I have just completed a reading of the first letter of John, which I started in bible blog 1958 and can be read in its entirety from my archive. I’ve just done that myself – to savour my genius as it were – and made the shameful discovery that it is full of contradictions. At one point I emphasise the wonderful fact that the holy community defines itself as sinners; at another I consider the proposition that believers cannot sin. In one place I commend the judgment that right action is more important than right doctrine; at another I criticise the modern church for being too permissive about doctrine. At some points I treat the letter as a source of profound teaching; at others I wonder if the authors are sectarian loopers. So what’s going on here apart from my own incompetence?
The truth is that my inconsistencies are those of the letter, which I was reading from start to finish, rather than providing a measured commentary based on an oversight of the letter. The contradictions which emerged are there in the text, blatantly present to any reader not blinded by a commentary which has harmonised them. I am not claiming that they cannot be harmonised, just that they exist and would puzzle any alert reader. For example, in chapter 1 the authors say that if we deny our sin we are liars, while in chapter 5 they assert that those who are born from God cannot sin. As I have indicated in my last blog I think the contradiction can be understood, but I had not reached that understanding when I first noticed it. I was reading the bible rather than studying it academically.
I think perhaps immodestly that this shows the virtue of reasonably disciplined bible reading, that it is confronted by the bare text to a degree that academic study is not. My motives for reading in this way are:
- It keeps me in touch with the roots of my tradition.
- It acquaints me with the original language and verbal expression of the biblical writers.
- It allows me to find my place in the various small narratives of the bible and also within the great overarching narrative from Genesis to Revelation.
- It challenges my understanding, my faith and my practice of the faith.
- Because I do it every day it pushes me to make sense of what I read in the context of the news of the world as I receive it.
- It feeds me because in its human fallibility it is God’s Word.
- It is my pleasure.
After this pause, I will resume my Bible Blog on Monday with a reading of the book of Ruth.