Dualism in First 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.

Use the Force

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.

If this is on track, how would it help read 1 John? Does it help overcome some of the “black or white” ethical commands in the letter?

12 thoughts on “Dualism in First John

  1. From the lack of comments, 2 days on, it appears people don’t want to grapple with this kind of conundrum… understandably. Reading 1 John seriously can about make one crazy (if you’re trying to follow the logic).

    I’ve not focused on interpreting it particularly but remember back more than 40 years puzzling over a lot of the “dualism” (or “binary thinking”). People often would cite parts of the book for “assurance of salvation”… WHAT? Seems to me it’s more likely, to be binary about it, to UNassure anyone struggling with this issue.

    For now, I’ll just point out that some statements in the book make it clear that the “dualism” included a strong us vs. them issue. Some other group or teachers (docetists?) were around and probably drawing some of John’s community into theirs or at least raising confusion. Despite the strong emphasis on loving one another, God’s love, etc., seems to me “John” was having plenty of trouble loving his theological enemies!

    Also just noted, in a quick perusal, that he seems to base knowledge of “the truth” about God on being “born of God” in some unexplained way (akin to G of John, probably). In 2:27 it is an “anointing you received from him” (NIV, same “anointing” in KJV) that teaches “about all things” and is “real, not counterfeit”. So even what is experiential/subjective is cast in John’s stark either-or terms…. And right in this passage is the related claim that the reader does not need anyone to teach him/her. Presumably, tho not logically, this refers only to the threatening teachers, not to John, whose very letter is an attempt to teach. In terms of spiritual development stages, this author would seem to have to be at the relatively low levels of overly concrete thinking and conformity. Little emotional or relational maturity or grace (tho evidence he’s trying to receive that from God… just not very far along yet).

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  2. I think that dualism is a fact of life. Where we see one thing, there is usually the opposite as well. With good, there is bad. Creation, destruction. Cats and dogs, white and black. Even science has notions of dualism in it. “for each action there is an equal or opposite reaction” Newton’s third law. This is agreeable by people from all walks of life, either Christian or not. First John shows dualism in these concepts as shown in Jobe’s pg. 416 eternal life-death, righteousness-sin, love-hate, truth-lies. The aspect of Jesus dying to save us from the darker side of dualist equation is the hard part. When we accept Jesus into our lives, we know that we are free from sin and that our slate is clean, but we still live on in sin. There is an old saying that goes like this, “are we saints that sometimes sin, or are we sinners saved by grace?” I feel that calling ourselves saints that sin is almost contradictory of itself, while on the other hand of being a sinner saved by the grace of God is not wrong, because we continue to sin while living our lives, even with the knowledge that because of Jesus we are no longer held in bondage because of that sin.

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    • Anthony, I think you made a great point. Dualism is everywhere, in all facets of life. There is no action without an opposite reaction to it. It’s just the reality of life! In understanding this however, I think it better helps us grasp what the notion of what it means to be a sinner saved by Grace. Because if Jesus did completely die for our sins, than why do we still continue to sin? I think this present a case of dualism in the richest sense. However, its important to remember the totality of Jesus’ death and the freedom that presents for our lives as Christians today. Although its important not to sin so that Grace may increase, its also essential that we understand the extent and the power of the Grace that was offered by Jesus’ death on the cross. May we continually live in that freedom!

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  3. 1 John sounds very dualistic to me. It even strikes me as an ancient version of Newton’s third law at times. Where the presence of evil is (a force), there will always be a light to shine in it’s midst. If the darkness cannot consume the light, then the two forces will always be at war until the end of all things. It sounds a bit like a fantasy novel at times. John’s concern with the truth is very clear in this book, “its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining.” (v. 2.8) He is talking about the ongoing conflict with the darkness and the light. However, to be one with Christ, and restored to our perfect, pre-fall state is a rejection of this idea, as you have stated. It doesn’t follow the same harsh, and binary logic that John uses. Instead, it presents the idea that we are all trying to be restored, body, mind and soul to God. It reminds me of the oneness that I often hear of in the Hindu faith. Perhaps our fascination as Americans with eastern religion has lead us to reject Greek philosophical conclusions of God, and attempt to return to more ancient thinking.

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  4. This concept of polarized thinking is one that Christians have to face in their daily lives. Dualism justifies our discernment and black-and-white morality. Polarized thinking can also be very dangerous especially in the world of mental health. There have been many studies done that link polarized thinking to depression and anxiety. 1 John references these polarized statements such as truth vs. false and light vs. dark. Jobes states that Johns gospel has a strong relationship to 1 John in vocabulary, syntax and structure. Both of these books have a dualistic construction. An example of dualism is found in John 1:1-5 and in 1 John 1. I think that the Bible has a lot to do with dualism based off good and evil. This is not a new thought because we see God is the light and the devil is the darkness. There are many points in the Bible when the writer sees these characteristics and uses them to their advantage.

