SBL 2000
Papers Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature
Nashville, TN - November 18-21, 2000

"Truth and Liberation"
The Function of the Johannine Parakletos
in Biblical and Theological Perspective
Paul N. Anderson

Presented to the SBL "Christian Theology and the Bible Group " on Saturday, November 18, 2000
[Copyright 2000, by Paul N. Anderson.  All rights reserved.  This is a draft version of a work still in progress; please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]

The integration of theology and biblical studies is important work, and in preparation for today’s discussion one is happily reminded of the 1993 Project of Bible and Theology consultation and greatly helped by the subsequent publishing of the papers and further reflections: The Whole and Divided Self, edited by John McCarthy. While the disciplines of biblical and theological studies to some degree must be conducted in narrow and confined ways seeking to preserve integrity of approach and neutrality of perspective, I also believe the theological use of scripture is its highest function, and that the biblical basis of Christian theology is the foundational test of is adequacy. Put otherwise, our effective thinking about God today must be engaged with the historic disclosure of God in the past, and scripture becomes a basic place to begin within that venture.

Considering how to approach the self from a biblically and theologically integrated perspective, however, is no small matter. As a complement to other work in this area, a particularly interesting place in which the divine and the human appear to engage is the Parakletos passages in the Gospel of John. More specifically, a few chapters after the reader is told that the truth sets one free (8:32), one is also told that the Parakletos is called "the Spirit of Truth" who sets persons free by leading them into the truth – apparently the truth about one’s existential condition (16:8). If this is so, such a theme has great implications for understanding theologically aspects of intrapersonal wholeness and transformation – a worthy interest indeed. The focus of this paper is thus to explore what is meant in the Fourth Gospel by the association of truth and liberation and what the theological implications might be in constructing a theology of self.

So how does one address the task? Being a biblical scholar, the fitting way to proceed may be to defer: engaging the text first personally and theologically, and then considering exegetical issues to engage thereby assessing the validity of one’s approach. The particular text I want to engage is a verse from the fourth of the five Johannine Parakletos passages: John 16:8. The RSV translates the verse: "And when he comes, he will convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment:" whereas the NRSV translates it: "And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:". Here, the threefold convincement of the Parakletos appears to show the truth to the world about that which is authentically sin, righteousness, and judgment. While elenchein peri bears with it the connotation of proving the world wrong, negative conviction is not necessarily the best sense of the meaning. Indeed, to show the world the truth about any of these themes is to also challenge the world’s conception and to prove it wrong, but for now we’ll stay with the more inclusive meaning of "convincement" rather than inferring negativity proper.

While the following three verses appear to declare ways the Parakletos proves the world wrong, the preceding verses suggest the matter is one of leading the disciples and the world into truth – in continuity with Jesus, the first Parakletos – and in that sense, the convicting/convincing work of truth continues. It is to the disciples’ advantage that Jesus depart because only in so doing will another helper/comforter be sent; and yet, this agent is called the Spirit of Truth. The particular help provided thus appears to be the exposure of the world’s inadequacies by means of affirming and revealing genuine authenticity. Such truth-oriented work indeed involves crisis, and one is faced with a further existential crossroads: whether to open oneself to the bi-focal conviction of truth and light or whether to slink back into the relative security of incongruity and darkness (3:17-21).

Theologically, John 16:8 offers a window into the basis for the salvation process itself. Humans fall short of the righteousness of God, and while created in the Imago Dei, what we can do on our own finally remains insufficient. Confessing our sins and need for God also prepares the way to receive God’s gift of grace (undeserved love), and we pass from judgment (deserved love) into life because of what God has done on our behalf. At least some of this redemptive process seems to be typified here in the great discourses of John 14-17. What I prefer in the Johannine rendering over some theological approaches, however, is that in John we find no rigid doctrine of total depravity. While no one has seen God at any time, and while the cosmos stands in opposition to the divine, the Light of Christ enlightens everyone coming into the world (1:9), and the cosmos is also beloved of God (3:16). Rather than resorting to preachers’ accusations of guilt or cultic manipulations of our acknowledged need before God, conviction of the truth about ourselves is presented as something for which we can look to the spiritual workings of God, proper. Reading this material personally and reflecting upon it theologically, the Spirit of Truth leads us into truth about ourselves – both negative and positive – and such convincement is always liberating.

