Thursday, September 28, 2006

"... will teach you all things..." from the perspective of 1 John

Intro -- I'm still exhausted from last week, when, in "...will teach you all things...", I was trying to work within the constraints of cessationist doctrine, as I currently understand it, to see how a cessationist might interpret Jesus' promise in John 14 that the Holy Spirit would teach his disciples "all things". As I concluded in that post, it is my continuationist position that Jesus' promise was not exclusive to the disciples, to the apostles or to "pre-canon" believers. If you read "... will teach you all things..." and felt exhausted and confused by the second half of it, you get a sense of how I felt writing it (I revised and re-revised it many times even after it was already posted on this blog) and you get a window into the gymnastics that it takes to fit cessationist doctrine into that promise regarding the Holy Spirit from Jesus.

This is a common practice of mine when thinking through something, as I often try to imagine my opponent thinking it as well. As I go through issues related to the cessationist/continuationist debate, I'm trying to be as honest and as thorough as I can, putting myself into the mind of a cessationist every step of the way. Going through this process is a good mental and spiritual workout and it forces me to grapple with things in Scripture that I might not otherwise grapple with. I'm convinced that this part of why God allows for some doctrinal diversity in the body of Christ.

Cessationists, as part of the body of Christ, are the fierce custodians of "apostolic exclusivity" -- believing that certain manifestations of the Holy Spirit were exclusive to the first century apostles, and are fierce custodians of "Scriptural exclusivity" -- believing that anyone's claim to have experienced God in a way that cannot be supported by a direct, verbatim Bible text is suspect. While I do believe that there is a form of apostolic exclusivity and Scriptural exclusivity, I do not believe that it is to be understood in the way that cessationists do, and I do not believe that there is any such thing as a "pre-canon" exclusivity or "first century" exclusivity in regard to the believers beyond the apostles.

That said, attempting to define exactly where Scriptural and apostolic exclusivity begins and ends involves an important realm of doctrinal issues for believers to grapple with. As I have been grappling with cessationism, it has given me grist to hammer out my own views on Scripture. Wrapped up in these issues of apostolic and Scriptural exclusivity are many exceedingly important questions about our relationship as believers to truth, the written word and the Holy Spirit. In regard to these issues, some cessationists make a distinction between a doctrine of cessation and a doctrine of the Holy Spirit. As I have examined this topic, however, I have seen that doctrines on cessation/continuation and doctrines on the Holy Spirit are inextricably intertwined.

Examining 1 John -- in specific regard to John 14 and my "...will teach you all things..." post, I began studying 1 John to see if it could shed some light on whether "teach you all things" was an inclusive promise or an exclusive promise. It turns out that the apostle John, in 1 John, cuts through all of the exhausting cessationist gymnastics that I was experimentally trying to apply to John 14 and has an abundantly simple and profound answer. Even as I believe that this is so, I still want to try to examine how a cessationist might try to interpret this passage, as I proceed to examine it myself.

1 John 2:20-21

But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. (21) I do not write because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it and because no lie comes from the truth.

1 John 24-25

See that what you have learned from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you will also remain in the Son and in the Father. (25) And this is what he promised--even eternal life.

1 John 26-27

I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit--just as it has taught you, remain in him.

In regard to whether the promise that the Spirit would "teach you all things" in the Gospel of John is exclusive or inclusive, this passage in 1 John answers this question, at least to my satisfaction. John, by saying in 1 John that the believer's anointing from the Holy One "teaches you about all things", is making a very particular reference to the role of the Counselor for the disciples to "teach you all things"(John 14:25) and "guide you in all truth" (John 16:12.13). In doing so, John's affirmation that the Holy Spirit teaches believers "about all things" is John's affirmation that the aforementioned promises given to the disciples are for all believers.

To counter my continuationist interpretation, a cessationist might point out the use of the word "about". A cessationist might say that the disciples in the Gospel of John were promised that they would be taught all things, while the believers that John was addressing in 1 John were merely promised that they would be taught "about" all things. Perhaps it's just me, but I think that this would be making too much of the word "about". "All things" is an awfully broad category, whether you're learning all things or learning about all things.

In my understanding of cessationism, a cessationist would say, in regard to 1 John, that it was not necessary for the believers to continue to learn "about all things" from the Holy Spirit when the canon was completed. The problem with substantiating this doctrinal position from the text in 1 John is that John affirms that the "truth" is something that his readers knew, while "all things" was something that they were continually learning about in an ongoing manner with no particular end in sight.

In 1 John, John states that it is particularly the believers' anointing from the Holy One whereby the believers are being taught all things by the Holy one. It is my interpretation that John is stating it as a general principle that it is the believer's anointing in the Holy One/Counselor whereby the believer receives this ongoing teaching, and not the written word per se. In the context of writing to the believers in regard to those who would try to lead them astray, John does affirm that the written word is useful for butressing the "truth" that he already expected that his readers knew to a certain extent (or else he wouldn't have written it). However, there is no basis in the text for one to say that the principle-- that it is the anointing from the Holy One that teaches believers "about all things"-- is a principle that was only for a "pre-canon" dispensation that would become obselete when the canon became written and established. To assert that would require bringing interpretive meaning from well outside the text in 1 John and heavily modify the meaning of the text.

