradictory or inconsistent? Are you trying to harmonize them and worried that recognizing they see different things that we are going to throw something out because Jesus looks different to one author than to another? All of these perspectives are subjective, both to the authors and to the readers interpreting the authors, but the full picture is additive.

We do not seek a minimum common denominator, nor, I might add, does the Rev Dr Siker. A lens is by definition a filter. It deemphasizes or removes some characteristics so that others might be enhanced. But the full picture includes all the filtered perspectives, and then probably others that all of them left out.

Or do you think you, or anybody else, can wrap their heads around all that Jesus is? We don't get our arms around Him. He gets His around us!

In the end however, since she is causing even you to think about, and maybe even struggle - again - with the question of who is Jesus, I would say the study is wildly successful.

Jodie Gallo
Los Angeles, Ca

Viola Larson said...

Jodie, my thoughts to your thoughts:

1) All of the N.T. books are not included because they are different views of Jesus, but because they were considered authentic by the early church. Plus they do not give different pictures of Jesus but together a complete picture.

2)If one text pictures Jesus as not God it would be heretical.

3) The texts are not subjective, they are the word of God. His word is not subjective.
4) Of course we cannot wrap our head around all that Jesus is. But reading the Scriptures we can know all that God has given us to know.

Jodie said...


It sounds as if you subscribe to the dictation doctrine of the Scriptures?


Viola Larson said...

Jodie, you know how the Lutherans believe that the wine and bread of the Lord's Supper is both truly bread and wine, and truly the Lord's blood and body. In the same way, the Bible is the words written by human authors with all of their human traits and the words given by God. They are not dictated words but are the truthful words of God. Doesn't God work in wonderful ways that we can call mystery and yet understand.

Jodie said...


Pulling a little bit on your Lutheran thread, you would not blame a Lutheran doctor doing an examination of the stomach contents of another Lutheran who had taken communion for finding only bread and wine, but no evidence of the flesh and blood of Christ. Said Doctor could claim it is there in spite of the physical evidence, at the risk of being labeled delusional, but you couldn't blame him or her for not finding what is not physically there.

So it is with Bible study.

At some point, if you are to conduct and honest and credible Bible study, you have to stick with what is actually in the Text. Or at least, in all fairness, not blame someone for not finding that which you find only by doctrine and mystery.

I think finding what is physically there and how it got there to be much more stimulating.

And when the Holy Spirit opens up the mysteries of God's Kingdom through the study of the Text, that is all the more exhilarating. In the moment you see what the author saw and tried to put into words, you share in the brilliance and limitations of the human, and in the Glory of the Divine, unfettered and unburdened by archaic human doctrines.

In Science, when that happens, it can lead to a Nobel Prize. In Religion it often leads to charges of heresy and excommunication.

I think the Nobel Prize approach is rooted in trust and honesty, and much more to be desired than hanging on to ancient creeds that are locked in place and time. The purpose of study is to learn. But the moment we refuse to re-examine that which we think we know, we stop learning, and our study becomes idolatry instead.

Jodie Gallo
Los Angeles, CA

Andy Vloedman said...

At a time in which we seem to be dazzled by the power of our intellect and it's ability to help us overcome "premodern thinking" I'm reminded of this quote from Chesterton.

I have always noticed that people who begin by taking the intellect very seriously end up having no intellects at all. The idolater worships wood and stone; and if he worships his own head it turns into wood and stone.

I appreciate all you do.



Jodie said...


People thought Chesterton was pretty clever, back in the day. Here is another of his clever quotes that seems to apply to today's polemics:

"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."

Jodie Gallo
Los Angeles, Ca

Henry Paris said...

I suspect Jodie Gallo, apparently a "Conservative," misses the depth of the satire in Chesterton's quote.

Ken said...

FYI: here is a list of 205 texts which references Jesus dating from pre 70 AD to 200-250 AD:

Viola Larson said...

Hi Ken,
Forgive me when your comment came to my e-mail all I saw was "free-Thinker" not True Free Thinker. I just ignored it until now and then went exploring. Great blog and information. Thank you.