So how does such liberating work happen for us, personally and transformingly? An impressively close embodiment of this process involves the work of Carl Rogers as described in his classic book: Client-Centered Therapy. While many other therapists have developed theories around the liberating effect of truth, Rogers’ approach continues to be of value because of its clarity and functionality. Having originally sought to prepare for Christian ministry, but having found it too restrictive, Rogers prepared to become a therapist. His non-directive approach to therapy functions so as to facilitate the client’s encounter with the truth about herself or himself, and in so doing, the divided self moves toward wholeness. This sort of therapy might not work equally well in all cases, but Rogers’ assessment seems valid in that anxiety – a stressing factor in nearly all of its manifestations – is at least partially caused by the degree of incongruity between one’s perceived self and one’s experienced self. Like two circles which will never be entirely concentric, the greater the incongruity between them, the greater will be one’s anxiety with varying degrees of awareness.

Such tensions are understandable. To use a somewhat trivial example, if one believes one is a good golfer, for instance, but continually scores higher than desired, one is confronted by incongruity. Normally, the approach one takes toward the resulting anxiety is either to admit, "Well, I’m not as good as I’d like to be" – modifying one’s perception; or, one will go to the driving range and seek to get those scores a bit lower – modifying one’s experience. The effect in either case is to move toward greater congruity of self, resulting also in a lessening of anxiety. This is health producing and the present metaphor is also true of less peripheral aspects of our lives, including our standings before God and one another.

The therapist may here be viewed as working in ways parallel to the liberating work of the Holy Spirit. Where psychotherapy has come to serve as "the priesthood of the modern era" in some sectors, the effective counseling session may be experienced as a form of Christian ministry. One’s limitations and inadequacies are exposed, and one’s assets and sufficiencies are confirmed. Anxiety and incongruity are replaced by authenticity and integrity, and one is thereby empowered to live into greater wholeness as a restored self in the light of God’s truth. One might even suggest that this is what a powerful worship experience may evoke, whether it be linked to a high-church sacramental rite or a low-church aformal epiphany, and the human encounter with the numinous cannot be other.

The callings of the biblical prophets bespeak such realities as well (see Exodus 3:1-17; Isaiah 6:1-10; Ezekiel 1:25-2:5; Jeremiah 1:4-10; Acts 9:1-19; and Revelation 1:9-20). In response to: a) an encounter with the divine, b) humans are stricken with an awesome sense of inadequacy and need before God, c) whereupon divine agency redeems and restores the individual, and d) God commissions the prophet with a sense of call and a message for others. Upon reflection, we might feel rather daunted by these experiential highlights of biblical times, but in often-subtler ways we too may experience being opened up to the truth – either about ourselves or in general – as a result of a transformative epiphany. The "Aha experience" also need not be construed narrowly as a solely religious matter; openings into truth always have spiritual implications, but the realm of the Spirit transcends the religious, at least if one takes the Bible seriously. It also appears that the linkage between experiential epiphany and personal truth-encounter may travel in either direction. To encounter something of the presence of the living God functions to help us see the truth about ourselves – both the positive and the negative; and, to be opened to the truth about ourselves is to become aware of our need for God – the Source of all truth, righteousness, and love.

The result is that genuine humility and positive self-esteem are not to be viewed as polar opposites, one pushing us up and the other pushing us down. No. To see ourselves as we really are in the light of the Holy Spirit’s convicting truth is to become aware of our shortcomings. We thus become convicted of our dependence on creaturely scaffolding rather than God, or that which is rooted in God. And yet, to become mindful of the unimaginable grace of God, extended to us out of divine love, is to receive a gift by which we are opened into the newness of life. In these ways, lowly humility and positive self-esteem are twin functions of authenticity and reflections of the convincing work of the Parakletos, the Spirit of Truth, who convicts the world of sin and of righteousness. This brings about crisis in the world, and it evokes a dualism of decision (to use Bultmann’s phrase) for us existentially: whether one will side with the truth conveyed by the Revealer or whether one will resist it, clinging instead to the contingent rather than the absolute.

