1 John 1:1 – The Beginning…Again…and Again


1 John 1:1 – “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” 

The opening verse of 1 John accomplishes two tasks:  1) It specifies the subject matter of the epistle (i.e., the “topic”); and 2) It establishes a proper ordering by which it is appropriate to speak of this subject matter. This post will deal with #1. The next post will deal with #2.

The Subject Matter

That which was from the beginning” – ( ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς). In my introductory comments on 1 John in canonical context, I spoke about two other canonical instances in which “the beginning” is highlighted: Gen 1:1 and John 1:1. The Gen 1 “beginning” refers, I think, to our beginning –the beginning of the world in which we find ourselves.  The very first verse of the Bible is revelatory, not just because it tells us that the world in which we find ourselves is not self-existent (this is what T. F. Torrance means when he speaks of the “contingency” of Creation),  but also because it tell us who the world is contingently dependent upon: God [Elohim].  This first “beginning” passage tells us to whom the world is related and to whom the world owes its existence, God the Creator.

In John 1:1, the second “beginning” passage, there is an expansion of the Gen 1 revelation such that we are told that before our beginning, there already was something (someone) alongside the God who created, namely, his Word–a Word which becomes flesh and dwells with us (cf. John 1:14).  While Gen 1 speaks of the contingency of our world relative to the Creator God who made it, John 1 fills out and clarifies the nature of that God/world relationship by introducing us to the Incarnation of the Word by which there is a “real” connection between God and the world. In other words, taken together, Gen 1 and John 1 enable us to confess that the God and his Word are (is) the Creator of heaven and earth, and the Word of God become flesh is the one through whom creation is made, and in whom we have a relationship to God. Thus, this second “beginning” passage tells us through whom we are related to God.

When we come to the third canonical “beginning” found in 1 John 1:1, the original two beginnings are expanded with an additional third clarifcation: that which (or “the one whom”) is from the beginning has come alongside us does not simply appear and wait to be discovered, as it were. Rather, he has given of himself to be  examined by the apostolic witnesses: they hear, see, and handle him, but not only for their own sake, but for the sake of the world. This is why this one, who is from the beginning, is now proclaimed in the world. It as if God “completes” (cf 1 John 1:4) the revelation of his relationship to the world by extending it not only to those first-hand witnesses who heard and saw and handled the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, but also to the rest of creation in and through the act of proclaiming this Word become flesh. It is in the preaching of this enfleshed Word that the revelation of the God/creation relationship located in Christ carries on through creation. And of course, the efficacy of such witness and proclamation is not something that we ourselves can accomplish, but which relies upon the work of the Holy Spirit, breathed out and sent by the Word of God himself (John 15:26, 20:22).

So notice the canonical progression of the three beginnings: Gen 1:1 speaks of the original relationship between God and the world, a relationship of dependence and contingency. The world is not self-existing, but exists by virtue of God’s creative activity. John 1 expands our understanding of that relationship by noting the concrete location at which God relates to the world–through his Word become flesh. “In him was life,” John says (John 1:4) and it is in the Word become flesh that we are who we are as God’s living creatures (cf. Gen 2:7 “living beings”). But a problem remains unresolved in John 1, and that is that even though the God/world relationship through the Word of God is that which is “really real,” it is a real relationship that the world does not see, understand or recognize. (“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.”  John 1:10). Consequently,1 John 1 comes in to “resolve” the problem of the unknownness of this God/world relationship in Christ by suggesting that those who have witnessed to the one who is from the beginning are incumbent to proclaim that relationship to the world–a proclamation enabled by the Spirit of God himself.

So given this canonically shaped reading of the opening phrase of 1 John 1:1, what should be concluded about how this might inform our reading of 1 John? While in many respects, it would be possible simply to say that the subject matter of 1 John should be understood to be “Jesus Christ, the one who is from the beginning,” that would be only partially correct. For if theme of the Gospel of John is the Word become flesh (John 1:14), Jesus the Christ, the Son of God (cf. John 20:31), then the theme of 1 John is “Jesus Christ proclaimed”, or more fully, “Jesus Christ, the one who is proclaimed in the world for the sake of fellowship with God the Father, and with one another.”  Unlike Genesis, which is only hints a christology ( “proto-christology”)  and unlike the Gospel of John which is all about “christology proper” (“incarnate christology”), 1 John has as its theme  “proclaimed christology” (“kergymatic” or “ascension” or even “pneumatic christology” since the “proclaimed Christ” is as such only through the Holy Spirit). And yet, to use the scheme of Hebrews, all three “beginnings,” though sounding separate christological notes,  speak in complete harmony of the same Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb 13:8).


