Review of Brown, Spirit in the Writings of John

Spirit in the Writings of John: Johannine Pneumatology in Social-scientific Perspective. By Tricia Gates Brown. JSNTSupp 253. New York: T & T Clark, 2003. Pp. 307. ISBN 0-5670-8442-6. $55.00, paper.

Published in Bulletin for Biblical Research 16.1 (2006) 168–69. 

Tricia Gates Brown is an independent scholar living in Newberg, OR. The book reviewed here appears to be her doctoral dissertation written at the University of St. Andrews under Ron Piper. She has also written Free People: A Christian Response to Global Economics (2004), and she is something of an anti-war activist (see the online essays that come up from a Yahoo search on her name).

Spirit in the Writings of John consists of an introduction, five chapters, and a conclusion. The introduction presents the method of social-scientific criticism prosecuted in the study, and it also reveals some of Brown’s assumptions. Chapter 1 continues the introduction by outlining patron-client relations in the ancient world. It is difficult to discern any logical connection between chapters 1 and 2, as chapter 2 summarizes “Four Approaches to Johannine Pneumatology”: C. H. Dodd, George Johnston, Felix Porsch, and Gary Burge. Chapter 3 exegetes the Spirit texts in the Fourth Gospel. Chapter 4 treats the Paraclete in John, and Chapter 5 deals with Spirit in 1 John. The conclusion summarizes the results of the study, and the author ends by expressing “the hope that understanding the socio-cultural contexts of these writings will allow readers [of John and 1 John] to appreciate their value as texts without embracing their tone” (267). We might ask whether the evangelist (or his rabbi) would react favorably to readers who appreciate the Gospel but feel they can improve upon its tone. Such a response reflects a failure to appreciate the import of the text. Adolf Schlatter might go farther and call this “a radical and total polemic against” its message (cf. “The Theology of the New Testament and Dogmatics,” in R. Morgan, ed., The Nature of New Testament Theology, 122).

The author begins her study with the assertion, “John’s spirit-passages hint at the experiences of the author and his community” (1). It soon becomes clear that Brown has no room for the possibility that what the Fourth Gospel reveals about the Spirit originated in the evangelist’s experience with Jesus. No argument is given for the conclusion that the author of John is more concerned with addressing his community than testifying to what Jesus said, but throughout the study is conducted as though what gave rise to what John says took place after rather than during the life of Jesus. Brown does not seem to be troubled by the fact that, in view of the author’s protests that his testimony about Jesus is true, this would imply that he disingenuously presents a fictitious account as history. In addition to the implication that the evangelist intends to deceive his readers, the failure to consider the influence of the world changing figure the evangelist credits with generating many of these statements about the Spirit, Jesus of Nazareth, is glaring.

“The main social-scientific model used in this study is the model of patron-client relations” (19), but there are several problems with this method. The Gospel of John provides its readers with many metaphors for understanding the relationships between God, Jesus, and the people of God, for example: “logos-creator and creatures,” “Father-children,” “Father-Son,” “Rabbi/teacher-disciples,” “well of living water,” “bridegroom-bride,” “healer,” “judge,” “bread of life,” “light of the world,” “good shepherd,” “Messianic King,” “servant,” “vine-branches,” “friends.” The imposition of a relationship the Gospel does not use, that of patron-client, fails to capture what is communicated by these images that the Gospel does employ, obscures the breadth and width of these realities, and introduces concepts foreign to the Gospel. For instance, Brown develops the idea that by the Spirit Jesus is the best “broker”—her term—between God and his “clients” (cf. 28–30, 56–61). In our language and culture, the financial connotations of the term “broker” are simply too strong for this to be helpful. Brown’s imposition of this alien concept hides the varicolored beauty of the Gospel of John under a particular shade of green, the color of cash. The reduction of the tender depth of the relationship between God and his people communicated in John to a crass, remuneratory exchange is at best reductionistic and borders on the offensive.

Scholars working on the Spirit in John might benefit from the bibliography (its value is limited since its most recent items were published in 1999, nothing published in this millennium appears). An index of Scripture, other ancient literature, and modern authors will also make particular discussions quickly accessible.

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