Anthony Kelly, CssR


The following article appeared in Studia Moralia XXXVII/1 (June 1999) 35-72.

The group of believers addressed by 1 John is involved in a continuing theological quest. First of all, this comparatively isolated and beleaguered community has to make sense of itself and its faith in a new experience of limits as it suffers through the disturbing reality of internal divisions, isolation, failure and the dying out of the first generation of believers. 1 Secondly, in ways related to this historical situation, the very meaning of the God revealed in Jesus Christ is being reconsidered in a manner so fresh and radical that some of the boldest theological affirmations of the New Testament come to be made. While the Gospel’s christological narrative is presupposed, this letter focusses on the character of the God: the community's ambiguous experience is posing a question that urgently needs an answer. 2 And that answer will always provoke two basic questions for Christian theologians: first, how is theology understood to be moral? Secondly, how is moral theology truly theological?

The celebrated first four verses of 1 John are not only a particularly condensed summary of the Gospel, but bear comparison with the prologue itself (John 1:1-18), in the rhythmic, poetic tone of the expression, and the similarity of content:

Whereas the prologue served as an evocative introduction to story of Jesus, these verses, in another historical context, are part epilogue and part prologue. For they introduce another story, that of an actual community of believers who are reading the Gospel at a later time, and probably in a more distant situation. Times have changed. Jesus has departed this world for the Father. Now the time of seeing is passed; believing is all. Though, in the ongoing history of faith, the God of the Gospel and the God of this community are in essential theological continuity, historical discontinuities have intervened, causing believers to ask in the contingencies of their experience, Where do we go from here?

This moral-theological reflection will concentrate on the meaning of God in 1 John, or, more precisely, on what its author meant God to mean for the community he addresses. 3 Five headings will structure our presentation: (1) The idols that threaten, (2) The love of the true God, (3) The criteria of love’s realism, (4) The three "Dimensions" of love, and (5) The meanings of God. This will be followed by a brief conclusion.


The letter concludes with the words, "Little children, keep yourselves from idols" (5:21). The admonition is addressed to those who are already God’s children (3:1-3). Yet these early disciples are unnerved by opposition (3:1c, 13). Their community is torn with conflicts (2:9, 19-20). Its members are dealing with moral failure (2:1b;3:20; 5:16) and guilt, however unacknowledged (1:8). They have been exposed to a Gnosticism that is eroding the incarnational realism of the Gospel (4:2). 4 The more conscientious among them, depressed by a world of problems, are becoming despondent at the contrast between the truth of the Gospel and the sorry reality of their situation (3:18-22; 4:17-18; 5:3-5). Most of all, they are feeling a deep disaffection among themselves, with the predictable temptation to bypass the radical demands of generous love and hospitality with a more individualised and ‘spiritual’ religiosity (2:4-5, 9-11; 3:10-18; 4:11, 20-21). Impatient with the long haul of a community’s Christian witness, they are tempted to settle for something less than the God whom Jesus has revealed. The great ‘hour’ on which the Gospel hinged (John 13:1) now has to contend with another, darker ‘hour’ of conflict (2:18). The spirit of the antichrist is abroad, operating even with the community itself (2:18b-19) as well as in the world at large (3:3). To a community battling to keep its poise in the face of such overwhelming odds, the idols of less disturbing gods are proving attractive. 5


Yet to a potential idolatrous foreclosure on "the fullness of the gift of the truth" (John 1:17), the letter opposes the reality of the One True God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the ongoing testimony of the Spirit. To the idol that would leave believers undisturbed in the darkness of their sinful failures is opposed the God who is light (1:5), the Father who has given his Son for the forgiveness of sin (1:5-2:6). The true God, identified with eternal life (5:20), is set in deadly opposition to the lie, the root of humanity’s delusory self-justification (1:5; 2:21-22) which is capable of projecting its own mendacity even onto God to escape its moment of truth (1:10). Although the "little children"(2:1, 12, 28; 3:7, 18; 4:4; 5:21) are already God’s children (3:1-2), they still need to confront the truth about their need for forgiveness. They must reject the self-justification that marks the children of the devil. This diabolic presence, the source of the idolatrous rejection of God throughout human history (3:8, 10), instigates murderous action against others (3:12). The devil exercises power over the whole world (5:19), and works in its "desires" (2:15-17).

Into that bedevilled and passing world (2:17), the idolatrous lovers of which are closed to the love of the Father (v. 15b), the Father’s love has nonetheless reached. The blood of Jesus, his Son, cleanses from all sin (1:7). Notwithstanding the undesirable occurrence of sin (2:1), Jesus is at once an advocate ( paraclêtos ) with the Father, and the atoning sacrifice for "our sins", and also for the sins of the world (2:1b-2). Through his name sins are forgiven (2:12); and in the hopeful expectation of a future coming, believers now purify themselves (2:28). The sinless one has been revealed to so take away our sins so that no one abiding in him sins (3:6). Indeed, to born of God makes sin impossible (3:9; 5:18). This unparalleled declaration will be put in its most challenging and practical context, namely, that of genuine mutual love (Cf. 3:14-18).

Nonetheless, the utter realism of the Father’s merciful love is the fundamental issue. In the measure that the negative reality of sinfulness is acknowledged, the positive character of God’s forgiving action is manifested. The Father has anticipated the lamentable situation of moral failure by first loving "us", and in sending his Son "to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (4:10). Note that the "our" is inclusive: there is no room for anyone to make a self-justifying declaration of innocence and of non-complicity in the sinful state of the world and the community. That would make the all-forgiving God out to be a liar (4:10).

Furthermore, the extent of divine forgiveness is brought home in the community’s mediation of such forgiveness by praying for its erring members (5:16-17). Admittedly, the author qualifies the extent of such mediation by restricting it to sins that are not "mortal". The context would suggest that the non-mortal nature of the sin and its capacity to be forgiven by intercessory prayer resides in the fact that both sinner and intercessor are united in the same world of faith. The sinner, even though grievously awry in the conduct of Christian life, is still a believer -- still capable of acknowledging the sinful act or condition that has clouded the consciousness of faith, still open to the truth of God’s love revealed in Christ. In that sense, the sinners concerned are still responsive to "him who is true" (5:20b, c). They have not become so inextricably self-deceived as to prefer the lie to the truth, and the darkness to the light (1:8-9). The idol of mendacious self-justification has not been erected in the face of God’s forgiveness by making the Father out to be a liar (1:10; 5:10b). The intercessory mediation of forgiveness is, therefore, a practical extension of the Father’s merciful relationship to the community, and to the world itself.


As the forgiving God is opposed to the idol of spurious innocence, so the loving God is opposed to the idol of lovelessness. Though the issues of a truthful confession of sin and the need for forgiveness can be distinguished from the themes of divine love and the imperative to be conformed to it, the letter presents these emphases as being practically inseparable (Cf. 2:9; 3:10, 14-18; 4:8, 20-21; 5:16-17). Sinfulness is most evident in hatred of others (2:9; 3:14-15); just as God’s original and abiding love is linked to the Father’s sending of the Son into the loveless situation of the sinful world, to be "the atoning sacrifice for our sins... but also for the sins of the whole world" (2:2; 3:5; 4:10). Nonetheless, a distinct consideration of God’s love highlights the originality of Johannine theology and brings out the unique intensity in which love is at its centre.

The mutual love of the community leads to a luminous experience of God. Since God is light (1:5) and love (4: 8, 16b), to love one’s fellow believer is to live "in the light" (2:10); and to fail in such love is to be still in darkness, to walk in darkness, to be ignorant of the true direction of life, and to suffer blindness in regard to what has been revealed (2:9, 11). Furthermore, to fail in such love is to be a "cause of stumbling" (2:10), thus to be a scandal within the community by obscuring the radiant, life-giving character of God’s love for world..

