Notes on 1 John – the background

I know at the end of my last post I said I would talk about observations on the occurrences of “know” in this letter I want to first share some of the background to the letter so that when I share these notes on “know” they will make more sense.  Also, note Sam’s comment in the comments section and let me know if this is too hard to read.

Background for understanding 1 John: Proto-Gnosticism

We could get really deep into all this (talking about intermediaries and aeons and angelic beings, etc) but I am just going to share some of the basics.

To really understand what is going on in this letter, 1 John, it is important to talk about a religious philosophy called Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a modern term for a complex of religious and philosophical ideas that began to take shape in the mid to late 1st century and was not really too prevalent or fully developed and practiced until well into the 2nd and 3rd centuries thus my basis for using the term “proto-Gnosticism” or one could say “incipient Gnosticism.” Gnosticism bases its foundations in the idea of knowledge and knowing, both intellectually and spiritually. The word itself comes from the Greek “gnosis” meaning “to know.”

At the time of mid-to late first century Gnosticism was fast becoming the prevailing religious philosophy of the day and it sucked in many people with it. While it may have begun 2000 years ago, it still rears its ugly head today.

As a religious philosophy, Gnosticism centers on a search for higher knowledge believing that through that knowledge one can obtain salvation from the material world. This knowledge was not merely some intellectual knowledge but a type of esoteric spiritual knowledge that could only be attained by certain kinds of Pneumatikoi or “special spiritual people.” This knowledge was supposedly not available to “ordinary” Christians. However, it was available to certain types and once the special spiritual knowledge was attained, according to Gnosticism, this person was saved.

There are two basic parts of Gnostic teaching:

The first major teaching of Gnosticism is the supremacy of knowledge.

  • Certain Pneumatikoi or “spiritual ones” claimed to have special knowledge of truth and spiritual realities. Ordinary Christians did not or could not possess this secret of higher knowledge.

The second major teaching of Gnosticism was the separation of spirit and matter.

  • All matter [e.g., bodies] was considered to be evil and the source of evil.
  • The spirit was considered to be good and impervious to defilement by anything the body (matter) did.

It important to know as well, Gnosticism was/is a parasitic belief – it built itself off another religious idea or philosophy. When it attached itself to Christianity it tried to take on a similar form so that it was difficult to see the subtleties in the errors in thinking. At the same time some of the attitudes that derived from Gnostic teaching were quite blatant and obvious.

Gnosticism claimed a so-called higher knowledge above and beyond that revealed by Jesus Christ and through the prophets. Its origins lie in Greco-Roman Philosophies and Eastern religions particularly those of Persia (modern day Iran) and India.

The Gnostics allegorized the Old Testament and undermined the veracity of the Word of God. They warped teachings on creation, sin, and the restoration of all things. Due to their belief that matter was evil, they failed to see how a supreme God, pure in spirit and essentially good, could create a universe of matter, which they considered evil.

Related to their views on matter being evil there were two major factions of Gnosticism we need to be aware of:
The Docetic Gnostics:

  • The Docetics denied the humanity of Christ. Docetic comes from the Greek dokeo – meaning generally “to seem.” According to the Docetics, it was impossible for God, who was spirit and good, to become flesh, which was matter and evil, in the person of Jesus Christ. They believed Jesus was a phantom; he didn’t possess a real flesh and blood body. He only “seemed” to have a body.

The Cerinthian Gnostics (followers of Cerinthian – a contemporary and opponent of John):

  • The Cerinthians separated the man Jesus from the aeon, the power of Christ. They believed when the dove came on Jesus at his Baptism, the power of Christ came and rested on the man Jesus then departed before his death on the cross. So it was simply the man Jesus who died, not Jesus Christ, God in the flesh.

These Gnostic heresies denied that God became human, a man, and walked this earth in the person of Jesus Christ to bring redemption and salvation to the world. They eliminated Jesus Christ as the only way to God and formed their own way to God through their inquiry and quest for knowledge. Faith and one’s deeds were viewed as having no significance in salvation or the life of a Christian.

For the Gnostics, salvation came from knowing theories and ideas over putting faith in a Savior. They wanted salvation to come through knowing rather than trusting. But deep down they did not actually believe that Jesus was who he said he was – the Greeks were steeped in their own mythology – the God’s came down and took human form but nobody actually believed they were human. There was also the problem of pride and a desire to put oneself above others. It was an elitist and loveless religious philosophy. They did not believe God loves everyone but only those deemed worthy of enlightenment of the aeons or spiritual powers.

Does the idea of the Gnostic Gospels make sense now? They have all have these supposed secret sayings of Jesus no one else ever heard, etc.

