Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Spirituality and Theology

Mediaeval saints above the south porch of Lichfield Cathedral. The theology that developed in the mediaeval period was a theology for living and for the life of the church. It was theology in, for, and by the church and was never intended to be abstract. (Photograph © Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford


In a lecture/seminar on Wednesday, 5 November 2008, we looked at the spiritual dimensions of theology; the history and development of the spiritual traditions of Christianity; the place of spirituality in Church history; and the practice of spirituality today.

It is common among theology students in colleges to ask whether there may be a gap between their theological education and their spiritual development. Students on this course are engaged not just in formal theological education, but also in formation, both pastoral and spiritual. It is understood here that our minds are not being trained just for the same of knowledge’s sake, but that each of us needs to grow and develop as the whole person for relationship with God.

Theology without spirituality is empty, while spirituality without theology is blind. When theology is “thin,” it is often because it is not steeped in prayer. When spirituality becomes “spirituality lite,” it is usually because it is theologically vacuous.

But how do we find and integrate the different dimensions of spirituality and theology, so that they are complementary rather than conflicting?

Theology and Spirituality

The unnatural gap that sometimes emerges between learning and life in the spirit, between the discipline of theology and the practice of spirituality, has always been a problem. It was first expressed as early as the 2nd century when Tertullian of Carthage asked: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

That long-standing dichotomy between theology and spirituality is a false one. There is a danger of separating our understanding and talk of God (theology) from our attempts to live in the light of that understanding and talk (spirituality).

Our questions about the place of spiritual development within theological education are directly related to the question: “What is theological education for?”

Students who have formal theological education in the classroom in preparation for ordained ministry still need field practice (such as opportunities for service or parish placements) and alongside these there is the need for intentional practices to aid spiritual growth, such as worship, prayer, journaling, quiet days, retreats, &c.

Any spiritual progress, growth and development, any spiritual insights gained during formal theological education cannot be left to accident rather than design. Theological education offers us a range of skills, methods, questions and reflective practices. Your subjects include Scripture, biblical languages, exegesis, preaching, church history, theological argument and method, reflection on church practice, mission and pastoral care. However, competence alone would be poor preparation for any form of Christian vocation.

Authentic spirituality in theological education must be part and parcel of the spirituality of the whole people of God. Our spiritual formation here must be rooted in community, experiencing God in our life together, finding a place for living and living out theology, for Christian ministry is always about “who we are” with “the other.”

The classroom cannot exclude spiritual thought and growth. The chapel is not a place separate from formal theological learning. No place here should exclude the opportunities for and the potential for spiritual encounter and growth.

There is a sound sensible dictum that “theology is not good theology until it is lived.” And so, within theology, there is a growing field or discipline of spirituality that marks the beginning of the recovery of a serious spiritual theology in Christian circles. It includes the practice of Christian spirituality and spiritual direction.

There is a new dialogue between theology on the one hand and spirituality and mysticism on the other. It offers the opportunity to recover a more holistic spirituality and to rescue spirituality and mysticism from the margins of elitism and the weird.

Today there is a widespread disaffection with academic systematic theology at those points where it has become divorced from its experiential roots and has lost much of its ability to address, in a meaningful way, actual faith communities and their practice of the Christian life. Both theology and spirituality have suffered from a great divorce, and a new conversational relationship between spirituality and theology may help heal theology of this deprivation.

Academic studies in spirituality until recently have been dominated by a pluralist approach to interfaith dialogue, which has led to spirituality being presented in generic and experimental terms.

For students preparing for ordained ministry, Christian spirituality needs to be re-grounded in the history, the practice and the doctrine of our faith community. This means the proper focus of spirituality and spiritual theology is not on the human spirit and its potentials, or even on human self-transcendence and spiritual growth. Instead, as Philip Sheldrake points out, it must focus on how humans and the Holy Spirit generally interact with each other (Sheldrake, pp. 19-22).

And so, in recent years there has been an exciting recovery of Trinitarian and incarnational theology. Trinitarian doctrine is not an abstract bit of absurdity supposedly true of God’s inner being but of no practical use. Instead, it has become the key to understanding the divine economy as well-God’s plan of salvation for individual and cosmos alike.

The history of ‘spirituality’

The word spirituality as we use it today only gained popularity in the 1970s the term gained a new popularity. After the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s, the word spirituality began to dominate and replace older terms such as “ascetical theology” or “mystical theology.”

The theology that almost exclusively developed in the male religious houses of the mediaeval period, from the 7th to 12th centuries, was a theology for living in those times and essential to the life of the church. It was theology in, for, and by the church, and it was never intended to be abstract.

Words and concepts such as Lectio Divina (the intentional art of spiritual reading), veneration, mystery, love, inner experience, faith and contemplation capture the determination of those people to firmly connect theology and the spiritual life. The task was not to explain the mysteries of God but to reflect on them and impregnate all of life with them. But their “theology of admiration” was always in danger of being reduced to a rational science.