The forces of loveless and murderous violence have their own perversely generative power. Not to love the brethren is to be numbered among the children of the devil (2:10). Not to be "from God" in love for others is to be "from the evil one" – thus to be an agent of that life-destroying force that had been provoked into murderous envy by the Godly service of Abel: "We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother... Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous" (2:12; Cf., Gen 4:4-7)). Because of this murderous other history serving its idols with hatred, envy and violence, the community is counselled not to be astonished "if the world hates you" (2:13). Precluding the sober question of the extent of the believer’s own complicity in such a world of death -- after all, the state of universal sinfulness must be truthfully acknowledged (Cf. above) -- the assurance is given: "We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another" (2:14a). Unwillingness to love means dwelling in the doomed domain of death (v. 14b), to be numbered among its agents: "All who hate... are murderers" (v. 15a). By contributing to the scandal of hatred and violence, these death-dealers "do not have eternal life abiding in them" (v. 15b).

Nonetheless, death figures in the vocabulary of love, not now as inflicted on others by the loveless, nor as the condition of those who refuse to love, but as a measure of the Christ-like love to which all are called: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us.." (3:16a). The paradigmatic measure of love is evidenced in the self-giving of the Son. But this looks to an original source, namely the love of the Father giving what is so intimately his own, in sending his only Son into the world to be the source of life (4:10). Unrestricted and unconditional self-giving is inscribed into the very logic of love’s meaning: ".. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another" (3:16b). The excessive character of the love revealed in the Son’s giving of his life for others, and in the Father’s sending of his only Son into the world cannot but trouble the community’s conduct in regard to the needy in its midst: "How does the love of God abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?" (3:22). The language of unconditional love must be effectively realised in the human conditions of a community of ‘haves and have-nots’: "... let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and in action" (3:18).

Thus, love for the brethren must be understood as essential to the original message of the Gospel: "This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (3:11). 6 Such love is neither an afterthought nor deduction or nor an extrinsic consideration. The mutual love of the community is intrinsic to living in the light, and repelling the darkness of the world’s violence. The commandment of loving God means at once believing in the name of his self-giving Son, and loving one another (v. 23). Faith’s recollection of Jesus’ love in the past entails a commitment to give practical expression to such love in the present. Those so often greeted as "beloved" (2:7; 3:2; 4:1, 7, 11) must conduct their own lives and community relationships in the light of the love that has been shown them.


The logic of love is driven home with growing intensity in the classic Johannine theology of the fourth chapter. The "beloved" must love one another, "because love is from God" (4:7a). Love is both the generative power of true life and the irreplaceable medium of faith’s knowledge of God: "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (v. 7b). Not to love is not to know the true character of God, "for God is love"( v. 8). Evidence of the true knowledge of God is found in the field of the community’s self-giving relationships and interactions. To the degree the community of believers is "in love" it has an implicit awareness of God as the source, form, measure and goal of their loving.

The bold identification of God with love, while it might counter the gnostic propensity to seek the absolute truth by way of esoteric knowledge, could nonetheless suggest a legitimation of a eroticism or mere sentimentality in the life-style of the community. Hence the letter makes clear that it not "love" in some conventional sense that defines God. Rather, God, in a unique and originative sense, defines the vital and luminous meaning of love. Parallelling the letter’s christological ‘definition’ of love (3:16), the author now offers two related ‘theological’ or ‘patrological’ explanations.


First, "God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world that we might live through him" (4:9). The Father sends what is most intimate to himself, his only Son, into the world of deranged desire (2:16). The range of worldly desire is confined to the generativity of eros ("the desire of the flesh"), to judgments based on appearances ("the desire of the eyes"), and limited to the criteria of selfishness and worldly glory ("pride in riches") which "do not come from the Father but from the world" (2:16c). The world, with its desire, is doomed to pass away; while those who do the will of God live forever (2:17). In contrast to the desire of the world is the Father’s will. In contrast to the generativity of ‘the desire of the flesh’ is the Father’s generative gift of ‘his only Son’. In contrast to the world’s self-containment is the non-containment of the Father in sending of his only Son into the world. And, finally, in contrast to the death-producing nature of worldly desire is the gift of life embodied in the Son. Despite the world’s rejection of the Father through the idols fabricated by its desire – for "the love of the Father is not in those who love the world" (2:15b) -- God’s love reaches into the world to offer it life.

The meaning of "God is love" implies, therefore, the world-transcending yet immanent reality of divine generativity (‘his only Son’), the communication of that love in the sending of the Son into the world of false desire, and the life-giving nature of that communication.


And secondly, "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (4:10). God is love in an initiative and absoluteness that are unconditioned by all human conditions, be they positive – "not that we loved God", or negative, as in human sinfulness -- for he sends the Son to atone for sin. God’s loving waits on no human initiative and is blocked by no human failure. The Father’s loving is revealed in the sending what he most loves, his only Son; and by making him whom he most loves an atoning sacrifice for the benefit of those who do not in fact love God. Hence the identification of God with love suggests that God’s love that, while transcending all worldly measures and conditions, vitally affects the world in its state of lethal alienation from God. The very transcendence of God’s love is the source of a new life-giving and sin-reversing immanence: the Son is sent into the world.

The "beloved" who are thus addressed as the objects of God’s love are invited, in the logic of the love that has been shown them, to be not merely passive recipients of the gift offered them but to be active participants in the divine action. In popular idiom, they are summoned ‘to get with it’ – where the ‘it’ is the divine reality of love: "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another" (4:10). Note that it is not merely a matter of participating in the divine ‘love-life’ through the generosity of mutual help. For God’s love has an atoning character, as it reaches into the loveless limits of our sinful human condition. Believers, consequently, are encouraged to an active concern for the sins of others, as in praying for those whose sins are not mortal (5:16-17). Such fraternal love for the sinful will have a life-giving outcome: "... you will ask, and God will give life to such a one" (5:16).


Though "God is love", and though this love has been defined in terms of the Father’s self-giving action, "No one has ever seen God" (4:12a). There remains an infinite gap between the clouded capacities of human vision and the God who is light (1:5b). But while vision fails, loves does not. The mutual love of the members of the community is an index of its participation in the divine ‘love-life: "if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected in us" (4:12b). The letter elaborates a little later (vv. 17-19) on what the perfection of love means, even though obedience to God’s word (2:5) is essential. 7 Perfection in the living out of love implies the confidence ( parresia ) that love as it has been defined is, indeed, the ultimate reality: "... as he is, so are we in this world" (4:17). For love to be perfected means that it moves toward its ultimate truth ("the day of judgment" (v. 17b) in the lived conviction that the God who will be finally revealed is not the idol which our fears might fabricate -- a god of dread and punishment – but the God who has inspired "our" love because love is the original and final determination of the character of the Father (v. 18): "We love because he first loved us" (v. 19). Thus, the love by which the community lives and acts has no earthly source, but come from the unseen God. The Christians’ way to God is the same as God’s way to them, not in the pretensions of human merit or technique, but in the activity of loving as he loves.

This life of love, while focussing on the Father’s sending of the Son to be the saviour of the world (4:4), is supported by the interior witness of God’s Spirit (v. 13). 8 Yet the transcendent definition, "God is love" is expressed within the world through the incarnation of the Son. Jesus Christ who has come in the flesh is the criterion by which Christians’ notions of God’s love and their own are judged (4:15): "So we have known and believe the love that God has for us" (v. 16a). Any possible idolatrous projection of human love onto the divine is precluded by the icon of that love incarnate in human history.


The author goes on to repeat his radical working definition: "God is love" (4:16b).

