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We now look at one of Doherty's supplemental essays, in which Doherty attempts to bring the Johannine epistles into evidence.
The Organization 1 John
A key to much of what Doherty writes is a supposition that the letter of 1 John (hereafter 1J) is of such a disorganized and fractured nature that it must have had its origins as a variety of separate documents that were clumsily pieced together at a later date. This supposition, if defeated, renders much of what Doherty has to say later on the subject innocuous.
But of course, it must be defeated first, and let us start by seeing what he has to say about it:
The puzzle of 1 John, a phrase that has become almost a cliché, is usually presented in terms of the epistle's fundamental incoherence. J. C. O'Neill (The Puzzle of 1 John, page 1) declares that "the whole attempt to find a connected train of thought in the Epistle is misplaced. Progression of thought from one paragraph to the next is usually unclear . . ." Different and contradictory ideas are found juxtaposed. Specific themes and terms are concentrated in one section of the letter but nowhere else; or they may occur at widely separated intervals. J. H. Houlden (The Johannine Epistles, page 22, 31) has called this epistle "a puzzling work," and suggests that "to try to find a single logical thread . . . is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair."
Now here I must pause. Doherty has once again misused the works of NT scholars, failing to address their solutions to the problems they mention. In the first case this matters little: J. C. O' Neill's solution, that 1J is an adaptation of several Jewish mini-expositions to Christian expression [One.P1J], has some good points but is far too speculative to be more than a curiosity; Doherty here could safely ignore O'Neill's solution, though it would have been polite for him to mention it in passing.
With the second case, however, Doherty has undertaken some rather serious misrepresentation. Houlden had a great deal more to say about 1J, and Doherty does a grave injustice to Houlden by not allowing him to speak for himself, thus (with selections by Doherty highlighted) [Hould.JE, 22]:
It is, after all, a puzzling work. No early Christian writing is so repetitious, so monotonous in its grammatical constructions, so narrow in its vocabulary. The picture of the venerable elder, whom old age has endowed indeed with profundity of wisdom (Johannine fashion) but also with a natural incapacity to venture far in its formulation, is entirely understandable.
Having said that, Houlden proposes that 1J be reckoned as being a work in a "spiral" fashion, in which arguments move in cycles, starting with small ideas that pick up steam as they progress and overlap. He then goes on to say, after looking at various other ideas about the work's composition [ibid., 31]:
But whether the process of composition was by the 'treating' of an underlying source or by direct writing, it seems more useful to suppose that 1 John consists of a series of independent sections, bound together with varying degrees of smoothness and with additions giving the outward semblance of a single composition, than to try to find a single logical thread. Insistence on the latter approach is liable to lead to infinite complexity or to despair.
Here, as in other places, Doherty has taken valid observations and misused them to his own ends; not a word is breathed of the various propositions to understand the structure of 1J - which, incidentally, may be "incoherent" by modern, Western standards, but not necessarily by the standards of 1J's Jewish background, which included reasoning-forms which are foreign to the Western "logical" and linear mind.
But that leads into our own "solution" for this puzzle, which we shall develop shortly; for now, here is what else Doherty has to say:
That 1 John is a document which has been 'assembled' from multiple sources, or was composed over time by having new elements added to earlier layers, are ideas that have been around for many years, although there are commentators who steadfastly refuse to see any layering at all.
Now one may suppose that such "layers" exist, but their mere existence does not automatically lead, of course, to Doherty's solution that "the epistle was added to over time" in the sense of a long period that somehow reflects the growth and evolution of the mythical Johannine "community". (On this concept of "communities" for each Gospel, see Bauckham's The Gospels for All Christians.) One author could just have easily been responsible for that "layering" over a series of rough drafts done on wax tablets.
But indeed, after having the usual doubting of Johannine authorship of the works assigned to that worthy, we find here a moment of agreement of Doherty when he describes this concept thusly:
Much has been written about the nature and location of the community (or perhaps a circle of communities) which produced the epistles and the Gospel, for it is recognized that Johannine ideas are often worlds apart from those of the Synoptics. Indeed, scholars often treat the Johannine community as though it were some ancient Shangri-la, a mountain fastness penetrated and converted by some mysterious apostle from Jerusalem, only to shut itself off from the wider world of the Christian movement and evolve in its own unique fashion.
And in spite of this poetic description - Doherty apparently accepts that some form of this Shangri-la, this lost Atlantis or Pellucidar, actually existed as such. Did it? To answer the question is beyond our scope; we only remind the reader that evidence for such "communities" - reckoned as parties hostile to and often surreptitiously sniping at one another in their own gospel document - are thus far in the game mere figments of critical psychology. Not a shred of archaeological, literary, or social evidence exists for such sects, designed as they are to explain Christianity as the product of natural evolution.