Only in the West, and only during the 12th century, when the theological enterprise moved from the monasteries to the new universities, did Christian thinking begin to become an activity distinct from askesis (the practice of spiritual exercises) while contemplation, in turn, tended to become separate from both the Eucharist and from Christian ethics.

The rise of scholasticism in the 12th and 13th centuries, and of the new universities, established to train men to run both Church and State, provided the impetus for formation of new critical approaches and what became academic theology. And in the Middles Ages, the clergy became known generally as “the spirituality.”

Following the Reformation, institutions of theological education and professionalism in theological education developed apace from the 16th to the 19th centuries. But theology tended to be detached from “who we are” and this was a sad segregation. Since the High Middle Ages, there has been a real need to reunite the speculative theologian and the practical saint.

The word spiritualitas began to be used commonly in references to the spiritual life’ in 17th century France. But at first, the word spirituality was not always used in a positive sense, due mainly to the earlier clerical associations with the word.

The word spirituality then disappears from theological use until the end of the 19th or the beginning of the 20th century. Once again, it appears first in French and is used in reference to the “spiritual life.”

What is spirituality?

So what is “spirituality”? And how can we integrate it into theology? A working definition of Christian spirituality needs to be focused on the Biblical understanding of the Spirit (ruach), which has a wide range of meanings, including: spirit, breath, wind, and that which gives life and animation.

Spirituality then is what animates a person’s life of faith and what moves that faith to greater depths and perfection. Or, as Mark McIntosh says: “What is mystical is not the inner experience of the Christian but the hidden meaning and transformative understanding discovered in Christ” (McIntosh, p. 43).

Spirituality has been called theology on its knees, but it is also theology on its feet, in labora as well as ora.

Spirituality is theology with soul – but not a soul without a body. A truly Christian spirituality will be incarnational – but it does not idolise health. And it will be cruciform – but it will not glorify pain. Fasting has been called praying with your body, but feasting should be praying with your body too. Biblically speaking, the opposite of πνευμα (pneuma, spirit) is not σωμα (soma, the body) but σαρξ (sarx, the flesh). Nor, needless to say, are the “sins of the flesh” essentially sensual (c.f. Galatians 5: 19ff.). We can say that the material, as such, is a spiritual matter.

It is no coincidence that liberation theologies are deeply committed to combining experience, reflection, action, with prayer, worship, and the Eucharist. But is this not a common teaching in all Christian traditions?

“Bread for myself is a physical matter,” said Nikolai Berdyaev (1874-1948), the Russian Orthodox religious philosopher, “but bread for my neighbour is a spiritual matter.” Any authentic Christian spirituality will have shalom – peace-and-justice – at its heart.

The German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) said: “Only those who cry out for the Jews may sing Gregorian chant.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the Roman Catholic mystical theologian, has said: “Whoever does not come to know the face of God in contemplation will not recognise it in action, even when it reveals itself to him in the face of the oppressed.”

The elements that make up Christian life include, beliefs (Creeds, doctrines, &c), a set of values (e.g., hope and the promise of redemption, love of others, denial of self), and a way of life (the real, human life in which our values are embodied and expressed). In other words, an authentic Christian spirituality involves all parts of our way of life as Christians.

Putting all these together, we might say Christian spirituality is the quest for a fulfilled and an authentic life that involves taking the beliefs and values of Christianity, and weaving them into the fabric of our lives, so that they “animate” and provide “breath” and “spirit” and “fire” for our lives.

Christian spirituality involves the whole person. Christian spirituality involves the whole person (body, mind, soul, relationships), the entire fabric of our lives. It is a lived experience. And it involves experiencing and knowing – not just knowing about – God.

Christian spirituality is lived experience. Or, as Alister McGrath says, it is “a creative and dynamic synthesis of faith and life, forged in the crucible of the desire to live out the Christian faith authentically, responsibly, effectively and fully” [McGrath, p. 9].

Christian spirituality is the quest for a fulfilled and authentic life. That quest involves taking the beliefs and values of Christianity, and weaving them into the fabric of our lives, so that they “animate” and provide the “breath” and “spirit” and “fire” for our lives. At the same time, Christian spirituality needs to be true to our own personalities, and it needs to understand the differences of personality in other people. For example, those who rely more on verbal thinking will value and be enriched by spiritualities that emphasise spoken devotions and prayers, while those who value visual thinking will value and be enriched by spiritualities that emphasise images, pictures, art, and icons.

The Christian dimension to spirituality

Without certain attributes, spirituality cannot be said to be Christian. First and foremost among these attributes is a solid theological grounding. Without a solid theological grounding, spirituality loses its moorings and into other territorial waters. It quickly ceases to be Christian.

Today, we have all sorts of spiritualities in our post-modern shopping bag, ranging from Celtic to New Age spirituality. To a degree, the word “Spirituality” is in danger of being monopolised by fashionable therapies and by people who forget the history, traditions, Scripture, liturgy, and community of the Church. In some areas of work in spirituality, there is an approach to spirituality that lacks both a proper Christian concept of the spirit and an orthodox understanding of faith as not just fides qua but fides quae creditur.

