This is the third in a series of posts that will, at some point before Final Judgment, culminate in the exegesis of a selected section of 1 John. I will try to avoid the War and Peace effect this time but, my goodness, it is such fun to think about!
The bottom line is this: The community that had originally formed around the Beloved Disciple and the Fourth Gospel has now broken into at least two factions. The Elder writes to those who yet remain in his camp to confront and correct the errors of the schismatic group and to comfort them by assuring them that they have made the correct choice and are assured of eternal life. The cause of the break-up seems to be that while “both parties knew the proclamation of Christianity available to us through the Fourth Gospel…they interpreted it differently” (Brown, Community, 106).
HOW DO WE KNOW ANY OF THIS?
We know what we know about this conflict primarily from what 1 John tells us, so we have only the Elder’s word for the situation. There is no independent verification of the theological position taken by the Elder’s opponents, or of any of the ethical shortcomings that he attributes to them. It is quite likely that, if we had written evidence of their position, the Elder’s point of view would be declared just as profoundly inappropriate.
How, then, can we trust what he says? The best response to this question is to ask what might have been the consequences had the Elder misrepresented his opponents. It is clear enough that the breakup is quite recent, which implies that the Elder’s addressees knew from their own experience about his opponents. If his characterization were too far off, then his efforts to persuade and comfort would be rendered ineffective by this lack of authenticity. Personally, I think it more likely that we have an incomplete picture of the opponents rather than a very inaccurate one.
Finally, there is disagreement about whether or not the schism itself is the “main thrust” of the Elder’s remarks, or whether he has wider objectives including simply explaining what is an appropriate way to understand the Fourth Gospel. The folks who opt for the wider view are principally Pheme Perkins, Judith Lieu, and Ruth Edwards. My thought is that they have done us a service by calling attention back to the pastoral components of the text but I remain unconvinced of their larger position. You can get a synopsis of their thoughts and access to their works in any decent commentary. For my part, I will probably quote or allude to their thoughts at appropriate points rather than summarizing them now.