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.
How to Read the First Epistle of John Non-Polemically 33
aspect is central. Different topics of 1 John can therefore be seen not as
related to external events, but primarily in relation to each other (38). On
this basis I shall later examine the relationship of love and faith (III.2.).
Systems theory also helps to understand the phenomenon of the
opponents since the core of Luhmannâ€™s systems theory is the
difference between system and environment based on delimitation (39).
A system comes into being by being separated from its environment
and creating a difference from it:
They [systems] constitute and maintain themselves by creating and
maintaining a difference from their environment, and they use their
boundaries to regulate this difference. [...] In this sense boundary
maintenance is system maintenance (40).
By boundary maintenance the system forms and maintains itself.
The central question is, therefore, not how the system interacts with its
environment, but how the difference is created by and treated within
the system. Luhmann frequently uses the term self-reference, which
can be found in all acts of the system (41). The system speaks of its
environment in its own language from which it is impossible to
reconstruct the environment. Self-contact is the only form of
environmental contact (42) so that the environment constitutes the
systemâ€™s own product: â€œThus the complexity of the world neither
repeats itself nor is reflected within systems. There is no depiction of
the â€˜environmentâ€™ within themâ€(43).
What does this mean for the opponents? They are a way for the
system to speak about itself by means of a personalized delimitation.
Even when 1 John speaks about opponents in the third person, this
refers to the system itself. This does not mean automatically that the
opponents are banned to the realm of hypothesis. There may have been
opponents, but 1 John read self-referentially is not an adequate source
to get to know something about them. The question is, therefore, not
who the opponents were but with which purpose 1 John creates them.
(38) N. LUHMANN, Social Systems (trans. J. Bednarz, Jr. with D. Baecker;
Stanford, CA 1995) (first German edition 1984).
(39) T. Griffith also emphasizes â€œthe need to reinforce the limits of the
Johannine communityâ€ (GRIFFITH, â€œReadingâ€, 253). Luhmannâ€™s theory can
provide a theoretical foundation for this accent.
(40) LUHMANN, Social Systems, 17.
(41) LUHMANN, Social Systems, 33 defines self-reference as â€œthe unity that [â€¦]
a system [â€¦] is for itselfâ€.
(42) LUHMANN, Social Systems, 33.
(43) LUHMANN, Social Systems, 444.