Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Is it "OK" To See Salvation Differently? Some Thoughts on John 3:16

Last week I referred to a series of posts by PCUSA pastor (and Moody Bible Institute graduate) Peter Traben Haas in which he discusses "Seven Steps to Leaving 'Evangelicalism' without Losing Your Faith." In Haas's view, "evangelicalism" is a mere "sixth grade form of Christianity" that must be transcended to remain plausible and to foster personal growth. He himself escaped the stultification of his Christian walk he had experienced at Moody through exploring the contemplative dimension of the faith his mentors had ignored. And so he proposes that retention of the faith is possible through "learning to see" various issues "differently" from how they are routinely "seen" in the fundamentalism in which he was trained.

In my previous post I noted that Haas has fallen prey to the easiest trick in the book, viz., to target the weakest elements of a given movement and to critique the movement as a whole as if its weakest elements were characteristic, if not defining, of it. In his case, he has painted the evangelical movement with the broad brush provided by the fundamentalism he encountered at Moody. Such fundamentalism, however, while consistent with the people who refer to themselves as "conservative evangelicals," is not necessarily characteristic of evangelical as a larger ecclesial phenomenon, as my reference to such figures as Fred Bruce, John Stott, Tim Keller, Jim Packer, and Tom Wright clearly demonstrate. That is not to say that I don't have concerns about certain contemporary trends in the (especially) American evangelical landscape. I certainly do. But it is to say that evangelicalism as a whole cannot be damned with criticism that pretends the movement moves in lockstep to the beat of certain neo-fundamentalist drummers.

Today I would like to discuss one of Haas's posts in particular, simply entitled "It's OK To See Salvation Differently, Part 1 of 2." In this post Haas discusses what he terms "The Problem of Salvation" and, with reference to the famous John 3:16, "The Grammar of Salvation." Saving the former matter for a later time, I would like at this time to discuss his somewhat odd reinterpretation of the Johannine text. This is his argument in its entirety:

This name and these numbers are perhaps the most well-recognized Bible reference in the world. Here is how the NIV translates this famous verse:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
As I have studied this passage in the original language, I was drawn particularly to the word translated as “perish.” In the Greek it’s a 2nd Aorist, in the subjunctive mood. The upshot of that is that this word also conveys the meaning of losing something or of being lost, such as when we get lost in the woods. Furthermore, not evident in the English word “perish,” is the subjunctive mood the Greek is conveying. The sense of the subjunctive mood regards the possibility of a future action. So in my view, a better translation of the Greek word would not be “shall not perish,” but rather: “may not lose oneself.”
The subjunctive mood is normally translated with “if” or “may” clauses. The theological uptake is that the sense of this passage is not a certainty but a possibility. The verb could have easily been in the future tense, which does convey certainty, and is the way it is so often portrayed in the preaching I have heard. To be fair, it has also been conveyed very conditionally: If you do this (believe)…Then this will happen. However, since it is in the subjunctive mood, the stress should be less of a guaranteed future, and more of a possibility to take seriously.
The main verb of action is the Greek word pisteuo, translated in the NIV as “believes.” Yet, what does “believe” mean? The Greek word pisteuo conveys the nuance of trusting. So, I take believing to mean the willingness and consent to give oneself away. To what you ask? In this case, the designation in the NIV is “in him” whoever “believes in him.” Yet this prepositional pronoun may also be translated as “to him.” So, in that case we get this very startling distinction of meaning:
“God so loved the world…so that everyone giving themselves to the Son may not be lost in their pursuit of happiness in this lifetime alone, but rather possess within the gift of Life lived in the now, timelessly.”
Focusing deeper, I choose to understand the meaning of John 3.16 like this:
“God so loved the world…so that everyone giving themselves to the Son may not be lost in their own pursuits of happiness in this lifetime alone, but my also be given the inner gift of being present in the Now, timelessly.”
Keep in mind that the word translated as “eternal life” can often mean “full” or “complete” and “unending.” In fact, one of the most important things to realize is that there is an adjective of quantity, and also an adjective of quality! It seems to me that the preaching of salvation and eternal life have focused solely on the “quantity of time” in the future, in a paradise called “heaven.” In light of these grammatical insights, I choose to understand this passage speaking about the quality of life – the abundant life that is possible now in relationship with the Triune God through the life, death, resurrection, ascension and sending of the Spirit of Jesus the Christ.
Notice how this deeper translation shifts us away from the language of “getting, receiving, accepting, taking Jesus?” as the language of salvation. Also, notice how this opens a deeper dimension of understanding: we consent, we surrender, we give our self away to the Source of light, life and love and in this giving (perhaps this is a little death process of the false self), we discover the truth of what Jesus taught: you must first become like a little Child to enter the kingdom of God. You must first die to your self in order to live.

