Rod Whitacre went singing home to God on May 22, 2023.

“John and Theology”

Rod Whitacre, “John and Theology,” Trinity Journal for Theology and Ministry, 4 no. 1 (Spring 2010): 12-22.

This brief study of First John organizes major topics in Johannine thought under the themes of life, light, and love.

It is a great pleasure to contribute a brief study to this issue of the Journal dedicated to honoring Bishop John Rodgers.  John has been a wonderful friend and mentor to me since I came onto the Trinity faculty in 1983, and my family and I deeply treasure our relationship with John and Blanche.  Since John’s field of expertise is theology it seemed appropriate to offer some thoughts on the theology of St. John as found in his first epistle.  The apostle wrote this document in the midst of great turmoil in the church over new forms of theology that threatened the very life of the church.  These new teachings looked very good and were attractive to many in John’s communities, but in fact they represented a form of theology and discipleship that was no longer Christian.  So John concludes his letter with the admonition, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).[1]

The Purpose of 1 John

In order to appreciate the profundity of John’s theology we must begin with a very brief description of what is going on behind 1 John, starting earlier with the Gospel.  In the Gospel of John we see the reflection of the conflict between the Jewish authorities and Jesus and His followers.  The Gospel seems to come from the point at which there is a split into two religions.  The key issue in the Gospel is the identity of Jesus as the Son of God and the identity of the Christians as the true children of God, over against the Jewish claims to be such, and their rejection of Jesus and his followers.[2]

1 John seems to come from a later time, reflecting the fact that a split has taken place in the community (2:19).  What was this split about?  From the evidence in 1 John it appears there was a sizable group within the community who had embraced Gnostic-like ideas.  The Gnostics were a mixed group who generally held to a dualistic distinction between the material and spiritual, salvation by illumination/knowledge, and the presence of the divine spark within folk, at least the elect.  The major forms of Gnosticism emerged in the second century, but a number of such Gnostic beliefs were already present in earlier philosophical and religious systems, and they were congealing in the second half of the first century.[3]

John himself found some gnostic themes and language very helpful for expressing the gospel.  Indeed, some of the language of the Gospel of John would be pure Gnosticism if taken out of context, for example Jesus’ statement, “You are from below; I am from above.  You are of this world; I am not of this world” (John 8:23).  It is striking that the earliest commentary we have on any part of the New Testament is a Gnostic commentary on John by Heracleon.[4]

While the Gnostic systems of the second century are quite unchristian,[5] there is an important sense in which Christianity itself is a gnosticism, as is any religion that claims to have a revelation.  St. Paul refers to “what is falsely called knowledge” (1 Tim 6:20) in contrast to the real, true knowledge of the gospel.  Clement of Alexandria (ca. 150-215), writing in the context of conflict with full-blown Gnosticism, calls mature Christians the true “gnostics” (γνωστικοί, gnōstikoi, for example, Miscellanies 6–7). 

It is important not to avoid important aspects of the gospel just because other religious systems contain similar elements, as we see today in the New Age movements.  But at the same time the use of these themes must be done carefully or else people simply read into the gospel the content of the false system.  Something like this seems to have happened in John’s community.  John himself drew out the gnostic aspects of the gospel within an orthodox understanding, but some in his community took this tradition and moved toward actual Gnosticism (or, more accurately as far as we can tell at this point, proto-Gnosticism).  Specifically, some embraced the notions that Jesus was not the Christ, pure and simple, that there was no need for a sacrificial atonement for sin, and that there was a group of elite within the community who were characterized by autonomous individualism.[6]

John has confronted this teaching to the point that these teachers and their followers have left the community (2:19).  What lies behind 1 John is a break in fellowship in a group that had been very tight-knit, having suffered persecution together.  So there is extreme pain behind this document.  But there is also a clear sense that the very heart of the gospel is at stake in the controversy that has arisen with the false teaching.  1 John was written to combat the false teaching and to give an orthodox reading of the Johannine tradition.  At the same time he also assures his readers that they are the true children of God (for example, 1 John 5:13, 21).