What then of our own answer to the structure of 1 John? The "spiral" suggestion is attractive, and in line with the Semitic thought-background of the text; for it is a given that linear, Western thought-patterns are entirely unlike those of the Ancient Near East - the comparison having been said to be, that Eastern thought was not linear nor logical, but circular, as if rolling up a ball of yarn or a garden hose.
But perhaps just as attractive, and doing just as much justice to the social context of 1J, is Watson's thorough study identifying the use of Greco-Roman rhetorical technique within the epistle. [Wats.AT] In particular, Watson identifies the use of weightier affirmation as a key to the rhetorical style of 1J, of the sort recommended by Longinus and Cicero. Another writer in rhetoric, Pseudo-Longinus, wrote: "...(A)mplification always goes with quality and a certain degree of redundance." [ibid., 103]
Watson also identifies in 1J the specific tactic of expolitio, or "dwelling on the same topic and yet seeming to say something ever new" - along with a host of other rhetorical tactics, such as strong words, augmentation, comparison, and accumulation.
Our bottom line, then: The "puzzle" of 1 John is one caused by our own lack of clarity and understanding of first-century and/or Semitic thought. It is only when we divorce a work from its social context and judge it by modern standards of "sensibility" that we discover problems.
Chicken or Egg
As a preliminary, Doherty explores the question of whether the Gospel of John of 1J was written first. For our purposes this question may simply be addressed by saying that it really does not matter: Whether the Gospel was committed to writing before or after 1J, it is abundantly clear that the ideas contained in the Gospel are presupposed in 1J.
Nevertheless, we have much to say in regards to some of the arguments used by Doherty to put First John first, and some of it will be familiar:
In theology and doctrinal points, in language and expression, the epistles are more primitive than the Gospel; even those who argue that the Gospel came first acknowledge this impression. In 1 John, not a single Gospel detail is brought in, no teachings are attributed to a human Jesus; there is not even a specific reference to the cross and nothing at all about a resurrection.
The answers here are fairly basic. We have pointed out many times that primitive/simpler = earlier is fallacious; moreover, this argument ignores the genre of the two documents. The Gospel, as a type of ancient biography, and being much longer than the epistle, would certainly contain more space to develop and explain theological ideas; the epistle, on the other hand (which has been reckoned to be in a genre other than epistle, but for our purposes, it makes no difference), is directed to specific problems and issues.
Finally, this is the same argument we have seen in other essays regarding details, so no more need be said here.
Those who argue for the priority of the Gospel view the epistle as an attempt to reestablish more traditional principles in the face of a kind of "runaway" interpretation of Jesus as portrayed in the Gospel. Those using the Gospel, so the theory goes, were moving in dangerous directions, specifically toward Gnosticism. Now, it is true that some form of the Gospel of John first surfaces as a favorite of second century Gnostics. Consequently, it seems to have been regarded with suspicion by orthodox circles until it was "revamped" around the middle of the century and brought into the ecclesiastical fold. But nowhere in 1 John does the writer allude to such a situation, let alone spell it out. If he is countering a segment of his community which has "misused" the Gospel, how can he fail to refer to that Gospel? How can he avoid pointing to specific features of it in the course of defending a "proper" interpretation of Jesus? Why have the fundamental doctrines of the Gospel simply dropped into a black hole?
We do not necessarily agree with the idea that the actual Gospel document was being misused here. But here again, can Doherty not recognize that the process he suggests for the 1J writer would be circular reasoning on his part? If the document is indeed at issue, then simply pointing back to it won't do a lot of good. The heretics would agree on the content of the document, but not on the interpretation of the document.
This can be illustrated by my debates with Mormons over Bible interpretation. Mormons interpret Gen. 1:26 as meaning that God has a human body. If I dispute this, it obviously isn't a useful argument to simply quote Gen. 1:16 back as an "answer."
One of these, for example, is the Paraclete. This concept is paramount in the Gospel of John: Jesus promises to send, once he is gone, "another to be your Advocate (parakletos), who will be with you forever, the Spirit of truth" (14:16). This Spirit promised by Jesus will guide believers until he returns. Now, 1 John is a polemical document. It attempts to counter various opponents it labels liars, deniers and Antichrists. In 4:1f it speaks of true and false "spirits" claimed by different factions of the community; those which agree with the writer are "from God", those holding differing views are false. But not only does the author show no knowledge of Jesus' promised Paraclete in all this, he lacks even the fundamental idea that any appeal can be made to traditions of belief or authority going back to Jesus. The world of the epistle writer functions according to current "spirits" claimed from God, nothing more; as such, it conforms to the wider Christian picture we see in Paul, of inspiration from the Spirit. That the author would either be ignorant of or choose to ignore the entire Spirit/Paraclete tradition as recorded in the Gospel, if this was already in existence, is impossible to accept.
