Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Movement of Infinity Within Itself: Faith for John's Community and for Today

I presented this paper to the annual gathering of the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion this past Tuesday as a part of a two hour long consideration of faith as it is presented in the Gospel of John, based on a treatise written by a Disciples professor at Northwest Christian University in Eugene, Oregon, Dr. Dennis Lindsay.  Hopefully it makes some modicum of sense to non academia readers as well.  Ever since I took a class in seminary solely on the Gospel and letters of John taught by my favorite professor there, a Dominican priest named Father Albert, I have found great meaning in John's unique take on the significance of Jesus as the Christ, and as such, this paper was (is) largely a labor of love.  I hope you find meaning in it as I have.  E.A.

“A Movement of Infinity within Itself: Faith for Both the Johannine Community & Today”

By Rev. Eric Atcheson

Respectfully submitted to the Northwest Association for Theological Discussion in response to “Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith” by Dr. Dennis Lindsay, February 2015

On the bookshelf in my office as I write these words is a book I brought with me when I served as an adult chaperone on a youth mission trip to Tijauana, Mexico, way back in my seminary days (yes, “way back,” whilst I’m at the ripe old age of 29).  Written by the amusing Jon Acuff, the volume is entitled, “Stuff Christians Like,” a play on Christian Lander’s earlier (and similarly amusing) book, “Stuff White People Like.”  And the book is simply a collection of odes and paeans to different things what Christians like—and like to do—such as complaining about not being “fed” at church, using “let me pray about it” as a euphemism for “no,” and using “faith like a child” as an escape pod from difficult theological discussions.

All of these examples have something in common: they utilize commonplace vocabulary to say something distinctly uncommon unless you belong to a particular brand of Christianity and are fluent in its unique and idiosyncratic dialect.  I tend to view these sorts of verbal encodings as an offshoot of how even the Bible uses its own Greek vocabulary in sometimes taking a particular koine, common, word or phrase and turning it completely on its head to mean something different to a person within the early Jesus movement, but that might mean nothing or even nonsense (like John of Patmos’s Revelation) to an outsider.

John the Evangelist (not to be confused with John of Patmos—for the sake of simplicity here, when I refer to John, I am referring to the otherwise anonymous primary writer of the Gospel of John) is a master of this adroit use of the Greek language.  Though his vocabulary and syntax are relatively straightforward compared to many other New Testament works, John skillfully weaves in double and alternate meanings to particular words and phrases, and, in cases like that of Nicodemus in John 3 (with Jesus’s use of anothen, or being “born again/above”), or the Samaritan woman in John 4 (with Jesus’s use of phgh, or “spring/fountain” as “living water”), even makes those double meanings a point of contention in Jesus’s teachings.

All of this is to say: in reading through Dr. Lindsay’s paper for both the first and second time, I was particularly struck not merely by his tally of John’s use of pisteuein but also of the noting of John’s deliberate eschewing of pistis, a detail I myself had failed to glean during my (admittedly rudimentary) Greek studies of John’s Gospel during my college and seminary days.  I agree that this choice must have been deliberate on John’s part (see above—John was clearly very deliberate about his word choices throughout his Gospel), but in attempting to put this exegetical reality within the larger context in which John’s Gospel was put to writing, I cannot help but believe that John’s use of pisteuein, insofar as it creates new meaning to John’s community, represents what Bible scholars Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina call “antilanguage.”

Dennis C. Duling provides an excellent and concise definition of antilanguage thusly in a passage on John’s language and writing style:

Antilanguage is a type of language used by groups who are “marginal” with respect to the larger society, which in the most general sense is Mediterranean society but in a more restricted sense is more traditional Israelite society.  The key in this case is the choice of believers to live in opposition to “this world” and “the Israelites” (NRSV: “the Jews”).  Their “antilanguage” is thus an expression of their “antisociety” stance.[1]

My underlying thesis for what follows is this: that this frequency of use and particular usage of pisteuein as highlighted and interpreted by Dr. Lindsay represents a word of the antilanguage that John—and the Johannine community—would have been fluent in, and that it remains firmly in the antilanguage lexicon today, not only by right of our own (perhaps less-than-accurate) translations of John’s Gospel but by our own misapplications of the Gospel in a Christ-centered faith even today.