Outline of 1 John

It is very difficult to know how to outline 1 John.[7]  The following is one influential outline:[8]

I.          Introduction (1.1-4)

II.        First sequence

            A.        Ethical thesis (1.5–2.17)

            B.        Christological thesis (2.18-27)

III.       Second sequence

            A.        Ethical thesis (2.28–3.24)

            B.        Christological thesis (4.1-6)

IV.       Both theses bound together

            A.        Love is the basis of faith (4.7-21)

            B.        Faith is the basis of love (5.1-12)

V.        Conclusion (5.13-21)

The topics are not isolated as neatly as this outline suggests; it is all far more interwoven.  There are logical connections between individual units, but the overall pattern is more organic than sequential.  Nevertheless, this outline is very helpful for seeing the major themes and the cyclical pattern of the material. 

Christology and Ethics in 1 John

As the outline suggests, christology and ethics are two of the major themes in 1 John.  The opponents deny Jesus is the Christ, which for John includes the notion of His being the Son of God.  “Son” is the key term for John.  As in the Gospel it signifies primarily that Jesus is the revealer of the Father, from whom He is distinguishable but inseparable (John 10:30; 1 John 2:23).  The specific features of the opponents’ views, such as we can piece them together, are found in three passages.

First, there is a denial of Jesus as Christ, a denial that has implications for their claim to know the Father (2:22-23).  The denial mentioned in these verses sounds like it is simply a Jewish view like that of the Jewish opponents in the Gospel.  But something more subtle than a bald denial of Jesus’ messiahship is involved, for if they are explicitly denying that Jesus is the Christ why would there be a need for John to write this letter to point out their error?  These opponents would not agree with John’s charge against them; this is John’s interpretation of their views.  Further texts in 1 John reveal more about the opponents’ views, and help us understand how John can see their views as a denial that Jesus is the Christ.

Second, their denial concerns Jesus (4:2-3).  This passage is usually interpreted as referring to Docetism, i.e., it is thought that the opponents are denying Jesus’ humanity.  But nothing in 1 John clearly substantiates this view.  Turning to the text itself, there are two ways to translate the key phrase in verse 2, Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν σαρκὶ ἐληλυθότα (Iēsoun Christon en sarki elēluthota): “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” or “Jesus is Christ come in the flesh.”  The clue to which of these is meant comes in the next verse where it is said that this spirit does not confess “Jesus” (v. 3).  This suggests the second translation is in view and that the emphasis is not on Jesus’ flesh (as in Docetism) but on the flesh of the Christ.  This notion is clarified by the third passage.

Third, the opponents deny Christ’s death (5:6).  Here we have the most specific and the most cryptic information in the letter on the christological issue.  “This is the one who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood.”  This text suggests that some folk are affirming Jesus came by water, but not blood.  What might this refer to?  One of the false teachers that John had contact with according to Polycarp, as reported by Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 3.3.4; cf. 3.28.6; 4.14.6), was Cerinthus.  While not all of Cerinthus’ ideas are combated in 1 John, one point in particular may be in view here.  For Cerinthus taught (according to Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.16.1; 3.2.1. and Epiphanius, Refutation of Heresies 28.1) that messiahship came upon Jesus at His baptism and left Him just before He died.  Such a view could well be described as coming by water but not by blood.  The opponents could even appeal to John’s Gospel to support such a view since the Spirit comes upon Jesus at His baptism (John 1:32, 34), and when He dies it says He “gave up the (or His) spirit” (παρέδωκεν τὸ πνεῦμαparedōken to pneuma, 19:30).  This text could easily be read, “He handed over the Spirit,” and thus the Spirit left Him just as He died.

