Experiencing God in the Gospel of John is a collaborative work between Kelly, a systematic theologian, and Moloney, a New Testament scholar. As the authors readily admit, such a collaboration involved considerable risks because each discipline has its own language and criteria and it required considerable patience and respect for each scholar to understand the perspective of the other. No doubt also at risk in this joint undertaking was the friendship which they had shared for many years. Their hope was that their collaboration would underscore "the fundamental Godward dimension of the Johannine texts," and also reinvigorate theology with the "deeply spiritual or experiential sense inherent in this remarkable part of the New Testament" (p. xi).
The book consists of twenty, relatively short, chapters. An introductory chapter on "The Experience of God" assays the approaches of several theologians, medieval and modern, as well as certain characteristic emphases of the Gospel of John, and successive chapters examine sections of the Gospel from the twin perspectives of biblical studies and systematic theology, with a concluding chapter which relates the First Letter of John to the great themes of the Gospel. While the focus throughout is on the Johannine text, theological issues predominate. This is particularly true in the notes which are intended to provide "pointers toward further possibilities of theological elaboration and dialogue". As indicated in the Preface, readers are referred to Moloney's three-volume study of John published by Fortress Press for a fuller presentation of issues of biblical scholarship (pp. xii-xiii).
Kelly and Moloney indicate "it is our basic contention that the fundamental concern of the Gospel and of Jesus himself is to lead us into a living experience of God" (p. 23). This is an important perspective from which to study the Gospel, but part of their thesis—that the fundamental concern of Jesus himself was to lead people into a living experience of God—ignores or sidesteps most recent quests for the historical Jesus which offer very different, and often conflicting, assessments of what Jesus' fundamental concern actually was.
The book's final chapter relates the First Letter of John to seven features of the Johannine experience of God: the Father, the Son, the Cross, Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, Community, and Eternal Life. The authors argue "the experience, objectified in the affirmation 'God is love,' can be expressed under the above-mentioned seven headings. Any account of the Johannine experience of God would be distorted if any one of these seven aspects was omitted or downplayed. While granting the possibility of any number of different orderings and nuances when exploring the depths of the Johannine writings, these seven headings are signposts, guiding an exploration of those depths, and within the limits of any one reading, they conveniently summarize our findings" (p. 394). The concluding chapter also briefly examines four functions of meaning (as distinguished by Bernard Lonergan) observable in the theology of the First Letter of John: Effective Meaning: Knowing God in Action, Constitutive Meaning: Godly Identity, Communicative Meaning: Living Communion, and Cognitive Meaning: The Truth of God Revealed. This section is particularly effective in drawing out the complex meanings of the God experience in Johannine thought, though it must be remembered that the theology of the First Letter of John is not identical with that of the Gospel itself.
The Gospel of John has been called the "theological gospel" and its author is frequently depicted as an eagle. It is unfortunate that this study flies so high above the text that much of the Gospel's impact—practical, moral, and theological—is lost. And much of the subtlety and multilayered message of the original Gospel text is flattened out in the process of transporting it into the idiom of contemporary and medieval theology which seem to lack the richness to translate the Johannine message adequately. The authors admit "it is impossible to adequately synthesize [the] Johannine data into an adequate theoretical synthesis-an impossibility instanced in the interweaving themes and mutually conditioning perspectives of this present work." And they caution "limited as we are to words and to the theological contexts associated with them, we saw the value of reimmersing the meaning of our words in the ineffable excess of meaning characteristic of the theology of John" (p. 407). This is an important caution because the message of the Gospel and the experience of God which come through in this book seem less full than in the Gospel text itself.
Kelly and Moloney's book is a noteworthy attempt at reinvigorating theology with the spiritual and experiential sense inherent the Gospel of John—in getting back to the roots of Christian theology, so to speak. This is an important task, and Kelly and Moloney must be given credit for undertaking it. Without doubt, as they hoped, a broad range of readers will find their book inspirational and profitable reading.