First John in Canonical Context (1)

WARNING: Very long!

Before embarking on the “theommentary proper” of 1 John, I want to comment in a series of two or three posts on the canonical context of 1 John. Those familiar with the “canonical approach” to Scriptural interpretation (particularly as espoused by the late Brevard Childs) will know that as we  do exegesis on a book of the Bible, we obviously seek to understand it in its original historical context,  but that we must also seek to discern the significance of a book’s location in the biblical canon, i.e., its canonical context.

One of Childs’ important challenges to the biblical studies guild was to think about the ‘goals’ of interpretation and how various types of criticism contribute (or not!) to those goals. Childs thus suggests that attention to the shape and form of the canon is in fact important for biblical exegesis, particularly when preaching and teaching is in view. This is because it is this canon from which we preach and teach, not the supposed sources or even original texts underlying the biblical books. Thus, we preach and teach from the book of 1 John as it comes down to us in its present form, not from any other historical or conceptual sources that the author may or may have drawn upon in its writing, as important as they may be to reconstruct the history of the formation of the text leading up to its final form. We preach and teach from the canon as it comes to us, not from the pre-canonical sources to which we no longer have access to. 

In my concern that biblical exegesis and theology serve the needs of the Church in its preaching and teaching, I therefore regard 1 John’s canonical context as having theological priority for exegesis over the question of its historical context for three reasons.

First, the historical context in which the letter was written is very difficult to discern and any reconstruction of that historical context will always be a matter of probability. No matter how much we wish that the historical context could be certainly clarified, we will likely always need to admit that we know very little of the book’s background and original context, and any historical reconstruction will be exactly that: a reconstruction only. Consequently, we must be careful that the findings of our exegesis, while relying upon whatever historical insights we may garner, cannot finally rely upon such historical insights as the lynch-pin of our exegesis. So, when it comes to the book, generally speaking, we can gather that the author is dealing with some kinds of false teachings and schism within the Christian community, but beyond this very general knowledge,  we have no names, places, or events mentioned to locate with any degree of certainty the original historical context of the book. First John, in other words, comes to us somewhat “out of nowhere” (like Melchizedek!) with no specific progenitor (author) noted, nor even a specific audience. But even as a “book out of nowhere,” 1 John cannot be categorized as a book of “timeless teaching” or “myth.” For unlike a myth (i.e., “an anonymous story designed to explain the mysteries of life”), the book of 1 John is a testimony based not simply as a retelling of an old story, but on the basis of what has actually been seen, examined, and touched by the author (1:1) (i.e., a first hand acccount–the stuff of history).   

Second, I see the canonical context as having theological priority because it identifies the nature of the book as it is received in the Church–as a concretely located portion of the biblical canon, as God’s Word to us. The book of 1 John, in other words, is theologically to be viewed first and foremost as Holy Scripture (not merely as a “text.”) As Webster puts it, “To talk of the biblical writings as Holy Scripture is ultimately to refer to more (but not to less!) than those writings [“texts”] per se.”  (Webster, Holy Scripture, 5). The “more” to which Webster refers is that while 1 John is undoubtedly a “text,” it is not only a text, but a portion of an ordered canon of texts which functions for the church, not merely as a “library” of authoritative texts, but as divinely ordered “Spirit-shaped/church-shaping”whole–the written Word of God, Holy Scripture. Thus, the inclusion of 1 John in the canon means its interpretation must not be restricted to an investigation of its historical origin, nor even to an internal analysis of its own words and sentences. Rather, the interpretation of 1 John, while not ignoring these aforementioned elements, must be seen both in theological continuity with the organic canonical whole and as contributing uniquely to the whole. It is as we examine the book in such a canonical context that we can dare then to “use” the book in the Church preaching and teaching because it speaks concerning the church’s one catholic faith as coming from one Lord and Spirit.

