Reviewed by Johnson Pang
Introduction & Overview
Paul A. Rainbow wrote Johannine Theology: the Gospel, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse to provide a critical and comprehensive work on the whole of the Johannine corpus, a lacuna in current English-speaking studies.
The first chapter lays out Rainbow’s approach to the material, offers a brief discussion on the state of studies in Johannine theology, and devotes significant space to introductory matters of Johannine literature. Rainbow is careful to differentiate himself from the stream of scholarship flowing from the late 20th century which sees the Johannine corpus as reflecting the work of a sectarian Johannine community. Without mincing words, Rainbow states that the Johannine community hypothesis rests on a “tissue of assumptions, none of which is proven” and consists of a method of interpretation that is as “unverifiable as it is invincible” (35). He forcefully argues for Johannine authorship, while “allowing for some editorial help” (51).
The remaining chapters (2-10) are organized “according to the relations among the divine persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and the world made up of its various constituents” (28). Thus Rainbow begins with the Father (chapter two), moves to the world (chapter three), proceeds to present who Jesus is (chapter four) and what Jesus did (chapter five), and follows with a chapter on the Holy Spirit (chapter six). The last few chapters revolve around the relations between the Godhead and humanity: the believer coming to Christ (chapter seven); the believer remaining in Christ (chapter eight); the church (chapter nine); and the interaction between the world and the church (10). The actual titles of most chapters highlight Rainbow’s contention that the center of Johannine theology is God the Father (e.g. chapter five, “God’s Self-Revelation in Christ’s Work).
In every chapter various topics are covered, yet with enough detail and discussion to treat each one in a substantive way. Two chapters can suffice as examples of how Rainbow organizes each chapter. Chapter four is entitled “God’s Self-Revelation in Christ’s Person” and the main topics are:  The Deity of Christ;  The Incarnation of the Logos;  Jesus’ Human Existence; and  Offices of Christ in the Johannine Literature. There are several sub-topics under each main topic. Another example is chapter six, entitled “The Revelation of the Father in the Son by the Spirit-Paraclete.” The main topics are:  Relation of the Spirit to the Father and the Son;  Coming of the Spirit in Salvation History; and  Work of the Holy Spirit. Under the first and third topics are six sub-topics each.
There is a glut of material on the Johannine books, but this work is unique in that it treats everything John wrote, and in doing so affirms the historically attested authorship of John the Apostle. In distinguishing himself from mainstream scholarship, Rainbow is able to give a reverent and coherent account of Johannine theology. Rainbow has no problem treating the gospel as historical, yet simultaneously affirming its theological nature. There is much to commend.
The work is comprehensive in scope, but not exhaustive in detail. A comprehensive Johannine theology in 420 pages demands that some items receive more attention than others. Rainbow’s Trinitarian discussions are substantial, informed, and enlightening (90-108, 250-58). He understands John’s conception of God to be rooted in the Old Testament and also to be sensitive to Rabbinic Judaism. Several of Rainbow’s statements on the matter are worth quoting, but this will suffice:
Undoubtedly, when the Son of God was distinguished as a second subject within the unity of the divine, a configuration of monotheism emerged, the full like of which had not been seen. But it was a blooming of commingled tendrils that had been growing in the soil of Judaism for centuries. When the Tannaim and Amoraim later decided to define themselves as Unitarians, they chopped away ancient branches of their own heritage (108).
Rainbow is also willing to explore difficult topics such as predestination and free-will and the extent of the atonement. He ably demonstrates that Johannine theology affirms both divine initiative and human responsibility, and rather than force one set of readings to conform to another, observes that “it is best, then, to let each set of passages bear its full witness” (144). Similarly, with the atonement, Rainbow concludes “(1) God himself excludes no individual from an atonement that covers the world in general, ‘all’ people; (2) God insures that particular people, whom he gave the Son before the foundation of the world, benefit from it” (221).
Topic after topic receives much Johannine description along with many detailed footnotes. On some topics he provides the scholarly discussion as background (e.g. on realized eschatology, 281), and on others Rainbow chooses to focus on the biblical evidence. It is important to note, however, that for a work claiming distinction because of its focus on all the Johannine literature, it seems skewed toward the gospel (not only the content but the Scripture index bears this out as well).
In regards to structure, the chapters themselves are further subdivided by major and minor topic headings. The organization of material is motivated by a blend of both and systematic and Johannine categories. For example, in discussing the Father, the major heading “Propositions about God” (76) is filled in with minor headings informed by Johannine texts (God is Spirit, God is Light, God is Love, etc.). This characteristic blend allows the reader to fill many systematic categories (e.g. extent of the atonement, predestination, ordo salutis, the Trinity) with Johannine content.
Because of how the chapters are laid out, the structure can be distracting. If used as a reference, it is not easy to find everything Rainbow says on a specific topic in one place. One can find “Lamb of God” under who Jesus is (chapter four) but also discussed as “Jesus as Passover Lamb” under what Jesus did (chapter five). The Calvinism/Arminianism issue is discussed in several places as well (139-144, 220-222, 286-289). To mitigate against this problem there is a helpful subject index.
There is also some inconsistency to Rainbow’s methodology. Rainbow at times interprets John’s texts against the background of Palestinian Judaism (90-91, 116, 154) and states that this is the milieu in which John writes (58-59). This is most evident in Rainbow’s helpful and intriguing discussion on John’s Trinitarian theology against the matrix of Jewish monotheism. Rainbow asks, “What did Palestinian Jews of the late Second Temple period mean by their insistence that God is one?” (90). He helpfully explores John’s theology against such a backdrop. But for many other topics there is minimal to no exploration of the historical background. For example when discussing “Lamb of God” or “Prophet” one would expect an exploration of the historical Jewish expectation but it is either not mentioned or given little attention. Nonetheless, Rainbow’s overall analysis and interpretations hold true to his assertion that the most important influences on John are the Old Testament and Jesus (406).
There can always be details to nit-pick about as a reviewer, but ultimately Rainbow’s work is a breath of fresh air amidst modern New Testament scholarship. His approach to the text allows him to provide thorough description, sound analysis, and a worthy attempt at synthesizing John’s theology. Both the preacher and scholar would be enriched by Johannine Theology.
Johnson Pang is a PhD student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
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Johannine Theology: The Gospel, The Epistles And The Apocalypse