1 John 1:1 – Hearing, Seeing, Handling, Proclaiming

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Is there significance to the order in which the actions of 1 John 1:1 are listed?  “Which we have heard [perfect tense], which we have seen [perfect] with our eyes, which we have looked at [aorist] and our hands have touched [aorist]–this we proclaim [present].”  (I distinguish here  four actions, not five based on the relative pronoun “that which” ( ὃ ) which introduces each action. “Looked and our hands have touched” describes a single action–somewhat akin to what might think about as a “careful examination of an object held in the hands.” It is 1) hearing, 2) seeing, 3) handling, and finally 4) proclaiming.) 

1) Hearing  – I think, yet again, there is an important parallel here to the creation account of Genesis which I will expound upon briefly in what follows.

 After the “topic sentence” of Gen 1:1, which informs us that it was God who created heaven and earth in the beginning, we are immediately informed in v. 2 that the Spirit of God hovers over the waters of the yet formless and void creation. I want to suggest that the statement of the presence of the Spirit in 1:2 is vitally important for what happens in1:3, mainly, that when God begins to speak into creation, he does not speak into a “receptorless” void; on the contrary, the Spirit of God is already “there” in creation to hear and to receive the spoken creative Word of God.  In other words,  when God begins to speak, we should understand that there is already “someone” in creation to hear God’s speaking, namely God’s own Spirit, God’s own “hearing” of the Word. When God speaks, he does not speak merely into the formless and void emptiness, but ensures that he is heard by his own Spirit. As Isaiah 55:11 puts it, “so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty,   but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”  So much for the priority of “hearing” the Word which is already there in the beginning. So, too, in 1 John 1, there is an implied assurance that that which is spoken is heard because there is a guarantee that in the Spirit, the Word is never spoken in vain, but is received by the Holy Spirit. It is a guarantee that ensures for us (especially when we get to thinking about proclamation) that the preaching of the Word will be surely heard, even if outwardly all evidence appears to the contrary. 

2) Seeing – God not only speaks creation into existence, but he consistently pauses to see it as well: “God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:9, 12, 17, 21, 25, 31). Note, though, the contrast in Gen 3: The woman “sees” the fruit, that it is good for food and gaining wisdom, even though her “seeing” is in explicit contradiction to the Word which God had spoken concerning the tree (2:17).  In contradistinction to the “invisible realities” of the Platonic cosmology, the author of 1 John unashamedly announces that this eternal reality of which he speaks has been seen with his own eyes. This is an implicit rejection of the then common Platonic hierarchy of being, which places the invisible as higher and more real than the visible. John, on the other hand, locates the “arche” (beginning principle) as that which seen, and to be sure, even heard and handled as well.

3) Handling– The Gen 2 account of the creation, somewhat in contrast to Gen 1, portrays the Lord God as having more of a “hands on” approach to creation. He “forms” the man and the beasts and the birds from the ground (2:7-8, 19). He also “takes and puts” the man in the Garden (2:8, 15), and  “takes” a rib out of the man, “makes” a woman, and “brings” the woman to the man (2:21-22). The picture is, of course, an intimate one, with the Lord God “handling” his creation and, in a sense, “re-creating” out of that which had previously been spoken into existence. Genesis 2 pictures God as not only the transcendent God who speaks creation in existence by divine fiat, but as a God who immanently comes close to hand.  So, too, in 1 John 1:1, the author makes it clear that this “which has been from the beginning” has come so close that it has been allowed to be handled and examined.

[Excursus: If in fact, John is the author of the epistle and the Gospel, it is interesting to note that only the Gospel of John has the story about Thomas putting his finger in Jesus’ wounds (John 20:26-29). Though we often read the story with a degree of judgmentalism upon Thomas for his disbelief, it may be possible to read it more sympathetically such that Jesus is saying, “Unlike the rest who saw me before, I now give myself to you to be handled and examined. Now stop doubting and believe.” I think, in other words, that Thomas’ request, as an apostle called to be an eyewitness to the risen Lord, was entirely appropriate, and Jesus ensured that he, too, saw him in his resurrected state, such that he could fufill, along with the other remaining 10, the task of being an firsthand eyewitness.] 

4) Proclaiming – The full sequence of hearing, seeing, handling and proclaiming is completed at the end of Gen 2 when “brings” the woman he had just made to the man. Interestingly, there is no record of Adam saying “thank you” to God but rather, one can imagine Adam waking up, seeing the woman, touching her and examining her, and then excitedly proclaiming his discovery:  “This is now  bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman for he was taken out of man” (Gen 2:28). Again, the author of 1 John concludes his introductory sentence by declaring that all which has been heard, seen, and handled is not to be “hidden under a bushel,” but to be proclaimed as nothing less than “the Word of life.” 

