Dualism in the Letters of John

One of the frustrations reading the letters of John is the John’s rather stark, black-and-white view of the world. He begins in 1 John 1:5 by stating that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” There is a “polarity between God and ‘the world’” (Jobes, Letters to the Church, 415). There rest of the letter is filled with similar contrasts – one either walks in the light or walks in the darkness. One either does not sin, or one continues in sin. The first chapter of the book can be read as saying there are two types of people in the world, those who have been enlightened (the Christians) and those who remain in the darkness (the non-Christian). That is true, of course, but for Christians who have read their Paul, it is hard to imagine “the one who does not sin.” Romans 6-7, for example, describes the struggle of the believer who was a slave to sin and is now a slave to righteousness. Even our own experience seems to make the sharp black/white dualism of John difficult to understand.

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In the history of interpretation of the Letters, there are two possible sources for this dualism. In the nineteenth century the Letters were dated much later that the first century, so the light / darkness language was thought to be an allusion to Gnostic dualism. Gnosticism developed in the second century by blending Jewish and Christian theology with a Platonic Dualism. This meant that the world was sinful and evil, only the spirit was good. The goal of life was to separate from the life of this world and purify one’s spirit, perhaps leaving the sinful flesh to return someday to the spiritual realm.

The Gnostic view is far less popular since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Community Rule (1QS) describes the world in terms similar to 1 John. The Community represents the “sons of light” and those in the world are the “sons of darkness.” There is a spirit of truth and a spirit of deceit, humans choose between the two “spirits.” In 1 John 3:6 the writer says that the one who has the “spirit of truth” hears God and knows God, the one who has the “spirit of error” is a liar and will not follow God. The Community Rule has similar language:

1QS 3:18-19 [God] created man to rule the world and placed within him two spirits so that he would walk with them until the moment of his visitation: they are the spirits of truth and of deceit. From the spring of light stem the generations of truth, and from the source of darkness the generations of deceit. (Garciá-Martiínez and Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition, 1:75)

But as Andreas Köstenberger points out, the dualism in John is not at all like what is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact, he thinks that it is not really “dualism” in the classic sense since there is both a vertical and horizontal aspect to the dualism. (The Theology Of John’s Gospel and Letters, 277).  The Gnostics minimized the human relationships since all human flesh is sinful. The Qumran Community minimized the horizontal as well, declaring war on the Sons of Darkness.

I want to suggest here that John’s so-called dualism is drawn from the creation story. In Genesis 2-3, humans have an ideal relationship with God and with each other. They live in perfect fellowship with God and in perfect harmony with each other. After sin enters the world through Adam’s rebellion, the vertical relationship destroyed – perfect fellowship becomes terror of God’s voice and hiding from him in the bushes. Likewise, the relationship between Adam and his wife changes and there is anything but harmony over the next few chapters (Cain and Abel, Lamech’s revenge, the Flood, etc.)

For the one who is a disciple of Jesus, the relationship with God has been restored, implying that relationships with other humans ought to also be restored. The word was not evil when it was created, nor did our relationship with God cause terror and hiding. For John, the one who is a follower of Jesus has been restored to a pre-fall state in which we can “walk in the light” and quite literally “not sin.” As the writer says in 2:15-17, this world is passing away, we belong to another world which will endure forever.

15 thoughts on “Dualism in the Letters of John

  1. I do not know how you feel about Margaret Barker, but in one of recent books (Temple Mysticism, I believe – unfortunately I cannot find my copy) she treats Light in a manner I found rather gripping, for it included a highly unorthodox treatment of gnosticism as well.

  2. I gave not read her, but I will try to take a look at this one. Thanks.

  3. Philip: I agree, that the Apostle John and “his” Johannine materal are drawn more from the Jewish creation ideas, than any gnostic ideas, though surely John used his ideas of the Jewish creation to give proper biblical and theological truth against any gnostic thought. Once again this is part of the Jewish Hellenism, torward the biblical truth. Then of course later Ireneaeus brought forth this positive Johannine teaching against the Valentinians.

  4. The verse that comes to mind in reference to this post is 1 John 4:18 which says; “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” I have tried to flush out what the words of Romans such as “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, my sinful nature (7:18)” and how it works with the idea that we are made perfect by the perfect love of Christ. I might be taking this thought out of context, but could perfection be the goal that we long and hope for while we know that we struggle against the sin that is at work in us. I do see the connection of the words of 1 John (light and darkness) and the extremes of the wording to the Genesis account. There is no doubt that extremes get our attention in bible reading and do well in illustrating a point thinking about darkness/ light and blessings/ curses.

