The Gospel According to John: A Theological Commentary

By Herman Ridderbos
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (1997). xiv + 721 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Keith Essex
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 294-296

 Herman Ridderbos was for many years professor of New Testament at the Theological School of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands in Kampen. He was previously known to English-speaking biblical exegetes and expositors through his influential volume Paul: An Outline of His Theology (Eerdmans, 1975). The present work is a translation of Ridderbos’ commentary on the Gospel of John, which originally was written and published in Dutch as two volumes in 1987 and 1992.

The author models his approach in the writing of this commentary on that of Rudolf Bultmann in his famous work on John, but with very different exegetical conclusions (xiv). Rather than giving an extensive discussion of introductory issues, Ridderbos plunges immediately into a discussion of the biblical text. “The book aims to present an exposition of the Fourth Gospel as the Christian Church adopted it” (xii, emphasis original). Thus the author seeks to present a theological exegesis of the Gospel. The result is a commentary that pays close attention to the literary and grammatical structure of the text.

Before his discussion of the biblical text, Ridderbos gives a 16-page introduction entitled “The Peculiar Character of the Fourth Gospel.” Because the text itself does not identify its author beyond “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the commentator concludes “one cannot say that accepting or not accepting the ancient tradition [of the authorship of the apostle John] is essential to an understanding of the unique character of the Fourth Gospel” (2). What is essential is the recognition that whoever the author was, he claimed to be and in fact was an eyewitness to the events he narrates. Thus the text should be accepted as historically reliable, though this is not the essential point on which everything turns. Throughout this commentary, this reliability is assumed rather than argued. Rather, the goal of the biblical author is to declare “the apostolic witness concerning Jesus’ historical self-disclosure as the Christ, the Son of God, as the foundation on which that faith [of the church in its Lord] rests” (7 ). “The question on which the whole of the Fourth Gospel is focused is: Who is Jesus?” (11) Therefore the theological dimension is what gives this Gospel its peculiar character. Finally, it is the witness of the Holy Spirit using the text that engenders belief in the reader. Ridderbos concludes his introduction, “The point at issue is always what Jesus said and did in his self-disclosure on earth, but it is transmitted in its lasting validity with the independence of an apostle who was authorized to speak by Jesus and endowed with the promise of the Spirit” (16).

The commentary on the biblical text is 667 pages (17-683). The majority of material presents the personal interaction of Ridderbos with the text of John, seeking to give the reader an understanding of its meaning. The commentator is an astute observer of the Gospel of John and this is the strength of the work. The author continually compares and contrasts his interpretation with previous commentators. This is done in footnotes and many small-print excurses which interrupt the commentary proper. The three works that Ridderbos interacts with the most are the non-evangelical exegetical commentaries on John by Bultmann, Raymond Brown, and Rudolf Schnackenburg. Ridderbos consistently upholds the orthodox understanding of the deity and humanity of Jesus Christ in his conclusions. However, he is deficient in his viewpoint that the discourses of Jesus recorded in the text are the composition of the Evangelist. He states concerning John 17, “One must therefore not look for the historical in the specific phraseology of the prayer, as though the Spirit ‘brought to’ the apostles’ ‘remembrance’ and thus by inspiration conveyed the very words of Jesus” (546-47). While his Christology is sound, his bibliology is weak. The volume ends with three valuable indexes of names, subjects, and Scripture references.

This recent commentary by Ridderbos does not match the comprehensiveness of the volumes by D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (PNTC), and Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (NICNT), particularly in the historical dimension of historical-grammatical exegesis. Therefore, Carson and Morris should continue to be the resources first consulted by exegetes and expositors of John. However, if one is looking for a bridge from Carson and Morris to contemporary Johannine scholarship, particularly European, he will find this volume by Ridderbos very valuable.