A part of the process of exegesis and hermeneutics is outlining what you are reading for clarity of understanding. Concerning the 1 John there are many opinions. Here are a few noted by New American Commentary
“7. Structure and Form of 1 John52
Few issues are more difficult in Johannine studies than the structure of 1 John. There are almost as many opinions as there are commentaries on the book. The problem lies, in part, in the fact that the genre of 1 John is something of an enigma.53 Sloyan points out that “1 John seems the least letter-like in its lack of the identification of a sender or an address to any recipients except the nonspecific ‘little children.’ It appears to be more a treatise sent broadcast to some in the John tradition.”54 Approaches to determining a structure or outline to the book can be divided into three groups: (1) traditional scholars who seek to discern basic topic or subject divisions (even sources) and an overarching outline through inductive analysis; (2) discourse analysis—linguist scholars who apply principles of semantic structural studies or “discourse linguistics” to discover the semantic relations that weave the epistle together as a unified whole; (3) rhetorical criticism—students of ancient rhetoric who seek to discover what, if any, rhetorical strategies common to the author’s world were used to set forth and further his argument.55
(1) Traditional Approaches
R. Brown provides an extensive survey of other scholars who have divided 1 John into two, three, and seven parts. His own approach will be explained later.
Sample Proposed Divisions of 1 John
Division into Two Parts
Chaine, Verde, Tomoi
Division into Three Parts
Hort, Hauck, Nestle,
Häring, Brooke, Jones
F.-M. Braun, de la
Potterie, Sk̭rinjar, SBJ
Division into Seven Parts
1:1–4; 1:5–2:6; 2:7–17; 2:18–3:24; 4:1–21; 5:1–12; 5:13–21
1:1–4; 1:5–2:17; 2:18–27; 2:28–3:24; 4:1–6; 4:7–5:12; 5:13–21
1:5–2:6; 2:7–17; 2:18–28; 2:29–3:10; 3:11–22; 3:23–5:4; 5:5–17
1:5–2:11; 2:12–17; 2:18–27; 2:28–3:24; 4:1–6; 4:7–21; 5:1–1256
Each of these proposals has some measure of merit, and each has gained at least a small following. Each has also been subject to criticism, usually because they, at some point, fail to account for the “flow of argument” in the epistle.
(2) Discourse Analysis
This approach is usually applied by linguists and Bible translators. Rooted in the structuralist theories of Ferdinand de Saussure, this method looks at how grammar works on both the paragraph and discourse level. Surface structure and deep structure issues are examined. Speech-act theory and rhetorical strategies are also studied, and the text, as it is, is carefully examined. K. Pike and R. Longacre are well-known representatives of this approach to the study of texts. The following are several proposals set forth by this school.
1 John (R. Longacre)
INTRODUCTION—1:1–2:29—Embedded discourse of seven paragraphs
1:5–10—Covert exhortation not to profess to be sinless but to “walk in the light,” confess our sins, and enjoy forgiveness.
2:1–6—Covert exhortation not to sin.
2:7–11—A new/old command is announced and inferentially connected with a covert command to love.
2:12–17—Ethical peak of this embedded discourse. Here the writer develops his reasons for writing the epistle and warns against loving the world.
2:18–27—Doctrinal peak. Remain in Christ and in his teaching in spite of adverse teaching and practice.
2:28–29—Closure. Echoes previous paragraph: “Hold steady; don’t get sidetracked.”
BODY—3:1–5:12—Embedded discourse containing seven paragraphs
3:1–6—Mitigated covert command to purify ourselves in v. 3.
3:7–12—Mitigated covert command not to practice sin (v. 9).
3:13–18—Mitigated command (not covert) to love by laying down our lives for the brethren (v. 16b; note use of “ought”).
3:19–24—“Hortatory essence” of book given in v. 23: “We should believe on Jesus and love one another.”