Third, in saying that 1 John is primarily read as Holy Scripture and only secondarily as a historical text,  I am not saying that i think that the book is historically contextless or “timeless,” but that the historical context of the book is not a given  to the Church (i.e., historical context is always in need of being reconstructed); rather, the canonical inclusion and location of 1 John in the Bible is a given, even if in the end we might disagree as to what the significance of that given canonical inclusion and location is. That 1 John is included and specifically located in the canon as it is is really all we have to work with, even if continued historical research may help us better to understand the particulars of what is said. So rather than a historical situation underlying the text as the common denominator for interpretation, I argue that the canonical position of 1 John is perhaps one of most significant common denominators for theological interpretation. 

WIth that rather technical introduction out of the way (I hope I haven’t bored you to death yet), the questions which remain are: What is the canonical context of 1 John? And how might this canonical context inform the theological exegesis of this text which I hope to undertake? In order to answer these questions, I see three important elements of canonical context which need to be dealt with. In the remainder of this post, I will deal first of all with observations on (1) 1 John’s canonical inclusion and location. In the next post (or two), I will then deal with (2) 1 John’s canonical catholicity (i.e., how it coheres with the rest of canon and so preserves the unity of the canon) and then finally with (3) 1 John’s canonical contribution (i.e., what would be missing theologically from the canon if we didn’t have the book).

1) 1 John’s Canonical Inclusion and Location

First question: Does the inclusion and location of 1 John in the canon in the form in which it has been delivered to us reveal anything at all significant about how it ought to be understand relative to the rest of Scripture? Admittedly, this is not a question we are usually ask in the first steps of exegesis, especially if we have been trained in the methods of grammatical, historical interpretation and criticism. But I think it is an vital to the task of moving beyond historical exegesis to doing theological exegesis.

But first a few brief comments on the “form” in which 1 John has come to us. The epistles of John  (1, 2, and 3 John) are grouped together in what is traditionally called “the Catholic” or “General” Epistles, comprised of Hebrews, James, the epistles of Peter, the epistles of John, and Jude. Yet it is interesting to note a few things about this canonical sub-group by comparing and contrasting the form of each “part.”

 First, Hebrews lacks the expected authorial saluations at the beginning of the book, but does end up with many of the expected blessings, personal greetings and exhortations at the end (Heb 13:18-25). James, the second in the group reverses what happens in Hebrews: it has an initial saluation and intended audience (James 1:1), but has no closing blessings, greetings or exhortations. The epistles of Peter, 2 and 3 John, and Jude all fit well within the classical definition of an epistle (with both opening saluations and closing greetings, blessings, and/or exhortations). However, though 1 John is usually spoken of as the first of three “epistles,” it has no opening greeting, and does not have a typical epistolatory ending. In fact it ends with a rather abrupt imperative: “Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.” While it is true that the author repeatedly addresses his readers as “dear friends,” there are otherwise no contextual/geographic/personal clues (as in most of the other Catholic Epistles) as to who these “dear friends” really are. They are literally without face and without location. So in many respects, 1 John does not really “fit” in the “catholic epistles” as an epistle per se, but reads more like what in Roman Catholic circles might be called an “encyclical”–a letter intended for broad distribution and addressed to all the churches. So in that sense, to play with the category in which the book is found, 1 John is prima faciae more “catholic” (or “general”) than it is an “Epistle”! This, I think, means that 1 John cannot be read flatly as merely “another epistle” alongside even the two other so-called epistles of John with which it is grouped. There is some material difference, and perhaps even some material priority given to the book amongst its “canonical peers.” 

