Thomas Andrew Bennett, 1-3 John (THNTC)

Bennett, Thomas Andrew. 1-3 John. Two Horizons New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2021. 225 pp. Pb; $29.00.   Link to Eerdmans

Bennett is an Affiliate Assistant Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he completed his PhD in Theology with a Minor in New Testament (2015). He previously published Labor of God: A Theology of Atonement (Baylor, 2017, reviewed here by Lindsay Kennedy).

Bennett 1-3 JohnIn the brief introduction, Bennett states we can know nothing about the authorship, date, or historical circumstances for 1-3 John. All we have are “intimations and whispers” about what might have been the circumstances in which 1-3 John were written. He therefore does not engage in any reconstruction of a Johannine Community or complicated theories of how these letters are related to the Gospel of John (or Revelation). Anything said of the historical circumstances lurking behind the text is aimed at “clearing the way for a theological engagement that nourishes Christians” (3). These brief letters still speak to us because we belong to the same church.

Nevertheless, Bennett thinks it is likely the author of these letters knew and followed Jesus, he assumes all three letters were written by the author of the Gospel of John (and maybe Revelation), although that does not matter for the theological reading found in this commentary. Not does Bennett find any specific heresy in the first letter beyond the simple denial of the son (1 John 2:22 5:12-13), nor do the letters address a clear, concrete, discernable group of Christians. “Once we have done away with the notion of a ‘Johannine Community’ we have radically democratized. The audience of the Johannine writings…casting a wider net so that these letters are written for all Christians” (8).

Following Richard Bauckham, Bennett suggests the Gospel of John was a trustworthy biography of an important person, written by an eyewitness, and at least partially written to those who do not believe. First John shares that audience, people who are “community-less, joyless and eternal life-less” (10). So perhaps we are reading letters written from the area of Ephesus in the years 80-90 CE (when and where John the Apostle traditionally lived), but does that really matter for doing a theological reading of the letters of John? Sometimes it does, as demonstrated by Bennett’s discussion of John’s ethics. In a section drawing a contrast between his view and Robert Yarborough’s recent commentary, Bennett suggests the difference is “interpretive fallout of rejecting historical speculation about circumstances… of an identifiable Johannine community” (202, note 80).

The body of the commentary follows typical units for the letters of John with no separate introductions for the second and third letter (although some introduction-like material appears in the commentary on the first verses of each letter). Bennett provides his own translation of the text, followed by an exposition of the text. Sometimes his translations are striking. For 1 John 2:16, he renders ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκὸς as “the things the body craves: rather than the traditional “lust of the flesh” and ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν as “the things eyes long to see” rather than the traditional “lust of the eyes” and ἡ ἀλαζονεία τοῦ βίου as “overconfidence in what we have” rather than the traditional “pride of life.” He relates these phrases to Wisdom literature, going beyond the implication of sexual sins. “Overconfidence in what we have is not just a sin, it is a slippery slope that ends in heresy (47)

Greek appears along with transliteration, although Bennett’s comments are not overly concerned with syntactical issues and there are no notes on textual issues in the commentary (except for a note on 1 John 5:7-8). The translation shows that Bennett has worked over the difficult Greek syntactical issues. Frequently, he explains why he has translated a particular Greek construction as he has even if he does not reference exegetical grammars to support his decisions. Occasional footnotes point to secondary literature and contemporary commentaries when necessary. Bennett also refers to ancient voices, although less often than expected in a commentary doing theological interpretation. The result is a clear exposition of the text in readable prose with a theological edge. Sections do not conclude with a paragraph of theological insights; Bennett works his insights into his exposition throughout the commentary.

The Two Horizons Commentary series usually divides the content into two sections: exposition and theological horizons. In this commentary, the commentary on 1-3 John runs about 114 pages, the theological section 82 pages. Bennett divides his theological comments into eight broad categories. The first four deal with the Godhead (The Trinity; Christology; God and Creation; God’s Character). Bennett argues “unqualified monotheism of the Jewish and Muslim varieties cannot say ‘God is love’ truly; Johannine Christianity can and does” (135). He believes the incipient Trinitarianism of the letters of John make clear self-love is not the right kind of love, since love must go outside of itself: The Father demonstrates his love by sending his son.