The message here is indeed "good news" to us on several levels. For one thing, because the Holy Spirit can be trusted to do the convicting work we need not usurp the role by means of being hard on ourselves. We can simply open our lives to the truth-exposing work of the Parakletos and respond to it accordingly. For another, we need not afflict others with our worldly measurements of their performances, as the Parakletos can be trusted to carry on the work of lateral conviction faithfully. We also become humbly mindful that we may embrace God’s light and truth as a treasure, but it will always be a treasure held in earthen vessels to show us that the transcendent power belongs always to God (II Cor. 4:6-7).

On the other hand, witnessing to the truth as we understand it is always appropriate, and this relates equally to ways we regard the powerful and the powerless in our stewardship of those glimpses of the transcendent which we ourselves have received. Apparently, the Fourth Evangelist had not met with success in terms of his and his community’s attesting to the truth, and he was faced with the discouragement of family and friends who rejected his witness to the Gospel. His explanations of such disappointments pose lessons in theological reflection in and of themselves, and these contextual factors give us a bit of pause before sharing our self-certain perceptions with others. Then again, a reflective reading of the text does affect us personally and existentially, and it impacts centrally one’s theology of selfhood before God and one’s understanding of the human/divine dialogue.

In the light of theological anthropology, John 16:8 may also have implications for soteriology. In general terms, the invitation of the Gospel is to open oneself to God’s saving/revealing action toward humanity typified eschatologically in the Christ Events. This is what the saving and empowering response of faith to the divine initiative involves. In more mundane ways, however, such a model typifies the ongoing life of discipleship in which we daily seek light for our paths and guidance along the way. The at-times subtle exposing of one’s reliance upon scaffolding of creaturely origin rather than that which is rooted in the divine brings one to a place of repentance and realignment of one’s loyalties and endeavors. In these and other ways, the momentous aspect of responding to God’s saving/revealing work continues as a moment-by-moment human/divine dialogue wherein one’s desire to abide in the truth finds daily occasion to live responsively to the Spirit of Truth, who convicts of sin and of righteousness. Through the sermon, the worship experience, the music, the contemplative garden, the novelist, the silence – and at times even the journalist – the Parakletos utters within us the convicting word: "Thou art the man!" and likewise the comforting assurance: "Well done, thou good and faithful servant." From these openings follows that all-important injunction: "This is the way; walk ye in it."

These are just a few of the ways seeing the truth about ourselves proves liberating. We are delivered from fear, from anxiety, from inauthenticity, from duplicity. Being opened to the truth sets us free inwardly because our perceived and experienced selves move toward greater congruity, and our divided selves move closer to life-producing wholeness. This is the way the text speaks to me, personally and reflectively, but doing theology well involves work that is biblically consistent, rationally sound and experientially adequate. Having explored the latter two issues, however, perhaps we’d better look at the text more closely and see how well our interpretation squares with the best readings of the text. So let’s do a bit of exegesis and see how close we might be.

All of a sudden, however, I come to feel a bit of anxiety creeping up. My self perception as one who takes seriously the plain meaning of the text first before eisegetically reading into the text what one thinks it ought to mean has just been eclipsed by the possibility that I may have done exactly that! Here I’ve gone into interpreting one verse somewhat on its own without considering the larger context, the history-of-religions background of the Parakletos motif, the Sitz im Leben and form-history of the material – let alone the question of its sources and composition history – nor have I even begun to ascertain the proximity of the motif to the historical Jesus, Synoptic judgment/advocacy themes, the relevant history of the Johannine situation, or even the literary and rhetorical design of the material! What if a sober exegetical reading of the text leads to an interpretation other than the one I’ve just rendered? Do I impose a division between my theological self and my exegetical self on this particular matter and distinguish what the text is saying from what it says to me? Do I apply Susan Sontag’s eroticism of art to an impressionistic reading of the text, siding with "how it smacks you" being valued over what it originally meant? Of course, some may question whether knowing the latter is even possible, but let’s take a look at the historical and literary issues and see where we are led.

