Richard Swinburne (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1995)
ISBN 0198235445 0198235453 (pbk.) vii, 144 pp.
Richard Swinburne is one of a number of contemporary philosophers who are actively engaged in keen and rigorous analytic debate about faith and its implications. They are mostly Christians, although many of the issues they discuss are relevant to Judaism and Islam as well. The question Swinburne deals with in this book - the existence of God - is of course fundamental not just to Christians, Jews and Moslems, but to everyone, whether believer or sceptic. Powerful contributions to the discussion have been made by philosophers, such as John Mackie, who seek to show the irrationality of religious faith.
All believers must be able to justify their belief, at least to their own satisfaction. It is equally incumbent on non-believers to be able to justify their position. In either case, this will ultimately involve an attempt to show how theism or atheism (or whatever alternative, such as pantheism or polytheism, one may adopt) fits with our overall thinking and experiencing more convincingly than its rivals. For example, someone who believes that the world was created in 4,000 BC will need to produce an explanation for the scientific evidence for its being of a much greater age. To the extent that the explanation lacks plausibility, the plausibility of the belief in question will be diminished. Even those who take the heroic course of saying "I believe because it is absurd" must still appeal implicitly to some criterion, or criteria, outside the belief system itself, perhaps to the change their belief has made in their lives, perhaps to the reliability of the Bible. And in engaging in any discussion whatsoever, we accept certain basic criteria of intelligibility, and implicitly assert that our position fits these better than those of our opponents.
One way of looking at the traditional proofs of God’s existence is to see them as attempts to place belief in God in the overall map of our thought and experience. Philosophers seek to confirm the validity of our concept of God by showing how it enables our other understandings of experience to form a satisfactory whole - or a less unsatisfactory whole than would be possible without it.
Swinburne’s approach in this book is to examine our customary ways of explaining things, of forming and testing hypotheses, and then to discuss how these apply in the case of theism. Does the existence of God explain the existence and nature of the world, the existence and nature of human beings, the facts of religious experience, better than any alternatives? If so, this is good reason to believe in God. Conversely, if there are phenomena that cannot be reconciled with God’s existence, this will count as evidence against it. Many people will see the prevalence of evil in the world as evidence against theism, an argument which has been concisely stated by John Mackie among many others.
Swinburne presents a strong and clearly argued case that belief in God leads to less difficulties, and explains things better, than belief that there is no God. Based on Swinburne’s earlier work in philosophy of religion, especially his book The Existence of God, it is aimed at making the debate accessible to a wider public. For this reason it is not equipped with footnotes and bibliographies, and covers a great deal of ground with remarkable succinctness. As Swinburne acknowledges, there is room for further argument around almost every sentence. But that is part of the strength of the book - its ability to provoke thought as well as to enlighten.
Swinburne is unafraid to present sometimes unfashionable ideas as clearly and straightforwardly as possible. The clarity of his style here is reminiscent of the late A. J. Ayer, a philosopher whose commitment to making his views as clear as possible was exemplary. As with Ayer - a vigorous opponent of religious belief - the reader is occasionally left feeling that an issue has been oversimplified, a complication not considered. What is being said, however, is both cogent and forceful.
Among the currently unfashionable positions Swinburne adopts is his argument that humans (and higher animals) have souls which are not identical with, or properties of, their bodies. Swinburne argues for dualism - the existence of souls as well as bodies - on two main grounds. Firstly, he emphasises that a thought or an intention, for example, as experienced by a person, is different from a state of the brain, though one may be caused by the other. He then proposes a thought experiment to demonstrate that the soul is something more than the matter comprising the body and the brain. He asks the reader to imagine a mad (but perhaps not totally implausible) scientist who splits a person’s brain in two, combining each half with half of a different brain in a different body. Swinburne claims that this shows that what happens to a person can (indeed must) be distinguished from what happens to the body and brain. For, if you were the victim of this procedure, which half, if either, would be you? That is, to which future, if either, would you be correct in looking forward before your ordeal? This argument may seem strained. But it is hard to disagree with the fundamental point that what it means to be you - the quality of your personhood, we might say - cannot be read off from a description of what happens in your brain, or indeed in your body as a whole. And this point is a notorious difficulty for physicalism, despite continuing efforts to overcome it.
