Can John Deliver Us from the Modern Gnostics?

Charles Hill’s examination of the reception of the Johannine corpus demonstrates that modern reception of John is more a reflection of the modern theological situation than it is a historical reality about the early reception of the Johannine literature. That is, the “Johannophobia” that Hill traces is a projection of the modern period upon the past which speaks of the modern fear or failure in regard to John.[1] In turn, the supposed gnostic “Johannophilia,” which Hill debunks, describes how modern reception of John has amounted to a reception of the book on the basis of a gnostic sensibility. My hypothesis is that the fear and love of the book of John, as Hill finds it in the early church, is precisely the opposite of what has been projected and this is because moderns tend to fear or reject a true reading of John and have succumbed to a gnostic reading.  That is, the heretics feared and avoided the book and the orthodox made it central but in the modern period the book is mostly reduced to a heretical reading as the basis for its acceptance.

Part of the evidence that this might be the case is in the universal consensus which has developed around John in the modern period. As Hill describes it, before the Valentinians appropriated the Gospel through their novel interpretation of the Prologue, John was offensive to the heretics in its emphasis on the deity of Christ and the eyewitness testimony to this effect.[2] Yet, in modern scholarship the opposite has been presumed to be the case:

As is apparent from this review, the phenomenon of orthodox Johannophobia has been for several decades a generally recognized principle among scholars working in Johannine studies, and in New Testament and early Christian history. It has been endorsed by most of the trusted names in Johannine studies, one of whom declares it to be supported by ‘all our evidence’. Many of these scholars shaped Johannine studies, and New Testament studies in general, in the last half of the twentieth century. Others are highly qualified and respected historians of early Christianity. Their work is quite naturally relied upon by other Johannine scholars and by specialists in related fields. When one scholar wrote that ‘It is well known that the orthodox were unwilling to quote the Fourth Gospel in the second century, for it was much the preserve of heretics’, she was stating what is, in the mainstream of the academic community, utterly non-controversial.[3]

Hill meticulously refutes this modern consensus and concludes:

Surely one of the most striking results of this investigation, but not of this only, for other studies have been at least tending towards the same conclusion, is that the major use of the Fourth Gospel among heterodox or gnostic groups up until the Valentinians Ptolemy, Heracleon, and Theodotus, is best described as critical or adversarial. This exposes and should correct the tendency of earlier scholarship to assume that any Johannine borrowings or allusions in gnostic literature are evidence of gnostic/Johannine affinity, or of a common family history.[4]

 But Hill leaves his readers wondering how modern scholarship and modern sensibility could make such a mega-blunder.

After Hill’s book and the earlier work of Martin Hengel, according to John Behr, the idea that John’s Gospel was viewed with suspicion by the orthodox church should be a dead letter,[5]but the fact that this notion has been given life and continues to survive seems to speak of the strange theological situation in which we find ourselves. The major influence which John exercised on the early church is largely read out of the history of modern scholarship, and one can only speculate that this is due to the silencing of John in the modern period. This silencing is not an overt exclusion of the Johannine literature but is an exclusion of a Johannine theological approach.

 My own, admittedly anecdotal, witness to this silencing of John comes from teaching John to undergraduates. John’s theological approach to the life of Christ, as I am sure I inadequately presented it, either opened students to a new way of reading the Bible or it made them angry. Students attenuated to a flat reading of the life of Christ through a flat reading of the synoptics were not used to finding the sort of theological significance and depth which are unavoidable in John. The strange yet blatant theological echoes of the Hebrew scriptures, the linking of the divine name and action to Jesus’ miracles and identity, the cosmic dimensions of recreation through Christ, the time-bending apocalyptic nature of John, the peculiar theological focus upon the manner of the death of Christ (an accomplished fact that pervades the Gospel), the implication of all the apostles in the sin of Judas as definitive of darkness, etc. etc.; these themes either created excitement or brought out defensiveness. In other words, the Johannophobia which Hill traces among academics is present at a popular level among ordinary believers.

John is not normally read in the universally accepted manner in which the early church read him and this serves to blunt his message, which is directed at the heresy which has the modern church in its grip. The flat reading of the Logos as the disincarnate Christ, the heaven and earth duality, the legal abstractions which pass for atonement theory, the focus on the individual, the elitism of the saved, the focus on souls going to heaven, and the denigration of this world and the flesh amounts to a form close to Gnosticism. Is the peculiar scholarly reception of John and the popular misreading of John a reflection of the fact that the modern church has succumbed to gnostic tendencies against which John writes?

The offence of John against gnostic sensibilities is the focus on the incarnation or the divine Word becoming flesh. The Gnostics believed matter was evil and it would be impossible for the divine to become flesh. The Word made flesh and the high view of the deity of Jesus made John repulsive to the early Gnostics. Only disembodied spirit could be divine and only those who, through special knowledge linked to an original divine spark, gained gnostic knowledge.

