1st John – Epistle of Schism

It’s truly a fascination to see that nearly half of the 105 verses in 1st John are listed among the most favorite Bible verses. It is truly an orchard from which many verses have been cherry picked. It was a walk down memory lane as I read through it several times, getting caught on verses I had memorized.  

9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

9Whoever says, “I am in the light,” while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness.10Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.1

1But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

11For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.

18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him23

And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.

 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear;

 19We love because he first loved us. 2 You could almost call this little book an Epistle of Love.

But that’s what makes it so confusing. It’s context is one of a nasty quarrel between people who were supposed to love each other. It raises questions like: Was it was written before or after the Gospel of John? Was it ‘assembled’ from many sources over time with new elements being added? Either of these being true would certainly help explain the essential incoherence of the book which many biblical scholars have reluctantly admitted. J. H. Houlden referred to 1st John “a puzzling work” and suggests that “to find a single logical thread … is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair.” I’ve got to say that man speaks my mind.

Not a single Gospel detail is included in 1st John. No teachings are attributed to any human Jesus and there is no specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about the resurrection. The fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are simply not there.

In the Gospel of John Jesus promises to send an advocate to “be with you forever, the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). This is pretty essential to Quaker faith and practice because the promise by Jesus is that this Spirit will be our comforter and guide. This is the Christ who has come to teach his people himself. 1st John shows no knowledge of such an advocate.   The mention in 1st John of an advocate is not an abiding spirit among us but Jesus himself interceding with God in heaven.

The expectation that the church faced a long-term future as the first century passed into the second accounts for the Gospel of John abandoning the expectation of an immediate end of the world. Yet the Epistle speaks of living in “the last hour” (2:18). So then how do we account for this regression to a more primitive eschatology?

And just as unsettling is its’ Theo-centricity in contrast with the Gospel’s Christo-centricity. Believers are “God’s children.” The text says that it is God who is light with no word of Jesus’ own declaration that “I am the light of the world…” The Gospel centers on Christ Jesus but in 1st John God holds center stage with Jesus in a supporting role. It is God “who dwells within us” (3:24). Keeping Jesus’ commands is of major importance in the Gospel. In 1st John knowing and keeping the commands of God is one of the central issues.On multiple occasions the epistle tells the reader to ‘love one another’ and this admonition comes from God, ignoring the many times the Gospel puts those words in Jesus’ mouth. The concept of Jesus as a teacher is nowhere in evidence in the epistle, even amid references to the idea of Christian teaching.

The picture of Christ presented in 1st John is remarkably more primitive than what we find in the Gospel. How could the author simply rid his mind of the Jesus presented by the Gospel of John?

Scholars who argue that the Gospel was composed before 1st John acknowledge that the opening of 1st John is “a poor imitation” of the Gospel’s Prologue. In “recasting” the mighty Prologue the writer discards the Word and its incarnation. He drops any references to pre-existence and creation; and the figure of John the Baptist disappears altogether. Does he now disagree that Jesus is the Logos or Word of God, or that this Word was made flesh? The obvious explanation is that the opening passage of the epistle is an earlier formulation of Christian orthodoxy focusing on the “message” about eternal life that the community has received by revelation, and the Gospel is of a later period which adopts Jesus as the proclaimer of the message and an incarnation of the Word itself.

The occasion for the composition of 1st John was a nasty, name calling church split between those who adhered to the initial Jewish outlook held by the community from its beginnings, a faith based entirely on God, and those who embraced a new development in their faith, the existence of the intermediary Son. This group became convinced that the Son is the avenue to the Father; to be without him is to be without the Father. Both groups claim to be legitimate representatives of their tradition but the group holding to the traditional views, we are told, have “gone out,” since they cannot accept the new doctrine.

            Were the progressives pushing a view which was not part of the original “knowledge” bestowed by the rite of anointing? That this new perspective it did not go back to the beginning is suggested by the very fact that the writer does not specifically make such a claim. 2:24 reads “If you keep in your hearts that which you heard at the beginning . . . (then) you will dwell in the Son and also in the Father.”

