Requesting Input on 1 John


I’ve only outlined in my mind a few basic things about the next two points I want to discuss about the canonical context of 1 John, but I’d like your input/thoughts on this before I move on. Think of this as a bit of “collaborative theological exegesis.”

I think that part of canonical context includes 1) identifying 1 John’s  “canonical catholicity” (i.e., how 1 John coheres with and “fits” in the canon, especially in light of the other books of the NT; and 2) identifying its unique “canonical contribution.” What I mean by canonical contribution is the unique things that 1 John to brings to the canon (let’s think specifically the NT canon here). What is it that 1 John teaches or reveals that we wouldn’t otherwise know? Or to put it negatively, what are some things we wouldn’t know if 1 John hadn’t “made it” to the canon?

I’ll prime the pump here and make the specific suggestion that 1 John makes a unique contribution in regard to his theology of “testing the spirits” as related to christology. He insists that acknowledgement of Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh is a”definitive” test (though we might debate whether he means this to be the one and only definitive test) to see if a spirit has come from God. I’m not sure whether we would easily derive this anywhere else in the canon, but correct me if I’m wrong.

So what do you think? What has been given in 1 John that we would not otherwise know from the rest of the canon?


9 thoughts on “Requesting Input on 1 John

  1. Dustin


    I really am enjoying your thoughts here. I’m desperately interested in theological exegesis but still feel unprepared to undertake this sort of task myself. Perhaps someday. I’m glad you are doing what you are doing and I look forward to learning from you.

    That said, I’m having a hard time understanding the way you are putting the question… or perhaps why you are asking this question at this time. Could you explain it a bit further? At this point in your study I’m not sure that asking about John’s contribution to the canon—what he says that others don’t—is all that helpful. It reminds me of those theories of the “image of God” that start by asking how humans are different from animals rather than asking about the image of God itself. Besides, John “got in the canon” at the very least, not because he said something “new” but because he said something true about the one whom the other NT writings also spoke. If a unique contribution was really the “price of admission” we likely wouldn’t have Mark, both of 2 Peter and Jude, and 2 and 3 John, would we? We might, however, have the Gospel of Thomas…

    So, two questions: first, why is it methodologically helpful to ask about John’s unique contribution, and second, why is this a good time to do it?


  2. I’m glad you’re pushing me here, Dustin. It will help clarify some methodological issues for me.

    I’m not suggesting that “novelty” in 1 John is a criterion for canonicity. Thanks for pushing me to negate that. But neither am I convinced that 1 John “got in the canon” because it says something true about Christ. Presumably Paul and Peter and John (and others) wrote many, many things that were “true” about the one whom they spoke, and those documents didn’t make it in either.

    Perhaps the image of a “mosaic” would be helpful here. For example, take a look at this very basic Time magazine mosaic portrait of Jesus:,16641,19880815,00.html

    Now, if we think of the canon as a “textual mosaic” of Christ (replace each portion of the boxes in the image above with the books of the canon), then there is both something unique and yet cohesive about each book. It is not that the “unique” element is what gets it into the canon, but how that uniqueness contributes to the portrait as a whole. Another example might be that of a work of art in which a particular medium is used. So, if a portrait is drawn using canvas and charcoal, every stroke of the portrait is unique, but every stroke is from a piece of charcoal and so fits into the portrait. A stroke from a purple Crayola crayon, while very similar to many of the other strokes, simply wouldn’t fit with the whole picture. (The purple Crayon stroke is analogous to the Gospel of Thomas–its similar in some respects, but overall, simply doesn’t “fit” into the canon). Notice also that I’m using the language of “fitting” here in the sense that you’ve spoken of in some of your work in regard to Irenaeus’ sense of “fittingness.”

    It seems to me that traditional biblical studies has tended to move in one direction or another when it comes to the relationship of a biblical book to the rest of the Bible. In a more traditional dogmatic approach, a biblical book is “flattened out” and made theologically to “fit” the rest of the canon. “Problems” are smoothed over in the text to make the book conform to pre-established theological framework. That results in simply refusing to allow that a biblical book might say some things in ways ways that may not quite “fit” as neatly as we would wish.

