John Behr: John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology

John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology Book Cover John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology
John Behr
Oxford University Press
2019
Hardback £85.00
416

Reviewed by: Thomas Sojer (University of Erfurt)

Known for his enlightening readings of the Church Fathers, John Behr presents us with ‘A Prologue to Theology’ in 2019. Serving not only as the subtitle of his new book John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel, Behr’s ‘Prologue to Theology’ also marks the undertaking of a major theological project in the work’s ensuing pages. In light of the large-scale theological project that follows this humble subtitle, I find that this term ‘prologue’ may stand for two key references.

As Behr implicitly suggests, his own written entanglement joins a prestigious legacy of theological ‘prologues’, or prolegomena, by applying phenomenology, however, far from the former stereotype of an ‘ancilla theologiae’. Within the mainline Christian denominations, ‘prolegomena’ have been defined as the fundamental, preliminary questions concerning the rationality of each church’s essential theological propositions. Even a cursory outline of Behr’s ‘prologue’ demonstrates the wide theological range that his study on John accomplishes. In keeping with this trend towards comprehensive breadth, Behr’s approach reaches a climax in the book’s final pages, which feature the ‘glitterati’ of modern Systematic Theology: the Reformed theologian Karl Barth, the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, as well as their Russian Orthodox counterparts Vladimir Solovyov, Sergius Bulgakov, and Nicolas Berdyeav (330), not to mention the work’s latent leitmotif, which cites the Anglican theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. On a methodological level Behr does theology in such a way that implicitly stakes a claim to the question of how to conduct Christian theology in today’s context – that is to say, in a truly ecumenical spirit. As if setting a new standard for theological form were not reason enough for Behr’s book to merit consideration by theology departments across Christian denominations around the world, this is only one aspect of the book’s relevance and significance for us today.

Furthermore, in this work Behr succeeds in composing a ‘symphony’, as he himself puts it (331), by entangling historical scholarship of early Christianity, modern biblical criticism, as well as an overarching ‘phenomenology of Life’, as theorized by Michel Henry. Behr’s ability to unify three highly different areas of scholarship on each of their individual terms is not only ambitious, but also claims importance for the field of theology itself. With this work Behr also joins the recent movement of reclaiming theology as an inherently diverse and interdisciplinary field. In particular, Behr entrusts the field of phenomenology, represented in this case by Henry, with the task of opening up new ‘loci theologici’ – new perspectives on Christian origins – thus permitting theology to flourish anew in the varied contexts of our 21st century.

Behr’s implementation of the term ‘prologue’ is also key to the very subject of The Gospel of John, thus calling to question the authorship and meaning of the fourth gospel. In this context, the term ‘prologue’ plays a central and decisive role, as Behr explains in depth in Chapter 5: ‘The Prologue as a Paschal Hymn’. Here, Behr suggests that the ‘prologue’ in the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1–18) is to be read as three different summaries of John. Although Behr never explicitly elaborates on this, it is clear that his ‘prologue’ relates ‘to theology’ in much the same way as John’s prologue relates to the Gospel of John (at least as interpreted by Behr and his sources). What both ratios have in common is that each prologue illuminates its corresponding content in three very different, yet necessarily corresponding ways. Interestingly, Behr describes both ‘prologues’ with musical imagery. Concerning the three entangled summaries in John’s prologue Behr suggests the eighteen verses in question is “best designated as a paschal hymn” (270). Correspondingly, he refers to his own book as ‘a symphony that is polyphonous, both diachronically and synchronically […] that enables the diversity of voices to be heard as a symphony […] historical, but also inescapably exegetical and phenomenological’ (331). The key question with which patristic and biblical scholars will confront Behr is why we need Michel Henry at all in order to better understand the gospel of John and its legacy, especially as Henry ‘rejects in principle the historical and exegetical project undertaken by modern scholars’ (306), as Behr himself puts it. Consequently, Behr admits that the third part of his threefold study, entangling historical research and modern biblical exegesis with phenomenology, may appear to be difficult to comprehend and will only reveal its precious fruits in a painstaking investigation. Only then does Henry’s phenomenological analysis of the Arch-intelligibility disclose how Christian revelation does not proceed by analysing texts as ‘it is only because texts speak of a referent which also shows itself to us that texts can even speak of it’, namely ‘Christ showing himself to us in the immediacy of our own pathos of life, which is ultimately his originary pathos, and calling us into life as enfleshed beings’ (307). Only then we may be able to grasp why the fourth gospel was written and should be read today as ‘paschal gospel’, as the revelation of Life itself, as Behr postulates.