So what does this all mean? Three things are important, as I see it.

First, I think John is deliberately “mimicking” the creative ordering of God’s own creative work as seen in the Genesis creation accounts. His use of the word “beginning” seems unavoidably to point us in that direction.

Second, I think John wants us to understand that the creative word of God precedes all hearing, seeing, and handling, proclaiming, but it is precisely in the hearing, seeing, and handling of the “Word made flesh” that all proclamation of the Gospel is made possible. Proclamation, from the beginning, is not merely a testimony of something heard privately in the secret recesses of the heart or mind, but is publicly grounded in a bodily, physical manifestation made available not only to the ear, but also to the eye and the hand. [How that applies to us today I will deal with in a later post].

Third, I think we have here a solid hint that the work of proclaiming the incarnate Christ is the ongoing work of God’s creation of and sustenance of all life. Because “the life appeared” and because that life has been “seen,” it can be now proclaimed as “the eternal life which was with the Father and [which] has appeared” to the apostle (v. 2)  

Before leaving this very important opening verse, I want to suggest that the pattern here not only aligns with the creative work of God in Genesis, but that we also see it at work in the Gospels as well. I think here especially (though not exclusively) of the infancy narratives of Jesus where one can observe the same order of hearing, seeing, handling and proclaiming. 

Hearing – Of course, the birth of Jesus is preceded in a number of instances of “hearing” God’s word, long before there is any physical evidence to be seen or handled. A word from the angel of the Lord is spoken to Joseph. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20). Mary, too, hears a word from the angel, that it would be the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gen 1:2?) by which the miracle of the birth would be accomplished (Lk 1:26-38). Other hearing includes the angelic announcement to the shepherds, and in other Gospel accounts where the infancy narrative is not highlighted, the ministry of John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the one which was to come (Mk 1:2-8; Jn 1:15; 19-28).

Seeing – Once Jesus is born, Luke informs of us that the shepherds, who had heard the angelic announcement, declaring, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Lk 2:15). Luke also tells us that Simeon (and Anna) are waiting for the coming Messiah. As Simeon says, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk 2: 23-30). Matthew immediately takes us to the story of the visit of the Magi, who come upon “seeing” the star in the east: “We saw his star in the east and have come to worship”  (Matt 2:2) [Interestingly, the Magi apparently do not come in response to an angelic announcement, but an astronomical appearance. Yet, it seems difficult to imagine that their sight was not informed in some way by the holy writings of Scripture, perhaps Num 24:17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.]  In contrast, notice that Herod “heard” the report that the child was to be born in Bethlehem, but his hearing is not a receptive one, but filled with fear, revulsion, and violence (Matt 2:3-4). Consequently, though Herod asks to see (Matt 2:8), his request is disingenuous and he is not given the opportunity (Matt 2:12).

Handling – And then, the fullest extent of the narrative moves forward by handling. Luke insists on reporting that the Baby was wrapped by Mary in strips of cloth and placed him in the manger (Lk 2:7) which would act as a physical sign to the shepherds (Lk 2:12). Jesus is circumcised on the eighth day (Lk 2:21), and Simeon is also given the opportunity to take the child in his arms (Lk 2:28). 

Proclaiming – Finally, each of these acts of hearing, seeing, and handling are followed up by proclamation. The Magi worship (Matt 2:11); the shepherds glorify and praise God for “all the things they had heard and seen” (Lk 2:20); Simeon and Anna, too, glorifying God, though specifically we are told that Anna “gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk 2:38). 

So is the order of the actions mentioned in 1 John 1:1 significant? I certainly think so. The question that is yet unanswered, though, is what we do now that we no longer are able to see or handle the risen Lord ourselves. Does our proclamation have to “make do” in the absence of a tangible presence of the Word of Life? The verb tenses, at the very least, seem to indicate that proclamation is a “present” thing based upon past (aorist) events. But I think that’s something that will be best handled when I look at verses 2-4 in the next post.

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

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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).


Requesting Input on 1 John

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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?

First John in Canonical Context (1)

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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
Epistles
                                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.”

