THE POLEMICAL ELEMENT IN THE FIRST EPISTLE OF ST. JOHN
1 John 4:2-3
A DISCUSSION (however far from technical completeness) of the polemical element in St. John’s Epistle, probably seems likely to be destitute of interest or of instruction, except to ecclesiastical or philosophical antiquarians. Those who believe the Epistle to be a divine book must, however, take a different view of the matter. St. John was not merely dealing with forms of human error which were local and fortuitous. In refuting them he was enunciating principles of universal import, of almost illimitable application. Let us pass by those obscure sects, those subtle curiosities of error, which the diligence of minute research has excavated from the masses of erudition under which they have been buried; which theologians, like other antiquarians, have sometimes labelled with names at once uncouth and imaginative. Let us fix our attention upon such broad and well-defined features of heresy as credible witnesses have indelibly fixed upon the contemporaneous heretical thought of Asia Minor; and we shall see not only a great precision in St. John’s words, but a radiant image of truth, which is equally adapted to enlighten us in the peculiar dangers of our age.
Controversy is the condition under which all truth must be held, which is not in necessary subject matter-which is not either mathematical or physical. In the case of the second, controversy is active, until the fact of the physical law is established beyond the possibility of rational discussion; until self-consistent thought can only think upon the postulate of its admission. Now in these departments all the argument is on one side. We are not in a state of suspended speculation, leaning neither to affirmation nor denial, which is doubt. We are not in the position of inclining either to one side or the other, by an almost impalpable overplus of evidence, which is suspicion; or by those additions to this slender stock which convert suspicion into opinion. We are not merely yielding a strong adhesion to one side, while we must yet admit, to ourselves at least, that our knowledge is not perfect, nor absolutely manifest-which is the mental and moral position of belief. In necessary subject matter, we know and see with that perfect intellectual vision for which controversy is impossible.
The region of belief must therefore, in our present condition, be a region from which controversy cannot be excluded.
Religious controversialists may be divided into three classes, for each of which we may find an emblem in the animal creation. The first are the nuisances, at times the numerous nuisances, of Churches. These controversialists delight in showing that the convictions of persons whom they happen to dislike, can, more or less plausibly, be pressed to unpopular conclusions. They are incessant fault finders. Some of them, if they had an opportunity, might delight in finding the sun guilty in his daily worship of the many-coloured ritualism of the western clouds. Controversialists of this class, if minute, are venomous, and capable of inflicting a degree of pain quite out of proportion to their strength. Their emblem may be found somewhere in the range of "every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." The second class of controversialists is of a much higher nature. Their emblem is the hawk, with his bright eye, with the forward throw of his pinions, his rushing flight along the woodland skirt, his unerring stroke. Such hawks of the Churches, whose delight is in pouncing upon fallacies, fulfil an important function. They rid us of tribes of mischievous winged errors. The third class of controversialists is that which embraces St. John supremely-such minds also as Augustine’s in his loftiest and most inspired moments, such as those which have endowed the Church with the Nicene Creed. Of such the eagle is the emblem. Over the grosser atmosphere of earthly anger or imperfect motives, over the clouds of error, poised in the light of the True Sun, with the eagle’s upward wing and the eagle’s sunward eye, St. John looks upon the truth. He is indeed the eagle of the four Evangelists, the eagle of God. If the eagle could speak with our language, his style would have something of the purity of the sky and of the brightness of the light. He would warn his nestlings against losing their way in the banks of clouds that lie below him so far. At times he might show that there was a danger or an error whose position he might indicate by the sweep of his wing, or by descending for a moment to strike.
There are then polemics in the Epistle and in the Gospel of St. John. But we refuse to hunt down some obscure heresy in every sentence. It will be enough to indicate the master heresy of Asia Minor, to which St. John undoubtedly refers, with its intellectual and moral perils. In so doing we shall find the very truth which our own generation especially needs.
The prophetic words addressed by St. Paul to the Church of Ephesus thirty years before the date of this Epistle had found only too complete a fulfilment. "From among their own selves," at Ephesus in particular, through the Churches of Asia Minor in general, men had arisen "speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them." The prediction began to justify itself when Timothy was Bishop of Ephesus only five or six years later. A few significant words in the First Epistle to Timothy let us see the heretical influences that were at work. St. Paul speaks with the solemnity of a closing charge when he warns Timothy against what were once "profane babblings," and "antitheses of the Gnosis which is falsely so called." In an earlier portion of the same Epistle the young bishop is exhorted to charge certain men not to teach a "different doctrine," neither to give "heed to myths and genealogies," out of whose endless mazes no intellect entangled in them can ever find its way. Those commentators put us on a false scent who would have us look after Judaising error, Jewish "stemmata." The reference is not to Judaistic ritualism, but to semi-Pagan philosophical speculation. The "genealogies" are systems of Divine potencies which the Gnostics (and probably some Jewish Rabbis of Gnosticising tendency) called "aeons," and so the earliest Christian writers understood the word.