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    • Sydney, quite right that polarized thinking is a “daily life” issue. The Bible has a wide variety of styles and perspectives. Some of the “wisdom” literature and the “Prophets” present something other than polarities. But overall, polarities that are exaggerations of reality dominate in the OT.

      And you are wise to point out the connection between black-white thinking and mental health. We can’t claim it’s always direct cause-and-effect in either direction. Probably a complex interplay. (I have long background in psychology and a counseling practice.) But use of the Bible which fails to help especially young Christians navigate the human foibles in it, the social forces and insecurities reflected, etc., is a serious problem.

      Unfortunately, I see a whole lot of traditional (often Evangelical, but not exclusively) church leaders who seriously lack maturity and humility (genuine, not just verbal) themselves. Others who are better but don’t understand the psychology and the developmental needs of their congregants. We need Christian colleges and seminaries to be much more psychology-oriented (realizing there are “movements” within that are blatantly anti-psychology in many environments).

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  5. I think that this interpretation of the multifaceted nature of the dualism that appears in 1 John is the best way to approach the topic. We need to realize that the relationships that we have been tainted with sin, and that includes the relationship with God. The vertical and horizontal nature of our relationships should also include the relationship that we have with nature. Before the Fall, humans lived in perfect harmony with nature but afterwards was a struggle of dominance between the two. The dualistic nature of 1 John’s passages hold a deeper meaning than purely flesh vs spirit mentality that can be found in the philosophy of Plato, for it also comprises of the relationships between each other, between us and God, and also how our interaction with the very world has changed. In light of this it might be better to compare the dualistic nature of that which was perfect to that which has fallen to sin’s corruption. With this dichotomy we can view things as that which we should do, both physically and spiritually, and the things that we should avoid doing, again both physically and spiritually.

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  6. At the time 1 John was written, Christian believers needed assurance about who Jesus was. Heresy and false teaching may have caused them to question their beliefs or their salvation in Christ. In “Letters to the Church” Karen Jobes explains: “John’s readers were in a place of vulnerability and needed reassurance and persuasion to continue in what they had embraced as the source of eternal life” (Jobes 415).
    In studying dualism in 1 John, I can see that many of the concepts do seem to be the same as those found in the Creation story. The contrasts mentioned in 1 John–light vs. dark, truth vs. deception, eternal life vs. death, loving vs. hating, and others–can also be found in the first few chapters of Genesis. Before sin entered the world, however, the contrast between good and bad was clear. When 1 John was written, and even today, right and wrong have been questioned, pushed, and even ignored. We must remain in the truth of Christ so that His will for our lives is clear.

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    • I do not think just believers during the time that 1 John was written need assurance about who Jesus was. I think people today need assurance, especially since Jesus’ time on Earth was not as recent and much time has time has passed allowing for fabrications and false teachings. This is why as you mentioned right and wrong have gone into question. In my opinion the line between right and wrong becomes fuzzier and fuzzier as time goes on because people say guidelines from the past are not applicable because what is going on now is different than what happened in the past. The struggles are not the exact same, so it is easy to think that the guidelines do not apply making the guidelines fuzzier. Lilly Singh, a youtuber, brought to my attention that we are not different from our parents. She says what we say is different but what we are talking about in generally is not different such as pointless details, jokes, and make excuses. This being said the guidelines set by Jesus still apply to our life even though we are not going through exact same situations. This is why I think 1 John is applicable today as it was back then.

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  7. I have always found dualism fairly interesting. I remember reading an interesting bit about it in Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. In it, he discusses that dualism cannot exist, because there has to be a third party that measures and separates good and bad, light and dark, right and wrong. He uses this point to argue that God must be involved in this dualism, and that the third thing must transcend the other two things that are being judged. In my opinion, it is interesting to think of dualism in this way.
    I tend to wrestle with your thoughts on Paul being able to “walk in the light” as him being able to “not sin”. I think it is clear that being saved can help a person to have some radical life changes, but I don’t think anyone can say that they completely stopped sinning from the moment of salvation on. For this reason, I think dualism is a simple reality of the flawed, sinful world we live in. I also think that the only one who can see actions as truly black and white is God himself. With God, there are no gray areas. With us, gray areas abound. Humanity simply doesn’t have the capacity to determine what is right and wrong 100% of the time.

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  8. While I would agree that there is a sense of dualism in the book of 1 John, I think that it is important to remember that this is not an equal fight. Yes there is light, and yes there is darkness. But those who walk in the light are those who have the victory. On of the common themes in dualism is that the forces are always struggling for balance, implying that the two forces are flowing back and forth, one element is stronger at times, the other is weaker, and possibly at times they are both the same. This is not true of Divine light. God has won, the enemy is already defeated. The light is stronger – it always has been and it always will be. I think that those who are in the light are reassured of their standing.

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