Reviewed by C. Scott Shidemantle
A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters is the first of eight volumes in the Biblical Theology of the New Testament (BTNT) series. Köstenberger’s contribution is a massive volume of 652 pages, which includes a lengthy table of contents (pp. 7–25), a series and author’s preface (pp. 26–29), listing of abbreviations (pp. 30–34), a very impressive bibliography that encapsulates the important Johannine studies secondary literature (pp. 568–614), a variety of helpful indices (pp. 615–52), and the actual body of the text (pp. 37–567).
Part One is titled “The Historical Framework for Johannine Theology.” This portion begins by outlining the author’s approach to doing biblical theology and then gets to work exploring the historical setting of the Gospel of John and the Johannine Letters. At the end of the day, Köstenberger rejects the “Johannine Community” authorship proposal and posits the traditional view that the Gospel of John was written by John the son of Zebedee, the disciple of Jesus, proposing that it was written specifically to present Jesus as “a coping strategy” for Jews after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70. This explains why so much of the Fourth Gospel is taken up with how Jesus fulfills and replaces the Temple as well as various Jewish festivals.
Part Two is titled “Literary Foundations for Johannine Theology.” This part begins by exploring what the Gospel genre really is and moves in the direction of identifying specific literary features of John’s Gospel, including misunderstanding, irony, the various so-called “seams,” symbolism, and structure. This part of the book concludes with a wonderful “Literary-Theological Reading of John’s Gospel” (pp. 175–262) and then a “Literary-Theological Reading of John’s Letters” (pp. 263–72), which is a running commentary of first the Gospel and then John’s Letters while drawing attention to some of the features identified earlier in this part of the book.
Part Three is titled “Major Themes in Johannine Theology.” This is the meat of Köstenberger’s book and this material alone makes the book well worth the purchase price. Here the author identifies nine major Johannine themes and devotes an entire chapter to each one. The nine themes are “The Messiah and His Signs,” “The Word: Creation and New Creation,” “God: Father, Son and Spirit,” “Salvation History: Jesus’ Fulfillment of Festal Symbolism,” “The Cosmic Trial Motif,” “The New Messianic Community,” “The Johannine Love Ethic,” “John’s Theology of the Cross,” and “John’s Trinitarian Mission Theology.” Köstenberger’s methodology in this part of his book is worth mentioning. After introducing a theme, he first walks through the Gospel of John chronologically, identifying how the theme is developed as the storyline of the Gospel unfolds. Then, after identifying any ways in which the three Letters of John contribute to the theme, Köstenberger draws things together in a summary conclusion. The strength of this approach is that it takes into account the idea that the Johannine themes are not simply abstract concepts but that they have a narrative development in the way in which they unfold.
Part Four is titled “Johannine Theology and the Canon of Scripture.” This last part, which is actually a fairly short chapter compared to the length of the book up to this point, engages in comparison and contrast between the Gospel and Letters of John and other corpora of the New Testament. After surveying the secondary literature that questions the historicity of the Johannine literature, Köstenberger calls for a reassessment of the historical reliability of the Gospel of John along the lines of Craig Blomberg’s Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (IVP, 2011). In addition, the author explores whether John knew the Synoptics. At the end of the day, Köstenberger proposes that the author of John’s Gospel most likely had read one or several of the Synoptics (or at least was aware of an oral Synoptic tradition) and intentionally supplemented that tradition.
My critiques of this work are only minor. A first point pertains to the organization of the book. On an initial perusal of the Table of Contents, the organizing principle of the book looks somewhat confusing. It was only after having read the introductory chapter that the breakdown of the four parts of the book made sense. Perhaps a more aesthetically pleasing Table of Contents would have relieved some of the initial Angst that this reader felt.
A second critique relates to the limited use of the Letters of John in this volume. It seems at times that the three Letters are minimized or swallowed up by the Gospel. As such, their importance appears at points to be minimized. The result, unintentional to be sure, is that this text represents more of a theology of John’s Gospel than a theology of John’s Gospel and Letters.
Whether one is a teacher, pastor, or serious student of Scripture, this book will prove to be extremely useful. A professor teaching a course on the Gospel of John will find Part Three incredibly helpful. The unpacking of the nine Johannine themes which Köstenberger identifies and discusses is a real tour de force. Pastors and other students of Scripture will find this same part of the book helpful as well, as each theme could lend itself to a series of powerful Bible studies or sermons.
To conclude, as one who has read just about everything Andreas Köstenberger has published on the Gospel of John, this reviewer would say that this text represents the apex of several decades of very meaningful, in-depth research on John’s Gospel. If the reader of this review does not currently have anything in his or her library written by Köstenberger on John, now is your chance to pick up a book that represents the culmination of his fine and sustained scholarly work.
Dr. C. Scott Shidemantle is Professor of Biblical Studies and the Bible Core Coordinator at Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA.