St. John’s letters are numbered among the New Testament epistles commonly referred to as the Catholic epistles. But it would seem that his first letter, in particular, is far from Catholic.
For example, he seems to teach the Protestant doctrine of the inner testimony of the Spirit and deny the need for a magisterium (a living, teaching authority): “You have no need that any one should teach you; as his anointing teaches you about everything” (1 John 2:27).
Further, he apparently affirms the Protestant doctrine that a person can have certain knowledge of his salvation: “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).
Have Catholics been wrong all this time in calling it a Catholic epistle? Should Catholics retract and start calling it a Protestant epistle?
Here’s why not.
Just me and the Holy Spirit
Let’s take 1 John 2:27 for starters.
We know John can’t be rejecting a living, teaching authority, because three verses earlier he instructed his readers to “let what you heard from the beginning abide in you” and “if what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you will abide in the Son and in the Father” (1 John 2:24). If John meant for Christians to follow only the testimony of the Spirit—which is what he refers to when he speaks of “the anointing” in verse 27—then he would be contradicting himself here in verse 24. The instruction to let what they’ve heard abide in them implies they received instruction from men.
Another reason we know John is not rejecting the need for a magisterium is because, two chapters later, he instructs his readers that listening to the apostles is the criterion for discerning the spirit of truth from the spirit of error: “We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (1 John 4:6).
For John, adherence to the living body of teaching officials—namely, the apostles—is the assured means for obtaining the purity of truth without the admixture of error. Moreover, John makes clear that union with God is contingent on union with and obedience to the Church.
Magisterium or body of believers?
Now, one might object, “The us that John refers to is not to be taken distinctively. It doesn’t necessarily mean a body of teaching officials. It is to be understood in a non-distinctive way as referring to the whole of the Christian community.”
But even if one takes the non-distinctive interpretation, it still necessarily involves the body of teaching officials. Why? According to Matthew 18:15-17, one is not a part of the Christian community, the whole of the universal Church, unless he adheres to the official teaching of the magisterium. The preaching and teaching of the Christian Church as a whole is contingent upon the preaching and teaching of this living teaching authority. So, even if the “us” refers to the whole Christian community, the teaching of the Christian community necessarily involves the body of teaching officials.
If John is not affirming the Protestant idea that all we need to know God’s truth is the testimony of the Spirit, then what does he mean?
The context reveals that John is warning his readers against false teachers: “They went out from us, but they were not of us” (1 John 2:19). If there are false teachers, that implies there are true teachers that Christians ought to listen to. The Spirit, or “the anointing,” teaches Christians the truth, but through the living teaching authority and not apart from them.
As the council fathers stated at the first council in Jerusalem, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things” (Acts 15:28, emphasis added). This is why John can teach in 1 John 4:6 that adherence to the Church is the condition for being united to God.
We can know we’re saved
Okay, maybe John isn’t manifesting his Protestantism in 1 John 2:27, but surely he believes the Protestant doctrine that we can have certain knowledge of our salvation: “I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13). It doesn’t get anymore Protestant than that, right?
Uh, not exactly. Notice in the next verse (14) John writes, “And this is the confidence which we have in him” (emphasis added). This is a clue to the type of knowledge we have of our salvation. It’s not a metaphysical certainty (no doubt whatsoever), as Protestants believe, but a confident assurance, which is the Catholic belief.
This interpretation is further supported by the fact that John draws a parallel between our knowledge of salvation and our knowledge that God grants our requests. Based on our knowledge that God hears our prayers, John concludes in verse 15, “We know that we have obtained the requests made of him” (emphasis added). The Greek word for “know,” oida, is the same word John used in verse 13 when he spoke of Christians knowing they are saved.
Now, do we have absolute certitude that God will grant our requests? Of course not! Anybody who has ever petitioned God for something knows we don’t get everything we ask for. The knowledge we have of God answering our petitions is one of confidence and not metaphysical certainty.
Similarly, our knowledge that we are saved is one of confident assurance and not absolute certitude. As St. Paul says, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted” (1 Cor. 4:4). Paul is confident he is free from the guilt of mortal sin and thus in a state of grace, but refrains from making a definitive judgment on the matter. If Paul doesn’t think he can make a definitive judgment on the state of his soul, then why should we think we could do so for ours?
The only way I could be absolutely certain that I am currently in a state of grace or that I will persevere to the end and go to heaven is if God reveals it to me. But I haven’t found any passage in the Bible saying, “Karlo is in a state of grace” or “Karlo is going to heaven,” nor have I yet had any private visits from Jesus.
So, as it is regarding 1 John 2:27, to conclude John is affirming a Protestant belief in 1 John 5:13 is a misinterpretation of the text.
Catholics can rest assure that they don’t have to change their ways. There is no need to teach the old dog new tricks. John’s first letter was, is, and always will be a Catholic epistle written by a Catholic, to Catholics, within the context of a Catholic community.