    On the other hand, historical critical methods have tended to emphasize the uniqueness and diversity of a text over against its cohesion to other biblical books. The result is a Bible with multiple christologies, multiple ecclesiologies, multiple soteriologies, etc. In order to adhere to the principle of historical textual diversity, similarities are seen as coincidental or as arising from a particular common source reliance, but not as often as evidence for an overarching theological (canonical)unity.

    Is there a way to look at a book from a canonical perspective and ask, In what way does this book contribute to the canonical mosaic (i.e., in what way does it “fit”?) and yet simultaneously ask how in its fittingness it yet contributes in a unique way to the whole? A book is not remarkable because it is unique in and of itself. A book is remarkable because of the way its uniqueness contributes to the bigger picture.

    Perhaps you are right, though, that this is too early in the process to ask. Yet if we are going to do theological exegesis, I feel compelled to ask the canonical questions earlier rather than later because the theological exegesis depends upon at least a basic understanding of the theological function of the book in witnessing to Christ in full “catholicity” with the whole of Scripture.

  3. Dustin

    Way to throw “fittingness” back in my face (gulp). I think that your clarifications are a helpful nuance to your original post. “Canonical contribution” need not be only understood as “new unique content not found anywhere else”, but may in fact be the form of how a text witnesses to a common subject. This nuance, I think, helps to get us away from asking only about “what is the new stuff John 1 says” (which may only be marginal to the book itself) and thus perhaps over-emphasizing those elements at the expense of the 1 John’s main witness (and its special form).

    No suprise, but the “fittingness” angle gave me a category to interpret what you mean by “uniqueness” and “contribution.” In terms of canon-formation, the category is certainly one emphasized by Irenaeus, whom we all know played such a huge role in the formation of the NT canon… someone should write something about that 🙂

  4. I’ve been doing a group study on 1 John recently, so this should be interesting!

    What I find unique about 1 John is its emphasis on Christology as the marker of genuine Christian community joined with its emphasis on love. Obviously, many other parts of the NT emphasize both Christology and love, but 1 John links them in a significant way. This is particularly true in that the Christological issue the author addresses is whether Jesus really did “come in the flesh.” So, I might restate it this way: 1 John is uniquely about the significance of incarnation for Christian community. Christ is God incarnate and the true Church is the incarnation of God’s love in Christ.

    BTW — I’ve been assuming that the false teaching John rebuts is some kind of gnosticism. The commentaries seem a bit unclear on this. What do you think?

  5. Thanks for the comments, dopderbeck. I do hope it will be interesting and beneficial for you!

    I agree wholeheartedly with you that 1 John brings christology into the context of Christian community (koinonia) in a way that even the Gospel of John does not. I agree that the book is about the significance of the incarnation for the Christian community, though I will probably hedge a bit more than you on saying that the Church is the “incarnation of God’s love in Christ.” I think that takes a logical step on the concept of incarnation that I’m not quite willing to take. I tend to reserve “incarnation” language only for christology, and not to elide it with ecclesiology. That is, I’m NOT convinced that the Church is the incarnation of God’s love in Christ. Indeed, John himself restricts talk of God’s love to the incarnation proper: “this is how God showed his love AMONG US: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.” (1 John 4:9). This is also why I have some hesitations, more broadly, about the popular manner of speaking about “incarnational church” because I think it subtly shifts attention from christology (the locus of God’s love to the world) to ecclesiology (the locus of the proclamation/witness of God’s love in Christ). True, we love because he first loved us, but our love is not an “incarnation” of God’s love, but a response to God’s actual love for us shown in Christ.

    On Gnosticism: I’m glad you raised this. Yes, the commentaries are disagreed and I’m not sure we can finally establish whether John historically is rebutting Gnosticism (or even a proto-Gnosticism). The point here is that I don’t want the “historical reconstruction” of John’s historical context necessarily to dictate the interpretation. If 1 John de facto is dealing with various gnostic theologies, so be it. But I’m not sure I want to tie the interpretation of 1 John strictly to whether or not one can establish historically that the author is rebutting gnosticism. Here I am trying (even this early into the process) to remain tied more primarily to the canonical issues and only secondarily to the historical, rather than the other way around. I.e., the historical may illustrate the exegesis of 1 John, but not necessarily dictate the exegesis of 1 John.