Since God identified with love, the believers’ commitment to mutual love – their ‘being in love’ in this communitarian sense – leads to the intimacy of a mutual indwelling: "those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them" (v. 16). Such love is the field of communication in which God is present as the initiator and the exemplar; and the disciples are present to God and to one another as participants in the Godly activity of loving. Such a ‘state of grace’ looks to its ultimate consummation. In its final moment of truth, love will unite those whose lives have been a conduct of love in the world with the one who is that love: "..as he is, so are we in this world" (v. 17b). As was mentioned above, the coming to perfection of this love implies an increasing confidence in love as the all-deciding factor. Finally, and originally, it is a matter of love (Cf. vv. 17-19), in a manner that overcomes all temptations to project onto God the unloving and heartless patterns of worldly exchange based on fear and punishment.



Nonetheless, love must be brought down to earth. Just as the criterion of discerning the presence of the Spirit is found in believing that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:2. Cf. 5:4; 2 John 1:7), just as the possession of the Father is conditioned by faith in the Son (2:22-23; 5:11-12), so the criterion of love is the love of one’s brethren in the world. To consent to lovelessness and hatred is to live a lie (4:20a). The ever-disturbing love of him who "is the true God and eternal life" (5:20c) inspires the piercing aside: "for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (4:20b). The Father who is revealed in his only Son (2:23) is made visible, thus to enter the world of human meaning and communication in the fraternal love of the Christian community. Loving God means doing what God is doing in the world: "those who love God must love their brethren also" (4:21). Love is anchored and tested in the concreteness of personal relationships. There is no by-passing the human reality of the all-too visible brethren by escaping into an invisible religious realm unaccompanied by one’s brethren in the faith. By implication, Christians cannot go to God and leave behind the world into which God has sent his only Son as its saviour (Cf. 2:2; 4:9, 14). Thus, the life of love is birth into the life of a family 9 which, while transcending the scope of ‘fleshly desire’ (2:16), is divinely human and humanly divine: "Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know we love the children of God when we love God and obey his commandments" (5:1-2). Faith in Jesus means entering into a love that reaches up to God and out to the community and its members. Thus, quite simply, a religious attitude that legitimates either self-absorption or hatred and unconcern for one’s brethren is the cult of an idol. To "know him who is true" (5:20a) is to be truly loving.


For the Christian community to centre its life in love means necessarily an experience of vulnerability and powerlessness. For love is not the desire of the world (2:15-17). In that supposedly real world, governed by other gods and the idols and demons of its desire, the true God seems unreal. For love to survive it must find a source of confidence and hope.

Though 1 John is written to promote the joy that marks Christian existence (1:4; 2:12), the author takes nothing away from the sober realism and continuous challenge inherent in Christian life. His message is at once simple and complex, as it attempts to address the confused situation of a particular community in the midst of its problems. The bracing assurance of his writing brings together the unsurpassable originality of what has been revealed and the faltering situation in which believers find themselves. His pervading emphasis is on the revealed character of God himself: "This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all" (1:5). Despite the chiaroscuro of Christian life, God remains what he has revealed himself to be: "... the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (2:8). His light shines into the darkness of sin and moral failure, as the one "who is faithful and just", to forgive and purify (1:7) the ‘little children’ of their sins (2:12).

In recognition of the diversity of the community’s experience, the Elder declares that ‘fathers’ know him who is from the beginning (2:13a, 14b); that the young have conquered the evil one (v. 13b, 14c), and are strengthened by the word of God abiding in them (v. 14c); and that the children know their Father (v. 14a). Each generation has its place in the expanding communion of life. To do the will of God is to live forever, while "the world and its desire are passing away... (v. 17).

Despite the disruption of the community introduced in ‘the last hour" by the antichrist and its manifestations in the ‘many antichrists’ (2:18) , believers "have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge" (vv. 20, 27). Thus, they can repudiate the lie of the antichrist. Though distortions of the Gospel have been given currency by "the one who denies the Father and the Son" (v. 22b), believers enjoy the gift of the truth (vv. 21, 27). Because they stay with the original message, they "abide in the Son and in the Father"(v. 24b) and receive the promise of eternal life (v. 25). In the strength of their communion ( koinÇnia )with the Father and the Son, with the witness-author and with one another, the members of the community are not beholden to other would-be guides to the truth: "so you do not need anyone to teach you" (v. 27b). Dwelling in the Christ who is to come, and separating themselves from the antichrists who have already come, they can confidently expect not to be shamed in their faith and hope (v. 28).


The truth already possessed by the community, derives from the one who is true, to give the assurance of a God-given birth: "If you know that he is righteous, you may be sure that everyone who does what is right has been born of him" (2:29). Because of God’s original love, they can be truthfully called God’s children (3:1a). The world’s dismissal of the reality of their divine birth is the result of its ignorance of the Father as the source of this new life (v. 1b). Though the community has suffered the virulence of the world’s rejection, it must hold onto its real status before God: "Beloved, we are God’s children now, but what we will be has not yet been revealed" (v. 2ab). Even if patience, waiting and hope are the inevitable conditions of Christian life, the fact that believers have already been anointed with the truth gives its own assurance: "What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is" (v. 2c).

Consequently hope strains forward, in a practice of self-purification, to await the full manifestation of both God and the children of God (3:3). The light of their experience turns towards its source (1:5-7); the gift of the truth relates back to the giver of truth, "the true God" (5:20); deeds of righteousness derive from the Righteous One; the purified look to him who is pure: the children of God turn toward the Father. What has been revealed entails a patient waiting on a final evidence.

Yet the unfinished provisional life of faith remains founded on the fact that God has acted. God’s truth is not deferred into an indefinite future, as though the present was entirely occupied by forces that are anti-god and anti-christ: "The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil" (3:9). Such diabolical activity is readily experienced in resistance to the will of God, in the refusal to love, in the hatred, envy, murder and death that result (3:10-12, 14b-15). Nonetheless, so great is the destruction of the devil’s works that Christ has accomplished that a new order of sinless life has come into being, utterly alien to sin: "Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them..." (v. 9). Despite the fierce clash of opposites apparent in the community’s experience, there is a source of assurance accessible in the very practice of fraternal love: "Do not be astonished ... if the world hates you. We know we have passed from death to life because we love one another" (3:13-14a).


Yet something more is needed. Measuring the authenticity of one’s relationship to God by the performance of love lead to all kinds of human ambiguities in any community setting. After all, all have had to admit their sinfulness and the need for God’s forgiveness if they are not to make liars out of themselves – or God! (Cf. 1:10; 2:4). Believers need a more solid and objectively-grounded assurance than one based on their own conduct or in a conscience troubled by the lofty ideal of loving unto death (3:16). Once more, the character of God is invoked:

God is greater than the heart’s limitations and defeats. Not the agitated zone of human conscience, but the limitless and compassionate knowledge of God is the ultimate criterion. In recognition of this, the conduct of the Christian life must be set in the wider context of prayer with its promise of a continual stream of divine gifts. The heart, therefore, does not fall back on itself, but lays itself open to the one who is greater.

The assurance is further extended. Obeying the commandment to believe in Jesus Christ and to love as he loved leads to a relationship of mutual indwelling between God and the community members (3:23-24). Here, too, the transcendent dimension is emphasised in regard to the mutual presence in question. The necessary medium of our knowing the indwelling of the God who is "greater than our hearts" (v. 20b) is the divine gift of the Spirit: "And by this we know he abides in us, by the Spirit he has given us" (v. 24b; 4:13). The reality of God beyond us – "greater than our hearts" – is known through the gift of God within us, the Spirit.


