Identifying the Opponents in First John


            Christological heresies are not new to the Church. For centuries, men have postulated various opinions on the Person and work of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Of all of the different opponents of orthodox Christian dogma found in the New Testament, one of the most curious case studies is identifying whom the Apostle John (“the elder”) is arguing against in his first epistle. Generally, three heresies have been proposed: Gnosticism, Cerinthianism, or Docetism. These three will be carefully considered within this research. Regarding the biblical text, Barry Clyde Joslin outlines four main tenets of what John indicates to be heretical in his opponents’ doctrine: (1) They denied that Jesus was the Christ, (2) They denied that Jesus had come in the flesh as God’s Son, (3) They downplayed the dominating power of sin and did not abstain from sin themselves, and (4) Their conduct was so loveless and schismatic that they consequentially denied the Gospel and caused others to ask of themselves “if they had the Spirit at all.”[1] Altogether, these traits of the false teachers had tremendous ramifications to the very core doctrines of Christianity. Therefore, the task of identifying who these opponents actually were is both a needful and rather difficult task. Carson and Moo, commenting on two potential heresy candidates, explain, “The discernible errors and abysmal practices that are being opposed have much in common with the Docetism and Cerinthianism of which we know all too little.”[2] Nevertheless, upon evaluating the texts in First John, historical analysis, and theological distinctions of each heretical group, one of the three appears at least to be most likely the group described in the apostle’s epistle.

Argument for Gnosticism

            The first heresy to consider as those being criticized in First John is Gnosticism. Writing about the era from A.D. 150-300, John Hannah writes, “The principal religious opponent from outside the church was Gnosticism, a blend of Eastern ideologies, Platonic philosophy, and some Christian principles.”[3] He continues by stating, “Gnostics denied God as the Creator of the universe, the incarnation of Christ, and the salvation of the body.”[4] The history of Gnosticism is quite complex, as Robert Lightner asserts that it was technically a “pre-Christian” belief system, possibly stemming from “ancient Hinduism” or “Persian religions.”[5] However, Cross and Livingstone testify, “Some think it originated within the Church, as an erratic development of Christian teaching (as the Fathers thought). Others claim that the movement had already begun before the Christian period, but there is no Gnostic document which in its present form pre-dates the New Testament.”[6] Whichever is the case (a pre-Church or not a pre-Church heresy) does not matter too greatly since the belief system to consider at the moment for being the opponents of John’s epistle is not proto-Gnosticism with its supposed various forms, but the second-century, fully matured “Christian” movement.[7] Although plenty of the theology is consistent with First John[8], this theory runs into devastating historical problems. With the discovery of the P52 fragment of John 18 (dated around 125), then the original manuscript of John’s Gospel was considerably earlier.[9] Likewise, if indeed the same author wrote First John (which, according to evidence, is a very reliable proposition), then a date in the 90s is appropriate – this is decades before fully developed, second-century Gnosticism.[10] Overall, “Most scholars today agree that John is not countering full-orbed Gnosticism.”[11] Yet, it is quite probable that he is combating a proto-Gnostic group such as Cerinthianism or Docetism, which will in turn be necessary to evaluate now.

Argument for Cerinthianism

            What sets Cerinthianism apart from both Gnosticism and Docetism is that it is the only heresy with a specified founder, namely Cerinthus. Amidst studying Cerinthus, the person, and Cerinthianism, the theological heresy, it can be rather challenging to retrace all of the steps that lead back to this movement’s origins. The reason being is that instead of having the writings of Cerinthus to analyze, scholars have primarily just the rebuttals of his theology from Irenaeus and Eusebius.[12] Cerinthus, the person, is said to have been Jewish,[13] yet according to Irenaeus was “a man who was educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians.”[14] The church father explains what he means of “wisdom of the Egyptians” by saying that Cerinthus was “taught that the world was not made by the primary God, but by a certain Power far separated from him, and at a distance from that Principality who is supreme over the universe, and ignorant of him who is above all.”[15] After all, Cerinthus was from Ephesus, not Egypt, says Larry Crutchfield.[16] Undoubtedly, Cerinthus caused reason for Christians to be wary of his theology, and likewise, delving additionally into what he believed should help to further conclude whether or not he is the leader of the heresy being rebuked in First John.