1 John: A Theommentary

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Theommentary started as an outlet for my own thoughts about times, texts, and themes in ways that I hope will extend my calling as a theological teacher. So far, it’s been a great joy for me (and I hope, occasionally, for you, too). But in large part, the first couple of months has been largely devoted to theological commentary on the times (particularly, it seems, federal elections!) and themes (like the nature of preaching and public reading of Scripture, the meaning of public theology, etc.). Most of these have been “occasional” pieces to comment on current happenings. I’ve also commented on various extra-biblical texts as I saw fit or as I had been requested to do.  (Barth would call these kinds of comments the work of “irregular dogmatics.”)

Without wanting to stop engaging in that kind of “irregular dogmatic” work, I’ve also wanted to move forward with a plan that I have had right from the inception of Theommentary,  mainly, to do a bit more “regular dogmatic” work by walking through and commenting systematically upon a biblical book. My goal, in other words, is to do some theological exegesis and commentary on a particular book of the Bible. And now the time has come for me to begin that taskand I invite you along for the ride.

Several biblical books came to mind as potential candidates for “theommentary.” I’ve always loved the Gospel of John for the richness of its trinitarian theology, but I quickly realized that is probably a bit much too much to take on at the outset. I’ve also thought about Ephesians, one of my favourite New Testament books, especially for the close connection of soteriology and ecclesiology therein. I’m also fascinating by the Christology of Colossians. But in the end, I’ve chosen to begin working through the book of 1 John for a variety of reasons:

1) I love how 1 John refuses to separate what we sometimes call the “theological” vs. the “practical.” For the author of 1 John, such a dichotomization between the “theoretical/theological” and the “practical/spiritual” would be non-sense. For John, the knowing of Christ (i.e., the “theological”) is intimately tied to our obedience to Christ (the “practical”). “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.” (1 John 2:3). 

2) I love what I believe to the characteristic “deliberate ambiguities” in 1 John (e.g., Who is the one with whom we have fellowship with in 1:7? With Christ? Or with other Christians? Or both?) coupled with the “clear stark contrasts” in others (e.g., light and darkness, life and death, love and hate), and sometimes even ambiguity and contrast in the same sentence! Indeed, it is because of some of these ambiguities AND contrasts, that I am drawn to the book for what I would call a clear biblical example of “theological dialectic” at work.

3) I’ve always thought of 1 John as a letter of an old, wise apostle written primarily to those who are young and struggling in the faith without forgetting the older ones as well. So on the one hand, John treats us young followers of Christ with the gentleness that we need while still growing up in the faith. But on the other hand, John pulls no punches when we need a good theological black-eye (or perhaps a good warm theological behind?) to get us back on track or to put our pride in place, especially those of us who might be settling into a static form of faith as we get older. John’s theo-practical wisdom, in other words, lands exactly where it is needed: For the young children and young men who still find themselves struggling with sins they think they will never overcome, John reminds them of the promises of Christ’s work on their behalf; but for the old men and fathers who might wonder whether they are going to leave any kind of spiritual legacy, John gently reminds them that the legacy that counts most is a life lived abiding in Christ from the beginning.

4) It’s short.

5) The Greek of 1 John is some of the easiest to work with in the NT (i.e., I won’t need to spend as much time deciphering difficult Greek constructions!) and personally will be a good refresher for me (even though I did teach Introductory Greek eons ago!).

And the final reason: 

6) 1 John was the very first biblical book that I tried to teach to my teen Sunday School class in the summer after my first year of Bible College some 24 years (!) ago. I just wish I had kept my original notes to see if I’ve learned anything in the last 24 years!

Please keep in mind that I view this venture as a theological experiment and I make no claims to be dealing exhaustively with secondary literature. [That’s the nice thing about a blog. You can deliberately NOT have to be exhaustive!] Yes, I wil consult the commentaries as necessary, but neither will I feel compelled to try to exhaust all the exegetical issues. Indeed, I may deliberately avoid certain exegetical issues simply because I think they are distracting to the task at hand. So if you think I’ve missed something really important, by all means, point it out to me, but I reserve the right to deal with it or not. Don’t be too offended if I decide not to! And how long I intend to take? However long that it takes!

The driving theological impetus for me will be to try  (with the Spirit’s help) to hear what (or more properly, whom) it is that John and his apostolic associates first touched and saw and heard themselves, and which the he now passes on to us and expects us also to pass on and to preach and teach to others. I’m less interested in what John meant (although that is obviously fundamentally important at one level) and more interested in seeing (spiritually) what John saw and now testifies to for our benefit. And I do this all in the hope that in a small way, those who are reading who are engaged in a ministry of teaching and preaching (at whatever level that may be) will perhaps find a nugget or two that will help them in their own ministry of the Word.

And of course, comments and interaction is always welcome!