John uses the first person singular (I) and second person plural (you) as the primary means of addressing his readers (e.g., 2:1, 2-8, 12-14, 5:13), which would seem like the normal way to write a letter to a group. But he also uses the third person singular and plural (he/they) to describe the impostors, or false brethren (1:4; 2:4, 9-11, 19, 26). The first person plural (we) is used in a collective sense, literally and hypothetically, to describe John and the believers as a group (1:6-10; 3:1-2, 14; 4:13-14, 19). When we see this interchange between person and number we can easily understand John’s meaning.
But John uses the third person plural in a way that evokes one of my dad’s favorite questions: Who’s we–you got a ______ in your pocket? Far from being a dry grammatical exercise, the answer to the question of John’s meaning is crucial to understanding test number three–the doctrinal test.
John opens his epistle with a reference to himself and others (we) who had been present during Christ’s earthly ministry and had seen, heard, and touched those things concerning the word of life (1:1-5). There is nothing hypothetical or editorial in the language: John is giving a collective testimony to the truth of the gospel and reality of Jesus Christ. He includes himself and his fellow eyewitnesses. This can only refer to the witness of the apostles, who were commissioned to tell the world of what they had seen and heard from the Lord. So strong and authoritative was their testimony that John was able to tell his readers that:
They are of the world. Therefore they speak as of the world, and the world hears them. We are of God. He who knows God hears us; and he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (4:5-6).
These verses state the doctrinal test in a nutshell. So binding is this apostolic witness that John tells his readers not to extend hospitality to anyone who shows up preaching any other message (2 John 9-11). Paul says that anyone preaching any other gospel is to be placed under the divine curse (Galatians 1:8-9). The writer of Hebrews fearfully warns us of the danger of drifting away from the apostolic message (Hebrews 2:1-4). In those days there were living apostles present to arbitrate and clarify doctrine. Today we have the testimony of the apostles deposited in the New Testament writings–all of which were either written by an apostle or a close associate of the apostles.
How the doctrinal test is to be used varies with each situation. For example in Galatians the test was around the issue of justification. There Paul assures his readers that the gospel he preached to them was not from man, but was the result of a revelation made to him by Christ. Then he goes on to defend the doctrine of justification by faith alone as the litmus test of the false teachers infecting the churches with heresy. In 1 John we see the doctrinal test applied in the area of Christology. The liar and antichrist is he who denies that Jesus is the Christ (2:22). In denying that Jesus was the anointed one predicted in the Old Testament scriptures they are denying his deity. But the false teachers also deny the humanity of Jesus (4:1-3). Denial of either the full divinity or humanity of Christ is a failure of the doctrinal test.
When we survey early church history we see that the great doctrinal debates were over the nature of Christ and the trinity. The early confessions, such as the Nicene Creed, reflect this concern. A few years later the controversy centered around the doctrines of sin and salvation, and Augustine championed the apostolic doctrines in his refutation of the heresy of a British monk named Pelagius. Today we apply the doctrinal test when we deal with cultists who deny salvation by faith alone, the deity of Christ, His substitutionary atonement, and bodily resurrection. In denying these apostolic doctrines they are denying the true gospel and by so much are placing themselves outside the pale of authentic Christianity.
Here is one example of why the doctrinal test is so important today. Many Christians are getting mixed up in political zealotry. They hear popular leaders like Glenn Beck call themselves Christians and talk about their faith in Christ. Beck and others like him espouse family values, honesty, and morality. Gullible evangelicals assume that these men must be brothers in Christ based on this as well as the fact that they are conservatives. Not too long ago I saw popular author and television preacher Joel Osteen on Piers Morgan. Morgan talked about how many evangelicals are suspicious of Mitt Romney because he is a mormon, and some have even referred to him as a cultist. Then he point-blank asked Osteen if he thought Romney was a fellow believer. Osteen stammered and hem-hawed a bit, but Morgan nailed him down. Finally, Osteen sheepishly said something to this effect: Well, Piers, aaah just don’t feel Chrast has called me to judge the man. Aah believe in Chrast and he says he believes in Chrast, so who am aah to judge. Aah accept him as mah brother in Chrast. Bottom line–Osteen is a spineless wimp or a biblical ignoramus–take your pick. Romney and Beck as committed mormons fail the doctrinal test.
However, a final caution is in order. The doctrinal test applies only in those core issues on which the gospel hinges. Applying the doctrinal test in peripheral areas like eschatology, the mode and subjects of baptism, and the filling and gifts of the spirit is an exercise in hair-splitting that needlessly divides true believers. As staunch a Calvinist as I am, I would never go as far as some and say Arminians are not true believers. Now I do believe Arminians are out to lunch theologically when it comes to the so-called doctrines of grace, but with respect to the apostolic witness to Christ and the gospel we are on common ground.
I will have more to say about the doctrinal test in my next entry.