by Cory Marsh –

An Exegetical Case Study in John 9 Concerning God’s use of Physical Handicaps

 

Introduction

When it comes to theological interrogations, Jesus will not backed in a corner. This is true whether the questioners are antagonists (Matt 22:23-40), or His own disciples as in John 9:2: “And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (ESV). Rather than choosing between personal or genetic sin, Jesus presents a third option in v.3 concerning the man τυφλὸν ἐκ γενετῆς (blind from birth, v.1): that God’s power in Christ be shown in him. This miracle was then accomplished when Jesus re-created the man’s eyes (vv.6-7) and thus demonstrated in tangible form that He, in fact is, the very “Light of the world” (8:1;9:5). Yet it is this particular episode that marks what some consider to be an exegetical and theological problem. Specifically, with Jesus’ (via John’s) use of the adversative conjunction, ἀλλ᾽ (but), the traditional punctuation of vv.3–4 are called into question. Basically, the question asked is: when should verse 3 end and verse 4 begin? Or, more technically, should vv. 3-4 be repunctuated as to make v. 3 a single clause, with the remaining clauses continuing in v. 4 after being initiated by the conjunction, ἀλλ᾽? If so, this would convert the familiar adversative or contrasting function of “but” into an introductory conjunction initiating a whole new set of clauses. And if this be the case, then the traditional mainline versification found in most English New Testaments versions of John 9:3-4 are misleading at best, and indeed erroneous at worse. Yet some, in an attempt to escape Jesus’ stated purpose for the blind man’s handicap—as marked by the conjunction ἵνα (so that) in v.3—have in fact chosen this route.

15189_fullBecause of the theological implications of the Greek grammar—that God would actually allow a person to experience a life-long deformity for the sole purpose of His Son one day healing him and thus reveal the glory of God—some scholars have chosen to repunctuate these two verses in an attempt to get God “off the hook.” Yet by doing so, the problem is not solved in any real sense and only leaves more open ended questions.

It is the contention of this author that vv.3 and 4 of John 9 are in fact punctuated correctly in the majority of English translations, and that the purpose of the blind man’s congenital deformity was indeed ordained by God in order to one day glorify Himself through Christ’s healing of it.

The Problem

What did Jesus intend when He stated the word ἀλλ (but) in John 9:3? In 644 occurrences throughout the New Testament,[1] the logical function of this word dictates its dominate usage as a contrasting (or adversative) conjunction. As such, it can be translated but, rather, however. Although this conjunction can more broadly be considered a connective conjunctive, as it still connects one thought to another, Wallace states this particular contrasting conjunction “suggests a contrast or opposing thought to the idea to which it is con­nected.”[2] Contextually, with the use of this contrasting conjunction in v.3[3], Jesus is setting up the purpose (or reason) for the man’s congenital blindness as marked by the immediately following word, the conjunction ἵνα (so that).  Yet, as mentioned above, there are some who believe this poses both an exegetical and theological problem. Exegetically, the problem can be stated like this: “Should v. 4 actually begin with ἀλλ᾽ (but)? If so, that would cause this conjunction to serve an introductory use rather than adversative which violates its otherwise dominate usage. Theologically, if this conjunction should be repuncutated to introduce v.4, than the meaning of the text is altered substantially. By placing the conjunction ἀλλ᾽ introductorily in v.4, rather than its traditional placing in v.3, what would then be bypassed is the very reason (or purpose) for the man’s congenital blindness as marked by the subordinate conjunction, ἵνα: “so that the works of God [i.e., eye sight given] be displayed in him.”[4] Or in other words, by placing αλλα as introducing v.4, as in the examples below, God would not have purposed the man to be born blind in order that Jesus would one day heal him and thus glorify God in the miracle. If this view is to be accepted, then Jesus entirely ignored this implication of the “problem” by focusing solely on the works. Thus, the verse would then read as follows:

                 

         3Neither did this man sin nor his parents.4 But, so that the works of God may be     displayed in him, we must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day.

