Interpreting John 14:8 “No one comes to the Father…” – June 2008

Question: Churches increasingly recognize the need to address the subject of religious pluralism, but the verse from John 14:6 “No one comes to the Father except by me,” remains a stumbling block. How do you, as a process theologian, exegete this verse? Can it be understood in a less exclusivist way?

Publication Month: June 2008

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Before I answer the question directly, indicating other ways of exegeting the text, let us recognize that there is in fact an exclusivist note in the early Christian writings. The spirit of the early Christians included a strong emphasis on the new reality that Jesus, and no one else, had brought into the world. Jesus was not for them one “savior” or “lord” among others. His coming had changed the situation in which everyone lived, whether they recognized this or not.

The nature of the change is described in a variety of ways. Paul tells us that whereas prior to Jesus the righteousness of God appeared as wrath against sin, in Jesus it appeared as love. Of course, Paul found prophesies and even anticipations of this in earlier prophets and writers, but the change occurred decisively only in Jesus. We now live by participation in his faithfulness rather than in obeying the Mosaic Law or any other law. These affirmations distinguished the communities Paul founded from those communities that continued more traditional forms of Judaism.

Paul did not think of these as two equally valid forms of Judaism. If, today, we argue that the covenant with God through Christ does not supersede the covenant of the Jews with God, Paul would probably partly agree with us and partly disagree. He expected the end of history shortly, and in this end believers would share the resurrection/transformation of Jesus. However, the whole of creation, including certainly the other Jews would also share in the final transformation  Paul’s exclusivism did not condemn all who failed to join the movement, but it certainly privileged those who did.

John does not image the transformation effected by Jesus in the same way. He talks about “eternal life” which is probably equivalent to “coming to the Father.” In John’s view Jesus provided a test. Some were drawn to him; others avoided him. To John, this difference was of ultimate importance. But this does not mean that God punishes those who hide from the light in Jesus. Jesus came to save the whole world. Those who refuse his gifts condemn themselves to living without them.

This is certainly “exclusivist”. I prefer, however, a different language. For the early Christians, Jesus was a unique person who performed a unique work. For followers today to deny this because of its exclusivist character is, to me, understandable, but unfortunate. I believe that the quality and character of life that Jesus made possible is unique and of great value and importance, and I hope that Christians will continue to emphasize and prize this quality of life.

What is objectionable, in my view, is for those who prize one kind of life, the kind that John called coming to the Father, to imply that all who prize other forms of life are condemned by God, fail to achieve what they are seeking, or have no spiritual wisdom to offer. One can certainly interpret some texts in this direction, but that is to suppose that the texts were directly addressing our contemporary questions, formulated in a very different context. Today we can affirm the uniqueness of Jesus’ person and of his historical work without denying the uniqueness of the person of Gautama and his historical work. That does not mean that Jesus and Gautama are two examples of one thing. They are not both incarnations of God or attainers of Buddhahood. They are profoundly different from one another. But to be different does not imply that one is good and the other bad, or one important and the other unimportant. Both are both good and important.

My point in these comments is that the way ahead for Christians is to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus, the crucial importance of his work, and our discipleship to him. Precisely in being faithful, in participating in his faithfulness, we will approach other communities of wisdom and insight with open minds and open hearts, appreciating their achievements and their offering to the world. To condemn others for having found another Way does not express participation in the faithfulness of Jesus. Often when persons who have found a rich and meaningful life in other communities encounter Jesus, they are deeply moved. Muslim’s hold him in very high esteem. Buddhists often suppose that he is one of the enlightened ones. Hindus often treat him as an avatar. Gandhi based much of his life work on Jesus’ teaching. To suppose that Jesus would have us condemn all these people because they have not joined Christian churches is totally unfaithful to Jesus.

John tells us that the light came into the world and that some turned away from it because their deeds were evil and they preferred darkness. Thus they condemned themselves. But Gandhi did not turn away from Jesus. He followed Jesus far more closely than do the vast majority of the members of Christian churches.

If we wish to follow John closely, we should distinguish between those today who are drawn to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and to his understanding of the basileia theou. (Usually translated as the “Kingdom of God”. I prefer “the divine commonwealth”.)  We would find that today the lines of division would go through the Christian communities, the Hindu communities, the Buddhist communities, and the Muslim communities. This is the light that has come into the world. Many in all branches of the human family, including many in Christendom, prefer darkness. To say “Lord, Lord” in no way guarantees that one has actually embraced the light.

Let us note also that the main obstacle to the full appropriation of the light that shone in Jesus has been the historic behavior of Christians. When conquistadores enslaved the natives of the new world in the name of the cross of Christ, it is hard to believe that the natives could see in Jesus the light of which John wrote. When Christian missionaries warned Hindus that God would send them to eternal hell if they did not subscribe to Christian doctrine, it is hard to believe that the Hindus could see this light. The response to Mother Theresa in whom, at least in some measure, the light shone, was very different from the response to exclusivist anti-Hindu teachers.

