RPM, Volume 12, Number 15, April 11 to April 17 2010

The Gospel of John
an Issue of Canon

By Jason Foster

Master of Divinity
Reformed Theological Seminary
Ruling Elder, Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Kingstowne Va

In this paper, we will focus on an issue that has emerged in the canon debate which is based at least partially on the Gospel of John's (GJ) treatment of ‘the Jews'. There are many other questions surrounding the canon that we will not really discuss here, such as: Those interested in answers to these questions from an evangelical perspective have a number of fine resources at their disposal. 1

Instead of focusing on the above questions of formation and composition of the canon, we will focus on a recent development that targets the ‘nature' of the canon. Specifically, the question in view is whether it is legitimate to adopt the traditional view of canon that ascribes normative authoritative timeless status to biblical writings that seem to be situational in nature with their intended applicability fenced in by original time, place, and circumstance.

The Objection

Robert Kysar, who is a professor emeritus at Emory University, recently made a brief but forceful argument, which conveyed his belief that the ‘nature' of canon needs to be redefined in light of the GJ's treatment of ‘the Jews'. The context of Kysar's argument is his severe discomfort with what he believes is the GJ's ‘anti-semitic tone'. He deserves to be quoted at some length:
The reality is that an occasional writing has become canonical literature. The document we know as the Gospel of John was written within, out of, and for a very concrete and specific situation involving a particular Christian community in a given place and time…That means it is read and interpreted [today] outside of its original situation and beyond its original purpose. With the passing of centuries, the historical origin becomes more and more remote…The result is that John stands on its own in isolation from the situation that occasioned its writing…It is now most often read and understood without reference to its first purpose. With those results comes a dreadful danger! That danger is inherent in the risk of the canonization of historically contingent literature. It is a danger that is not exclusive to John, but endemic to the principle of canon…[P]assages written within one cultural setting were perhaps helpful and even liberating for their first readers but are now an embarrassment…

[T]he Christian church and Western culture have been amiss in not understanding the dangers inherent in the process of positing universal authority in documents that were never intended to carry such weighty importance. Responsibility for a misunderstanding of the nature of canon must rest at the doorstep of those in the past and the present commissioned with the duty to nurture a proper sense of canon and the interpretation of scripture…The task is to issue a challenge to those of us who…place authority in the Gospel of John. That challenge is simply that we question the gospel's authority in certain areas. The task is to define and control meticulously its authoritative value. The commission is to conceive and foster a new and more precise understanding of canonical authority. 2

Kysar eloquently voices a view that is popular both in academia and in coffeehouse chatter. His argument moves the debate away from issues of original composition and formation, and into the realm of modern ethics and interpretation. By shaking the dust off the canon debate, he has effectively updated it for modern relevance. Kysar represents where the canon debate is headed in the future. We who subscribe to the traditional view of canon are negligent if we do not engage this perspective.

At the risk of being too simplistic, let's summarize Kysar's argument:

The Observation: The GJ contains considerable negative content about ‘the Jews'. 3

The Problem: This negative material has been used to harbor and even incite anti-semitic attitudes throughout history that have resulted in horrible atrocities.

The Dilemma: The traditional notion of canon that ascribes transcendent normative authority to the GJ as a whole by definition must ascribe normative authority to situational and historically contingent material (such as ‘the Jews' material) that wasn't intended to be timelessly authoritative.

The Solution: We must redefine what we mean by ‘canon' in order to treat the GJ's contents responsibly in our day. This redefinition is necessary as a matter of ethics, in order to avoid treating, as normative, content that is situational and was intended only to address specific historical circumstances 2,000 years ago.

To Kysar, it's irresponsible (as a matter of interpretation) and dangerous (as a matter of ethics) to take 2,000 year old situational material and anoint it as normatively authoritative that is binding on all people for all time. For Kysar, to do this is to rip the biblical material out of its historical context, which will often and almost inevitably result in problematic interpretation and application today. Kysar is saying it's wrong to take situational material originally designed for localized applicability and make it normative material that is now universally applicable.

