Johannine Dualism in Depth: A Theological and Grammatical Engagement
I have mentioned here before that I am something of a fanboy of Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (ZECNT) series. It's become one of my first go-tos for sermon preparation because it provides concise literary context and a main idea sketch; a solid, through explanation of the text with the original Greek alongside the NIV; and theological application to provide meaningful application of the text.
Well Karen H. Jobes has added a new layer of insight to her new commentary on 1, 2, 3 John that makes the series even more helpful and crucial: In depth sidebars that drill down into specific aspects of John's theology, context, grammar, word usage, and interpretation.
There are two specific sidebars in her commentary on John's letters that were particularly interesting: "The Johannine Dualistic Framework" and the "Being of God (ἐκ) in John's Letters."
Not only do they provide a window into Jobes' excellent work. They also provide some fresh insights into Johannine dualism I thought you'd find helpful.
1 John Dualistic Theology
"The disciple whom Jesus loved" is known in part for his use of duality to rhetorically drive home his theological message. Jobes provides a helpful chart in her introduction (25-27) outlining such dualisms—from light/darkness, truth/false, love/hate—to show the relationship of the Letters to John's Gospel.
One of John's best known dualisms comes straight away in the first few verses of 1 John 1, same as the gospel: light and darkness. In her comments on 1:5-10, Jobes gives helpful insights into the Johannine dualistic framework, a frame that governs much of John's writings in order to reveal theological truths of God.
"Because God is light," Jobes explains, "everything that is the antithesis of God is darkness. John uses the mutually exclusive duality between light and darkness to order and structure his theological worldview..." (65)
She notes this order and structure continues throughout 1 John: "Starting with light and darkness, John builds a dualistic frame based on binary polarities: above and below, good and evil, truth and lies, life and death." (66)
Germain to this light/dark conversation, John forges such a dualistic structure to present the human condition as either in the light or in the darkness, which Jobes notes "is surely a vantage point only God himself knows." She continues, "The point John makes with his moral dualism is an eschatalogical point, showing that one's standing with God is not always evident from a snapshot of a moment in one's life." (66)
A particularly helpful section of this in-depth sidebar is her explanation of the types of existing dualities in first-century mainline Judaism of which John shares, which she borrows from N.T. Wright:
- The theological/cosmological duality observes the Creator-creation distinction and is reflected in his gospel with reference to the Word and in his letter with reference to the Word coming into the world below.
- The moral duality is based on the theological; if the righteous God is life, in whom there isn't any darkness, then he has the authority to define human moral behavior.
- The eschatological duality frames John's emphasis on eternal life and eternal death.
Using existing Jewish dualities John structures his theological arguments dualistically "to show the theological truth of God, to discuss the human condition of life in this world, and to present the eschatological reality of eternal life after death for those who walk in the light, who find their life in the Son of God." (67)
1 John Dualistic Grammar
To press his theological point, Jobes explains how John uses the common Greek preposition ἐκ, but in a unique way to convey his specific message. In her comments on 1 John 2:15-17 Jobes provides another "In Depth" sidebar to delve into the "Being of God (ἐκ) in John's Letters."
Though I have let much of my seminary Greek go fallow (shame on me, I know!), I still remember ἐκ often means "out of" or "from," carrying with it a sense of place and origin. John, however, uses it differently: "In John's writings this preposition is used to construct the duality between God and the world, truth and falsehood, righteousness and sin." (111)
(As an aside: because these letters share the same usage with the Gospel of John, this is one of the reasons Jobes believes they are authentically Johannine. She says Judith Lieu agrees, saying "this use of the preposition ἐκ is unusual and characteristic of John's writings;" it is a "distinctive marker" )
John uses ἐκ to convey a sense of being: "To be 'of' God or 'of' the world specifies the origin of one's impulses, motivations, and spiritual identity." So in 2:16 when John writes, "Because everything in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life—is not of [ἐκ] the Father but is [ἐκ] the world" Jobes argues he means "that these things characterize the person who is of the world." (emph. mine, 111)
Somewhat comically, in response to how the NIV translates the word as "comes from," Jobes notes, "It is not as if such things fly out of the world and into the church; rather, those who love the world and the things of the world are themselves 'of' the world. Their basic drives and impulses do not originate with God." (111-112)
Therefore, John's unique grammatical use of this common preposition drives the theological point that to be "of God" or "of the world" is either to be "a child of God who has been delivered from sin or that one has been born only of the world and remains under God's wrath." (112)
These kinds of insightful asides add a level of depth and engagement with the text that will surely help pastors and teachers better exegete and explicate these important letters.
Add this commentary to your library to better teach in this spiritually confusing time to assure your people of their eternity in light of their knowledge of God in Christ—like John wrote for his day and time.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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