Throughout the New Testament, faith (and similar “fruits of the spirit”) is presented as in opposition to this world not merely by John but also by Paul[2] and by James, the brother of Jesus[3].  Considering the vehemence with which this world was in opposition to Christ Himself,  such sentiment is unsurprising, but the marginalized status of Jesus was a status inherited by His followers and, I would contend, especially so by His Johannine followers.  As Howard Clark Kee conveys, “The kinds of hostility the sect (the Johannine Community –E.A.) can expect are named in John 16: expulsion from the synagogues and martyrdom.”[4]  This sort of retro-interjection of such trauma is part of a pattern for John: he is indicating his sect “perhaps because of their increasingly vocal claims about Jesus’s divinity has been banished from fellowship in the synaoguge.  The expulsion was evidently traumatic for John, who responds by retrojecting the event back into the time of Jesus and insisting that his group is spiritually superior to their synagogue critics.”[5]

Ergo, even more so than the Christianity espoused by Paul or by James, the first-century Near Eastern world had little appetite for the Christianity practiced by John’s followers, and it shows in John’s Gospel and letters, not simply in that John and his community are isolated and alienated, but that in the midst of said isolation and alienation, he (and they) believe wholeheartedly in the spiritual superiority of their faith compared to their critics’ beliefs.  To John, then, the Judean critics and persecutors of Jesus lack not merely correct belief, they lack true faith as well.

What these circumstances have to do with faith, with pisteuein, or with antilanguage, is an important question in translating John.  Consider, for a moment, the primary alternative translation of pisteuein: not “faith,” but “belief,” or “to believe (in).”  Well-known and well-loved translations including both the King James Version and the New American Standard Bible will translate instances of pisteuein in the Gospel of John as “believing” rather than as, say, “having faith in.”[6]  Ultimately, and with the least amount of hubris possible that is inherent in a lone parish pastor attempting to correct a longstanding Bible translation, I would suggest this treatment of pisteuein to be antithetical to what John was endeavoring to communicate with his use of pisteuein as a possible example of antilanguage. 
Why?  Because there is a subtle but key distinction between belief and faith, which Dr. Lindsay points us toward simply and elegantly in his paper, at the top of page six: “Faith for John is thus both an identification with and an engagement with Christ in a relationship of servant to lord.”[7]

Belief, by contrast, merely implies intellectual assent.  One can choose to believe in Santa Claus, or in extraterrestrial life, but those beliefs need not dictate one’s moral decisions (at least, outside of the ever-elongating Christmas season or binge-watching sessions of Doctor Who).  Belief does not demand relationship, nor does it demand any engagement beyond a yes or no answer to the hypothesis being presently considered.

In other words, belief is, at its purest form, a sort of intellectual transaction or interaction.  Assent or negation is proffered in response to a stated value, fact, or reality.  Without attempting to denigrate the Hebrew Bible tradition in any way, I believe this is why Paul places such importance upon grace vis-à-vis the law.  One can assent to obey the law or not as one can even assent to obey a lord, but the belief in the law or in a lord (and by this I mean a lord in the feudal sense) does not justify a person, because that belief does not represent the change of nature that faith can achieve.

Ultimately, this difference between the two is likewise illuminated in Dr. Lindsay’s work: “Genuine faith enables vision (11:40)…It is thus unthinkable within the context of John’s Gospel to understand this faith/vision as anything other than the allegiance-yielding identification and engagement with Christ…”[8]  None of this is possible merely through holding a belief; it only becomes possible when that belief grows, like a sapling into a tree, into a fully blown faith that shapes and dictates a person’s life that allows them to “see,” as it were, God’s presence before them.

Yet we associate belief and sight nonetheless—after all, “seeing is believing.” For John’s community, though, seeing is wholly unnecessary to belief.  This is not only what Jesus teaches according to John[9], it is what was, in fact, physically necessary, because even if one were to believe that the Johannine community saw Jesus as an immortal figure who transcended time itself—after all, in John 8:58, Jesus exclaims, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am!”—His physical presence was still lacking from the world from the time of His ascension per the Gospel of Luke.  Jesus cannot be seen, and nor for that matter can God, a reality John concedes in his first letter.[10]

Rather, as that very same verse from 1 John goes on to teach, it is God who lives in us, invisible to us but whose love gets perfected in us over time.  With God’s love in us through Jesus Christ, we are able to have faith—and thus “see” the unseeable: the divine.  And so we remain “in” the divine.

All of this is acutely necessary to the Johannine community as it withstood marginalization and oppression, and it remains necessary to us today, even as we emphatically do not experience the same level of marginalization and oppression (despite vehement protestations to the contrary by some of our American Christian brethren).  The grandparent of Christian existentialism, who strove constantly to merge the notions of faith and experience, Soren Kierkegaard, once wrote, “He who loves God without faith reflects upon himself; he who loves God in faith reflects upon God.”[11]
In short: faith is what allows us to see God.  Perhaps this should not be so revolutionary a thought to us today, but in a first-century world of religion governed by law and by coercion more so than by faith or by grace, it almost certainly would be.  And in a 21st-century world governed by consumerism and unchecked greed, the idea of seeing the unseeable rather than striving for the tangible worth of materialism is, in point of fact, still very much revolutionary.

