Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

Divine circularity in the first letter of St. John, and in us

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 03, 2023

I think most readers find the First Letter of John somewhat peculiar; at least I know I do. And it just struck me over the weekend why this is so: Because of its circularity. Again and again John circles around the issue of imitating Christ’s righteousness (as opposed to being deceived by the spirit of the world and the antichrist). Clearly John expects this knowledge of what is righteous—this coming into the light of Christ—to be present within those who believe in Christ. Yet he does not try to enumerate the arguments or positions or actions which characterize this righteousness. Instead, he paints righteousness in very broad spiritual terms. For example, consider this sufficiently vague (to us) paragraph in the second chapter:

Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word that you have heard. At the same time, it is a new commandment that I am writing to you, which is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going because the darkness has blinded his eyes. [1 Jn 1:7-]

But what constitutes this hate, or this love? How do we distinguish it from self-interest or conventional worldly behavior or mere human niceness?

John then goes on to say that he is writing to “little children” because their sins are forgiven and because they know the Father; that he is writing to “fathers” because they know him who is from the beginning; and he is writing to “young men” because they are strong, have overcome the evil one, and the word of God abides in them (vv. 12-14).

Really? How does he, or do they, grasp such realities? Again, there seems to be an almost circular frame of reference here. It seems certain, then, that John is thinking at least primarily in terms of the Christian interior life. And next he contrasts this interior spiritual life with a love of the world:

If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever [vv. 15-17]

This seems to be getting close to the problems we face constantly even within the Church today, but how do we tell? Moreover, he goes on to warn his readers to beware of the antichrists who subvert the truth, and he links this to the willingness to confess the Father and the Son. Moreover, in chapter 4 he very specifically cautions his audience to distinguish among the various kinds of spirits at work in their lives:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. [4:2-3]

Discernment in the heart

What are we make of all this? It concerns me particularly, because in it I discern a kind of circularity to which I often allude in my own writing, and which we seemingly cannot escape. Historically, we can hear echoes in the last quotation of John’s specific concern about the Gnostics of his time, who prattled on about various forms of secret knowledge, but were not “childish” enough to accept the concrete reality of the Incarnation of God Himself. But at the same time, this letter has to apply to all of us, and we certainly deal with false prophets on an almost daily basis who at least claim to accept the reality of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. And the confusion this causes plays out within ourselves, in our innermost thoughts.

There is, then, an issue of circularity in St. John, and I am all too aware not only that I reflect this in my own writing but that Catholic theology struggles with the problem in every era. I am referring to the problem of the genuine assurance brought by the gift of Faith, and the myriad ways in which Faith can be lost even in those who claim to possess it. Sometimes we may reach deep into this assurance of Faith, while at others we may stave off that assurance and attach ourselves to other spirits. In a fascinating cycle or circle, we take the teachings and values we encounter outside ourselves into our interior life, and our interior life shifts and develops (for better or worse) into a correspondence with either the world or with Christ.

I tend to skirt the issue in my own work by emphasizing acceptance not only of the objectivity of Divine Revelation (which has been miraculously attested) but also of the Natural Law (which God reveals to all through the things He has made, and which includes knowledge of His existence). And yet, again and again, Catholic theology comes up against the problem: Who has an interior knowledge (that is, a conviction) of the Truth of Christ and who has had no chance to acquire this knowledge? Who examines it deep within and offers interior assent—or interior rejection?

This is why theologians differ so often on the question of how many will be saved—that is, they differ because there are unseen realities behind both the profession of faith and its denial, behind both living in accordance with the truth and falling short of that. I have often proposed an analogy with the problem of piercing the corporate veil when there is wrongdoing in a business. The key questions for the members of the board of directors are: What did you know? When did you know it? And what did you do about it?