Now without entering into the details of Gnosticism, this may be said of its general method and purpose. It aspired at once to accept and to transform the Christian creed; to elevate its faith into a philosophy, a knowledge-and then to make this knowledge cashier and supersede faith, love, holiness, redemption itself.
This system was strangely eclectic, and amalgamated certain elements not only of Greek and Egyptian, but of Persian and Indian, Pantheistic thought. It was infected throughout with dualism and doketism. Dualism held that all good and evil in the universe proceeded from two first principles, good and evil. Matter was the power of evil whose home is in the region of darkness. Minds which started from this fundamental view could only accept the Incarnation provisionally and with reserve, and must at once proceed to explain it away. "The Word was made flesh"; but the Word of God, the True Light, could not be personally united to an actual material system called a human body, plunged in the world of matter, darkened and contaminated by its immersion. The human flesh in which Jesus appeared to be seen was fictitious. Redemption was a drama with a shadow for its hero. The phantom of a Redeemer was nailed to the phantom of a cross. Philosophical dualism logically became theological doketism. Doketism logically evaporated dogmas, sacraments, duties, redemption.
It may be objected that this doketism has been a mere temporary and local aberration of the human intellect; a metaphysical curiosity, with no real roots in human nature. If so, its refutation is an obsolete piece of an obsolete controversy; and the Epistle in some of its most vital portions is a dead letter.
Now of course literal doketism is past and gone, dead and buried. The progress of the human mind, the slow and resistless influence of the logic of common sense, the wholesome influence of the sciences of observation in correcting visionary metaphysics, have swept away aeons, emanations, dualism, and the rest. But a subtler, and to modern minds infinitely more attractive, doketism is round us, and accepted, as far as words go, with a passionate enthusiasm.
What is this doketism?
Let us refer to the history and to the language of a mind of singular subtlety and power.
In George Eliot’s early career she was induced to prepare for the press a translation of Strauss’s mythical explanation of the life of Jesus. It is no disrespect to so great a memory to say, that at that period of her career, at least, Miss Evans must have been unequal to grapple with such a work, if she desired to do so from a Christian point of view. She had not apparently studied the history or the structure of the Gospels. What she knew of their meaning she had imbibed from an antiquated and unscientific school of theologians. The faith of a sciolist engaged in a struggle for its life with the fatal strength of a critical giant instructed in the negative lore of all ages, and sharpened by hatred of the Christian religion; met with the result which was to be expected. Her faith expired, not without some painful throes. She fell a victim to the fallacy of youthful conceit-I cannot answer this or that objection, therefore it is unanswerable. She wrote at first that she was "Strauss-sick." It made her ill to dissect the beautiful story of the crucifixion. She took to herself a consolation singular in the circumstances. The sight of an ivory crucifix, and of a pathetic picture of the Passion, made her capable of enduring the first shock of the loss which her heart had sustained. That is, she found comfort in looking at tangible reminders of a scene which had ceased to be a historical reality, of a Sufferer who had faded from a living Redeemer into the spectre of a visionary past. After a time, however, she feels able to propose to herself and others "a new starting point. We can never have a satisfactory basis for the history of the man Jesus, but that negation does not affect the Idea of the Christ, either in its historical influence, or its great symbolic meanings." Yes! a Christ who has no history, of whom we do not possess one undoubted word, of whom we know, and can know, nothing; who has no flesh of fact, no blood of life; an idea, not a man; this is the Christ of modern doketism. The method of this widely diffused school is to separate the sentiments of admiration which the history inspires from the history itself; to sever the ideas of the faith from the facts of the faith, and then to present the ideas thus surviving the dissolvents of criticism as at once the refutation of the facts and the substitute for them.
This may be pretty writing, though false and illogical writing is rarely even that; but a little consideration will show that this new starting point is not even a plausible substitute for the old belief.
