Koester, Craig R. The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. vii-xiv + 245 pp. $23.00.
Craig R. Koester is the Vice President of Academic Affairs, and Asher O. and Carrie Nasby Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary. He is also the author of Revelation and the End of All Things and Symbolism in the Fourth Gospel. According to his nineteen page Curriculum Vitae he also has a forthcoming Anchor Yale Bible Commentary on Revelation, which is no small achievement. He has co-edited a Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testamen (WUNT) volume pertaining to John’s Gospel, and is also an essay contributor to another forthcoming WUNT volume pertaining to John’s Gospel. His most recent publication was a contributing essay to Engaging with C. H. Dodd on the Gospel of John: Sixty Years of Tradition and Interpretation, published by Cambridge University Press. He is well qualified to write in his field, as a Johannine scholar.
The purpose of The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel is given in the subtitle: It is to understand the theology of the Gospel as a whole (xi). The Contents reveals a neat outline of chapters, which are, starting with chapter one: (1) “Introduction,” (2) “God,” (3) “The World and Its People,” (4) “Jesus,” (5) “Crucifixion and Resurrection,” (6) “The Spirit,” (7) “Faith, Present and Future,” and (8) “Discipleship in Community and World.” The Gospel’s narrative framework is broken down by Koester into three main sections: the Prologue; Act I (chs. 1-12); and Act II (chs. 13-21).
Koester explains that God communicates through his Word, now incarnate, to reveal salvation to an estranged world (27-30). As the creator, source, and giver of life, God desires relationship with all people so that they may believe and have life in him (30-2). To overcome the world’s nature of sin, death and estrangement, God sends Jesus and the Spirit to give witness concerning himself and the offer of eternal life; but this witness may also be confrontational for unbelieving people and even result in wrath (33-40). God’s purpose for Jesus’ crucifixion is also relational, i.e., it is purposed to overcome the world’s estrangement (41-7). Life is a central theme for John (56). But death, sin and evil are also forces to be reckoned with (56-80). These forces are also characteristics of “the world” in John’s Gospel (80-1).
Jesus – the incarnate Word, teacher, prophet, Messiah, and Son of God (83-107) – comes to bring eternal life by means of his death and resurrection, so that the estranged world may know God (109-32). The Spirit is the means of appropriating this faith and life – which is seen as a new birth (137-60). John recognizes a rift in time with the coming of God’s Word, so that there is now a present and future aspect to eternal life and judgment (175-86), just as there are present and future dimensions to Christ on earth, who has promised to return to his disciples, and promised to always be with them (182-6). During the interim, the risen and ascended Christ continues his work of giving life to the world through the Spirit and his disciples until his return (188-206).
The primary emphasis of Koester throughout his book is the relational aspect between the world – which is characterized by darkness – and God, who reveals his Son so that the unbelieving world may believe and have life in his name (20:31).
Since he correctly identifies Johannine theology as summarily relational, evaluating Koester’s kerygmatic theory of atonement proves somewhat difficult. This is because his theory builds upon a view of sin that is also centrally relational (65-81; esp. 65-66). Sin and unbelief become a confused mixture: “The crucifixion of the Lamb ‘takes away sin’ by taking away unbelief” (116). And further: “The Lamb is sacrificed to create a relationship of faith in the face of alienation created by sin. If a label is needed for this way of construing the death of Christ, it is kerygmatic.” (116; emphasis original). For John’s Gospel, the world’s relationship to Jesus is the fulcrum of salvation and judgment. Either the world responds favorably to Jesus by believing in him for salvation, or the world responds to him in unbelief resulting in wrath (66-7). This is, so far, in agreement with Koester’s general theology.
However, the crux is this: Sin is understood by Koester as unbelief in essencia (33-6; 59-65; 66; 72; 110, 113-7; esp. 113). But is unbelief a full-orbed Johannine hamartiology? While some texts in John may speak of sin and unbelief together, sin still clearly exists before an estranged world of evil is met by the incarnate Christ. In fact, it is for this sin that the world is judged: “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (3:19-20, ESV). Sin is, here, not seen as unbelief but as evil works of darkness.
Koester also leans heavily on an analogical view of theological language. As an example: “Human beings belong to the earth, and in his teaching Jesus refers to the things of the earth – like bread, light, and water – to convey what comes from above.” (112; cf. also 32). The subheading “Images of God in the Preaching of Jesus” also underscores an analogical understanding of revealed theological truth (36-40). Koester writes: "As Jesus is sent, he bears witness to God by using richly metaphorical language. (…). To use figurative language is to speak of one thing in terms appropriate to another. Jesus will use images that are both similar to and different from God. This means that listeners must discern analogies between things that are otherwise dissimilar. (…). God is different from the world, which is why Jesus uses figurative speech." (36-37).
While symbolism is used in the teachings of Jesus throughout John, an analogical language of theology should not follow prescriptively upon his Gospel. God’s transcendence is not always cause for analogy. Actually, God has incarnated himself as a man, and the revelatory importance of this would seem to militate against any necessary use of analogical language in order for the world to relate to God. Further, creation remains God’s creation, and man – as part of this creation – is created for communion with God, and created in ways that include cognitive knowledge of him. Since man is created in God’s image, he is capable of understanding God and his love univocally. As an example: God really does love us as a friend whose love is so great that he is willing to give his life in our place (15:13). This revelation is not best observed as an analogy of truth concerning a transcendent deity. It is a revelation better understood as a univocal truth. A God who incarnates as man is not a god that must be known by analogies and symbols.
Koester’s book is a remarkable theological treatment of John’s Gospel. His relational-theological emphasis is carefully substantiated and richly rewarding. Though two criticisms were presented and should be kept in mind while reading The Word of Life, particularly Koester’s faulty view of the atonement, the overall significance of his book still stands.