Wayne G. Rollins, Biblical Studies Magazine

January 5, 2022

The thirty-two chapters of John Sanford’s work demonstrate the contribution psychological-critical commentary can make to biblical exegesis and hermeneutics, despite certain limitations of the work from a biblical scholarly perspective. Falling within a genre of commentaries typified by the Michael Glazier series, New Testament Message: A Biblical Theological Commentary, and the Crossroad series, The New Testament _for Spiritual Reading, Sanford’s work focuses on the theological vision of the biblical text and its religious meaning for the reader.

Episcopal priest, pastoral counselor, and Jungian analyst, Sanford has written sixteen books, several of which have applied psychological insight to biblical interpretation: The Kingdom Within: A Study of the Inner Meaning of Jesus’ Sayings (New York: Lippincott, 1970); The Man Who Wrestled with God (King of Prussia, Pa.: Religious Publishing, 1974); and King Saul: The Tragic Hero (New York: Paulist Press, 1985).

Sanford identifies his approach variously as “spiritual,” “symbolic,” “esoteric,” “mystical,” and “psychological” (pp. 3-4), offering no definition or differentiation of terms. Despite this disappointing lack of clarification, and specifically of his failure to spell out the nature, rationale, and method of “psychological commentary,” the volume demonstrates in nuce five of the contributions a psychological-critical approach can make to biblical interpretation.

First, Sanford advances a psychological model for understanding the etiology of the Johannine text, approaching it not simply as the product of social, cultural, and historical factors, but above all as originating, first, in the conscious and unconscious “inspiration” of an historical speaker (Jesus of Nazareth) and, second, as originating in its written textual form out of the inner dialogue that occurs between the “ego-centers” of early Christian writers and their internalized images of Christ, resulting in the psychically charged production of the Christ-hymn of chap. 1, of rich symbolic vocabulary (bread, living water, vine, etc.), and of christological discourses (pp. 8, 136-42). Sanford cites the surprising judgment of B. H. Streeter, The Four Gospels (London: MacMillan, 1924) 391-92, that the Fourth Gospel is the product of “the creative power of the mystical imagination” (p. 9).

Second, Sanford advances a psychological model to interpret the patterns of conversion, transformation, and rebirth assumed in the text. The model of “individuation” that he proposes is drawn from the thought of depth psychologists C. G. Jung and Fritz Kunkel. Individuation, in brief, is that species-wide process of increased consciousness in which one moves through the “death of the ego” to the “emergence of the Self” (pp. 248-49), the Self understood as that larger whole of which one is part, transcendent to the ego,frequently symbolized with images of the divine. Sanford finds a psychological analogue between Johannine teleiōsis and individuation (pp. 299-300), and accordingly proposes that the experiences of the disciples in the text function as “paradigms of the experience” the reader may “have to undergo” in his/her “spiritual and psychological development” (p. 32).

Third, Sanford demonstrates a method of comparative symbology. Throughout the volume, Sanford seeks to amplify the meaning of biblical images by examining the values they purvey in the broader “collective unconscious” of the human psyche manifest in dreams, myths, stories, and folklore outside the biblical text, assuming that the widespread appearance of these motifs evidences that they are part of the collective human spiritual journey. Such images include the “above and below” motif (pp. 79-80); water and wind (pneuma) (pp. 85-87); the serpent (pp. 93-94); light and darkness (pp. 101-2); “fields ready for harvest” (“a psychological development that has reached its time”) (p. 117); numerical symbolism of the numbers 3, 4, 7, 10, 12, 5000, and 153 (pp. 146; 296-97; 334); kosmos as a prevailing “state of consciousness” (p. 173); principalities and powers, “the collective dominants of the thinking of this world” (p. 194); the sheep, gate, Good Shepherd, thieves, and “other sheep” (pp. 210-12); the grave or “cave” (pp. 225-26); the donkey (pp. 244-45); “washing” and “bathing” the foot (pp. 256-58); the vine and “the mystery of the transformation of the soul through union with God” (p. 279); the garden (p. 307); the cross (pp. 317-29); and suffering and death (pp. 329-30).

A fourth contribution consists of observations on the psychological dynamics operative in the personality portraits and dialogues of the Johannine text that will be especially visible to the trained psychoanalytic eye. Sanford comments on the phenomenon of transference, evident in the announcement, “We have found the Messiah” (pp. 35, 127); the psychology of anger (pp. 73-75); psychological dynamics in the conversation of Jesus with Nicodemus (p. 77), Nathanael (p. 30), the woman at the well (pp. 107-19), the paralytic at the pool of Bethzatha (pp. 131-32) (“he perceives health . . . to be more dangerous . . . than illness”), Judas (pp. 230-40), and Pilate (pp. 313-16); Jesus’ “creative ego response” to the accusers of the woman taken in adultery (p. 170); the dialogue in the story of the man born blind (p. 203); the response of the crowd to Jesus and Barabbas (pp. 245-46); and the farewell discourses (p. 291).

A fifth contribution psychological insight can make in biblical interpretation is demonstrated in Sanford’s psychological-critical commentary on religious phenomena cited in the text, e.g., the phenomena of “conversion” (p. 34) and angelology, which Sanford observes is foreign to “our collective conscious attitude” but at home in the “unconscious” of dreams, story-telling, fairy tales, and myths (p. 31); the phenomenon of the “inner eye” in the Nathanael narrative and in the story of the woman at the well (p. 30); the symbolic naming of persons (e.g., Cephas) (p. 30); the concepts of “flesh” (pp. 14-16, 194-95) and “sin” (“as failure of consciousness”)       (pp. 194); baptismal symbolism and ceremonial cleansing (pp. 39-40); “born again” symbolism (“an identifiable and describable psychological experience . . . at the heart of every process of individuation”) (pp. 81-83); faith and healing (pp. 122-30); the use of spittle in healing (pp. 203-4); the experience of the numinous (pp. 150-51); dreams and their significance in the NT and the Church Fathers (p. 155); eating the body and blood (p. 159); receiving the spirit (p. 161) and the paraclete (pp. 289-90).

Biblical scholars will take issue with Sanford at a number of points. For one, the text betrays a remarkable indifference to citing current Johannine scholarship, mentioning only Raymond Brown (once, and with an incorrect page reference in the index) and Sandra Schneiders, though at the same time conversant with a general menu of critical historical, literary, and lexical issues in Johannine studies. Second, a number of typographical errors in transliterated Greek stand out, e.g. ti emoi kai [sic] sol (p. 44), ho (sicl huois tou anthrōpou (p. 97), and oraō (p. 27) (though correctly cited as horaō in the Greek index).

From the psychological side, critics will certainly fault Sanford’s failure to define his terms psychologically, to defend his exclusive use of Jung and Kunkel, and to explain what is meant in his anachronistic references to Jesus, Gregory of Nyssa, and  the early Christian commentators as “depth psychologists” (pp. 144, 303, 3).

General readers will appreciate the relevance of Sanford’s work for contemporary self-understanding, as well as his general introduction to key dimensions of Johannine spirituality. It includes a useful ten-page index of names and subjects, along with a two-page glossary of transliterated Greek terms that enjoy special discussion in the book. In addition, the commentary is illumined richly by a compendium of insight from the Church Fathers, including Augustine, Athanasius, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Origen, Hippolytus, Ignatius, Tertullian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and above all Gregory of Nyssa. Sanford with some justification calls them “psychologists,” but this half truth needs to be made whole by a more precise and historically discriminating examination of the term.

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