4:1–6—“Doctrinal peak” of the book; believe correctly regarding Jesus Christ.
4:7–21—“Ethical peak” of the book; composed of two paragraphs (7–10 and 11–21). No mitigation now but covert exhortation: “Let us love one another.”
5:1–12—Conclusion of this embedded discourse (body) in that v. 1 refers to those who believe and love, harking back to the two previous paragraphs.
CONCLUSION—5:13–21. Theme of book clearly stated in v. 13, “that you may know.” Purpose in writing is Assurance.57
A second discourse approach comes from a student of Longacre, Helen Miehle. She builds on his treatment but reaches different conclusions at certain points.
1 John (H. Miehle)
D. T.-C. Wu attempts something of an intersection between rhetorical and linguistic (discourse) approaches. Drawing upon the work of G. Guthrie and his work on Hebrews (Guthrie speaks of “rhetorico-discourse analysis”), he offers a more eclectic study.59 One will observe that his analysis is quite similar to more traditional approaches, but his method for arriving at his conclusions is not.
1 John (D. T.-C. Wu)
I. PROLOGUE: THE WORD OF LIFE (1:1–4)
II. LIGHT AND DARKNESS (1:5–2:27)
A. Walking in the Light (1:5–2:2)
(a) God is Light (1:5–1:7)
(b) Renouncing Sin (1:8–2:2)
B. The Command to Love (2:3–2:11)
(a) Knowledge of God and Keeping His Commandments (2:3–2:6)
(b) New Commandment (2:7–2:11)
C. A Digression about the Church (2:12–14)
D. Three Warnings (2:15–2:27)
(a) Warning against the World (2:15–2:17)
(b) Warning against the Antichrist (2:18–2:23)
(c) Warning against the Lie (2:24–2:27)
III. The Privileges and Responsibilities of God’s Children (2:28–4:6)
A. The Revelation of God’s Children (2:28–3:10)
(a) The Confidence of God’s Children (2:28–2:29)
(b) The Identity of God’s Children (3:1–2)
(c) God’s Children and the Children of the Devil (3:3–3:10)
B. The Community’s Message (3:11–3:12)
C. The Marks of God’s Children (3:13–3:24)
(a) Love in Community Life (3:13–3:18)
(b) Shoring up Christian Confidence (3:19–3:24)
D. Test the Spirits (4:1–6)
IV. FAITH IN GOD AND LOVE ONE ANOTHER (4:7–5:12)
A. God’s Love Evokes Human Love (4:7–4:11)
B. Confidence in God’s Love (4:12–4:18)
C. Appealing to Love Each Other (4:19–4:21)
D. The Victory of Faith (5:1–5:5)
E. Testimony to the Son (5:6–5:12)
V. EPILOGUE: FINAL REMARKS (5:13–5:21)
A. The Confidence and Certainties of Believers (5:13–5:20)
B. The Final Exhortation (5:21)
In a work prepared, in part, to assist missionaries in Bible translation, G. Sherman and J. Tuggy argue persuasively, in concert with Longacre, that 1 John “is a hortatory discourse, based on the occurrence of imperative verbs and other command forms.”60 They also point out that the surface form of 1 John is somewhat similar to modern English free poetry, making it difficult to always discern the relationship between various parts of the discourse.61 Concerning this latter observation, we would imagine all students of 1 John would heartily agree. Building on the insights of several discourse approaches to 1 John, they structure and organize the epistle as shown in the chart on p. 48.
(3) Rhetorical Criticism
The application of rhetorical criticism and strategies to the biblical material became quite popular in the latter half of the twentieth century. Although the results have been somewhat uneven, a better understanding of how biblical authors sought to persuade their audiences to see their perspective and hear their argument has certainly been enhanced.