First of all, there is fairly strong evidence for the biblical text to be in unison with what is known as Cerinthianism. Perhaps the clearest passage is First John 5:6-8 which states, “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.” The Bible Knowledge Commentary helpfully notes the following: “Cerinthus taught that the divine Christ descended on the man Jesus at His baptism and left Him before His crucifixion. Thus he denied that one Person, Jesus Christ, came by both water and blood.”[17] A second evidence is from church history, and recorded by Eusebius. Allegedly, the Apostle John himself fled from a bath house when he saw Cerinthus enter, “Fearing that the house would fall on the enemy of truth.”[18] If this incident was indeed genuine, then the possibility of John writing to correct Cerinthianism is rather significant.[19] On the other hand, there are also some troubles with this view.

The first problem is that John never mentions Cerinthus by name. While John does not identify by name certain men and women quite as often as the Apostle Paul, two men are mentioned in the book of Third John, Diotrephes (verse 9) and Demetrius (verse 12). Thus, John is clearly not opposed to pointing out people by name. Such an argument is more so from silence than it is by evidence. Nevertheless, it is something to consider. Another problem relates to the biblical text, namely, that the theology of Cerinthus does not appear to be altogether congruent with First John’s heresy. For example, this epistle mentions nothing about a heresy related to creation as Cerinthus proposed this world was formed “not by the supreme God, but either by a Demiurge, a far less exalted being, or by angels, who had produced it out of formless matter.”[20] Also, the claims of sinlessness as in chapter one of the biblical text or the practical implications of lacking love towards believers are not mentioned in historical literature to be authentically Cerinthian. On the contrary, the common elements of First John’s heresy consist of three things: a denial that Jesus is the Christ (chapters two and four), a claim to sinlessness (chapter one), and a lack of Holy Spirit empowered love towards believers (chapter four). While the first is true of the Cerinthian heresy, the latter two simply are not emphasized in available sources. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that the probability of John’s opponent being Cerinthianism is much greater than Gnosticism, though a sizeable amount of evidence is lacking for a sure answer.

Argument for Docetism

            A third possible option for identifying the opponents in First John is Docetism, a heresy that taught Jesus appeared to be a man in human flesh, though in actuality was not.[21] While the previous view, Cerinthianism, proposed a problematic view in relation to the union of the God-man (denying that Jesus, the man, was the Christ), Docetism is the denial of Jesus Christ’s humanity. Carson and Moo say, “Docetism asked, How can a spirit-being, ‘Christ’ or the ‘Son of God,’ good by definition, actually become flesh, which is evil by definition? Although such a spirit-being may temporarily assume it, it could never become it.”[22] The same authors also state, “Docetists so misconceived the true locus of evil that they fell into sin and puffed themselves up with Gnostic pride.”[23] While there is not a primarily leader to look to as the original founder of this heresy, much can be concluded by evaluating the theological implications of Docetism in relation to the biblical text as well as considering historical evidence of whom John is rebuking.

A couple of elements should be observed concerning Docetism’s relation to John’s epistle. (1) John clearly condemns one facet of the heresy of his opponents to be the denial of Jesus’ humanity: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”[24] Both Grudem[25] and Allison[26] cite this passage as a reference to the heresy of Docetism. (2) The pride stemming from their boasts of sinlessness, as mentioned in chapters one and three, matches that of the Docetists. Carson and Moo claim “Docetists so misconceived the true locus of evil that they fell into sin and puffed themselves up with Gnostic pride.”[27] The locus of evil Carson and Moo speak of relate to the dualistic beliefs of Docetism, namely that matter is evil and the only hope of salvation is through the escape of flesh via secret knowledge. Allison explains, “Docetism became part and parcel of Gnosticism, a complex group of movements that focused on a secret gnosis, or knowledge, that was reserved for the elite members of its sects.”[28] Exegetically, the opponents of First John align fairly well with the available information on Docetism. Next, it will also be a valuable endeavor to consider the historical implications pertaining to Docetism before evaluating some proposed objections.