From here, Doherty goes on to suppose an evolutionary process for the idea of the Paraclete, that it was read and written back into the thought of the Johannine Jesus. But in fact, Doherty steps right over the solution to his manufactured problem. Let's first look at the four places where the Gospel refers to the parakletos:
John 14:16-7 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor (parakletos) to be with you forever-- the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
John 14: 26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
John 15:26 When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.
John 16:7-13 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; in regard to righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.
Note that in 3 out of 4 places in the Gospel, the equation is made: Counselor (parakletos) = the spirit of truth. So then, what of this from 1J?
1 John 4:1-6 Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.
Well enough does Doherty stop his quotation of this passage at the first verse, for this is clearly knowledge of the concept of the Paraclete, even though the word itself is not used. It is significant here that "the Spirit of God" is in the singular, while "every spirit" indicates the plural. This author recognized only one "Spirit" from God, and that was the Spirit of truth - by another name, the Paraclete. The author is not ignorant of the concept, and he has not chosen to ignore it at all.
While the Gospel of John has almost completely abandoned the expectation of an immediate end of the world, the epistle speaks of living in "the last hour" (2:18). The progression from imminent apocalypticism to an acceptance that the church faced a long-term future was a feature of Christian development as the first century passed into the second. Yet we are to believe that the writer of 1 John "returns to a more primitive eschatological awareness." (J. H. Houlden, The Johannine Epistles, page 13.) Such patterns of regression rarely if ever take place, and no scholar has provided an explanation for why such an anomaly would have occurred here. Certainly, the epistle writer gives no indication that he is reverting to something previously abandoned.
- First, to say that the Gospel has "almost completely abandoned" said expectation admits, first, that it has not TOTALLY abandoned the expectation (cf. 5:28, 6:39-44, 12:48); it neglects to consider the purpose of the Gospel, and consider whether it was written with the Synoptics in mind (and thus having no need to address such matters in-depth); it sets up a false dichotomy of extremes in a place where direct statements are lacking; finally, it does not do justice to the relative length of each text and the immediate concern of the writer of the epistle.
- The presumption that the reference to the "last hour" bespeaks "imminent apocalypticism" fails to do justice to the language of imminence so prevalent in the Hebrew scriptures and elsewhere in the NT. Smalley [Small.123J, 97] observes that:
...(L)ike their Hebrew forebears, the NT writers were able at one moment to see the 'day of the Lord' imminently pressing in, and at another to shift the emphasis and see beyond that crisis to an ultimate and consummating crisis of salvation and judgment.
The bottom line, though, is that the immediacy of the end and of eschatological displays by God "remained a stock feature of Jewish expectation" [Hould.JE, 77] - even up to the time of the Bar Kochba revolt. 1J's reference to the "last hour" should not be shouldered with too much modern-hermeneutical weight. (It also fits just as well with the understanding that it refers to events in AD 70: see our series on eschatology for more details.)
Doherty next appeals to the "equally improbable regression" from "Christo-centricity to Theo-centricity" between the two documents. More could be said on this, but generally, the argument fails on the same points as above, failing to consider the genre and purpose of the two documents, and their relative length, and also fails to consider the theological orientation of the Johannine literature, which offers the most explicit equation of Jesus with theos.
Doherty next concerns himself with the prologue of 1J and a comparison of it to that of the Gospel of John, which he feels proves the priority of the epistles. Little needs to be directly addressed here, for it is mostly the same fallacious simpler = earlier dichotomy we have already seen. Only a few additional aspects need be considered:
First, that Doherty claims that, "That the writer of the epistle would have so adulterated such a lofty thought (as is found in the Gospel prologue) is hard to believe."
One wonders why this is so: How can Doherty simply assume that the writer of the epistle ascribed such literary value as he does to the Gospel prologue? How does he know that the epistle-writer would have regarded his prologue as an "adulterated" version of the Gospel prologue? This is merely presumption of personal literary values upon the text.
Second, "Nor can we believe that he would simply have eliminated the ringing concept of Jesus as the Logos, the personified heavenly partner of God."
Blood, Water and Tears
Our next section concerns a 1J passage that has been the focus of a great deal of discussion - 1 John 5:6-12. It reads in our NIV:
This is the one who came by water and blood--Jesus Christ. He did not come by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement. We accept man's testimony, but God's testimony is greater because it is the testimony of God, which he has given about his Son. Anyone who believes in the Son of God has this testimony in his heart. Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because he has not believed the testimony God has given about his Son. And this is the testimony: God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
What is the meaning of this passage? A majority of commentators say without hesitation, "Jesus' baptism and crucifixion," and this is quite agreeable, though a few (such as Witherington [With.WB]) prefer to see "water" as meaning Jesus' birth, in line with general usage in the OT, the ANE, and even in the Gospel of John of the word "water" associated with birth.
