John the Baptist

Ordinary Time 22/Trinity 12 – Monday
Commemoration of St. Aidan of Lindisfarne, bishop & missionary

Fr. Martyn Hope was the presider at Mass today. Haven’t seen him in ages so it was good to catch up with him after the lunchtime Mass at St. John’s plus his short reflections on the Gospel text for today (Lk 4:16-30) were thought provoking.

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At BS tonight, I made a comment (well a quote) in relation to the first few verses in chapter 11 of St. Matthew’s Gospel. RL viewed it as a tangent, which it may very well be for modern Christians and modern Christian exegesis (particularly from evangelicals who do not typically have an appreciation for anything before the Reformation). But it provides a fascinating view of how Christians in the patristic time of the Church viewed John the Baptist. And it brought up for me a line in the Apostles’ Creed (or otherwise known as the Old Roman Symbol of Faith).

My quote came from the Matt 1-13 volume of InterVarsity Press’s (IVP) widely acclaimed Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series (ACCS) which has the Rev’d Thomas Oden (and evangelical United Methodist) as its general editor of the series. IVP is by no means a mainline Protestant, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox publisher. It remains firmly within the evangelical Protestant mould, though it does publish very provoking books for the evangelical Protestant audience (Andrew Marin’s book on his ministry to LGBT folks would probably not get published by any other Christian publisher at all apart from IVP on its Likewise imprint).

ACCS is unique in providing a sort of Christian “Talmud” of Scripture commentaries from the Early Church Fathers in amongst other commentary series available. It most definitely does not come anywhere near the scholarly intensity of the Word Biblical Commentary series and definitely does not fall within most historical-critical commentary sets either. Instead, the entire purpose of ACCS is:

an ecumenical project, promoting a vital link of communication between today’s varied Christian traditions and their common ancient ancestors in the faith.

Today the historical-critical method of interpretation has nearly exhausted its claim on the biblical text and on the church. In its wake there is a widespread yearning among Christian individuals and communities for the wholesome, the deep and the enduring. The ACCS seeks not to replace those excellent commentaries that have been produced in the twentieth century. It supplements them, framing them with interpretive voices that have long sustained the church and only recently have fallen silent. It invites us to listen with appreciative ears and sympathetic minds as our ancient ancestors in the faith describe and interpret the scriptural vistas as they see them.

In Matthew 11:1-6, Jesus is approached by John the Baptist’s disciples who ask him a question that John is said to have requested them to ask: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (verse 3). Most commentaries I have read view this from a view that John, at this time in Herod Antipas’s prison, was down in the dumps and possibly discouraged about Jesus, the one who he baptized in chapter 3. He may have thought that Jesus as the Messiah would lead the revolution to restablish the Davidic kingdom on earth again and overthrow the tyranny of the Roman Empire.

Why on earth would John send his disciples (two of his disciples according to some ancient manuscripts) to ask this question given that in chapter 3 he is sure of Christ’s identity (see Matt 3:11-17). In other Gospel accounts of John, particularly in Luke, he already even discerns Christ when Our Lady visits her cousin (according to Church tradition), Elizabeth in a Judean town (Lk 1:39-45).

Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 12 March A.D.604) provides us with a very different view of John the Baptist when he sends his disciples to Jesus with this question. In this view, he is certain of his mission from God and the implication is that he wants confirmation from Jesus to go forward with it. The second purpose is so John’s disciples may affirm their own understanding and belief of who this Jesus really is. I’ll reproduce St. Gregory’s commentary on this verse in full as translated by ACCS:

It seems almost as if John did not know the one he had pointed out, as if he did not know whether he was the same person he had proclaimed by prophesying, by baptizing, by pointing him out!
We can resolve this question more quickly if we reflect on the time and order of the events. For when John is standing beside the river Jordan, he declares that this is the Redeemer of the world. But when he has been thrown into jail, he asks whether they were to look for another or whether he had come. This is not because he doubts that he is the Redeemer of the world. John now wants to know whether he who had personally come into the world would also descend personally into the courts of hell. For John had preceded Christ into the world and announced him there. He was now dying and preceding him to the nether world. This is the context in which he asks, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” But if he had spoken more fully he might have said, “Since you thought it worthy of yourself to be born for humanity, say whether you will also think it worthy of yourself to die for humanity. In this way I, who have been the herald of your birth, will also be the herald of your death. I will announce your arrival in the nether world as the One who is to come, just as I have already announced it on earth.” Forty Gospel Homilies 6.1.13

It seems almost as if John did not know the one he had pointed out, as if he did not know whether he was the same person he had proclaimed by prophesying, by baptizing, by pointing him out!

