Introducing the Course on the Gospel of John

Is there in John, and by extension in Genesis, the notion that evil (in the form of darkness and chaos) precedes and enters into creation from its inception, or is John foreclosing this “narrative gap” to locate the origin of evil subsequent to creation? This is not an academic question, as the Gnostics and their predecessors (to say nothing of present-day Gnostics) find in Genesis and John a cosmic dualism, in which light and darkness are engaged in an ongoing ontological struggle. Philo, for example, presumes that chaos, emptiness, and darkness were there from before creation, and so too in some modern interpreters of John, these nothings are not among the things that come into being as these are over and against being.[1] These are of the nothing and non-being, such that one could say (and mean something very different than John) that “Nothing came into being apart from the Logos.” The Nothing of creation ex nihilo that is, is assigned an actual reality as a counter force over and against God and creation.

Is it the case that there was a preexistent evil resistance to creation and this is represented by darkness?  Or is the darkness subsequent to creation and accounted for within the parameters of the story (the story of creation or the story of the Gospel)? Is sin and evil something we can locate, name, and identify, along with its defeat or is the battle between light and darkness of such proportions that we are mere pawns in a game in which we cannot know from whence it came or where it is going? The answer to this question divides the Christian world (roughly between East and West) but it also amounts to two readings of John. The basic contention is whether John is a text that accords with the Platonic tradition (identity through difference, the necessity of a dualism)[2] or is John, in taking up the Logos (a key Greek philosophic term), describing an understanding over and against the Greeks and the Gnostics?

There is no part of the Christian enterprise that is not affected by how we conceive the Logos, as it is the abstraction of the Logos (conceived as the preexistent Christ and reduced to something like a first principle) which accounts for or accords with the mystification of sin, the turn to apologetics, the focus on an abstract atonement theory, the privileging of the law, the turn to nominalism, and the basic tenor of Western theology.

This understanding begins with a separation within the Word – separating the Logos from the “word of the cross,” making a division between the word and work of Christ. The nominalist positing of an empty sign or the disconnect between word and action or between words and ultimate reality, or the gap posed between God and creation flow out of this separation. For example, Luther and Calvin could not conceive of first order participation in the divine nature, as man is totally depraved and justification is outward (legally imputed) and there is no real participation in divine life. But the nominalist/Protestant inspired devolution from Hegel, to Kant, to Marx, to Nietzsche, is not simply a modern dilemma but is the condition addressed by Christ.

The incarnate identity in the New Testament and early church is pictured as definitively established in the cross. The presumption in John and among the early church fathers was not that this identity was some pre-incarnate form of the Logos.

John opens his depiction of recreation with the (Genesis) light personified in Christ and with the confirmation of creation ex nihilo through Christ but also with the resistant chaos of darkness threatening: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:3-5). The darkness does not overtake, grasp, overpower, or vanquish the light but the very existence of the penetrating light relativizes the darkness.

As in Genesis, the chaos of the waters and the darkness of night, is not a residue of the nothingness from out of which things were made but is a condition existing within creation. The “formless and void” condition and the “darkness over the surface of the deep” is limited by the light (1:2-4) and in the midst of the waters, atmosphere is formed creating a vertical space, and land is formed holding back the waters, creating a horizontal space (1:6-10). In John, Jesus’ movement between heaven and earth is on the order of the creation of an atmosphere in which heaven and earth meet as the life and breath of God are readily available in this joining. So too in John, the darkness can be named, comprehended, grasped, and is even overpowered in the culminating “it is finished” which sums up creation and recreation.

