In my recent studies and teaching ministry I have been (and still am!) trying to come to grips with the content of these letters. Having spent so much of my studies in the Pauline corpus, it is very challenging yet rewarding to deal with some of the so called Johannine corpus.
In the upcoming weeks we will be dealing with the letters of John which we know as 1-3 John. Instead of dealing with the preliminary data (such as date, authorship, provenance – which are quite a challenge in themselves), I want to write about (1) the importance of 1 John and (2) the purpose of this letter.
The following posts (those coming up in the near future) will then deal with the text itself and how we are to understand it in relation to the first century setting as well as to our.
Ad (1): Importance of 1 John
One of the most crucial questions we as teachers and speakers need to deal with when we teach is that of importance or relevance of the topic. If that is not established, it is hard to maintain (or even get) the attention of the readership/audience and the entire enterprise of teaching is falling apart.
The following questions and consideration are taken and slightly altered from Gary M. Burge, TheLetters of John, NIVAC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 19-20. These questions are the questions asked back then and today. I hope and pray that the following weeks will bear fruit and that many churches and their leadership throughout the world will be encouraged and emboldened to keep on teaching and preaching “that which we heard from the beginning”.
Here, I will only state the question bullet-point style without answering any of those. The answers and implications will then be addressed through the individual passages of the literature under consideration:
I. How Do We Handle Conflict?
a. Are there restrictions to disagreements in the local church?
b. How does church leadership deal with people who want to do things differently/have different beliefs?
c. What if disagreements become so bitter that the church splits? What are the elders/pastors to do?
II. How Do We Handle Charismatic Tensions?
a. What if people claim to be led by the Spirit, yet their conduct and beliefs seem contrary to the Scriptures?
b. How should do we confront such persons and/or wrong teaching?
c. How should we educate believers theologic-biblically so that false teaching can be seen readily?
III. How Do We Test True Faith?
a. Many people (especially in the US?) claim to be Christians in some sense. But how do we know that such is the case or is not the case?
b. “Does the Christian faith bear a content — not just an experience or feeling — about which there is no compromising?” What is essential?
c. What about heresy? How should we deal with it? Is there such a thing at all?
IV. How Do We Test Christian Conduct?
a. Does Christian conduct say anything about the content of our faith?
b. Does this not lead to legalism?
c. If conduct is crucial, what would be some examples of Christian conduct which would portray our beliefs?
V. Is love the most important value?
a. Love plays a major role in 1 John.
b. But “[s]hould love and tolerance be the litmus test of acceptable theology today?”
c. Is there room for disagreement in matters of faith and doctrine?
d. “Does loving one another mean that we dare not be inflexible about some theological positions?”
Ad (2): Purpose
Why were the Johannine epistles written? This is of course we cannot entirely sure of or be able to reconstruct but it seems well advisable to follow the traditional understanding of this question. The apostle John (assumed to be the author throughout my writings) actually does say why he was writing down the words he did. In 1 John 5:13we read “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life.” [This is slightly different from that which we find in the Gospel of John. There we read: “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).]
The letter of 1 John thus is to assure the believers that they are part of the true Christian community and that their fellowship speaks to that. But it is not solely about the fellowship of the believers to one another, something greater is at stake. Judith Lieu (“‘Authority to Become Children of God’: A Study of 1 John.” Novum Testamentum 23, no. 3 : 213 [210-228]) writes:
A frequent theme in letter-writing of the period, fellowship is the obvious goal of any nonbusiness letter; in a Christian letter, particularly within the Johannine tradition, this fellowship will naturally be extended to include a relationship with God (Jn. xvii 21-3).
How does the author go about this purpose? By confirming their identity ad the traditions delivered and by refuting the claims of those who have left the community (often referred to as “secessionists”).
Who are these secessionists? Rudolf Schnackenburg (The Johannine Epistles: Introduction and Commentary [New York: Crossroad, 1992], 23) writes:
The heresy which occasioned 1 and 2 John cannot be parallel with any other manifestation of heresy known from that era. Yet it has affinities with more than one such movement. They all play down the historic person of Jesus Christ as the unique and true savior. They all deny the way of salvation through his flesh and blood. In their precise christological interpretation of the figure of Jesus, these dangerous heretics, dissolving as they did the substance of the Christian faith, evidently went off in different directions. This can be seen by comparing the views of Cerinthus with those of the docetists in the letters of Ignatius, whose precise teaching, however, remains obscure. The christology of the antichrists in the Johannine epistles also can no longer be described with certainty or precision. But it is one example of that pseudoChristian tendency which manifested itself in gnosticism and was such a threat to the church
We do not know a whole lot about these secessionists and any reconstruction is found lacking. But what we do have are the letters written by John and the three tests (doctrine, ethics, love) that should assure the community. Hence, we will not engage in dogmatic positions about the opposition, but how the gospel should shape the Christian community itself.
More to come in the following weeks…