Yet the interior gift of the Spirit is subject to christological discernment. The author allows that, in a situation troubled by the activities of false prophets and the influence of the unholy spirit of the antichrist (4:1b-3), not all spirits are to be believed: "Beloved do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God" (4:1). The discernment of God’s Spirit occurs in the light of a further criterion: the confession that Jesus has come in the flesh (v. 2). The exodus of false prophets into the world (v. 1b) inhabited by the spirit of antichrist (v. 3) fails to recognise the way the Son has come into the world. Through the incarnation of the Word and his commandment to love the brethren in their flesh and blood reality in an unreserved self-giving (Cf. 3:16), the presence of Spirit of God is identified. By making that identification, believers are assured of being from God, and of a victory over the forces of antichrist (4:4a): "for the one who is in you is greater than the one who is the world" (v. 4b). The forces of antichrist are from the world, speak the world’s language and receive its approbation (v. 5). In contrast, there is another language and another communication: "We are from God. Whoever know God listens to us..." (v. 6). Through the community united in incarnational faith and love, the Spirit of truth and the spirit of untruth are decisively distinguished (v. 7).

In the context of these mutually conditioning factors, the letter declares that those who love are born of God and know God (4:7). Mutual love is at once the measure and medium of the Christian’s knowledge of God. The divine mystery is intimated to faith as a lived and life-giving truth. Though no one has ever seen God, through the community’s mutual loving "God lives in us and his love is perfected in us" (v. 12).

Once more the criteria for this assurance of knowing and living in God are emphasised: the gift of the Spirit, the first-hand witness of the writer himself regarding the Father’s sending of his Son as the Saviour of the world, and obedience to the divine commandments (4:13-16, 21; 5:2). Through its living out of the truth that "God is love" (4:16b), the self-assurance of faith expands to such a perfection of love that it can cast out all fear of divine judgment and punishment; and so overcome, as it were, the invisibility of God in this world (vv. 17-21). Even if obeying the commandments of God are essential, they are declared to be "not burdensome" (5:3b). The command to love as God loves, far from adding to the weight of faith’s burdens in the hostile world, leads to defiant, hopeful conviction of conquering the world: "for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith" (5:4). Still, the promised victory over the world is not brought about by the self-convinced moral excellence of the believer. The objectivity of God’s love in sending the Son to be the world’s saviour is the governing truth: "Who is that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?" (v. 5).

The objective christological criterion is further specified – in the three (5:7) mutually supporting testimonies of "the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree" (v. 8). The salvific significance of the Cross has been dramatically testified to in the Gospel in reference to these three (Cf. John 19:30, 34-36). The community formed by the initiative of God’s love, which knows that love in its own loving, has received the gift of Spirit of truth, celebrates its new birth in the living waters of baptism, and is nourished by the self-giving love of Jesus in the eucharist. 10 While the human testimony of the Johannine writer has been received, it remains that "the testimony of God is greater" (5:9a) – in that the Father himself has testified to his Son (v. 9b). Thus, those who believe in the Son have the testimony of God inscribed into their own heart (v. 10a). The faith that overcomes the world by belief in the Son (vv. 4-5) owes its victory to the truthful witness of God "concerning his Son" (v. 10b).

Though the divine testimony is focussed on the Son, its purpose is propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem: "And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life and this life is in his Son" (5:11). By receiving the testimony of God, believers possess the Son, and so have life (v. 12). In writing to this community, the author is therefore joining his witness to the primary witness of God himself: "so that you may know that you have eternal life" (v. 13b).


In this atmosphere of love and life, deep calls unto deep, and confidence grows in the enduring power of the life already being lived, and in the bounty of the love that has revealed to, and through, the community of faith "And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us" (5:14). The conviction of being loved is so great that it can close the gap between the expression of a prayerful request and the answer to it: "... we know that we have obtained the requests made of him" (v. 15b). The realism of both love extends into intercessory prayer. Love is a force of life for those for whom "we" pray, even if they are erring brethren (v. 16-17).

Notwithstanding the real power of sin and its manifestations in hatred and death-dealing, the faithful are assured that the children of God do not sin (5:18a); that the Son, born of God, protects them (v. 18b); and that the evil one cannot touch them (v. 18c). The ‘we know’ (vv. 18a, 19a, 20a) of hopeful love-grounded faith, though unshaken in its assurance, is soberly realistic when confronted by cosmic forces that can only be defeated by the one who is greater than the world (4:4): "We know that we are God’s children, and that the whole world lies under the power of the evil one" (5:19). Still "we know that the Son of God has come" (v. 20a), not only to give life, but "understanding so that we know him who is true" (v. 20a). Through Jesus his Son, "we are in him who is true" (v. 20b) – "true God and eternal life" (v. 20c). Thus, believers are assured of forgiveness, light, love, life, immediate answer to prayer, truth and understanding.

For that reason, they are to keep themselves from the idols (5:21) which the world serves influenced by its ephemeral desire (2:17), antichrist (2:18; 4:3), the devil (3:8, 10) and the evil one (3:11; 5:19), and in all ungodly evidences of lying (1:8-10; 2:4, 22; 4:20; 5:10), lawlessness (3:4), hatred (2:11; 3:4; 4:20), murder (3:12, 15) and fear (4:18).

The assurance the letter offers is both cumulative and self-correcting. In the context of the many mutually conditioning aspects of authentic faith, 1 John introduces the irreplaceable elements of a necessarily continuous conversation around the nature of God and of the Godliness of Christian life.


The consideration of density of Christian experience -- in terms of life, light, the confession of sins, obedience to the commandments, faith in the incarnation, the testimony of the Spirit, waiting in hope, confidence in prayer, holding to the truth and the cardinal importance of mutual love – leads to sense of God as "the love-life" in which the community must participate in and witness to.

On the one hand, the ‘Godly life’ of the community presupposes a certain triadic structure or threefold dimensionality which, in a long process of development through the three centuries to follow, would unfold into full-blown trinitarian doctrine. On the other hand, the defining meaning and value in regard to the life of God and the community is presented in terms of love. How are these two considerations related?

The Triadic Presupposition

First, with regard to the triadic presupposition: the letter is concerned to communicate ‘the word of life" (1:1). Though "this life was revealed" (1:2a), it remains that "the eternal life that was with the Father has been revealed to us" (1:2b) to unite the faithful community in a communion with the Father and the Son (1:3). Anointed by the Holy One (2:20), believers know the truth; and by confessing the Son are united also with the Father (2:23), and abide in both (2:24). Witnessing to the reality of this communion is "the Spirit he has given us" (3:24b; 4:13). The reality of this gift is in turn related to confessing Jesus as the Son sent into the world by the Father in the reality of the incarnation (4:2). The incarnate communicative mode of the Jesus’ coming is exhibited in reference to the sacramental symbols of "the water and the blood" (Cf. 5:6-9). The incarnate presence of the Son is thus embodied in the liturgical celebration of the community’s life. Because "the Spirit is the truth" (5:6b), it is the primary witness, -- "the one who testifies". In agreement with the witness of the water and the blood (v. 8), the gift of the Spirit is the interior presence of the surpassing testimony of God to his Son (vv. 9-10) as the source of life for all (vv. 11-12). Thus, the Spirit is given by the Father, dwells in the hearts of believers, and leads to the confession of the incarnate and life-giving reality of the Son.

In this triadic scheme, or better, in the interplay of these three dramatis personae, the Father is transcendent source and initiator. Though invisible, he has acted in the visibility of the world, by sending his only Son into it as saviour. Jesus Christ is located in a double immanence: he is within God as "his only Son", and within the world "in the flesh". In sending him, God gives of himself, to reach into the dark reality of the world. God is thus ‘beyond us’ as the Father, the invisible transcendent source of all, yet ‘with us’ by giving what is most intimately his own, his only Son; and ‘within us’, by giving "of his Spirit" (4:13) to guide the interior activity of faith. The rhetoric and symbolism of the letter’s evocation of the communion existing between God and the children of God bring into play the transcendent (the Father), the historical (the incarnate Son) and the interior (the Spirit of truth) aspects of the divine presence. Far from implying a form of primitive modalism, the author’s rhetoric is characterised by a sense definite intersubjectivity, not only in regard to the inter-relationships of believers to one another, but in their relations with each of the divine three, and in the relationships existing between these three to each other. 11 Although such an implication of differentiated communion is a long way from the formal theological trinitarianism of later Church doctrine, the distinction of the three divine subjects is never collapsed. 12 Each is respectively present to the Christian community to personalise it in conformity with the "love-life" of God.