Still more boldly, Swinburne tackles the problem of evil by proposing a theodicy - an explanation of why an omnipotent and benevolent God would permit evil to occur. He accepts that such arguments are likely to sound unconvincing, even callous, to people confronted with the actuality of suffering, but argues that the philosophical problem, since it exists, must be addressed in a rational manner if belief is to be rationally justifiable. Swinburne’s discussion of the problem as stated is lucid, and does point the way to a fuller understanding of the issues. But it leaves some major aspects unresolved. He proposes, for instance, that the necessarily limited duration of human life provides a limitation on even the worst suffering. It is not clear, however, that this is so. Intensity and duration are not the same, particularly where moral and spiritual pain are concerned. Again, most people would not consider it ethical to cause or allow someone to suffer in order to benefit a third party. But Swinburne’s account - whereby suffering provides opportunities for courageous and charitable actions by others - seems to require that God can do this. The analogy between human ethics and divine ethics would need careful consideration to determine whether this position can be consistent with belief in God’s benevolence.
But the book’s greatest strength is its demonstration that current developments in the physical sciences are compatible with belief in God, and that belief is thoroughly defensible according to customary standards of explanation - the same standards applied to theories in science. Swinburne states this case in some detail, describing the ways in which the probability of a theory being true is assessed. He makes it clear that among the facts to be explained by theism are the existence of the cosmos itself and of the regularities that enable us to form theories about it. Contrary to what is often thought, this point is quite unaffected by whether or not the cosmos has a beginning in time. Whether or not the world has existed from eternity, and if not, whether this can be proved, was the subject of much debate among medieval philosophers. St Thomas Aquinas, who believed that God’s existence could be rationally defended, thought that creation in time could not be proved by reason. According to Duns Scotus there is only a verbal distinction between God’s act in creating the world and his act in sustaining it at each moment. It is not a question of theists simply postulating "God to wind up the clockwork", in Stephen Hawking’s words, which Swinburne quotes. Swinburne cogently dispels this widespread misunderstanding.
In his introduction Swinburne remarks that the subject of the existence of God is not only of the highest importance, but also of great intellectual interest. The question, and the philosophical questions surrounding it, can certainly not be avoided. As the French philosopher Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe has written in another context, we are still living on philosophical ground, and we cannot just go and live somewhere else. If belief gives rise to philosophical difficulties - such as the issues surrounding evil - so also does non-belief. Swinburne’s achievement is to have shown that belief may be the more rational option.
FACING AIDS: THE CHALLENGE, THE CHURCHES’ RESPONSE
WCC Study Document, (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1997)
LOVE IN A TIME OF AIDS: WOMEN, HEALTH AND THE CHALLENGE OF HIV
Gillian Paterson (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1996) ISBN 2825411914
FACING OUR DIFFERENCES: THE CHURCHES AND THEIR GAY AND LESBIAN MEMBERS
Alan A. Brash (Geneva: WCC Publications,1995) ISBN 2825411655
These three little books are all to be highly recommended, necessary reading in fact.
The WCC Study Document, Facing AIDS, is the report of a two-year study undertaken to provide a communal response by the Churches to the worsening AIDS crisis and at the same time evaluate that response and send back a challenge. The group fulfilled its mandate very thoroughly, on one point maybe a little too thoroughly. That there would be difficulty in producing a communal statement on the theological perspective of AIDS, when the only issue dividing the Churches is theology, seems obvious. Yet even this difficulty was turned to good account, for the report makes plain how far we have to go to achieve consensus and does a good job of distilling the essence of what we have in common.
