Having summarized (in Part 1) my understanding of the evidence regarding both the opponents in 1-2 John and of the Johannine spiritualism, I will now attempt to bring together the results of my analysis, synthesizing it, to see in what ways the opponents (and the conflict surrounding them) may relate to this spiritualism.
Spiritualism and the Opponents: Synthesizing the Evidence
I will present three specific lines of interpretation, expounding and arguing them as far as the evidence may allow:
- The priority of the Spirit in teaching/guiding believers
- The abiding presence of Jesus through the Spirit, and
- Spiritualistic aspects of the Johannine Christology (i.e., regarding the person of Christ)
1. The Priority of the Spirit in Teaching/Guiding Believers
The key evidence for this particular aspect of Johannine spiritualism is: (a) the Paraclete-sayings in the Gospel (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15), and (b) the xri=sma-statements in 1 Jn 2:20, 27. These statements emphasize the role of the Spirit in teaching and guiding believers. This role is suggested by the very title “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:12; 1 Jn 4:6, cf. also 5:6), obviously implying the truthfulness of the Spirit’s teaching and witness, but even more particularly by the promises in 14:26 and 16:13:
- “that (one) [i.e. the Spirit/Paraclete] will teach you all (thing)s”
- “when that (one) should come…he will lead you on the way in all truth”
In 1 John 2:20f, 27, the “anointing” (xri=sma) that abides/remains in the believer functions in much the same way:
“…you hold (the) anointing from the Holy (One), and you have seen [i.e. known] all (thing)s” (v. 20)
“…the anointing that you received from Him remains in you, and you do not have (any) need that any(one) should teach you…the anointing teaches you about all (thing)s” (v. 27)
The term xri=sma (“anointing”) here is best understood as a reference to the abiding presence of the Spirit, as I discuss in the article on this passage.
The opponents almost certainly shared this Johannine belief with the author of 1 John (and with the Community at large). If so, then it is fair to assume that the opponents, who would have regarded themselves as true believers, understood that they possessed God’s Spirit, and that the Spirit was the primary (and sufficient) source for Divine teaching and instruction. Moreover, they presumably believed also that Jesus (the Son) was himself teaching them through the Spirit (see esp. Jn 16:12-15).
On this basis, with the presumption that the Spirit of Truth (and Jesus through the Spirit) would not (and could not) teach them anything false, the opponents likely regarded their Christology, their understanding of Jesus Christ, to be true, confirmed by the internal witness of the Spirit.
The problem, then, for the Johannine Community, which apparently was experiencing a significant Christological division, was how to reconcile two contrasting (and opposing) views of Jesus with the one Spirit of truth. Significantly, the author does not deny the primacy of the Spirit as the guiding (and authoritative) source of truth, though this might have been useful as a way of combating the opponents. Instead of relying, for example, upon a personal apostolic authority (the noun a)po/stolo$ is essentially absent from the Johannine writings [cf. Jn 13:16]), the author seems to maintain the priority of the abiding (internal) presence of the Spirit, which is available to all believers. I tend to take seriously the author’s statements in 2:20, 27 as representing fundamental declarations of Johannine belief, doubtless understood as a fulfillment of the ‘new covenant’ prophecy in Jer 31:31-34 (vv. 33-34). The same focus on the (internal) witness of the Spirit is found in 3:24 [par 4:13], 4:4, and 5:6-8.
How, then, does the author combat the opponents? He does this two ways. First, in addressing his readers, he effectively treats them as true believers, assuming that they will thus be in agreement with the Community (of true believers)—with whom he also identifies himself. The underlying assumption, thus, is that, as true believers, the readers can trust that the indwelling Spirit will convince them of the truth, and that they will accept the Christology of the author (as representing the view of the Community), rather than that of the opponents.
Along with this rhetorical strategy, the author adds the implicit test that the witness of the Spirit will affirm, and will not contradict, the established witness of the historical (Gospel) tradition—regarding the person and work of Jesus. The author introduces this theme at the very beginning of his treatise, in the prologue (1:1-4), and it continues to run as an underlying thread throughout. In particular, the reality (and significance) of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being) is emphasized—especially his sacrificial death (i.e., his “blood”, 1:7; 5:6-8, cf. Jn 6:53-56; 19:30). I have previously noted how the opponents combated by Ignatius of Antioch (see esp. his letter to the Smyrneans) seem to have similarly denied/devalued Jesus’ death, and how they resemble the Johannine opponents in certain respects.
Ultimately, the author summarizes the Gospel tradition by way of a trio of Christological confessional statements—in 2:22-23; 4:2-3 [par 2 Jn 7]; 5:5-6f—which he presents as a litmus test to distinguish between the true believers and the opponents.
