November 23, 2022

The Historical and Religious Value of the Fourth Gospel, Book Excerpt on John, Ernest Findlay Scott

The Historical and Religious Value of the Fourth Gospel (John)

Archive Book Link:
Ernest Findlay Scott, Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1909

General Characteristics:

“The message of the Kingdom, which forms the one subject of his teaching in the Synoptic Gospels, falls practically out of sight, and our attention is fixed instead on his own personality, in its relation to God and its significance for the world. We discover, on closer examination, that this Gospel differs from the others, not only in its general view of the nature of Christ’s mission, but in its reading of the history itself. The chief scene of our Lord’s ministry, which was Galilee according to the Synoptic records, is placed in Jerusalem. Even where the fourth evangelist is in closest agreement with the Synoptists, he never fails to introduce some modification in detail, often of such a nature as to change the whole meaning of the event.” (Page 2)

“It is evident that all the material has undergone a process. From whatever source he derived it, — whether from our Synoptic Gospels or from other traditions, equally trustworthy, the writer has moulded it anew and brought it into harmony with his own conceptions. What we have before us now is not the literal history of our Lord’s life but the Johannine interpretation of that life.” (Page 13)

“The writer views all the facts not as they are in themselves, but through an atmosphere of symbolism. It was already observed by Clement of Alexandria, at the beginning of the third century, that “since the bodily things had been exhibited in the other Gospels, John, inspired by the Spirit, produced a spiritual Gospel.” This “spiritualising” of the history is manifestly his aim throughout.”” (Page 14)

“The history resolves itself at every point into a kind of allegory which cannot be rightly apprehended without a key. In this way we must explain the liberties, strange to our modern mind, which the writer continually takes with historical facts. The event as it happened was to him the adumbration, necessarily dim and imperfect, of a spiritual idea. His interest is in the idea, which he regards as the one essential thing, — the “truth” or inward reality of the fact. He thinks it not only permissible but necessary to modify the fact, so as to bring out more fully or emphatically the idea at the heart of it.” (Page 16)


“In modern times the authorship of the fourth Gospel has been the subject of rigorous investigation. The discussion has now been in process for nearly a hundred years and is by no means closed; but the weight of scholarly opinion is settling down to a conviction that the traditional theory must be abandoned.” (Page 4)

“The fourth Gospel, therefore, cannot be attributed to the Apostle John, and the real secret of its authorship seems to be irrecoverably lost. Many attempts have been made in recent times to connect it with some particular name; but with our scanty knowledge of the early history of the church, they are hazardous at the best. The evangelist himself remains unknown. All that we can do is to distinguish, within certain limits, the place and time in which he composed his work. From various indications, both internal and external, we can infer that he belonged to Asia Minor, and probably to the region of Ephesus.” (Page 11)


“The evidence would seem to point, more and more decisively, to sometime within the first two decades of the second century.” (Page 12)

Subordinate Aims

“When we look below the surface of the fourth Gospel we seem to discover clear traces of this interest in the contemporary life of the church. Several of the more striking peculiarities of the Gospel are not capable of explanation until we read it not only as a history of Jesus, but as a tract for the times called forth by the practical requirements of the second century.” (Page 18)

“It is impossible to avoid the inference that the evangelist, writing at a time when the synagogue was in strong opposition to the church, took occasion to read back into the past the conflict of the present. His Gospel became, in one of its aspects, a reply to the Jewish antagonists, whose arguments were more dangerous than any others to the progress of the Christian mission.” (Page 20)

“We know that the First Epistle of John (a kindred writing, which comes to us from the same school, if not from the same hand) is directed against certain heretical teachers. These appear to have been precursors of the later Gnostics, who denied the reality of Christ’s appearance and death, and sought to resolve his message into a vague philosophical system. It is highly probable that the same type of heretical teaching is combated in the Gospel. The writer goes back to the earthly life of Jesus, and follows it step by step through its earthly progress. He lays stress on details which serve to illustrate the Lord’s humanity. He offers solemn testimony to the material fact of the death upon the Cross.’ The whole Gospel centers on the thesis that the Word was made flesh, — that the divine nature has imparted itself to men through a human life. But while the evangelist is thus strongly opposed to Gnosticism, there is reason to believe that he has himself been touched by Gnostic influences. He makes frequent use of well-known Gnostic watch-words; he draws a Gnostic distinction between the two classes of men, — the earthly and the spiritual, the children of darkness and the children of light ; with all his insistence on the reality of the Saviour’s life he never loses sight of its ideal significance. This twofold attitude to the Gnostic speculations is one of the chief problems of the Gospel. In order to solve it fully we should require to know something of the personality of the writer and of the particular circumstances in which he wrote.” (Page 21-23)

“Living at a time when the unity of the church was in danger, and when various abuses were creeping into its life and sacraments, he sought to remind it of its true character. He reads back into the gospel history the conditions of his own day, in order to submit them to the Master’s judgment. Jesus himself becomes the counsellor and legislator of his church… Under the form of a biography of Jesus it deals with problems and difficulties which did not arise until after his death. It bears a constant reference not only to the events which it narrates, but to the situation of the church in the early part of the second century.” (Page 25-26)

Christian Development

“Judaism and Christianity had come to open quarrel; and the younger religion had to seek its future in the great Gentile world, to which its beliefs and ideals and traditions were all strange. It was evident that if the church was to survive and to maintain itself as a living power, its whole message had to be re-interpreted. Some expression must be found for the revelation in Christ, which would set it free from its mere local and accidental elements and give it a meaning for Gentiles in the second century as it had had for Jews in the first. Our Gospel was written in those years of critical transition. The task which the evangelist laid on himself was that of interpreting to a new time and translating into the terms of a different culture, the truth as it was in Christ.” (Page 28-29)