For Bennett, a reader cannot rightly understand the Johannine Literature without a strong theological reckoning of Christ and the church as eschatological fulfillments of Temple Worship (135-36). This takes into account a hot topic in Johannine studies, the idea of Temple as Jesus’s body (for example Paul, Hoskins, Jesus as the Fulfillment of the Temple in the Gospel of John, W&S, 2007). Since sins are forgiven in Jesus’s name (1 John 2:1-2), 1 John and Hebrews are not far apart.

With respect to Election and Eschatology, John has a relentless emphasis on transformation (171). “We will be like him” in 1 John 3:2-3, and everyone who has this hope in him “purifies himself because he is pure.” but what does that mean? Bennett thinks this opens the door for a Protestant theology of purgatory. Believers are going to be conformed to Christ. For some, this process might be easy, for others (most) it will be difficult (painful, shameful). This is the “inner core” of purgatory, although the mechanics of this purgatorial transformation are not clear (in 1 John or elsewhere). Bennett turns to a philosophy of time to explain that believers will experience an instantaneous (from God’s perspective) purging of sin, although this purging might have a long-lasting subjective experience (from the believer’s perspective). This view has immediate theological implications for 1 John 3:4-10, a passage which seems in tension with Hebrews 6:4-6. John seems to say believers cannot sin-unto-death, while Hebrews say believers can sin and fall away, never to be restored. “If Protestantism develops a robust view of purgatory the perhaps this tension can be laid to rest” (178).

Perhaps that is true, but there are other ways to understand 1 John 3:3 which do not point towards a postmortem purification. The purification in 1 John 3:3 is in this life. The one who is in him “purifies themselves” (not, will be purified by God in the future). Purification (ἁγνίζω) refers to a ritual which makes someone “acceptable for cultic use” (BDAG 1). The background is more likely something like John 11:55, the Judeans purified themselves before Passover. The next paragraph concerns practicing sin in this life, not a purging of sin after death. This purification is part of John’s intensely practical ethics.

Regarding the church, the letters of John think of the church as a Spirit-filled Temple, different from Paul’s Body of Christ yet compatible, “arguably more Trinitarian” (192). Like Paul, John sees the church as a family. “John relentlessly uses family language” but without the apparent misogyny of Paul’s letters (197). This leads to an exegetical discussion of the addressee of the second letter, “the elect lady and her children.” Commentaries on 2 John usually interpret “the elect lady” as a metaphor for a local church (ἐκκλησία is a feminine noun) and her children are the members of that community. Bennett argues the elect lady is the patroness of a local church and would have been well known to the readers, like the Elder or the Beloved disciple (109). When John addresses the church, he does not usually use a metaphor, and he does not seem to be in the habit of addressing the church in feminine language. Bennett observes the letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 do not use feminine metaphors.

John’s ethics are simple: if you are in him, walk like him. There are no household codes (like Paul and Peter) nor does John re-apply the Torah (like the Sermon on the Mount). Nor are there any extended sin lists found in the Pauline letters. The only specific ethical issue in the letters of John is tis extending hospitality to traveling teachers (and the dangers of refusing hospitality) in 3 John.

Conclusion. Bennett’s commentary on 1-3 John is a theologically challenging commentary with a clear pastoral heart. He is interested in shedding light on these deceptively simple letters and drawing the out implications for being “in him” in modern church life. Although some readers will miss the extended speculations about John’s community, Bennett’s exposition of these letters is an exemplary model of theological interpretation of Scripture and will benefit more readers to understand John’s message as they teach and preach these letters.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Reviews of other commentaries in this series:


Published on May 22, 2021 on Reading Acts.

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