Spiritual snobbery won’t do

by John Wijngaards, The Bible Today 25 (1987) pp. 6-10

The last decade has seen a steady flow of publications on John’s letters. When I did some stock-taking I spotted seventy-six articles, seventeen monographs, and fifteen commentaries. Of these last, the most recent in English were written by Howard Marshall, Pheme Perkins, Raymond Brown, and Kenneth Grayston. It is always exciting to see whether new trends are emerging. What do we find? In some respect the scene has not changed much from ten years ago. Scholars still propose different theories on the purpose and origin of the letters. Despite this, many would agree that they were written, sometime after John’s Gospel, by one or two charismatic leaders of the Johannine community—that section of the early Church that conserved and elaborated the traditions found in John’s Gospel.

Have there been areas of special interest in recent research? Yes. Quite some space has been devoted to the nature of Christian mysticism and indwelling, anointing by the Holy Spirit, and the alternative Johannine vision of church organization. I will restrict myself to three other ques­tions often raised: What was at stake in the confession that Jesus Christ “has come in the flesh”? How should one understand the claim that per­sons born of God cannot commit sin? Why is the love of God and love of the neighbour inseparable? The answers to these questions provide the key to understanding the letters.

The Human Jesus

Even a cursory reading of the Johannine letters makes it clear that the authors wish to protect their communities from the influence of misguided teachers. Strong terms are used: the opponents are said to be liars, An­tichrists, idol worshipers, and children of the evil one. Pheme Perkins rightly cautions that such vehemence of expression may be due to the oral culture underlying the writings. Oral instruction inclines to polemi­cal and absolute formulations. It favours sharp contrasts, overstatement, rhetorical exaggeration. Be that as it may, the authors’ concern is so out­spoken and their rejection so definitive that we cannot but conclude that they were speaking of real heresy. What were the false doctrines against which they were warning the community?

A central element was Jesus’ role as Saviour. “By this you can discern which spirit is from God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; but every spirit which does not con­fess Jesus is not from God” (1 John 4:2-3). The text says: Watch out! Some people claim to speak with the help of the Holy Spirit, either when teach­ing or pronouncing a prophetic utterance. Ask them whether they ac­cept the true humanity of Christ. If they do, you know the Holy Spirit is really speaking. If not, beware. Whoever does not acknowledge “the coming of Jesus Christ

Many efforts have been made to identify the precise heresy in ques­tion. Should we see a reference here to the disciples of Cerinthus who held that Jesus was just an ordinary person, the natural son of Joseph and Mary, into whom, at his baptism, the “Christ” descended from the higher world? Or were they “Docetists” (a word derived from Greek dokein, “to seem”)? Ignatius of Antioch tells us that they believed that Jesus “only seemed to suffer” because he possessed no more than a phan­tom human body. Recent studies, however, tend to steer away from such earlier identifications. The allusions in Ignatius’ letters are too vague. The doctrine of Cerinthus appears much more developed than what we find reflected in 1 John. Finally, the opponents were once part of the Johan- nine community. “They left us,” the author says, “but they did not be­long to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have stayed with us” (1 John 2:19). He is not speaking of outsiders, but of dissident Christians.

It may well be that Raymond Brown is right when he interprets the heresy as a consequence of John’s “high Christology.” What he means is that the stress on Jesus’ divinity and pre-existence as found in John’s Gospel could easily lead to an undervaluation of Jesus’ reality as a human being. If the Word was believed to have been forever with God, the tem­porary episode of dwelling with us had only a brief, revelatory function. Jesus’ sacrificial death could be played down. The shedding of his blood (1 John 1:7; 5:6) would have no real meaning. According to Brown, such a minimizing belief could have been the forerunner of the full-fledged, later Gnostic systems. I believe the heresy was worse.

A Christianity without Christ

 I am inclined to agree with Kenneth Grayston who sees this as an even more radical departure from Christian faith. The heretics may have been a small group of community members who considered themselves a spiritual elite. Priding themselves on being true children of God and be­ing anointed with the Spirit, they claimed to have direct access to the Father in prayer and vision. For them, Jesus was only a model, an elder brother, the first of the line. Basically they considered themselves equal to him. They did not feel the need of Jesus either for knowing God or for being saved. It is this rejection of Jesus’ essential mediatorship as “the Christ” that is the kernel of their heresy. “No one who denies the Son has access to the Father. The one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

Seen in this form, we suddenly realize that we meet this kind of her­esy in our own days as well. There are a number of Christians (or should we say post-Christians?) who will take many spiritual elements from Christianity but who reduce Jesus to being an ordinary human teacher. They claim that Christianity, like other major religions in the world, pro­vides mystical access to God and a code of ethical behaviour. But that God would have actually “become flesh” in Christ, that God would have be­come so much involved with our small world as to “pitch a tent among us” seems to them unlikely and irrelevant. The incarnational aspect of our Christian beliefs is thus pushed to the background in favour of a more philosophical and contemplative approach. However, the heart of our Christian faith is precisely that God actually did do that unbelievably dar­ing deed of living among us as “the Son.” By seeing Jesus we could and can actually see God (John 14:9). By hearing Jesus, we were and are listen­ing to God’s own words (John 7:16).

