Introduction to the New Testament (1915) [Chapter 5]

[Articles in the Summed Up series are intended to be summaries of chapters of selected theological books. The author(s) will be quoted verbatim for the purposes of ensuring accurate representation]

The Gospel of John


A) About the author of the chapter:

Louis Berkhof “graduated from Calvin Theological Seminary in 1900 …

In 1902 he went to Princeton University for two years earning a B.D. degree …

In 1906 he was appointed to the faculty of Calvin Theological Seminary. He assumed the presidency of the seminary in 1931 …” [1]


B) Chapter Summary:

I) Content

“The contents of the Gospel of John is also divided into five parts:

I. The Advent and Incarnation of the Word, 1:1— 13 …

II. The Incarnate Word the only Life of the World, 1:14 — 6:71 …

III. The Incarnate Word, the Life and Light, in Conflict with Spiritual Darkness, 7:1 — 11:54 …

IV. The Incarnate Word saving the Life of the World through his Sacrificial Death, 11:55 — 19:42 …

V. The Incarnate Word, risen from the Dead, the Saviour and Lord of all Believers, 20:1 — 21:25.” [1]

II) Characteristics

“1. The gospel of John emphasizes more than any of the others the Divinity of Christ. It has no historical starting-point, like the Synoptics, but recedes back into the depths of eternity, and starts out with the statement sublime in its simplicity: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”” [2]

“The miracles of the Lord, narrated in this Gospel, are of such a character that they give great prominence to his divine power.” [3]

See John 4:46, 5:5, 9:1, 11:17

“The teaching of Christ greatly predominates in Johns Gospel, but this is quite different from that contained in the Synoptics. We find no parables here but elaborate discourses, which also contain a couple of allegories. The all absorbing topic is not the Kingdom of God but the Person of the Messiah.”[4]

Christ presents himself as the source of life, 4:46— 5:47; the spiritual nourishment of the soul, 6:22-65; the water of life, 4:7-16; 7:37, 38; the true liberator, 8:31-58; the light of the world, 9:5, 35-41; and the living principle of the resurrection, 11:25, 26.

“The scene of action in this Gospel is quite different from that in the Synoptics. In the latter the work of Christ in Galilee is narrated at length, while He is seen at Jerusalem only during the last week of His life. In the Gospel of John, on the other hand, the long ministry of Christ in Galilee is presupposed rather than narrated, while his work and teaching in Judea and particularly at Jerusalem is made very prominent.” [5]

“4. The Gospel of John is far more definite than the Synoptics in pointing out the time and place of the occurrences that are narrated; it is in a certain sense more chronological than the other Gospels. We are generally informed as to the place of Christ’s operation. Definite mention is made of Bethany, 1:28; Cana, 2: 1; Capernaum, 2:12; Jerusalem, 2:13; Sychar, 4: 5; Bethesda, 5 : 2, etc. The designations of time are equally distinct, sometimes the hour of the day being given.” [6]

“5. The style of the fourth Gospel is not like that of the other three. It is peculiar in that “it contains, on the one hand, except in the prologue and χαρᾷ χαίρειin 3:29, hardly any downright Hebraisms,” Simcox, The Writers of the New Testament p. 73, while, on the other hand, it approaches the style of Old Testament writers more than the style of any other New Testament writing does …

His sentences are generally connected in the most simple way by καί, δεor οὖν, and his descriptions are often elaborate and repetitious. He exhibits a special fondness for contrasts and for the use of the parallelismus membrorum.” [7]

III) Authorship

“The voice of antiquity is all but unanimous in ascribing the fourth Gospel to John.” [8]

“The internal evidence for the authorship of the Gospel is now generally arranged under the following heads:

1.The author was a Jew. He evidently had an intimate acquaintance with the Old Testament, had, as it were, imbibed the spirit of the prophetical writings. He knew them not only in the translation of the LXX, but in their original language, as is evident from several Old Testament quotations. Moreover the style of the author clearly reveals his Jewish nationality. He wrote Greeks it is true, but his construction, his circumstantiality and his use of parallelism, are all Hebraic …

2.The author was a Palestinian Jew. He clearly shows that he is well at home in the Jewish world. He is intimately acquainted with Jewish customs and religious observances and with the requirements of the law, and moves about with ease in the Jewish world of thought [see e.g. 1:21; 4:9; 5:1 ff.; 7:22 ff; 9:2; 9:14 ff] …

3.The writer was an eyewitness of the events he relates.He claims this explicitly, if not already in 1: 14, “we beheld his glory” (Cf. I John 1:1-3), certainly in 19:35. “And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true; and he knoweth that he saith true that ye might believe.” This claim is corroborated by the lively and yet simple manner in which he pictures the events; by the many definite chronological data and naming of localities …

4. [By the process of elimination] The author was the apostle John …” [9]

“Not until the last part of the eighteenth century was the authorship of John attacked on critical grounds, and even then the attacks were of small significance. Bretschneider in 1820 was the first to assail it in a systematic way. But he was soon followed by others, such as Baur, Strauss, Schwegler, Zeller, Scholten, Davidson, Wrede e. a. It has been their persistent endeavor to show that the Gospel of John is a product of the second century. Some would ascribe it to that shadowy person, the presbyter John, whose existence Eusebius infers from a rather ambiguous passage of Papias, but who, in all probability, is to be identified with John the apostle. Others positively reject this theory. Wrede, after arguing that the authorship of John cannot be established, says: “Far less can the recent hypothesis be regarded as proven which purports to find the author of the Gospel in John the presbyter.” The Origin of the New Testamentp. 89.” [10]

“The most important considerations that led many rationalistic critics to the conclusion that the fourth Gospel was written in the second century, are the following: (1) The theology of the Gospel, especially its representation of Christ, is developed to such a degree that it points beyond the first and reflects the consciousness of the Church of the second century. (2) The Gospel was evidently written under the influence of the philosophic and religious tendencies that were prevalent in the second century, such as Montanism, Docetism and Gnosticism. (3) The great difference between the fourth Gospel and the Synoptics appears to be the result of second century cavilling respecting the nature of Christ, and of the Paschal controversy.

