David Ford is Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of Selwyn College. The following interview revolves around Ford’s latest book, The Gospel of John: A Theological Commentary.
Moore: You have been studying the gospel of John for many years. You have also done what I wish more scholars and writers would incorporate, namely studying the Bible with various groups of people from different backgrounds and disciplines. Tell us a bit about why you decided to hear from such a diverse group of people.
Ford: I have found that intensive conversation around rich texts is one of the most fascinating and fruitful things we can do. I discovered this first through studying Greek and Latin Classics (my first degree), and then found the Bible even more gripping. I have had the blessing of being part of good church communities where there were members who wanted to learn how to love God and their neighbors with the help of the Bible – and to love with their minds as well as their hearts. I have also had some wonderful teachers and colleagues, and year after year of good students. I suppose it was simply obvious that one of the best accompaniments to the research, reading, praying and writing I was doing was to have as many and varied conversations as possible.
And there have been several glorious surprises. I will mention just two.
In 2009, when I was nine years into the project of writing a commentary on the Gospel of John, I learned that two of my favorite senior New Testament scholars, Richard Hays and Richard Bauckham, were to be in Cambridge for the second half of the year. I invited them to read John with me, and we put twenty-one dates, each for three hours, in our diaries between July and Christmas. What an amazing, generative time that was!
And then there has been one of the most amazing experiences of all, the practice of Scriptural Reasoning, in which people from different religious traditions study each other’s scriptures together. It means I have read John with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists, and Confucians, and gained many insights that could probably not have been learned any other way.
Moore: What and/or who sparked your keen interest in the gospel of John?
Ford: I am a lifelong Anglican, and John has been there in readings, sermons, and pervading the liturgy (and especially the collects, those rich, dense prayers that change week by week and together offer a balanced, biblical, God-centered and practical spirituality and theology) year after year. Slowly, over the years, it became clearer to me that, as many other Christians down the centuries had thought, John is the deepest of the New Testament books, especially in its understanding of who Jesus is. Somehow, John combines the life-death-resurrection narrative of the other Gospels with the theological pillars of Paul (‘in Christ’, the Holy Spirit, faith, love, joy, abundance, etc.), and yet at the same time helps us to appreciate better and get more out of those other gospels, Paul’s letters, and the whole Bible. But it took me till I was over fifty to risk beginning to tackle what I thought of as the most challenging theological task imaginable, the Mount Everest of biblical understanding and communication: to write a theological commentary on John that would try not only to distill whatever Christian wisdom I had learnt but also to make it as accessible as possible to ordinary readers. One thing was clear from the start: it had to take as long as it took, with no deadlines. It was so good to be able to take over twenty years to finish it.
Moore: Your work on John is beautifully written and wonderfully brings insights from other disciplines. Is it only designed to be read straight through?
Ford: John should be read very, very slowly, and then frequently reread! As I reread and reread John year after year, and found every rereading fruitful, with more and more deep meaning being received through it, I came to think that the main purpose of my commentary is to encourage people to become, like myself and many others down the centuries and around the world today, habitual rereaders of this profound Gospel. In other words, I want them to have something of the same experience that I had, of the superabundance of meaning and, above all, of the invisible presence of Jesus Christ and the breathing of his Spirit through this text.
So the answer to your question is that the commentary is designed to be read straight through, but very slowly, prayerfully, with plenty of time to reflect on it and put it into practice, and to read it with others, and being prepared to stay for a long time with any particular text that grips you. But, that said, I was increasingly struck by how one chapter does lead on into the next, and leads readers deeper and deeper in gripping ways. One of the most satisfying comments on the commentary for me has been that of the New Testament scholar Andrew Lincoln, who said, ‘It is that rare sort of commentary that invites one to just keep reading.’ And that reading needs above all to be of the Gospel text itself, which in the commentary is always given in full in bold print.
Moore: I read your terrific book, The Drama of Living. In it and this current work you regularly cite your friend and poet, Micheal O’Siadhail. Why is O’Siadhail’s poetry so formative to your theological reflection on Scripture?
Ford: For over fifty years, since we first met as students in Trinity College Dublin, Micheal O’Siadhail [pronounced Me-hawl Oh-Sheel] and I have not only been close friends, but I have been first reader of Micheal’s poetry and he has been first reader of my theology. When the then Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, asked me to write his Lent Book for 1997 I was going through a tough period of my life. Out of this emerged The Shape of Living which is about coping with being overwhelmed in multiple ways (I have had several messages during the pandemic from people who found it has rung true in their situations of feeling multiply overwhelmed!) I talked intensively with Micheal about this, and the book weaves together the Bible, his poetry, and life experience. The Drama of Living was a successor to that, combining again the Bible, the more recent poetry Micheal had written up then, and life now.