2. The Abiding Presence of Jesus through the Spirit
A fundamental component of the Johannine theology is that Jesus (God’s Son) abides/remains (vb me/nw) in and among believers through the Spirit. God the Father, present in the Son, also abides in believers (and believers in Him)—cf. 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13, etc. Thus, even after his departure/return to the Father (in heaven), Jesus continues to remain with believers, teaching and guiding them. This is the principal message of the Gospel Paraclete-sayings (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15), and it can be inferred from the other Spirit-references in the Gospel as well.
As I discuss above, there is little reason to doubt that the opponents shared this Johannine belief with the author of 1 John (along with the wider Community). This may help to explain how they might come to devalue or relativize the significance of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. After all, if he continues to remain with believers, continuing to teach and guide, then why should one place such importance on the things he said and did during the short span of his earthly ministry. Moreover, is not his presence in the Spirit greater that his limited presence in the flesh, as a matter of principle (cf. Jn 4:24; 6:63), far surpassing it in importance?
Again, the author does not in any way deny the fundamental Johannine belief—viz., of the Son’s abiding presence through the Spirit. However, as discussed above, he very much gives emphasis to Jesus’ earthly life (and death) as a human being. The idea of Jesus’ coming “in the flesh” (4:2f; 2 Jn 7) clearly refers to his life and existence as a (real) human being. Whether or not the opponents’ Christology was docetic, they do seem at least to have denied (or devalued) the significance of Jesus’ earthly life. Their denial, according to the author, was focused principally upon Jesus’ human death (“blood”)—its reality and/or importance. In my view, as I have discussed (cf. the article and supplemental notes), the confessional statement in 5:5-6ff informs the earlier ones in 4:2-3 and 2:22-23. In other words, the opponents’ false Christology (according to the author) was rooted in their understanding of his death.
One can see how a strongly spiritualistic view of Jesus (cf below) might tend to avoid emphasizing his death. After all, if “the flesh is not useful (for) anything” (Jn 6:63), how could this not include a person’s death in the flesh? By contrast, the author gives particular emphasis to Jesus’ death, especially in 5:6-8. This passage toward the end of the treatise is matched by the earlier reference in 1:7ff (cf. the earlier note), focusing on the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. The implication is that this life-giving (and preserving/restoring) power is communicated to the believer through the Spirit. This idea is brought out more directly, it seems, by two passages in the Gospel: (1) the eucharistic language in 6:51-58, read in light of the statement of v. 63; and (2) the allusion to Jesus’ giving of the Spirit in 19:30 (also v. 34) at the moment of his death.
3. Spiritualistic Aspects of the Johannine Christology
It is reasonable to posit that the opponents’ view of Jesus Christ is rooted in the wider Johannine Christology, and represents a particular variation, or development, of it. As such, it is worth considering if there are any spiritualistic aspects of this Christology which may, in some respect, inform the opponents’ view. Here three lines of exploration will be considered briefly:
- Pre-existence Christology
- The Priority of the Spirit in the Gospel Narrative
- Jesus’ Role in the Outpouring of the Spirit
a. Pre-existence Christology
If, as would seem to be the case, the Gospel of John is representative of the Christology of the Johannine churches (when the Letters were written), then this was a pre-existence Christology—that is, characterized by a fundamental belief that identified Jesus Christ as the eternal (and pre-existent) Son of God, existing as such even prior to his earthly life. Once such a Christology had taken root throughout the Community, it created certain difficulties for the understanding of Jesus’ earthly life (as a human being). In particular, it became hard to explain Jesus’ death—indeed, how could the eternal Son of God die like any other ordinary human being?
Two relatively influential Christological trends—which are attested throughout the second and third centuries, but which likely originated sometime near the end of the first century—the Docetic and the Separatist, offered different explanations to navigate around this problem. In the various forms of the Docetic view, Jesus Christ only seemed (or appeared, vb doke/w) to be human, and thus only seemed to suffer an ordinary human death. Alternately, according to the Separationist view, the Divine Son/Christ and the man Jesus were two separate entities, who were joined together at the baptism and then separated at the moment of his death; this can be represented by the coming and departure of the Spirit, respectively (cf. Jn 1:26, 33; 19:30, ). Based on the evidence from the Ignatian letters (cf. throughout Smyrneans, also Trallians 10, etc), it is quite possible that the Johannine opponents held a rudimentary docetic view of Jesus, though a separationist view would accord better with the Johannine Gospel itself (cf. below).