How does one respond to such a shocking reinterpretation of perhaps the best-known verse in the Bible? A generation ago I might have channeled my inner George H. W. Bush and described it as a bit of "voodoo exegesis." More prosaically, and with more experience under my belt, I would now argue that such a reading adequately demonstrates the old adage that a preacher with a little knowledge of Greek is far more dangerous to his flock than one who doesn't know it at all. It is also highly ironic that, via his "contemplative" reading of the text, he has succeeded in mirroring the most problematic notion propagated in much of pietistic fundamentalism, to wit, that meditating on a text "devotionally" without regard for its historical or authorially-controlled meaning uncovers the "deeper" structures of personalized "meaning" unavailable to scholars in their ivory towers who attempt to do the hard work of making ancient texts accessible to 21st century Westerners.

In particular, a number of problems in Haas's interpretation immediately present themselves. The first is his use of the English subjunctive mood to explain the significance of the aorist verbs apolētai ("perish") and echē ("have"). According to Haas, the fact that the author used the aorist subjunctive rather than the future indicative indicates that he did not intend to convey the certainty of the result: "the stress should be less of a guaranteed future, and more of a possibility to take seriously." But this is a woeful misunderstanding of the Greek language. Yes, the conjunction hina, when introducing a purpose clause, can be followed by a future indicative verb. However, in the vast majority of cases in biblical Greek hina is followed by a subjunctive verb. The reason for this is not because of doubt concerning the certainty of the effect's eventual fulfillment, but rather because the verb in the purpose clause answers the implicit deliberative question "Why?" rather than "What?" The certainty or otherwise of the purpose's achievement is not grammaticalized, and hence must be determined on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the context (or co-text) of the utterance. In this particular instance, if we ask whether John viewed "eternal life" as a possible or certain consequence of those who "believe in" Jesus, the answer is not difficult to discover. In John 1:12, those who believe in Jesus have been given the authority (edōken [aorist indicative] autois exousian) to be called the children of God. In the immediate context this is even more clear. In John 3:18 the one who believes "is not condemned" (ou krinetai [present indicative]). John 3:36, the climax of John chapter 3, is even more explicit: whoever believes in the Son has eternal life (echei [present indicative] zōēn aiōnian). The reason for this certainty is articulated most profoundly in John 10:28-29:
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.
The key clause here is "they shall never perish" (ou mē apolōntai). The use of the double negative ou mē with the aorist subjunctive is referred to by Greek grammarians as the "subjunctive of emphatic negation," in which not merely the fact, but the very possibility as well, is denied. In John 10, the fact that Jesus' sheep, who respond to his call and hence are given eternal life, will by no means ever perish is guaranteed by the protecting and preserving double grip of the Father and the Son. The upshot: "eternal life" is no mere possibility for those who believe, but a guaranteed certainty.

Second, Haas misconstrues the nature of the "perishing" from which believers in Jesus are delivered. According to Haas, because the verb apollymi, when used in the middle voice, can mean either "perish" or "be lost," he is justified in translating apolētai in John 3:16 in terms of being "lost in their pursuit of happiness." Such is indeed an odd way to pursue lexicography. Even in English we intuitively know that one doesn't determine the meaning of a word in context by looking it up in the dictionary and plugging in the one we find most congenial. In the present case, John's intended meaning is not hard to discover. "Perishing" in John 3:16 is correlative with being "condemned" (kekritai) (3:18) and "remaining" under God's wrath (hē orgē tou theou menei ep’ auton) (3:36). It is the state of (eternal) death itself (8:51), which will be consummated following the future "resurrection of condemnation" (anastasin kriseōn) (5:29). The issue is, literally, eternal life versus eternal death. How one responds in the here and now to the claims of Jesus is determinative of what sort of resurrection one will experience when the coming "hour" arrives.

Third, Haas entirely misunderstands what John means by "eternal life." Perhaps the folks with which he trained were overly influenced by the KJV's translation, "everlasting life," and understood it to emphasize primarily its "unending" character to be experienced "in heaven." To be sure, that is how I understood the text as a child, but was quickly disabused of such a half-truth once I started my theological education. Haas, however, makes the opposite error of interpreting it in accordance with Greek ideas as indicative of "timelessness" and "quality of life": "the inner gift of being present in the Now, timelessly."

Now, every serious student of John is aware of the Evangelist's distinctive "realized eschatology," according to which "eternal life" is a gift that believers in Jesus can experience in the here and now in advance of what Jesus refers to as the "resurrection of life" (John 5:28). Moreover, this "life" is not merely never-ending, but is qualitatively different from standard human life in the grip of the present age. It is, one might say, "real life" in which its beneficiaries can really live life "to the full" (perisson [John 10:10). But "timelessness" and "qualitative distinctiveness" per se are hardly the points in John's characteristic usage of the term "eternal life" (zōē aiōnios). Rather, the key to understanding the term is to recognize that it was used by the LXX and Theodotion in Daniel 12:2 to translate the Hebrew expression ḥayyê ‘ôlām, "the life of the age (sc. to come)," viz., the age following the resurrection of the dead. It thus fits nicely into the two-age structure of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology, which divided history into "the present age" and "the age to come." It certainly is no coincidence that John, who repeatedly speaks of "eternal life" (17x) and "life" (36x), uses this term first here in John 3:15-16, in a context in which Jesus discusses "entering the kingdom of God" with the Jewish teacher Nicodemus (John 3:3, 5). Indeed, one is certainly justified to understand "eternal life" as John's characteristic way of referring to what the Synoptic Evangelists normally call the kingdom. Like the kingdom in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, "eternal life" properly belongs to the future resurrection age in which God's promises are realized in their entirety. But, also like the "kingdom" in the Synoptics, "eternal life" is experienced proleptically in the present age by Jesus' followers as a result of his accomplishments in his life, death, and resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit who mediates this life via his indwelling presence.

