Biblical Theology, Book Review, New Testament Studies

“Jesus, the Word, According to John the Sectarian” by Robert Gundry – A Book Review

Gundry, Robert H. Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, especially Its Elites, in North America. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002. xvii + 137 pp.

In Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian, Gundry argues that North Americans must return to the fundamentalism based on John’s sectarian portrayal of Jesus the Word. Through christological exegesis of pertinent passages in the Fourth Gospel, Gundry, in the first chapter, demonstrates how Jesus presents himself as the Word (cf. John 1:1). The second chapter focuses on John’s sectarian portrayal of Jesus as the Word who calls his sheep. The last chapter provides the application, which is a call for North American evangelicals to return back to a “paleo-” fundamentalism found in John’s sectarian portrayal of Jesus the Word.

Synopsis

In chapter 1, Gundry canvasses the Gospel of John, demonstrating how it presents Jesus as the Word. First, the volume of Jesus’ speech in John is significantly higher than the Synoptics. He quotes Werner Kelber who observed that seventy-five percent of the Gospel of John is on Jesus’ sayings, dialogues, and monologues. For example, all four Gospels record the account of the feeding of the five thousand, but only John adds a long discourse on the bread of life. The account on the Lord’s Supper gets extended into four more chapters of discourse and prayer in John (cf. John 13-17). In the Fourth Gospel, John reduces the narrative accounts to accommodate more speeches of Jesus.

Secondly, Gundry surveys the semantic data that points to Jesus as the Word. The words ρηματα (rhemata) (12x) and λογος (logos) (29x), both in their singular and plural forms, dominate the Fourth Gospel. For Gundry, since Jesus was the Word with God in the beginning and he himself was God, his word is the same as God’s Word. Another word is εντολη(αι) (entole/ai)(John 14:15, 21; 15:10, etc.). The Synoptics never use “commandment” to refer to Jesus’ words, but only to refer to Old Testament commands or commands of a human father (Luke 15:29). In John, however, “commandment” was never used to refer to Old Testament commands, but only to Jesus’ words. The φωνη (phone) of Jesus speaking is also significant in John (cf. John 3:29; 5:25, 28; 10:3-4, 16; etc.), but it is never mentioned in the Synoptics except for his death-cry on the cross. While λεγω (lego) and φημι (phemi) are not significant, λαλεω (laleo) occurs 50 times to refer to Jesus speaking (contrast to 9 in Mark, 12 in Matthew, and 10 in Luke).

Lastly, the bulk of the argument in chapter 1 resides on the exegesis of key passages throughout John. In the Prologue, Jesus is the Word made flesh (1:1, 14) who exegeted the Father (1:18). Mary believes in Jesus’ words (2:5), and the disciples remember Jesus’s words regarding the temple, which is his body (2:19-22). In 5:39, those who do not believe in Jesus do not have the word of the Father abiding in them. The word of the Father is spoken by the Word whom the Father sent to the world. Jesus abides in the believers (6:56; 14:23; 15:4-5) and his words also abide in the believers (15:7). Thus, believing in Jesus’ words is the same as believing in Jesus himself. Those who hate Jesus (7:7) are those who hate his testimony and did not receive him as the Word (1:11). In 8:31-38, Jesus said to the Jews who believed him, if they abide in his word, then they are truly his disciples. Even when Jesus leaves, the Holy Spirit will remind the disciples all that Jesus, the Word, had told them (14:26). The phrase “I have spoken” or “Jesus spoke” is predominant in chapter 16. In the Lord’s prayer (John 17), Jesus tells the Father that he has given the disciples the Father’s word (17:8, 14). In John, the proclaimer and the proclaimed have become one and the same. Jesus commends those who will believe without seeing for it is Jesus’ word (or Jesus the Word) that generates believing (20:29).

In chapter 2, Gundry focuses on John’s sectarianism. Gundry views sectarians as those who “define themselves over against the world, unbelievers, the non-elect” (p. 56). This description of sectarianism is evident in the Fourth Gospel’s distinction between believers and unbelievers. Jesus the Word exegeted God, and his words enable believers to truly know God. But the words of the Word are obscure for the non-elect. Darkness did not comprehend the light of the Word of life (1:5). No one comes to the Father unless he is drawn and given by the Father (6:44, 65). Those who are not able to hear his Word could not understand Jesus’ speech because they are not of God (8:43, 47). Jesus said, “You do not believe because you are not among my sheep” (10:26). In John 17, Jesus prays not for the world, but for those given to him by the Father out of the world (17:9 with 17:6). Furthermore, the dualisms in John distinguish the believers from the world: above versus below, Spirit versus flesh, truth versus falsehood, light versus darkness, and believers versus unbelievers. Gundry makes this summarizing point:

The Word who was with God in the beginning was also himself God…became flesh, spoke and performed the word and words of God, divided his audience into sons of light and sons of darkness, commissioned his disciples to continue a ministry of words, returned to his pre-incarnate splendor, sent the Holy Spirit, and will at the last day judge the human race according to his word, i.e. according to himself.

Jesus the Word, p. 68

In chapter 3, Gundry presents implications of the exegetical data to contemporary evangelicalism in North America. He argues that if the theologies of the Gospels—with their varying occasion of writing, emphases of purpose, etc.—are divinely authoritative, then there is a call for North American evangelicals to reinstate John’s sectarianism based on Jesus as the Word. For Gundry, the evangelicals’ expanding presence and influence in mainstream academia must be celebrated. He said,

I do not condemn penetration by evangelicals any more than I condemn separation by fundamentalists. Separation was necessary to save the gospel against the inroads of modernism…and penetration has been necessary to save the gospel from irrelevance and a seclusion that threatened to keep it from being heard in the world at large.