At the very least it takes a semantic sleight of hand to reduce the “soul” to the “self” and the “self” to the “personality,” and to equate human potential and growth with sanctification, let alone to assume that in exploring ourselves we are exploring God the Holy Trinity.

Spirituality is not about me and my efforts to feel good with God – indeed, these can be dangerous illusions and expectations. In the end, if spirituality is about “me” at all, it is about my dispossession and transformation into a proper human being, my becoming a living hermeneutic of the Great Commandment, loving the “Other” and the other.

But Christian Spirituality will display these marks:

● Christ-centeredness,
● Submission to the Word of God,
● Submission to the Church.

It is possible for someone to build a spirituality without these attributes. But without all of these elements, any spirituality is unlikely to remain Christian very long.

1, Christ-centeredness: Christ-centeredness means simply that Christ is the central point, the continual focus of spirituality. There is no light within, no finding the demi-god in you, no self-deification. Christ is the centre of all. What we have is from him and not our own. This is a critical component in a truly Christian Spirituality for several reasons.

2, Submission to the Word of God: A spirituality that does not include being submitted to the Word will fail to be Christian in any sense of the word. As Christ the Divine Humanity is the central focus of spirituality, Christ the Logos is to be our guide and boundary.

3, Submission to the Church: Christian Spirituality should be in submission to the Church, but also to the church. Any Spirituality that diverges from the Historic Church will find itself also drifting from the Word and from Christ as its centre in due time. Even though we should not of necessity be a slave to tradition, traditions and teachings of the Church are useful guideposts.

Variety in Christian spirituality

Thomas Merton (1915-1968), a Trappist monk who was one of the most influential spiritual writers of the last century, was a key figure in the development of modern approaches to spirituality. He warned that there is no view from nowhere, no tradition-less practice, no unmediated interiority, no silence unhaunted by speech … and no separation between spirituality and institutional religion.

Each tradition within the Church has a different emphasis in its spirituality and its spiritual practices.

For example, Roman Catholic spirituality will emphasise the divine reality in the sacrament. The Roman Catholic corporate sense of the Christian community as the body of Christ more easily accepts a corporate sense of Church authority. It is strongly liturgical, and in addition emphasises the role of Mary and the saints.

In Orthodoxy, spirituality has a strong sense of historical continuity with the early Church, and there is a strong sense of tradition. Within that tradition, a more sense-based spirituality has developed, with an emphasis on beauty in the liturgy and the use of the icons, the Jesus Prayer, and the high regard for monastic life.

What are the emphases within Evangelical spirituality? Among Evangelical Protestants we find an emphasis on the Bible. How many homes do you know where family prayer time is primarily reading from the Bible? Among Evangelicals there is an emphasis on salvation, summarised by someone as the contrast between Luther’s “theology of the Cross” and the Orthodox “theology of glory.”

A particular and unique evangelical contribution to Christian spirituality is the emphasis on the need for personal conversion, and with it an emphasis on converting others to Christ. Evangelical spirituality has also made a unique contribution to wider Christian spirituality through hymn-writers and through other writers such as John Bunyan and his Pilgrim’s Progress.

It is important to find the roots of spirituality within our theological traditions, that is authentic within the tradition of our communities. There is a story associated with the Desert Father known as John the Dwarf that says:

“You don’t build a house by starting with the roof and working down. You start with the foundation.”

They said, “What does that mean?”

He said, “The foundation is our neighbour whom we must win. The neighbour is where we start. Every commandment of Christ depends on this.”

Is there an Anglican spirituality?

Is it possible to say there is an Anglican spirituality? And is so what are its characteristics? The foundation stones of Anglican theology, Scripture, Reason and Tradition, are also the foundation stones of Anglican spirituality. In this sense, Anglicanism truly offers the opportunity to integrate our theology and our spirituality.

Anglican spirituality is well-rooted in the affective-speculative balance weighing heart and head as well as committed to a historic orthodoxy that, if adhered to, will steer one clear of heresy. Yet, these two factors are critical to any Christian Spirituality, because without them heresy will inevitably result.

There are several identifiable hallmarks of Anglican spirituality. Some of these are distinct to Anglicanism, while others are shared with the other branches of the Church. But we could say:

1, Anglican spirituality is strongly liturgical. There is a principle in Anglican theology that says lex orandi lex credendi … in other words, the way we pray and worship determines the way we believe.

2, Anglican spirituality is sacramental.: Our sacramental experiences are “doors” or “windows” onto the real presence of God in the world, to the divine presence within creation.

3, Anglican spirituality emphasises the incarnation. In other words, Anglican spirituality places an emphasis on the “taking on” of part of the created order by God.

4, Anglican spirituality emphasises the goodness of creation and the physical world. This is based on a sacramental view of the word and the Anglican emphasis on the Incarnation.