If this argument sounds familiar, it's because it is. Variations of this argument are also routinely used to marginalize the Bible's teaching on homosexuality, dignity of life, sex, and a host of other social issues. The problem, in other words, is with the traditional notion of the nature of canon, so says Kysar.

A Response 4

Kysar's argument can be critiqued on several fronts:

1) It is indeed a challenge to properly interpret ancient Scriptures with an eye towards modern application. Kysar is right that there are real dangers involved in drawing application points out of the text without regard for the text's original meaning and situation as well as its original audience. But in point of fact, few evangelical sermons and even fewer modern evangelical academic works on the Bible display a cavalier or dismissive attitude about the original intent of the author when he wrote the biblical text in question. Virtually every evangelical seminarian takes courses on how to responsibly interpret and apply the Scriptures in light of its original meaning and audience. Most biblical commentaries pay very close attention to such things as part of establishing a responsible interpretive grid. Many books are available that address proper interpretative technique and how to move responsibly from original meaning to modern application. 5 Most popular study Bibles designed for wide consumption by the laity include brief commentary on these issues as part of putting the text into historical context. Sermons delivered in most evangelical churches usually take the time to discuss the historical situation as part of drawing out the meaning of the text. In doing this, preachers are doing what they were trained to do during their time at seminary.

In light of all this, I have trouble seeing any real epidemic in evangelical circles of irresponsible interpretation resulting from the traditional view of the nature of canon. 6 The view that the Bible is normatively authoritative has not resulted in a dismissal of historical context in our sermons, theology, or biblical interpretation. While Kysar's concern about misinterpreting Scripture by ignoring its historical context is valid, it's also heavily theoretical. Because of this, his concern actually masks the real issue at play here. The real issue being to what extent are we willing to allow historical context to determine the nature of the writing itself. Does historical context render much of the Scriptures situational in nature, and thus, easier to discard in our modern Christian experience? Or does historical context provide vital background for better understanding the redemptive history of God's sovereign and unchanging work in salvation, which makes the canon normatively authoritative in addition to being situationally relevant by virtue of it being the Word of God? The latter is the case...

2) The fact that the GJ and the New Testament documents in general contain material that directly applied to historical situations of the time does not mean the documents were not designed to be normatively authoritative. In point of fact, the Old Testament is filled top to bottom with this kind of material. Yet, the New Testament writers (not to mention Jesus himself) considered these writings to be normatively authoritative and ‘canonical' in the traditional sense. 7 If we follow Kysar, we are forced to accuse Jesus of wrongly elevating ‘situational material' to a status of normative authority and ripping it out of its historical context in the process. Because Jesus is clear that the totality of the Old Testament refers to him (Luke 24), he is either the most qualified to properly interpret the Old Testament, or the most deluded self-important man in history. If Kysar is not willing to indict Jesus for his normative reading of the Old Testament, he's on shaky ground to indict us for doing the same thing with the GJ.

The New Testament is filled with direct references to the Old Testament. The GJ contains 14 such direct references and other Old Testament allusions, many of which come from the lips of Jesus. For example, in 3:14, Jesus references the story in Numbers 21 of Moses lifting up the bronze snake to stop the death of the people by venomous vipers. The Numbers story has its own historical context and situation. But in citing this episode in his discussion with Nicodemus, and relating it to himself (and probably to Nicodemus indirectly), Jesus obviously considered the passage to be normative, authoritative, relevant, and applicable far beyond its original historical situation. This does not wipe out the historical context of the original event. Rather, it indicates that the nature of God's Word is such that it is both situationally relevant, and timelessly normative. 8 Kysar's plea to redefine canonical authority to marginalize material he regards as situational neglects the nature of the Scriptures as demonstrated by Jesus himself. It also neglects what Paul says about the Old Testament being written, in part, to provide important life examples to people living in his day (1 Cor. 10:1-11). The New Testament is recognizing the timeless normative value of even ‘situational' material in the Old Testament. The traditional view of the nature of canon is consistent with the Bible's own attitude about itself.