Furthermore,  as we think about 1 John’s canonical location (i.e., where it finally ended up in the NT canon), I wonder if in some respects, 1 John (with the trailing 2 and 3 John and Jude) is related to Hebrews in a way that analogously 1&2 Timothy (along with the trailing Titus and Philemon) is related to the book of Romans in the Pauline Epistles. For as you look at how the Pauline and Catholic Epistles are arranged, there appears to be at least some striking similarities. For the sake of our description, I’ve organized the Pauline and General Epistles under these four categories and in this order: (1) Theology; (2) Ecclesial Theology and Wisdom; (3) Pastoral Theology; and (4) Occasional Pastoral Epistles. Now I realize those aren’t likely the only (let alone best) terms by which to describe this pattern, and I also fully realize the  danger of imposing something that isn’t there. (Just remember that this is an experimental blog meant more to provoke new ways to think about theological exegesis than as a definitive statement). But consider this scheme as outlined below in which I compare the canonical ordering of the Pauline Epistles with the canonical ordering of the General Epistles in which 1 John is found:

                                              Pauline Epistles                                           General Epistles

Theology                              Romans                                                      Hebrews     

Ecclesial theology
and wisdom
                         1 Cor – 2 Thess                                         James – 2 Peter

Pastoral Theology                1 & 2 Timothy                                           1 John

Occasional Pastoral
                                Titus, Philemon                                        2-3 John, Jude

Now I realize the scheme isn’t entirely perfect, but consider the following canonical comparisons and analogies:

1) If Romans stands at the head of the Pauline Epistles as its “theological foundation,” is there a sense that Hebrews stands at the head of the Catholic Epistles as its theological foundation? In what sense, then, should the rest of the General Epistles (including 1 John) be read at least partially in light of Hebrews, even as we might read the rest of the Pauline corpus at least partially in light of Romans?

2) The books 1 & 2 Corinthians through to 1 & 2 Thessalonians are categorized here as “ecclesial theology and wisdom.” What I mean by this is that the Pauline Epistles in this second grouping commonly present themselves as theological letters written to churches to deal with specific theological and practical issues which the churches were facing. They are not “encylical” letters  in the sense that they were meant to be widely circulated (even if Colossians seems in content to be close to an encyclical, it is still directly attached in its prescript to the Church at Colossae), even if that is how they all ended up being read. But these letters are instances where the fundamental Pauline theology is brought to bear and expanded upon in the context of specific ecclesial issues where apostolic wisdom and guidance was needed. By analogy, it seems to me that the letters of James through 2 Peter function in a similar way: each seems to address theological and practical issues which originally, at least, were tied in to particular churches or groups of churches.  

3) If the letters of 1 & 2 Timothy pertain specifically to the theology of pastoral care, ordering, and protection of the flock for overseers, is there a sense in which 1 John may also be viewed, by canonical analogy, as the “pastoral theology” of the Catholic Epistles? It is difficult to ignore that the content of 1 John seems to commend something of this kind of reading; for throughout, it seeks to address a number of theological challenges arising within the community (this is Bultmann’s view of the essential nature of 1 John, by the way) in order more generally to care for and protect the flock.  If this analysis is plausible, then a theological exegesis of the text may need to guard against individualistic readings that pertain primarily to the individual Christian in favour of a more communal (John’s prefered term for the church is koinonia (“fellowship” rather than ecclesia  “congregation”) reading that addresses the care and protection of the Christian fellowship. I am becoming convinced that this is necessary and I will seek to follow this out in my own exegesis to come.

4) If Titus and Philemon are specific “occasional theological letters” to specific individuals or small groups, addressing them more individually, yet with the overarching Pauline theology and pastoral theology preceding them, is there also a sense in which 2-3 John and Jude are also more specifically occasional letters which are specific instances of applying the broad theology of Hebrews and the pastoral and ecclesial theology of the letters preceding them?