First John has received significant attention because of both its brevity and the difficulty in deciphering its structure. As we have seen, previous approaches have failed to produce a consensus, and it is the case that this approach also fails to bring a definitive solution. A number of scholars have argued for a chiastic structure for 1 John. Note the following examples:
1 John (P. Berge)
A. The word of life 1:1–4
B. God is light 1:5–4:6
B′. God is love 4:7–5:5
A′. The witness of faith 5:6–2162
J. C. Thomas63 acknowledges the insights of Brown64 and wisely builds his proposal around “the use of similar catch words/phrases and sections which parallel one another in terms of content.” He goes on to argue that the structure of 1 John was intended to aid in its memorization.
1 John (J. C. Thomas)
A. 1:1–4—Prologue—Eternal Life
B. 1:5–2:2—Making Him a Liar (Walking)
C. 2:3–17—New Commandment
E. 2:18–3:10—Confidence—Do Not Sin
F. 3:11–18—Love One Another
E′. 3:19–24—Confidence—Keep the Commands
C′. 4:7–5:5—God’s Love and Ours
B′. 5:6–12—Making Him a Liar (Testimony)
A′. 5:13–21—Conclusion—Eternal Life
In an excellent article that surveys various approaches to 1 John, P. J. Van Staden also argues “that the observance of the so-called chiastic styles presents an important key to a better understanding of the structure of 1 John.” He does not argue for an overall chiasm but believes the letter can be divided into three main sections (1:5–2:17; 2:18–3:17; 4:1–5:12), which themselves contain numerous chiastic or parallel units.65 K. Hansford argues in somewhat the same vein, stating that “the form of 1 John is a highly structural text, probably a homily or sermon, with poetic parallelisms and chiastic structures that the writer deliberately created to make his message more pleasurable and memorable for all time.”66 E. Wendland and K. Tollefson have recognized the contrastive or antithetical or dialectical strategies John employs in making his argument.67
D. Watson has attempted consistently to apply classic Greco-Roman rhetorical style and invention to 1 John. He argues:
Repetition and emphasis, so common in 1 John, is integral to the rhetor’s use of amplification techniques of Greceo-Roman rhetoric. These techniques include strong words, argumentation, comparison, accumulation, expolitio, reflexio, regressio, conduplicatio, distributio, synonymy … antithesis, personification, hyperbole, emphasis and development of commonplaces. Amplification is correctly found throughout the epistle. It must be pointed out that virtually every known rhetorical technique for amplification is utilized in the epistle.68
He identifies 1 John as primarily epideictic rhetoric (as opposed to judicial or deliberative) because its goal is to increase the readers’ commitment to values they already hold. First John was written to the faithful community as an appeal to strengthen their devotion to stay true to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a value held by both the speaker and his audience.69
Talbert believes 1 John (like 1 Peter) alternates between the twin concerns of ethics and Christology.70 Strecker focuses on the polemical nature of 1 John and outlines the book alternating Parenesis and Dogmatic Exposition.71
H. York argues that when a comparison is made between discourse analysis and rhetorical criticism, significant similarities exist and common results are gleaned. The methods can be complementary. He provides as an example a side-by-side comparison of the discourse model of Longacre and the rhetorical analysis of Klauck.
Comparative Structural Analysis of 1 John
Longacre (Mitigated Hortatory)
I. Introduction (1:1–2:29)
2:12–17 (ethical peak)
2:18–27 (doctrinal peak)
II. Body of the Book (3:1–5:12)
4:1–6 (doctrinal peak)
4:7–21 (ethical peak)
III. Closure of Epistle (5:13–21)72
York’s conclusion is basically correct. There are genuine areas of compatibility, synthesis of methodology, and agreement between the two approaches. Neither method alone or together, however, has decisively settled the issue of the structure of 1 John. Significant disagreement still exists within both disciplines, though it is clear major strides have been made in better understanding the structure, strategies, and argument of 1 John.