In the larger context, the preceding verses (16:4b-7) emphasize the importance of Jesus’ leaving in order to send the Parakletos, and the following verses (16:9-11) clarify the three actions described above. More specifically, "sin" (hamartia) is described as the refusal to believe in Jesus, "righteousness" (dikaiosune) is defined as a factor of Jesus’ returning to the Father and no longer being visible, and "judgment" (krisis) relates to "the ruler of this word" having been condemned. Further, in the fifth Parakletos passage (16:12-15) the emphasis is upon the upon the way the Spirit of Truth will lead people into all truth, not speaking on his own behalf, but only that which hears from Jesus. The issue here seems clearly to have been related to receiving Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, and just as the Son is sent from the Father as the representative Prophet-like-Moses agent (based on Deuteronomy 18:15-22; see my book, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel, Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1997, Table 22), here the Spirit likewise proceeds from the Father and the Son, conveying only that which the sender has instructed.

This leads us to history-of-religions investigations of the origin of the Parakletos motif. Is its background that of the Gnostic Revealer as argued by Bultmann, or is it the Son of Man who descends from above as an agent of divine judgment? Or, do we have some Jewish angelic agency, such as Michael, as forwarded by Otto Betz, or is it a juridical association in combination with one of the above images? The discovery of the Qumran writings has supplanted Gnostic and Hellenistic theories with Jewish ones, and the explicit continuity with Jesus’ ministry makes the Deuteronomy 18 parallels – replete with its various agency manifestations – important factors of the background to consider, in my view (see my essay, "The Having-Sent-Me-Father – Aspects of Agency, Encounter, and Irony in the Johannine Father-Son Relationship" in a forthcoming Semeia volume).

But what of tradition history? Did such themes go back to Jesus, or may there have been some contact with Synoptic judgment/guidance motifs as the traditions developed? The clear contacts with Matthew 10:17-25; 24:9-10; Mark 8:9-13; and Luke 21:12-17 suggest some connection with John 15:18-16:4a, and this may reflect either contact between Johannine and Synoptic traditions or an independent development of a Jesus-teaching motif. Given the pervasive independence of the Johannine tradition, the latter is by no means as far from consideration as many scholars have assumed. The contacts with the Matthean tradition are especially close, and it is likely that the third Parakletos passage in John developed around Christians experiencing persecution from the world – possibly from Roman authorities, but in this case from Jewish authorities resulting from tensions preceding and following the Birkat ha-Minim – wherein they also experienced being given fitting words for their defense as a gift of help and spiritual empowerment.

In terms of composition, chapters 15-17 are likely part of a later edition of material that was added to the first edition of the Gospel drawn together around 80 CE. During this time (during the 80’s and the 90’s) tensions with the local Jewish Synagogue appear to have been acute, although Jewish/Christian tensions had by now begun to give way in acuteness to Roman Emperor-worship tensions and Gentile docetizing tensions on the rise. The form-function character of the material was that of the Johannine homily designed to encourage believers in the 80’s and 90’s of the late first-century church, and Asia Minor would not be a bad guess in terms of the setting (see Anderson, The Christology of the Fourth Gospel, 1997, Tables 20 and 21). This is why hamartia is defined as the failure to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, why dikaiosune is associated with the vindication of the Son’s ascension to the Father, and why crisis is described as the condemnation of "the ruler of this world." The primary issue here is the world’s ambivalent reception of the Revealer, and it is around this issue that exegetical inquiry properly revolves.