“The Christian theology is presented in the fourth Gospel under Greek forms of thought. Paul was a Jew of Tarsus, one of the centers of Greek philosophical culture; and a Hellenic influence has been traced in not a few of his speculations. But the prevailing colour of his thought is Jewish. He was trained in the Rabbinical schools and borrowed from them the theological ideas under which he explained the new message. The fourth evangelist — though almost certainly a Jew — had entered deeply into the spirit of Greek philosophy. In his endeavor to set forth the inner meaning of the Christian revelation, he discards the Jewish forms, which were unintelligible to the wider audience he has in view. In a far more radical sense than Paul, he re-interprets the message.” (Page 31-32)

Logos Philosophy

“Greek philosophy was chiefly represented in the first and second centuries by Stoicism; and the central doctrine of Stoicism was that of the Logos, or immanent Reason of the world. An attempt had already been made by Philo, a Jewish thinker of Alexandria, to reconcile Greek philosophy with the Old Testament on the ground of this Stoic doctrine. The Greek term ” Logos” signifies ” word” as well as “reason”; and Philo had availed himself of this double meaning. Into the Old Testament allusions to the creative and revealing word of God he had read the philosophical conception of the Logos; and had thus evolved that theory that within the being of God there was a secondary divine principle, the Word or Logos, which was His agent in the creation and government of the world.” (Page 32-33)

“We must needs admit that in his endeavor to represent Jesus as at once man and incarnate Logos, the evangelist falls into many inconsistencies. Not only so, but he divests the historical life of much of its meaning and its true grandeur, in order to bring it into conformity with the Logos idea. We miss from his narrative some of the most striking episodes of the Synoptic story, — for example, the Baptism, the Temptation, the Agony, the Cry from the Cross. These could not be reconciled with the theory of the Logos and had therefore to be omitted… The prayers of Jesus cease to be true appeals for God’s help and guidance. He is himself one with the Father and knows beforehand that his prayer is sure of fulfilment.” As many things are omitted, so there are certain features added which impair the human reality of the portrait.” (Page 36-37)

Gospel Message

“The message of Jesus is concerned with the coming age, or kingdom of God; but the kingdom itself is identified with its chief blessing. Jesus can speak, almost in the same sentence, of “entering into the kingdom “and of “inheriting eternal life.” The fourth evangelist takes advantage of this equivalence of the two terms and discards the idea of the kingdom altogether. It was related to hopes and beliefs that were specifically Jewish, and he replaces it by the more general conception of life.” (Page 50)

Historical Value

“From our knowledge, rather, of what Jesus was when he appeared on earth, we can discern him still, and receive the new truth which he imparts to us through his living Spirit. The fourth Gospel itself is the grandest illustration of this profound and far-reaching doctrine. Writing in a new century, for a people of alien race and culture, the evangelist goes back to the teaching of Jesus; but he does not simply reproduce it as it had been handed down. He translates it into new language; he interprets it with the aid of later theological forms; he brings it into relation to contemporary problems and interests, which had not yet emerged in the Master’s own lifetime. Literally considered the message is different from that which had come down in the tradition. The words attributed to Jesus had not actually fallen from his lips, and the whole picture of his earthly life and surroundings is in many respects altered. Yet the writer claims authority for his Gospel. He is convinced that he, as truly as the Synoptists, is recording the deeds of Jesus and the words he spoke. For through the historical life, he has a vision of the eternal life. The literal teaching has been illuminated to him and filled with new meanings and applications. Nearly a century had passed by since Jesus had departed; and through all those years his revelation had been unfolding itself, under the growing light of the world’s thought and knowledge.” (Page 72-74)

“He (the author) availed himself of categories of thought, unknown to the primitive age, which were derived mainly from the philosophies of Greece. These new categories were in many ways well fitted to express Christian ideas; but it cannot be denied that something was lost by the adoption of them. The teaching of Jesus became abstract and mystical, instead of simple and direct. An appeal was made to the intellect more than to the underlying instincts of the moral and religious life.” (Page 76)

“It asserted itself heir to five centuries of Greek thinking. It was acclimatized in the general culture of the time and penetrated it more and more with its own spirit. To the fourth evangelist, more than to any other teacher, the church was indebted for the mighty progress of the next three centuries. He transplanted the new religion from its Jewish soil into another, where it could take deep root and send out its branches freely.” (Page 77-78)

“It is true that in this endeavor to portray Jesus, in his earthly ministry, as the ever-living Christ, the evangelist has modified and idealized the facts. As a work of history his Gospel is secondary to the Synoptic records; and its evidence must always be sifted and controlled by means of them.” (Page 82)

Ernest Findlay Scott was born on March 18th, 1868 in Towlaw, Durham, England. Scott was educated at some of the finest theological centers in the United Kingdom, earning degrees from the University of Glasgow (1888), Balliol College, Oxford (1892) and United Presbyterian College, Edinburgh, 1895. Upon completing his education, he was ordained as a United Presbyterian minister on September 11, 1895. Following ordination, Scott served as a minister in Prestwick, Scotland, serving a congregation there for over a decade. In 1908, Scott took up his first academic post, as Professor of Church History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario Canada, later being promoted to Professor of New Testament Literature and Criticism as that same university. In 1919, Scott was hired by Union Theological Seminary as Edward Robinson Professor of Biblical Theology, which he served from 1919-1954 (emeritus post-1938). Throughout an extensive career in both the ministry and the academy, Scott wrote prolifically on New Testament theology.

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