Secondly, in regard to the Johannine affirmation, "God is love", we have already drawn attention to the manner in which the letter vigorously opposes any gnostic attenuation of the incarnate reality of both Jesus (4:2), or, indeed, of the community itself: "Those who do not love a brother they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (4:20). Behind all the Johannine writings is the great declaration of the Gospel prologue: "And the Word was made flesh and lived among us.." (John 1:14a). Given such a classic statement of Christian realism -- so shocking to the world of classic philosophy and the techniques of gnostic illumination -- the Johannine writer pursues the incarnational logic of the Gospel by seeking to bring Christian thinking, as it were, back to earth. Despite the immense cosmic range of his reference, he keeps his feet on the ground. While philosophical intelligence will ever be tempted to take flight into the heavenly domain of the Logos, this letter elaborates the effective meaning of Christian Logos in terms of agape: "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God... For God is love" (4:7-8). The reality of love, revealed by the Father’s initiative in sending his only Son into the world to be the source of life and reconciliation (4:9-10), is exemplified in the self-giving of Jesus (3:16) which, in turn, has its source in the divine ‘Being-in-love’. The loving presence of God is, as it were, the dynamic field in which believers must participate if they are to know God, live in God and enter into communion with the Father and the Son. The Spirit of truth is the God-given witness to the reality of God’s loving and our own.


In effect, 1 John suggests a "psychological analogy" of the divine. Through their self-sacrificing mutual love, the members of the community of faith know the ultimate and original reality of God inasmuch as they are participating in it. A classic theological tradition stemming from Augustine and reaching a systematic crystallisation in Aquinas elaborated trinitarian theology in terms of the spiritual activities of knowing and willing -- the "psychological analogy" as it is usually understood in the history of trinitarian theology. Such a mode of exploration has proved of great explanatory value in the analogical understanding and systematic ordering of the Church’s trinitarian doctrines: trinitate posita, congruunt huismodi rationes, 13 translatable as "granted belief in the Trinity, this kind of analogical thinking is of value". Through their experience of knowing and willing, believers can conceive of how there can be processions in God, how the resultant relationships constitute the reality of three distinct divine persons in their proper and respective characteristics, and so on. The sequence of ordered exposition ends with the divine "missions" of the Word and the Spirit, thus extending into the world of time the eternal vitality of the triune mystery of God. 14

The Johannine approach differs from the above in its undifferentiated compactness and concreteness. Its psychological base is not that of the individual spiritual being reflecting on its experience of knowing and willing, thus to extrapolate analogically from human case to the divine. In 1 John, the self-giving mutual love of the members of the community is the primary psychological experience. It is this that is interpreted and expanded in the light of the community’s larger historical experience as it reaches back to the self-sacrificing love of Jesus himself. Through the witness of the Johannine author, through the divine interior witness of the Spirit, through the celebration of baptism and eucharist in the water and the blood, the community’s conduct of mutual love is nourished by the paradigmatic experience of Jesus himself (3:16). Yet there is another transcendent dimension, revealed in the past and communicated in the present: "God is love" (4:8, 16b). This experience of the character of God is the origin, inspiration and criterion of both the experience of Jesus and that of the community of his followers. The fontal and ultimate meaning of such love resonates in faith’s experience of a most intimate and radical divine communication. The intimacy of the self-gift is described in the words, "God sent his only Son into the world..." (4:9); whilst its radicality is expressed in terms of a communication that takes place, entirely on the divine initiative, to reach the world at is most God-less point: "God loved us and sent his Son to be atoning sacrifice for our sins" (4:10). To be receptive to such transcendent love is to drawn into a divine realm of self-giving life: "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another" (4:11). Though God remains ever beyond the scope of human knowledge -- "no one has ever seen God" (4:12a), faith finds its truest theological analogy in the experience of loving: "Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God" (4:7. Cf also v. 12b). Through their self-transcending love, Christians have an abiding and vital sense of union with God which is productive of its own kind of knowledge: "So we have known and believe the love that God has for us" (4:16a). Since "God is love" (4:16b), lovers, in this Christian sense, live the ‘love-life’ that God is: "those who love, abide in God and God abides in them" (4:16b).

By appealing to the experience of mutual love, 1 John brings together the dramatis personae divinae in a distinctive fashion -- even if it represents a road not taken in a more philosophically construed trinitarian theology. 15 Under the imperative to love one another, Christians are invited to experience the God who is love, thus to come to a new vitality and knowledge (4:7). Within this participative experience of agape, they effectively adore the Father as the originative source of their loving – "love is from God" (4:7b). In the conduct of their love, they are acknowledging the paradigmatic Logos or "Meaning" of the loving character of God manifest in sending of the Son: "God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world.." (4:9) -- for, "in this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son.." (4:10, 14). Thus, to confess that Jesus is the Son is to abide in God (4:15), and to abide in the love of which he is the expression -- on the Cross, in the water of baptism and in the blood of eucharist, and in the giving the commandment which given ‘from the beginning’ (Cf. 2:7-8).


Within the experience of participating in the divine love-life of the Father and the Son (Cf. 2:23-25), the Spirit is the divine gift witnessing to the truth of the love that has been revealed: "And the Spirit is the one who testifies, for the Spirit is the truth" (5:6b). Ordered to the believers’ abiding in the Father and the Son (2:24b) is "the anointing that you received from him [which] abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you... [it] is true and not a lie" (2:27). 16 The faithful know that Jesus Christ, who commanded his disciples to love one another, abides in them through their experience of the Spirit: "And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit he has given us" (3:24b; 4:13). The Spirit of God is thus concretely identified in reference to the most radical self-expression of God’s love in the world. For the Spirit leads faith "to confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:2), in agreement with the witness of the water and the blood (5:8). While the spirit of the antichrist is now in the world, the faithful are assured of the transcendent validation of the way of love because "the one who is in you is greater than the one who is the world" (4:4), for the Spirit of truth is opposed to "the spirit of error" (4:6c). Compared to all human testimony, this "testimony of God is greater" (5:9a), as it witnesses to love’s unreserved self-expression: "this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son" (5:9b). Those who believe in the Son experience the divine witness within them: they "have the testimony of God in their hearts" (5:10a) -- which looks to the gift of eternal life embodied in the Son himself (5:11). In the light of this witness, believers know that "we have passed from death to life because we love one another" (3:14).

The Johannine connection of the Spirit with truth differs from a more widespread tradition stemming from the Pauline presentation of the Spirit in terms of love and freedom. Certainly, the Johannine emphasis has not been obviously integrated into the Thomistic trinitarian theology which depicts the Spirit as the amor procedens, love following on the divine generation of the Word. 17 Still, contrasted to the systematic elegance of such an ordo doctrinae, the Johannine approach has one clear advantage. There is less chance of love in God being treated as a theological afterthought, as though the Spirit were some kind of affective afterglow once the truth of the divine reality had been revealed. 1 John presents God not as having love, but as being love. It is not simply an attribute of the divine, qualifying ipsum esse subsistens, but the very life of God, ipsum amare subsistens : "everyone who loves is born of God and knows God... for God is love" (4:7b-8). Such is the vital object of the Spirit’ witness. Given into our hearts, the Spirit of truth opens Christian consciousness to the reality of the "love-life" that has entered the world to give of itself, by summoning believers both to share the gift and to be part of the giving.

