O Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know thy Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leadeth to eternal life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
~ Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (BCP pg. 173)
~ Collect for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (BCP pg. 173)
William Temple’s Readings in St. John’s Gospel is a wonderful commentary on the Fourth Gospel. The short introduction is itself worthwhile. I freely admit that I have a great love for this gospel. It is a preference I share with Temple: “Let the Synoptists repeat for us as closely as they can the very words He spoke; but let St. John tune our ears to hear them.” However, for all its beautiful imagery, spiritual comfort, and theological profundity, St. John’s Gospel has in the modern era been a book that has caused no small amount of squirming discomfort and even antipathy for some. There are various “problems”: the long stretches of dialogue can be repetitive, Jesus often seems cryptic, the unflattering language about “the Jews” has been used as justification for anti-Semitism, etc. Perhaps most problematic are the exclusive claims of Jesus as recorded in this gospel. There are numerous examples, but probably the most significant is John 14:6: I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes unto the Father, but by me. It’s not hard to see why such an exclusive claim would make us modern Christians uncomfortable. The last thing we want is to be seen as narrow-minded and intolerant. Intolerance is, of course, the one thing modern, secular society will not tolerate. I remember several years ago seeing a priest on television say that she believed Jesus was the way, the truth, and the life for her personally, “but that doesn’t mean he is for everybody.” More recently, none other than the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church has been criticized for hedging on the question of whether Jesus is really the only way to God. It just doesn’t sound nice!
Be that as it may, from the perspective of Christian doctrine, these exclusive claims are undeniable. It is not just St. John’s Gospel, but the whole of the New Testament that asserts the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the God-Man. The Incarnation, the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, is the central event in the story of humanity, the hinge of history, “the culmination of the ages” and “the fullness of time”, to borrow St. Paul’s language. Accordingly, as St. Peter preached at Pentecost, “there is no other name under heaven whereby men can be saved.” This does not mean, however, that Christians should be narrow-minded or arrogant; quite the contrary. Neither should we feel obligated to dismiss all other claims to wisdom and truth, for all truth is God’s truth. Concerning John 1:9, There was the light, the true light, which enlighteneth every man – coming into the world, Temple comments:
“From the beginning the divine light has shone. Always it was coming into the world; always it enlightened every man alive in his reason and conscience … and this is what is fully and perfectly expressed in Christ. So it may be truly said that the conscience of the heathen man is the voice of Christ within him – though muffled by his ignorance. All that is noble in the non-Christian systems of thought, or conduct, or worship is the work of Christ upon them and within them. By the Word of God – that is to say, by Jesus Christ – Isaiah, and Plato, and Zoroaster, and Buddha, and Confucius conceived and uttered such truths as they declared. There is only one divine light; and every man in his measure is enlightened by it.”
And so we may believe that others may come to God in ways we would not immediately recognize or acknowledge as “Christian”, and yet to the extent that anyone comes to God, it is by and through Christ, the Word of God, the “one divine light.” To claim otherwise, that Christ is just one option among many paths to God, is a clear rejection of the gospel as presented in the New Testament and the whole of the Christian tradition.
In summary, as Temple ably states in the introduction:
“We may meet the complaint that in this Gospel the Lord is presented as self-assertive. Certainly we must admit that if the claims which He here makes are not true they are intolerably arrogant. If He is a very good man completely surrendered to the Spirit of God, He cannot, without offence, speak as the Johannine Christ speaks. But if He is God come in the flesh He not only may, He must proclaim Himself as the fount of salvation. Love, not self-concern, demands that He should call men to Himself as alone the revelation of the Father. At the same time, it is appropriate that He should do this either when He is expressly challenged, as the religious leaders at Jerusalem challenged Him, or in conversation with His intimate disciples; and it is precisely in these circumstances that the Fourth Gospel presents Him as making these claims … If, when all is said, any still feel a trace of self-assertion in the sense which involves moral defect, it may be held that the Evangelist has imported into his record of what the Lord said some of his own devoted eagerness. But I find no reason for recourse to such a plea. Those who admit, and wish to proclaim, all that the Lord is here represented as saying about Himself, will feel gratitude, not resentment, that the words are recorded; those who do not admit their truth are bound to resent, or at least to regret, their presence in this profoundly sympathetic presentation of the Lord.”
Peace of Christ.