We can resolve this question more quickly if we reflect on the time and order of the events. For when John is standing beside the river Jordan, he declares that this is the Redeemer of the world. But when he has been thrown into jail, he asks whether they were to look for another or whether he had come. This is not because he doubts that he is the Redeemer of the world. John now wants to know whether he who had personally come into the world would also descend personally into the courts of hell. For John had preceded Christ into the world and announced him there. He was now dying and preceding him to the nether world. This is the context in which he asks, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” But if he had spoken more fully he might have said, “Since you thought it worthy of yourself to be born for humanity, say whether you will also think it worthy of yourself to die for humanity. In this way I, who have been the herald of your birth, will also be the herald of your death. I will announce your arrival in the nether world as the One who is to come, just as I have already announced it on earth.” Forty Gospel Homilies 6.1.13

In the Apostles’ Creed, Christ is said to have descended into “hell”. The doctrine in question is that of the “Harrowing of Hell”. A better translation would be “He descended to the dead” as we are talking about Hades/Sheol here rather than gehenna/hell. Some people question the meaning of this line as Christ being God should not have had to descend into hell at all before being resurrected.

St. Gregory looks at St. John being certain of his impending death. He’s not having second doubts about his earlier actions, instead he wants to know whether or not his death will be meaningful and be essentially a martyr’s death. As Christ had not yet died upon the cross and resurrected, John would be going to Sheol, where the ancient heroes of faith (as described in Hebrews 11) rest until the Day of Judgment. As such, just as he had preceded Christ on earth to proclaim the Messiah, was he to carry the very same mission to Sheol given that he was to die before his Lord, Master and God?

Christ’s response to the disciples isn’t a blunt yes, instead he points John’s disciples (and ultimately John who they would carry the message back to) and declares that he is doing the things as prophesied by the prophet Isaiah in ancient times. These words are to give surety to John’s disciples about who Jesus was and also to let John know that, yes, he was the Messiah and that the plan of salvation was to soon come. In going to the grave soon, John was also to be the herald for Christ in the afterlife as he was in life itself. As the ancient patriarchs looked forward to Christ, John’s arrival in Hades after beheading would be the starting point of telling them that the time was near. There is a certain logic to this argument that fits for me if I truly do believe in life after death (the last time I checked, this was a dogmatic doctrine of the Church universal).

The Eastern lung of the One,  Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church has viewed that this mission of St. John extended to Sheol. He  To a more limited extent, the Western lung of the Church also has in the past as well. After all, Pope Gregory the Great was the Bishop of Rome and at the time of his life, Gregory was in communion with all of the other bishops of the Church before the Great Schism in A.D. 1054.

By most evangelical Protestant views, this sounds weird and a “tangent”. But given how Protestants as a whole are pre-occupied with exactitude in the meaning of Greek and Hebrew words in the original texts and the ridiculously large divergence in views on how the Church is supposed to be, whether baptism and the Eucharist are sacraments or ordinances, whether Calvinism or Arminianism is right and a million and one other theological opinions (with no one wanting to excommunicate another Protestant Christian because hell, you could be right and I wrong, but I could be more right than you), why is early Christian exegesis treated with some suspicion and potentially disdain? Is it because it isn’t as scholarly as ours is today?

The interpretation may not be kosher by modern evangelical Protestant Biblical scholarship and exegetical methods, but there is something to be said about the early Church’s view on Scripture. And there is definitely something to be said for the inclusion of this quote in an evangelical Protestant prepared commentary set.

If I was a betting man, I would go with around 2000 years of Christian consensus than a rather vague consensus that has been around the last 500 years. I think that’s what Tom Oden and the other editors to ACCS would do also.

I guess John Henry Newman was right when he said that “to be deep in history is to cease being Protestant”. I’d extend that to read: “to be deep in Scripture, church history and historic Christianity is to cease being Protestant.” For me, that’s what I’m about when I say that I’m an evangelical catholic. And why I’m more Anglican, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox than Methodist or any other Protestant denomination.

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One thought on “John the Baptist”

  1. interesting, although if true, that makes me wonder more on the mechanics of the after-life as explained in the bible.
    what would it mean to ‘herald’ in the underworld?

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