What renders John inoffensive in the modern period is a downplaying of John’s anti-gnostic themes. The incarnation is muted in modern sensibility as focus is put upon the pre-incarnate Christ. In turn, the goodness of creation or the sense in which it is a fit-dwelling for God, is displaced by the notion that redemption amounts to abandonment of God’s creation (rather than recreation, as portrayed in John). Focus on individual assent of the believer to a doctrinal formula accords with disembodied gnosis as adequate for salvation, which also fits with a focus on the inward and “spiritual” as standing over and against the outward and fleshly. This all fits with the peculiar elitism of the Gnostics (of the first and 21st century): only a special few are saved and most are damned and there is no cosmic salvation or cosmic recreation in gnostic-like readings of John.

What Hill finds, in contrast to a phobia of John in the early church, is the profound influence of John in every sector of the early church:

After the Johannine Epistles, the influence of this Gospel is evident in the writings or oral teachings of Ignatius, Polycarp, ( John) the Elder, Aristides, Papias, the longer ending of Mark, the later portions of the Shepherd of Hermas, the Epistula Apostolorum, the Ad Diognetum, all before about 150. These represent the Great Church in at least Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The witness of Papias and his sources is of particular magnitude, as it seems to represent a substratum of tradition about the four Gospels which became widely diffused. This witness is consistent with the eminence of the four Gospels which is assumed by the longer ending of Mark, well before the comments made by Irenaeus in the 180s.[6]

Hill goes on to describe what must have been the universal appeal and shaping force of John in the early church. John’s “strong representation among the surviving papyrus fragments of early Christian writings” and the very early testimony of Aristides (in the 120s) and Justin (in the 150s) that the reigning emperor read John. Hill maintains that, “By the middle of the century, when Justin Martyr, Tatian, Valentinus, Ptolemy, and Hegesippus were in Rome, this Gospel must have been quite a well-known and prominent Christian authority.”[7] Hill argues, contrary to the received consensus, “there is no good evidence that any of the writers of the Great Church opposed or rejected the Gospel according to John in the second century, least of all for being gnostic or docetic, and not even for being inauthentic.”[8]

He points to the early catacomb paintings in Rome (around 200 A.D.) which testify to the unique influence of John in depictions of Jesus as the good shepherd (John 10), the conversation with the Samaritan woman (from John 4), the healing of the paralytic (from John 5), and the raising of Lazarus (from John 11). The use of “good shepherd” chalices (in the third century), and popularity of depictions of the wedding at Cana and the healing of the man born blind in baptistries, in Christian tombs, in glass and ceramic art, and in mosaics, testify to the popularity of the Gospel of John.[9] Far from a heretical love of John and an orthodox fear, Hill concludes that John was a “stubborn obstacle to docetism” or the denial that Christ was fully human. John preserved the orthodox church against the heretics, rather than providing an opening for their split between the humanity and deity of Jesus.

John’s focus on the eternality and deity of Jesus, as described in the work of Herbert McCabe, Robert Jenson, John Behr, and Rowan Williams, has been largely subdued if not lost in the modern sensibility, and this may account for the peculiar gnostic-like malaise of the church. The failure of Johannine scholarship seems to be the manifestation of a broader failure of appreciation of the theological focus of John which preserved the orthodoxy of the first church. What we find in the early church, and what has been largely lost in the modern period, is the centrality of the Gospel of John.

Maybe the prime representative of a Johannine theological approach, today condemned as a heretic, is Origen of Alexandria. My point in turning to Origen is to suggest that what has been lost in the modern church, in its flat reading of John, is best represented in the theological richness of Origen, which is today an understanding often reviled and repudiated.

As Ronald Heine describes in his introduction to Origen’s commentary on John, “Perhaps no book of the Bible, certainly none of the New Testament, was so suited to Origen’s exegetical approach as the Gospel of John. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John we have the greatest exegetical work of the early church.”[10] Ambrose directed Origen to write on John, as he had been saved out of Valentinianism by Origen, and apparently the Gospel had become key in his understanding. Origen’s spiritual exegesis of Scripture takes its inspiration from John and Paul. He referred to them as the “princes” of the New Testament and he refers to John as the “high priest” of religion of the Logos, as it was John who attained to a spiritual vision. He credits Revelation 14:6 as inspiring his understanding of the spiritual gospel, and his reading of John provides an abundance of examples of this spiritual reading.

