Hansjörg Schmidt, «How to Read the First Epistle of John Non-Polemically», Vol. 85 (2004) 24-41
When reading 1 John most contemporary interpretors stress its polemical character and use the opponents as a key for the whole text. In contrast to them, this article proposes a non-polemical reading which treats the opponents only as a minor feature of 1 John and denies the possibility of mirror-reading the epistle. The article shows the merits, but also the inconsistencies of already existing non-polemical readings of 1 John. It describes the relationship between 1 John and John as an intertextual reading-process and views the opponents as literary contrasting figures. They form a part of an apocalyptic scenario and are related to the main ethical theme of 1 John. The pragmatic function of the excursus-like opponent texts(1 John 2,18-27; 4,1-6) is to strengthen and reassure the reader by demonstrating that he or she is immune to the opponent’s denial of the christological confession. On this basis, the ethical parenesis takes place, the urgency of which is stressed by the apocalyptic motifs. As a result, the reader tries to avoid an ethical transgression by which he or she would become like the christological opponents, who thus function as a counter-concept to the community.
26 HansjÃ¶rg Schmid
The readings based on these four suppositions can be called
polemical. For polemical readings it is characteristic that they consider
1 John as rooted in a polemical dispute. Consequently, the text of
1 John, which is read in a polemical context, is understood as a
response or (counter-)attack to someone vis-Ã -vis. Thus, the text model
is that of a circle leading from the text to the history of the Johannine
community and back to the text.
Beyond these four points of assent there is a lot of disagreement
among various polemical readings as to what exactly happened in
the Johannine community and what exactly the semantic position of
the opponents was (8). I could add another reconstruction to this wide
panorama of already existing research. But the far-reaching dis-
agreement can also make one sceptical and lead one to ask if the
hermeneutical presuppositions of such a procedure contribute to
2. Non-Polemical Approaches and Their Deficiencies
The starting point for non-polemical readings is the question
whether or not the opponents have been overemphasized by many au-
thors and what their status in 1 John actually is. From these critical
questions methodological alternatives arise that emphasize the literary
character of 1 John and thus see the opponents in a different light.
Hence, we can define a reading that does not read 1 John as a polemi-
cal text, but as an entity in itself, as non-polemical. In such a reading,
even if polemical elements occur, their function is seen as internal.
Non-polemical readings of 1 John are not popular at all. Many
authors who do not adhere to them do not even mention them (9). But,
to take the discussion seriously, this silence can no longer be
maintained. Therefore, I now want to present briefly the three existing
approaches and ask, if they are able to cope with the difficulties
underlying the polemical approaches:
The first author to take steps in this direction was J.M. Lieu (10).
(8) KLAUCK, 1. Johannesbrief, 34-43.
(9) A positive exception is R.B. EDWARDS, The Johannine Epistles (New
Testament Guides; Sheffield 1996) 64-67 who admits: â€œthe polemical character of
1 John has been exaggeratedâ€ (64). KRUSE, Letters, 16, n. 23, mentions the
approach, but does not consider its content at all.
(10) J.M. LIEU, â€œâ€˜Authority to Become Children of Godâ€™. A Study of 1 Johnâ€,
NovT 23 (1981) 210-228; ID., The Theology of the Johannine Epistles (New
Testament Theology; Cambridge 1991).