During ten of the twenty years working on the commentary on John, from 2008 to 2018, Micheal was working on his magnum opus to date, The Five Quintets. It is an extraordinary work, about which the distinguished American interpreter of Irish literature, Richard Rankin Russell, has written, ‘I am increasingly convinced it is the most important poetic work published since Milton’s Paradise Lost because it magisterially, yet winsomely, teaches us who we are because of who we have been—and who we might yet become.’ So I was reading the poems of The Five Quintets (which engage with the arts, economics, politics, the sciences, philosophy, and theology) as I was writing the John commentary, and he was at the same time reading what I was writing. So, the books are siblings. And this creative mutuality has gone on – I have just finished co-authoring a book called Glorification with Ashley Cocksworth, and Micheal has just published Testament, in which he has written 150 new psalms.
Moore: Over the years you have interacted with many people from a wide array of world religions. Some of these have been in the same study group with you on the gospel of John. How have you gone about communicating with them about the narrow and scandalous message of Christ?
Ford: Yes, that has been through the practice of Scriptural Reasoning that some of us began in the early 1990s, and has now spread to many countries and into many spheres of life beyond the academy—into local congregations and communities of different faiths, and into schools, civil society settings, businesses, hospitals, prisons, leadership courses, and especially programmes related to reconciliation and peacebuilding across religious divisions and conflicts (I co-chair the Rose Castle Foundation, which trains people in reconciliation).
At its best, Scriptural Reasoning is about multiple depths—you go deeper into your own tradition through your scriptures, deeper into the other traditions, deeper into the world we all share, and deeper into relationship with each other. As a Christian I communicate around the table who Jesus Christ is and what he means to me through studying texts from the New Testament with them. The beauty of it is that I can be utterly Christian, others can be utterly Jewish, Muslim, or whatever else they may be, and there is no expectation of consensus. We can learn to disagree better. But often, too, we become friends. I think this sort of mutual understanding is vital if we are to have a healthily plural society and world.
Moore: Early on during my reading of your book, I was struck by how many times you mentioned the value of rereading. I recalled you mentioning the value of rereading in The Drama of Living. It got me curious if the index of this new book had a separate entry on “rereading.” To my delight I found that it does! The number of times rereading is recommended reaches fifty times. Why are you a strong advocate of rereading?
Ford: The importance I give rereading is clear from the fact that I have already been speaking about it! Why? Basically because there is such superabundant meaning in John. There is level beneath level in the text, and multiple references to other texts that further enrich the meaning. It is a text that, over the past two millennia and now all around the world, has been continually and inexhaustibly inspiring to hundreds of millions of people. The basic, straightforward way to experience this is to reread it repeatedly (or, of course, to listen attentively to it again and again). I hope my commentary helps that to happen as fruitfully for others as I am still finding it happening for myself and with others. In John 20, after the resurrected Jesus has shown himself to Thomas, who responds, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ (20:28-29) Then the author goes on to address us readers, saying that the reason for writing the Gospel is so that we can come to trust and believe in Jesus and have ‘life in his name’ (20:31). So, as we read, we are in the presence of Jesus, who is with us as ‘Lord and God’, and one form of seeing that opens up the depths of our relationship with Jesus is reading.
Moore: What are a few things you hope your readers benefit from by reading your book?
Ford: There are, I think, three main things which I have received and which I would love all readers to have. I highlight them both in my Introduction to the Gospel and in the Epilogue which reflects on my experience in writing the commentary.
First, there is the horizon of God and all reality, as opened up by the Prologue and running all through the gospel. Perhaps its greatest breadth and depth are opened up in the prayer of Jesus in John 17 (which for me has become the most profound chapter of the Bible). It is a worldview that unites unsurpassable depth and breadth of meaning with unsurpassable depth and breadth of love.
Second, there is Jesus. Who Jesus is is the central concern of this Gospel. Each chapter adds to our understanding. The great desire of John is for readers to meet Jesus, trust Jesus, and live their whole lives as his followers, to the extent of mutual indwelling in love (this theme is at its richest in John 15 and 17). That is also what I long for for myself and my readers.
Third, there is the life of discipleship. This is essentially about three things: learning, loving and praying. The Farewell Discourses (Chapters 13-17) have wave after wave of teaching on all three, culminating in Jesus bringing them together in his final prayer. So, for myself as well as my readers, I want to mature in that sort of learning, loving and praying.
David George Moore is the author of several books. Most recently, he wrote Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians to offer a resource for more comprehensive spiritual formation and discipleship. Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians: https://www.amazon.com/Stuck-Present-History-Frees-Christians/dp/168426460X Dave’s new YouTube channel features his interviews and commentary. www.youtube.com/@MOOREENGAGING