In the commentary he will refer (in Book 6) to the crossings of the Jordan as a type of baptism; to the paschal lamb as a type of the crucified Christ (Book 10); to the tabernacle and the temple as types of Christ (Book 10.60); and in his discussion of John 2:13 he proceeds from the Passover in Exodus to Christ to I Corinthians 5:7 to Jesus words in 6:53-56 regarding eating his flesh and blood.[11] Origen finds Jesus Christ in the Law and the Prophets and is the center of his interpretation of every book of the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, Origen sets the pattern in a theological interpretation, inspired by John, that would become common in the early church.

Eusebius (260-339 A. D.) calls him the greatest Christian theologian, while Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215 A. D.) calls him the true gnostic. Gregory of Nyssa considers Origen his theological master while Gregory of Nazianzus demonstrates a primary reliance of Origen. According to David Bentley Hart, it is Origen and Origen’s reading of the Bible that will exercise the key influence on the early church:

After Paul, there is no single Christian figure to whom the whole tradition is more indebted. It was ­Origen who taught the Church how to read Scripture as a living mirror of Christ, who evolved the principles of later trinitarian theology and Christology, who majestically set the standard for Christian apologetics, who produced the first and richest expositions of contemplative ­spirituality, and who—simply said—laid the foundation of the whole edifice of developed Christian thought.[12]

And as Hart continues, it is Origen who is most disgracefully treated as a heretic by both East and West.

What is lost to us in the critical reception of Johannine literature in modern scholarship and in the flat reading of John with its gnostic-like presumptions, is the richness of the theological program inspired by John and passed along by Origen. Apart from the recovery of John’s theological reading it is not clear that deliverance from modern Gnosticism is possible.


[1] Charles Hill, The Johannine Corpus in the Early Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[2] Hill, 444.

[3] Hill, 56.

[4] Hill, 466.

[5] John Behr, John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 43.

[6] Hill, 465.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hill, 468.

[9] Hill, 469.

[10] Origen, Commentary on the Gospel According to John Books 1-10, Translated by Ronald E. Heine (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1989), 3.

[11] Origen, 14-15.

[12] David Bentley Hart, “Saint Origen,” in First Things (October 2015). Thank you Matt for the reference and for your great enthusiasm for Origen.

A Different Form of the Faith: The Constantinian Shift

“The accession of Constantine terminated the pacifist period in church history.” Roland Bainton

If peace of the pacifist kind, as defined by Jesus and as taught by the church for its first 300 years, is central to the gospel, in what sense can it be said that Christianity survived the Constantinian shift? Roland Bainton traces small remnants of pacifism throughout church history, but the overwhelming sense is that the flame of the true teaching of Christ flickered only slightly, if at all, for long periods of church history. Since we are located on the other side of this shift in a period as Constantinian as any other, it may be difficult to recognize the contrast between Christianity before Constantine and the Christendom that came after. But as many are turning from the church in protest at the ugliness of the Christian religion it may be the opportune time to point out that the religion and teaching of Christ have been all but erased by the Constantinian form of the faith. Here in summary fashion is a delineation of the difference Constantinianism wrought upon the Christian faith. (While the shift brought about by the man Constantine is partly in view, the shift begins prior to his conversion and some one hundred years after his death.)

1. A different authority: Church councils came to bear a new authority which continues in both East and West. Constantine called himself the bishop of bishops and he applied his pagan assumptions about the place of priests in the empire. Not yet baptized, Constantine determined the phrasing and was the decisive voice at the Council of Nicaea in determining questions surrounding the Trinity. As John Howard Yoder points out, his primary concern in determining doctrinal issues, as with later emperors, was what was best for the empire. The presumption was that the church must speak with a unified voice on doctrinal questions and the council presumed to be that voice. The rise of the centralized leadership vested in the pope can be attributed to the unfolding of the same Constantinian logic in which there is a singular head and voice for each realm of power and this singularity is presumed to be unifying.

2. A different ethic: Where Christians refused military service prior to Constantine, subsequent to Constantine Christians were not only favored but it was required (by 436) that soldiers be Christians. There was not only an abandonment of nonviolence but there was no longer the resource in the New Testament for ethics, as this was a new situation, so there was a turn, by Ambrose and Augustine, to the Roman heritage, especially Cicero, to work out a new form of the Christian ethic for those serving Rome.

3. A different worldview: Augustine’s Neo-Platonism and the rise of Constantine would cement the duality that presumed God was using the emperor to do some things and Christians to do other things. There is the peace of Rome, the Pax Romana, and the peace of Christians, which were thought to complement one another. It is from this period that a notion like that of Robert Jeffress arises, that Jesus in not fit to be Caesar or president. Should the ruler be Christian he must employ something other than the ethic of Jesus to rule, as the world is split and Jesus’ ethics pertains to the private portion of that world. The soul/body split necessary for a violent Christianity became the norm.