It is difficult to over-emphasize just how great the importance is to John of our faith, our “seeing the unseeable.”  Per Rudolf Schnakenburg, “The one thing demanded of man (sic) is faith, this is the great Johannine formula for salvation: He who believes in the Son has eternal life.”[12]  Yet Schnakenburg cites arguably the most famous verse in Scripture—John 3:16—in such a way that 3:16’s use of pisteuein is once more translated as “believes in” rather than “has faith in.”  To this day, we are still using the two terms interchangeably in our translations of John when, with a plethora of Biblical translations available to English readers, we can afford the luxury of choosing precision.
Yet we do not always choose to in favor of the wording we have known and accepted for years—witness the still strong popularity of the relatively inaccurate King James Version translation.

The irony of this is that it does not have to be this way; translators have shown a willingness to correct potential inaccuracies of translations past, such as changing the translation of hoi ioudaioi from “the Jews” to “the Jewish leaders” (in the Common English Bible) or “the Judeans” (in the Complete Jewish Bible), and yet, we have continued to neglect to offer pisteuein the same treatment.

In this way, faith language remains a form of antilanguage for an antisociety, even as Christianity still remains, numerically at least, the most popular religion in the world.  Yet for as many—literally billions—of people who profess Christianity as their faith of choice, we still seem to possess a lack of more people who, in Dr. Lindsay’s words, are true to John’s Jesus, for “to remain in Jesus, therefore, is to produce the work(s) that Jesus does, just as Jesus’ remaining in the Father allows him to do the works of the Father.”[13]  We remain lacking in producing the works of Jesus to this day.

I am fully cognizant of the implications of what it is I am suggesting in that previous paragraph: that even the faith of billions has yet been inadequate in remedying a great many of the world’s harms which Jesus indicts and calls upon us to remedy.  However, we in our human condition remain difficult to teach new forms and acts of pisteuein, of faith.  As Dr. Lindsay notes in his concluding paragraph, even as John’s concept of faith is rooted in the Septuagint[14], this is still “all new in John’s Gospel.”[15]  To no small extent, it remains new even today, or at the very least, under-practiced.

In concluding my remarks, I would draw once more from Kierkegaard: “Faith is the movement of infinity within itself, and it cannot be otherwise.  Everything previous is preparatory, preliminary, something which disappears as soon as the conviction arrives.  Otherwise, there would be no resting in a conviction, for then to have conviction would mean perpetually to repeat the reasons.”[16]  What John calls us to, perhaps above anything else, in His Gospel is to rest in the conviction that having faith in God as revealed through Jesus Christ will cause us to experience the fullness of God’s love for us.  As we experience that divine love by way of our human faith, we, in turn, strive to bring others into experiencing that selfsame divine love.  How we strive to do so, though, comes down to our production of not only the works of Jesus Christ, but our production of His words as well.  The religious language we use has always mattered, but with a wide Christian-oriented theological vocabulary to choose from in 21st-century English, I hope and pray we would do well to think of how our own language sounds at its core—and how we might use it, along with every other ounce of our being, to bring forth the love of God to a hurting world that remains in desperate need of such love. 

In this way, may our own movement of infinity within itself continue on.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Vancouver & Longview, Washington
January 2015

Works Cited

Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: History, Literature, and Social Context, Thomson Wadsworth, 2003

Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction, Fifth Edition, McGraw-Hill, 2006

Howard C. Kee, Understanding the New Testament, Fifth Edition, Prentice Hall, 1993

Soren A. Kierkegaard, Provocations, edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2002

Dennis R. Lindsay, “Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith,” 2015

Rudolf Schnakenburg, New Testament Theology Today, translated by David Askew, Palm Publishers, 1963

[1] Dennis C. Duling, The New Testament: History, Literature, and Social Context, Thomson Wadsworth, 2003, 417.
[2] Galatians 5:16-17: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.” (NRSV)
[3] James 3:14-15, 17: “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish…But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” (NRSV)
[4] Howard C. Kee, Understanding the New Testament, Fifth Edition, Prentice Hall, 1993, 179.
[5] Stephen L. Harris, The New Testament: A Student’s Introduction, McGraw-Hill, 2006, 229.
[6] Eg, John 12:39: “…they could not believe…,” rather than, say, “they could not have faith in…”
[7] Dennis R. Lindsay, Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith, 6
[8] Ibid, 6-7
[9] John 20:29: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to pisteusantes—believe.” (NRSV)
[10] 1 John 4:12: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)
[11] Soren A. Kierkegaard, Provocations, edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2002, 275.
[12] Rudolf Schnakenburg, New Testament Theology Today, translated by David Askey, Palm Publishers, 1963, 98
[13] Dennis R. Lindsay, Believing in Jesus: A Johannine Theology of Faith, 11-12
[14] I regret that I could not devote my response more towards the Hebrew roots of John’s pisteuein usage, but the brutal truth is that I am poorly equipped to exegete ancient Hebrew and would only do it a disservice.
[15] Ibid, 24
[16] Soren A. Kierkegaard, Provocations, edited by Charles E. Moore, Plough Publishing House, 2002, 270

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