It is not that darkness takes on substance in John or that the dualism between light and dark are affirmed. Rather, John is depicting a decisive defeat of the darkness, and not a battle between two equal and opposite forces or the balancing out of the powers. The cure of the human disease is not, as it is for the Gnostics, in reconciling light and darkness and seeking a middle way of harmony between these opposed pairs. The Star Wars “dark” and “light” sides of the Force typify this Gnostic sort of dualism, in which evil is pictured as a competing reality with the good. In this world, good and evil or life and death constitute a “reality” of struggling between opposed pairs. As the Stranger describes in Plato’s Sophist:

Whereas we have not merely shown that things that are not, are, but we have brought to light the real character of “not being.”  We have shown that the nature of the Different has existence and is parceled out over the whole field of existent things with reference to one another; and of every part of it that is set in contrast to “that which is” we have dared to say that precisely that is really “that which is not.” . . . [We have proved] that the Kinds blend with one another; that Existence and Difference pervade them all, and pervade one another, that Difference. . . by partaking of Existence, is by virtue of that participation, but on the other hand is not that Existence of which it partakes, but is different; and since it is different from Existence . . . quite clearly it must be possible that it should be a thing that is not (Sophist 258-259).[3]

In other words, the nothing and nonexistent competes with and participates in being. Where a dualism is posited, reality and truth are not to be found on one side of the duality, as the dualism constitutes the existence (with the lie, in Plato’s description, having its own reality and substance necessary to the truth).  Life, peace, goodness, and light, do not survive, either conceptually or as lived possibilities, when paired with death, violence, evil, and darkness. Where life is gained through death, where peace is the end product of war, where goodness is the counter to evil, and where light is apprehended through the darkness, the oppositional reality infects both poles of the duality.  The lie resides not in one of the opposed pairs but in the opposition itself.  This system, what John will call the cosmos of darkness, does not present a true picture of alienation, rather it is a system of alienation in which the seeming route to overcoming alienation enacts it.  John’s Gospel opposes this proto-Gnostic tendency, not because it is the peculiar sin of his day, but because this identity through difference is the universal form of sin.

The illusion or lie is to imagine that difference is definitive and that existence and non-existence and the endless differences of the world constitute the world. Simply stated, the human failing is to confuse reality with unreality, setting up an antagonistic struggle to the death.  Life is consumed in an agonistic striving toward balance, but the illusion – producing suffering and death, is that engaging the struggle more intensely is the means of resolving the struggle. This peace through war or life through death antagonism not only misconstrues the power and substance of war and death but loses life and peace in the process. 

 John’s Gospel, defines the cosmos of darkness through a series of oppositional dualities which are precisely not dualisms, as John will reduce and collapse one pole of the opposed pairs. Hierarchy, law, and sacrifice are aimed at warding off chaos through maintaining a rigid balance, while in John, the Logos explodes this cosmos of darkness in that the light will penetrate and expose the darkness, life will defeat death, heaven will come to earth, and the children of the Devil will become the children of God. The evil, fleshly, world below is not an enduring autonomous reality but is exposed and defeated so that the apparent dualisms are exposed as mere oppositional dualities (and not equal and opposite dualisms).

Just as darkness in the original creation is an absence of light, so too in John, the darkness is a negation of the Light and belief is an apprehension of the Light. The Light is not only apprehended through belief but by this means “you may become sons of Light” (12:35-36). It is not that the darkness is a definitive direction or quality (a definitive counterforce) or a necessary ingredient of its opposite. As Jesus describes it, walking in the darkness apart from the Light will allow the darkness to “overtake you” as “he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” On the other hand, walking in the Light is to imitate Jesus and walk so as to avoid the darkness.

 As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[4] God has spoken definitively and finally in the word of the cross. “It is finished” (John 19:30); the Spirit is given and recreation has commenced. Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world in the word of the cross, the Logos of God.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] For example Jonathan A. Draper, “Darkness as Non-Being and the Origin of Evil in John’s Gospel” Darkness_as_Non-Being_and_the_Origin_of_Evil_in_Jo.pdf William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world” (fashioned of the same stuff as Augustinian/Calvinist sovereignty). Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated. What is differentiated and divided is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates. (“Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam-not.pdf) God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

[2] See for example, Plato’s description of the status of a lie and of difference in the Sophist.

[3] F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato translated with a running commentary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1935), 294-296. Quoted in Draper.

[4] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, (Herder & Herder, April 1, 2004).