13 thoughts on “1 John 1:1 – The Beginning…Again…and Again

  1. Dustin

    Great stuff, man! I especially like the proto-proper-kerygmatic Christology distinction. I also like how you’ve described 1 John 1 to help explain how it is that we can know about the matter foreshadowed in Gen 1 and realized in John 1. Do you think it is fair to say that the mode by which the present Church is contemporary with Christ is through the “hearing” “seeing” and “handling” of the Apostles? The Spirit must be involved as well, but in this text the Spirit’s work seems to be so marvelously tied to the “bodies” of the Apostles. Does this contribute to our understanding of the Apostolicity of the Church?

    So I have to ask… does it matter whether or not the author of 1 John was an actual eye-witness of Jesus of Nazareth or if he was simply taking up the mantle of those who were such witnesses? I think that by this question I am trying to get to the relationship between historical criticism (or ‘reading’) and canonical criticism (or ‘reading’).


  2. This connection of the beginnings is at the same time insightful, ingenious, and yet I think completely in line with what the author seems to have intended with his “echo”. I feel wrapped up in the book already. I’m looking forward to reading along further.

  3. Grant McMillan

    Excellent, David! I particularly enjoyed the progression from hints of incarnation (Gen 1), to incarnation (John 1), to proclaimed incarnation (I John 1). I’ve always felt that John was very deliberate and consistently canonical himself. What your most recent post caused me to consider is how John seems to be building a bridge from God and his Word (which are somewhat intangible) to a very tangible Jesus, to an even more currently tangible you and me and our bearing witness to Jesus Christ. It seems to fit with his concern for love, also, as a vehicle of witness. This is where the really real relationship between God/world/Christ/us is forged.

    Dustin, is this another link to the Apostolicity of the Church? Perhaps another way to ask your question is, “Does it matter whether or not the author of this blog was an actual eye-witness of Jesus, or is he simply taking up the mantle of those who were such witnesses?”


  4. Dustin

    Hey Grant,

    I’m not sure I follow your question exactly. You ask “Does it matter whether or not the author of this blog was an actual eye-witness of Jesus, or is he simply taking up the mantle of those who were such witnesses.” I guess I’d say, yeah, it does matter, especially if the author of this blog is claiming to have touched, heard and seen the incarnate Word!

    The witness of the blog-author, if it is to be a legitimate witness, needs to be based on the first-hand witness of those who were actually eye-witnesses. The body of Jesus is related in a special way to the bodies of the Apostles. Something is different with those who follow at second-hand. We are tied in a peculiar way to their writings (also ‘bodies’) left behind. Am I getting what you are getting at?


  5. Good stuff, David, and a nice thread of comments, guys.
    When Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29), are we meant to identify “those” as ourselves or as characters in the story who heard but didn’t see and weren’t, like Thomas, invited to handle? OK, both, but about the latter: was their believing based on the testimony of the one who “saw and believed” (20:8) but–so it would seem–was among those who “still did not understand _from Scripture_” (20:9)? Or was it based on the reported words of the risen Lord (20:17-18) from someone who had also seen, though she didn’t realize it was Jesus until she heard, but wasn’t allowed to touch (hold on to) him? All of that to ask, is our belief to rest on eyewitnesses’ experience or on the word of the One who did what he said he was going to do? Is 1 John 1 hinting, if not saying explicitly, “We heard, saw, and handled, but we should have been able to believe/understand without any of those, because he had been telling us all along”?

  6. Dustin


    Randy, here I thought you were being cute with all of your smiley faces 🙂

    Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that being an eye-witness made belief somehow easier (it probably made it harder!) or that we believe based solely on the experience of those who were eye-witnesses. I agree with what I perceive you and Grant to be hinting at: faith comes through hearing the Word of God and rests solely in that Word. However, what I think I want to maintain is that the “mode” of our belief is different than that of the original Apostles. Namely, their hearing of the Word was mediated through the seeing (etc) of the body of the Lord, whereas our hearing of the Word is mediated through their written (bodied) witness. Does that have any fundamental implications for faith? I’m not entirely sure. In both cases faith is a miracle of the Spirit and rests on the incarnate Word. However, for them, the incarnate Word on which their faith rested was tied directly to and located in his “body” (though it was the Word in the flesh); the Word in which they believed was none-other than this particular Jesus of Nazareth, whom they heard, saw and touched. For us, our faith rests on the incarnate Word as well, but it is the incarnate Word as he is attested to by the Apostolic wtness (the bodies of their writings). This brings the Scriptures and the Church into play in a way that differentiates the mode of our faith from that of the original Apostles. I just can’t agree with Kierkegaard who argued that there is no difference between followers of first and second hand. I think that there is a gnostic tendency in his view…