Two hallmarks of Anglican spirituality are the Book of Common Prayer, which is deeply rooted in Benedictine spirituality, and the Anglican view of salvation.

The Book of Common Prayer:

Anglican spirituality and life have been influenced greatly by the Regula or Rule of Saint Benedict. The Rule of Saint Benedict has been so influential in English life that England was once referred to as the “Land of the Benedictines.” In later English thinking, the three-fold Benedictine rule of worship – consisting of the Daily Office, the Eucharist or Holy Communion and family prayer – was applied not only to the clergy and monastics, but to the laity as well.

At the Reformation, Anglicans pulled Benedictine spirituality out of the monastery and into the parishes. The Book of Common Prayer took Benedictine spirituality into the streets and into home of parishioners.

As the Anglican spiritual theologian Martin Thornton so aptly states: “I shall also maintain that the Book of Common Prayer, as a system, is one of the most brilliant pieces of ascetical construction there has ever been, that it is the consummation of centuries of spiritual development, and that, regarded as ascetical theology, it is almost as Benedictine as the Regula itself” (Martin Thornton, English Spirituality).

The Book of Common Prayer is a system for life if it is properly used and used by all. Seen as a system, and not as a series of services, the Book of Common Prayer is then the common basis for the Christian lives of the bishops, the clergy, and the laity.

The basic Benedictine structure of Daily Office, private prayer, and Eucharist is found in the Book of Common Prayer, and although the unique, private prayer of the individual is not regulated in any way, its practice is assumed and encouraged. Having a Book of Common Prayer offers Anglicans as willing, disciplined disciples a system to maintain the Rule and thus work to apply Christ’s likeness to their lives in a time of severe spiritual disconnectedness.

The Anglican view of salvation

Anglican spirituality is wrapped in the Book of Common Prayer and the community experience that is inspired by Anglicanism at its best, is a good guide for the development of these sanctifying attributes in the life of a disciple.

The short and simple version of an Anglican view of salvation was summed up by Bishop Brooke Foss Wescott (1825-1901): ”I have been saved, I am being saved, I will be saved!” The Apostle Peter, in his second letter, has a set of verses that outline quite well the idea of Anglican justification, sanctification, and glorification (see II Peter 1: 3-11).

Sanctification is tied up in the Church. We should not forget that we are sanctified both individually and corporately. In the Church, we are sanctified by receiving Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion or the Eucharist, approaching him in worship, and living by his commandments in community. It could be argued that apart and separate from the Church Militant there can be no sanctification.

Some closing thoughts

Perhaps spirituality is one of those things that is easier to point to than to talk bout, to show than to say. From an Anglican perspective, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, who has written extensively on Augustine, the Desert Fathers, the Carmelite tradition, and icons in prayer and spirituality, sees thought itself as a practice of askesis.

Archbishop Williams suggests that we understand spirituality in terms of “each believer making his or her own that engagement with the questioning at the heart of faith.”

But, he says, spirituality is “far more than a science of interpreting exceptional private experiences; it must … touch every area of human experience, the public and the social, the painful, negative, even pathological byways of the mind, the moral and relational world. And the goal of a Christian life becomes not enlightenment but wholeness – an acceptance of this complicated and muddled bundle of experiences as a possible theatre for God’s creative work.”

Authentic spirituality is an exilic practice – it is for pilgrims on a journey. Think of the night theology of Saint John of the Cross and the theologia crucis of Martin Luther. Frances Young writes: “It is this whole complex context which demands that we move beyond the easy spirituality of well-being, comfort and happiness to rediscover the wilderness way that lies at the heart of the Bible.”

There is an important sense, therefore, in which “spirituality” is almost synonymous with discipleship, with starting from exactly where I am, where you are, and taking the next step in following Christ wherever he leads me, leads you. Hence, as Simone Weil has pointed out, a good deal of holiness has to do with discernment, with attendre.

As John Webster says at the end of his book Holiness (2003): “A crucial aspect of holiness is an increase in concentration: the focusing of mind, will and affections on the holy God and his ways with us.”

Spirituality, then, is watchfulness, it is being alert to the present moment, it involves being disabused of illusion and fantasy and seeing what is really there. It is the toil to be truthful, it is the struggle against self-deceit, it is the purification of desire.

Next week: Lectio Divina

Bibliography and additional reading:

Alexander, Donald, Christian Spirituality: Five Views of Sanctification (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988).
de Certeau, Michel, The Mystic Fable (Chicago, 1992).
Hughes III, Robert Davis, “Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology/Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God,” Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1999.
Jantzen, Grace M, Power, Gender, and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1995).
McGrath, Alister, Christian Spirituality (Oxford: Blackwell, 1999).
McIntosh, Mark A., Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Challenges in Contemporary Theology series) (Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1998).
Sheldrake, Philip, Spirituality and Theology: Christian Living and the Doctrine of God (Trinity & Truth Series), (London: SPCK, 1995; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1998).
Tertullian, “On Prescription against Heretics,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to AD 325, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980), vol iii, p. 247.
Thornton, Martin, “The Anglican Spiritual Tradition,” in The Anglican Tradition (ed. Richard Holloway, 1984)
Thornton, Martin, English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1986).
Turner, Denys, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (Cambridge, 1995).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a lecture/seminar in the Year II course, Spirituality for Ministry, on Wednesday 5 November 2008.