The Word of the Cross as Defeat of a Universal Nominalist-like Sickness

The New Testament describes a form of realism, in which words and actions connect in the definitive giving (δίδωμι) of Christ, and in contrast there is a passive “handing over” (παραδίδωμι) in which the agent simply relinquishes or betrays the Word or his words. In this latter instance, the agency of the action is unclear in that the betrayal or handing over is to a power (e.g., Satan or sin) which carries off what is given up.  It is on the cross that there is positive gift or giving: “he gave himself” (Gal. 1:4, 1 Tim. 2:6; Tt. 2:14), that he might rescue, ransom, and redeem from the power to which men have been given up. This gift (δίδωμι) stands juxtaposed to the giving up (παραδίδωμι) by which Christ was killed, in that the gift specifically defeats the betrayal.

The agency of the positive gift, and the unclear or failed agency, in James’ depiction, characterizes two kinds of faith. The betrayal of the word, or a failure to bring together words and action, describes an empty faith: “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,’ and yet you do not give (δίδωμι) them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?” (James 2:16). The words are hollow and the faith is “dead.” For Martin Luther (steeped in nominalism – i.e., God’s essence and universals are unavailable) faith (sola fide) is an inner quality (disconnected from works) and not a sharing in the life of God. So for Luther, this passage marked James as an “epistle of straw.” Luther’s error (the nominalist error, but also the failure behind the modern) points to a more basic and universal failure James and Jesus are addressing.

Jesus indicates his conjoining of work and word marks something new and unique: “But the testimony which I have is greater than the testimony of John (the culmination of the previous testimony); for the works which the Father has given Me to accomplish—the very works that I do—testify about Me, that the Father has sent Me” (Jn. 5:36). Jesus’ words and deeds completely overlap in his divine mission. He embodies a different relationship to words than even John, the pinnacle of the Jewish system. Jesus words accomplish something, or intersect with ultimate reality, where John (and Judaism) could only point to this reality. This prior incapacity is most starkly represented, by the particular betrayal (παραδίδωμι) which killed him.

The betrayal of Judas, the conspiring of the Jewish Sanhedrin, the complicities of Herod, Pilate, and “the Jews,” all played their part, but each of these parties passively “hand him over.” Judas starts the chain reaction of “handing over” (παραδίδωμι) in which he “hands over” Jesus to the Jews (Mark 14: 10), who in their turn “bound Him, and led Him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Math. 27:2). The Jews picture their handing him over as a self-evident sign of guilt: “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18: 30; cf. also Mark 15: 1 and Matthew 27: 2). This handing over of Jesus includes Pilate, Rome (the world of Gentiles), Judas, the Jewish priests, the Jews, and Satan.[1] All are involved in the “handing over of Jesus unto death.” At the end of the trial Pilate will hand Jesus over to the Jews to be crucified, but of course the Jews could not carry out crucifixion, so they hand him over to the soldiers.

It is true, Judas is the “betrayer” (ho paradidous) or the one whose entire identity is marked by this “handing over” (Mark 3: 19, “Judas Iscariot, who handed him over (hos kai paredōken auton),” and in Matthew 10:14, “Judas Iscariot, the one who handed him over (ho kai paradous auton).” Once Jesus is delivered into “the hands of men,” into the hands of the high priests, into the hands of the Gentiles, the momentum toward the crucifixion is a foregone conclusion. But the sin of Judas, “handing over,” is shared by every class of people, and in particular the apostles, from which Judas originated and with whom he is still identified even after the betrayal.

At the last supper, when Jesus announces that the betrayer is among them, all of the Apostles assumed they are potentially the betrayer. The Apostles “began looking at one another, at a loss to know of which one He was speaking” (Jn 13:22). Mathew pictures each of the disciples as questioning if they personally will betray him: “Being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, ‘Surely not I, Lord?’” (Mt 26:22).  They each see within themselves the possibility which resides in Judas. Judas is singled out and his sin is singled out, but this great sinner who sums up the worst sort of sin as the betrayer, is so much a part of the apostolic band that they cannot distinguish him.

 It is in conjunction with this disclosure that Jesus washes the disciple’s feet. When Peter protests, “Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me’” (Jn 13:8). When Peter insists upon a complete bath, Jesus explains, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (Jn 13:10). The wholly clean still need to have their feet washed and what they are washed of, the uncleanness which still resides among them, is represented by Judas. Jesus cleanses their feet, yet they will have to continue in this service which Jesus renders to remain clean. That is, this service and what it represents directly addresses the Judas-orientation of which they all need cleansing.

