“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Today we begin our study of the Gospel according to St. John. By way of introduction I want to make four points about the Gospel of John — four points that correspond to Aristotle’s Four Causes. First, I will something about the author of the Gospel which corresponds to the efficient cause. The efficient cause is that which brings something to pass; for example, the potter is the efficient cause of a clay pot because he is the one who formed it. He is the cause of its existence. Secondly, I will say something about the material cause. The material cause is simply the nature of the matter, the material, the stuff used to compose an object; the lump of clay that the potter uses to make the pot is the material cause. Thirdly I will say something about the formal cause of the Gospel. The formal cause is the shape of an object that identifies it as this or that thing. The formal cause of a pot is the shape the potter gives to a lump of clay that makes it identifiable as a pot and not a spoon. Fourthly, we will look finality, the final cause of the Gospel of John. Finality involves the goal, the purpose of an object. For example, the final cause of a pot is to hold liquid for some purpose.
So we begin with the efficient cause or the authorship of the Gospel of John. From the dawning of the Church this gospel has been identified as the one written by one of Jesus’ apostle whose name was John. This Gospel is also identified with the three epistles of John as well as the last book in the Bible known by the title The Revelation of St. John the Divine. The designation “Divine” means a student of theology and we still use that language when we call a seminary a School of Divinity. It would be correct then to translate the title as “St. John the Theologian,” as many do in the Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions. The Revelation is the only book in which John identifies himself as the author in the text itself. In the epistles he is identified as “The elder,” which word “presbyteros” we translate properly as “priest.” In the Gospel of John the author refers to himself famously as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”
However, traditionally the Church has always assigned authorship of the epistles, the Revelation and the Gospel to the Apostle John, the youngest of Jesus’ inner circle. When one takes into consideration common or congruent themes, favored images, the author’s assertion of eye-witness authority, as well as the writing style of these texts, I believe that it is highly suitable, perfectly reasonable to take the unified voice of the Catholic-Orthodox Church as sufficient when it comes to authorship. And until there is good reason to think otherwise, as far as I am concerned, the human author of the Johannine canon is the Apostle of John, the brother of James whom Jesus called while he was cleaning his fishing nets; the beloved disciple, the apostle to whom Jesus entrusted the care of his mother Mary as he hung dying upon the cross:
“When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, Woman, behold thy son! Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home.” John 19: 26-27
I believe that this man is the author of the Gospel of John. However, even if it were shown at some future time that one or more of these texts were not written by the Apostle John, that would not subtract one little bit from the authority of these texts for the Bride of Christ. They are, by the discernment of Holy Mother Church, known to be the Word of God written and thus, along with the rest of the Bible, the most fundamental, authoritative texts in the life of the Church of God for whom there is no higher authority.
Secondly, we take up the issue of the material cause of the Gospel, which is the nature of the matter, the material, the stuff used to compose the Gospel. On the most basic level it is composed of words, sentences, and paragraphs. But the words, sentences, and paragraphs are not just markings on a scroll. They communicate meaning as they take the shape of narratives about the life of God and the life of Jesus – stories about his relation to the nation of Israel, stories of his relation to the God of Israel, and stories that communicate to us his personal understanding of himself. These narratives contain quotations taken from some of Jesus’ sermons as well as long transcriptions of his prayers. But all of these narratives, quotations, personal thoughts, as well as accounts of Jesus’ personal and social interaction with individual persons as well as his interaction with institutions like the nation of Israel and the Roman Empire are not merely thrown down on paper like a list of things to remember — they take specific form.
Thus formal cause emerges: the data that make the Gospel of John does not appear to us as mere information or bare lists. The author of the Gospel used words to tell various stories, prayers, deeds, convictions, as well as historical event to convey to his audience a single over-arching narrative about Jesus the Messiah. There had already appeared three such over-arching narratives about Jesus the Messiah and the formal name of those narratives came to be called “Gospels.” Thus the formal cause, the shape of John’s Messianic narrative, is what the Church calls a “Gospel” and that form distinguishes it from all other forms of literature in the Bible. It is not the shape of a poem, not the shape of a psalm, not the shape of an epistle, not the shape of a mere narrative because a Gospel is shaped by the Apostolic memory of the life of Jesus the Messiah from his birth in Bethlehem to his death, resurrection, and ascension in and around Jerusalem when Augustus was the Emperor of Rome. This is true of all four Gospels. But there is a difference between John and the other Gospels that has been noted over the centuries.