3) When Kysar talks about meticulously controlling the authoritative value of the canon, he is talking about discerning the normative from the supposedly contingent. He says the following, "We must clearly and explicitly distinguish the ‘contingent situational factors' interwoven with that normative message so that we are able to differentiate between the normative and the situational." 9 This line of argument is not new. 10 Because of this, we have a track record to draw upon in assessing its viability. As with all previous attempts, Kysar's version inevitably results in criteria where the parts of Scripture he likes are deemed normative, while the parts he dislikes become situational. It's a rigged game that's very subjective and ironically leads exactly where Kysar doesn't want it to lead — to everyone ‘doing what is right in their own eyes' (Jud. 17:6; 21:25) in interpreting and applying the Bible. This can't help but lead to the rampant misuse of Scripture by anyone who can argue anything from it, no matter how dangerous, with no normative control to govern proper interpretation. Do not forget that it is this exact fear that motivates Kysar to want to get away from the traditional view of canon, when in fact, the traditional view of canon is the best defense against such a thing.

Moreover, how exactly does Kysar think he is able to glean that the contents of the GJ shouldn't all be considered normatively authoritative? St. John's stated purpose for writing the GJ in 20:30-31 is rather universal in its applicability. 11 Because 20:30-31 is fairly global in its summation of the GJ, it means the totality of the GJ's contents were written with the design of achieving the global purpose of 20:31. I suppose one could argue that 20:30-31 is not referring to all of the contents of the GJ, but only to the ‘signs' described in the GJ. While it's true that ‘signs' is used as a technical term in the GJ to describe specific things, 12 this doesn't allow us to consider ‘non-signs' material in the GJ as something less than normative. For example, John 19:35 is not referring to a ‘sign', but rather to the nature of Christ's death on the cross. Yet, 19.35 says the author's witness to this event is not only true, but is relayed to his audience through the GJ ‘so that you also may believe'. This, not coincidentally, is the same global purpose given in 20:31, and is in fact uniquely dominant throughout the GJ. 13 It seems we are left with Kysar trying to segregate the normative from the situational in ways the GJ explicitly rejects. His proposal is not derived from the text, but is something he is forcing onto the text.

4) Perhaps it could be argued that while the New Testament considers the Old Testament to be normatively authoritative, the New Testament does not consider itself to be normatively authoritative, so neither should we. However, this is undermined not only by 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:20-21, but also 2 Peter 3:15-15, where Peter proclaims Paul's assorted letters to be Scripture. And these are just the explicit proclamations the New Testament makes about itself. It does not include similar implicit assents gleaned from studying how the various New Testament authors may have used other New Testament books as authoritative sources for their own writings. 14

I suppose one could press the point by saying the above assertions don't relate specifically to the GJ. However, the GJ has Jesus authorizing a continuing authoritative message that would outlast his earthly ministry (15:27; 17:7, 17:20: 20:21-22). The ‘sent' theology (17.18) and the Spirit-illuminated theology (14:26;16:13-16) of the GJ both make it clear that Jesus commissioned the transmission of a message that transcended particular situations, and that the writing of the GJ itself was part and parcel of that commission (20:31; 21:24). We should also note the connection between Jesus' timeless commission to the disciples in Acts 1.8 to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, and the constant theme of witness and testimony one finds in the GJ that is being disseminated by God's grace to the ends of the earth.