But Doherty of course can have none of this for a Christ-myth thesis, and so we are told that "there is a much less strained explanation for these terms." Thus:
Though their exact significance is lost to us today (Houlden labels them "enigmatic"), they show all the signs of referring to sacramental or mystical elements within the community's beliefs and practices, through which knowledge of, or benefits from, the Son are perceived to flow. The author points to the three elements of Spirit, water and blood as belonging to a common category: all three "bear witness", all three are "in agreement". Since Spirit clearly belongs to the realm of revelation, it follows that water and blood are also, at least in part, revelatory channels. All three are presented as part of the witness of God, and God works through revelation. It is too great an anomaly to have the first refer to the manifestation of the prophetic voice and the latter two refer back to supposed events in the life of the Gospel Jesus, a story studiously ignored throughout the epistle.
- Re Houlden's description - I think an exact quote is in order here: "To us the words are enigmatic, but in their original intention they must have been both clear and concrete in their application." [Hould.JE, 125] Houlden was not quite as committed to hopelessness as that one-word quotation of Doherty's would imply.
- Re "in part" - to use a bit of Doherty's own logic against him, we can NOT presume elements of the one part upon the other two. In fact, that water and blood are originally grouped without spirit would argue that they are of one type, and the spirit of another. The "common category" is only established AFTER the separate category.
- Finally, re "sacraments" - this in fact is much like a solution that has been proposed for interpreting this verse: That it refers to the waters of baptism for the believer and to the Eucharist. But this must be rejected for two reasons.
First, the use of the aorist here ("one who came") argues that this refers to a past moment, not a continual practice as beliefs and ceremonies of this "community" would be. [Small.123J, 277] (Doherty takes this aorist as proof of a past coming of his spiritual Christ, reasoning in a circular fashion.)
Second, Doherty must presume here the sort of argument we have applied all along regarding the words and facts of the life of Jesus; as Brown puts it, "the author would be choosing a remarkably obscure way of referring to the sacraments, so that one would have to posit that this was well-known inner-community language." So: If Doherty here has to assume, "they all knew" - why can't we, also?
Now it is fair to ask if Doherty provides anything other than presupposition and personal theory-preference for his own interpretation of this verse. Well:
- He asks, "how does Christ 'come' through the events of his baptism and crucifixion?" and comments parenthetically, "This is a little too cryptic even by Johannine standards." It is? Has Doherty made a comparison of levels of "crypticality" to show that this is above the standard for the Johannine literature? But granting that the question might be a fair one, and without spending hours analyzing each of the 643 (!) occurrences of the Greek word behind "came" (erchomai) in the NT, can we really find a less "cryptic" interpretation here?
Why use "came" for this? Any answer would necessarily be speculative, but several suggestions are viable: That it means "came" in the sense of having come into power and authority through the events (cf. John 17:1) [Small.123J, 278]; that it is an allusion to the Messiah as one who is the "coming one" [Burd.LJA, 365]; that it is used because it was the word used by the adversaries attacked in 1J [BrowR. EJ, 574]. Whatever is accepted, any of these solutions carries a greater weight of reason than simply shrugging it off as "cryptic" because of our own lack of understanding, and then creating a novel interpretation based upon an assumed theory.
- It is said:
We might also note that the writer in verse 6 makes a point of stressing that the "blood" must be included, with the clear implication that others are resisting its inclusion. This precludes it being a reference to an historical crucifixion, for who would deny such an event or its central significance? (The issue of docetism is nowhere in evidence in this letter, despite some scholars' attempts to introduce it...)
We agree to an extent here: Yes, the opponents are obviously resisting the inclusion of "blood", and there is a high likelihood that docetism is not at issue here. But off-track is this assertion-question, "Who would deny such an event or its central significance"?
Who would? Not just docetists, but adoptionists, those who maintained that the Christ/redeemer-spirit came upon Jesus at his baptism but departed from him at the Crucifixion. An adoptionist Christology (or one that simply assumed that the Christ-spirit left Jesus at the Crucifixion) by the opponents makes perfect sense of their denial of "blood" while they stuck to their guns regarding "water" - and amazingly, though this is a well-known interpretation of this passage, Doherty either is unaware of it or ignores it.
A non-historical Jesus, Doherty tells us, is "strikingly clear" in this verse, 1 John 2:27:
As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you.
Of this, it is said:
This anointing (chrisma) seems to be an initiation rite for entry into the sect, and no Christian writer who knew of a teaching Jesus, or who possessed any information whatever derived from him through oral or apostolic tradition, could possibly have said such a thing.
Is this true? A few things say no:
- First, note the rest of 2:27 - "As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit--just as it has taught you, remain in him."
This would suggest that the issue is something taught in the present, and remaining in Christ, and that anything relative to the teachings of Jesus while on earth as recorded in the Gospels is not at issue. (This leads to Marshall's suggestion [Marsh.EJn, 163] that the reference is only to teaching not inspired by the Spirit of truth.)