With the notion of a ‘prologue’ as both agenda and frame, it becomes even clearer why Behr stresses so eagerly in his preface that “this is not a commentary on John!” (vii). Indeed, although in parts the text comes very close to this, Behr does not provide us with another commentary on the Gospel of John. Instead, he gives us a new way of formulating ‘prolegomena’ to theology, which he in this instance bases on three very different perspectives on John inspired by recent historical, exegetical and phenomenological scholarship. In view of the refreshing and insightful approaches Behr combines, it is not too far-fetched to draw a parallel to Karl Barth and his commentary on the Letter to the Romans, published 100 years earlier in 1918. Although Barth, unlike Behr, explicitly wrote a commentary and not ‘prolegomena’, Barth’s study, by adopting neo-Kantian thought, would become one of the most influential prolegomenon to 20th century theology, as well as the starting point for a radically new and revolutionary school of theology based on Barth’s readings of Paul (today, better known as neo-Orthodoxy). It would perhaps be too reductionist to describe Behr’s endeavour with John as fully corresponding to Barth’s Pauline explorations, only substituting neo-Kantianism with Henry’s phenomenology of Life. Yet, at the same time, Barth and Behr obviously share a common ambition as theologians of their ages, namely to lay new foundations for contemporary theology based on a key biblical author and his respective theological signature, whether Barth’s Paul in 1918 or Behr’s John in 2019.

As is the custom with carefully elaborated musical compositions, it is worth listening to the work as a whole from beginning to end. Behr’s textual symphony also rewards such an approach; much like a musical piece his work surprises the reader with the regular return of familiar themes and contents. The attentive reader will quickly notice that formerly loosely related passages become increasingly interwoven and, with slight modifications, present themselves as increasingly merged into one another.

Let’s start our journey through the book with Behr’s critique of contemporary theological practices: Behr commences his large-scale project with the paronomasia ‘methodology and mythology’, immediately finding Hans-Georg Gadamer and his concept of ‘Wirkungsgeschichte’ to be instrumental in historical theology as Gadamer postulates that understanding is always the melding of the historical horizons and our own contemporary horizons, rejecting the notion that each exists by itself. That being said, the task of projecting a historical horizon, Behr urges, needs to contend with Quentin Skinner’s concept of ‘the mythology of doctrine’. Skinner describes the historiographical practice (or malpractice) of converting scattered or incidental remarks of historical text into the retrospectively constructed historical author’s coherent ‘doctrine’ on an issue that today is commonly attributed to that person. In the context of Behr’s study, this applies foremost to the term ‘incarnation’, which has become a mainstay of Christian theology and is often associated with the prologue of the Gospel of John.

In the preface the reader is introduced to the latent leitmotif by Rowan Williams, who thenceforth serves as a marker for a tenacious tradition of misinterpretation, albeit Williams, as Behr points out, does not adhere to this, but rather criticises it. Williams characterizes certain manners of speaking within theology that use the term ‘incarnation’ as if it simply denotes ‘an episode of the biography of the Word’, which is to imply that first the divine Logos operated simply as God within the Trinity before eventually becoming human in Jesus Christ, and finally returning to its original position as divine Logos within the Trinity (19). Behr counters this idea of a ‘story’ of the divine Logos in two ways: First, to elaborate on the philosophical difficulties of an intersection between time and eternity, Behr draws on Herbert McCabe’s claim that there is no such thing as the pre-existent Christ by debunking such manners of theological speaking as a nineteenth century invention to cure modern iterations of adoptionism. Citing McCabe, Behr’s conclusion is that

‘the story of Jesus is nothing other than the triune life of God projected onto our history […] not just reflection but sacrament – they contain the reality they signify […] that the Trinity looks like (is a story of) rejection, torture and murder, but also of reconciliation is because it is being projected on, lived out on, our rubbish tip; it is because of the sin of the world’ (21).

Second, and here, Behr is in his element, he demonstrates compellingly through a series of close readings of patristic texts (primarily of Origin, Athanasius, and Gregory of Nyssa) that this obvious ‘mythology of doctrine’ is not tenable on the basis of the surviving sources of early Christianity.

In light of Gadamer’s melding of horizons, Behr proceeds by further exploring the historical horizons around the Gospel of John, always cautious to identify possible traps of own and other’s ‘mythologies of doctrine’. In clarifying the untenability of the ‘mythology of doctrine’ concerning the term ‘incarnation’, Behr starts to gradually resolve the primordial misunderstanding. Rooted in antiquity itself, an (almost lost) original meaning of incarnation has its essence in its relation to the Passion of Christ. The key is to understand both incarnation and Passion as one revelation. It is then that Behr finally approaches the topic of how to speak today of them properly. Behr finds the questions addressed in the Gospel of John.

