The Gospel of John and the Catechism

I’m a catechist and a theology student, and from time to time I’ll be posting some longer pieces on these subjects. The following is adapted from something I wrote for a graduate class on the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John is at the heart of the Church’s Christology, and thus forms a vital part of her catechesis. While the Synoptic Gospels bear witness to the divinity of Christ, it is in John that we find the most complete unfolding of His signs, glory, and unity with the Father.

The use of John in the Catechism of the Catholic Church was not without controversy. Reflecting upon the Catechism ten years after its publication, Pope Benedict XVI noted that “the volume of the attacks on the Catechism’s use of scripture was particularly loud.” (1) Specifically, historical-critical exegetes said it was “naïve” to “cite passages from the Gospel of John concerning the historical figure of Jesus.” (2) By the time the Catechism was being created, the historical-critical method had drifted so far from its moorings in the faith of a living Church that the notorious “Jesus Seminar” could assert that the Gospel of John contained none of the words or teachings of Jesus. (3)

Well aware that these extreme exegetical trends were already passing into history, the Pope points to sections 101 – 141 of the Catechism as an example of “the correct way of dealing with Scripture when testifying to the faith.” (4) He dismisses the criticisms against the Catechism’s use of scripture, saying that “any interpretation that is detached from the life of the Church and from her historical experiences remains non-obligatory and cannot rise above the literary genre of a hypothesis.”(5)

John is itself a catechetical gospel, developed over a longer period than the Synoptics and thus reflecting a more advanced sense of the Church’s understanding of Christ, his Person, and His teachings. As Teresa Okure observes, “Modern scholars believe in the existence of a Johannine (catechetical) school where the traditions embodied in the gospel would have been reflected upon, taught, and finally transmitted in writing to a wider body.”(6)

Thus, the Gospel of John was created not only for rhetorical purposes, but for pedagogic purposes as well. In reading John, we are transported back to the school of Ephesus, becoming catechumens in the early Church, learning the faith from the Beloved Disciple.

John tells us directly that his Gospel is “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20: 31) Likewise, the Catechism tells us that “The transmission of the Christian faith consists primarily in proclaiming Jesus Christ in order to lead others to faith in him.” (CCC 425)

While understanding the historical context, development, theological agenda, and redaction of John can aid in better understanding the scripture, all of these are merely tools. Certainly, the Catechism acknowledges the value of these tools when it says,

In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression.” (CCC 110)

Yet in the following paragraph, the Catechism adds,

But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written.” (CCC 111)

We may learn and benefit from many different kinds of critical methods if we use them cautiously, but only by remaining grounded in the common-sense guidelines of the Catechism (cf, CCC 112-119) can exegetes find in the scripture “strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life.” (CCC 131)

Citations after the jump.

1. Joseph Ratzinger, “Is the Catechism of the Catholic Church Up-to-Date?: Reflections Ten Years After Its Publication,” On the Way to Jesus Christ (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 146.
2. Ibid., 147.
3. Robert W. Funk, Roy W. Hoover, and The Jesus Seminar, The Five Gospels (New York: Macmillan, 1993).
4. Ratzinger, On the Way, 147.
5. Ibid., 152.
6. Teresa Okure, “John,” in The International Bible Commentary, William R. Farmer, Ed., (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press: 1998), 1451.
7. Ibid., 1443-1444.