On the Semantic Structure of 1 John: A Modest Proposal -- By: L. Scott Kellum

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 23:1 (Fall 2005)
Article: On the Semantic Structure of 1 John: A Modest Proposal
Author: L. Scott Kellum

On the Semantic Structure of 1 John:
A Modest Proposal

L. Scott Kellum

Assistant Professor of New Testament and Greek
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina 27587


Having proposed an article on the structure of 1 John, I knew that it was not an easy task. Now nearly a year into the project my assessment is that I understated the problem. In private conversation with a colleague on the project, he remarked that the outline of 1 John “is a beast.” I am afraid that I have to concur. There is not an obvious outline that can be easily discerned. This, of course, is not a new revelation. It has been axiomatic in the study of the Johannine Epistles for a long time. Brown remarks that 1 John displays “an apparent lack of sequence and of thought development.”1

The lack of consensus of scholarship has led several in times past to posit source or redaction theories of one stripe or another. Most scholars, however, dismiss such theories as unproven, unlikely, or particularly not very helpful in the question. The most recent to propose a series of sources edited into one document is J. C. O’Neil in 1966.2 Marshall notes his theory is “completely speculative, and has won no adherents.”3

Many have given up the search for a structure in the epistle. Brown lists de Ambroggi, Brook, Hauck, Holtzmann, and Jülicher among others.4 Kruse likewise comments that his analysis of the letter will not “trace any developing argument through the letter because there isn’t one.”5 He instead looks for “natural divisions” to make his comment. In this he is much like I. Howard Marshall who believes the letter was never intended to display a logical plan.6 Marshall thinks it is a series of paragraphs connected through an association of ideas rather than a logical plan. In the face of the difficulty of the topic, this line of reasoning is certainly tempting. It is, however, difficult to think that the writer who so minutely structured his individual paragraphs/units would not do so for the whole of the letter. This, alone, makes the search for a structure a viable project, but there is another reason as well. I believe the structure of the literary piece can tell you a great deal about the intent, purposes, and theology. If John has a structure, then it may very well give clear insight into these areas. The search for a structure in 1 John is a worthy (if not Herculean) ...

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