Finally, Haas is sloppy in his understanding of what it means to "believe" in Jesus. Once again, he seems to be arguing against an understanding based on the common English translation of the verb as "believe," which emphasizes the cognitive content of what must be "believed" and stresses "the language of 'getting, receiving, accepting, taking Jesus ...' as the language of salvation." He bases his understanding on the fact that John characteristically (36x in fact) uses the expression "to believe in" (pisteuein eis), in which the preposition following the verb normally speaks of movement "to" or "into." Hence, in Haas's words, "believing" in Jesus has less to do with the intellectual component of faith than it has to do with "the willingness and consent to give oneself away" or "surrender" to him.

Of course, Haas is correct to note that intellectual assent to certain truths about Jesus and the theological significance of his death and resurrection is not the entirety of what John means by the "faith" that gives life and "saves." The verb indeed carries the connotation of "trusting in" or, better, of entrusting oneself to Jesus. Better yet, "believing in Jesus" refers to staking one's very existence on the truth of his status as Messiah, Savior, and Lord and willingly committing oneself to him in those capacities (cf. Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John I-XII [AB], 513). As Kingsley Barrett put it succinctly, "Allegiance as well as assent is intended" (The Gospel according to St. John [2nd ed.], 164).

Yet ... for all his stress on "belief" as commitment and allegiance, John nevertheless defines this faith as having a clearly defined Christological content (pisteuein hoti, "to believe that ..."). Saving faith is faith that acknowledges Jesus as the "Holy One of God" (6:69), the Messiah and Son of God (11:27; 20:31), commissioned and sent by the Father (11:42; 16:27, 30; 17:8, 21), and "one" with the Father in terms of ontology as well as function (14:10-11). Likewise, John's repeated insistence that this "belief" or commitment must be an ongoing one if it is to be considered genuine. For instance, he almost exclusively uses the present tense of the verb (36x) when speaking of the faith that issues in eternal life. In other words, the key issue is not whether or not one had a "conversion experience" in the past, but whether or not a person believes now.  Elsewhere John has Jesus say that one must "remain" (menō) if one is truly his disciple (8:31). Perseverance, in other words, is one of the indispensable marks of true faith as John has presented the matter. 

Nevertheless, in the opening Prologue to the Gospel John explicitly speaks of those who by virtue of "receiving" or "accepting" Jesus (hosoi ... elabon) are granted the authority to be called God's children. Like it or not, this, as the existentialist scholar Rudolf Bultmann would have said, is the language of decision. Fundamentalist evangelicalism, even if it has tended to downplay discipleship and ignore coming to Jesus as a little child, cannot be faulted for calling people to faith and "reception" of Jesus and seeing in those terms the "language of salvation," as Haas puts it.

John 3:16 is a text which proves to be as crucial as advertised. Not only does it contain a cluster of distinctive Johannine vocabulary, it likely begins what should be understood as John's commentary on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus that occurred in verses 1-15 of John 3. What must a person do to enter the kingdom of God? Here John gives both the answer as well as the basis for the answer. God, motivated solely by his surpassing love for the world of humanity, "gave" (edōken) his unique Son, which in context refers both to Jesus' "incarnation" (John 3:17 with 1:14) and death (cryptically referred to in John 3:15). His purpose in doing so was that all who committed themselves to the Son in faith should not perish in eternal death but rather experience, both in the now and in the hereafter of the resurrection, eternal life. This is good news for all of us who realize our sinfulness and alienation from our creator. Hence John 3:16 rightly is, as my old Lutheran 4th grade teacher John Kieschnick said, "the gospel in a nutshell." Soli Deo Gloria! 


  1. Whoa. Some of this is over my head but I understood most of it. It made my stomach turn just reading what Haas wrote. Thanks for making it clear.

  2. Haas' treatment is indeed unique, but thought provoking.

    On your own response, I would hope that John 3:16 would be accompanied by 1 John 3:16 so that the "nutshell" would not be a selfish one.

  3. Me thinks you overeact and over reach in criticism. Haas' AIM is to become love not be right, and if you take issue with Haas' psychological translation for the sake of helping people connect better with ancient scripture you will probably alos neeed to take issue with Bible translations like The Message, or the New Living Version, etc. Haas is doing Christianity a fine service. Read his work more from your heart and less from your head. Nothing Haas said is inaccurate - and he never claimed to rule out the technical dimension of the subjunctive mood. Just helping call attention to the possibility aspect of the subjunctive mood, which is it's purpose. I find your critique not interesting and Haas' very interesting. The church needs more creative voices like Haas' who are comming from the unitive state of love in Christ.