          

Predispositions Guiding Exegesis

There are several Johannine scholars who support the view that ἀλλ᾽ would be better placed as an introductory conjunction initiating v.4. The subordinate conjunction ἵνα (so that, that) would then serve to set up the purpose of Jesus and His disciples working good works to help the man born blind. Kruse states the issue this way:

Verses 3 and 4, punctuated as they are in the NIV (and most other         English versions and modern Greek texts), present an unattractive             theodicy. They imply that God allowed the man to be blind so that             many years later God’s power could be shown in the restoration of his sight. However, it is not necessary to read the text this way.[5]

Kruse is not alone in his sentiments. In the 1940s while giving lectures on John’s Gospel at the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles, as well as Westminster Chapel in London, noted British Bible scholar, G. Campbell Morgan, expressed his disdain for the traditional placing of ἀλλ᾽ (but) in v.3: “If that punctuation is to be accepted, then Jesus meant that this man was not blind because of his own sin or his parents’, but in order to give God an opportunity to show what He could do with a blind man. I absolutely refuse to accept this interpretation …. I ventured to repunctuate it.”[6] Along with Kruse and Campbell, another noted Johannine commentator, Gary Burge, likewise supports repuncuating vv. 3 and 4: “The ‘purpose clause’ of 3b … can just as well be applied to 9:4, and no doubt it should.”[7]

What should be noted regarding the above contentions is the common theme running through each of these scholars’ reasoning for rejecting the traditional view of vv. 3 & 4. That theme is not based on purely grammatical-historical grounds, however, but rather theological bias. Instead of taking the grammar of the text at face value, each of the above scholars expose in their explanations of moving ἀλλ᾽ (but) to introduce v.4 as having scorn for the theological implications of the traditional placing. For instance:

Kruse: “Verses 3 and 4 punctuate as they are … present an unattractive theodicy.”[8]

Morgan: “If that punctuation is to be accepted [i.e., the traditional placing] … I absolutely refuse to accept that interpretation …. Involved in [the] answer [i.e., the alerted placing], is a revelation that blindness from birth is not the will of God for any man.”[9]

Burge: “While a sound theology cannot doubt God’s sovereignty to do as he pleases, thoughtful Christians may see this as a cruel fate in which God inflicts pain on people simply to glorify himself.”[10]

None of the above men seem to consider God sovereignly determining a man with congenital blindness in order that He may be glorified through it when His Son reveals His power by re-creating the man’s eyes—both physical and spiritual (cf. 9:38). In fact, a similar instance and purpose is found just two chapters later with the death of Lazarus in John 11:4: “When Jesus heard it, He said, ‘This illness is not for death, but [ἀλλ᾽] on behalf of the glory of God, so that [ἵνα] the Son of God may be glorified through it.”[11]

 

Theological Presuppositions Guiding Exegesis

Besides each men revealing their bias for boldly re-punctuating the Greek text—in order to escape the supposed theological implication—each of them additionally make a fatal flaw in their bias: they equate blindedness with evil. Indeed, this presupposition should itself be analyzed. In question form, it can be asked: Why is it necessary to consider blindness evil or even painful? What explicit Scriptural texts can serve to prove that if one is blind, the person is experiencing some sort of evil and suffering? [12] Granted, the biblical canon does not paint blindness in an overtly positive light, yet it equally does not present it as pure evil or suffering either. It seems to this author each of the above scholars’ attempt to change the traditionally held Greek construction of John 9:3-4 has a purpose which arrived dead on a arrival. Before one can dare change (re-punctuate) the Greek text—especially in order to fit a preferred theological assumption—that assumption better be proved at the outset.