So the opponents would not deny that Jesus died but that Jesus died as Messiah, thus denying that Jesus’ death mattered theologically.  “Gnostic theologians do not necessarily deny that the events proclaimed of Jesus have occurred in history.  What they deny is that the actuality of these events matters theologically.”[9]

So the basic Christological point in 1 John is the essential identity of Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, especially in His death.  This set of ideas is fundamental to all of John’s thought.  For God is love (1 John 4:8), and love is the laying down of one’s life (1 John 3:16).  So if Jesus did not die as Messiah, the Son of God, then God has not been revealed. 

We should note how difficult the situation was in which John found himself.  The opponents could use all the heaviest language about Jesus, calling Him Son of God and accepting His death.  They only made what might appear to be one little modification, but for John that little modification gutted the gospel entirely.  Their views do not simply represent a few wrong ideas about the true God but rather they promote a false god.  This is why, as noted above, the letter ends, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).

In the Gospel the Cross is primarily seen as the revelation of God’s glory, but the opponents’ views undercut this revelation.  Other views held by the opponents also deny the atoning significance of the Cross.  This atoning aspect of the Cross is included in the Gospel, though only in a few verses (for example, 1:29).  John now emphasizes it in his letter in order to correct the opponents’ wrong views of sin, to which we now turn.

The Christological points of dispute are fairly subtle and so are the ethical issues.  For John says the opponents are claiming sinlessness while he himself at the same time speaks of believers as being sinless. 

To begin with, there is debate as to whether the opponents were libertines or ascetics.[10]  Both views were held by different groups of Gnostics, since if the material world is evil or inconsequential then either one may say it does not matter what one does or one may try to transcend the material through ascetical disciplines.  Such disciplines can look very much like Christian asceticism.  So, if these opponents were ascetics then the situation confronting the Johannine community would have been confusing indeed.  The opponents could have looked fairly righteous and thus their error all the more deceptive.

The opponents’ claim to sinlessness seems to be in view in 1 John 1:8, 10.  They are claiming a sinlessness apart from God, Christ, and the atoning death.  Not only did Messiah not die, there was no need for Him to do so.  This sinlessness may have been very individualistic and elitist since there seems to be a claim to know God in a way ordinary Christians cannot (1 John 2:4-6; see also 2:15, 16; esp. 3:17-18).  It has also been suggested that the opponents held a Gnostic view of human nature as intrinsically divine, having the divine spark,[11] though the evidence for this specific view is less clear.[12]

So the basic characteristic of the opponents’ position is autonomy.  They experience both sinlessness and love quite apart from Christ’s death and the Christian community.  In contrast, John’s view of sinlessness emphasizes both the Son’s death and the community.  John affirms that sinlessness is indeed a goal (2:1-6), but he also recognizes the need for forgiveness (2:1b, see also 1:9) through Jesus’ death (1:7; 2:2).

According to John, Christians are to keep the commandments (2:3-4, note the plural) and follow Jesus’ example (2:6).  The keynote is a life of love (2:7-11; 3:10).  Love is the sign of the passage from death to life (3:14) and this provides the key to an important, but cryptic, passage regarding sin.  In 1 John 5:16-17 we hear of a “sin not unto death” (μὴ πρὸς θάνατον, mē pros thanaton) and a “sin unto death” (πρὸς θάνατον, pros thanaton).  I think we find here the communal aspect of John’s view of sinlessness.  For in the Church believers have passed from death to life, as we have just seen.  So the “sin unto death” would be the sin of removal of oneself from the community which itself is the realm of God’s life.  John says we can pray for those committing a “sin not unto” death and be assured of God giving life because the one sinning is within the community of life in which the blood of Christ cleanses from sin.  But John offers no such assurance for those committing the “sin unto death” because they are rejecting the realm of life.  He does not say one cannot pray for such a person, only that there is no assurance in their case.  Thus the “sins not unto death” are all sins that do not involve a removal of oneself from Christ and His People, i.e., apostasy.