The Johannine Letters: I John 2: 15-27

The ruins of the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, with the Basilica of Saint John on the hill of Ayasoluk in the background (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2008)

Patrick Comerford

15 Μὴ ἀγαπᾶτε τὸν κόσμον μηδὲ τὰ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ. ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ τὸν κόσμον, οὐκ ἔστιν ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ πατρὸς ἐν αὐτῷ: 16 ὅτι πᾶν τὸ ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ, ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῆς σαρκὸς καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία τῶν ὀφθαλμῶν καὶ ἡ ἀλαζονεία τοῦ βίου, οὐκ ἔστιν ἐκ τοῦ πατρὸς ἀλλ' ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἐστίν. 17 καὶ ὁ κόσμος παράγεται καὶ ἡ ἐπιθυμία αὐτοῦ, ὁ δὲ ποιῶν τὸ θέλημα τοῦ θεοῦ μένει εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα.

18 Παιδία, ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν, καὶ καθὼς ἠκούσατε ὅτι ἀντίχριστος ἔρχεται, καὶ νῦν ἀντίχριστοι πολλοὶ γεγόνασιν: ὅθεν γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐσχάτη ὥρα ἐστίν. 19 ἐξ ἡμῶν ἐξῆλθαν, ἀλλ' οὐκ ἦσαν ἐξ ἡμῶν: εἰ γὰρ ἐξ ἡμῶν ἦσαν, μεμενήκεισαν ἂν μεθ' ἡμῶν: ἀλλ' ἵνα φανερωθῶσιν ὅτι οὐκ εἰσὶν πάντες ἐξ ἡμῶν. 20 καὶ ὑμεῖς χρῖσμα ἔχετε ἀπὸ τοῦ ἁγίου, καὶ οἴδατε πάντες. 21 οὐκ ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐκ οἴδατε τὴν ἀλήθειαν, ἀλλ' ὅτι οἴδατε αὐτήν, καὶ ὅτι πᾶν ψεῦδος ἐκ τῆς ἀληθείας οὐκ ἔστιν. 22 Τίς ἐστιν ὁ ψεύστης εἰ μὴ ὁ ἀρνούμενος ὅτι Ἰησοῦς οὐκ ἔστιν ὁ Χριστός; οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀντίχριστος, ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν πατέρα καὶ τὸν υἱόν. 23 πᾶς ὁ ἀρνούμενος τὸν υἱὸν οὐδὲ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει: ὁ ὁμολογῶν τὸν υἱὸν καὶ τὸν πατέρα ἔχει. 24 ὑμεῖς ὃ ἠκούσατε ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἐν ὑμῖν μενέτω: ἐὰν ἐν ὑμῖν μείνῃ ὃ ἀπ' ἀρχῆς ἠκούσατε, καὶ ὑμεῖς ἐν τῷ υἱῷ καὶ ἐν τῷ πατρὶ μενεῖτε. 25 καὶ αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐπαγγελία ἣν αὐτὸς ἐπηγγείλατο ἡμῖν, τὴν ζωὴν τὴν αἰώνιον.

26 Ταῦτα ἔγραψα ὑμῖν περὶ τῶν πλανώντων ὑμᾶς. 27 καὶ ὑμεῖς τὸ χρῖσμα ὃ ἐλάβετε ἀπ' αὐτοῦ μένει ἐν ὑμῖν, καὶ οὐ χρείαν ἔχετε ἵνα τις διδάσκῃ ὑμᾶς: ἀλλ' ὡς τὸ αὐτοῦ χρῖσμα διδάσκει ὑμᾶς περὶ πάντων, καὶ ἀληθές ἐστιν καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ψεῦδος, καὶ καθὼς ἐδίδαξεν ὑμᾶς, μένετε ἐν αὐτῷ.


For the past two or three weeks in chapel, we have been working our way each day through the Lectionary readings from the Revelation to John. As we work through the Johannine Letters in our tutorial group, we have been reminded that there are three different genres in the Johannine literature in the New Testament – the Fourth Gospel, the three Johannine Letters, and the Revelation – with at least three completely different styles of writing.

Raymond Brown would add a fourth category, describing I John not as a letter or an epistle but as an exhortation interpreting the main themes of the Fourth Gospel.

The style in I John is so different it is often difficult to follow the thoughts. However, it helps in studying I John to notice how thoughts are grouped into threes throughout the epistle. Some of the groups of three are very obvious – such as the grouping of the children of God into three categories (little children, young men, and fathers) in the poem we studied last week (I John 2: 12-14).