Thomas Aquinas writes that John’s Gospel is set apart from the other three because it instructs the faithful in the contemplative life. St. Augustine in a book he wrote on the harmony of the Gospels wrote that the “other evangelists instruct us in their Gospels on the active life; but John instructs us on the contemplative life.” That distinction would be misleading if the faithful thought it meant that John’s Gospel has no existential meaning for our life in this present time, but it is instructive because John above all the others made it plenty clear that Jesus the Messiah is in fact God Almighty in the flesh. I do not mean for a moment that the first three Gospels are ambiguous on the matter of our Lord’s divinity, but rather that each evangelist wrote with a particular focus on the person and mission of Jesus the Messiah. Aquinas cites the traditional ecclesiastical symbols of the four evangelists to illustrate his point: the church’s symbol for Matthew is a man, the symbol for Mark is a lion, the symbol for Luke is an ox, while the symbol for John is an eagle. It is instructive that the three images for Matthew, Mark, and Luke are terrestrially grounded and that should bring to mind the sense of place and time. The first three Gospels tell Jesus’ life-story from within this space-time continuum. We know that he has come from his Father, but that realm of life, the supernatural reality that surrounds what we know as space and time, comes to light through Jesus’ miraculous birth in Bethlehem, his many miracles in Israel and unequivocally in his resurrection and ascension. The Gospel of John on the other hand begins not in Israel, but outside the space-time continuum, before creation, and Jesus’ full identity is disclosed in the first sentence of the Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Thomas Aquinas wrote: “John flies like an eagle above the cloud of human weakness and looks upon the light of unchanging truth with the most lofty and firm eyes of the heart. And gazing on the very deity of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which he is equal to the Father, he has striven in this Gospel to confide this above all.” The Gospel that bears John’s name is the life-story of God made Flesh and this brings us to the final cause.
The finality, the final cause of the Gospel of John, is the purpose for which it exist and the purpose for which it exist is to tell the life-story of God made flesh. The Gospel was written so that we may know Jesus is God and we may know what it means for us to become his siblings, true children of the God who is God. And in more than one place the author tells us exactly why he wrote this Gospel:
“And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” John 20: 30-31
The life that we have through Jesus was infused in us when we were baptized. It is the life that has its natural dwelling in the Logos, the Word, the Son, and thus it is the divine life of God and that is why John wrote the Gospel — to make it clear to the children of Holy Mother Church that the reason we are able to receive the divine life of the Son is simply because the Son himself is God Almighty. Why is this important to John? Why did John write a Gospel that is root and branch dedicated to the divinity of the Son?
The reason he wrote the Gospel is because the Christians of his day (and our day as well) were in such danger and peril that he wrote to them in his epistles that not one but a plethora of antichrist had arisen within the Church. These antichrists were making a persuasive argument to the Christians under John’s care to leave the apostolic community — “They went out from us,” which John records in his first epistle. These were the progressives of his day who said the apostles were not sufficiently spiritual, not profound like their teachers. They claimed to be Christian but John the Apostle said they were not Christians by a long shot, not spiritual, not profound, but rather they were apostates and that in them the “man of sin,” the antichrist had virtually appeared not as one person but a terrifying plurality:
“As ye heard that antichrist cometh, even now have there arisen many antichrist; whereby we know that it is the last hour.” I John 4:1
These progressives were scandalized by the Apostles or rather by the Jesus of the Apostles because he was not sufficiently spiritual being after all a man of flesh and blood like everyone else. And so they insisted that the truly spiritual Christian will leave the Apostles and embrace the Christ of the Future, the spiritual Christ, not the Jesus of visible flesh, not a Jesus who is a concrete human being, not the Jesus of the Apostles. Flesh and blood can only look forward to what Paul describes in the Epistle for today — groaning, suffering, and finally destruction. The Gospel of John is thus constructed on the very urgent themes that hold his epistles together. The Apostle John and apparently the much younger bishops of Asia, many of whom he had personally trained, were stunned by a great defection of Christians following these super-spiritual deceivers out of the Apostolic Church. In fact, Aquinas claims that John in his last days and at the request of the bishops of Asia wrote the Gospel for that very reason. The defectors were revolting against the Apostolic teaching that God has committed himself essentially and permanently to the material creation and specifically the God of the Apostles had committed himself essentially and permanently to the material of our human flesh. John’s response to the super-spirituals is unambiguously declared from the outset in the Prologue of the Gospel:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth.”