It begins with a sobering overview of the facts about AIDS and the magnitude of the problem, with special emphasis on the disturbing fact that the vast majority of people with HIV "live in areas where poverty, the subordinate status of women and children and discrimination are prevalent". The theological perspective of the problem in chapter three would have been better without an opening foray into theodicy, for it is difficult to be convincing about suffering while consciously safeguarding the doctrine of the omnipotence of God. On God’s universal love and faithfulness however, the oneness of the human family, the question of sin and punishment, and the duty of the Churches to accept and care for all, especially the suffering, the report is masterful. The chapter on justice is particularly hard-hitting: "AIDS follows the fault-lines of our societies. Street children, those living in poverty, prisoners, commercial sex-workers, drug-dependent persons, indigenous people and ethnic minorities are all at particular risk and often show disproportionately high infection rates in our societies".
This book is good and bad news for the Churches, revealing them to be often in the forefront of effective response, but even more often as making the problem worse by prudery, moralising and even obscurantism.
Always relevant, varied, and giving access to personal cases and views on a matter of global life and death, the book makes not only compelling but also necessary reading.
Love in a time of Aids is if anything even more compelling. Written from a frankly feminist perspective the book profits immeasurably from its international base - western feminism is lovingly criticised for its sometimes aggressive stance, and equally lovingly defends itself: "Anger is sometimes necessary". Gillian Paterson is not writing on her own behalf. Although she writes with passionate commitment to inform us of the newest horror on the block (the feminisation of both poverty and its ugly child AIDS), she too is reporting on the activity of a study group, and is always concerned to reflect the richness not only of the input but also of an experience of truly universal Christian community.
Surveying the situation around the world, she shows how global economic strategies are directly responsible for the growth and feminisation of the pandemic. But she also shows how by pushing people to the margins of a society that caters to the powerful at the expense of the disempowered, the virus becomes a kairos. From the edges, looking in on what seemed "natural" and unalterable, faith finds itself thrust into a prophetic role. The lie is given to the "grand narrative" of a market-driven global economy, on a roll since the demise of Soviet Communism. The Churches are challenged, for notwithstanding glowing exceptions, by and large Christian communities are unhelpful and unwelcoming, their leaders often mischievously obscurantist. Two chapters on the experience of South American women (in Argentine and Brazil) give occasion for the relentless itemisation, in terms of female suffering and sickness, of the cost of the Catholic hierarchy’s war on contraception.
Besides offering a mine of information, and poignantly beautiful descriptions of the areas visited, this short book (114 pages) majors in personal testimony. And this is its greatest strength. The problems it exposes are not academic or remote, they are flesh and blood and bone, shattered families and broken lives. And yet the atmosphere is always positive, full of the hope that is the bottom line of faith, for Love in a time of Aids is in the very best tradition of biblical prophecy. It is an invaluable gift to the Christian community.
It is difficult to be enthusiastic enough about Facing Our Differences. In 75 pages Alan Brash sets out to clear the road for dialogue amongst the Churches on what is possibly the thorniest issue of the ecumenical agenda. Hopefully, as confessedly non-gay, he will escape the charge of pleading his own case, so often almost automatic in the anti-homosexual lobby. But of course he is pleading his own case, as a member of the body of Christ he is pleading all our cases for, as he insists all through, in belonging to the God of Jesus, we belong to one another.
He writes with manifest passion, which is one of the most appealing features of his book. He is a disciple, deeply concerned about disunity amongst the Churches on this issue; he is also a pastor, and as such deeply concerned about the suffering of gay and lesbian believers in the congregations.