Other groups of three can be found through careful reading. These include the repetition of the phrase, “If we say” in chapter 1. In these cases, the writer repeats an expression or thought three times. He often divides sentences or phrases into three clauses – and in this morning’s section we find another example of this in verse 16, with “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches,” or as other translations describe them, “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”

The world, the flesh and devil, indeed!

Verses 15-27:

Last week, we looked at the poem in I John 2: 12-14, where the little children, young men, and fathers, whose sins have been forgiven, who know the Father, who know Christ, and who are strong, are told that the word of God remains in them and that they have conquered the evil one.

In these verses we move on to the consequences of that faith and that strength in faith. The thought of the evil one who has been conquered in the last section leads to this section and to the writer’s thoughts on the domain of that evil one in the world.

In his last discourse in the Fourth Gospel, Jesus said that he was not of this world, and that his followers should not be of this world. Any love of the world runs contrary to being a follower of Christ. By the abiding word of God, those who are young in the faith may well overcome the wicked one’s attempts to divert by false teaching. But what about his attempts to divert them by using the influences of the world? This is a particular snare John anticipates and his remedy is to thoroughly define this snare in order to expose what it is in its true character.

Verses 15-17:

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.”

The three characteristics of the world outlined in I John are well-known as concupiscence, envy and pride. I am always tempted by lust, money and power, and know it. This is not, by any manes, an exhaustive list of the snares awaiting us in the world. But they were certainly high on the list of the temptations facing the new Christians in the Johannine community in Ephesus, the largest port in the Eastern Mediterranean at the time, and the centre of the cult of Artemis.

John’s κόσμος:

John’s exile was spent on Patmos, south of Samos, the birthplace and home of the philosopher, Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας) of Samos. John would have been familiar with Samos, and a journey from Patmos to Ephesus involved stopping off at Samos. For Pythagoras, it was number or mathematical principle that which gives order, harmony, rhythm, and beauty to the world. This harmony keeps a balance both in the cosmos and in the soul.

Pythagoras ascribed a certain musical energy to everything to be found in the world, and he was the first to call the heavens κόσμος (kosmos, cosmos), a term implying a universe with orderly movements and events, because they are adorned with life and were created by a kind of harmony. For the Pythagoreans, harmony and balance was the principle that determines the order of the cosmos. For example, they divided all numbers into a pair of odd and even numbers. This Pythagorean perspective on duality was extended to paired elements in the world – such as left and right; finite and infinite; one and many; light and darkness – and this is reflected throughout the Johannine writings.

The κόσμος of Pythagoras is the κόσμος in John 3: 16, the verse Martin Luther called “the Gospel in miniature”: For God so loved the world (κόσμος, kosmos) that he gave (sent) his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life” (Οὕτως γὰρ ἠγάπησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν κόσμον, ὥστε τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μονογενῆ ἔδωκεν, ἵνα πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων εἰς αὐτὸν μὴ ἀπόληται ἀλλ' ἔχῃ ζωὴν αἰώνιον).

The word κόσμος is also used in the Greek of the time to describe the arrangement of the stars, “the heavenly hosts,” as the ornament of the heavens (I Peter 3: 3); the circle of the earth, the earth itself; the inhabitants of the earth, the human family. The word κόσμος is also used for the Gentiles as contrasted to the Jews (see Romans 11: 12) or for all saved by Christ (see John 1: 29; 3: 17; 6: 33; 12: 47; I Corinthians 4: 9; II Corinthians 5: 19). And The word κόσμος is also used to describe the ungodly multitude, the whole mass of humanity alienated from God and hostile to Christ; world affairs and all things earthly; the whole circle of earthly goods, endowments riches, advantages and pleasures which are hollow, frail and fleeting, yet stir our desire, tempt us away from God and are obstacles between us and Christ.

It is in the last sense, rather than its use in John 3: 16, that the word κόσμος is now used in this passage in I John: “for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world” (NRSV).

All that is in the world is summed up by three moral principles originating in the human heart: the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. I want what I see, I get what I want, and me, me, me. The characteristic snares of idolatry in the Old Testament were these three temptations. The worship of Baal and Astarte, and later of Artemis in the Ephesus of the Johannine community, gave religious licence to sexual promiscuity with the supposed promise of increased material prosperity and power – the triple temptations of pleasure, possessions and power.

Of course, the issue is not whether we have pleasure, power or possessions, but whether we love them and whether we are governed by the means of getting them. If so, the love of the Father is not in us. We may well have been the recipients of God’s love, but it is not in us in a practical and experiential way that is enjoyed in communion with God.

Verse 18:

“[Little] Children, it is the last hour! As you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. From this we know that it is the last hour” (NRSV).