(1) We question simple believers in the first instance. We ask them what is the great religious power in Christianity for themselves, and for others like-minded? What makes people pure, good, self-denying, nurses of the sick, missionaries to the heathen? They will tell us that the power lies, not in any doketic idea of a Christ-life which was never lived, but in "the conviction that that idea was really and perfectly incarnated in an actual career," of which we have a record literally and absolutely true in all essential particulars. When we turn to the past of the Church, we find that as it is with these persons, so it has ever been with the saints. For instance, we hear St. Paul speaking of his whole life. He tells us that "whether we went out of ourselves it was unto God, or whether we be sober, it is for you"; that is to say, such a life has two aspects, one Godward, one manward. Its Godward aspect is a noble insanity, its manward aspect a noble sanity; the first with its beautiful enthusiasm, the second with its saving common sense. What is the source of this? "For the love of Christ constraineth us," - forces the whole stream of life to flow between these two banks without the deviations of selfishness-"because we thus judge that He died for all, that they which live should no longer live unto themselves, but to Him who for their sakes died and rose again." It was the real unselfish life of a real unselfish Man which made such a life as that of St. Paul a possibility. Or we may think of the first beginning of St. John’s love for our Lord. When he turned to the past, he remembered one bright day about ten in the morning, when the real Jesus turned to him and to another with a real look, and said with a human voice, "What seek ye?" and then-"Come, and ye shall see." It was the real living love that won the only kind of love which could enable the old man to write as he did in this Epistle so many years afterwards-"we love because He first loved us."
(2) We address ourselves next to those who look at Christ simply as an ideal. We venture to put to them a definite question. You believe that there is no solid basis for the history of the man Jesus; that his life as a historical reality is lost in a dazzling mist of legend and adoration. Has the idea of a Christ, divorced from all accompaniment of authentic fact, unfixed in a definite historical form, uncontinued in an abiding existence, been operative or inoperative for yourselves? Has it been a practical power and motive, or an occasional and evanescent sentiment? There can be no doubt about the answer. It is not a make belief, but a belief, which gives purity and power. It is not an ideal of Jesus, but the blood of Jesus, which cleanseth us from all sin.
There are other lessons of abiding practical importance to be drawn from the polemical elements in St. John’s Epistle. These, however, we can only briefly indicate, because we wish to leave an undivided impression of that which seems to be St. John’s chief object controversially. There were Gnostics in Asia Minor for whom the mere knowledge of certain supposed spiritual truths was all in all, as there are those amongst ourselves who care for little but what are called clear views. For such St. John writes-"and hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments." There were heretics in and about Ephesus who conceived that the special favour of God, or the illumination which they obtained by junction with the sect to which they had "gone out" from the Church, neutralised the poison of sin, and made innocuous for them that which might have been deadly for others. They suffered, as they thought, no more contamination by it, than "gold by lying upon the dunghill" (to use a favourite metaphor of their own). St. John utters a principle which cleaves through every fallacy in every age which says or insinuates that sin subjective can in any case cease to be sin objective. "Whosoever committeth sin transgresseth also the law, for sin is the transgression of the law. All unrighteousness is sin." Possibly within the Church itself, certainly among the sectarians without it, there was a disposition to lessen the glory of the Incarnation, by looking upon the Atonement as narrow and partial in its aim. St. John’s unhesitating statement is that "He is the propitiation for the whole world." Thus does the eagle of the Church ever fix his gaze above the clouds of error, upon the Sun of universal truth.
Above all, over and through his negation of temporary and local errors about the person of Christ, St. John leads the Church in all ages to the true Christ. Cerinthus, in a form which seems to us eccentric and revolting, proclaimed a Jesus not born of a virgin, temporarily endowed with the sovereign power of the Christ, deprived of Him before His passion and resurrection, while the Christ remained spiritual and impassible. He taught a commonplace Jesus. At the beginning of his Epistle and Gospel John "wings his soul, and leads his readers onward and upward." He is like a man who stands upon the shore and looks upon town and coast and bay. Then another takes the man off with him far to sea. All that he surveyed before is now lost to him; and as he gazes ever oceanward, he does not stay his eye upon any intervening object, but lets it range over the infinite azure. So the Apostle leads us above all creation, and transports us to the ages before it; makes us raise our eyes, not suffering us to find any end in the stretch above, since end is none. That "in the beginning," "from the beginning," of the Epistle and Gospel, includes nothing short of the eternal God. The doketics of many shades proclaimed an ideological, a misty Christ. "Every spirit which confesseth Jesus Christ as in flesh having come is of God, and every spirit which confesseth not Jesus, is not of God." "Many deceivers have gone out into the world, they who confess not Jesus Christ coming in flesh." Such a Christ of mist as these words warn us against is again shaped by more powerful intellects and touched with tenderer lights. But the shadowy Christ of George Eliot and of Mill is equally arraigned by the hand of St. John. Each believer may well think within himself-I must die, and that, it may be, very soon; I must be alone with God, and my own soul; with that which I am and have been; with my memories, and with my sins. In that hour the weird desolate language of the Psalmist will find its realisation: "Lover and friend hast thou put from me, and mine acquaintance are-darkness." Then we want, and then we may find, a real Saviour. Then we shall know that if we have only a doketic Christ, we shall indeed be alone -for "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you."