Aside from the fact that what was heard is not spelled out, the point is not presented as an argument to prove the group’s position against their opponents. 3:11 actually states the message which was heard at the beginning is: “that we should love one another.” The writer does not state that the doctrine of the Son was part of the original message. The phrase in 1:3c linking the “Son Jesus Christ” to the Father is a new addition to the initial version of the group’s self understanding by someone who subsequently chose to see the Son as implied in the sect’s original revelation.

           If the doctrine of the Son is relatively new, at least in its acceptance by the community, how can the writer speak as though the antichrist (meaning the one destined to be against the Messiah) was a traditional part of the congregation’s expectations? Because the idea of a “man of lawlessness,” an agent of Satan (or Satan himself), was well established in Jewish apocalyptic expectation, a figure who would oppose God’s work and that of his Messiah at the End-time establishment of the Kingdom. There is no record of the term “antichrist” before 1 John, and scholarship generally regards the term as invented by the writer of this epistle. And in 1st John it is applied, not to some bigger than life power but to the conservatives who felt they needed to part company from the progressives over this shift in understanding the faith.

Walter Bauer said that, not unlike all ancient history, early Christian history was written to show Constantinian triumph and Catholic orthodoxy as provided for by God. The Christianity of second-century Ephesus did not meet the standards of an emerging Catholic Orthodoxy. Some blamed Paul who had planted the church in Ephesus. They sought replace him as patron saint with John. F.C. Baur wrote that “Paul had laid the foundation in Ephesus and built up a church through several years of labor. If Romans 16 represents a letter to the Ephesians, then, on the basis of verses 17-20, we must conclude that already during the lifetime of the apostle, certain people were there whose teaching caused offense and threatened division in the community. 1st Corinthians 16:9 tells us of ‘many adversaries’ in Ephesus. In any event, the book of Acts has Paul warning the Ephesians … that from their own midst there will arise men speaking perverse things to draw away the Christians for themselves (20:30). In Revelation the recollection of a Pauline establishment of the church of Ephesus was suppressed…On the foundations of the new Jerusalem (21:4) only the names of the twelve apostles are there. There is no room for Paul. And at the very least, it will be but a short time before the Apostle to the Gentiles will have been totally displaced in the consciousness of the church of Ephesus in favor of John.

The earliest Christians in Ephesus were Jewish Christians who believed that the Christian faith was continuous with the Jewish faith and who were content to live within the context of a Jewish community. Their view of Jesus was that he was the Messiah who had come and then promised to return to fulfill the hopes of the Jews as well as the Christians. The expulsion of the Christian community from the Jewish synagogue had a mighty effect on the Christian community, producing a trauma of faith of major proportions. It was amid this crisis the author of the Gospel of John gathered the traditions of the community and interpreted them to address the needs of the newly isolated community.

The community became an independent Christian body though there were some internal conflicts over the interpretation of the original gospel and proper belief and practice in particular. The author of 1st John says that a group had gone out from the ranks of the community. Both parties knew the proclamation of Christianity but they interpreted it differently. Each of the disputing parties were making the claim that its interpretation of the Gospel was correct. The secessionists so stressed the divine principle in Jesus that his earthly career was neglected. They apparently believed that the human existence of Jesus, while real, was not significant for one’s salvation. The only important thing for them was that eternal life had been brought down to men and women through a divine Son who passed through this world. The author faults the secessionists on three grounds. First, they claimed an intimacy with God to the point of being perfect or sinless. Second, they placed an inadequate emphasis on keeping the commandments. Third, they were vulnerable on the subject of neighborly love.

So what did I learn from all this? From the very beginning people within the community of faith have held contradictory beliefs. The reason the Gospel of John is so different from the synoptics is simply because people remember things differently. They use different words to describe their spirituality. That’s nothing new. But the lesson that I find beneath the nasty battle for orthodoxy in Ephesus is that despite the differences in our describing our faith experiences we are called to love each other. In the fourth chapter we read this: 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. Evidently the two sides to this church squabble couldn’t see how this injunction was applicable to them. Were it not for those lovely cherry picked verses I have no doubt that 1st John would have been excluded from the canon of scripture.

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