Observations for discussion and questions:
The principle occasion for the writing of 1 John was most likely a serious schism of the Johannine community over teaching about Christ. There are two well defined passages that deal with this explicitly, 1 John 2:18-27 and 1 John 4:1-6 presented below. In the former passage the highlighting of densities of recurring expressions helps to define it as a topical unit. The focus on “antichrist(s)” in the former part of the passage crosses over to a focus on “anointing” in the latter part. In each subunit the bolded text highlights repetition densities that reflect the sub-topics of each unit: the recurrences of “went out from us” and “being of us ” in 1 John 2:18-19, the “you know” recurrences in 1 John 2:20-21, the “Father/Son” repetitions in 1 John 2:22-25, and finally the recurrences of “anointing” and “teaching” in 1 John 2:26-27.
- 18 Children, it is the last hour; and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come; therefore we know that it is the last hour. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out, that it might be plain that they all are not of us.
- 20 But you have the anointing from the Holy One, and you all know. 21 I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and know that no lie is of the truth.
- 22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 23 No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also. 24 Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. 25 And this is what he has promised us, eternal life.
- 26 I write these things to you about those who would deceive you; 27 but the anointing which you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie, just as it has taught you, abide in him.
In 1 John 4:1-6 the highlighted expressions of “spirit,” “world,” and “being (not) of God” provide a density of recurrences that clearly define this topical unit.
4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2 By this you know the spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, 3 and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming, and now it is in the world already. 4 Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5 They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them. 6 We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
The references to denial of Jesus as the Christ (1 John 2:22) and that he comes in the flesh (1 John 4:2) clearly point to differences in views of Jesus, most likely the doctrine of his incarnation. It is also clear that the deniers are seen as ”antichrists” in both passages and that they are the ones who broke fellowship. One may also infer that the secessionist were probably the more sophisticated and perhaps affluent members of the community from the references to them as being “of the world” in 4:5 together with the previous warning not to love the world with its sensuality and material arrogance (1 John 2:16), and the reference to the addressees as not needing anyone to teach them (1 John 2:27). Also, if we can take the expressions “If we should say that…” and “he who says” in 1 John 1:5-2:11 as reflecting claims of the secessionists, then they are presented by the author as claiming fellowship with the Father, being in the light, and sinlessness both in a state of being and in action (1 John 1:8-10).
What background could these former members have had and what sort of presuppositions could they possibly have held? One of the most persuasive views of the secessionists is that they followed an early form of Gnostic-like teaching with the following connections: a dualistic view of the world that could not accept that a physical person, i.e. “Jesus,” could be united with a divine, revelatory being that may be referred to here as “Christ.” Thus the denial that “Jesus is the Christ.” Also, the denial the Jesus Christ came in the flesh fits.
Furthermore, a Gnostic-like dualism usually held that in every person there is an essential spark of divinity trapped in a material body. Once a spiritual realization of this is made by the help of an enlightener, the person can claim enlightenment and consequently a state of sinlessness. This sort of system could develop either in the direction of ascetic practice to suppress the physical appetites, or it could allow all kinds of appetites full play, i.e. since the mind was enlightened, it would not matter what the body did. In this latter case, John”s statement about them being “of the world” (1 John 4:5) in the sense of the sensuality and material arrogance expressed in 2:16 could make another connection.
At the same time extreme Judaisers could also reject that “Jesus is the Christ” with Christ taken as referring to “Messiah.” They could also claim legal sinlessness in the sense that Paul once did before conversion: “as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil 3:6). The denial that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:3) is more difficult to fit with this view, if “Christ” is taken to mean ”Messiah” in the strictly Jewish sense.
Actually, it is not impossible that John refers to different, but commonly expressed false views of Christ and the common, uncharitable behavior of different secessionists without making clear distinctions among them. We find Ignatius” letters explicitly warning churches about both Judaisers and early Gnostics in the same region that John was in only a decade or so later. Furthermore, we already had what appears to have been some combination of Jewish and Gnostic-like false teaching at Colossae addressed by Paul in his letter to the Colossians a few decades earlier (see Col 2:8-23 which combines Jewish festivals, worship of angels, and ascetic practice). The prologue”s emphasis on both the physical palpability of Jesus (“grasped with our hands,” 1 John 1:1) and his eternity (“was with the Father,” 1 John 1:2) seem to address this type of dualistic thinking which denies the incarnation of the “Word.”
- Is it possible for cognitive beliefs to be absolutely clear, logical, and precise, or must there always be some fuzziness around the edges while belonging to the same general world of thought?
- How can one tell when someone who claims to be Christian starts to bring in ideas that belong to a totally different thought-world and its incompatible presuppositions? Do you look for detailed differences or big-picture differences? Would you look at life-style changes or inconsistencies? Would you claim to be “of God” like John does and then claim that this is the criteria for discernment between truth and error (1 John 4:6)?
- How does one know when to seriously confront deviating teaching, and when to avoid such confrontation? What about differing scriptural interpretations?
- How does John deal with the false beliefs? Does he quote Scripture? In this instance it would have been the Old Testament! Are there any Old Testament quotations in 1 John? Are there any extended, logical refutations in 1 John as one finds in Paul”s letters (e.g. 1 Cor 15)? What may the presence or lack of such refutations say about those holding the false beliefs and those left behind after the schism? Or, about the function of 1 John? Are there any principles that may be applicable today?