The book is erudite, calm, and well-reasoned, giving clear and easy access to the findings of experts: historians, exegetes, theologians, psychologists and doctors. Doctrinal problems are not shirked (the nature of God; the relevance and authority of Scripture are important issues), but the debate is quite deliberately brought under the control of an overriding necessity to cater to personal suffering. This is done mainly in the fifteen pages of an Appendix giving the testimony of the mother of a lesbian, a theologian in fruitful dialogue with a gay theology student, and a Catholic man whose partner of thirty years is dying of motor neurone disease. This last supplies something I felt to be missing in the body of the book: a ringing indictment of the Catholic hierarchy’s war of attrition on confessing homosexuals. The other Churches all come in for their fair share of criticism in the course of the argument, but writing for and on behalf of the WCC, Dr Brash has no mandate to evaluate the Roman Catholic Church. Fortunately one of his witnesses has.
Here are all the facts for an informed debate, succinctly given, and in a form that guarantees immediate retrievability. The nature of sexuality, the history of the debate, the history of Christian response to homosexuality, what the Scriptures have to say, and the state of the question at present, are all thoroughly dealt with. In almost every chapter stubborn myths are exposed, gently but uncompromisingly.
Harold Coward (ed.), (Blackburn: HarperCollinsReligious, 1997)
118pp. ISBN 1863717161
Eastern religions are "in". New Age philosophies are "in". Both have a strong emphasis on reincarnation. The "rebirth" of reincarnation in the Western world can be confusing for persons who have been brought up to believe in the Resurrection of Christ and eternal life. This small volume therefore is most timely. In simple (but not simplistic) and clear language, it delineates what each of the major world religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Chinese - holds in regard to life after death. The author of each chapter is well qualified to speak on behalf of the religion in question. All are professors in Canadian or United States universities. The Introduction by the editor, Harold Coward, professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, gives a balanced, lucid overview of the matter at hand. None of the authors attempt to "push a barrow" in the interests of their particular religion. Their objectivity and lack of polemics makes for a refreshing, enlightened and informative read. It is a serious work, avoiding "pop psychology", New Age jargon, and any other attempt to be "with it" in a crass sense. Yet it is highly readable. It is suitable for those who have no previous background in any of the religions in question, be they students of religion, serious lay readers, or indeed any searching person.
This book does not attempt a critique of the position taken by any of the religions. It would be churlish to criticise it for not doing so. Such a critique, while adding to the worth of the book in the eyes of some, could lessen its value in those of others. It could detract from the clear explanation of the belief system of each religion. Those who wish for a critique of these basic positions need to look elsewhere. However, those who seek to clarify their own thoughts about life after death will find this little work an excellent place to start.
REVELATION AND RECONCILIATION - A WINDOW ON MODERNITY
Stephen N. Williams (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995)
ISBN 0521481457(hard), 0521484944 (pbk.), xvii, 180pp.
This book challenges long held ideas about Christian theology’s responsibility for modern atheism as well as addressing the question of what its response to it should be. The conventional wisdom has been that modern atheism may be located in Christianity’s offence to modernity in epistemology and theodicy. Apologetical responses have, for this reason, concentrated on claims to special revelation and the suggestion that God is not really involved in the evil we suffer. Williams’s counter-claim is that God’s historical act of reconciliation and forgiveness is at least as offensive in modern culture as the epistemological questions. He contends that the traditional approach in theology’s response to philosophy (and, one might add, within philosophy of religion, as well) has been too dominated by epistemology and too neglectful of the spirit behind modern philosophy. This spirit, according to Williams is a certain conception of moral autonomy and, in particular, of the self-perfecting subject and the traditional understanding of sin.
Williams is conscious that he is challenging well-respected theologians and colleagues. One is very aware of his gesturing to his peers and he particularly acknowledges the work of Colin Gunton in a whole, concluding chapter devoted to the latter’s The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1993), which came too late to be included in Williams’s own study. However, Williams directs attention to Gunton’s position as found in his earlier work, in particular his reading of Augustine as being responsible for encouraging thought in a heretical direction. According to Gunton, because of Augustine’s Platonising, his ontological and epistemological foundations were all wrong and this meant that his theology "lacked the conceptual equipment to avoid complete collapse"into the various heresies which followed (quoted in Williams, p. 6).