Thus, 1 John, in its relationship to the Gospel and from its place within the New Testament as whole, invites theology to tease out the implications of its central declaration, "God is love" in relation to all the mysteries of faith: God is love, originatively, in the transcendent initiative of the Father; self-expressively, through the incarnation of the Son; unconditionally, through the cross; transformatively, through the resurrection; evidentially, in the abiding gift of the Spirit of truth; processively, in the historical communities that make up the Church through time; eschatologically, as promising an ultimate consummation. 18


Lonergan’s four "functions of meaning" 19 (cognitive, constitutive, communicative, effective) can be usefully applied to the meaning of God as it emerges in 1 John. Though it would be artificial to maintain any strict sequence in the manner in which the complex meaning of God functions in this Johannine writing, I would suggest that the leading meaning is effective. 20


The revealed meaning of God in terms of light, love, holiness, truth, righteousness demands that it be lived. Essential to the conduct of a life of true faith is a many-sided Christian praxis. Believers must walk in the light (1:7) , confess their sins (1:9). They must obey the commandments (2:3; 5:2-3) and do the Father’s will (2:17). Hearkening to the original message (2:24; 4:6), they are to abide in Christ so as not to be put to shame at his coming (2:28). They are to recognise the Father’s already effective love in making them his children (3:1-2), yet look forward in hope and self-purification to a final visionary evidence (3:3). In the meantime they are to do what is right (3:7), above all through mutual love (3:11-18) -- characterised at once by unreserved self-sacrifice after the example of Jesus (v. 16) and by practical realism (vv. 17-18). This effective meaning is crystallised in the command to believe in name of God’s Son, Jesus Christ and to obey his commandment to love (3:23; 5:13). In the light of this focal truth, spirits are to be tested (4:1-3), and the presence of the Spirit of truth recognised. Abiding in love (4:16), the faithful are invited into a growing assurance of the true character of God through a love that expels all fear (4:18). They are to appreciate their faith as a victory over the world (5:4-5), as they receive both the truth of Jesus’ coming "by water and blood" (v. 6), and the God-given testimony of the Spirit (vv. 6b-12). In the assurance that God hears and answers their requests, believers are summoned to be confident in prayer and intercession (vv. 14-15). In loving the Father and his children (5:1-2), the "little children" are warned not to "love the world and the things of the world" (2:15) and to keep themselves from idols (5:21).

In each of these commands and exhortations, the effective meaning of the revealed God means a continuing movement of self-transcendence. Living in God means renouncing the world and its idols. It means a confession of the incarnate Son and discernment of the Spirit. It means acknowledging sinfulness and growing in hope. Above all, it means loving one’s fellow Christians in self-sacrificing generosity.

But to leave the matter there as though knowing God meant only a series of moral imperatives to transcend the lies, the pretensions, the lovelessness and the defeats that threaten Christian existence, would be to understand this letter merely as moral exhortation along the lines of an ethical tract. For the summons to self transcendence is linked to an experience of a self transformed -- so that the ethical conformity to the will of God follows from a subjective conformity to the reality of God. The meaning of God not only inspires action but affects the roots of Christian identity itself by informing the believing consciousness with a sense of dwelling God, and of God’s dwelling in it. Christians comes to have a new experiential and inter-subjective identity. In this, their self-understanding is newly constituted. A word then on the constitutive function of the meaning of God.


The features of this ‘Godly’ identity can be suggested in the following summary fashion. Christian consciousness is illumined by the light that God is (1:5), so that believers walk in the light (1:7), and, by loving their fellows, live in it (2:10). In the light of him who is "faithful and just’ (1:9), "righteous" (2:29) and "pure" (3:3), they are offered the assurance of being forgiven, cleansed, purified, justified, confirmed in sinlessness ( Cf. 1:9; 2:2; 3:3, 7, 9; 5:16, 18). Fundamental to Christian identity is a sense of being ‘beloved’ (2:7; 3:2; 4:1, 7, 11), and a conviction of knowing the revealed truth. The root of this conviction is their reception of the "christening" and interior witness of the Spirit of God, who is the truth (2:20, 26; 3:24b; 5:6, 10). Hence, believers understand themselves to abide in the Father and the Son (2:24; 3:24). And so they already participate in the eternal life (2:25; 3:14; 5:11-13) – which God is (5:20) and which is found in the Son (5:11-12). Even though they must live in the provisionality of hope, they are already God’s children (3:2-3) aware of God’s love manifest to them and abiding within them (3:17; 4:9-10, 16a). Consequently, they face the world as being "from God", in the assurance of a final victory over all evil (4:4; 5:4). As Christians are conformed to God who is love (4:8, 16b), they are born of God, live in God and know God ( Cf. 4:7, 16b). In this light, they enjoy an unreserved freedom with God, in an assurance that casts out all fear (2:20; 4:18) and gives confidence in prayer (5:14). Thus, the meaning of God constitutes Christian identity by informing the believer’s consciousness with a new self-understanding: "... as he is, so are we in this world" (4:17).

As the meaning of God in 1 John is effective in inspiring a Godly way of life, just as it constitutive in affecting the consciousness of believers with a new Godly identity, so too it is formative of a new Godly communion, the koinonia which unites present believers with the witnesses of the past ("... from the beginning" (1:1; 3:11) ), with communities in other places (2 and 3 John), and, most of all, with the Father and the Son (2:23-24). The meaning of God is thus communicative. The field of communication in question has historical, geographical, interpersonal, inter-generational, transcendent and cosmic dimensions. A word on each of these.


First, historical: communication takes place in history. The impact of past witnesses, voiced in the author of 1 John (Cf. 2:1, 7, 8, 12, 21, 26; 5:13), affects the present community: "We declare to you what was in the beginning... that you may have fellowship with us" (Cf. 1:1-3). From their privileged immediate contact with "the word of life" (1:1), these witnesses of the past are declared to be "from God" (4:6a), so that "whoever knows God listens to us" (4:6b). The fellowship of faith unfolds in history.

Secondly, the communication has its own geography, as the Presbyter writes to "the elect lady and her children" (2 John 1) and to "the beloved Gaius" (3 John 1) in order that the fellowship of faith will be realised in a hospitality despite geographical separation and localised conflicts (Cf. 2 John 10-11; 3 John 5-8).

Thirdly, the meaning of God is communicative in that it promises and demands an interpersonal communion: "if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light we have fellowship with one another..." (1:7). The insistent emphasis on mutual love produces the explosive declaration, "... those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen" (4:20).

Allied to the above is, fourthly, the inter-generational character of communion. The communicative meaning of God affects children, young people and fathers (2:12-14). Whether such a distinction is to be taken in a biological sense or as a metaphor for different degrees of Christian maturity is not the issue. The fact the meaning of God unites believers in their different experiences of life or faith points to its communicative function.

Fifthly, understood as the source, form and goal of communion in eternal life, the meaning of God functions is communicative in a transcendent manner: "this life was revealed... and [we] declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us" (1:2). Comprehending all time and space, the communion which makes all such fellowship possible is that which exists between the Father and the Son: "... and truly our fellowship is with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ" (1:3). Eternal life means abiding in the Son and in the Father (2:23-24). Indeed, the communion which exists between the faithful and the Father and the Son results from the original life-giving communication of the Father himself: "God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life" (5:11-12; Cf. 4:9-10).