But I should address the original question more specifically. John’s gospel is very hostile to the dominant Jewish community. Probably John’s community had suffered some form of persecution at the hands of Jewish authorities. The verse in question probably reflects this hostility, expressed in so many ways in this gospel. It probably means “you Jews who rejected Jesus and reject us because of our discipleship to him, have no access to the God you pretend to worship.” It does not serve us well to deny that the quarrel between the followers of Jesus and those who rejected him as a false messianic claimant was sometimes a bitter one, or that Jesus’ followers sometimes suffered persecution from Jewish authorities. But it also does not serve us well to take formulations that come out of that historical context and apply them in situations in which it is Jews who suffer at the hands of Christian persecutors, who by their actions make it very difficult, indeed, for Jews to see the light that was in Jesus. We can be very grateful that when Christians have repented of their treatment of Jews, a good many Jews have come to appreciate Jesus.

Now that I have acknowledged that the original formulation probably had an exclusivist meaning over against the Jewish persecutors of Christians, I will directly discuss the question of whether another exegesis is possible. The answer is Yes. And this other exegesis is also closely related to the original intention of the author. The book begins by speaking of the eternal Word of God. This Word functions centrally in the whole creative process. It is especially manifest in the human mind. Finally, it is fully incarnate in Jesus. Throughout John’s gospel the focus is on this incarnate Word. The words that are placed on Jesus’ lips in this gospel are very different from those attributed to Jesus in the synoptics. In John Jesus speaks about himself as the incarnate Word. It is this Word, incarnate in Jesus, that is the light, as well as the way, the truth, and the life. If one rejects the eternal Word, one cannot come to the Father, for they are inseparable. “The Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him.”

The gospel of John clearly opens the door to ways of approaching the Word that do not involve Jesus. The Word that became flesh in Jesus is also found in and through all creation. No reader of the Bible as a whole can doubt that the Jewish scriptures also testify to this God who is inseparable from the Word. That Jews continue to deny the messianic claims that are made for Jesus by Christians does not mean that they prefer darkness to light. Today some Jews and some Christians prefer the darkness. Some Jews and some Christians are drawn to the light. Without being drawn to the light no one can come to the Father. Christians find that light uniquely embodied in Jesus. The Christian treatment of Jews has made it impossible for most Jews to see Jesus as the incarnation of the light. Those Jews, who have been able to separate Jesus from Christian crimes against Jews and who are now appropriating Jesus as an important Jewish teacher, are convinced that Christians have exaggerated Jesus’ uniqueness. They emphasize the continuities between Jesus and other Jewish teachers and are teaching Christians much about these.

My point is that in general the statement that no one can come to the Father apart from the Word, or Wisdom, or Spirit of God does not exclude Jews in general any more than Christians in general from access to God. No doubt the author of John thought that the Jews who so strongly opposed Jesus showed thereby a blindness to the light that Jesus embodied. Perhaps this was true, at least in part. The establishment in every culture tends to be blind to reasons for its disestablishment and to take destructive actions to preserve its power. It was those without vested interests in the structure of the society of Jesus’ day who heard Jesus’ gladly. That the poor and oppressed who believed Jesus thought that those who rejected him preferred darkness makes a good deal of sense. Their refusal of Jesus’ teaching showed their priorities. Those priorities did not put God’s truth first. Without doing that, they could not come to the Father.

We have learned long since that being a member of a Christian church, even a leader in the church, in no way insures that one puts the service of God first. Enjoyment of the prerogatives of leadership all too often takes precedence. Many, many of us Christians fail the test of welcoming the light. Many of us, too, block ourselves from coming to the Father.

Both the question and my answer point to the ambiguity of canonization. On the one hand, this is an important, even essential, process for a community. By specifying the writings in relationship to which it identifies itself and establishes its norms it provides a basis for discussion of basic questions within the community. The courts in the United States could not function without knowing the authoritative documents that determine what is legally acceptable and what should not be permitted. An academic department or guild decides what extant writings are central to its current responsibilities. Not everything can be up for grabs.

But there is always the danger that even informal canonization will give excessive authority to particular past formulations in any field. This danger is most acute when the canonization is formal and official and when the community is a religious one. Our Christian canon is profoundly inspiring and life giving. But it is full of mistakes of all kinds, historical, ethical, and religious. Some of the worst of these are in the gospel of John, and they are especially about Jews. When Christianity was a politically and religiously powerless and persecuted movement, its lashing out against its enemies, while not fully admirable, is certainly understandable. But when this lashing out is canonized, there is a tendency to de-historicize it, that is, to suppose that judgments about particular people at a particular time have universal truth. For two centuries Christian scholars have been studying the canon in much the way they would study any ancient writings. This, too, is ambiguous in its consequences, but it has liberated those who attend to it from the de-historicized approach to the canon. Sadly, most preaching and even most Bible study deals only tangentially with this scholarship or ignores it altogether. Accordingly, people in the pew are left with the supposition that, as Christians they should believe things that in the current situation can only prove harmful.

Perhaps a simple rule of thumb may be this. Begin with the summary of the law: love God and neighbor. Do not believe anything that reduces this love or leads to action that fails to express it. Among other things, do not believe anything that leads to anti-Jewish feelings or actions.