Undoubtedly, the best source to consider in the study of anti-Docetic doctrine from the early second century is Ignatius of Antioch. In his letters, Ignatius frequently countered the proposed doctrines of Docetism.[29] The following statement appropriately summarizes Ignatius’s strong beliefs of the humanity of Christ: “He really was born, who both ate and drank; who really was persecuted under Pontius Pilate; who really was crucified and died…who, moreover, really was raised from the dead when his Father raised him up…But if, as some atheists (that is, unbelievers) say, he suffered in appearance only…why am I in chains? And why do I want to fight with wild beasts? If that is the case, I die for no reason.”[30] The question, then, that is inescapable is whether or not Ignatius had connections to the Apostle John. Trebilco helpfully guides the discussion henceforth:

Ignatius was the bishop of Antioch in Syria (Ign Rom. 2.2), where he was arrested and sent to Rome under armed guard (Ign Rom. 5.1). He probably traveled by ship from Antioch to a port on the southern coast of Asia Minor, although he could have gone by land. Ignatius passed through Philadelphia, where he met Christians from that community (Ign. Phld. 7.1). He then traveled to Smyrna where he got to know Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna and where he was visited by Christians from Ephesus, Magnesia, and Tralles, whom he had contacted to inform them of his journey. He then wrote letters to each of these communities in return, and also to the church in Rome. He then went on to Troas, and from there wrote to the churches of Philadelphia and Smyrna and also to Polycarp. We know that he was then taken to Philippi (Pol., Phil. 9.1); we do not know for certain that he was martyred in Rome, although we have no reason to doubt this.[31]

Evidently, it is quite conceivable that Ignatius, while in Asia Minor, either met John or at least encountered the same group of heretics mentioned in First John. Therefore, the possibility of John arguing against the same opponents as Ignatius is rather strong, especially when compiled together with the exegetical evidence.

However, there are some important objections to the Docetism view. Kruse presents the first of two problems: “Ignatius’s heretics were real docestics who reduced the existence of Jesus to mere semblance, and there is no evidence that the secessionists [opponents in First John] did this.”[32] While this is certainly a considerable dispute, the words in First John 4:2-3 are hard to reconcile with Kruse’s assertion: “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.”

Secondly, Kruse indicates, “Ignatius’s heretics had strong affinities with Judaism…and there is no hint in 1 John that the secessionists had such affinities.”[33] He goes on to quote Ignatius who states, “It is monstrous to talk of Jesus Christ and to practise Judaism. For Christianity did not base its faith on Judaism, but Judaism on Christianity, and every tongue believing on God was brought together in it.” By itself, Kruse’s reasoning makes for a solid argument. There is a problem to his view, however. In the available letters of Ignatius, he did not simply address one heresy (Docetism). While it is true that in his letter to the Magnesians, Ignatius addressed a problem related to Judaism[34], his specific rebuttal of Docetism was addressed in his letter to the Trallians.[35] Additionally, in his letter to Smyrna, Ignatius rebukes what seems to be Docetism. Ignatius claims, “For He suffered all these things for our sakes; and He suffered truly, as also He raised Himself truly; not as certain unbelievers say, that He suffered in semblance, being themselves mere semblance.”[36] The point is that Ignatius could possible have faced different heresies during his travels in Asia Minor. Therefore, it could cautiously be proposed that First John is speaking of the same heresy as combated by Ignatius in his letters to the Trallians and to the Smyrnaeans, but perhaps not the Magnesians.[37]