It rears its ugly head on many levels (often refurbished or recycled) – Oprah and her Tolle friend are ultimate New Age Gnostics. Ever watch “Christian” TV – lots of folks on their claiming some special revelation on the Bible no body’s ever heard before. Even unsuspecting Christians can give into it thinking maybe their pastor or someone in their life is super spiritual and seems to know god better then they do or can, etc.

Try reading through 1 John now in light of some of the basics of Gnostic ideas and let me know what you think.

Again, it was a very early form of it, very early – so we can’t take it too far but it can help set the letter of 1 John in context a bit.


Selected Bibliography

You can learn more of Gnosticism in one or more of the following resources (not exhaustive). You want to read the article on Gnosticism and on 1 John in the dictionaries/Encylopedia.

Precept Ministries The New Inductive Study Bible (Harvest House, 2000). This is an excellent Study Bible if you really want to dig in to the Word! It has an article on Gnosticism in the back (you can read all the other stuff on Gnosticism but this article cuts out all the fluff and simplifies the issues).

Robert H. Gundry. A Survey of the New Testament, 4th ed. (Zondervan, 2003). Lots of good NT Survey’s out there with lots of information (ie., DeSilva) but Gundry seems to cut the fluff and get to the point a little quicker than others. He notes the Cerinthians and the Docetics in his discussion of 1 John.

IVP’s Dictionary of the Later New Testament and it’s Developments (IVP, 1997).

Zondervan’s Pictorial Encylopedia of the Bible vol 2-3 (5 vol series) (Zondervan, 1975). I have the whole set and this has been a surprisingly useful resource – seems dated but when I did the reading in other material – is was not that dated – and I have found this to be true on a lot of the articles in this series.

Comfort and Driesbach’s The Many Gospels of Jesus: Sorting out the story of the life of Jesus (Tyndale, 2008). The chapter on Gnosticism in this book is so good it is worth the price of the book alone.

John Stott, The Letters of John (IVP, 2007). I have the 1988 edition. I can only imagine the update is that much better. (I am sure other commentaries may discuss this issue, though Stott is all I have at the moment).

Contrarian views can be found with Raymond Brown who thinks references to Gnosticism is exaggerated (a serious indictment). Luke Timothy Johnson makes no mention of Gnosticism in his NT Intro.


6 responses to “Notes on 1 John – the background

  1. Brian –

    I agree with you that proto-Gnosticism certainly informs 1 John. However, the influence of Gnosticism is somewhat academically “in vogue” right now. And anything that fashionable is usually overemphasized. As important as it may be, Gnostic issues aren’t at the core of John’s writing. Gnostic strands existed centuries prior to NT writings – it wasn’t suddenly the “new thing” on the religious block.

    I like to view John’s letters (and gospel) as an addendum to Jesus’s received tradition. John rounds out our understanding of the gospel and the church. Let me explain a little. Based on chronology alone, John is roughly 40 years after intial NT documents so I think he was essentially “filling in holes” for the early church, both doctrinal and pastoral. And that is what drives 1 John, particularly the pastoral part. And this is where Gnosticism fits in. John discourages Gnostic elements and intermediaries simply due to the fact that after Christ, no intermediary is acceptable. His audience was misinterpreting or misunderstanding part of the finished work of Christ. That’s not a doctrinal issue as much as a relational one. I believe that if you fix the relational proximity of God and the doctrine easily follows. Those who were searching for Gnostic enlightment and angelic hierarchies were missing the true sense of what it means to “know” God at a level of intimacy formerly only promised through Gnostic asceticism. But Jesus changed all of that..and the church was missing it. For John, though Gnosticism may be evil and destructive, more importantly it was a substitute for the “I in you and you in me” he had written about in his gsopel. They’re all connected.

    There’s nothing wrong with knowledge. John understood that – but there is something wrong with knowledge when it’s divorced from the relationship that inspries it. In the same way, Gnosticism was one of several issues among “antichrists” that was eclipsing the larger scope of the work: John’s pastoral drive to explain the love of God and it’s practical outworking in the lives of the church. Gnosticism (as well as many other things) was getting in the way of this larger goal, so John (the pastor) attacks it.


  2. Thanks same for commenting – I learned of the gnostic idea back in 97 but I see your point and hope not to overemphasize it. I agree there are a complex of things going on – it just seemed to make a lot of sense of the letter and when I did a light inductive study of 1 John in the light of gnostic teachings it really made the letter make more sense to me. But I can see what you are saying that there are other things going on as well.

  3. Pingback: Bookmarks about Gnosticism

  4. Hi. Where did you find the statement that gnostics believed that God did not love everybody…? I would like to know for my thesis. Thank you.

  5. I’m no longer certain the place you are getting your information, however good topic. I must spend a while finding out much more or understanding more. Thank you for fantastic info I used to be looking for this info for my mission.

  6. I like this exposition. I’d like to see some footnotes on sources. This is one of the most needed understandings today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s