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Great work; disappointing conclusion
on January 10, 2004
Culpepper's treatment of the Fourth Gospel is remarkable. His ability to concentrate on the issues that matter, ignoring rabbit trails, and his command of the familiarity with the Johannine materials is evident.
Much like a commentary, Culpepper begins his work with issues of authorship, history, community, theology and literature that are all very well done. These are all tied together in the main body of his work that interprets the gospel and shows its intricate composition. All the main themes - sin as unbelief, death as exaltation, identity of Jesus as Christological (and overriding) issue - are developed and commented on superbly.
As another reviewer noted, the chapter covering the Johannine epsitles seemed a bit of an afterthought and are tied so closely to the gospel that they lose their distinctiveness and message. Nonetheless, these are exposited adequately as well.
If the book had ended there it would have been very satisfying, but Culpepper instead sought to add an addendum to the book, evaluating John's (that is, the gospel's) use as a document of faith. This, of course, makes sense, but his review of the issues is too brief to really justify such a section; it seems as if the book has ended and he is starting another avenue of discussion.
Furthermore, his conclusions seem very tenuous. He examines the theological and historical challenges that the gospel faced in the past and then outlines three areas of what he calls ethical challenges.
First is the issue of Anti-Semitism (or Anti-Judaism) the gospel promotes. His discussion here is worthwhile, but seems to have a hard time dinstingiushing between anti-semitism and anti-judaism (as D. Moody Smith does in his theology of the gospel of john). This issue, ultimately, is tied to the issue of exclusivity below.
Second is the issue of whether the gospel gives a voice to the oppressed and marginal in society. This is also a worthy topic but not one which should dominate the acceptance of the gospel. The issue seems far-removed from the gospel itself and more germane to NT scholarship in general.
Finally is the issue of its exclusivism in light of the pluralism found in modern western culture. This topic, more than any other, is poorly addressed. Culpepper seems to allow the climate of society to control the agenda for the gospel rather than vice versa. Not that this is an inappropriate issue to wrestle over, but it seems that two important observations are over-looked.
1) If we can celebrate the blessings of diversity in pluralism (of which there are many) we should also be aware of its dangers. An unchecked, all-embracing pluralism is just as dangerous as an unchecked, choking exclusivity. While the issue of exclusivity is one that does need questioning and struggling over, we must not take as self-evident the axiom that pluralism is all flowers and butterflies. If we must abrogate our reading of John in view of society today, ultimately John may force us to abrogate our life in society or it fails have any authority whatsoever as a part of the canon of the churches' scripture.
2) John, as the rest of the NT, was written in a pluralistic society vastly similar to our own. Early Christians were accused of athiesm, not because they confessed Jesus as Lord, but because they would not confess Ceasar as Lord, along with the whole pantheon of Hellenistic dieties (and principles). And yet Christianity thrived. Of course, the reality is more difficult than such a reductionistic summary, but it is a mistake to think that our value of pluralism is any greater or more noble than that of the ancient world (from which we borrowed it).
So, then, overall Culpepper's work on the gospel is very well-done, insightful and lucid. His coverage of the letters seems somewhat truncated and standing in the shadow of the gospel but still solid. His evaluation of the gospel's religious value, though, is both too short and too pointed to garner much help from. A mixed bag in the end.