4.  A different definition of Church: Under Theodosius, who became emperor in 379, an edict defined the one true Catholicism as Trinitarian believers in communion with the bishops of Rome and Alexandria. The Council of Constantinople confirmed that those who were less willing to forgive the apostate (the Donatists) or those with an alternative view of Christ (the Arians) did not have the support of the state and therefore were not part of the church. Augustine believed that the state had to force the heretics (he quotes Jesus, “Compel them to come in”), the Donatists, to comply to the edict and eventually their property was confiscated and their meetings banned. State support determines the boundaries of the church through state power.

This clear delineation of who was counted out was aggravated by the fact, that unless you were a Donatist or Arian or a barbarian, everybody was Christian (except a few Jews) no matter the level of objective commitment to Christianity. So, Augustine declared the true church was now invisible as the visible spectacle offered no hint of a subjective commitment. This leads to the notion that most people counted as Christians were not considered saved.  The church is to be found primarily among the priests, authorized by other priests, so that the sequence of ordination coming down from Jesus through the bishops and through those authorized to perform the sacraments, most clearly demonstrated the presence of God. Even priests and bishops though, may not be elect as they can be hypocrites and so the invisibility of the church is nearly complete. This means that the visible form of Christianity can be described in non-New Testament ways, as Neoplatonic dualism divides the visible and invisible realms nearly completely.

5. A different definition of state: Rome became a “Christian state” as it transitioned from the persecution of Christians to the imperial requirement of one Christian norm for all citizens. People were still free to be non-Christians but they would suffer disadvantages and they had no alternative public worship. This would have subsidiary effects on most every aspect of Christian doctrine, as being baptized and remaining in communion involved both church and state.

6.  A different understanding of church/society relations: The story is told that Pope Sylvester and Emperor Constantine agreed to split between them the realm of the empire and the realm of the church so as to work in support of one another. The practical result was that church government fell into the hands of civil government, and the one who bore the sword would determine who became a bishop.

7. A different meaning of baptism: Because of the new relationship of church and state becoming a Christian and becoming a citizen were fused, so that infant baptism (historians cannot agree upon its origins) became universal – no citizen should be left unbaptized. Neither citizenship nor church membership were voluntary.

8. A different set of rituals: To accommodate the 90 percent of the population who had not been Christian prior to Constantine pagan rituals, such as spring fertility celebrations, could be celebrated under the auspices of Passion and Easter. Christmas is usually considered to be the best example, though its origins are more obscure, of an incorporation of a pagan celebration into the church. The cult of the dead, seemingly the universal religion presuming the dead hear and answer prayer, was given a Christian flavor. These new celebrations arose with Constantine as an attempt to take in what was already being observed and celebrated.

9. A different theology: The church would undertake a reinterpretation of troublesome parts of the Bible inveighing against violence (the sermon on the Mount is for the individual acting in private) and would focus on obscure passages to illicit the possibility for violence (the cleansing of the temple, Jesus command to get a sword, etc.) and there was a relinquishing of notions of the possibility of perfection (not possible as government would always be necessary to constrain sin), and sin is inescapable and Original and thus infects all upon conception, and gradually a new meaning would be given to the death of Christ (divine satisfaction rather than Christus Victor – the implications of which were less than flattering for the emperor – Satan’s earthly representative). Augustine’s notion of the church invisible came with a new doctrine of election, he presumed about 5% of the population of Rome might be elect and saved. No one could be sure who might be included in that 5%, as God’s election is secret (we are not far from Calvin’s double predestination).

10. A different idea of history: Prior to Constantine the singular fact for Christians was their life and experience of the body of Christ, while after Constantine they would have to take it on faith that there is a church (as it is invisible). Before Constantine it was presumed that God is at work in history but it was not clear how, while after Constantine it was a fact that God governs history through Rome and the emperor. As Yoder concludes, the eschatology of the New Testament had been turned upside down.[1]

Protestantism is not going to escape the Constantinian shift, but if anything, aggravates it in its dependence upon particular princes and city states to preserve the new form of the faith. As a result, notions of just war, the role of church and state, especially with Luther’s notion that God is doing one thing with the hand of state and another with the hand of the church (clarifying Augustine’s two cities), will accentuate the problem of violence. Augustine’s Constantinian faith created a dualism that continues in Protestant notions that perfection is for another world and what counts now is the inner faith. While there is a reaction against the authority of the pope and a turn to the authority of the Bible, the Bible will be made to serve, in an unbalanced manner, as the corrective to the authority invested in pope and emperor. At the same time, the continuation of just war theory indicates that the New Testament is still relegated to a limited role: Jesus did not command or permit the sort of moral understanding entailed in the theory. Common sense, natural theology, human reason, in spite of Luther’s protests against the theologians of glory, will continue as a parallel authority.

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[1] Throughout I am following John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (pp. 57-65). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.