Williams says that, in his sweeping claims vis-à-vis intellectual history, Gunton does not make an important distinction between the argument that Augustinian ideas are conceptually incapable of resisting epistemological crisis and the assumption that they were a historically significant contribution. In other words, Gunton’s work, as well as the work of several others that Williams considers, including Lesslie Newbigin, Jüngel and even Barth, read the history of philosophy with a narrow epistemological focus. According to Gunton, Augustine’s unsound trinitarian theology, for example, floating free of the divine economy, generated a crisis in religious epistemology. The argument remains only at the conceptual level, in which only logical possibilities are established. But, Williams contends, we need to say something about the conditions under which that logical possibility was actualised. There is, in other words, the whole unanswered question of what individuals do with ideas, and in this regard, argues Williams, Augustine (of all people) has something to teach us. He and some other philosophers, such as Pascal and Kierkegaard, supply what is lacking in these over-intellectualised accounts, by reminding us of "the centrality of the human will and of human pride in human thinking as well as doing"(p. 5). Similarly, Williams mines the "troubled giant" Barth’s influential account of the eighteenth century background to nineteenth century theology to show that more basic than Barth’s disagreement with the epistemology of such as a one as Rousseau was his disagreement with his anthropology. Whereas Gunton reads Barth’s account primarily as a tale of theological epistemology, Barth himself actually warned that epistemology is not the bottom line. This is well illustrated in Barth’s discussion of Rousseau, in which he shows that Rousseau’s struggles with Christianity were primarily over his collision with the doctrines of humanity and grace. In this regard, "philosophers of the will" like Kierkegaard and especially Nietzsche remind us of the part that the human will plays in belief, suggesting to us that the seeds of atheism cannot simply be an epistemological or theological mistake.
Williams effectively uses Nietzsche to highlight the fact that philosophy and ideas are driven by something more basic than the epistemological , viz., that "our philosophy is an expression of the soul" (p. 9). Before we get to the magnificent fourth chapter on Nietzsche, Williams takes us through some earlier philosophers to show that their spirit, such as their spirit of independence and defiance, was just as significant as their epistemology. Nietzsche himself was conscious of his philosophical heritage and of his spiritual kinship to some (such as the Greeks, the Renaissance humanists, Descartes and Montaigne) and his antipathy to others who epitomised the ultimate depravity of the Christian spirit (Luther, Leibniz and Kant). Certainly, Nietzsche did not see himself as a "world-historical bolt from the blue" (p. 100) and, however his position was occasioned by the fortunes of the Cartesian construction of God, it was, Williams argues, "ostensibly rooted in other, historically deeper and psychologically more fundamental strains of resistance to the Christian tradition" (p. 100). Nietzsche’s powerful emotional resistance to Christianity is not explained by his rejection of putatively false theology. His crusade against Christianity, with all its energetic anger, is especially a crusade against what Nietzsche regarded as the spiritual disease of Christianity, generated as it was by a perverted anthropology. Williams continues, "It is God projected as the author of this that spoils life for Nietzsche", and it is clear that Nietzsche thinks that "Greece, Rome and the Renaissance are all involved in the struggle against this God" (p.102).
Williams says that the same spirit of antagonism against Christian anthropology is found in the theology of Don Cupitt and that his crusade against theological realism is likewise driven by more than epistemological factors. Cupitt’s more recent use of deconstruction to advance a linguistic programme may again look like a philosophical argument, but Williams says that, in using such an approach to "subvert" (p. 131) the traditional reading of the biblical account of the Fall, we see Cupitt over-stepping not only an epistemological mark, but also a canonical boundary, as well. For out of it, Cupitt gives us a re-definition of sin in which "’wrong’ and ‘right’ are rejected as forms of antiquated objectivism" (p. 132). Williams says that, in doing this, any Christian thinker must surely run the highest imaginable risk, "that of calling wrong right" (p. 131). Such works of Cupitt’s in the 80’s show that "the soteriological and anthropological question is central in [Cupitt’s] work" (p. 132). According to Williams, it is not clear if Cupitt’s critics see this deeper strain in his work. But how else will one interpret Cupitt’s vituperative tirades against traditional "objectivist" theology, which he contends is the ideological support for a thoroughly corrupt church that uses it to legitimise its "grand system of psychological terrorism" (p.117)? Through careful commentary on Cupitt’s work, Williams shows that Cupitt is indeed an heir of Nietzsche, both in spirit and in intent, and this is seen in his programme to damn traditional Christian morality for the sake of re-evaluating it.