Finally, there is a cosmic or global dimension inherent in the communicative meaning of God. The beleaguered state of this particular community is obviously not conducive to a full appreciation of the universality of the divine communication. Yet the fact the cosmic dimension figures at all points to the persistent power of the original message: "God so loved the world..." (John 3:16). In 1 John the cosmic scope of the divine communication is largely tacit, except for some notable asides: Jesus Christ ‘is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world" (2:2). Despite the extremely negative evaluation of the world, given the parlous situation addressed by the author (Cf. 2:15-17; 3:13; 4:4-5; 5:19), the world, for all its threat and ambiguity, is still the realm into which God has sent his only Son (4:9). As if to counter the tendency to restrict the cosmic character of God’s love, the writer voices the testimony of the original witnesses: "And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world" (4:14). By recalling the community to the cosmic extent of its faith, it can at least live in the world with confidence (4:4; 5:4-5). There is a cosmic significance in the meaning of the revealed God.

The meaning of God, then, in the Johannine writings, is communicative. It holds in its range of discourse past witnesses, present relationships with those both near and far, communion with the Father and the Son, and, more implicitly, a relationship with the world itself.


Underpinning the effective, constitutive and communicative manners in which Johannine theology functions is the cognitive function. It expresses not only what God commands, not only a new Godly identity and community, but also the transcendent truth that God is. This has been implicit in the other three functions of meaning: the God-given commandment to walk in the light, to love, to do the deeds of righteousness, and so on, derives from the truth that God is light, love, righteous... For Christians to enter into a new self-understanding as the children of God implies an understanding of God as their Father. For the faithful to co-exist in an historical, geographical, social, theological and cosmic field of communication implies a primordial paradigmatic communion existing between the Father and the Son in which the community in time abides through the witness of the Spirit.

Moving from the implicit to the cognitively explicit meaning, we observe the following: the distinctive Johannine accent falls on the truth, and the criteria for judging it; above all the truth of "God is love", and the kind of love that God is and shows. The subjectivity of Johannine faith is marked with a salvific objectivity concerning the reality of God, and what is divinely revealed and willed. It is a striking instance of Lonergan’s axiom, "objectivity is the fruit of authentic subjectivity". 21

In this regard, we note the vigorously objective rhetoric with which the letter begins. It recaptures the revelational language of the Gospel, and sets the tone in which the various themes of the Johannine discourse will be treated. What God has revealed from the beginning has been seen, gazed upon, touched and heard (1:1-3a) in some privileged immediate manner characteristic of the foundational witnesses: "truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1:3b). The joyous conviction of the past is communicated to the present generation of faithful through the force of an original and transforming truth (1:4).

The experience of this truth is expressed in the primal metaphor of light: "God is light" (1:5). The consciousness of faith is irradiated by the divine reality as it exposes sinfulness and brings forgiveness (1:7-8), and gives both sight and direction (2:11). The commandment of mutual love is both old and new, and "is true in him and in you" (2:8). Believers are commanded to be what God is. Both the ‘fathers’ and the ‘children’ of the community know the Father (2:13-14), and the young have "the word of God" abiding in them (2:14b). By doing the will of God, believers move beyond the ephemeral and illusory projections of mundane experience into the realm of lasting life (2:17).

In their openness to the divine light, love and life, the faithful are anointed by the Holy One, and "have all knowledge" and "know the truth" (2:20-21, 27). Yet such a knowledge does not place believers in some kind of gnostic heaven; for it is always beholden to the incarnate reality of God’s only Son, Jesus Christ. To confess the incarnate reality of the Son is the essential condition for knowing and "having" the Father as well (2:23), for dwelling in both, (2:24), thus to enjoy the promised eternal life (2:25).

Anchored in the incarnate character of the truth, the consciousness of faith, though abiding in its divine object, expands into a hope for what is yet to be revealed in an eschatological advent ( parousia ) (2:28). When Christian praxis is consistent with the truth of the one who is righteous, believers have an assurance of being born of God into a radical sinlessness (2:29; 3:7-9). Faith lives from the conviction that the love of the Father has already brought about a transformation: "Beloved, we are God’s children now" (3:2a), even as it awaits the full evidence concerning both God and his children, "when we will be like him, for we will see him as he is" (3:2b). The time of waiting is one of self-purification, the better to be conformed him who is "pure" (3:3). From the realised actuality of divine birth the dynamics of Christian conduct derive, as manifest in authentic deeds (righteousness), hope, self-purification, and resistance to error and deceit (3:7). Christian praxis is therefore the existential acknowledgement of the reality of God as light, true, pure, righteous and loving.

The meaning of what God is bring about a sharp division in human history. The true children of God are revealed in their mutual loving judged in the light of Jesus’s self-giving love; the children of the devil reveal themselves in the works of hatred, violence and murder (3:10-18). But even such a criterion does not enclose believers in their own inevitably troubled and ambiguous consciences. Judging, encouraging and assisting is the truth and the knowing that reside in God himself: "By this we will know we are from the truth and will reassures our hearts before him... For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything" (3:19-20). A gift continues to be given to the increasingly emboldened faith of God’s children: "... and we receive from him whatever we ask" (3:22).

While the effective meaning of God is essentially connected to keeping his commandment to believe in the name of his only Son Jesus Christ and to live in mutual love (3:23), while such obedience leads to a relationship of reciprocal indwelling between God and his children (3:24a), the God-given Spirit is the medium and assurance of the believers knowledge of God’s indwelling presence (3:24b; 4:13; 5:6-8). This Spirit is known as coming "from God" and being "of God" as it leads to the confession that "Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" (4:2). The genuineness of faith’s knowledge of God is founded at one and the same time on the gift of the Spirit and the incarnational presence of the Son in the world. Thus "the Spirit of truth" can be objectively and cognitively distinguished from "the spirit of error" (4:6b).

After the Johannine author’s careful and somewhat complex presentation of the modes of self-transcendence that lead to the true knowledge of God, he moves to the core condition from which all else depends. Since "God is love" (4:8), since love is from God, the divine life can be lived and the true God can only by known by loving (4:7-8). The possibility of reducing the agapeic and properly divine extent of love to the measure of human subjectivity is carefully precluded. God has revealed the kind of love he is by sending of his only Son into the world to be the source of life (4:9). The self-revelation of the Father made through sending of what is most intimate to himself -- "his only Son" -- into what is most distant from him "the world" (Cf. 2:15-17) -- is the result of an initiative that acknowledges no human conditions, neither those of a prior human loving search for God ("... not that we loved God"), nor even a prior innocence in those who have been so loved (... to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (4:10) ). As they participate in the reality divine agape through mutual love, believers are drawn by the invisible God into the divine life; and the self-communicating love of God achieves its purpose (4:12). Once more the gift of the Spirit and the sending of the Son (4:13-15) figure in the letter’s presentation of the originating and life-giving nature of God’s love: "so we have known and believe the love that God has for us" (4:16a). "Our" knowing depends on God’s action; and the reality of "our" loving derives from Love’s initiative, as the Father gives of his Spirit and sends his Son to be be the saviour of the world. The originating reality, "God is love" (4:16b) is the transforming truth. In its transcendent objectivity it counters the subjective projections of human fear and the distorted calculations of human justice (4:17-18), so that believers can transcend their doubts to both affirm, "we love because he first loved us" (4:19), and carry their love for the invisible God into fraternal love in the visible community (4:20-21). For them love becomes a way of life because in God love and life are two sides of the same truth: since "God is love" (4:8, 16b), and "he is the true God and eternal life" (5:20b).