As manifested in this study, most conclusions are put forward hesitantly. After all, the evidence is quite limited in what questions it permits the student of the Bible to answer. Furthermore, an option that really was not given is that all three groups (Gnosticism, Cerinthianism, and Docetism) could be wrong. Often identified as a non-specific “proto-Gnostic” heresy, this fourth choice essentially rests on the assertion that second century Gnosticism had roots in the first century. Carson and Moo deduce, “The most plausible conclusion is that the movement was gaining strength when John wrote his epistles, and some of the contours of the particular form it took in this case can be hesitantly delineated from these letters.”[38] On the other hand, it could easily be interjected that Docetism is proto-Gnostic, or at least one branch of it rather than a non-specific proto-Gnostic community. The trouble with identifying these heresies is that the different proto-Gnostic sects did not have a formulated “confession of faith” or “creed” whereby all who identified themselves as “Cerinthian” or “Docetist” could stand autonomously in their beliefs. But in the end, it is fairly clear that Docetism, with its dualism and “secret knowledge” salvation, is inseparable from the proto-Gnosticism that predated the heretics opposed by, for example, Irenaeus in the second century. And while plenty has been said to prove against this thesis, still it seems most likely that Docetism is the heresy rebuked in First John based on exegetical, theological, and historical proof.

[1] Barry Clyde Joslin, “Getting Up to Speed: An Essential Introduction to 1 John,” SBJT, 10:3 (Fall 2006), 8-9. Exegetical evidence can be attributed to First John 1:8-10; 2:22, 26-27; 4:2.

[2] D.A. Carson and Douglas Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 680.

[3] John Hannah, Our Legacy (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2001), 369.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Robert Lightner, The Epistles of John & Jude (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2003), 175.

[6] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 687.

[7] See Joslin, “Getting Up to Speed,” 10.

[8] For example, First John 4:2 combats the heretical Gnostic teaching that flesh is inherently evil.

[9] Carson and Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 677.

[10] Ibid., 676.

[11] Joslin, “Getting Up to Speed,” 10.

[12] Carson and Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 679.

[13] Grant, R.M. Gnosticism and Early Christianity (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1959), 98.

[14] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, ed. by Phillip Schaff. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. [accessed April 20, 2013].

[15] Ibid.

[16] Larry V. Crutchfield, “The Apostle John And Asia Minor As A Source Of Premillennialism In The Early Church Fathers” JETS, 31:4 (Dec. 1988), 412.

[17] John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck and Dallas Theological Seminary, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985).

[18] Cited in F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 316.

[19] It should be noted that the story has been made public by the writings of Eusebius, though he did quote Irenaeus, and Irenaeus purportedly heard it from Polycarp, a disciple of John the Apostle. That, of course, covers decades of time. Nevertheless, it still stands as a strong evidence for the Cerinthian argument in regards to the opposition of First John. Cited from C. Hicks and M. Winter. “Cerinthus”. In Who’s Who in Christian History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992.

[20] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 316.

[21] The word Docetism comes from the Greek word dokeo which means “to seem, to appear to be.” See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 540.

[22] Carson and Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 679.

[23] Ibid.

[24] First John 4:2

[25] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 540.

[26] Gregg Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 366.

[27] Carson and Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 679.

[28] Allison, Historical Theology, 366.

[29] See Colin G. Kruse, The Letters of John (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 22.

[30] Cited in Allison, Historical Theology, 366. Originally from, though with updated language, Ignatius, Letter to the Trallians, eds. J.B. Lightfoot and J.R. Harmer (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988), 148.

[31] Paul Trebilco, “Christian Communities in Western Asia Minor Into the Early Second Century: Ignatius and Others as Witnesses Against Bauer,” JETS,  49:1 (Mar 2006), 19-20.

[32] Kruse, The Letters of John, 24.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ignatius, The Apostolic Fathers, 144-145.

[35] Ibid., 148-149.

[36] Ibid., 156-157.

[37] Or, to speculate even further, perhaps the heretics in Magnesia were centrally Docetic with a “flavor” of Jewish tendencies. Evidence, of course, simply is not conclusive.

[38] Carson and Moo, Introduction to the New Testament, 680.


3 thoughts on “Identifying the Opponents in First John

  1. Pingback: Ignatius of Antioch (Early Church Mini-Bio Series) | Refreshed by Mercy

  2. Pingback: Athanasius (Early Church Mini-Bio Series) | Refreshed by Mercy

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: Athanasius | Dr Tim White

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