  5. I also think it makes a lot of sense that John gets his “dualism” from the creation story. One reason why I believe this is because right from the first line of the epistle it talks about “the beginning.” This introduction is very similar to the Gospel of John as well. John 1:1-2 says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” I think both talk about the very beginning of creation. That is one of the reasons why I support P. Longs view on the dualism and the creation story.

    In Tuttle’s post he said, “ There is no doubt that extremes get our attention in bible reading and do well in illustrating a point thinking about darkness/ light and blessings/ curses.” One of the reasons why I actually like 1 John so much is because the author writes with a sense of urgency and uses extremes. He thinks it is important that we don’t claim to be a Christ-follower when we really aren’t. 1 John 1:6 says, “If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth.” To John, it is not simply enough to know who God is to be in the truth. Our actions must be consistent with our beliefs. I really like what Jobes said about this; “To modern thinking, truth is something that one knows cognitively; in the Johannine world, truth was something that one did” (414-415). As followers of Christ I also feel like most of us need to show Jesus that we want to follow him not just by going to a Bible college but actually surrendering to Him every day through how we live our lives.

  6. From reading everyone else’s posts and considering everything about 1 John I liked the lesson that is being displayed. A few other posts talk about the sense of urgency and honesty in John, I think this is something that a lot of Christians should consider and try to compare there faith with. The term “Sunday Christian” comes to mind when I read these posts because it accurately describes the people who SAY they follow Christ, without truly doing it. I think the way Christianity is sometimes used or portrayed in the media, it makes it look as if a lot of people say portray themselves as Christians because it is good for their image. I also cant help but think about Tim Tebow in this case. A lot of people say they wish Tebow would pray less during his games, but all he is doing is living his faith instead of just saying it, like a lot of others might be doing.

  7. I am not sure if John was speaking perfection for believers. True, there is a dualism that dominates John’s gospels but the lines are drawn between those who know Christ and those who don’t. If we are Christians and still sin John himself says “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins”. We have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous! The proverbial lines are drawn in the sand between light and darkness. Follow Christ, walk in the light. Walk according to the sin of this world and you walk in darkness. John’s use of the word “walking” denotes a continual process. Continually follow Christ or continually follow the world. Maranatha!

  8. I like the clear contrast between light and darkness in 1 John. He clearly separates the two and leaves no room for grey areas. 1 John 1:6 says “if we claim to have fellowship with him ans yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.” We cannot have God while walking in darkness. I feel that we forget this sometimes. We emphasize so much on grace that we forget to strive for perfection. No one is perfect; we all know this. Yet, I feel that Christians take this to an extreme at times. We have the mentality of “no one is perfect, so why try?” However, the Bible tell us to strive to be perfect. Matthew 5:48 says “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” I feel that John emphasizes this in his letters. He makes a sharp contrast between light and dark, sin and sinless. He describes how we should strive to be. 1 John 2:1 says “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But is anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.” I do not think that John is telling his audience to be completely sinless. 1 John 1:8 says “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” I do believe that John is simply encouraging his believers to strive to be sinless so that they (and we) “may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming.” (1:28).

  9. I definitely agree with what Chris is saying about dualism and the letters of John. If you look throughout history, wars, stories, ideals of nations, everything has two sides to it; a dark side and a light side. Even before the fall of man, there has always been a battle brewing in the heavens between God and Satan. Read Revelations and you’ll find how the conflict ends, but in the world right now, man deals with the ways of the world and the ways of God. Ted Dekker was once quoted saying that man is made up of three parts, the pure good, the pure evil and the soul in between. What John talks about is the basic truth that there is two sides to living and we must chose which side to follow. Will we following in the ways of the world and darkness or follow in the ways of Jesus and the light? The Bible helps point us toward the way of the light, but it is never easy. Read any of Paul’s letter’s and you will see that being a Christian is not perfect. We will make mistakes and fall sometimes, but it is at our weakest moments that God is strongest. When we fall, we must get back up and continue to follow the light as a believer in Jesus Christ. Hope is never lost; as John says, “if we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins.”