    Thanks for the input!

    Anyone else?

  6. Worth considering I think is Raymond Brown’s suggestion (Intro to the NT) that 1 John intentionally complements the Gospel of John with a polemical aim of countering the false inferences made from the Gospel by the secessionists. Implied is the susceptibility of elements of the Gospel to views countered in 1 John. Whatever is to be made of that, 1-3 John are clearly related to the Gospel, so comparisons with the Gospel are invited by the very form of the text. Among the different emphases that Brown notes are the distinct references to the word in each prologue, in the Gospel, the incarnate Word, in the epistle, the word of life (the message itself); features the gospel assigns to Jesus are assigned to God in the letter (cf. John 8.12 w/ 1John 1.5; John 13.34 w/ 1 John 4.21); and while realized eschatology dominates the Gospel (though not exclusively) final eschatology characterizes the epislte.

  7. Excellent, Nick! Very helpful.

    I’m starting also to think even more about how the three “in-the-beginning” prescripts (Gen 1:1, John 1:1, and 1 John 1:1) are related to the overarching canonical salvation history. The first word is the creative word of God, the second word concerns the incarnation of the Son, and the third word is the Spirit’s work of effectively proclaiming these first two words as “life.” Brown’s characterization here fits well with it.

  8. A little pushback / clarification / dialogue –

    On incarnation — yes I hear you, as an analogy “incarnation” is limited because the Church is not God “incarnate” like Christ is God incarnate. But I still think as a model it’s helpful, and I do think this model is a unique emphasis of 1 John. What I mean by “incarnation” I think is what John meant by “koinonia”: look at how Chap. 1 ties “fellowship” (“koinonia”) with Christ to “fellowship” with each other. When we participate in the life of Christ we are joined in the life of fellowship together, and that is a life of love because “God is love” and “whoever loves lives in God” (4:16).

    John’s emphasis on Christology, it seems to me, is not his primary emphasis. His primary emphasis is fellowship (koinonia, “incarnation”). His stress on Christology is there because there is no fellowship with God or each other without fellowship with Christ, God incarnate. We can make these nice systematic distinctions between “Christology” and “ecclesiology,” but that starts to sound very academic to me and rather foreign to John’s understanding of “fellowship.”

    On gnosticism — yes, but, isn’t having at least some sense of what heresy John is confronting here (or who the “secessionists” were) very important to the canonical contribution of this letter? To me, it comes together nicely — John confronts a view of Jesus that specifically denies incarnation and thereby destroys the basis for Christian koinonia.

    Thanks for the conversation!

  9. Hmmm…I’ll think more about this as I work through the text, dopderbeck, though right now I’m still concerned that “incarnational ecclesiology” is always in danger of confusing “Head” and “body”. I agree that by the fellowship of the Spirit we participate in Christ, but in so doing, we do not fail to remain distinctly body (and not head). There is a “union” in and with Christ–a joining together in a mystical way–but there is no confusion of body and head. But I’ll definitely keep these issues at the forefront as I do the exegesis…

    On primary emphasis–that is something I will look into, but doesn’t the prescript/prologue say otherwise? The primary emphasis is upon “that which was from the beginning”; this is that which is proclaimed in the letter–the Word of Life. Is there an important ecclesiological application? Absolutely, but the primary emphasis is still on Christ relative to ecclesiology, not ecclesiology relative to Christ. But again, I’ll keep this in mind throughout!

    On gnosticism. I guess it comes down to this. Yes, it is possible to form a hypothesis about which heresy John is confronting, but historically, we don’t have much othere primary evidence other than the letter itself. This is somewhat a similar problem in the interpretation of Valentinian Gnosticism in the second century. Most of our “data” on these teachings comes through their primary polemicist, Irenaeus. So, my concern is that we not engage the exegesis primarily on the basis of identifying a primary heresy or opposing teaching, but rather on the internal content of what is taught, in whatever manner that is eventually applied polemically. Indeed, I agree that the letter has elements of polemic implied, but I’m not sure it is good to make the polemical elements the primary interpretative key over against the “subject matter” of the book, the Word of Life which he is proclaiming.

    This all means, of course, that I should start doing some exegesis soon! Please be patient…I’m supposed to be doing this in my spare time! 😉

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