08 February 2012

Reading ‘John in the Spirit’

Saint John’s Church, Kilkenny, where this week’s clergy conference came to an end (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The Dublin and Glendalough Diocesan Clergy Conference came to an end this afternoon. We had been meeting since Monday afternoon in the River Court Hotel in John Street, Kilkenny, looking out on the River Nore, with Kilkenny Caste towering majestically above on the other bank of the river.

In his fourth presentation to the conference, Professor David Ford, who is Regius Professor of Divinity in Cambridge University, spoke to us about “John in the Spirit.”

Professor Ford is working on a major commentary on Saint John’s Gospel, began, though, by identifying three ingredients that he says are needed in the theological interpretation of Scripture:

1, Scholarship, which is at the heart of any theological interpretation of Scripture. One needs to listen to what good scholars are saying about the text. He referred to this as the “archaeology of the text.”

2, But scholarship is not enough on its own. In reading Scripture, we continue to generate new meanings and new understandings. If scholarship is the “archaeology of the text,” then hermeneutics is “the teleology of the text.” That exercise is utterly unpredictable as we are invited to constantly interpret the texts anew.

3, In the theological interpretation of Scripture, theology, we also need to be in dialogue with other disciples, including science and the arts.

He then outlined a set of maxims offered for reflection, presented within two all-encompassing maxims.

His first all-encompassing maxims is that we read Scripture for the sake of God and God’s purposes, we do things for God’s sake. “Hallowed be thy name” is the basic motive for the reading of scripture – we are “reading for God’s sake.”

He then presented these nine maxims:

1, We listen to the Bible as God’s loving cry to humanity, the cry of wisdom. God longs for us to listen attentively, and we do this through reading Scripture.

2, We must figure ourselves into God’s continuing drama. The call to follow is for us all, and we are taking part in a significant drama, in which we have responsibility for moving on to the next scene or part in that drama.

3, We read the Old Testament with the New Testament, taking it seriously.

4, We give priority to the plain sense of Scripture, and its multiple meanings, and its different levels and dimensions.

5, We learn from the many witnesses to Jesus Christ within and beyond the Bible. Unlike Muslims with the Quran, we have Four Gospels and not one text, with four different and diverse human testimonies to Christ.

6, We learn as part of the Church, which is the primary community of interpretation of the Bible. The only faith that is healthy is a faith that has been taught to think, he said, adding that an educated Church is “utterly central” for the 21st century.

7, We learn especially from wise readers of Scripture, past and present – he gave as example Jean Vanier work on Saint John’s Gospel.

8, We learn from studying with those beyond the Church, and this includes inter-faith engagement.

9, We read in the Spirit, desiring God and God’s future.

He then presented the second of his two all-encompassing maxims as his “wrapping-up maxim or principle,” which is to read in love, a love that is for God and all God’s creatures, the rule of love. Any interpretation of Scripture that goes against the love of God and the love of neighbour goes against God’s plan.

And, returning to a point he made repeatedly over the last three days, he said God is involved in such a way that evil can never have the last word.

Turning to the title of his paper, ‘John in the Spirit,’ he recalled leading a Bible study on John 20 in a prison in Louisiana, and the impact on prisoners of the account of in that chapter of Jesus appearing behind locked doors.

If John believes his own Gospel, and that he has been given the spirit, then he believes he is writing the Gospel in the Spirit, and that he is being led into all truth (John 16: 13), he said. “He is doing theology and believes he is being led into all truth.”

John has a pervading perception of being led into more and more and more truth. He is writing at the transition into the next generation, and believes greater things are going to happen.

He said every Christian community can hope for more and more in the future, rather than thinking it is facing a deterioration from the “good old days.” We must believes that the Spirit is going to lead us further into more and more truth.

John saw himself as writing Scripture, and when John interprets Genesis in the way he does in the Prologue, he is teaching us how to read him.

Turning to the story of Nicodemus in John 3, he pointed out that John does not have a birth narrative, but all the elements are here.

This chapter provides the last time the “Kingdom of God” is mentioned in Saint John’s Gospel, and he then switches to talking about “eternal life.”

The stairs inside Saint John’s Church Kilkenny ... what does Saint John mean by being born from above? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

In John 3, the elements of that we find that are in the nativity narratives in the other Gospels include the dark night, the birth, the mother’s womb, the Spirit above and the question ‘How can these things be?’ (John 3: 9), which echoes Mary’s question to the angel: ‘How can this be?’ (Luke 1: 34.)

He asked what it means when John says: “so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3: 21). He put this within the context of the invitation to indwelling. John is inviting us to inhabit a place, and to inhabit it above all in prayer.

He closed by inviting us to meditate on the verse: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth ...” (John 16: 13).

After a morning of Johannine studies, it was appropriate that the conference came to an end with a celebration of the Eucharist in Saint John’s Church, which is just a short walk from the River Court Hotel.

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