  7. Grant McMillan

    Yeah, Dustin, you caught what I was getting at. Regarding Kierkegaard, I don’t think he argued that there is no difference between followers of first and second hand. In fact, he argues that there is a real difference, but one is not necessarily better than another. Rather like you, he says that there is a real danger in being a first-hand follower rather than a second-hand follower, “The first generation has (relatively) the advantage of being closer to the immediate certainty, of being closer to acquiring exact and reliable information about what happened…” (p. 91, Philosophical Fragments). But he goes on to say that this is of dubious advantage, because the second generation follower is able to assess the veracity of experience at a relative distance and make a more discerning choice. I agree with you, if there is no difference, then gnosticism rears its head.

    But now regarding your comments on implications for faith, I believe there is a difference. People are praised in various places in Scripture for believing even though they have not seen. However, I don’t believe the difference has “fundamental implications for faith.” How can it? Modes of faith can be different, but I think faith is faith. It may rest on the Word or on being an eye-witness, but it is still faith.

    This is partly why I believe I John is a valuable member of the Canon. He makes the connection of faith clear for those who are not first-generation followers. And this, I think ties the Apostolic witness, the Scriptures and the Church together in a three-strand cord.

  8. Dustin

    Hey Grant,

    I think that what Kierkegaard was getting at was that the (minor) differences between followers at first and second hand are ultimately inconsequential for the nature of faith. I disagree and want to make more of the fact that our faith is “normed” by the written witness of the Apostles as it is received by the Church. The faith of the Apostles was “normed” by the flesh of Christ. The significance of these different modes of faith appears, to me at least, to have everything to do with the shape our faith takes in relation to the Scriptures and the Church. Namely, the Apostles were responsible directly to Christ by the Spirit, whereas we are responsible to Christ as he is communicated to us in the Church’s Scriptures by the Spirit.

    Sure, faith is faith, but hear me as trying to avoid leveling out distinctions between modes of faith. My relation to Christ in faith is not of the same form as the Apostle John’s.

    Perhaps if we do level out these distinctions we run the risk of creating a Christ in our own image or as we would like him to be because we have no immediate “norm” as the Apostles had in the flesh of Christ and as we should acknowledge in the Scriptures.

    Further thoughts?

  9. Grant McMillan

    Interesting thoughts, Dustin. I’m not sure I get what you mean when you say “My relation to Christ in faith is not of the same form as the Apostle John’s.” Can you explain a wee bit more? Are there different forms of faith? I mean, obviously the A. John was with Jesus while he walked the earth, and he saw him ascend to heaven, but does that mean his faith is a different form than mine because I’ve only heard about Christ from him and others?

    I’m not sure why we run the risk of creating a Christ in our own image if we level out the distinctions between faiths. Jesus probably does look different to me than he did to John. But I’m not sure why that matters to my faith. I can only understand the Jesus who has been communicated to me through the Word (John et al)and Spirit and I believe that’s enough. There’s always the risk that I’ll create a Christ-in-my-own-image, but again, I don’t see how a leveling of distinctions makes me more prone to that.

    I think you know me well enough to take the following paragraph with a grain of salt:
    As a good Evangelical Baptist, I am nervous with your emphasis on how faith is “normed”, because I see the “norming” process carrying accountability and responsibility issues with it. If I believe in the inspiration of scripture, then I have to leave responsibility for “norming” to the Spirit and his processes. However, if our faith is normed by the Apostles writings as received by the Church, then I see that muting the doctrine of inspiration and getting a might closer to where traditional Catholics have been for me to be comfortable.

  10. Dustin

    Yup, you’re probably right about locating part of our disagreement here in my sympathies towards the some of the things that concerned several of the Fathers and, in its own way, the Catholic Church. I’m up to my eye-balls in Irenaeus these days. However, I don’t think I’ve said anything that would run in tension with Luther or Calvin. I’ll give some thought to your questions and see if I can post more later.

    I want to tease out the relationship between the Spirit, Jesus, and the Apostles in relation to faith. I want to tie faith to the Word, obviously, but the Word-as-he-is-incarnate-in-Jesus-of-Nazareth-and-attested-by-the-Spirit-in-the-Scriptures-of-the-Church. Apart from that kind of specificity, I fear a tendency toward Gnosticism. I think that this is one of the things that concerns John in the beginning of his first Epistle. Hmm…. maybe some of this will become clearer after we see what David has for us in his next few posts.