Theologians cannot pierce the veil of a particular soul’s relationship with God. What St. John seems to describe as interiorly obvious is very often not obvious to us—neither in our observations of others, nor in the assessment of our own spiritual progress. When, for example, does invincible ignorance come into play—that is, the situation of a person who has been exposed to the truth of Christ but has never really taken it in, through no fault of his own? The questions are many, difficult, and sometimes unanswerable, but there is clearly something real and even verifiable in the interior life of the Christian. At the same time, we would be dangerously presumptuous if we were to dwell exclusively on our own inner certitude, or even on our own lack of it.

This too is reality

It is deep within, however, that the battle (if there is to be a battle) is ultimately fought. One consequence of this inner reality is that we may assume neither the salvation nor the damnation of those we wonder about, since we cannot see into their very souls. We do not even see very clearly into our own souls, though here great progress can be made. All of this means we can expect a great many surprises in Heaven, assuming we arrive safely on that blessed shore.

But at the same time, St. John insists that we ought to be able to discern within, at least in a general way, whether we ourselves are genuinely responsive to the call of Christ, while with others we have no choice at all but to rely on less revealing external indicators. But if we can form a reasonable provisional judgment of what the words and actions of others reveal about their inner life, so too ought we to be able to discern—if we make a serious attempt—whether we ourselves have interiorly responded to Christ, the Gospel and the Church in proportion as we have been given the opportunities and grace to do so.

Framed that way—in proportion to the gifts we have received—the answer will always be to some degree negative, but in a healthy soul, this means only that we will see that we cannot rest on our laurels but must continue to make progress. In a sense, this process must consist in a seemingly circular conversation within ourselves. Nonetheless the reason this remains not only legitimate but essential is that God is both transcendent and immanent at the same time. We are not, if we are cautious, merely talking to ourselves. And we must remember that we have those external guides—Divine Revelation, the natural law, the Church, the sacraments—to nourish and sustain an interior circularity which avoids the farce of solipsism.

In any case, John is right about this key aspect of the Christian life: We must fight an interior battle between knowledge and ignorance, acceptance and denial. This spiritual battle must always be fought within. His letters are, after all, Divine Revelation.

And if John writes in an almost circular fashion about the inner certitude of Faith, then the apparent circularity of some aspects of our spiritual lives (for John’s letter is hardly the whole of what has been revealed) must be a feature of our life in Christ. There must be a legitimate kind of inner certitude which, with genuine openness to God and lives of prayer, enables us to “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith”, as the Letter to the Hebrews exclaims (10:22), and as St. John apparently presupposes.

Apologetics is never enough

I love apologetics—the argumentative defense of the Faith. But I remember a correspondent who, in response to one of my lectures in that field, asked why I thought people needed a reason to believe. Why can’t they “just believe”? I clung to my arguments in favor of the Resurrection at the time; there is after all something very important in St. Peter’s charge that we must always be ready to make a defense to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is in us (1 Pet 3:15). But it is obviously true that we do not all, or always, or even ultimately, come to faith in Christ because of reasonable arguments. There is also the action of the Holy Spirit within us, and the assurance we receive from what we might call an interior Presence.

Arguments and reasons and explanations are important; we should care enough to seek them, and to grow in the knowledge of our Faith. But there is clearly something more, which St. John urges us to recognize in ourselves, one way or the other:

Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself…the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. [1 Jn 5:10-14]

The natural law, the Divine Law and the Prophets, the life of Christ and the Resurrection, the foundation of the Church and its remarkable survival, even the historical consistency of Magisterial teaching, and of course the witness of the saints, who were so clearly human persons acting somehow beyond the human mode: All these are important. But none of them is the gift of Faith. For the awareness and acceptance of that gift, we must beware of casual deceptions, step away from endless argument, trust the sacraments insofar as we have access to them, discern the spirits that seek our attention—and enter into an interior conversation with God. This is primarily what we mean by prayer, which is what eliminates mere circularity. At the center, there is stability—an end to our restless and even reckless spin.

But of course we must resist significant centrifugal force to get there. Perhaps this is why St. John ends his letter with such a strange warning. As a conclusion to a discussion which may be difficult to grasp, perhaps it remains for us to consider seriously his final words: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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