Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian: A Paleofundamentalist Manifesto for Contemporary Evangelicalism, Especially Its Elites, in North America

By Robert H. Gundry
Grand Rapids : Eerdmans (2002). 137 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Will Varner
15.2 (Fall 2004) : 259-261

In the theological and educational circles where I have moved throughout my Christian life, to recommend a book by Robert Gundry might be deemed an act of ecclesiastical suicide. Yet this reviewer offers such a recommendation whatever the implications may be.

Bob Gundry has taught at Westmont College for forty years. He has produced a number of biblical commentaries and theological studies, primarily in the NT field. His Survey of the New Testament, which recently appeared in its fourth edition, has become a standard college level textbook. (See the review of this edition in the Spring 2004 edition of The Master's Seminary Journal, 120-21.) Recently I examined that fourth edition, mainly because it includes hundreds of excellent photographs by my colleague, Todd Bolen. That examination then led to a consideration of Gundry’s greater literary efforts and eventually resulted in the reading of the little volume presently under review.

To many observers, Gundry remains something of a conundrum, and this volume will only add to the perplexity of those who wonder how to slot him within the broad spectrum of evangelical Christianity. For example, Gundry’s Survey presents and defends traditional evangelical positions on the authorship and dates of the NT books. I would have no hesitation in using it as a textbook in classes at The Master’s College, where a high view of Scripture is a sine qua non. On the other hand, anyone following the theological controversies within the Evangelical Theological Society during the last quarter of the twentieth century is very aware of Gundry’s view that Matthew employed a Jewish Midrashic redactional criticism in embellishing and even inventing “events” that never happened in space-time history. This was particularly evident, according to Gundry, in the Matthean nativity accounts. For his espousing and defending of these views, Gundry was asked to surrender his membership in the ETS in 1983. Though most evangelical scholars disagree with his position, Gundry has continued to maintain that his view of Matthew’s literary method of redacting Gospel accounts is consistent with an affirmation of inerrancy, the requirement for ETS membership.

This reviewer admits that when he first saw the rather odd title of this little volume, he wondered what Gundry was attempting to accomplish in it. Knowing the reputation he had gained, I approached the book with a bit of built-in skepticism. To write that I was pleasantly surprised is a gross understatement. Gundry’s book is marked by a skilled employment of linguistic, semantic, and theological analysis for which he has always been known. What he adds to the discussion is a trenchant application of John’s “Word-Christology” and acute sectarianism to challenge the “evangelical elites” of today to recognize that they have gone far too far in accommodating their agendas to pleasing the “world” and its postmodern agenda.

Chapter one is an excellent analysis of John’s “Word-Christology.” Gundry demonstrates quite effectively that the rest of John’s Gospel is entirely consistent with the prologue (1:1-18), which lays out the theological groundwork for the rest of his Gospel. Although in a less detailed way than chapter one, chapter two develops Gundry’s analysis of John’s bold sectarianism throughout his Gospel. The sharp distinction between light and darkness, world and church, truth and error, and many other polarities in John’s writings are brought to bear on the contrary evangelical mixing and compromising of distinct and different matters. In chapter three Gundry effectively applies the results of his theological exegesis to the practices of what he calls “the elites of contemporary evangelicalism in North America” (see sub title). Gundry does not simply revert to an uncritical fundamentalism that most readers will assume. He is fond of that group of scholars that produced the early-twentieth-century series of volumes that gave the name to this movement, The Fundamentals.

This reviewer thinks it best not to list the targets of Gundry’s trenchant criticisms, lest the reader be biased by either an unfair negativism or a smug satisfaction over who and what the author condemns. I only mention that Gundry’s book evoked a response by three major evangelical authors in the Evangelical Studies Bulletin (19/1, Spring 2002). Gundry was also given the opportunity to respond to his critics in that issue. Perhaps Gundry will issue a second edition of this little volume in which he also responds to his critics, as he did with a second edition of his Matthew commentary in 1994.

Gundry’s book will not answer all the questions that critics have asked about his controversial “Matthew M idrash.” Some might even wonder how this book could be written by the same author. Some, like this reviewer, will still wonder how his approach to Matthew squares with a commitment to scriptural inerrancy. But Jesus the Word According to John the Sectarian is a book that will challenge every reader to rethink both the Gospel of John and also his own uncritical dismissal of the contributions of fundamentalism, which are often ignored and even scorned by the “elites” whom Gundry so effectively admonishes.

It is a book that should be read and appreciated by every pastor, scholar, and student who needs to realize that the outward successes of evangelicalism have not been gained without incurring heavy losses. Gundry believes that the losses may be regained by attention to something that is so obvious that it can easily be ignored—the sectarian teaching of the Gospel of John.