    Back to Irenaeus…

  11. I suppose this discussion may have run its course, but I’m not sure I am as nervous as Grant with Dustin’s line of thinking. Is not the apostolic witness (as received by the church slowly but surely as canonical) exactly one of the Spirit’s “processes”? Even though I myself am an evangelical Alliance boy, for my part I am becoming increasingly nervous about a doctrine of inspiration which does not pay enough attention to the process by which that inspired word came about and reached my ears.

    But maybe I’ve just heard one too many times where the Bible is read through one lens as if the interpretaion and the Word are one and the same. Or perhaps I’m not picking up on all the nuances of what you both are getting at, but I must say I like what Dustin has been saying here. I think I share Grant’s concern to some degree, but I’m not sure a nuancing of the doctrine of inspiration and muting of the doctrine of inspiration would have to amount to the same thing.

    Regardless, the earlier point (by Grant I think) about love being part and parcel of this ongoing proclamation of the Word is wonderful, and sets up 1 John ever so nicely.

    I also greatly enjoyed Randy’s smiley-faces. That was awesome.

  12. Wow! How will I possibly jump in here? I guess I won’t say much at this point, and hope that further posts (you can see how slow I will be about this…but I have no deadline, so I plan to take my time) will begin to address the questions. But some thoughts on some of the issues raised so far:

    1) Firsthand and second hand witnesses – I do see an important and substantial difference between them insofar as their “authority”, though I’m not sure I would express a substantial difference between them in terms of their “mode” of faith. Faith is faith, and biblically, includes elements of assent (assensus), knowledge (notitia) and trust (fiducia). Abraham’s faith is no less “faith” than Paul’s or John’s. In fact, I would argue that the only appropriate “mode” of faith is obedience, gratitude, and worship. HOWEVER:

    2) I do think that Dustin is right to insist that there is a kind of mediated passing on of faith from first hand witnesses to those who follow after. Barth here, of course, insisted (and I agree with him) that “even the smallest, strangest, simplest, or obscurest among the biblical witnesses has an incomparable advantage over even the most pious, scholarly, and sagacious latter-day theologian.” (Evangelical Theology, 31-2). But their advantage, I would argue, consists not in the superiority of their faith, nor even a different mode of faith, for they, too, first believed through the hearing of the Word, not the seeing or handling of the Word. (Indeed, their seeing and handling didn’t always help). Rather, their advantage is in their calling and vocation as apostles to testify to what was seen and heard and handled. There were, obviously, hundreds of others who also saw and heard and touched Jesus, but who are not given apostolic privilege or annointing. Being close historically is not the advantage (it wasn’t advantageous to Judas or Pilate or Herod), but being “called” and “selected” made all the difference. This was their special task appointed to them by our Lord–a task given to them as the Spirit led the Lord Jesus to select them.

    3) Does it matter whether John is really written by a first-hand witness or just taking the mantle? I guess I can’t give a 100% definitive answer to that. Practically, I suppose, I don’t see being able to settle it on a historical basis either way. I’m NOT convinced that a definitive, conclusive historical judgment AGAINST apostolic authority of 1 John can be made. But for the sake of the argument,let us suppose that it was established that this was not apostolic or first hand. (Luke isn’t an apostle, either!) I believe this is where I take the fiduciary side of the canonical witness into consideration. Even if the book was written by a non-apostle, the Church received it as having the stamp of apostolic authenticity. The question would be, What kind of historical evidence would be necessary to overturn the judgment of the Church on 1 John’s (or Luke’s, for example) “apostolic”/”canonical” status? Theoretically, we might be able to set up criteria to answer that, though practically, I have serious doubt that such definitive criteria could ever be met beyond a shadow of a doubt. I would want to suggest that at best, we have a hypothetical possibility only.

    4) The “bodies” of the apostles are important because the incarnation occurs in the midst of normal human history. Without their testimony of seeing and touching, yes, we would be wildly open to the Gnostic temptation. This is where “physical proximity” of the apostles to Jesus Christ is a necessary element in their witness, but physical proximity alone is not sufficient to establish apostolic authority.

    5) Randy’s question: Was the believing on the experience or the fulfilled Word? I guess I’d say, Faith comes through hearing. Period. Though in God’s sovereignty, some also see, perhaps even touch and handle while others see nothing and touch nothing. So one might believe solely on the “hearing of the Word” without any sensual/empirical experience. Others may have a vision or a physical manifestation, but even then, it is only in hearing the Word that they believe. Not sure if that quite answers what you are asking, Randy…

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