"First, Second and Third John" by George L. Parsenios. A Review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sometimes, as they say, dynamite comes in small packages. Three of the shorter books of the New Testament, 1, 2, and 3 John, are that way. At first their small size gives the impression that they can’t contain much of significance – especially 2 and 3 John, each of which are only one page in length – yet once one dives into them attentively it becomes quickly obvious that there is more here than first meets the eye. Then if a student of the Scriptures will pick up a commentary on those three, their depths and enormities become clearer. George L. Parsenios, associate professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary and sessional professor of New Testament at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, has recently penned a 208 page paperback commentary on these three New Testament writings. It has recently been published in the Paideia Commentary series at BakerAcademic. The treatise is a fairly technical work, and having some background in New Testament Greek and Greek grammar will help, though it is not completely essential.

Parsenios comes at these three works, coupled with the Gospel according to John, from the position that they are the product of either the same singular author or authorial group. Throughout the commentary he addresses the problems scholars have in seeing them as having common authorship, explaining carefully and clearly why he sees otherwise.  Pasenios also perceives that 1, 2 and 3 John are “interpretations of the Gospel of John” (18). Therefore, in his view, the original writer is/writers are taking some aspects of John and applying those to particular scenarios within the community written to. As the author puts it, “The view adopted in this commentary is that these letters represent one side in a struggle over the proper meaning of the Gospel of John ( . . . ). In these letters, the heirs of the Johannine tradition are contending over a theological tradition that they share in common” (17). And then in multiple places he gives well thought-out explanations from the text that backs up his working model.

In “First, Second and Third John” the author takes the approach that the rhetoric used in the three letters is not mere rhetoric, but is addressing “a profound crisis” and the members of the communities to which they’re written “do not share the author’s sense of immediacy,” therefore the tone of each letter is meant “to jar them into greater awareness,” to combat “developing errors,” and to immunize the communities “against being infected by error” (35). The error was both doctrinal and damaging. On the doctrinal side, the error appears to have been in the realm of Christology which triggered the damage to the fellowship: those in error acted on their error by leaving the fellowship of the faithful. Therefore to “leave the fellowship of the community is not to choose an equally viable option but to choose a false community” (37). The two problems go together. The writer of the three letters appears to connect “inclusion in the proper community with adherence to the proper faith, and both are necessary for fellowship with God” (Ibid.).

Parsenios breaks 1 John out into five sections: 1.1-4 is the prologue; 1.5-2.11 the contrast between light and darkness; 2.12-3.10 unpacks who are the children of God; 3.11-4.21 explains love for God and love for one another; and 5.1-21 is about testimony and witness. The author explains and sensibly reasons out his motives for breaking 1 John into these segments. Also, he concludes each of these sections, along with his comments on 2 and 3 John, with “Theological Issues” where he picks up one important theme and teases it out in fuller detail. The structural approach in “First, Second and Third John” makes the commentary very user-friendly and manageable for sermon preparation, devotional reading, and academic study.

If there is any disappointment with the author’s work it will likely be in the way he seems to run out of steam toward the end of each section. For example, on the chapter tackling 1 John 2.12-3.10 he spends 15 pages helpfully and masterfully working on the introductory material, and the first 16 verses. But then over the next four pages he hurriedly surfs over the final 12 verses, leaving off answering questions that are raised by these verses (2.28-3.10), or barely tipping the hat to them and running off to the “Theological Issues”. This happens in almost every division of the commentary, and was not only frustrating but disappointing. If the author had spent as much ink and insight on the latter portions of each chapter as he did on the earlier, it would have bolstered the quality of this commentary and likely have made it a standard in New Testament studies.

Overall, Parsenios’s commentary on 1, 2 and 3 John is a useful work. If a preacher or Bible class teacher is looking to present a series of lessons and sermons on these New Testament letters, this commentary would add some quality insights and observations. If you’re looking for a readable resource for those three letters, this would be a great place to begin. I recommend the book.

My thanks to BakerAcademic for the temporary use of the e-copy of this commentary used for my review.


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