Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel Part I: The Symphonic Structure of John -- By: Merrill C. Tenney

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 120:478 (Apr 1963)
Article: Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel Part I: The Symphonic Structure of John
Author: Merrill C. Tenney

Literary Keys to the Fourth Gospel
Part I:
The Symphonic Structure of John

Merrill C. Tenney

[Merrill C. Tenney, Dean of the Graduate School, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois.]

The unique character of the Fourth Gospel is recognized by all students of the New Testament. In spite of the fact that it describes the same Person as the Synoptic Gospels, it narrates new episodes in His life, places Him in other geographical surroundings, reports different discourses, and employs another type of vocabulary. Because of the radical difference between John and the Synoptics, many scholars have concluded that it is unhistorical, and cannot be utilized as a reliable basis for information concerning the life of Jesus.

Divergence of presentation does not necessarily imply conflict, for the variations may be explained in terms of purpose. The writer affirmed that he had a much broader knowledge of the person and work of Jesus than he expressed in his book, but stated that “these signs are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing ye may have life in his name” (20:31). His attention was concentrated on the main objective of fostering belief. Around this theme he wove others, important in themselves, and so interrelated that they could be expressed in interchangeable terms, i.e., “the life was the light of men” (1:4). These interwoven themes, fluctuating in emphasis but always progressive in development, lead steadily forward to the climax which consummates them simultaneously, and creates the cumulative incentive to faith.

This type of structure may be called symphonic, from its likeness to the form of a symphony. A symphony is a musical

composition having several movements related in subject, but varying in form and execution. It usually begins with a dominant theme, into which variations are introduced at intervals. The variations seem to be developed independently, but as the music is played, they modulate into each other until finally all are brought to a climax. The apparent disunity is really part of a design which is not evident at first, but which appears in the progress of the composition.

Symphonic structure is difficult to analyze because of its nature. A logical argument, marked by steps of reasoning, can easily be reduced to a categorical outline like a lawyer’s brief. While it is possible to outline the Fourth Gospel on the basis of its geographical, chronological, and psychological order, it contains also an elusive element that cannot be completely captured by rigid struct...

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