Can Christians Sin?

Understanding the opponents may also help us to solve a second puzzle. The Johannine leader states without reserve that no person who abides in Christ sins (1 John 3:6). He explains further: “No one born of God commits sin. For God’s seed lives in that one, who cannot sin, being born of God” (1 John 3:9). It is truly an amazing statement. Not only does it clash with our own Christian experience; it is explicitly contradicted by other assertions in the same letter. “If we claim to have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). “I am writing this to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). An avalanche of solutions is proposed. (I counted at least twelve different ones in recent publications.

We may safely assume that the dissenters mentioned before may have made exaggerated claims for themselves. Perhaps they thought that their mystical experiences made human failings irrelevant. Had not Jesus him­self taught that true believers will not be judged because they have al­ready passed from death to life (John 5:24)? Had he not said they were clean all over (John 13:10)? The indwelling by the Spirit could be compared, they might have felt, with what Hellenists called the presence of “God’s seed” in us, that is, the soul as a divine principle. For such rea­sons they might consider themselves far above having to worry about sin. We know that in later Gnostic circles this same attitude reappeared.

If this is what the dissidents held, we can understand the two points which the orthodox teacher raises against them. First of all, being reborn in Christ does not canonize us while we are still alive. We can make mis­takes. We do commit smaller sins for which we can receive forgiveness (1 John 2:2; 5:16). It is even possible for a believer to turn away completely from God and persevere in this attitude until death, thus committing a sin that is truly mortal (1 John 5:16-17). However, the inspired author be­lieves that we also carry within us a source of sinlessness. Because we have become God’s children, God’s “seed” is truly within us. As long as we remain faithful to that inner presence, as long as we “abide in Christ,” we cannot sin (1 John 3:6, 9).

A true Christian perspective will take into account both aspects. We will be humble enough to admit our shortcomings and failings. We will also happily recognize God’s action within us, feeling confident that noth­ing can go wrong as long as we stay in contact with God. “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:18).

The Test of Living in Grace

This leads us to reflect on the third and final point. The author claims: “That we have passed from death to life we know by this, that we love our brothers and sisters. Whoever does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). Since, in Johannine terminology, the passing from death to life is equivalent to “having received eternal life,” the question arises as to how the state of grace could be so closely connected to fraternal charity. Bas­ing themselves on John 5:24, many evangelical authors maintain that only faith is the real starting point of the new life. They say that love does not really bring about the transition from the sphere of death to that of life. This would imply justification by works (!). Rather, love is the sign of the presence of eternal life.

Liberation theologians disagree, not because they support justification by works, but because they see a far closer link between faith and its reali­zation in love. They feel—rightly, I think—that the Johannine author reacts to the same kind of spirituality they themselves have come to suspect: the desire to please a distant god by subjective prayer and cultic obser­vance without a true commitment to the world in which we live.

God is real only to the extent that we meet that divine presence in the otherness, in the total demand of the neighbour who is in need. Christian faith is not an intellectual act of the mind. It is a commitment, a “becom­ing flesh” in our love of the neighbour. “If anyone has earthly possessions and sees a companion in need, yet closes one’s heart, how does God’s love live in that person?” (1 John 3:17). Love becomes real only by what we do, not by what we say—by being prepared to lay down our lives for other people, as Christ has done (1 John 3:16-18).

Understanding Love

If we are right in assuming that the opponents of the Johannine com­munity were spiritual snobs who boasted of close intimacy with God while keeping their distance from the ordinary believers and their needs, we can see why the authors of the letters speak so much about love. This is precisely where the heretics failed most. By its very nature love is a gift, wild and unpredictable, intent on reaching out and building up. It is the very opposite of a self-centred, inward-looking complacency. And the remarkable fact is: God is love.

We could not possibly know the creative, life-giving reality which love is if it had not first been shown by God. “God loved us first” (1 John 4:10). This is why the incarnation, so improbable to philosophers, can suddenly become eminently meaningful (1 John 4:9). This is also why, sinners though we are, we can become sinless and free of fear, because the seed of God’s love lives in our hearts. Love is the key. “Whoever loves is a child of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7).

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Raymond E. Brown s.s., The Johannine Epistles (Anchor Bible 30). New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1981.
  • Raymond E. Brown s.s., The Community of the Beloved Disciple. New York: Paulist Press 1979.
  • L. Houlden, A Commentary on the Johannine Epistles (Harper New Testa­ment Commentaries). New York: Harper & Row Publishers, Inc. 1973.
  • Howard Marshall, The Epistles of John (New International Commentary on the New Testament). Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Com­pany 1978.
  • Pheme Perkins, The Johannine Epistles (New Testament Message 21). Wilming­ton: Michael Glazier, Inc. 1979.