A Proposal: The outline we propose attempts to utilize the best insights from traditional studies, discourse analysis, and rhetorical criticism. First John does exhibit a hortatory and epideictic rhetorical strategy. We also find Brown’s proposal persuasive, which states that 1 John is modeled on the same general structure as the Fourth Gospel. Both have a fourfold division overall, with the themes of light and love developed variously in sections II and III. Note his comparison:
The Gospel of John
I. The Prologue (1:1–18)
II. The Book of Signs (1:19–12:50): “To his own he came; yet his own people did not accept him.” The public revelation of the light brought a judgment, which separated believers who came to the light from the world and “the Jews” who preferred darkness to light.
III. The Book of Glory (13:1–20:29): “But all those who did accept him he empowered to become God’s children.” The “hour” of Jesus’ glorification where he speaks and acts on behalf of a new “his own”—the believers.
CONCLUSION (20:30–31): A statement of the author’s purpose.
IV. The Epilogue (chap. 21)
I. The Prologue (1:1–4)
II. Part One (1:5–3:10): The Gospel that God is light, and we must walk in the light as Jesus walked.
III. Part Two (3:11–5:12): The Gospel that we must love one another as God has loved us in Jesus Christ.
CONCLUSION (5:13–21): A statement of the author’s purpose.73
This commentary’s outline does the following:
1. It recognizes the two dominant themes of the epistle as being Light (1:5–3:10) and Love (3:11–5:12)
2. It seeks to utilize rhetorical devices such as “hinge verses” (e.g., 2:28; 5:20) and other structural markers that most scholars use to separate one subject from another.
3. The outline is itself hortatory, admonishing the reader to heed John’s expected response to his word of instruction. R. R. Reno summarizes the situation well when he writes:
The text of 1 John shimmers with what has been seen, heard and touched. The text speaks plainly, directly and clearly, and what is said is a proclamation that has the power of fellowship: our fellowship with each other, our fellowship with God and the fellowship of the Father with his Son. Like the name of God which the Psalmist invokes as the very power of salvation, a power of invocation which the author of 1 John echoes when he explains, “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (5:13), so does the particular linguistic structure of 1 John contain the power to draw us into the fullest possible destiny in God’s love.74
52 The form and structure of 2 and 3 John are examined as part of the commentary on those letters.
53 Talbert, Reading John, 6.
54 G. S. Sloyan, Walking in the Truth (Valley Forge: Trinity Press, 1995), 1.
55 Grayston notes: “Despite the common agreement that the Epistle lacks a discernible structure or logical progression of thought, even the most pessimistic critics attempt an analysis” (The Johannine Epistles, 4). He proposes a sixfold division dependent on emphasis rather than subject matter. J. Hill argues that 1 John is an example of the “community rule” or “church order” (“A Genre for 1 John,” in The Future of Early Christianity, ed. B. A. Pearson [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991], 367–77). His argument, though interesting, is not adequate.
New English Bible
Brown, Epistles of John, 764. Law, Tests of Life, 1–24; R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter, St. John and St. Jude (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1966), 366–67; and D. Jackman, The Message of John’s Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 18, are representative of those who see the letter structured in the form of a spiral, inverted pyramid or cone whereby John again and again returns to address certain themes. There is certainly some truth to this perspective. Marshall (The Epistles of John, 22–30) gives a more detailed analysis of the outlines of Law, Brooke, Dodd, Malatesta, P. R. Jones, Schnackenburg, and Feuillet. He does not find any of these approaches adequate overall. He goes on to examine the redactional theories of K. Tomoi, E. von Dobschütz, Bultmann, Windisch, Preisker, Braun, Nauck, and O’Neill. He concludes that these theories also fail to account for the structure of the letter.
57 R. E. Longacre, “Exhortation and Mitigation in First John,” in Selected Technical Articles Related to Translation 9 (1983): 3–44.