Williams’s book is rich and dense and some parts require careful reading, but it is a valuable resource for philosophical theology and challenging in its implications. It raises important questions about what lessons we may learn from the history of the interface between theology and philosophy and questions about how we read that intellectual history. By suggesting that there is more going on in this history than knowledge claims and epistemology and by suggesting that western atheism should be understood as "a spiritual movement of the soul as well as an intellectual movement of the mind" (p. 8), this thesis will have implications for quite a different kind of Christian apologetics and quite a different relationship between philosophy and theology.
Winifred (Wing Han) Lamb
SIGNS AND SHADOWS. READING JOHN 5-12
Francis Moloney (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996)
ISBN 0-8006-2936-1, xiv, 231pp
"Never judge a book by its cover". Not a problem for the book under review, which is attractively presented and attractively written. But should one judge a book by its "Media release"? The Australian Catholic University Media Release (11.9.96) hails the work of its foundation Professor of Theology as a "radical theory on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity". It goes on to explain that the book shows that "the writer of the Fourth Gospel . . . believed Christianity did not replace Judaism. The Fourth Evangelist actually presents Christianity as continuing and bringing to perfection the promise of Israel." Is this book the promising alternative its Media Release proposes? It deserves a careful reading if for that reason alone.
Signs and Shadows. Reading John 5-12 (hereafter: SS) is the second part of a trilogy. Part one was Belief in the Word. Reading John 1-4, Fortress, Minneapolis, 1993 (hereafter: BW). Part three, due early in 1998: Glory not Dishonour. Reading John 13-21. Together they will constitute a narrative commentary on the whole of the Gospel of John. As a narrative commentary the focus is on the way John is understood by a first reader and owes much to Reader-Response theory. The focus is not on looking through the text to the history which may lie behind it, but on looking at what the text itself presents. I would prefer to speak of first hearers than first readers, because that accords better with context in which people would have first encountered the gospel.
Moloney’s "presentation of a virginal experience of the narrative," as he calls it acknowledges that a reader may be credited with some knowledge of the story, but does not have knowledge of the Johannine version (BW 10). This, nevertheless, does not prevent Moloney from exploiting the drama of the prologue in his first volume, suggesting that the virginal reader would be waiting until 1:17 before identifying the Word with Jesus: "The naming of the Logos as Jesus Christ is a climactic moment for the reader of the prologue" (BW 47). This strains historical credibility. It seems too much like an exercise in estimating what a person with no familiarity with Christianity might make of the passage at a first reading rather than what the first historical hearers (or John’s implied hearers) would have understood. Otherwise Moloney is careful to tell us that these first readers could be "credited with a good knowledge of Jewish traditions" (BW. 43). This is more realistic.
Before passing to the second volume it is worth noting, in relation to the focus of the Media Release, the exposition of the key passage: "The Law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). "There can be no lessening of the importance of the former gift. It was from God and it was fundamental for the people of God. Moses was its mediator; however, it was the former gift. There is now another gift which has taken its place (v.16)" (BW 47). A few lines earlier Moloney writes: "As v. 16 closed, the narrator told the reader that from the Word’s fullness the believing community received a gift that replaced a gift." The prologue is essential reading for understanding the rest of the gospel, not least when approaching it as a whole to be read sequentially. In it God’s gift of the Law is affirmed as belonging to an era that is past. The Logos, the Word, is Jesus Christ, who has replaced the Law. Apparently in agreement with O. Hofius, Moloney writes in a footnote: "Verses 17-18 polemically deny both saving value and preexistence to the Law (BW 47)".
