Ian Wallis, a former Principal of the Yorkshire Ministry Course, Vicar of St Mark’s Broomhill and Chair of St Mark’s CRC, continues to teach and write in the areas of biblical studies and contemporary theology.
One of the emerging realities characterizing many countries around the world is multiculturalism. Although even today there are places in the UK, for example, where all the inhabitants are English-speaking white Caucasians whose only experience of religion is Christianity, by far the majority of the conurbations around the land are ethnically mixed, linguistically diverse and religiously pluralistic. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity, revolving around our attitude towards those different from ourselves. And for those who belong to a religious tradition, the teaching of that religion can play a formative role in shaping attitudes and motivating behaviour. Not surprisingly, scripture, a religion’s sacred texts, has a key role to play in this process; but scripture has to be interpreted and, in almost all cases, is capable of eliciting more than one plausible alternative – although you wouldn’t necessarily think so when attending to some interpreters who all too readily invest their own ‘take’ with scriptural authority.
In the case of Christianity, one of the key texts which has and continues to shape attitudes towards members of other religions is John 14.6: ‘Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”.’ This verse, along with others such as Acts 4.12 (‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’), has been employed to substantiate an exclusivist position in which Jesus Christ is held to be the unique embodiment of divine life, the sole mediator between God and humanity and the exclusive source of salvation. As a consequence, all other religions are relegated to the status of, at best, partial witnesses to divine truth or, at worst, malevolent manifestations of deceit. Clearly, the adoption of such a stance would dramatically affect how one viewed members of other religions and responded to them.
But is this the only plausible interpretative option for John 14.6? Perhaps, the place to start is with the general recognition that texts don’t possess a fixed core of meaning that can be retrieved like gold from a vault. Rather, meaning emerges from a two-way ‘conversation’ between the text and the interpreter which is, in turn, influenced by many factors including the worldviews, presuppositions, questions and agendas of both parties. Although there is a school of thought (reader-response) claiming that texts are meaningless until read and even then that meaning is supplied by the reader, most interpreters recognize that attempting to discern what an author intended to communicate in a particular text – what it meant - is both an essential and constraining component in establishing what a text means today.
With these observations is mind, we turn more directly to John 14.6 and note that this verse belongs to a particular genre of literature called Euangelion which literally means ‘good news.’ Although there are similarities between the New Testament Gospels and ancient biographies, they nonetheless represent a new form and one which is unashamedly confessional in its content and evangelistic in its purpose, as the author of the Fourth Gospel readily acknowledges: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’ (John 20.30–31). Put simply, John’s Gospel was composed by someone who had discovered Jesus to be the way, the truth and the life, and who wished to encourage others to do likewise. It makes no attempt to offer an unbiased assessment of Jesus; rather, it was composed by believers with the express purpose of engendering belief. It doesn’t necessarily follow from this, however, that its claims concerning Jesus cannot be of universal significance, even for members of different religions, but nor can it be assumed that the author intended his or her work to be interpreted in this way. By means of comparison, someone may have come to believe, based on personal experience, that practising medicine is the most satisfying job on the planet. They may even have encouraged others into the profession; yet none of this necessarily precludes being able to acknowledge that unrivalled job satisfaction can be attained through pursuing alternative careers.
Probably the most important question when trying to work out what the author intended to communicate in John 14.6 is one which is easily missed, namely ‘Who is the “I” in the saying, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”? The Fourth Gospel, like Matthew, Mark and Luke, is saturated in what would have constituted scripture for the author and the believing community to which he or she belonged – the Septuagint, a Greek version of what is now the Old Testament within the Christian canon. In addition to direct quotations, there are numerous thematic and literary resonances, to the extent that the Septuagint represents an essential feature within the interpretative backcloth against which John must be read and understood. So when the author places on Jesus’ lips the words ‘I am (egô eimi),’ readers would have recalled the commissioning of Moses to deliver an enslaved people from captivity in Egypt when God offers the following self-designation: ‘I am who I am (egô eimi ho ôn; Exodus 3.14).’ In fact, ‘I am (egô eimi)’ is used repeatedly in the Septuagint as a divine self-reference (eg Deuteronomy 32.39; Isaiah 41.4; 43.25; 46.4; 48.12; 51.12).