This, however, leads me to a bit of a crisis. My exegetical analysis produces very different results from my personal reflection on the material. This conflict is even exacerbated by looking again at the John 8:32 passage, because the clear and simple meaning of this text is that the relation of truth to liberation is not meant to be taken personally and existentially; rather, it has to do with abiding in the teachings of Jesus and becoming his disciples. If one receives Jesus as the messianic agent from God, the text declares, one will know the truth and be set free by it. The issue here must be viewed contextually as emerging around issues of religious persuasion and dialogue, not the existential abatement of inward incongruities. Alas! The introspective conscience of the West has just claimed another victim, and meaningful as one’s reading may be personally, it apparently does not stand up to the measure of "the clear and simple meaning" of the text.

Well, so much for integrating theology and exegesis on the topic of truth and liberation in the Fourth Gospel. I suppose one could divorce the disciplines and say: "Despite what the passage appears to have meant to its original readers, here’s how it speaks to me." My students do this all the time, often unencumbered by sound exegesis. Of course, respecting the text is what I feel obliged to help them consider and to base their hermeneutics upon, so I feel my own anxiety level rising a bit. This is not to say there is no value in claiming "the text speaks to me in this way or that," and indeed the Bakhtinian reminder that there is never a first meaning nor the last is helpful to consider because we ourselves are indeed involved in the making of meaning; and it shall always be so. But this dialogic enterprise may be a somewhat different one than assessing critically and exegetically the best meanings of a text as far as one can determine them.

Before giving up and considering the enterprise a hopeless impasse, however, perhaps we should go a bit further into the theological underpinnings of the "plain and simple meaning" of the Johannine texts here under consideration. John’s anthropology and Christology indeed cast light on John’s pneumatology, and such considerations may still have implications for constructing a theology of the self. John’s anthropology declares from the outset that: "No one has seen God at any time" (1:18; 6:46), and "no one can come to" Jesus except being drawn by the Father (6:44, 65). Nonetheless, God loves the world and implicitly draws the world through the Scriptures, Moses, the children of Abraham, the witness of the baptizer, and ultimately the words and works of Jesus. As many as believe on him receive the power to become the children of God, and yet, even some of "his own" nonetheless reject his saving/revealing initiative (1:11-12). The evangelist explains this rejection of the revealer in several ways: a) the world did not recognize him when he came (1:10); b) some loved darkness rather than light and refused to come to the light lest their deeds be exposed as not having been rooted in God (3:17-21); c) people were enthralled by the signs Jesus performed rather than attending that which they signified (4:48; 6:26); d) people searched the scriptures but were unwilling to come to Jesus – the object of their testimony (5:39-40); e) their unbelief had been prophesied in scripture (12:37-41); and f) people loved the praise of humans rather than the glory of God (12:43). Come to think of it, all of these passages relate the conviction of "sin" alluded to in John 16:8 – especially if they are understood to represent the inauthentic world versus the saving/revealing workings of God.

These passages appear also to illumine the Johannine perspective of the krisis of the world. God’s saving/revealing initiative exposes the inauthenticity of worldly esteem, power, pride, and even religion – inviting a response of faith to that which appears to be foolishness in worldly terms. Historically and sociologically, such responses were played out on the landscape of relations with Jewish family and friends who either came to Jesus "by night" (3:2) but did not want to be exposed as believing openly; or as those whose hopes of a militaristic, thaumaturgic, or popularistic leader departed from Jesus and walked with him no longer (6:66). There may have been good, biblical reasons for rejecting the messiahship of Jesus (7:41-52; 19:7), and handing Jesus over to the Romans may even have been perceived as a way of sparing multitudes from the wrath of a Roman crackdown (11:47-53). So, from one’s faith perspective, such rejections of Jesus might be thought of as the sort of things the Jewish leaders would have done, but not "good Christians," because Jesus is "the right recipe to God," someone might say. But wait a minute! Does the Incarnation scandalize one religious family only – especially when written from within that family – or, does it not scandalize the whole world, which in its conventionalities may include Christian certainties and loyalties as well?