  10. If John’s dualism begins with creation, I wonder how this all connects with today. I’m not sure if that makes sense in words, but it kind of makes sense in my head. If the relationship was destroyed when there was sin brought into the world by Adam and Eve, then the relationship was restored with Jesus, at what point does that connect to our view today of the world and how we perceive this relationship. If those who have Christ in their lives and are those in the light, and those who are in darkness – or the non Christians, I ask where the connection is that allows us to spread the gospel to those in a way that those in darkness come to the light. How does this relate to our carrying out of God’s Plan?

  11. I feel that John is merely saying that ones life in Christ must be different than that of someone who is not in Christ. I do not see John saying that one must become sin free pre-say but more of a faith with action. To me this parallels James. In James you read that faith without works is dead, then in John you read that if one says he is saved but then walks in darkness is a liar. John is reitterating the fact that if you are going to call yourself saved then your life better look like you have been saved. You can not look like the world and be in Christ at the same time. We are to look differant to the world…like a light in the dark.

  12. I think that it is interesting to learn about different dualisms. I think that, in this case, 1 John 1:5 can be confusing when it comes to analyzing this passage. I like that Jtuttle recognized that verse and tied it in with what the dualism of the letter of John is really about. 1 John 1:5 says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all,” this verse explains that God is the only thing that can defeat darkness. If we did not have God, we would be doomed to eternal death. But, because God is love, and he sent his one and only son, Jesus Christ, to die on the cross to save us from this eternal death, it can be tied in with the verse 1 John 4:18. That love drives out fear and conquers death. Then there is the main argument on if Christians apply to this “light.” Like you said from the example in Romans 6-7, “the one who does not sin,” people can get confused on whom this is directed too. Everyone is a sinner, but the difference is if that sinner has the eternal gift from God; a relationship with Jesus Christ and living your life for him. So, I think there will always be confusion on whom people think that this passage revers too, but narrowing it down, it ties in with the light and the love of the world, which if you accept, burns within us. God’s light and love defeats the darkness.

  13. I find 1 John to be convicting. There should not be any grey areas in your Christian walk. The Bible says that God spits out the lukewarm Christian. Therefore, we should live as children of the light. However, because of our fallen nature, to live perfectly in the light is impossible. While we should aim to live a life according to God’s Word and according to the life of Christ that does not always happen. Like you mentioned in your post, those who have read Paul have a hard time reconciling one that does not sin. As a result, I find it hard to imagine a person that does not sin. I believe that God has forgiven us of our sins and that He will continue to save us from our sins. This is not to say that we should continue in sin but that we should continually be transformed into Christ’s image and that God forgives us when we slip up. When we fall we should not give up. Just because we have one battle does not mean that we are done fighting and that Satan will no longer attack us. No it means that we give God the glory for that victory and prepare ourselves for another attack. Christians should be bold in their faith and do their best to follow and trust God’s plan. We all stumble but with God’s help we can continually become more and more like His Son. But then again I tend to look through my Pauline eyes.

  14. The idea of dualism in the letters of John reminds me instantaneously of Matthew 6:22-23 which says “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness?” which also reminds me of Luke 11:33-36. But I guess the only difference is the idea of these passages dealing with the eye being the lamp of the body in comparison to living or walking in the light or darkness like 1 John 1:6-7. But 1 John does paint a pretty good picture behind the usage of the dualistic language such as “God is light” (1 John 1:5). But as Christians or more so those who have been enlightened, we should live in the light. Whether it is within our bodies as Matthew or Luke put it, or walking in the light as 1 John puts it, we should be in the light; “Enlightened”, living in the light. But I do not think this language was completely or strictly New Testament in the time but rather transformed from language in the Old Testament like 2 Samuel 22:29 where it states “the Lord turns my darkness into light” or Isaiah 2:5 states “lets us walk in the light of the Lord”. Dualism may be considered newer language in the New Testament because of the “dualistic” idea of the comparison of light and darkness, but I cannot see much of a difference in the meaning between the light in the Old Testament and the light in the New Testament.

  15. Jobes points that what can be seen in the book of 1 John is that sin must be taken seriously and “central to the Christian message”, because it is the main reason humanity needed a savior (Christ) to die for them and the reason that he is today “our advocate with the Father”. (Kindle Locations 10409-10410).People who claim to be in relationship with the God “in whom there is no darkness” but don’t take their sin seriously, cannot be in the light. If they habitually “live in sin” and do not care about what God says about it, then they are more then likely still living “in the darkness”. “ If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth.”(1 John 1:6).

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