What, then, are we to make of the claims of the Media Release that "the writer of the Fourth Gospel . . . believed Christianity did not replace Judaism. The Fourth Evangelist actually presents Christianity as continuing and bringing to perfection the promise of Israel"? It will depend on our perspective. How can replacing the Law (see the previous paragraph) be anything other than replacing Judaism? Are we not still talking about one religion superseding another? Yet Moloney’s point is that the fourth gospel is not anti-Jewish, but deeply Jewish. It represents a perspective within a predominantly Jewish community in which a group is claiming a special version of the Jewish heritage, indeed, its perfection.
It has been so easy to read the fourth gospel as anti-semitic. First readers frequently do! How can John’s Jesus say to "the Jews": "You are of your father, the devil" (John 8:44)? If this represents Jesus (and the Christians) damning Jews by race or Jews by religion, then we are in the depths of shame and signs and shadows of our worst nightmares. But Moloney’s exposition shows that to read John like this is a massive distortion. Rather, from the beginning and throughout both published volumes he shows that the author and implied readers share and assume Jewish presuppositions and value Jewish heritage. These are, themselves, Jews, or predominantly Jews, talking to Jews. There is nothing of anti-semitism here. Most scholars of the fourth gospel would agree. Hence, as the author explains: throughout the commentaries "the Jews" appears "in quotation marks to indicate that they are not the Jewish people. ‘The Jews’ are one side of a christological debate" (SS 1).
There are, however, finer distinctions. Moloney’s position has already been outlined briefly in the discussion of the gospel prologue. It is also signalled in the title of the second volume. Judaism’s feasts are "signs and shadows" of their perfection which has come in Christ (although Moloney also speaks of Jesus’ deeds as signs and shadows). The language of "perfection" is scattered throughout the second volume. It is there in the opening words: "The Prologue (1:1-18) affirms that God’s former gift through the Law of Moses is perfected by the fullness of the gift of the truth in Jesus Christ (1:16-17). There is no conflict between the two gifts; one leads to the other, but the latter gift of the truth through Jesus Christ surpasses the gift of the Law through Moses" (SS 1). There is, of course, a conflict for any who would not agree that the revelation through Jesus Christ "perfects" and replaces the Law. But this was not the perspective of the author or his implied readers. Rather the author is engaged in the rethinking of Judaism’s liturgical celebrations.
It has long been noted that chapters 5-12 contain reference to major Jewish feasts. The treatment of John 5 demonstrates that for the fourth evangelist Jesus brings what the Sabbath brought, namely, "God’s creative, life-giving, and judging presence to his people. In Jesus Christ the Sabbath traditions have become enfleshed, not destroyed" (p. 28; a variant of the second sentence comes as a refrain in the conclusions of the first five chapters of the book). The gospel wards off the misunderstanding that Jesus replaces the Sabbath God. He is however beyond keeping Sabbath Law. Moloney interprets the entire chapter in relation to the Sabbath motif, even though it disappears after 5:18. He may well be right, although the subject matter of what follows goes far beyond it. I found myself wondering whether Moloney sees the author still affirming Sabbath law or whether its perfection in Christ also meant its replacement. Is only Jesus beyond it or also his community? "Jesus was the perfection of the Mosaic tradition on the Sabbath God and the Sabbath Law" (p. 28). "Jesus perfects the signs and shadows of the feasts of traditional Israel" (p. 29).
In John 6 Moloney shows how the gospel extrapolates Passover traditions to present Jesus as "an alternative nourishment as the source of eternal life" (p. 44). "The former access to ‘doing the works of God’ by means of the Law has been surpassed. Access to God is only through the Son who makes God known (see 1:18)" (p. 45). "No longer will Moses, the manna, Wisdom, or Torah provide for the deepest needs of humankind, but Jesus will satisfy all hunger and thirst" (p. 48). There are two elements here: the nourishment is no longer restricted to Israel; and the Law did in one sense provide for such needs. The historical question is to what extent the fourth gospel believes the latter was the case. I do not find Moloney’s explanations which follow (pp. 49-50) to be sufficiently clear on this point.