The false sinlessness of 1 John 1:8, 10 is in striking contrast to the sinlessness which John promotes (3:6, 9).  In chapter 3 the one who is said to be born of God and not sin is the one who loves “his brother” (3:10–18), that is, who remains in the community which is the realm of Life and Light and Love.  Being part of this community, however, does not mean they have no moral failings (1:8, 10), even though they are to strive not to have such failings (2:1; 3:3).  But it does mean that sin no longer characterizes their life.  That is, as the Reformers put it, those who are in Christ are in a new situation, that of, “posse non pecare,” (able not to sin) rather than their former condition outside of Christ of, “non posse non pecare” (not able not to sin).  This idea seems to be the significance of the use of the present tense in the verses that speak of believers’ sinlessness (3:6, 9; 5:18).  Sin continues to be committed and it is forgivable, but it is now the exception rather than the rule—that is, while they may sin every day, deeds in keeping with God’s will are the dominate characteristic of their lives.  This new life is only possible because they are kept by Christ so that the Evil One does not touch them (5:18).

The opponents have separated themselves from the community, and this lack of love reveals their true character (2:19).  They did not share the abiding seed (3:9) almost by definition since they would have abided.  When John says that not all are of us (2:19) he probably implies that more defections are possible, which explains his concern in writing (1:3; 5:13).

So, to summarize the teaching on ethics, John says that in their departure from the Apostle and the community around him the opponents commit the sin unto death by turning away from the realm of life.  The ethical argument is basically a charge of lack of life.  They have some form of obedience to commandments, but in their lack of love they show themselves strangers to the very heart of the commandments.  The commandments are characterized as an imitatio Christi (2:6) and the chief quality of Christ’ life was His revelation of God’s love.

The arguments regarding christology and ethics are interwoven.  The opponents neither confess Jesus as Messiah Son nor follow Him in obedience.  These are two sides of a single coin in that they are both related to their views of Christ’s death.  The death of Jesus both reveals God’s love and atones for sin.  The opponents do not believe they are in need of this atonement and they are also unwilling to follow Jesus’ example by laying down their lives for the brothers and sisters.  So their belief and behavior are inseparably intertwined.

The Unity of Thought in 1 John

John’s thought is a  Christocentric whole.  Jesus is the model of sinlessness in both of its senses, that is, obedience to commands (2:3-6) and love (3:16-18; 4:9-10).  Jesus’ death is the center of John’s thought, and it is the very thing the opponents reject.  John’s thought in 1 John is not, as some have asserted, a cut-and-dried confessional formula to which he has appended some ethics.[13]  Instead, it is all interconnected.

His thought is fundamentally Theocentric.[14]  Behind the Christological whole is the ultimate ground of John’s thought, God’s own nature.  Behind the Son is the Father.  The whole of John’s thought can be seen to center around two foci, two great theological affirmations.

First, God is Light (1:5).  Light has many associations, but in this context it is primarily related to ethics.  God is pure, holy, sinless, perfect.  Jesus both reveals God’s purity and provides the means by which believers are able to share in that purity (3:5).  The opponents in their claim to sinlessness make God a liar (1:10) because He claims to forgive us in Jesus, but this is wrong if we have no need of forgiveness.

Second, God is Love (4:11-12).  Love is the laying down of one’s life and this is seen par excellence in the death of the son (3:16-18; 4:9-10).  This love is characteristic of God’s very nature (4:11-12).  Jesus did not empty Himself despite being equal with God, but because of His deity.[15]

God’s Light (holiness, sinlessness, perfection) and Love are present in the community members and absent from the opponents.  This is to say, the one group shares in divine Life and the other rejects it and departs into death.

Thus, what is ultimately at issue in this letter is the truth about God Himself.  The opponents do not have a few misunderstandings about the true God, as is often the case with Paul’s readers.  Rather, John believes, despite all the wonderful affirmations about Jesus by the antichrists, these folk have a different God, an idol (5:21).