Now, I realize that this canonical analysis goes far beyond the immediate concern of dealing with 1 John. But this brief exercise was necessary, I think, to set the book in its NT canonical location and derive some implications for theological exegesis from that. So to recapitulate, I want to suggest that 1 John may be best read not as primarily an epistle, but rather as “pastoral theological encyclical” meant to inform, exhort, and encourage the fellowship of churches facing challenges of division and schism within, rather than as specific apostolic directives meant to deal with specific issues of discipleship with which individual Christians faced–even if there is no doubt that much can be learned even at this level. My point here, I think, is to suggest that perhaps the interpretation of 1 John has simply been too narrow both in exegesis and application. This also means that it may be necessary to take some care not to allow the claims of the book to be applied too rigidly, but rather to see the book as outlining a more general pastoral theology which must be, under the guidance of the Spirit, be applied in a discerning way to the various specific ecclesial locations. Thoughts or reactions to this? 

A second major point on the canonical location and inclusion arises from an analysis of the the “pre-script” (i.e., the first verse) of the book. (Again, I am indebted to Childs’ work here, especially the way in which he analyzed the prescriptions of the Psalms as being significant to understanding how the Psalms work together as a structure, even though for most us, we “blip over” them to get to the “good stuff”). In the case of 1 John, I’ve been thinking about the canonical significance of the first line: “That which was from the beginning. . .” (ho hen ap’ archês){sorry for the lack of a Greek font here…can anyone help me figure out how to include it on WordPress?} Of course, we have here a well known parallel/allusion to the prologue of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word (en archê ên ho logos), which is itself is a strong allusion to Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created.” This is obviously nothing new here which has not already been observed many times before. But I do wonder whether an analysis of what I will call the three “in-the-beginning prescripts” will reveal that they are strategically located within the canon and say something theologically important relative to one another. 

The first canonical occurence of the “In-the-beginning” prescript, Genesis 1:1, speaks of what I would call the “fundamental ontological relation” of God to creation. To speak of “the beginning of the heavens and the earth” is to speak of their essential and total dependence upon God the Creator. “In the beginning,” in Genesis 1, reveals to us the sovereignty and lordship of God over all that there is, whether “things in heaven or on the earth” (cf. Col 1:16). It sets God and creation in a vertical relationship, with God over Creation, and with God as fundamentally “other” than Creation. Thus, this first canonical “in-the-beginning presrcipt” functions, to use the Kierkegaardian/Barthian phrase, as an assertion about the “infinitely qualitative distinction” between God and the world.

The second canonical “in-the-beginning” prescript, John 1:1, signals a canonical and historical shift of perspective of the relation of God and creation as a  relation of ontological difference to a relation of God and creation in terms of “presence.” (As a sidenote, I think this sense of the “presence” of Yhwh-Elohim in creation is already anticipated in Gen 2 in contrast to the vertical transcendence of Elohim spoken of in Gen 1, but I digress!). Whereas up until John 1:1, the relationship of God to creation was primarily seen in terms of God’s transcendence, it is through this new “in the beginning” assertion that we discover that, from the beginning, there always has been a “horizontal presence” of God with his creation, most specifically in and through the agent of his creation who has always been with him, the Word.  Found as it is in the context of the canonical Gospels, the John 1:1 prescript introduces us now not only to a God who is over all as its Creator and Lord, but to a God who, by his own divine Word-agent, creates a world for the purposes of entering into the world in the flesh. This second canonical prescript thus signals to readers of the canon as Holy Scripture that the God who is revealed in Genesis 1 as the one who creates all things “anew” (i.e., ex nihilio), is also none other than the one who by the agent of his Word is the Light which comes into the world, right from the beginning–a light which is not merely a conceptual or existential idea (as if this light were nothing more than a “philosophical illumination of the mind”), but a Light which does its work of illumination through taking on, paradoxically, the flesh of humans.

Read against the backdrop of the first two canonical instances, the third “in-the-beginning” prescript of 1 John 1:1 speaks of yet one more repetition of the relationship of God to the world,  but again, with a new perspective and with added information. As I observe the canonical flow of these prescripts, I see this:

If the first “in-the-beginning prescript” of Genesis 1:1 speaks about (and I steal a construction from Barth’s doctrine of election here to aid in my explanation) the “beginning of all the ways and works of God,” it is the second “in-the-beginning” prescript of John 1:1 in which we find out about “the beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ” (Barth, CD II.2, 94). If the first prescript speaks about God’s sovereign lordship over creation, the second prescript speaks of the Agent of God’s creative activity who, from the beginning, intended to take up residence in and alongside the very creation he has created. Canonically, the move is from the sovereign transcendence of the Creator God of the Old Testament to the humble immanence of God’s own fully divine agent of creation, Jesus Christ, who appears as the central actor of the New Testament Gospels.  So far so good…(I hope).