Little Children

The word for children here is Παιδία (paidía, “little children”), from the word παιδίον (paidíon), meaning a young child, a little boy or girl, an infant, one who is recently born. Here we find an emphasis on the readers as little ones who are in need of care, nurture, direction and responsible instruction and discipline. The gifts of the Holy Spirit and the provisions of grace do not remove the need for personal exercise and faithfulness.

last hour

Having considered the transitory nature of the world, the writer now starts to consider its end. The “last day” is referred to seven times in the Fourth Gospel. In the New Testament, the phrase “last days” refers to the last days of the age. Peter and Jude use similar expressions denoting the same time. In I Peter 1: 5 we have “the last time” (καιρός ἔσχατος, kairos eschatos), and in Jude 18, “in the last time” (Ἐπ' ἐσχάτου [τοῦ] χρόνου, ep’ eschatou [tou] chronou).

The apostles expected his coming at any moment – as can be recognised by the use of expressions such as, “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord” (I Thessalonians 4: 15) or when Christ spoke of the possibility of John remaining until he come (John 21: 22-23).

But here, in the last hour or last time, we have a working-out of John’s partially realised eschatology. The present is the last hour, since the apocalyptic struggle between Satan and Christ is already being fought out between the false propagandists and the true Christians.

Many antichrists:

I John presents the false teachers of the time in a reinterpretation of the traditional, one, monstrous personification of evil.

The word “antichrists” is used exclusively in the Johannine letters. The prefix “anti-” can mean both “instead of” and “against.” People who do not necessarily falsely claim to be Christ can be characteristically antichrists – not necessarily instead of him, for example by claiming to be the Messiah, but against him by their false teaching and practice.

Verse 19:

“They went out from us, but they did not belong to us; for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us. But by going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us.”

In this passage, those who are against Christ, the antichrists, are former nominal Christians who have openly left the Johannine community and the Church. They have joined forces with the great liar, Satan, by denying that Jesus is the Christ, come in the flesh (see I John 4: 3). If one denies the Son, then one denies the Father, because the Son is our chief means of knowing the Father.

out from us, belong to us, remianed with us

Here again we meet the writers grouping of concepts in threes. Those members of the Johannine community who had been part of the Church for a while, but have now left it, have broken away and have spoilt the unity of the Church. Their separation from the Church and the truth shows had never really been with the community in truth; their teachings and practices make it apparent that they were never truly part of the Church.

Verses 20, 21:

“But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and all of you have knowledge. I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth.”

Here again, we have a Johannine grouping of three. With anointing by the Holy One, we have knowledge [of all things], you know the truth, and no lie comes from the truth.


The word chrisma literally refers to the oil used for anointing Old Testament priests, kings, prophets and those cleansed from leprosy. In the New Testament, Christ (Acts 10: 38) and individual Christians (II Corinthians 1: 21-22) are anointed with the Holy Spirit.

The words “unction” (chrisma), “Christ” and “Christian” have the same root. “Christ” means “anointed.”

The Holy One

If, as Raymond Brown suggests, John has hardly any need to tell his readers, his children, that they have been anointed by the Holy One, there are still questions about who “the Holy One” agioV refers to. Is this God, God the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. Or all three? Or the holy one, the saint, who is the leader or founder of the Johannine community, who has baptised or anointed them?

However we read it, by being anointed from the Holy One, the little children are inwardly marked out as belonging to the Church, the Body of Christ. By staying “with us” they were outwardly marked out as belonging to the Church.

We have all heard someone say, “I don’t need to go to Church because I have the Holy Spirit within me and he teaches me everything I need”? This is certainly not the intent of what John says. He speaks to young believers who were amongst the “us” he was “with” and not to individual Christians.

Knowledge or know all things

The words at the end of verse 20 translated as “all of you have knowledge” are rendered in some manuscripts as “and you know all things.” However, the KJV and ASV are translations that are based on this alternative reading.

John goes on to say that it is because of this full knowledge that he is writing to them (verse 20) and from this they know that no lie comes from the truth.

Christ promised his disciples that when the Holy Spirit comes, that Holy Spirit would guide them into all the truth: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth …” (John 16: 13). Because they possessed the Spirit, they had the capacity for knowledge, to know all things, for wisdom.

There are two different words for “know”. The word used here is the one for intuitive knowledge, as opposed to knowledge acquired by learning. The Holy Spirit gives the inward capacity for judging whether what is taught is true or false. The false teachers do not have this ability because they do not have the Holy Spirit. But the youngest believers have both.

Verse 21

The anointing with the Spirit enables individual Christians to adhere to the truth of the teaching they have received and this maintains them in eternal life, the intimate knowledge of the Father and the Son.

the truth

The truth is referred to in a variety of ways throughout I John:

1:6 refers to practising the truth

1:8 and 2:4 refer to the truth being in us

2:21 refers firstly to knowing the truth and secondly to a lie being not of the truth

3:18 refers to loving in truth

3:19 refers to us being of the truth

4:6 refers to the spirit of truth

and in 5:6 the Spirit is the truth

The truth enables anything to be seen in its right proportions, while falsehood puts things out of proportion, inflates me out of proportion and minimises God out of proportion. If I have a false conception of God, how can I know the truth? This is the case with the apostate teacher. Truth defines relationships and enables anything to be seen in its right proportions.