All of the apostles are included in the foot-washing and yet, Peter’s and Judas’ failure both unfold from this point in the story. The specific element which both Peter and Judas fail to recognize, maybe from different ends of the same spectrum, is that Jesus intends the foot-washing to symbolize or foreshadow his self-giving in death. He has already explained that the foot-washing is a model of sacrificial service; something Jesus explains to the disciples immediately (13:12-17). They must understand this part but Jesus indicates they have not comprehended the significance of what he has done. “You don’t know now what I’m doing. You will understand later” (13:7). The foot washing is not fully comprehensible because they have yet to link sacrificial giving to death. Peter would block Jesus from going up to Jerusalem to die and Judas would bargain his way out of being counted among those who would die. They are consistently uncomprehending or unwilling to grasp what it might mean for Jesus, let alone themselves, to give his life.

After the foot-washing, Peter seems eager to press the point and to show that he has made the connection: “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for You” (Jn 13:37). We know from Peter’s actions at the arrest of Jesus that he would lay down his life in battle – taking as many ears (and heads, his true target) as he can. Peter’s words parallel those Jesus used when describing his own role as the good shepherd (“the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” – Jn 10:11,15). Jesus answers Peter by repeating Peter’s words as a question: “Will you lay down your life for Me?” (13:38).  Of course, instead of giving (δίδωμι) his life for Christ he betrays (παραδίδωμι) him, and it is not clear, even at the end of the Gospel, that Peter can give in the manner of Jesus. To pass from betrayal (παραδίδωμι) to giving (δίδωμι) in the manner of Christ, specifically involves cross bearing – a lesson Peter will subsequently grasp.

In the final discourse and High Priestly Prayer Jesus’ understands the disciples would be tempted with betrayal (by “the evil one”) and the Spirit alone (15:26) would enable them to be unified (in word and deed and with God). This capacity is described as deriving, as with Christ, from within the Trinity: “keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are“(Jn. 17:11). The unity of the Godhead, given in “Christ,” will be carried on in his name (because “the words which You gave Me I have given to them” (v. 8)) Here, naming, nominating, giving, is connected to ontological being. The hypostatic union brought about by the Word assuming flesh becomes a shared communion and communication. Christ’s words-actions are marked by this conjoining (unity), constituted in who he is and is to mark his disciples (“that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us” (v. 21)).

What is enabled in true giving is entry into a divine capacity of communication. As George Florovsky states it;

For man is created in the image and likeness of God – this ‘analogical’ link makes communication possible. And since God deigned to speak to man, the human word itself acquires new depth and strength and becomes transfigured. The divine Spirit breathes in the organism of human speech. Thus it becomes possible for man to utter words of God, to speak of God.[2]

Luther and Calvin could not conceive of this sort of participation in the divine nature, as man is totally depraved and justification is outward (legally imputed) and there is no real participation in divine life. But the nominalist/Protestant inspired devolution from Hegel, to Kant, to Marx, to Nietzsche, is not simply a modern dilemma. The disconnect (between word and action or between words and ultimate reality) describes the “truth” of the failed human condition. The “transfigured” word stands over and against this failed human word (not only in modernity), as Christ’s giving contravenes and changes up a universal condition.

Could it be that the obscuring of this understanding begins with a separation within the Word – separating the Logos from the “word of the cross,” making a division between the word and work of Christ? The incarnate identity (displacing an incapacity to embody the word) in the New Testament and early church is pictured as definitively established in the cross. The presumption in John and among the early church fathers was not that this identity was a given, in some pre-incarnate form of the Logos. As John Behr notes, the early Church did not presume to start with the pre-incarnate Word – claiming the term “pre-incarnate” is absent from patristic literature. He depicts modern theology as having “changed, from Jesus Christ the crucified and risen Lord proclaimed by the Gospel, to the narrative of the Word of God, treated first as ‘pre-incarnate’ (a term I have yet to find in patristic literature) or as ‘asarkos’, ‘fleshless’ . . . who then, later, becomes enfleshed, for the next phase of his biography.”[3]  By way of contrast, the order of identification in Gregory of Nyssa, for example, begins with the cross and from the cross (in reference to Ephesians 3:18) the height, depth, breadth, and length, of all things unfolds and returns. As Gregory describes it, the cross is divided into four parts because the One upon it binds together in Himself all forms of existence. The apprehension of all things and the reality of all things converge on the cross.[4]