5) We have seen that the Bible's take on itself and Jesus' own various commissions strongly support the traditional notion of the normative nature of the canon. In other words, we are locating this belief not in human conjecture or church dogma, but in God's Word itself. This is not where Kysar is coming from. He believes the traditional view of canon comes from humans and/or the church, which, of course, makes it fair game for reevaluation and, in his mind, correction. 15 Nevertheless, this view has to deal with several weaknesses that, to date, Kysar hasn't addressed. His view:

6) Kysar thinks that because the writing of the GJ was ‘occasioned' by certain historical situations that existed at that time, the GJ is largely situational. What was the historical situation that Kysar believes ‘occasioned' the writing of the GJ? Here, Kysar joins the ranks of those who believe the GJ was written for an isolated group with its own eclectic needs and concerns. 18 However, the evidence seems clear that the GJ was written for a wide audience 19 and was treated that way by the early church. This is evidenced by the many copies of the original manuscript that were made, as well as the geographical distance between where those manuscripts were found and where the original was likely written. 20 If the GJ was written for a wide audience, it's hard to argue that localized circumstances ‘occasioned' its writing, thus, rendering much of its contents non-normative. Instead, a wide audience implies a normative authoritative intent on the part of the author that transcends time, geography, and circumstance, and that this intent was recognized and embraced by the early church.

Moreover, the contents of the GJ itself seem to favor the ‘wide audience' view. Declarations like John 3:16 and the cosmic nature of John 1:1-18 do not carry the sense of a limited situational perspective, but rather a cosmic applicability. It is also clear that the event which ‘occasioned' the writing of the GJ was not later community dynamics, but the coming of Jesus. It is clear from 20:31 that the purpose for writing the GJ is hinged to two normative realities — that Jesus is the Son of God, and that life everlasting is found in his name. It stands to reason that if the occasion that prompted the GJ's writing was transcendent and normative (as both realities described in 20:31 clearly are), the GJ itself was likewise meant to be transcendent and normative in describing this occasion and conveying its universal implications.


The GJ's contents favor the traditional view of the normative nature of the canon. 21 In the end, Kysar seeks to redefine what canon means because he does not like what some of the canon says. While I suspect that many of us, if we're honest, can sympathize with this existential approach to canonical authority, the fact remains that efforts such as this are condemned in Scripture (2 Tim. 4:2-4; Rev. 22:18-19).

But this discussion isn't just about Kysar. I have found that Kysar, in arguing for marginalizing ‘situational' material as part of redefining the nature of canon, is merely going public with a sentiment that is unofficially shared even by some who love the Bible and believe what it says. Martin Luther, courageous stalwart of the faith, believed the book of James was an ‘epistle of straw,' and that the core of the gospel message was found in certain letters of Paul (Galatians and Romans in particular). Luther's unofficial ‘canon within a canon' is alive and well not just in non-evangelical circles, but among evangelicals too. Evangelical sermons too often steer clear of difficult passages and even difficult sections of the Bible like the Old Testament Prophets (which is by far the largest section of the Bible in terms of volume). Reformed preaching and Reformed theologizing are often guilty of relying disproportionately on Paul's writings, which, taken in aggregate, are a rather small portion of the Bible in terms of volume. This is reinforced among the professional ministry by seminary curriculums whose courses on Paul and the Pauline literature have more course credits than courses devoted to any other section of Scripture. Whether intended or not, a message is being sent, and is apparently being received. 22

The point being that we too are susceptible to glorifying certain parts of the canon, and in doing so, unintentionally diminishing the value, necessity, and authority of the rest of Scripture. As offended as we may be about what Kysar has proposed, we must be very diligent to avoid tacitly agreeing with him in spirit, even while actively disagreeing with him in principle.


1. Older but still good works include Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1948), Stonehouse and Woolley (eds.), The Infallible Word (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1967), Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Prolegemena Vol 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 387-496, and Ridderbos, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures, 2nd rev ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1988). More recent treatments include Carson and Moo, "The New Testament Canon," in An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), Gaffin, "The New Testament as Canon," in Conn (ed), Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), and C.E. Hill, "God's Speech in These Last Days: The New Testament Canon as an Eschatological Phenomenon," in Tipton & Waddington (eds.), Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008).

2. Kysar, Voyages with John: Charting the Fourth Gospel (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2005), 157-158. This argument is contained in an essay, "Anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John," which is based upon an earlier Kysar essay of originally published in 1993 under the same name.

