In debates about the exclusivity of Christianity over other religions, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” a quote attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John, is often used as a “clobber text.” It is invoked to settle the claim that Jesus is the only way to salvation.
If you take any verse in the Bible out of context, it can be interpreted in all manner of ways. “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) raises the question of how we relate to people of other faiths. The first thorny issue we need to ask is whether the historical Jesus actually said this phrase. To be honest, I think he did not, but you may disagree.
A careful reading of the four biblical Gospels shows that while Matthew, Mark and Luke differ significantly in their portrayal of Jesus, they also have much in common. Hence they are called the “Synoptic” (viewed together) Gospels. As early as the third century, Christian scholars recognized the Gospel of John was different than other Gospels and labelled it the “spiritual Gospel.”
Whereas in the Synoptic Gospels we see Jesus preaching the Kingdom of God, John’s Jesus preaches about himself in “I am” statements such as “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), which immediately precedes “No one comes to the Father.” In the other three Gospels, we hear no definitive claims like this.
Most biblical scholars agree that John is the latest Gospel, written about 60 years after Jesus’ death. The lengthy statements
spoken by Jesus in John, including his “farewell speech” (John 13:31-17:26), which includes the verse in question, were likely words attributed to Jesus by John in his sermons. Editing another’s words was not considered to be dishonest in those times; it was a common literary practice.
From internal evidence within the Gospel, it seems that John’s community grew in relative isolation from other Christians and, at the time of writing, was in the process of being expelled from the Jewish synagogue over its belief that Jesus was the Messiah (John 9:22). Alienated from the world and from its Jewish roots, and experiencing the power and ecstasy of its new life in Christ through his Holy Spirit, the community developed its unique theological interpretation. In the Gospel of John, we find the most full-blown theology of the divinity of Jesus in Christian Scripture, including the claim that Jesus is the exclusive “way to the Father.” This was the experience and the testimony of John’s community.
While Jesus was the only way to God in the Johannine experience, what do we make of the assertion now, 2,000 years later? I think we need to follow the Apostle Paul’s advice to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
You may believe that Jesus said everything attributed to him in John and be upset that I do not. United Church ministers, myself included, have not always done a good job of passing on the biblical scholarship of recent decades. I know a minister who believes Jesus made the claims in John, even while he questions some of the words attributed to him in other Gospels. He explains the differences between John and the Synoptics as a progression in Jesus’ own understanding of his divinity.
For me, as it was for John, Jesus is “the way,” my path to “the Father,” the Holy One. With the help of the Holy Spirit, I seek to follow his life and teachings — especially as found in the Synoptic Gospels. I resonate with the passion, love and mystical wonder shimmering in John’s Gospel.
However, I cannot accept John’s claim that people can come to the Divine Mystery in only one way. To me, it is nonsensical, even dangerous (as history has shown), to claim that Christianity alone offers salvation. That said, I respect those who, because of their own faith, do believe Jesus is the only way.
The Spirit goes where it will, and there is wisdom to be found in all world religions. Given that we desperately need as a human family to get along, it seems to me we need an expansive Christianity, open to the real possibility that the Divine can save us in limitless ways.
Rev. Janet Silman is a minister and writer who lives on Vancouver Island.
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