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Father, Son and Spirit:
The Trinity and John’s Gospel
by Andreas J. Kostenberger and Scott R. Swain
(Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2008)
by Fred G. Zaspel
It is common knowledge that both historically and perennially John’s Gospel has played a significant role in the formulation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. What is surprising, then, is the scarcity of books given exclusively to this theme - the Trinity in the Gospel of John. This 2008 addition to the New Studies in Biblical Theology series (D. A. Carson, ed.) is designed to help fill that gap. Andreas Kostenberger (Professor of New Testament and Director of PhD Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wake Forest) and Scott Swain (Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando) bring together mature reflections from the domains of Biblical, Exegetical, and Systematic Theology to provide a helpful model of how Biblical scholarship can move (as Carson describes it in the Preface) “from careful study of biblical text to theological formulation.”
Chapter one begins by establishing the apostle John as the author of the fourth Gospel in order to demonstrate, in turn, that the historical setting and perspective of the fourth Gospel is that of strict Jewish monotheism. Jesus’ teaching challenged and stretched the Jewish understanding of that monotheism, to be sure, but a strict Jewish monotheism it was nonetheless. In a way that is very reminiscent of Bauckham’s God Crucified Kostenberger and Swain argue that John and the early church understood Jesus as participating in that divine identity. It was a committed monotheism that allowed interpersonal relationship within its divine essence. In other words, John and the early church considered Jesus as included in the unique identity of God as declared in the Shema. In the Gospel of John and the early church, Jewish monotheism, while strictly preserved, was redefined in Christological terms.
The following five chapters explore, in turn, the teaching of the fourth Gospel concerning God; the Father; the Son; the Spirit; and, finally, a synthesis of the teaching regarding the Father, Son, and Spirit. Here we have the exegetical groundwork for the systematic conclusions drawn in the final chapters. Kostenberger and Swain offer no new theology, of course. They consciously locate themselves in the mainstream of orthodox Trinitarianism. But they do provide a wealth of exegetical support and, thus, an insightful articulation of this leading mystery of the Christian faith. The varying ways in which John and Jesus speak of the Three Persons are surveyed, and the subtle nuances of each are noted. The authors’ study has obviously been careful and thorough, and their results are helpful indeed toward a sharper understanding of the Father-Son metaphor, the significance of the “Son” titles (monogenes, Son of God, Son of Man, the Son), the Spirit’s procession and mission, and the larger “mission” theme of the Gospel of John.
The final section of the book (chapters seven through ten) provides theological conclusions that arise from their exegetical survey. If earlier the authors argued that John’s Trinitarianism is a Christological Trinitarianism, now they emphasize that John’s Christology is distinctly a Trinitarian Christology. Both observations are valid, of course, and capture well John’s outlook. Further, the authors articulate specifically John’s teachings regarding not only the Son’s and the Spirit’s equal sharing in the identity of “God” with the Father but also the factors that set each apart as distinguishable Persons in their relationships with one another. Their examinations of the “sending” theme, the ontological vs. the economic Trinity, and questions of equality and subordination (in light of the various relevant Johannine expressions signifying dependence, authority, and such) here are precise and helpful. And special attention is given to John’s “mission” theme which the inspired apostle does not present within the framework of a larger Trinitarian theology. Rather, the authors argue, John presents God as Father, Son, and Spirit within a larger mission outlook - reminiscent of Warfield’s contention a century ago that God’s revelation of himself as Triune was “incidental” to the revelation of his redemptive purpose. This, in turn, is shown to inform the Christian mission as a continuation of a mission begun in heaven in eternity past. And throughout this section the authors provide a treasure of insightful observations regarding specific passages - the “I Am” sayings and especially the “I Am” of John 8:28, the connection of the crucifixion to the Passover, passages which speak of the “sending” and “coming” of the Son, the influence of Genesis 22 on John 3:16, the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and our adoption as children, just to name a few outstanding examples.
This book provides a valuable contribution to the study of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Gospel of John. Any study of the Trinity would benefit by it. And certainly no preacher seeking to expound the Gospel of John would want to be without it. If you are intending to preach through the fourth Gospel you will want to read this book first so better to grasp not only the various intricacies of the doctrine of the Trinity itself but also the Trinitarian structure and atmosphere of John’s Gospel itself. Then as you preach through each next passage you will want to return to this book again and again to benefit from its insights. It’s presentation of the logic of Trinitarian thought in the early church, its unfolding of the divine mission as it relates to the Persons of the Trinity, and its careful exegetical and theological insights into various passages will enrich the study and expositions of John’s Gospel for any preacher.