3. John 8-9 is arguably, where one finds the apex of this theme in the GJ.

4. I am indebted to Dr. Charles E. Hill for his willingness to evaluate my thoughts in this area and sharpen them as applicable. Any faults or weaknesses in what follows should be attributed to me, not him.

5. Several examples include Pratt, He Gave us Stories (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1990), Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), Fee, New Testament Exegesis: A Handbook for Students and Pastors, 3rd ed (Louisville: WJK, 2002), Chisholm, From Exegesis to Exposition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), Doriani, Putting the Truth to Work (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001).

6. That's not to say that all evangelical preaching should be commended, or that there haven't been nor continue to be abuses of the text by evangelical preachers. But that's a different issue than locating any sermon deficiencies in the traditional notion of canonical authority. Further, I question the wisdom of non-evangelicals critiquing irresponsible biblical interpretation, given their own dubious track record in this area.

7. See Jesus' jousting with Satan in the wilderness over the correct normative interpretation of various Old Testament passages in Matthew 4.

8. Another good example of this in the New Testament is 1 Peter 3.19-21. Such passages make clear that the redemptive history they record is itself normative in addition to having clear situational touch points. This reflects the focused and unchanging trajectory of redemption as orchestrated by God.

9. Kysar, Voyages, 159.

10. One can immediately think of the original Reimarus to Wrede era Jesus quest, which largely rubbed out the historical Jesus in favor of a Jesus of the scholar's own making. Schweitzer's devastating critique of this myth-making quest is still important reading in assessing ongoing modern attempts to make the Bible, Jesus, and Christianity say what we want them to say, rather than what they actually say, even though Schweitzer ultimately failed to follow his own advice. See his The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London: A&C Black, 1910).

11. "Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name." Jn 20.30-1

12. See 2:11, 2:23; 3:2; 4:48, 4:54; 6:2, 6:14, 6:26; 7:31; 9:16; 10:41; 11:47;12:18, 12:37.

13. The Greek word for 'believe' is used 98 times in the GJ, compared with less than a dozen each in Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

14. Matthew using the Gospel of Mark, Peter using the Epistle of James, etc.

15. Recall his carefully worded statement above that ‘the Christian church and Western culture' have wrongly (in his view) infused Scripture with ‘universal authority'.

16. This is confirmed by Jesus himself in Luke 24, and by Hebrews 1:1-2.

17. Importantly, Paul and Barnabas link their ongoing preaching ministry to the gentiles to Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47.

18. To be fair, this is what Kysar said in his original essay in 1993. In recent years, he has thankfully moved away from this a little bit, which has caused no small stir among the ranks of Johannine scholars. However, the 'backwater sectarian community' rubric still holds a dominant place in academic Johannine studies. I have critiqued this view elsewhere. See my "Did the Author of the Fourth Gospel Intend to Write History?" RPM Vol 11, No. 25 (2009).

19. For an in-depth argument in favor of this view, see Klink, The Sheep of the Fold: The Audience and Origin of the Gospel of John (Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2007).

20. For more on this, see Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

21. In saying this, I am not therefore saying (in contrast with Kysar's concerns) the GJ is anti-semitic or encourages anti-semitic attitudes when properly understood. Elsewhere, I have argued that the GJ's irony and trial motifs carefully nuance its treatment of 'the Jews' in a non anti-semitic way. Much like a pastor may negatively critique the current state of Christianity from the standpoint of friend rather than foe, ‘the Jews' motif in the GJ can legitimately be understood as a ‘tough love' appeal by its Jewish author to fellow Jews to embrace the One who truly fulfills Old Testament Judaism (15:1-8; consistent with Matt. 5:17).

22. This paragraph-long critique is a good example of how everything, including ‘the Jews' motif in the GJ, needs to be examined in context in order to be properly understood. Absent context, a reader might conclude from this paragraph that I am anti-Luther, anti-Paul, and anti-seminary. Obviously, I am none of these things.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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