In its first movement, Behr’s symphony takes the reader into a detective story throughout the first centuries AD, investigating the person we so instinctively call John. To reveal the mystery in advance, Behr notes that the aforementioned John was most probably not the same John of the twelve apostles in the Synoptics, but rather a central, yet mysterious founding figure of an independent early Christian tradition, perhaps even the high priest of the Jerusalem temple himself (96). Instead, Behr suggests that it was from this John that the first Christian paschal tradition originated, making the Gospel of John an originally ‘paschal gospel’ (92). To prove this, Behr once again invites the reader to an array of diachronic close-readings throughout the first centuries (focusing on Eusebius of Caesarea, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenaeus of Lyon) revealing fractures, manipulations, and counter-traditions that are usually concealed in conventional linear church histories. In order to understand more fully the function, position, and significance of such a ‘paschal gospel’ within its distinctive early Christian tradition, namely that of the so-called John the Elder, Behr makes a cross-disciplinary shift to the second of the symphony’s three movements: to the ongoing discussions within contemporary biblical scholarship.

Here, Behr draws primarily on the recent scholarly debates surrounding the ‘apocalyptic Paul’ and its prominent advocate J. Louis Martyn, along with his criticism of modern ‘salvation history’ (128). At this point, Behr’s continuous practice of interweaving ‘the diversity of voices to be heard as a symphony’ becomes relevant. A good example of Behr’s technique is found in his reflections on the practice of an ‘apocalyptic reading of Scripture’, in which he links contemporary ‘apocalyptic exegesis’ with his own close-readings of Irenaeus and works out a plausible theological continuity between the two. The result is that the Passion of Christ constitutes the hermeneutical key for both the New Testament authors in question as well as their readers and interpreters in the first centuries AD. Citing Richard Hays, Behr concludes that ‘the eschatological apokalypsis of the cross serves as a hermeneutical lens, through which Scripture can now be refracted with a profound new symbolic coherence’ (125).

On the basis of this, Behr’s textual symphony closes its first movement in the echo of the various historical voices heard so far, while the second movement turns the gaze of the reader predominantly to the contemporary exegetical debates around selected key passages of the paschal gospel. The second movement entitled ‘It is finished’ is composed of three thematic parts, namely the Johannine theme of the temple as the body of Christ, the Son of Man as a living human being, and finally the aforementioned prologue, which in light of Behr’s restructuring as triune paschal hymn may no longer be simply read as a preface but as the paschal gospel’s musically performed Crescendo (270).

Following, we are passing by the multitude of contents and topics of the part of the book that is closest to a commentary on the fourth gospel: Behr grounds his argumentation on seven key passages in which he illustrates how the paschal gospel gradually unlocks the meaning of the Passion of Christ, best summarized in the syntagma ‘the temple of his body’ (Jn 2:21). As presented by Behr, the seven passages correspond with the six different feasts mentioned by John during Jesus’ lifetime that structure the entire narrative of the gospel, with three of them being the annual feast of Passover. Five of the six feasts are directly linked with ‘actions and words that identify Christ as the Temple and the fulfilment of the feasts celebrated therein’ and ‘at the Passion itself, Christ is, finally, presented as the Temple’ (138).

The subsequent exegetical gallery tour starts with an etymological allusion found in the prologue referring to the concept of tabernacle in Exodus and continues with Christ answering Nathanael with the self-identification as ‘Son of Man’ and its relation to the ladder of Jacob located at a place called Bethel which means ‘house of God’. Behr concludes this segment with the insight that in John ‘Christ himself is not only the Tabernacle or Temple in which God dwells in his glory, but is also the true house of God’ (141). Behr then guides the reader through the manifold nuances and contours of Christ’s being associated with the temple as John has applied them in the wedding at Cana, the cleansing of the temple, Christ’s encounter with the Samaritan women, and the healing at the pool on the Sabbath.

Next follows a comprehensive discussion of John 6 and Jesus’ scandalous command to ‘chew’ his flesh and drink his blood which Behr yet again uses in the interest of his textual symphony to prepare the foundation for the not yet introduced third voice, that is Michel Henry, who will be heard in the third movement. Especially readers whose biblical interest is limited and who are particularly interested in the third, phenomenological part of the book are advised not to skip this second, exegetical part too easily, as it is precisely here that all the foundations are laid for an in-depth understanding of Michel Henry’s reading of John.

The exegetical journey then progresses with further nuancing and contouring John’s rich understanding of the temple of Christ’s body applied to the narratives of the feasts of the Tabernacles, the healing of the blind, Jesus’ identification with the divine father, and the farewell speech, finally climaxing in the Passion narrative and the words of Jesus on the cross.

The second thematic part of the exegetical perspective considers the Johannine theme of the living human being. In accordance with the practice of resuming earlier elements in the course of a symphony, Behr begins this segment with a ‘relecture’ of the Apocalypse of John and the Church Fathers (focusing primarily on Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyon, and Melito of Sardis) and works out their ‘distinctive approach to what it is to be living human being, that is, a martyr and the glory of God’ (211). As done before Behr gradually entangles his patristic readings with contemporary biblical scholarship and tries to locate possibilities of resonance. As a marginal observation, it may be mentioned that in the fourth chapter (on the living human being), the subtitles are based on the themes and further subdivided into the respective biblical passages, while in the third chapter (on the temple of his body), the subtitles are based on the biblical passages and further subdivided into the respective themes. This can of course be dismissed as random, but it may reflect the differing methodological approaches of chapters three and four.