While Burge tips his hat to God’s sovereignty in the last reference above, he immediately cancels it in the second half of his sentence by pitting “thoughtful Christians” against those who would disagree with him. For whatever reason, he seems to have overlooked key texts explicitly declaring God’s sovereignty, even over blindness. He is not alone, as Morgan is probably the most dogmatic when he boldly asserted “blindness from birth is not the will of God for any man.” In stark contrast to this claim, Moses recorded God as saying: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Ex 4:11 ESV). Where in this explicit reference to God’s sovereignty over bodily handicaps does it even remotely imply that God would “never will a man to be born blind”? The Scripture record in fact testifies to the exact opposite. Additionally, where is it implied that blindness is a form of evil, pain, or suffering? In contrast, the Scripture record shows kindness to the blind as a judicial law that Israel was commanded to reflect: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the LORD” (Lev 19:14 ESV; cf. Deut 27:18).

 

The Purpose for the Handicap Revealed

Is God absolutely sovereign over people’s handicaps, even blindness? Yes. Even if that purpose was not for punishment or suffering? Yes. This is not unusual in the Gospels. As mentioned above, a few chapters subsequent to this episode, John gives his readers the explicit purpose for why Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus was ill: “But when Jesus heard [that Lazarus was ill], he said ‘this illness is not for death, but for the glory of God, so that [ἵνα] the Son of God may be glorified through it’” (John 11:4). Therefore, could God have purposed the man in John 9 to be born blind in order to one day reveal Himself to that particular man, and with him, to the world at large (as its recorded in the Bible for all to see)? Yes, and it is for this purpose that the man’s handicap was ordained by God.

Conclusion

Taking in all the above considerations, it seems more appropriate to allow the text to speak for itself, even if it presents an uncomfortable situation. Thus, based on the exegesis above, MacArthur leaves us with the only simple, clear option as to why God had this man be born blind: “God sovereignly chose to use this man’s affliction for His own glory.”[13] The Greek is what it is, and any theological bias or presuppositions we may hold should not hinder its message. God ordains and uses them to serve His greater purposes, as He did with this man τυφλὸν ἐκ γενετῆς (blind from birth)—and is able to do so without a hint of committing evil (Rom 8:28; James 1:13). Therefore, the traditional placing of ἀλλ᾽ in v.3, as reflected in the major English translations is accurate reflecting the subjunctive conjunction ἵνα stating the actual purpose of the man’s blindness: that the works of God, as shown in Jesus’ miracle, would one day be displayed in him.

[1] Out of all the 644 occurrences in the NT, the full form ἀλλά is used 421xs while the apocopated ἀλλ᾽ (as in John 9:3) is used 223xs. There is no difference in meaning between the two.

[2] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 671.

[3] It should be noted that according to Fredrick W. Danker, ed., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 2001), s.v. “ἀλλά”:

“The use of ἀλλά in the Johannine literature is noteworthy, in that the parts contrasted are not always of equal standing grammatically.” However, the point being made here is that other than a few occasions (e.g., John 7:49; Rom 5:15; 8:37; Gal 2:3), the main NT usage of ἀλλά is not introductorily, i.e., to initiate its own independent clause, but rather is connective and contrastive.

[4] For the “purpose” or “telic” function of the subordinating conjunction ἵνα, see Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, 471-72. Additionally, Wallace has a noteworthy article regarding the usage of this conjunction at times being simultaneously “result-purpose” as there was no rigidly held distinction in the Semitic mind, cf. 473-74. This would help further enforce this author’s point that the man’s blindness was ordained by God with the purpose of Jesus one day healing the man, while also carrying the intended result of glorifying (revealing) Him in the process.

[5] Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 220.

[6] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (New York, NY: Revel, 1951), 165.

[7] Gary M. Burge, NIV Application Commentary: John (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 272.

[8] Colin G. Kruse, The Gospel According to John, 220.

[9] G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to John (New York, NY: Revel, 1951) 164-65.

[10] Gary M. Burge, TNIV Application Commentary: John, 272.

[11] All translations are this author’s.

[12] It is worth noting that none the scholars mentioned consider this aspect. This further proves how much presuppositions really do play an interpretive role in scholarship—even in the brightest thinkers.

[13] John MacArthur, Macarthur New Testament Commentary: John 1—11 (Chicago, IL: Moody, 2006), 393.