- Most obviously, Smalley [Small.123J, 125] observes that "this absolute declaration about the dispensibility of earthly teachers appears in the course of a document which is heavily didactic!" One may suggest that 1J here is using a merely polemical absolute in light of the problem of false teachers in the church - in the manner of Pink Floyd's "we don't need no education".
Layer on Layer
Much of what comes next seeks to highlight supposed "inconsistencies" in 1J that prove that more than one author composed the text. We begin with "examples of insertions which stick out like proverbial sore thumbs" - quoted thus:
". . . and we are being cleansed from every sin by the blood of Jesus his Son" (1:7d).
"He (Jesus Christ) is himself the propitiation for our sins, not our sins only but the sins of all the world" (2:2).
It is claimed that "Such sentiments clash with ideas found in adjoining sentences," for in verse 1:9, "the earlier layer told readers that 'if we confess our sins, he (God) is just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every kind of wrong.' " Conclusion made: "At this earlier stage, the Son was apparently not perceived as involved in forgiving sin."
This is incorrect: The two verses above in no way exclude what is read in 1:9. Jesus is consistently the propitiation and the advocate, even in the Gospels; the Father is the forgiver who accepts the propitiation. Indeed, what governs the interpretation of either verse is ancient notions of patronage, within which Jesus played the role of the broker for the Father's patronage. In both passages, the act of sacrifice is that of a broker offering a method of entry into the covenant.
A second claimed incongruency:
At several points, the writer seems to hold the view that the true child of God is without sin, that he is incapable of it (as in 3:9); yet at others he speaks of forgiveness for sins committed, as in 2:1, and even cautions that claims to sinlessness are "self-deception" (1:8).
Let's look at these verses:
1:8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
2:1 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
3:9 No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God's seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.
Our NIV here applies a typical solution by seeing the reference as one to "continual" sin - i.e., a regular practice of sin. Does this hold up under scrutiny?
It well might, but there is really no need to find out. Once again socio-literary context provides a clue. 3:9 is not an anomaly, for it presents no more of an absolute than Jesus' "Be ye perfect..." or Seneca's "A wise man cannot fall." [BrowR.JE, 413] It is a polemical absolute, one designed to stress the need for sin to come to a screeching halt in the life of the believer. Doherty's reading here isn't sufficiently nuanced.
On The Grammar Point
Tekton associate Eric Vestrup also notes: "A very reasonable way is to note that in 3:6 we have the verb hamartanei in the first half with the articular present participle ho hamartanon in the second half; in 3:9 we have the construction hamartian ou poiei along with the present infinitive hamartanein ; and in 5:18 we
have the verb hamartanei just as in 3:6. These are all in the present
tense. Robertson's grammar, page 880, takes this present tense of hamartano
in 3:6a to be iterary/customary here: "continue sinning", "sin continually". This is
the rendering of the Greek which the NIV adopts. The same Robertson in
Word Pictures of the New Testament , volume VI, page 222, takes this
as "does not keep on sinning". In the same discussion he draws a distinction
between living a life of sin and mere occasional acts of sin from the
fact that the present participle was used and not the aorist participle. This
is quite reasonable, and the NIV followed this in its rendering for 3:6:
No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who
continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
This rendering of the Greek is faithful to idiom and does not at all conflict
with 1:8, for Christians do have sin, but they don't continually sin or
lead a life of sin.
For 3:9, the same comments apply. The verb poieo is used in
the present tense in the first half and the present infinitive of
hamartano is used in the second half. Again, the same comments apply:
it is a quite reasonable rendering of the Greek to have the first half of the
verse say (as does the NIV) No one who is born of God will continue to
sin [lit: will not continue to do sin]. The second half which features
the present infinitive is discussed in Word Pictures of the New Testament
VI, page 223 and the Robertson grammar, page 890, and the present tense is
again stated as a linear durative, so that the second half of the verse is
rendered ".....he cannot go on sinning."
For 5:18, again the linear durativity of the present tense is stressed
by Robertson in Word Pictures , volume VI, page 244. Thus the NIV
renders 5:18 as "We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin..."
This is reasonable and faithful to the uses of the Greek present tense. We
therefore have a reasonable solution to the allegations of error which our subject
presses against these passages here: Christians do sin, but they do not lead
lives of sin or continually sin.
This solution is not universally accepted as the best solution. One should
read the thorough and interesting discussion in Marshall's The Epistles
of John in the New International Commentary on the New Testament
series, pages 178-187. There a different exegesis is offered and the claim
is made that the solution given above, while a staple of British exegesis,
depends too much on grammatical subtlety and the stressing of the durativity
in the present tenses offered. Marshall's opinion and objections on the matter
should be read and evaluated carefully.