This is where the 1 John 1:1 prescript, “That which was from the beginning,” comes in as the third canonical movement of the “in-the-beginning” motif.  If Gen 1:1 speaks of pre-incarnation Lordship, and John 1:1 speaks of the humble visit of deity through incarnation, then 1 John 1:1 speaks of a post-resurrection/ascension expansion, yet again, upon “the beginning of all the ways and works of God in Jesus Christ”–an expansion which is accomplished through the proclamation of the One whom the apostle testifies to have seen, examined, and touched. This too, is a “new” aspect of the works and ways of God in Christ, but is also something which has been intended from the very beginning. The book of First John, then, needs to be seen, not only as a practical pastoral book (which it is) but also as providing a significant theological insight into the nature of God’s relationship to creation given his lordship over creation, his involvement in Creation in the Son, and his present intention to extend that relationship through the means of spiritual (or Spirit enabled!) proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth, who though no longer is available to be seen, examined, and touched, is nevertheless being heard of and believed upon in the world as he is received as none other than the the Word of LIfe (1:1b) who was with God (John 1:1) in the beginning (Gen 1:1). 

This means, canonically, that he function of 1John is to speak of the “new beginning” of Christ’s involvement in the world in his post-ascension existence extended through the work of the Church in proclaiming him to be the atoning sacrifice not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). First John is ultimately, then, a book to help us to preach Christ. 

Ok, enough for now. Sorry for the length, but I hope you get the general gist. In the next post, I’ll discuss more briefly (hopefully!) the canonical catholicity and the canonical contribution of 1 John before I finally launch into the “theommentary proper.”


6 thoughts on “First John in Canonical Context (1)

  1. David, do you enjoy numerology, by chance? Some of the implications you are deriving from the phenomenon of ‘canonical location’ (as you’re calling it) seem rather tentative.

    Blessings, RogueMonk

    PS – What is the story behind this 1 John stuff?

  2. Hello David:

    This looks like a very exciting series. I hope to return to this post to read it more carefully. For now, I just thought I’d point you to this website where you can download a unicode font kit. I don’t know anything about wordpress, but this will allow you to change your font in any application (I think).

    Here it is:


  3. Thanks for the comments.

    RogueMonk, I’ve never gotten into numerology and know almost nothing about it.
    As for the “tentativeness” of the conclusions–I have no problem in pointing out that these are exploratory, though analysis of canonical structure is not my idea. Rolf Rentdorff and Brevard Childs have both sought to think about implications of how we receive the canon. Since the canon arrangement is obviously something that is settled much later than the writings themselves, by analyzing the structure of the canon, one can begin to get some insight into how the early church was receiving (and perhaps reading) these books.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “the story behind this 1 John stuff”…I thought I had explained that in the introductory post.

    Nick, thanks for the lead on the font. I’ll look into it to see whether it can be incorporated into WordPress. [This may be one of the weaknesses of the WordPress format–it seems there are limits to what one can do with font choices…]

  4. Nick, I thank you for the link to the Tyndale Unicode font. Beyond getting the font, I was also able to download the NA27 text of the NT. So now I have it. And here’s the test with 1 John 1:1:

    Ὃ ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν, περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς

    It works!


  5. David – in response to this: “I’m not sure what you mean by “the story behind this 1 John stuff”…I thought I had explained that in the introductory post.” I get it now. I missed your former post of introduction. Thanks.

    Blessings, RogueMonk

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