And, speaking of Christology, what does the Revealer reveal, except that he is sent from the Father to be responded to as one responds to the Father? As "the way, the truth, and the life" if we add anything to Christ, according to John, we lose Christ. But what about formulas and recipes we hold dear as Christians? Did the Johannine Jesus challenge Jewish forms and dogmatisms just to set up good Christian ones in their place? Neither on Gerizim nor in Jerusalem is authentic worship delimited, declares the Johannine Jesus, and that may also have pertained to Ephesus and Antioch. Authentic worship must be in spirit, and in truth (4:21-24). And, come to think of it, the Johannine Jesus institutes no sacramental ordinance at the last supper in John 13, and the evangelist emphasizes that while Jesus’ disciples did baptize, he did not (4:2). Further, water alone does not suffice; one must also be born of the Spirit (3:5). So what does it mean to believe in Jesus and to receive life through him? Does it mean to change from one religion to another, or does it involve moving from irreligion to the designated one? According to John, no. If John’s Christology is taken seriously, the saving/revealing work of Jesus as the Christ calls for believing response to the divine initiative – embodied in the Incarnation, but also at work in the enlightening work of God (1:9) and continued in the work of the Parakletos – in contrast to all that is of creaturely origin. This includes religion, according to John, and even exegesis and theology. "It was not Moses who gave," declares the Johannine Jesus, "but my Father who gives" (6:32). The exegetically sound and the theologically proper can never supplant the eschatologically present workings of God.

Thus, the Incarnation continues to be a scandal to all that is of worldly origin, including political power, popular appeal, technological prowess, and religious certainty. The same can be said of the work of the second Comforter/Helper who continues to convict the world of its inauthencity and its authenticity. So, what does it mean to respond fully and faithfully to the Revealer as carried out ongoingly by the Parakletos? How does one as reader apply the plain and simple meaning of the John 16:8 personally in the light of the Fourth Gospel’s persuasive intent? Convincement here applies to "sin" in that it exposes one’s inauthentic faith – challenging one’s refusal to respond to what God is doing in the eschatological present. It applies to "righteousness" in that one’s conventional views of what is pleasing to God are trumped by the paradoxical glorification of the Son of Man – even through and beyond suffering. It applies to "judgment" in that the "ruler of this world" has indeed been judged with finality – for perfect love casts out all fear. In these and other ways the Johannine presentation of the Revealer overturns not only Jewish and Roman notionalities and recipe-isms, but it scandalizes Christian formalizations as well.

This being the case, maybe one need not divorce one’s exegetical self from one’s experiential self when it comes to reading about truth and liberation in the Gospel of John. To say yes to the Revealer, which is the exegetical thrust of these texts, is also to say yes to the truth, the existential impact of these texts – especially as responsiveness to the divine initiative gives way to walking in the light, abiding in the vine, and obeying the truth. Being thus opened to the truth about oneself ultimately leads one to openings regarding the character of our Ultimate Concern – God – and vice versa. On both accounts, truth is indeed liberating. While his inference of a Gnostic Redeemer-Myth finally is unconvincing, perhaps that noted Professor from Marburg indeed deserves the last word on our theme. According to Bultmann (Theology of the New Testament II, trans. Kendrick Grobel, New York: Scribners, 1955, pp. 18-19):

The emancipating knowledge of the truth (8:32) is not the rational knowledge of the reality of that-which-is in general; such a knowledge would at best free one from the prejudices and errors occasioned by tradition and convention. No, this knowledge of the truth is the knowledge, granted to men of faith, of God’s reality; it frees one of sin (8:32-34). True, aletheia does have the formal meaning "truth" when it is said that Jesus tells the truth (8:45), or that the Spirit guides us into all the truth (16:13). But the truth into which the Spirit guides is factually the reality of God; and Jesus does not merely tell the truth but also is the truth (14:6; 48). So truth is not the teaching about God transmitted by Jesus but is God’s very reality revealing itself – occurring! – in Jesus.

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[Copyright 2000, by Paul N. Anderson.  All rights reserved.  This is a draft version of a work still in progress;
please do not copy or cite anything from this paper without explicit permission of the author.]

For questions or comments about the content of this paper, please e-mail Paul N. Anderson.

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