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The Divine and the Divisive in John

Question & Answer


Q: By Jennie

I enjoyed the column by Dr. [Thew] Forrester Living Christs of Touch, but John 8:44 has always been problematic for me.  For example, in 8:44 Jesus tells the Jews who don’t believe in him that they are children of the devil.  What is the Progressive commentary on this passage?  Is this where some anti-Semitic tropes find a source?  Even Luther has vile language that could have come from this.

A: By Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.

Dear Jennie,

Let me begin by saying there is no commentary which is “the” Progressive one. There is a range of possibilities when interpreting any passage, which is why we continue to return to the scriptures from our ever-changing circumstances to discover different shades of meaning in the texts.

Historical context is critical. Those communities of the early Christ movement that are shaped by John’s spirituality felt under attack and on the defensive. We know that Jesus was born, lived, and crucified a Jew. His preaching and healing and table-gathering ministries were for the Jewish people. His earliest followers were overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, Jewish. He was a Jewish Rabbi committed to reforming 1st century Judaism. In the end Pharisaical Judaism would evolve into Rabbinical Judaism and, in a sense, its vision became the primary expression of Judaism and not that of Jesus (although they shared much more in common than many realize).

When Jesus’ message failed to take hold within mainstream Judaism, the early Christ movement struggled with its identity. In its fear for survival, John’s community defensively produced some writings that placed harsh blame on Jews, such as in 8.44. This was an ominous development, wherein John’s rhetorical anti-Judaism sowed some seeds of later anti-Semitism. The tragic irony is now quite clear since Christianity is an offspring of Judaism unable to be whole without a complete embrace of its Hebrew ancestry.

Inchoate in John’s spirituality, which at times is stunning in its beauty, is the unfortunate distortion of Rabbi Jesus into an “object of belief” that invites later dogmatic orthodoxy and intolerance. This spirituality vacillates between a Logos of Love that would draw us into an ever-deepening realization of Jesus as an embodiment of a spiritual path rooted in direct experience of Belovedness; and, Jesus as an exclusive, divisive, Divine figure. In one way, this is the tension between the gospels of John and Thomas: John tends to make Jesus into an exclusionary fulcrum, whereas in Thomas, Jesus-as-Christ is who we are each called to be.

Harvey Cox’s, The Future of Faith, catches what is at stake. In the early Christ movement, experience, not belief, is what captured and motivated the heart. What we find in some passages of John, and not him alone, is the tenacious tug of fear in the face of difficult experiences. This gravitational pull will, in time, all too often draw the Christ movement away from exploring the direct experiences of Belovedness in our lives (which is the heart of Rabbi Jesus’ spiritual path). Instead there will be an increasingly reactive instinct toward a mental dogmatic theology that will draw boundaries that divide, disparage, devalue, and demonize what is not understood.

~ Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D.

About the Author
Kevin G. Thew Forrester, Ph.D. is an Episcopal priest, a student of the Diamond Approach for over a decade, as well as a certified teacher of the Enneagram in the Narrative Tradition. He is the founder of the Healing Arts Center of  in Marquette, Michigan, and the author of five books, including I Have Called You Friends, Holding Beauty in My Soul’s Arms, and My Heart is a Raging Volcano of Love for You and Beyond my Wants, Beyond my Fears: The Soul’s Journey into the Heartland. Visit Kevin’s Blog: Essential Living: For The Soul’s Journey.

Review & Commentary