John, the holistic anti-reductionist (!)

A brief excursus on John’s style of writing. This is especially obvious from John’s 1st letter. Anyone who has learned, like me, even minimal Greek knows it’s by far the easiest New Testament book to translate. The Greek is simple, the vocabulary limited. A child could do it after half a dozen Greek lessons. Yet once you’ve translated it it is one of the hardest books to understand, especially if you have scientific training.

There seems little in the way of the logical development of an argument. Instead it’s as if John builds up a tangled network of connections between recurrent themes, which is most unsatisfying for the linear mind. Actually that’s probably quite a modern (or even postmodern) approach. John is, in effect, refusing to take a reductionist approach to complex issues, preferring to highlight the interconnectedness of each element. I’ve heard that advocated as a better way to deal with the massive complexity of cell biology than the reductionist methods of traditional biology. But most of us were trained in traditional biology, so it’s a tough call.

Let’s look at John’s method by a train of examples from 1 John:

1.7: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from sin.
2.3: We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
2.5: But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him.
2.9: Whoever loves his brother lives in the light.
2.15: If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
2.20: But you have anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.
2.23: Whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also.
3.10: Anyone who does not do what is right is not a child of God; nor is anyone who does not love his brother.
3.16: This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.
3.23: And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
3.24: And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
4.6: We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us.
4.7: Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.
4.10: This is love: not that we loved God, but but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.
5.2: This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands.
5.12: He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.
5.18: We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.

It looks circular. We know A because of B. We know B because of C. We know C because of A. But this is because all these things are mutually dependent. There is no cause and effect – except the first cause of it all, which is God and his Son Jesus, the Logos.

I hope these extracts are sufficient to show that the way to understand 1 John isn’t to track it verse by verse, but to take in an overview and then chase the key words and themes to see how they interconnect. Eventually a holistic understanding grows. The same is true for John’s gospel, though it’s less obvious because the narrative carries you along with it. It’s certainly true as one tries to see how John has developed the theme of Jesus as God’s Logos, which he introduces in the prologue. Related words and themes overlap and reinforce each other, so that one understands Logos only from the gospel as a whole, and not by picking apart the contents of the prologue itself.

 I’ll start the attempt to unpack this in the next post.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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