But the idea that the Gospel of John is a second century product goes counter to both the internal evidence to which we already referred, and to the external testimony, which is exceptionally strong and which can be traced back to the very beginning of the second century. Some of the Epistles of Ignatius show the influence of John’s Christology, and the writings of both Papias and Polycarp contain allusions to the first Epistle of John, which was evidently written at the same time as the Gospel. The latter was in existence, therefore, in the beginning of the second century.” [11]

IV) Composition

“1. Readers and Purpose. The Gospel of John was in all probability written primarily for the Christians of Asia Minor, among whom especially the heresy of Cerinthus had arisen. Early tradition has it that John wrote it at the request of the bishops of Asia to combat that heresy. Internal evidence certainly favors the hypothesis that it was composed for Greek readers. The author carefully interprets Hebrew and Aramaeic words, as in 1: 38, 41, 42; 9:7; 11:16; 19:13, 17; 20:16. He makes it a point to explain Jewish customs and geographical designations, 1:28; 2:1; 4:4,5; 11:54, . . . 7:37; 19:31,40,42. Moreover, notwithstanding his characteristically Hebrew style, he usually quotes from the Septuagint …

The apostle himself gives expression to his purpose, when he says: “These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing, ye might have life in his name,” 20: 31. His aim is twofold, therefore, theoretical and practical. He desires to prove that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and to lead believers to a life of blessed communion with him. The means he employs to that end are: (1) The miracles of the Lord, on which special emphasis is placed, cf. 20:30; 31:25; and which are contemplated as σημεῖα,as signs of the divine glory of Christ. (2) The long discourses of the Saviour, which serve to interpret his signs and to describe the unique relation in which He stands to the Father. And (3) the narratives touching Jesus dealing with individuals, such as Nathaniel, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Philip, Mary Magdalena and Thomas, showing, how He led them to faith, a faith culminating in the confession of Thomas: “My Lord and my God.”” [12]

“2. Time and Place.Since John was undoubtedly the writer of the fourth Gospel, we have a terminus ad quem in A. D. 98, for Irenaeus says that John lived to the time of Trajan, who began his reign in that year. The testimony of Jerome is to the same effect …

In all probability, however, John wrote his Gospel several years before his death, since its style is, as Alford remarks, “that of a matured, but not of an aged writer.” Prolegomena to the GospelsCh. V., Sec. VI, 10 …

We may be sure that the apostle did not compose the Gospel until after the death of Paul in A. D. 68. The congregations of Asia Minor were the special charge of the great apostle of the Gentiles, and he never makes any mention in his Epistles of Johns being in their midst, nor does he send him a single salutation; and when he parted from the Ephesian elders, he evidently did not anticipate the coming of an apostle among them. Moreover we infer from 21:19 that John knew of the manner in which Peter died, and presupposes this knowledge in his readers.” [13]

“Tradition points to Ephesus as the place of composition. Origen testifies “that John, having lived long in Asia, was buried at Ephesus.” This is confirmed by Polycrates, a bishop of Ephesus. Jerome says: “John wrote a Gospel at the desire of the bishops of Asia.” And Cosmas of Alexandria informs us definitely that John composed his Gospel, while dwelling at Ephesus.” [14]

“3. Method. John’s Gospel is evidently of an autoptic character. He may have read the Synoptics before he composed his work, but he did not use them as sources from which he drew a part of his material. In several places the author indicates that he related what he had seen and heard, cf. 1:14; 13:23; 18:15; 19:26, 35;20:2. Compare what he says in his first Epistle 1:1-3. While the Synoptic Gospels were in all probability based to a great extent on oral tradition and written sources, neither of these played an appreciable part in the composition of the fourth Gospel.” [15]

V) Canonical Significance

“The Gospel of John was accepted as canonical in all parts of the Church from the earliest time, the only exceptions being the Alogi and Marcion. It is true, the apostolic fathers do not quote it, but the writings of three of them show traces either of it or of the first Epistle. Among the Church fathers Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, Origen, Justin Martyr, Jerome e. a. either freely quote it, or refer to it as an integral part of the Word of God. Moreover it is included in Tatian’s Diatessaron, the Muratori canon, and the Syriac and old Latin Versions. In all at least nineteen witnesses testify to the use and recognition of the Gospel before the end of the second century.” [16]

“The great significance of this Gospel in Holy Writ is that it places prominently before us the Son of Man as the Son of God, as the eternal Word that became flesh. According to this Gospel Christ is the Son of God, who descended from the Father, stood in a unique relation to the Father, had come to do the Father’s will on earth, and would return to the glory that He had eternally possessed with the Father, that He might send the Holy Spirit from the Father to abide with his Church throughout all ages. In that Spirit He himself returns to his followers to dwell in them forever. He is the highest revelation of God, and our relation to him, either of faith or of unbelief, determines our eternal destiny.” [17]

[1] pp.63-64

[2] p.64

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] pp.64-65

[6] p.65

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] pp.65-66

[10] p.68

[11] Ibid.

[12] pp.69-70

[13] p.70

[14] Ibid.

[15] pp.70-71

[16] p.71

[17] Ibid.

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