NOTE THE two following extracts in addition to what has been already said in this discourse will supply the reader with that which it is most necessary for him to know upon the heresies of Asia Minor.
1. Two principal heresies upon the nature of Christ then prevailed, each diametrically opposite to the other, as well as to the Catholic faith. One was the heresy of the Doketae, which destroyed the verity of the Human Nature in Christ; the other was the heresy of the Ebionites, who denied the Divine Nature, and the eternal Generation, and inclined to press the observation of the ceremonial law. Ancient writers allow these as heresies of the first century; all admit that they were powerful in the age of Ignatius. Hence Theodoret ("Prooem.") divided the books of these heresies into two categories. In the first he included those who put forward the idea of a second Creator, and asserted that the Lord had appeared illusively. In the second he placed those who maintained that the Lord was merely a man. Of the first Jerome observed (‘Adv. Lucifer.,’ 23) ‘that while the Apostles yet remained upon the earth, while the blood of Christ was almost smoking upon the sod of Judea, some asserted that the body of the Lord was a phantom.’ Of the second the same writer remarked that ‘St. John, at the invitation of the bishops of Asia Minor, wrote his Gospel against Cerinthus and other heretics -and especially against the dogma of the Ebionites then rising into existence, who asserted that Christ did not exist before Mary.’ Epiphanius notes that these heresies were mainly of Asia Minor ( φημι δεα). ‘Haeres.,’ 56 (Pearson, "Vindic. Ignat.," 2, 100, 1, p. 351).
2. "Two of these sects or schools are very ancient, and seem to have been referred to by St. John. The first is that of the Naassenians or Ophites. The antiquity of this sect is guaranteed to us by the author of the ‘Philosophumena,’ who represents them as the real founders of Gnosticism. ‘Later,’ he says, ‘they were called Gnostics, pretending that they only knew the depths.’ (To this allusion is made in Revelation 2:24, which would identify these sectaries with the Balaamites and Nicolaitans.) The second of these great heresies of Asia Minor is the doketic. The publication of the ‘Philosophumena’ has furnished us with more precise information about their tenets. We need not say much about the Divine emanation-the fall of souls into matter, their corporeal captivity, their final rehabilitation (these are merely the ordinary Gnostic ideas). But we may follow what they assert about the Saviour and His manifestationin the world. They admit in Him the only Son of the Father ( οο μονογενης παις ανωψεν αιωνιος), who descended to the region of shadows and the Virgin’s womb, where He clothed Himself in a gross, human material body. But this was a vestment of no integrally personal and permanent character; it was, indeed, a sort of masquerade, an artifice or fiction imagined to deceive the prince of this world. The Saviour at His baptism received a second birth, and clad himself with a subtler texture of body, formed in the bosom of the waters-if that can be termed a body which was but a fantastic texture woven or framed upon the model of His earthly body. During the hours of the Passion, the flesh formed in Mary’s womb, and it alone, was nailed to the tree. The great Archon or Demiurgus, whose work that flesh was, was played upon and deceived, in pouring His wrath only upon the work of His hands. For the soul, or spiritual substance, which had been wounded in the flesh of the Saviour, extricated itself from this as from an unmeet and hateful vesture; and itself contributing to nailing it to the cross, triumphed by that very flesh over principalities and powers. It did not, however, remain naked, but clad in the subtler form which it had assumed in its baptismal second birth (‘Philosoph.,’ 8:10). What is remarkable in this theory is, first, the admission of the reality of the terrestrial body, formed in the Virgin’s womb, and then nailed to the cross. The negation is only of the real and permanent union of this body with the heavenly spirit which inhabits it. We shall further note the importance which it attaches to the Saviour’s baptism, and the part played by water, as if an intermediate element between flesh and spirit. This may bear upon 1 John 5:8."
[This passage is from a "Dissertation-les Trois Temoins Celestes," in a collection of religious and literary papers by French scholars (Tom. 2., Sept., 1868, pp. 388- 392). The author, since deceased, was the Abbe Le Hir, M. Renan’s instructor in Hebrew at Saint Sulpice, and pronounced by his pupil one of the first of European Hebraists and scientific theologians.]