Review of Behind the Veil
This is Peter Leithart’s long-awaited commentary on the epistles of John. It follows the examples of the earlier commentaries (of admittedly unequal value) in the Through New Eyes series. The series’ strength is seeing the rich and complex intertextual connections throughout Scripture (in other words, Leithart and Co., come to the obvious conclusion that each paragraph in the English translations of Scripture is not reducible to “3 points and a poem”). The series’ weakness is its (often) flippant dismissal of those exegetes (almost always holy men and sometimes martyrs) who came before them. (Jordan is particularly notorious on this point).
Leithart identifies the enemies against whom John is writing as a variant of Judaism. He then gives a thorough discussion of the various nuances of post-apostolic Judaism(s) and Gnosticism(s). He explains that scholars are divided on whether the enemies are Gnostics or Judaizers. The problem is that the enemies display characteristics of both groups, but are not reducible to either. John is writing before Gnosticism really became a problem, and the Judaizers seem to display anti-Jewish presuppositions.
Leithart is baffled by the Judaizers’ anti-material worldview. Is this not fundamentally at odds with the rich, creation-oriented worldview of the Old Testament? Leithart cannot really answer this question except to say the Jews were influenced by some Eastern proto-gnostic cults. That’s a half-truth, though. Leithart does not factor in the influence of the Talmud at all. This remains a fatal weakness in the Federal Vision movement. They note certain qualities of the Old Testament and read that into the worldview of “all Jews and all times.” When this happens, as we see here, they cannot account for the anti-Christian character of the Jews in John’s time.
Nevertheless, Leithart is on to something. His discussion points the reader to the interplay of Gnosticism and Judaism. Leithart’s weakness, though, is that he keeps wanting to see Judaism as something good and Old Testament-ish. After the Jews killed Christ, though, and in the book of acts began defining themselves as violently anti-Christian, it became a different creature.
The Strengths of the Book
At the beginning of each literary section in 1 John, Leithart gives a chiastic outline. These outlines are usually straightforward. They help the reader see literary patterns in John, and these literary patterns often suggest how the reader should interpret the book.
Leithart defines the “darkness” not so much as “evil,” but as the passing away of the Old Covenant order. Darkness is the time before light, and those Christians who cling to the darkness—to the Old Covenant order that is passing away—are exposed (23). Obviously, this has overtones with both Genesis and the Gospel of John. Darkness isn’t bad, for it is part of God’s creation; however, it is bad to cling to the darkness after the light has come. Thus, the enemies of the Churchin the Johannine epistles are Jews. (Leithart weakens this someone by calling them Judaizers—that’s certainly true but that’s not the whole problem).
Continuing with his darkness/light theme, Leithart offers a somewhat new yet common-sense reading of “judgment:” judgment is when the light exposes the darkness. It is not necessarily bad; it is the shining of light on darkness.[i]
Leithart’s discussion on “propitiation” is worth the price of the book. He explains to the reader that liberals and evangelicals fought over the way to translate the verb “hilasmos” in the New Testament. To make a long story short, neither propitiation nor expiation makes much sense in John. Leithart takes us back to how the word is used in the LXX and the way the Hebrew equivalent was used: instead of placating the wrath of an angry God, Jesus acts as the “cover” over creation (58ff). Originally, it covers the ark, which was a microcosm of the cosmos. Jesus is the “ark-cover” for the whole world and it is through Jesus that God views the world.
Conclusions and Criticism
Elsewhere, commenting on John 2:19ff, Leithart brings up the specific problem of apostasy. This was one of Leithart’s key observations in The Baptized Body. What Leithart didn’t resolve in The Baptized Body was how his discussion of apostasy doesn’t refute the P in TULIP. Leithart brings the issue up in this book but dodges all the real questions. He notes that “perseverance” doesn’t mean “let Go and let God,” (which is true), but that we truly endure to the end. Fair enough, but that’s not the question. The question is whether God causally and fully effects that perseverance. If not, then apostasy is real. If he does, then apostasy is not real.
My last criticism is the style of the book. Leithart is a superb writer and I have sung his praises for seven years now. This book, though, is written in a folksy, direct-to-you style. That’s not bad, but one gets the impression he is trying to write to Sunday School teachers who haven’t much familiarity with theology. That is perfectly legitimate, but then he footnotes Greek and Hebrew lexicons! To be fair, that’s not a criticism of the content of the book but merely an observation.
The chapters dealing with 2nd and 3rd John were surprisingly good. 3rd John gives a brief meditation on biblical theology and the coming Apocalypse.
[i] Leithart gives a very good meditation on the interplay between God’s life and light.