Not every grammar of NT Greek holds to the stressing of the durativity
of the present tenses in the verbs, participles, and infinitives. Wallace's
Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics , pages 524-5 offers yet another
opinion which should be evaluated carefully by the student:
Many older commentaries have taken the presents as customary
[durative/iterative]: does not continually sin...... Taking the presents this
way seems to harmonize well with 1:8-10, for to deny one's sin is to disagree
with God's assessment. But there are several arguments against this interpretation:
(1) The very subtlety of this approach is against it. (2) It seems to
contradict 5:16.......... (3) Gnomic presents most frequently occur with
generic subjects (or objects).....
Again, the reader should evaluate such a weighty and well-informed opinion
such as Wallace's. Wallace gives his most probably exegesis of the text of
3:6 and 3:9 (and by reasonable extension, 5:18):
How then should we take the present tenses here? The
immediate context seems to be speaking in terms of a projected eschatological
reality. [Footnote: "Sakae Kubo comes close to this when he argues for an
ideal setting (S. Kubo, "I John 3:9: Absolute or Habitual?", Andrews
University Seminary Studies 7  47-56).] The larger section of this
letter addresses the bright side of the eschaton: Since Christians are in
the last days, their hope of Christ's imminent return should produce godly
living (2:28-3:10). The author first articulates how such an eschatological
hope should produce holiness (2:28-3:3). Then, without marking that his
discussion is still in the same vein, he gives a proleptic view of sanctification
(3:4-10) -- that is, he gives a hyperbolic picture of believers vs unbelievers,
implying that even though believers are not yet perfect, they are moving in
that direction (3:6,9 need to be interpreted proleptically), while unbelievers
are moving away from the truth (3:10; cf 2:19). Thus, the author states in an
absolute manner truths that are not yet true, because he is speaking within
the context of eschatological hope (2:28-3:3) and eschatological judgement
These are all in the present tense. Robertson's grammar, page 880, takes this present tense of hamartano in 3:6a to be iterary/customary here: "continue sinning", "sin continually". This is the rendering of the Greek which the NIV adopts.
The same Robertson in Word Pictures of the New Testament , volume VI, page 222, takes this as "does not keep on sinning". In the same discussion he draws a distinction between living a life of sin and mere occasional acts of sin from the fact that the present participle was used and not the aorist participle.
This is quite reasonable, and the NIV followed this in its rendering for 3:6: No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
This rendering of the Greek is faithful to idiom and does not at all conflict with 1:8, for Christians do have sin, but they don't continually sin or lead a life of sin.
For 3:9, the same comments apply. The verb poieo is used in the present tense in the first half and the present infinitive of hamartano is used in the second half. Again, the same comments apply: it is a quite reasonable rendering of the Greek to have the first half of the verse say (as does the NIV) No one who is born of God will continue to sin [lit: will not continue to do sin].
The second half which features the present infinitive is discussed in Word Pictures of the New Testament VI, page 223 and the Robertson grammar, page 890, and the present tense is again stated as a linear durative, so that the second half of the verse is rendered ".....he cannot go on sinning."
For 5:18, again the linear durativity of the present tense is stressed by Robertson in Word Pictures , volume VI, page 244. Thus the NIV renders 5:18 as "We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin..." This is reasonable and faithful to the uses of the Greek present tense. We therefore have a reasonable solution to the allegations of error which our subject presses against these passages here: Christians do sin, but they do not lead lives of sin or continually sin.
This solution is not universally accepted as the best solution. One should read the thorough and interesting discussion in Marshall's The Epistles of John in the New International Commentary on the New Testament series, pages 178-187. There a different exegesis is offered and the claim is made that the solution given above, while a staple of British exegesis, depends too much on grammatical subtlety and the stressing of the durativity in the present tenses offered. Marshall's opinion and objections on the matter should be read and evaluated carefully.
Not every grammar of NT Greek holds to the stressing of the durativity of the present tenses in the verbs, participles, and infinitives. Wallace's Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics , pages 524-5 offers yet another opinion which should be evaluated carefully by the student:
Many older commentaries have taken the presents as customary [durative/iterative]: does not continually sin...... Taking the presents this way seems to harmonize well with 1:8-10, for to deny one's sin is to disagree with God's assessment. But there are several arguments against this interpretation: (1) The very subtlety of this approach is against it. (2) It seems to contradict 5:16.......... (3) Gnomic presents most frequently occur with generic subjects (or objects).....