Further, unlike Mark’s Gospel which commences at the onset of Jesus’ ministry or Matthew and Luke which start with his birth, John’s Gospel reaches back to before the beginning of time when God’s Word (Logos) creates existence as we know it – the universe and all its constituents: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being’ (John 1.1–3). A little later, the Evangelist makes the extraordinary claim that the divine Logos was incarnated within the person of Jesus: ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (1.14). Significantly, the first eighteen verses of the Fourth Gospel, the Prologue, supply an overture, highlighting the key actors, plot and purpose characterizing the drama which unfolds in the following twenty-one chapters.
It is no surprise, therefore, that throughout those chapters the words uttered by Jesus appear to emanate from the divine Logos. ‘The Father and I are one … Whoever has seen me has seen the Father … My Father is still working, and I also am working’ (John 10.30; 14.9; 5.17) and many more besides make much more sense when understood in the light of the Prologue as the voice of the incarnate Word, rather than that of a Galilean Jew, which explains why the claims made by Jesus in the Fourth Gospel are so much more elevated than those of the Synoptics, where the focus falls upon the Kingdom of God. Further confirmation of this is supplied by how John’s Jesus repeatedly emphasizes being ‘sent’ by God to fulfil the divine plan of salvation: ‘… for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6.38–39; also 4.34; 5.24, 30, 37; 6.44; 7.16, 28, 33; 8.16, 18, 26, 29; 9.4; 12.44, 49; 13.20; 14.24; 15.21; 16.5).
In the light of all this, when the evangelist records Jesus saying, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,’ or indeed any of the other ‘I am’ sayings (6.35; 8.12; 10.7, 11, 14; 11.25; 15.1), it seems highly likely that the divine Word, incarnated in Jesus, is the intended subject – which, again, makes sense of another, otherwise incomprehensible saying, ‘Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am (egô eimi, 8.58).’
The implications of this identification for how Christians evaluate the truth claims of other religions and relate to their members is far-reaching. If it is the eternal Word of God, instrumental in the coming into being of all that exists (cf John 1.1–3), who claims to be ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ then there is every reason to expect to find evidence of the divine Logos in other belief systems and aesthetic pursuits. Furthermore, what Jesus reveals about God supplies an interpretative lens through which divine presence can be discerned in such contexts. It should also be noted that Jesus’ uniqueness for Christians need not be diminished by this recognition, any more than the experience of love characterizing a couple exclusively committed to one another is diminished by the acknowledgement that a similar quality of love characterizes other relationships. Nor need the motivation for evangelism be undermined – from the beginning, evangelism has been about sharing the good news and bearing witness to the truth as received. Neither of these must change, although we should do so courteously and on the understanding that we will be open to receive the testimony of those whose faith journeys have been different from our own.
What about salvation? Doesn’t John also record Jesus saying, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life’ (3.16) – suggesting that what God accomplished in Jesus was both unique and of universal application? Again, it depends on the identity of the ‘son’ and, judging from the rest of the Gospel, the balance of probability falls upon the eternal Word, incarnated in Jesus. In truth, the equation is made in the Prologue (‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us … the glory as of a father’s only son,’ 1.14) and reinforced, as noted previously, by the emphasis placed not only upon the Son being sent by the Father, but also upon how the Son reveals the Father: ‘No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known … Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me’ (1.18 12.44–45).
Further, despite John’s the Baptist’s initial confession, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1.29), the salvific significance of Jesus’ death in the Fourth Gospel is presented as a demonstration of divine love for humanity with at-one-ing potential: ‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself’ (12.32). Interestingly, following another of the ‘I am (egô eimi)’ sayings, the incarnate Word declares, ‘I am the good shepherd … I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again’ (10.11–17). Although the reference here to ‘other sheep’ belonging to different folds is open to various interpretations, it would make perfect sense within a scenario where the eternal Word is also present in non-Christian contexts. Significantly, belief in the God, who the divine Logos incarnated in Jesus makes accessible, is the key to salvation in John – ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgement, but has passed from death to life’ (5.24; also 3.16–19; 6.40) – and, in principle, there is no reason why such belief could not be mediated via other manifestations of God’s Word.