We talk about the Spirit as the truth and of Christ as the truth, enabling us to see and comprehend everything in its right place relative to God. The specific context here is in reference to any teaching about Christ.

Verses 22, 23:

Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father; everyone who confesses the Son has the Father also. (verses 22, 23).

In these verses we have another Johannine listing of threes, this time three distinct denials:

1, denying that Jesus is the Christ.
2, denying the Father and the Son;
3, denying the Son.

In the first case, the one who is denying is a liar. In the second case, the one who is denying is antichrist. In the third case, the one who is denying does not have the Father either.

The first case is specific – “denies that…”. The other two are general – “denies…” – without saying exactly what is denied concerning the Father and the Son. In the third case a clause is added to show that confession is the opposite side of denial. Concerning the Son one must confess. It is not satisfactory merely to refrain from denying.

Those John is writing to are filled with the gift of the Spirit’s knowledge, and this is the Spirit of truth who guides into all the truth (John 14: 17; 15: 26; 16: 13). So there is no place here for Satan’s lie to take hold. The lies of the antichrist struck at the very foundation of their faith.

In John’s day, the Gnostic teaching, perhaps of Cerinthus, was leading people astray. He taught that Jesus only became the Christ after his anointing by the Spirit at his baptism, and that it left him at Calvary. So, he was the Christ, the anointed one of God, only during his earthly ministry, and apart from this he was just a man.

Outwardly these heretics may not have denied the Father, but when they denied the Son, they automatically denied the Father, as John makes clear in his Gospel. For the Lord Jesus manifested the Father completely, so much so that He could say: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14: 9; and note verse 7, also 8: 19). Our only approach to the Father is by the Son (John 14: 6), and they are so united that to deny the Son is to deny the Father at the same time.

Verses 24, 25:

“Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is what he has promised us, eternal life” (verses 24, 25).

what you have heard

I John uses emphatic pronouns in a beautiful way here, contrasting the young believers with the antichrists.

From the beginning

Compared to the phrase “from the beginning” in I John 1: 1, there is a difference in the use of this phrase here. In the opening verse, it was the beginning of the manifestation of eternal life in this world in the Person of Christ. Here it relates to the beginning of the spiritual history of each individual. But then, my spiritual history starts with the incarnate Christ in the world. Here, the concept of the Spirit teaching the individual is linked too with the authoritative guide of tradition: “… what you have heard from the beginning.”


The writer goes on to remind his readers that belief in the truth of God is of little good to them unless they live by it. What lays at the basis of our spiritual history is the same thing that will sustain us throughout our Christian lives. John’s focus is the substance of Christianity – not merely that we once believed (past tense) but that we believe (present tense). Not merely that we started with a right apprehension of Christ, having trusted him as Saviour as presented in the Gospel, but allowing that word to remain in us as sustaining power. If … then. If that word abides in us, then we abide in the Son and in the Father.

life eternal

The wondrous promises of God, which are found in all their fullness in Christ, will be enjoyed and never have an end, for resurrection life means eternal life. The writer reminds his readers that this is one of God’s great promises to the believer, and we have here the only occurrence of ἐπαγγελία (epangelia, promise) in the Johannine writings.

The writer does not just say that he has promised eternal life to us – but the preceding thoughts define what eternal life means in this setting. It is not the future possession of eternal life, nor is it the present possession of eternal life, but it is the practical possession of eternal life. It is only practically enjoyed when his word abides in us and when we abide in the Son and in the Father. This is eternal life.

How reminiscent this is of Christ’s prayer in John 17: 3: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Not just knowing about them, not just saying I know them because I believed and I am been saved, but enjoying that practical knowledge, that intimacy, that abiding. And this is Christianity at its highest and its best, this is the proper portion of the little children, the youngest believers in Christ!

Verses 26-27:

“I write these things to you concerning those who would deceive you. As for you, the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and so you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things, and is true and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, abide in him” (verses 26, 27).

As a guardian of those under his care, John warns them against the false gnostic teaching that would lead them into error. At the same time he reminds them of the teaching of the great revealer of truth, the Holy Spirit, which if held tenaciously, would prevent this, and so they could “abide” or “remain” in Christ.

It is worth noting that throughout this passage, while the Spirit may be implied in different verses, the author of I John avoids using the Johannine term for the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete. The Spirit is implied throughout, but Is the author avoiding this because of the Spirit-based language and terminology used by his opponents, the secessionists?

And yet these last two verses summarise what John has said to the little children – calling to mind and drawing together what he has already said so far. He may be repeating himself and may appear to be repetitious, but then good teaching often needs to be repeated and at times even to be repetitious.

Next week: I John 2: 28 – 3: 10

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group on Wednesday, 5 November 2008.