Again, the reader should evaluate such a weighty and well-informed opinion such as Wallace's. Wallace gives his most probably exegesis of the text of 3:6 and 3:9 (and by reasonable extension, 5:18):
How then should we take the present tenses here? The immediate context seems to be speaking in terms of a projected eschatological reality. [Footnote: "Sakae Kubo comes close to this when he argues for an ideal setting (S. Kubo, "I John 3:9: Absolute or Habitual?", Andrews University Seminary Studies 7  47-56).] The larger section of this letter addresses the bright side of the eschaton: Since Christians are in the last days, their hope of Christ's imminent return should produce godly living (2:28-3:10). The author first articulates how such an eschatological hope should produce holiness (2:28-3:3). Then, without marking that his discussion is still in the same vein, he gives a proleptic view of sanctification (3:4-10) -- that is, he gives a hyperbolic picture of believers vs unbelievers, implying that even though believers are not yet perfect, they are moving in that direction (3:6,9 need to be interpreted proleptically), while unbelievers are moving away from the truth (3:10; cf 2:19). Thus, the author states in an absolute manner truths that are not yet true, because he is speaking within the context of eschatological hope (2:28-3:3) and eschatological judgement (2:18-19).)
Cited next are 1 John 2:6 and 3:16:
"Whoever claims to be dwelling in him (God) ought to conduct himself as Christ (ekeinos) did (literally, ought to walk as Christ himself walked)" (2:6).
"It is by this we know what love is: that Christ (ekeinos) laid down his life for us" (3:16).
Doherty wishes to make a point here by highlighting that Greek word. As he puts it:
...(B)oth passages quoted above, as well as several others, Christ is referred to obliquely by the pronoun "ekeinos", meaning "that one". This is peculiar, and no one has provided a convincing explanation for it.
From here Doherty goes on to promulgate from this his own thesis, that this word usage supports his spiritual-Christ theory, for it "has an impersonal character out of keeping with the idea of a recent historical person or distinct human personality."
Well, if this is so, one wonders how this word could also have been used in the Gospel of John to refer to God (5:19, 6:29, 8:42), the Paraclete (14:26, 15:26, 16:8, 13, 14), and Jesus himself (1:18, 2:21, 3:28-30, 9:37) - and by the Pythagoreans to refer to their own dead master, and to Jesus again (disparagingly) in later Judaism. [BrowR.JE, 261]
Certainly in these cases we are hardly "out of keeping with the idea of a recent historical person," etc. The most likely explanation for this usage is that it is honorific for the followers of Christ.
We move now to an examination of the identity of the opponents of the writer of 1J. We begin by noting, again, our agreement with Doherty on the single matter that docetism is probably not as issue in this epistle, and thus will skip to this statement, which says that the dissidents:
...simply do not confess the belief the writer holds. These dissidents are rivals, not apostates. We cannot even be sure that a schism is involved here. It may simply be a case of competing congregations holding differing views.
Now our question here is, where does Doherty get this idea that the dissidents are merely rivals and not apostates?
Another thing to note is that "Jesus Christ" in the writer's mind cannot simply equal "Jesus of Nazareth", since this would make the statement a tautology: "Jesus of Nazareth (a flesh and blood person) has come in the flesh."
From this it is concluded that the writer has Doherty's spiritual-Christ in mind; but hold on a moment: If we are dealing with an adoptionist-type heresy here, then no one on either side would doubt that "Jesus of Nazareth" came in the flesh; but they WOULD deny that Jesus Christ came in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth in terms of the "blood" aspect noted above.
So this would be a tautology if docetism were the issue; but not if adoptionism or a similar assertion were. (Incidentally, how strange here that Doherty thinks this writer incapable of tautology when he suggests that the writer ought to COMMIT a tautology by appealing back to the historical records.)
Even more amazing, in 4:5 the writer reveals that to these deniers of the incarnation "the world listens." In 2 John 7-11, we can see that some Christian circles welcome such "deceivers" into their houses and give them greeting! How could such a radical rejection of traditional belief and history itself gain this kind of hearing?
How? Well, first of all let us remember that the word "world" (kosmos) in Johannine literature often carries the meaning of "those who do not know God" or as we might say, secular things (cf. John 14:17; 1 John 2:15; etc.) - so that saying that "the world listens" to these people is not exactly a compliment.
As for the second verse set, Doherty is mirror-reading a little too heavily here: The warning is, "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work." This does not necessarily imply that some have ALREADY welcomed such people, but it does allow that such people might seek refuge and hospitality by deception of pretending to orthodoxy.
But even if they were welcoming such people into their homes, knowing what they taught, it would not have been beyond the guiding principle of love (not to mention rules of hospitality for the period) to put up with such people - assuming that the hosts were sufficiently cognizant right away of what was (or was going to be) being taught, of course. It's not like the false teachers knocked on the doors and asked if anyone inside wanted some heresy taught to them!
The next text of concern is 1 John 2:19-22 -
They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. I do not write to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist--he denies the Father and the Son.