The consequences of a pre-existence Christology to the Johannine spiritualism may be even more fundamental. One practical result of this Christology is to shift the focus from Jesus’ human nature to his Divine nature as Spirit (Jn 4:24); the Son receives the fullness of the Father’s Spirit (3:34-35). This is not simply the product of Jesus’ resurrection/exaltation (cp. 1 Cor 15:45; 6:17), it is intrinsic to his eternal identity as the Son (and he returns to it after the resurrection, Jn 17:1-5, etc). Thus the essential spiritual nature of Jesus may be seen as an important component of the Johannine Christology, even though (admittedly) this aspect is not particularly developed in the writings. It would, however, imply that the presence of Jesus (in believers) through the Spirit is the principal way that believers understand and experience him. The Gospel record of Jesus’ limited earthly life (and death), by comparison, could be seen as of only secondary importance. Possibly the opponents’ denial of Jesus Christ “having come in the flesh” is rooted in this basic Christological preference for Jesus as Spirit, rather than as flesh (cf. Jn 6:63).
b. The Priority of the Spirit in the Gospel Narrative
References to the Spirit frame the Johannine Gospel narrative, with the Spirit coming upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry (1:32-34), and then being released (by Jesus) at the end (19:30, ; 20:22). The emphasis on Jesus ‘baptizing’ people in the Spirit (i.e., living water [cf. 4:10-15; 7:37-39], instead of with ordinary water), following the tradition of the Baptist’s saying (1:26, 33; cp. Mark 1:8 par), is a theme that dominates chapters 1-3. The statements about being born of the Spirit (instead of an ordinary human birth [out of ordinary water]) in 3:3-8 (cp. 1:12-13) is part of this thematic development. In the following Discourses of chaps. 4-8, the idea of Jesus giving the Spirit—through the idiom of giving living water/bread—also features as an important theme (cf. 4:10-15, 32ff; 6:35ff, 48ff, 51-58, 63; 7:37-39). Finally, the promise of the Spirit, as the abiding presence of Jesus the Son (and God the Father) with believers, is central to the Last Discourse (particularly in the Paraclete-sayings, 14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7b-15), and is also alluded to in the chap. 17 Prayer-Discourse.
All of these theological (and Christological) points of reference strongly suggest that believers experience the presence and power of Jesus Christ (the Son of God) primarily, and directly, through the indwelling Spirit. This spiritual primacy of believers’ relationship with God (the Father, and Jesus the Son) is an essential component of Christian spiritualism. It would very much seem to reflect the understanding of the Spirit within the Johannine Community, and likely was influential in shaping the views of the opponents as well.
c. Jesus’ Role in the Outpouring of the Spirit
The Gospel references related to Jesus’ giving the Spirit are documented in section (b.) above, including the idiom of baptizing people in/with the Spirit and the motif of living water—both of which involve the image of pouring out water. There can be no doubt as to the eschatological significance of this imagery, drawn as it is from Old Testament (Prophetic) tradition regarding the pouring out of God’s Spirit upon His people in the New Age of Israel’s restoration (see the passages cited, with links to detailed notes, in the Introduction to this series). The end-time outpouring of the Spirit upon God’s people (believers) is ushered in by the work of Jesus the Anointed One (Messiah/Christ), culminating in his death, resurrection, and exaltation.
The Johannine churches shared this basic belief with all other early Christians. However, the particular emphasis on the Spirit—and on Jesus giving the Spirit to believers—has a special prominence in the Johannine tradition (and its Gospel, cf. above). It may be said that, for most Johannine Christians, the primary role of Jesus—and the purpose of his incarnate mission on earth—was as the giver of God’s Spirit to His people. Though Jesus (the Son) possessed the fullness of God the Father’s Spirit (cf. above), his giving of the Spirit to believers was made possible only after the fulfillment of his earthly mission—culminating in his sacrificial death. This would seem to be expressed clearly enough in the Gospel, and yet the opponents apparently did not recognize the significance of Jesus’ death in this regard. Even if they acknowledged the reality of his human death, they may have denied its importance (and salvific power).
How does this relate to Johannine spiritualism? It is possible that the opponents held that the Spirit was communicated to believers by Jesus apart from his death. This is one way of understanding the significance of the author’s distinction between Jesus’ coming “in/through water” and “in/through blood” (1 Jn 5:6ff). If “water” here refers to Jesus’ baptism, then this was the moment when the Spirit came upon Jesus. Typically early Christians saw a believer’s baptism as the moment when, similarly, the believer received the Spirit (from Jesus). Thus, it is the baptism that holds the significance for receiving the Spirit, not Jesus’ death (“blood”). Again, it is possible that this way of thinking informed, to some extent, the opponents’ view. I am more inclined to think that “in/through water” refers rather to Jesus’ birth as a human being (and “in/through blood” to his death), but I will admit that the water-baptism connection represents a plausible interpretation that must be seriously considered.
Some final thoughts regarding the opponents, and their relation to Johannine spiritualism, will be given in the conclusion to the studies (in this series) on the Johannine writings.