As already indicated earlier, as the third part of the exegetical enterprise Behr decodes the prologue of John (Jn 1:1–18) again into three unique summaries of the one subsequent paschal gospel. With innovative and elegant recourse to contemporary biblical scholarship and his own reading of patristic source material, Behr points out that each of the three original compositions of John’s prologue is centred around the eschatological apocalypse of divine glorification in Christ’s death on the cross. Entangling the gospel with the Apocalypse of John, Behr identifies the Word in the first of the three summaries (Jn 1:1) with the crucified Jesus who ‘is going towards God’ (260) becoming thus the living human being par excellence and the role model for all living humans. The second summary (Jn 1:2–5) explains according to Behr that ‘the life that Christ offers […] is the life that comes through death, the life lived by the risen Christ and, following him, by the martyrs, living human beings, the glory of God […] completed upon the cross with Christ’s words, ‘it is finished’, brought to perfection’ (264). Finally, the third summary (Jn 1:6–18) ‘structured as chiasm, with the world’s rejection of Christ at the crucifixion as its centre and climax’ (269) completes the triune composition and the entire prologue is thus, as Behr suggests, best considered as ‘paschal hymn’ and gateway to a truly paschal gospel (270). So, what does it mean for John to be a truly paschal gospel according to Behr? It means the eschatological apocalypse of the cross of Christ, which reveals to us what it means to become a living human being, to receive the gift of Life.

The third movement of Behr’s symphony finally calls Michel Henry and his phenomenology of Life onto the stage. For this, Behr proceeds with a close-reading of Henry’s three books concerning Christianity, namely C’est moi la verité: Pour une philosophie du christianisme (Paris, 1996), Incarnation : Une philosophie de la chair (Paris, 2000), and Paroles du Christ (Paris, 2002). An important motif that Behr identifies in Henry is

‘the duplicity of appearing that occurs on the world’s stage’ and means that ‘in Christianity everything is doubled: appearance and truth; body and flesh; the me given to myself in the pathos of life and the I that I project in this world’. Imagined reality can only be avoided in the pathos of life, ‘which is identical with itself in its self-affectivity’ so ‘that we find our true identity, and indeed an identity, though derivatively, with God. In the world, all we have is the duplicitous doubling of this identity, the appearance of a body rather than the flesh’ (310).

Ultimately, in a final meta-movement of all three preceding movements, Behr allows all voices to sound together to resolve the tenacious tradition of misinterpretation of the term ‘incarnation’ and revealing its relation to the Passion, or as Behr himself puts it that ‘this Coming of the Word in its visible body would seem to be nothing other than the Parousia of the Word upon the cross, visible indeed to the world, but only as dead, while invisibly alive in the flesh generated as the very substance of Life’ (312).

Concerning the multitude of modern and ancient languages in use, special reference should be made to the didactic-philological finesse of this book that very skilfully weaves the ancient Greek and French original into the English text, without leaving behind the reader illiterate in the ancient or modern language in question. Although Behr generally cites from the English standard translations, he interprets the original Ancient Greek and French texts and occasionally refers to specific nuances in both languages.

By using the term ‘prologue’ to characterize the nature of his book Behr contextualizes his study within the vast tradition of theological ‘prolegomena’. This Johannine ‘prolegomenon’ to theology was, of course, not written in observance of a so-called methodological atheism (as it became popular in contemporary European historical, exegetical and phenomenological scholarship) and has never tried to hide this fact. On the contrary, as an Orthodox priest, Behr continually reflects on his own point of view, theological tradition and methodological practices – a feature that, in the light of the various phenomenological traditions, especially Gadamer’s melding of horizons, must admit to Behr an even more profound scholarly habitus than a blindly followed methodological atheism would ever allow. With his symphony that enables the diversity of voices to be heard, Behr has made himself vulnerable on many flanks. The fact that he has been aware of these circumstances becomes most evident in his meticulous treatment of sources and extensive references to contemporary scholarship in all three main areas, namely historical theology, biblical studies and Michel Henry. Of course, sixty pages of bibliography, indices of ancient authors, and of (modern) authors may never be the sole criterion of academic quality but in this case, they bear witness to an extraordinary abundance of critically discussed scholarship, original source material and thematic spectra.

In any case, John Behr’s John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel. A Prologue to Theology is an opus magnum that needs to be studied thoroughly in today’s theology departments and seminaries around the globe and which invites, if not demands, further theological investigation along this initiated path.

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