The letter’s various affirmations of God as light, as pure, as righteous, as love, as true, and as life accumulate in the conviction that believers genuinely know God:

In short, for the author of 1 John the meaning of God is truly cognitive. While the effective meaning of God demands and inspires action, while its constitutive meaning informs the consciousness of believers with a new identity, while its communicative meaning unites them in a shared life and love, the cognitive meaning of God is eminently objective. God is more than the inspiration to moral action, more than a feature of human identity, more than the bond of human community. Though no explicit doxological formulae 22 of praise and thanksgiving are found in this letter, the intentionality of its author is governed by the all-transcending objectivity in what has been revealed. The confession, "God is love" is a judgment of reality. Whilst its meaning is closed to those who do not believe or do not love, for those who believe and whose faith expresses itself in the praxis of love, it is the original and abiding truth. God has been truly revealed: "... the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining" (2:8).


1 John draws its readers into a complex web of theological meaning which can never be neatly objectified. The compactness of such meaning has been classically teased out in the great Thomistic categories of the divine missions, sanctifying grace, charity and infused wisdom. 23 Bernard Lonergan, basing his theological method in human consciousness as it unfolds in all its modes of self-transcendence, has worked to transpose the Thomistic theoretical inheritance into a new intentionality-based theological method which will undoubtedly prove to be a rich resource for the retrieval of the biblical, and especially, Johannine experience of God. 24 While a contemporary theologian lives necessarily in a larger and more varied Church than that inhabited by the Johannine communities of long ago, while the world as the domain of God’s love and action has been newly appreciated, there is much in the message of 1 John that resonates with Lonergan’s description of God as the field of self-transcending love:

Lonergan has analysed the event of conversion in terms of three inter-related moments, the intellectual, the moral and the religious. 26 While such a distinction is, no doubt, of great value for establishing the differentiated tasks of theology and in justifying its various descriptions as systematic, moral or spiritual, the witness of 1 John recalls theology in its many and complex activities to an original simplicity. This is not to suggest the desirability of a regression to the undifferentiated first simplicity of pre-theoretical mode of discourse. But it does inspire an ongoing methodological search for a second, post-critical simplicity which will make clear that theology, while always "faith seeking understanding", is ever a love seeking its most appropriate intellectual and moral expression in our respective cultures, so to be a praxis amandi in the global culture we increasingly share. 27 Love informs all virtues because it is the very "form" of God. 28 Where 1 John ends, theology must always begin anew: "Little children, keep yourselves from idols!" (5:21).


1 For an abundance of background material, an essential reference remains Raymond E. Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple. The Life, Loves and Hates of an Individual Church in New Testament Times (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1979). For a concise general commentary and bibliography, see Pheme Perkins, "The Johannine Epistles", in Raymond E. Brown, S.S., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ, and Roland E. Murphy, O.Carm., (Eds.), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1989), 986-993. The major commentaries remain R. Schnackenburg, The Johannine Epistles. A Commentary (New York: Crossroad, 1992), and Raymond E. Brown, The Epistles of John, Anchor Bible 30 (New York: Doubleday, 1982) and most recently, C. Clifton Black, The First, Second and Third Letters of John. Introduction, Commentary and Reflections in The New Interpreters's Bible, Volume XII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 364-469. This latter reference is outstanding for its literary references and pastoral applications.

2 For the complex question of authorship, Hans-Josef Klauck, Der Erste Joahnnesbreif (Zürich: Benziger, 1991), 42-47.

3 I am especially grateful to Francis J. Moloney SDB for his helpful suggestions. This essay is the outgrowth of a much larger work which I am writing with Professor Moloney, The Open Heaven. The Experience of God in the Johannine Writings, by basing our theological reflections mainly on his magisterial recent work, The Gospel of John (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, Sacra Pagina Series, 4, 1998).

4 Note the strong incarnational and Johannine emphasis as it is continued in the letters of St Ignatius of Antioch: "To the Trallians", ch. 10; "To the Smyrnaeans", ch. 2, 7, 10; and "To the Ephesians, ch. 20, in Cyril C. Richardson, ed., Early Christian Fathers (New York: ThMacmillan Company) 74-87. For a summary of recent research on Gnosticism, P. Perkins, "Gnosticism", The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1350-1353.

5 Julian Hills, " 'Little children, keep yourselves from idols' : 1 John 5:21 Reconsidered", The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 51/2 (April, 1989) 285-310.

6 Hans Conzelmann, " 'Was von Anfang war' ", in Walther Eltester, ed., Neutestamentliche Studien für Rudolf Bultmann zu seinem 70. Geburtstag (Berlin: Töpelmann, 1951), 194-201.

7 1 John 2:5 contains the first of the fifty-two references to agap' in the letter.

8 For a comprehensive treatment, see Gary M. Burge, The Anointed Community. The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1987).
9 Dietrich Rusam, Die Gemeinschaft der Kinder Gottes: Das Motiv der Gotteskindschaft under die Gemeinden der johanneischen Briefe (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1993).

10 The sacramental symbolism evokes the primary incarnational event of the life and death of Jesus, from the beginning of his ministry in the baptism of water to the end, in his death on the cross (Cf. John 1:26, 29-34; 2:7-9; 3:5, 8; 4:10-15; 7:38; 13:5; 19:30).

11 Note the Johannine theological background, evidenced in such texts as John 3:35; 5:20; 16:12-15; 17:1-5, 26.

12 See my Trinity of Love. A Theology of the Christian God (Wilmington, Del.: Michael Glazier, 1988) 184-189.

13 Summa Theol., 1, 32, 1 ad 1.

14 See Summa Theol., 1,43, 1-8. For an ecological and cosmological applications of the missions, see Tony Kelly, An Expanding Theology. Faith in a World of Connections (Sydney: E. J. Dwyer, 1993) 157-168.

15 See my Trinity of Love, especially 135-172.

16 For other interpretations, see Ignace de la Potterie, "Anointing of the Christian by Faith", in Ignace de la Potterie and Stanislas Lyonnet, eds., The Christian Lives by the Spirit (New York: Alba House, 1971) 79-143.

17 Summa Theol. 1, 27, 3-4; 36, 1-4; 37, 1-2.

18 See, Tony Kelly, The Creed by Heart. Relearning the Nicene Creed (Melbourne: Harper Collins, 1996).

19 Bernard Lonergan, Method in Theology (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1971) especially, 76-81.

20 By way of contrast, the meanings of God in John's Gospel tend to unfold in the reverse order, beginning with a strong accent on the cognitive (e.g., 1:1-18), moving to the constitutive (e.g., 3:1-10; 4:7-27), and then to the communicative (e.g., 10:1-19; 15:1-11; 17:20-24) - with the effective increasingly stressed (e.g., 8:12, 31-33; 9:35-36; 12:44-50; 13:31-35; 20:19-31).

21 Method in Theology, 265, 292.

22 I defer to the exegetes on this matter: Does 1 John refrain from doxological language because of the danger of removing God to a false transcendence? Is the doxological dimension so typically christological (e.g., John 17) that the author takes it for granted?

23 See especially, Summa Theol., on the divine missions (1, 43, 1-8), the interior law of grace (1-2, 106-108); the theological virtue of charity (2-2, 23-27); and infused wisdom (2-2, 45, 1-6).

24 Lonergan, Method in Theology, 13-20; 120-124.

25 Method in Theology, 290.

26 Lonergan, Method in Theology, 237-244; 267-271; 338, 350.

27 In this particular Johannine context, a range of further theological questions is suggested by the late Sean O'Riordan's essays, "The Experience of God in Modern Theology and Psychology" and "The Sociology of Moral Theology", in Raphael Gallagher and Sean Cannon, Eds., Sean O'Riordan: A Theologian of Development. Selected Essays (Rome: Editiones Academiae Alphonsianae, and Dublin: The Columba Press, 1998), 209-235; 275-302.

28 Summa Theol. 2-2, 23, 8. The above references to the Lonerganian categories of the four functions of meaning and the three moments of conversion suggest how St Thomas' doctrine of charity as the form of the virtues can be reworked in a more "intentionality-based" mode. We will return to this topic in another article.


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