I have found something to boast about on the blog: the interview series is off to a great start thanks to my interviewees Stan Porter and now Ian Clary.
Ian Hugh Clary is a doctoral student in historical theology at VU Amsterdam where he is working on a dissertation on Alexander Carson as an evangelical response to the Enlightenment. Ian lives in downtown Toronto with his wife Vicky and their two children Jack and Molly. Together they are members of New City Baptist Church in the city core. I have asked him questions about historical theology and its relation to the study of the Gospel of John.
AR: What is historical theology and how does it differ from other related disciplines?
IC: The theological disciplines are often broken down into various parts. They include such things as systematic theology, biblical theology, practical theology, and historical theology. Of course this oversimplifies and leaves a lot out, for instance exegesis, which typically falls under biblical theology, or philosophical theology, which could be categorized with systematics. Ideally a good theology is grounded in biblical theology and exegesis, is informed by history, is summarized systematically, and is practical for the life of the Christian and the church.
Historical theology itself relates to how doctrine has developed across church history, looking at how different Christians in different periods understood theology, from specific doctrines, to theological method. R. Scott Clark and Carl Trueman explain that historical theology “is the discipline of fairly determining and describing what was.” Because it is description, historical theology is not taken up with evaluation, which is the task of dogmatics (or systematics). Clark and Trueman point out the disparaging, if not hilarious, complaint by Gerhard Ebeling who said that historical theology has become a refuge for “those who cannot manage theology.” For me, that’s like complaining about the bass player in Led Zeppelin—as though John Paul Jones couldn’t hold his own with the other genius’ in the band (This is a little like the Synoptic Problem applied to classic rock)!
AR: How would historical theology help us in our understanding of John’s Gospel?
IC: Biblical interpretation, to borrow a cliché, is not done in a vacuum. As important as current exegetical studies are today, to neglect what Christians in days past have had to say about a text is somewhat akin to saying that the Brits shouldn’t worry about what Lord Nelson had to say about naval combat. Sure, his methods reflect an antiquated era, but the man didn’t make the Royal Navy into what it was by being a bad admiral. Likewise, we need to know what greats like the Cappadocians, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, Owen, or Bavinck had to say about any given doctrine, even if their methods aren’t always what we would today consider sound.
John’s gospel is especially interesting in this regard when one considers its place alongside the synoptic gospels. Since the rise of historical criticism, John has been relegated to a place of its own (though theologians before this method recognized the differences between John and the other gospels). While the events are often recorded differently, or appear only in this gospel, its high Christology has made it suspect. To understand why John is important not only for the canon, but also for the life of the church, we can turn to historical theology and text critics like Lightfoot, Westcott, Hort, etc. The high Christology matches the early church’s understanding of Jesus’ divinity, and the interpretation of John can be traced through the writings of fathers like John Chrysostom, who preached homilies on it. Chrysostom is especially useful, as Moises Silva has pointed out, because he preached in what we now call koine Greek. So when the “Golden Mouth” discusses the meaning of a word, we are getting it from the horse’s mouth so to speak. We can also learn how early apologists used it to combat heresies, like Gnosticism or Arianism, and how those same arguments were picked up in later periods against similar groups like the Socinians or Unitarians.
AR: Are there any instances that come to mind where an understanding of historical theology aids us in interpreting John’s Gospel?
IC: While I’m sure that a whole dissertation could be, and probably has been, written on this subject, I can come up with a couple of examples. In terms of the early church, one thinks of Irenaeus of Lyons and his important work Against Heresies that is a major collocation and refutation of what we call Gnosticism. He is useful when it comes to the question of the authorship of John. Who the gospel writer was is subject to debate, and while internal evidence is unclear—though I think it affirms the traditional view—external evidence like the writings of Irenaeus indicate that it was the apostle John, the “beloved disciple” who was the penman (that is, unless he used a scribe!). Irenaeus validates for us that Polycarp, whom he knew, sat at the feet of John “who had seen the Lord.” Based on this, Irenaeus tells us that John, who “leaned on the breast” of Jesus, wrote the Gospel of John while he was in Ephesus.
Another example is a bit more basic to the task of sermon preparation. John Calvin is well-recognized as a sound interpreter of Scripture, and that his methods and conclusions remain relevant today. Calvin, as a humanist and reformer, embodied the best that scholarship had to offer in his day, and reflected the cream of biblical teaching from those theologians who went before him. Calvin was as in tune with Augustine or Bernard as he was with his Reformation colleagues like Bucer or Melancthon. So, when a difficulty arises in interpreting a passage from John, it is as useful to turn to Calvin’s commentary on John as it would be to turn to Don Carson. While Carson would be a first choice because he is more up to date, and would be able to point out flaws even in Calvin, it is still very important to meditate on and consider what the Genevan Reformer had to say—especially on major passages like the Prologue, where the richness of biblical Christology is encapsulated in the Reformer’s thoughts, or on the Bread of Life Discourse in John 6 and the debated notion that it reflects John’s Eucharistic theology. Even being able to see where an interpreter from church history went wrong, as in the case with much of the allegorizing from the early church, is helpful as we think through the meaning of a passage.
AR: Are there any resources you’d recommend to help a reader of John’s Gospel become acquainted with the history of interpretation of the Gospel?
IC: The first source I would recommend is the two-volume commentary on John in the Ancient Christian Commentary series that is edited by Tom Oden. The first volume, also edited by Oden, goes up to John 10, while the second, edited by Joel Elowsky, finishes the gospel. The whole commentary set that goes from Genesis to Revelation is worth owning. The two volume set is basically a collection of quotations from various church fathers on each verse in John. Because each verse is treated to a host of quotes, it is helpful to see the range of interpretive options available in the early church. You can see what Chrysostom said about a passage, and skip down a quote to read Augustine. While you might not agree with what is written, it is still helpful in your preparation. At the very least, you can find some great quotes to spice up your sermon. The danger is that if you use it in every sermon, your congregation might take you for a patristics scholar!
A book for the specialist in historical theology, and for one with a hefty wallet, is Craig S. Farmer, The Gospel of John in the Sixteenth Century: The Johannine Exegesis of Wolfgang Musculus in the excellent Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series. The book is fantastic on many levels: it sets Musculus in his historical setting, so there is lots of discussion of medieval and Reformation exegesis; it deals with particular issues in John, like the wedding feast at Cana, the raising of Lazarus, etc.; and Farmer really shows Musculus as an important Reformation exegete who stands alongside others like Calvin. This is one of those books that makes me salivate when I think about it, but not all of your readers may be interested.