The key texts appear to be 6:32 ("Moses did not give you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven") and 6:47-48 where the author declares that the fathers who ate Moses’ bread died in the desert. The point seems to be that the former bread, identified with the Law, did not bring life; not that it now no longer gives life or gave life only to Israel and is now more widely available. It is otherwise difficult to make sense of the constant references to perfecting and surpassing. The issue was, for the evangelist, both quality and quantity. Moloney’s interpretation suggests that John did see the Law as a way of coming to know God, which the revelation in Jesus now transcends and replaces (p. 60). All such language calls for an explanation of why the need for replacement. In what was it deficient? Why did it need perfecting/replacing?
In his discussion of John 7-8 Moloney follows a similar pattern. Here the image is the Feast of the Tabernacles which also serves as the background for John 9:1 - 10:21. The water libation and light ceremonies form the background for the image of Jesus as offering the water of life and being the light of the world. I find the attempt to trace influence from the daily sunrise ritual of turning away and then towards the temple less convincing. God’s second gift, the water of life, replaces the need for lustrations. Jesus, the light of the world, replaces the Law (p. 94). "The Law has been superseded by a completely new reality: the person of God in the person and message of the one he sent" (p. 96). "Jesus fulfills, universalizes, and transcends all the symbols and expectations of Tabernacles because of his union with God (8:28-29)" (102).
Moloney’s treatment of John 8 notes that rabbinic tradition claims that study of the Law makes a person free and that Jesus confronts such claims (p. 104), but does not go on to explore the consequences for his hypothesis. In John 10:22-42 we find a similar reworking of the traditions of the Feast of Dedication. Moloney concludes: "The account of Jesus’ presence at the great feasts of Israel - Sabbath, Passover, tabernacles, and Dedication - affirms that the former order has been perfected, not destroyed" (p. 152).
My review has focused on the hypothesis highlighted by the Media Release and found it to be capable of misinterpretation, if not, itself, misleading. For Moloney rightly expounds the stance of the gospel as one which combines both a belief that God gave the Law and the conviction that in Christ it has been superseded/replaced/perfected (all words used in this sense in the two volumes of his work). It is better to tell it as it is than to suggest a greater degree of harmony than the text will allow. Moloney has told it as it is in his commentary, but left a number of unanswered questions. I would have thought that more could have been made of the witness function of the Law according to John and of its place in John’s dualism. He sees the Law operating at the earthly level (like Nicodemus) so that it functioned primarily as God given witness (indeed "sign and shadow") of the real which was to come in Christ. I have explored some of these issues in my chapter on John in Jesus’ Attitude towards the Law. A study of the Gospels WUNT 2:97, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen, 1997, pp. 432-491.
Nevertheless Moloney has done us the great service of presenting a convincing account of the way the fourth gospel belongs within a strongly Jewish context and represents Jews reflecting predominantly with Jews on how to appreciate God’s gift of the Law in the light of God’s gift of Christ. It is some advance not to have John understood as anti-semitic, although it will not remove the offence that many will feel in being told their Law is to be perfected and replaced.
In focusing on the issue of Law I have passed over much else in the commentary. It must stand as eminently readable, solidly documented, and rich in insight. I found myself using the word "neat" to describe the analysis of structure and thought. I still want to argue over the emphasis on revelation which the author gives to Son of Man sayings and his maverick interpretations of 3:13 and 6:61, but I find the commentary overall to be a convincing exposition. It has less of the reference work feel to it that makes many commentaries hard to read. It is a testimony both to its author’s scholarship and to his skills as a teacher communicator and deserves high acclaim.
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