According to this passage in 1 John, the "truth" was something that the believers knew, and yet they still needed to be taught about all things. So what is it about "all things" that the believers needed to continue to learn about? Again, "all things" is an awfully broad category, and the text gives no reason to confine "all things" to one thing or another other than that it will not contradict the truth that the believers already knew. As I will attempt to explain further, when John says, "See that what you have learned from the beginning remains in you", John is referring to the truth of the Gospel -- doctrinal truth -- that believers must use as a plumbline against which all of the present and future attempts to discern "all things" must be measured.

In the particular context of the passage, John is speaking about having discernment in the midst of the spirit of the anti-christ and those who deny that Jesus is from God. There is no basis in the text, though, to limit "all things" to mean merely "all things pertaining to those who would lead you astray". It is a sound interpretation to say that the process of the believers learning about all things has an aspect to it that involves discernment to weed out that which is from the spirit of the anti-christ.

Rudimentary discernment -- For most of the rest of 1 John chapter 3, John picks up where he left off in 1 John 2:9-11,15,18-19 and continues to exhort his readers on the matters of rudimentary discernment. Here John is defining doctrinal truth as that which is centered around knowing who Jesus is, his death and resurrection, and following Jesus' commands. In the context of the passage, John is providing practical ways for believers to measure themselves and others, and highlights the importance of Jesus' commands as the basis for any endeavor at discernment. In these verses, John speaks of both external yardsticks --loving one's brother in actions and in truth, and internal yardsticks -- knowing that God lives in one by the Spirit that he gave him, and if his heart does not condemn him in God's presence and in the face of Jesus' commands (1 John 3:21,24).

Moving on to 1 John 4:1-6

Dear friend, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are sent from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (2) This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God. Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, (3) but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the anti-christ, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. (4) You, dear children are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world. (5) They are from the world and therefore speak from the viewpoint of the world, and the world listens to them. (6) We are from God, and whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.

Here, in 1 John chapter 4, John proceeds to talk about testing the spirits. So what are the spirits and why are they sent by God to believers? It is my interpretation that this is part of how God teaches believers "about all things", and that for believers to learn "about all things" requires that they listen to the spirits that are sent by God. John's use of the term "Spirit of truth" in this passage is a direct reference to the Counselor, the Spirit of truth that was promised to the disciples in John 14:15.

A "spirit" in this text can be understood in the broadest sense as any claim to truth that is being given voice by anyone. John uses "spirit" as something that encompasses a) the supernatural source, b) the viewpoint and c) the person or persons giving voice to it. As I stated earlier, John is writing to the believers in the context of the spirit of the anti-christ and those who give voice to that spirit. However, the interpretive meaning of the text cannot be limited to the idea that believers are only to discern to identify the spirit of the anti-christ. Rather, in the context of the Holy Spirit's role to teach believers "about all things", John is defining a rudimentary basis for discerning a spirit. If a spirit acknowledges that Jesus came in the flesh, and if it listens "us", in this case the believers, it is from God and not the anti-christ.

Based on this discernment 101, believers are able to recognize the Spirit of truth in a general rudimentary way. It is my interpretation of 1 John that believers need this rudimentary discernment so that they can use it to begin to discern the specifics of what the Spirit of truth is saying to them as the Spirit is teaching them "about all things". "About all things" would include, but not be limited to, directives and wisdom from the Holy Spirit that are custom tailored for particular believers to confront particular needs, times and situations.

My extrapolations -- In reflecting on this passage in 1 John, it is my interpretive extrapolation that "truth", via the Spirit of truth, is a broad category that includes doctrinal truth and situational/elaborative truth that is the appropriation of doctrinal truth for particular needs and situations. Situational truth/elaborative truth is a major aspect of the "truth" that is provided by the Spirit of truth, as the Spirit of truth teaches believers "about all things". Situational/elaborative truth rests on doctrinal truth, and doctrinal truth is to be used as the plumbline to evaluate any claims that a "spirit" makes to be providing believers with elaborative/situational truth. In other words, "all things" includes the role that the Spirit has to teach believers how all things that they are confronted with --all ideas, people, times, situations, etc...-- can be understood in light of the doctrinal truth of the Gospel that has been revealed through the apostles.

Situational/elaborative truth, as I am defining it is also known as the continuationist doctrine of "illumination". This is the doctrine that the Spirit has an ongoing role to enlighten believers to properly understand and appropriate doctrinal truth. As an ongoing area of study, I want to further explore the ways that other Christian thinkers have either rejected, or tried to codify, a doctrine of illumination.

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