Doherty notes that this, of course, has been taken to be a statement about the historical Jesus. But he registers two objections to the traditional view:
- "First, the present tense is used, not a past one, which certainly to our minds would be the natural, even unavoidable mode of expression. (Not even the scholars who interpret the phrase this way are able to avoid it!) Again, there is no drawing on Gospel details or apostolic tradition to make a defence of the statement."
Of course, we would point out that past tense would be quite inappropriate, since the writer here does not want to imply that Jesus was ONCE the Christ, but now might not be - he wants to assert that Jesus was, and still IS, the Christ - which would be the counter he would need against adoptionism or the idea that the Christ-spirit left at the Crucifixion.
- But next is what Doherty calls the "insurmountable objection" to the traditional view. He tells us that:
...(T)hese "deniers", like the later ones mentioned above, still seem to be part of the wider Christian community. "You no less than they are among the initiated," says the writer in 2:20. Another level playing field. But how can this be? The bottom line for inclusion in a Christian sect would surely have to be belief in the proposition that Jesus had been the Christ. Such deniers would no longer be Christians.
Insurmountable? Hardly: Once again, Doherty fails to distinguish between an actual level playing field and a proclaimed level playing field. One who goes to a Baptist church, but leaves and converts to Mormonism, would be spoken of in the same way, but this says not a thing about the two beliefs being on a "level playing field".
If it were claimed that the dissident group no longer regards itself as Christian, this would mean that they had simply abandoned their faith, and the whole issue would have taken on a different significance for the writer. They would be apostates, cast out and no longer even to be bothered with. But the writer blames them for leaving (2:19). The tone he adopts-including calling them "antichrists"-is that they are now a rival group with opposing views. They have begged to differ from his doctrine, not abandoned something which an entire movement has held for over half a century. No matter how you look at it, "Jesus is the Christ" cannot mean "Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah."
Apostates, no longer to be bothered with? What's the connection here? Apostates as a rule are the sort one MUST bother with, especially if they tend to find a missionary zeal of their own.
After this, Doherty takes a few moments to defend the idea that there are two sets of dissidents from different layers of 1J, not just one set. His reasons are:
- In chapter 4, "there is no mention of any issue about 'coming in the flesh,' nor is there concern over true and false spirits."
Well, and there need not be, and this was likely a view with multiple aspects. To make this objection stick, one must show that the views are somehow incompatible...
- ...which is what Doherty says next, of course - but "especially", he says, "if given the conventional interpretations" of docetism.
Well, yes: We agree it is not docetism at issue here; and Doherty does not even consider adoptionism or a departing Christ-spirit heresy as the cause.
From here, Doherty goes on to provide his own spiritual-Christ interpretation of this and other passages, and of the various alleged "strata" in 1J documenting this conflict between the parties and the "communities" behind them; the alleged invention of the Beloved Disciple and the supposed story behind the "conversion" of the Johannine sect to historical-Jesus-ists -- but there is really no need to look at it. His attempt to "spiritualize" the verses above has failed.
A single point that we would like to address, however: Attempting to show evidence for strata, Doherty goes back to verse 3:16-7 -
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
Doherty counts 3:16 as a later insertion, saying that it:
...is painfully out of place here, for the text goes on in verse 17 to descend with a dull thud from this lofty idea to the remark that if a man has enough to live on he should give to a brother in need. This latter verse, in its tone and motifs, follows logically from verses 14 and 15. Some scholars (Houlden, Grayston) have recognized the unhappy sequence of ideas here and perhaps need to be more courageous in their implication that 3:16 may have been lacking in the original text.
Houlden does say that the sequence is "surprising" - but he does go on to point out that v. 17 following 16 "may well be a revealing symptom" of the setting of 1J [Hould.JE, 100] - he in no way implies that 3:16 was lacking in the original text at all.
In fact, what we need here is a certain essential perspective on the problem of first-century poverty. The poor of this day, often living hand-to-mouth, in constant threat of disease, war, starvation, etc., were often at the mercy of those with possessions to allow them to survive within the client-patron relationship. Rather than a "dull thud", this is a quite lofty ideal in the perspective of the first century: And if one is not willing to give of possessions to others after considerable exposure to their need (the verb here indicates prolonged awareness of the situation - Small.123J, 196), then how could they have been expected to be counted on to lay down their lives?
We likely had here, as we had in Corinth, a "rich vs. poor" dichotomy that aggravated the situation; but even if not, the admonitions go hand-in-hand from a first-century social perspective. (Not to mention the principle of Jesus, re being trusted with small things.) Or, as Grayston puts it, while it does seem to be a "sudden drop", it is not an unhappy sequence at all, for, "if each member may be called upon to surrender his life for the benefit of the community, how much more must he be willing to surrender his property to help a needy brother." [Gray.JE, 113-4]
As before, the arguments of Earl Doherty for a mythical Christ are without foundation. The first epistle of John is no more supportive of his thesis than any NT document he has examined thus far.