Jesus the Word, p. 74

The problem with contemporary evangelicals, however, is the embrace of seeker-sensitive movement, which soft-pedals the preaching of salvation from sin to meet a felt need of people. Gundry laments that

The gospel message of saving, sanctifying grace reduces to a gospel message of physical, psychological, and social well-being that allows worldliness to flourish.

Jesus the Word, p. 78

The seeker-sensitivity of contemporary evangelicals led to a “consumerized (sic) version of Christianity” (p. 80). From the emphasis on evangelism, church planting, and discipleship in the 1930s, “missions” became about relief, development, and education work in the 90’s. Sermons focused on the practicality of here and now, instead of about heaven and hell, eternal life and eternal damnation. What John writes about in the Fourth Gospel is “a sectarian separation from the world accompanied by a powerfully proclaimed Word from above” (p. 92). Thus, Gundry calls contemporary evangelicals to a renewed fundamentalism. He says,

Such a renewed fundamentalism would take direction not only from fundamentalism at the very start of the twentieth century but also, and more importantly, from the paleofundamentalism of John the sectarian, whose Christology of the Word has Jesus come into the world (there is the engagement with it), sanctify himself (there is the separation from it), and exegete God (there is the message to it).

Jesus the Word, pp. 93-94

Analysis

In Jesus the Word according to John the Sectarian, Robert Gundry exemplifies a thorough observation of the biblical text, leading to a text-driven argument. This seems to be the greatest strength of Gundry’s work. Gundry brings out biblical data that could easily be missed. He pays attention, not only to the semantic data, but also to the text itself within its context. Some may quarrel with Gundry’s interpretation that God’s Word is obscure to the non-elect, but further qualifications or a comprehensive doctrinal treatment on the topic is beyond Gundry’s purpose.

One minor weakness, however, is Gundry’s failure to define key terms in his thesis well. The terms “sectarianism” and “paleo-fundamentalism” could be understood differently from Gundry’s usage, depending on who is reading it. “Sectarianism,” typically has a negative connotation, as it describes a religious extremist. The use of the term, I think, is excellent because it is striking; but a clearer definition of what Gundry meant (or did not mean) would be helpful. The same applies to “paleo-fundamentalism,” by which Gundry refers to the “fundamentalism” practiced by John, which is distinct from the fundamentalism of the early twentieth century. In the third chapter, it was not quite clear why the application is directed to “Northern Americans,” as opposed to contemporary evangelicals as a whole. Why is the call not applicable to evangelicals in Asia, or Africa? Also, who are the “Elites”? These terms, being part of his thesis, require clearer definition of both what it means and does not mean. 

Gundry’s keen observation does not only apply to the biblical text, but also to contemporary evangelical culture. Gundry’s lament on the “seeker-sensitive movement,” that fails to draw the line between believers and unbelievers, is based on observation of common trends in evangelicalism. In the last couple years, the church has been reaping the seeds sown by the church growth movement of the 1990’s. In retrospect, many evangelicals observe that the seeker-sensitive movement failed to accomplish its purpose. It attempted to reach the unchurch by meeting their needs, but the majority of those who were attracted were those who wanted to be religious but remain in the world. Those who were unchurched because they never had any Christian background at all were never attracted.

A great balance between engagement and separation is clear in Gundry’s application. Today’s fundamentalists, if they will engage with those outside their circle, have something to offer and teach their non-fundamentalist brothers in the area of separation. Similarly, broader fundamentalism also needs to learn about engagement with the culture, not isolationism and alienation. Gundry balances between being in the world, but not being of the world.

As a personal note, I wonder if Gundry’s call has been applied in the last decade and a half with the resurgence of conservative evangelicalism. The participation between fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists even in ecclesiological contexts has risen due to the conservative direction of many leading evangelicals. The lines between sons of light and children of darkness are being redrawn as faithfulness to the biblical text, emphasis on expository preaching, and the practice of church discipline and separation are being revisited. Yet many among fundamentalism prefer to distance themselves from their evangelical brothers unless they leave their churches, institutions, denominations, and organizations to join a historic fundamentalist one. Such expectation, however, is unfair and beyond the call of the biblical text. Any transformation and renewal towards a more separatistic stand against false doctrine and worldliness that distinguishes the sons of light from the children of darkness must be celebrated and encouraged. The battle against the world, however, continues as new challenges to Christianity arise. New lines need to be drawn as the church faithfully declares the truth about Jesus the Word whose true disciples, unlike the world, abide in Jesus’ words.

Conclusion

Gundry provides a biblical-theological argument on a major theme in the Fourth Gospel: Jesus as the Word who divides sons of light from sons of darkness. This work serves as a prototype of how to use biblical theology as a method of study, with Gundry’s great care, observation, and proper handling of the data of the biblical text. While some may see his application as extreme (as he expects his readers to say) and others may view it as not far enough, yet he provides a very sound, fair, and balanced application for the northern evangelicals of his time. Regardless of what issues the church may face at the present time, the understanding of Jesus the Word dividing people between believers and non-believers continues to be a principle that affects the church until Jesus the Word himself returns.

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