58 H. Miehle, “Theme in Greek Hortatory Discourse: Van Dijk and Beekman—Callow Approaches Applied to 1 John,” Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Arlington, 1988. Miehle obviously sees chiastic patterns in various sections. For our purposes we are more interested in simply showing her paragraph/section divisions. See G. H. Guthrie, The Structure of Hebrews: A Text-Linguistic Analysis (Leiden: Brill, 1994). Guthrie’s work is warmly commended by W. L. Lane in his commentary on Hebrews in WBC (xc).
59 D. T.-C. Wu, “An Analysis of the Structure of 1 John Using Discourse Analysis,” Ph.D. diss., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1997.
60 G. Sherman and J. C. Tuggy, A Semantic and Structural Analysis of the Johannine Epistles (Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1994), 6.
61 Ibid., 7.
62 P. S. Berge, “The Word and Its Witness in John and 1 John: A Literary and Rhetorical Study,” in Word and World, Supplement Series 3 (1997): 143–62. As the title suggests, Berge sees a parallel literary relationship between the Gospel of John and 1 John. He also presents internal chiasms within his four major divisions (p. 151). The argument at this latter point is not very compelling.
63 J. C. Thomas, “The Literary Structure of 1 John,” NovT XL 4 (1998): 369–81.
64 Brown, Epistles of John, 371–72.
65 P. J. Van Staden, “The Debate on the Structure of 1 John,” Hervormde Teologiese Studies 47/ 2 (1991): 494. M. Sweazey makes a similar argument, though she divides the epistle at 1:5–2:28; 2:29–4:6; 4:7–5:13. See her “Chiastic Study of the First Epistle of John,” Master’s Thesis, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, 1986.
66 K. L. Hansford, “The Underlying Poetic Structure of 1 John,” JTT 5 (1992): 125–74.
67 E. R. Wendland, “ ‘Dear Children’ Versus the ‘Antichrists’: The Rhetoric of Reassurance in First John,” JTT 11 (1998): 40–84; K. D. Tollefson, “Certainty within the Fellowship: Dialectical Discourse in 1 John,” BTB 29, no. 2 (1999): 79–89. His outline of 1 John (p. 84) is helpful and interesting. D. Neufeld draws somewhat similar conclusions through the use of speech act theory (Reconceiving Texts as Speech Acts: An Analysis of 1 John (Leiden: Brill, 1994). His analysis is helpful at points, but many of the positions he takes on historical issues are unnecessarily skeptical and unduly suspicious.
68 D. F. Watson, “Amplification Techniques in 1 John: The Interaction of Rhetorical Style and Invention,” JSNT 51 (1993): 117–18.
69 Ibid., 119. See also Watson, “An Epideictic Strategy for Increasing Adherence to Community Values: 1 John 1:1–2:29,” in Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 11 (1991), 144–52.
70 Talbert, Reading John, 7.
71 Strecker, The Johannine Letters, xliv.
H. W. York, “An Analysis and Synthesis of the Exegetical Methods of Rhetorical Criticism and Discourse Analysis as Applied to the Structure of 1 John,” Ph.D. diss., Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, 1993. The two outlines come from Longacre, “Exhortation and Mitigation in First John,” in Selected Technical Articles Related to Translation 9 (1983): 3–44 (previously noted); and H.-J. Klauck, “Zur rhetorischen Analyse der Johannesbriefe,” ZNW 81 (1990): 204–24.
73 Brown, Epistles of John, 124. A. Feuillet concurs with Brown’s assessment that 1 John is patterned after the Gospel of John, though he outlines the letter differently. See his “Structure of 1 John,” BTB, vol. III, No. 2 (1973): 194–216. Van Staden’s criticism of Brown’s proposal, in our judgment, is unconvincing (“The Debate on the Structure of 1 John,” 489–90).
74 R. R. Reno, “The Marks of the Nails: Theological Exegesis of the First Letter of John for Easter,” Pro Ecclesia, Vol. VI, No. 1 (1997): 53.
Akin, D. L. (2001). 1, 2, 3 John (Vol. 38). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
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