The Word in the Prologue of John is already, by the time of the writing of the Gospel of John, synonymous with the Gospel. The Word, like the Gospel, is about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The “word of the cross” (I Cor. 1:18), upon which apostolic preaching is centered, contains the details leading up to the passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. As Cyril of Alexandria makes clear, Word refers to Jesus Christ: “We say that there is one and the same Jesus Christ, from the God and Father, on the one hand, as the God Word, and, on the other hand, from the seed of the divinely-inspired David according to the flesh.”[5] There is no division in the subject of Christ before and after the incarnation, rather: “One is the Son, one Lord, Jesus Christ, both before the incarnation and after the incarnation.”[6]

Both Cyril and Hippolytus describe a putting on of flesh, but this is not pictured as having been inaugurated from the conception or birth of Jesus but is generated backward in time, having been woven from the sufferings of the cross. Hippolytus, commenting on Revelation 12, pushes the metaphor to suggest this weaving of flesh is an unceasing function of the Church, “bearing from her heart the Word that is persecuted by the unbelieving in the World.” The male child she bears is Christ, God and human, as announced by the prophets, “whom the Church continually bears as she teaches all nations.”[7]

The significance of this focus on the incarnate Christ is spelled out by Irenaeus of Lyons, (predating but directly contradicting nominalism) in his insistence that each of the major metaphors for God’s entry into the world – Word, Life, Light, etc. – should not be separated out, or reified as a self-constituting entity, but must be taken as referring to Jesus Christ. The Word, the Light, the Life, is the one who became flesh. Jesus Christ is the Word in the beginning and history’s center is open to the immanent Trinity and all of history is an unfolding of this intersection in the incarnation and its continuation in the Church.

The specific connections and connectedness we develop in the body of Christ are a participation in God, who is giving our communion, our relationship, our interconnectedness an enduring eternal significance. The incapacity for giving (παραδίδωμι) is displaced by the specific giving of the cross (δίδωμι).


[1] In the atonement theory of Anselm and Calvin, the various human agents who actually brought about the hammering in of the nails were acting in accord with the will of God, so that God used evil men to bring about the death of Christ. Anselm removes the devil from the equation (ignoring the major motif of Scripture), and Luther thought that any interruption to the procedure was the work of evil. He explains Pilate’s wife’s dream as a demon’s intervention seeking to impede the crucifixion. In this understanding, Pilate, Judas, the Jews, the Romans, all line up as part of God’s effort to have Jesus punished. That is, as a result of Anselm’s doctrine of divine satisfaction, to interrupt the restoration of God’s honor through the death of Christ, would be the work of Satan, so that Satan and God seem to reverse roles. In the Gospels darkness, sin, death, uncleanness, and evil, deliver Jesus unto death, but according to Anselm, we can add God to the list. This not only splits God against God, putting him on the side of the devil, but it splits the devil against himself, as John equates the chain of handing over as the work of Satan..

[2] George Florovsky, «Revelation and Interpretation», Bible, Church, Tradition (Buchervertriebsanstalt, Vaduz, Europa, 1987), p. 25. Quoted from Manuel Sumares, “Orthodoxy and the Gospels: Repositioning hermeneutics beyond nominalism” Downloads/2085-article-4451-1-10-20191021.pdf.

[3] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), 15.

[4] Gregory of Nyssa (c 335 – after 394): The Great Catechism, 32

[5] Cyril of Alexandria, That Christ is One (ed. Pusey, 371.12–14) quoted from Behr, 16.

[6] Cyril of Alexandria, First Letter to Succensus, 4. Quoted from Behr, 17.

[7] Hippolytus, Antichrist 4, Behr, 18.