Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series I/Volume VII/First Epistle of John/Introduction
This first Epistle of John, probably written at Ephesus near the close of the first century, the last utterance of the Spirit of inspiration, breathes the calmness of an assured hope, and that fullness of joy of which the Apostle would have his readers to be made partakers. While strongly refuting error, it is not so much an argument as an intuition, an open vision of the divine truths announced.
It was evidently written in a time of external quiet for the Church, but of special exposure to errors and perils from within. The nature of the principal error is plain,—the denial that Jesus is the Christ (1 John ii: 22). Precisely this heresy was taught at Ephesus by Cerinthus in the old age of the Apostle; he alleged that Jesus was a man eminent for wisdom and holiness; that after his baptism Christ descended into him, and before the crucifixion left Jesus and returned to heaven. Over against this cardinal error, the Apostle announces the manifestation of the Son of God in the flesh,—the Incarnation of that Eternal Life which was with God from the beginning. This divine fact is shown in its own self-evidencing light, and is so presented as to render the epistle a “possession forever,” of incalculable value to the Church. In our day, also, by separating Jesus the Son of Man from Christ the Son of God, the one Divine-Human Lord and Saviour of man is denied and rejected. The great words, fellowship, light, life, love, so often recurring in the Epistle, are filled with new meanings as vehicles of the message of God, as conveying the thoughts of God.
As regards the plan of the Epistle, it has been often asserted till lately that it was supposed to be but fragmentary, a series of aphorisms. Augustin, however, without formally announcing a plan as discovered by him in the Epistle, not only frequently affirms in his exposition that charity or love is the Apostle’s main theme, but so conducts the discussion, gathering his arguments and illustrations around this central thought, as to render it evident that in his view the purpose and plan of the Apostle is to set forth love in its essence and its scope, and that he intends to make this thought dominant in every part. Westcott, in his admirable commentary (2nd edition, 1886), does not draw out a plan, but gives striking and comprehensive views of the object and scope of the Epistle.
Braune, in Lange’s commentary, makes two main divisions, besides the introduction and conclusion: chief topic for the first division: i. 5-ii. 28, God is Light; for the second part: Whosoever is born of God doeth righteousness.
Huther (4th edition, 1880) suggests a three-fold division, first: i. 5-ii. 12–28, against indifference to truth and love of the world; second: ii. 29-iii. 22, a life of brotherly love alone is in agreement with the nature of the child of God; third: iii. 23-v. 17, pointing to faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as the foundation of the Christian Life. As thus distributed (by Huther) “the conclusion of each part points to the joy of which the Christian partakes in fellowship with God.”
Objections have been urged to any division proposed, as being inadequate; but the
great divine facts of fellowship with God, fullness of joy in Him, and an Eternal Life of love through the Son of God, are leading topics. This is obvious; they are often recurred to, are frequently conjoined, and in their grandeur surpass our range and reach of thought, while satisfying the aspirations of the soul.
In these discourses of Augustin, on the first Epistle of John, we have a nearly complete text of the Epistle,—the exposition of the last 18 verses not being extant. He followed the old Itala, one of the most ancient (Latin) versions of the New Testament. Variations between the text on which he comments and the best Greek text (as given by Westcott and Hort), when of importance, are indicated in this revised edition of the translation of his homilies. In comparing the Oxford translation, word by word, with the original,—Benedictine (Migne’s) edition,—several omissions, twelve at least, have been discovered; and though brief, some of them are of considerable importance: these are supplied in the present edition.
The translator copied, only too faithfully, the very form of the Latin sentences: to change them throughout and to remove all the archaisms in his English, might have seemed an undue reflection on a work executed for the most part with extraordinary fidelity.
After many alterations in phraseology, probably enough still remains in the translation of the original antique flavor to satisfy the taste of those who are ever disposed to say: “the old is better.”
As regards any allegorizing tendency here and there manifested in the exposition, it may suffice to say that it is small in Augustin, as compared with very many of great fame.
If now and then he seems to mistake in interpretation (as in Homily VII.), not considering that in the Greek such propositions as “God is love,” are not convertible, the subject ὁ θεός being marked by the article, and the predicate indicated by not having the article, let it be remembered that some exegetical canons of the kind were unknown in his time.
These expository discourses by the most illustrious of the Fathers of the Western Church, while often exhibiting great critical acumen, were not intended to be models in exegesis. They are familiar, homiletical talks, racy and vivid in style, couched in the plainest and most pointed language, and all aglow with the most fervent love.
Whatever St. John was in this respect, Augustin was clearly a polemic; but where can be found a more ardent lover of the brethren, nay of all men, even the worst? Not the least striking and touching of his utterances are those in which he discloses the breadth and depth of his charity toward enemies, and affirms such principles and such conduct to be necessarily and invariably found in all those who are Christians indeed.—J.H.M.