A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters, Book Review

Title: A Theology of John's Gospel and Letters
Author: Andreas J. Köstenberger
Publisher: Zondervan, 2009
Price: $39.99 (amz) (wts)
Binding: Hardcover
Pages: 652
This volume marks the inauguration of the Biblical Theology of the New Testament series edited by Andreas J. Köstenberger. The series aims for each volume to provide in-depth analysis of the books of the New Testament “within the context of the theology of the New Testament, and ultimately of the entire Bible” (26). It further aims to “make a significant contribution to the study of the major interrelated themes of Scripture in a holistic, context-sensitive, and spiritually nurturing manner” (26).

In this lead volume on the Theology of John and His Letters, Köstenberger seeks to apply these goals to the Johannine corpus. Much of Köstenberger’s career has focused on John’s Gospel, and this theology functions as a kind of “sequel” to his commentary in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series.

Köstenberger divides his work into four main parts. In part one, he outlines the historical framework for Johannine theology. In this section, Köstenberger deals with introductory issues (e.g., authorship, dating, provenance, etc) and sketches the historical setting of John’s Gospel and letters. In part two, Köstenberger moves on to the literary foundations for Johannine theology. Here Köstenberger discusses issues of genre as well as a number of other linguistic and literary dimensions. In two extensive chapters, Köstenberger then gives a “liteary-theological reading” of John’s Gospel and his letters. This material is essentially a running theological interpretation that proceeds section by section through John’s writings.

Part three is the most substantive section of the book and represents the fruit of Köstenberger’s preliminary discussions. After a prolegomena section examining John’s worldview and use of Scripture, Köstenberger orders the theological themes in John’s Gospel by highlighting three key passages: The beginning (1:1-18), the middle (13:1-3), and the end (20:30-31). Because it contains the “purpose statement” of John’s entire Gospel, Köstenberger begins with the end. Here John reveals that he writes so that his readers will believe in Jesus as the Christ. Thus, Köstenberger’s first two major themes are Jesus’ identity as the Messiah and the significance of his “signs.”

Köstenberger then returns to the beginning of John’s Gospel and focuses on John’s portrayal of Jesus as the Word. This section contains chapters on the Trinity, salvation history, the cosmic trial motif, and the nature of the new Messianic community. Köstenberger next moves to the middle of John’s Gospel with an emphasis on John’s moral vision, his theology of the cross, and his Trinitarian mission theology.

Part four then briefly relates Johannine theology to the other voices in the New Testament. Here John’s theology is compared to the Synoptics, Paul’s theology, and the rest of the New Testament. In a conclusion, Köstenberger reiterates his aim to “explore the various major aspects of Johannine theology by using a sound methodological biblical theology approach” (566). He has attempted to ground his Johannine theology “in a close reading of John’s narrative and letters themselves” (566).

In the end, Köstenberger sounds a strongly confessional note to the reader: “Thank you for joining me on this journey, embarked on not primarily by a scholar seeking to master the gospel but by a worshiper and disciple longing to be mastered by it” (567).

One of the strengths of this volume is Köstenberger’s clearly delineated method. His overall structure reflects his commitment to the “hermeneutical triad” of history, language/literature, and theology, “with the first two elements being foundational and theology occupying the apex” (42ff). In this model, theology is the “pinnacle of biblical interpretation,” although “an appreciation of both the historical-cultural background of a particular text and of the Bible’s linguistic literary features is essential” (42). Accordingly, the bulk of the book is devoted to major themes in Johannine theology, but this section is integrally related to the previous sections on the historical context and literary features of John’s Gospel and letters.

For instance, the selection and ordering of the themes in this section is a product of prior literary analysis (e.g., the prominent role given to the beginning, middle, and end of John). This feature helpfully emphasizes the importance of allowing the literary contours of a book to guide the presentation of its theological message. Adopting this method encourages one’s presentation of John’s theology to be “predicated on repeated readings of John’s gospel” (311).

Because each section is easy to follow and in some sense self-contained, this work can serve as a valuable exegetical and theological resource (though perhaps not as a work to be read straight through). Many of the chapters and sub-sections provide helpful introductions and orientations to various textual and theological issues in the study of John’s writings.

For someone interested in filling out a profile of John’s compositional strategy, part two will be particularly useful. Here Köstenberger outlines many hermeneutical and literary devices that are prominent in John’s narrative such as his distinctive vocabulary, his use of narrative asides, his portrayal of “misunderstandings,” his use of irony, his employment of symbolism, and the techniques he uses in forming the structure of his writings.

In these discussions, Köstenberger also provides many helpful charts, tables, and lists of textual examples. These elements help readers sift and process large amounts of raw data. The “literary-theological readings” of John’s Gospel and his letters also essentially function as mini-theological commentaries. The inclusion of this embedded analysis adds a valuable resource and helps ensure that the presentation of John’s theology is integrally related to the literary and narrative shape of John’s writings.

In terms of a balance between John’s Gospel and John’s letters, there is an overwhelming focus the former. The bulk of Köstenberger’s analysis zeroes in on the Fourth Gospel with John’s letters often serving a supplemental role. Though this is largely a function of the nature of the literature itself, sometimes the sections on the epistles felt a little brisk (e.g., the discussion on the structure of 1, 2, 3 John, 171-73).

Köstenberger concedes that “there will invariably be many loose ends remaining to be tied together at the end of this kind of investigation” (566). One of these loose ends is the relationship of John’s Gospel and his letters to the book of Revelation. Though the size of the present volume is indicative of the space and effort required to treat John’s Gospel and epistles, some readers will miss the integration of John’s Apocalypse. In this regard, part four is very brief. Though the discussion of the relationship between John and the Synoptics is helpful and pulls together threads that are developed throughout the volume, the discussion of John in the context of the rest of the New Testament is only about two pages (563-65).

These few critiques are minor and relate mostly to elements tangential to the bulk of Köstenberger’s reflection in Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters. On the whole and in the details, Köstenberger’s volume is exceedingly helpful. If the rest of the entries in the Biblical Theology of the New Testament series are as well done as the inaugural volume, then this series will be soon function as a benchmark among evangelical treatments of biblical theology.

See also,
Book Review
July 28, 2011


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