If the two foci are God as Light and Love, the center of the foci, as it were, is the theme of Life.  All the major aspects of John’s thought center around this motif.  Christology is connected to Life because to confess Jesus as Son is to live in God (4:15), for Life is in the Son (5:11-13)—indeed, Jesus is Life (1:1, 2; 5:20).  Ethics also is connected to Life since to obey the commandments is to live in God (3:24) and to love is to live in God (4:12, 16), so to love (3:14-15) and forgive (5:16) is Life.[16]

Thus, this letter presents us with a very profound revelation of God in Christ and a challenging call to Life.  As such, it is a good example of what all theology should be.  Accordingly, I trust that this brief study is a proper way to honor John Rodgers who is a good example in his life, teaching, and leadership of what a theologian, educator, and scholar bishop should be.

[1] All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.

[2] I discuss this setting in detail in Johannine Polemic: The Role of Tradition and Theology (SBL Dissertation Series 67; Chico: Scholars Press, 1982), ch. 2.  See more briefly my discussion in John (The IVP New Testament Commentary Series; Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 28-33.

[3] For more detail on the setting of 1 John see Whitacre, Johannine Polemic, ch. 3.

[4] Elaine Pagels, The Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis. Heracleon’s Commentary on John (SBL Monograph Series 17; Nashville: Abingdon, 1973).

[5] For a survey of the various forms of ancient Christian Gnosticism see Birger A. Pearson, Ancient Gnosticism: Traditions and Literature (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007).  Pearson also includes discussion of other forms of Gnosticism, including Hermetic Gnosis, Manicheism, and the Mandaeans.

[6] For more detail see Whitacre, Johannine Polemic, ch. 3.

[7] In fact, many commentators think it is not possible to outline 1 John.  See, for example, I. Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 26, and see the review of many of the suggestions regarding the structure of 1 John in Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John (The Anchor Bible 30; Garden City: Doubleday, 1982), 116-29.

[8] This is a simplified form of the outline in A. E. Brooke, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (International Critical Commentary; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1912), xxxiv-xxxvi, who in turn is following Theodor Häring, “Gedankengang und Grundgedanke des ersten Johannesbriefs,” in Theologische Abhandlungen Carl von Weizäcker … gewidmet (Freiburg: Mohr, 1892), 171-200.

[9]  Pagels, Johannine Gospel in Gnostic Exegesis, 13.

[10] See Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism (trans. P. W. Coxon and K. H. Kuhn, trans. ed. by Robert McLachlan Wilson; San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 252-72; trans. of Die Gnosis: Wesen und Geschichte einer spätantiken Religion (2nd rev. and enl. ed.; Leipzig: Koehler & Amelang, 1980).

[11] J. Bogart,  Orthodox and Heretical Perfectionism in the Johannine Community as Evident in the First Epistle of John (SBL Dissertation Series 33; Missoula: Scholars Press, 1977), 34.

[12] Whitacre, Johannine Polemic, 134-35.

[13] See J. L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (Harper’s New Testament Commentaries; New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 13-20 for the view that the author of 1 John was “less penetrating and vigorous in mind … and much more limited in the range of his thought” (19) than the author of the Gospel of John, and that his attempts to adapt Johannine thought were “inept or muddled” (20).

[14] This is true of both the Gospel and the letter.  Along with Whitacre, Johannine Polemic,178-80, see, more recently, Marianne Meye Thompson, The God of the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), ch. 2, and Andreas J. Köstenberger, A Theology of John’s Gospel and Letters: The Word, the Christ, the Son of God (Biblical Theology of the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 361-80.

[15] This same thought is found in Paul in the seminal passage in Phil  2:6.  See Gerald F. Hawthorne, Philippians (Word Biblical Commentary 43; Waco: Word Books, 1983), 84-86; Gordon D. Fee, Paul’s Letter to the Philippians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 205-08; Peter T, O’Brien, Commentary on Philippians (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 211-16.

[16] Robert Law discusses the relation in 1 John between love and righteousness, noting a fourth affirmation about God, that he is righteous (2:29), The Tests of Life: A Study of the First Epistle of St. John (3rd ed.; Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1914), ch. 5.  The form of expression in this verse is not the same as for life and love (adjective instead of noun), but it certainly adds to the theme I am developing.

© Rodney A. Whitacre. All rights reserved.