The letter known as 1 John is attributed to the disciple who was closest to Jesus. The letter’s content may be considered, then, as being especially close to the heart of Jesus’ message. It has also been foundational for, and especially close to the heart of, the Quaker experience. Today, in our era of post-mythological thought, its teaching remains centrally important for vibrant Quaker faith and practice. For it is in that letter that the apostle makes the explicit identification of God and agapē — universal love — that can serve as the primary interpretive principle for post-theistic Friends in our reading of both scripture and the Quaker tradition.
In this essay I look at the letter’s fourth chapter, offering commentary from a contemporary Quaker perspective. I will suggest an exegesis that (1) applies the early Quaker hermeneutic, or principle of interpretation, that the most important sense of scripture is the inward; (2) applies that hermeneutic in a way that is respectful of the text yet does not require that the text’s mythological elements be true in a literal sense; and (3) does not posit that the scripture has a single meaning that can be accurately extracted, but recognizes that any exegesis, this one included, is shaped not only by a particular hermeneutical key, but also by the exegete’s conscious and unconscious assumptions, social-group influences, and more.
Although I may ultimately explore the entire epistle, I begin with the fourth chapter because that is where we find John’s definition of the nature or dynamic essence of God as agapē. That doctrine of God as love, which we find in verses 7 and following, should be kept in mind when the letter’s other chapters, including the preceding ones, are read — and, of course, as we read the first verses of this chapter as well.1
1 John 4
 Beloved, do not trust [Gk. pisteuete2] every spirit, but test whether spirits are of God, for many false prophets have come out into the world.
In that first verse, we learn that false prophets had already arisen during John’s lifetime, resulting in a need for discernment — judgment — of spirits. Centuries later, the first Friends would find themselves, as we do now, beset by divers worldviews and moral and religious teachings. They asked, as we do now, how human beings can distinguish what is of God — what deserves to be called “holy” and “good” — from the world’s unholy, harmful inspirations. How decide where to place our trust? How discern the nature of that which enters our hearts and minds? John presents his criterion in the next few verses. We will need to consider it carefully and generously, lest we, too, fall victim to deceptive prophets by allowing the world’s prejudice to dictate how we receive John’s text.
Before continuing to that criterion, however, I’ll take a moment to consider John’s phrase “of God” as it appears in this and other verses. Although in English it looks like a simple possessive, as if it could be replaced by “God’s,” in Greek it is a more complex construction, ek tou theou. We can render that literally as out of the god — as, as it were, an emission. The reproductive connotation is not unintentional here: one who is of God is begotten by God, sharing in the nature of Christ, the seed of the promise (see Galatians 3). Compare, for example, Jesus’ saying in John 8:42: “For I came forth and am coming from God” [ek tou theou exelthon kai heko], and John’s statement in John 1:13:
Yet to anyone who received him, to the ones trusting in his name, he gave the right of becoming offspring of God who were begotten not out of bloods, nor out of the will of flesh, nor out of human will, but out of God [ek theou].
John speaks in our epistle not only of the spirit of God (which, of course, is not essentially distinct from God) but also of spirits that are not of God, that are ek tou kosmou: begotten, as it were, of the world (and therefore not essentially distinct from it). Soon, in verse 4, John will say that we are of God because Christ lives in us. But if Christ lives in us, then we are, as Paul taught, no longer we, but a different kind of person.
I have been crucified together with Christ. I am no longer myself, but Christ is living in me. Now I am living in flesh yet living in the faith of the Son of God, the one loving me and giving himself for my sake. (Gal. 2:20)
“It is sown an animal-nature [psychikon, from psychē] body; it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15:44). Instead of being wholly of the nature of the world, the brute nature of violent selfishness, faithful people partake of the spiritual nature of God (2 Pet. 1:4), which, John will tell us, is agapē. That is to say, we are members of the body of Christ. As Paul says in that passage from Galatians, we live in the same faith, the same trust in divine love, in which Jesus lived (cf. Rom. 3:22).
What is the criterion for discernment of spirits? John begins to elucidate it in verse 2.
 You know the spirit of God by this: every spirit that affirms [homologei: literally, says the same thing] that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is of God,
English translations add the definite article “the” to the statement — the KJV, for example, has “every spirit that confesseth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh” — but that article is not in our Greek source. That small difference may be important: “the” can imply that John refers only to the discrete physical body of the historical Jesus. But if, as George Fox put it, “Christ is not distinct from his saints,”3 then the addition of the definite article may subtly change our sense of the passage’s possibilities. So we render it closely here: “every spirit that affirms that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is of God,” allowing for the possibility that it is also in our flesh that Christ dwells.
Note that it is every spirit [pneuma: spirit; influence; breath], not every human being [anthropos], that makes such affirmation. The inspirations of the animal-nature world are here contrasted with the inspirations of God, the Holy Spirit, whom “the world does not see or know, but whom you know, because he is with you and will live in you” (Jn. 14:17). The implication is that individual persons are inhabited by — which can also be described as inhabiting or living in, because essential unity is what is signified — one or another kind of spirit, one or another motivating power that is greater than, even if unacknowledged by, themselves. “Those who are joined to the Lord are one spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17) and are able to discern the true nature of all spirits.
Although previous generations were more apt to conceive of a spirit in mythological terms, as a personal entity (see, for example, Eph. 6:12), today we understand that all of us are inhabited and motivated by impersonal/suprapersonal forces, such as inherited temperament and social conditioning, that shape our thought, feeling, and behavior — right down to our sense of self. The following insight is from John Wisdom’s Philosophy and Psycho-analysis:4
[T]he very facts which make us feel that now we can recognize systems of superhuman, sub-human, elusive beings for what they are — the persistent projections of infantile phantasies — include facts which make these systems less fantastic. What are these facts? They are patterns in human reactions which are well described by saying that we are as if there were hidden within us powers, persons, not ourselves and stronger than ourselves.
Wisdom goes on to note, however, that
One thing not sufficiently realized is that some of the things shut within us are not bad but good.
Our scripture will point us to the ultimate good — indeed, the source of good — that dwells within: agapē. But first, John will lay the groundwork for our understanding of what he means by agapē. That may be especially helpful for us, whose language has one word, “love,” that can signify anything from universal human caring to the most trivial sentiments and thoroughly selfish attachments. John therefore consistently ties agapē to Jesus, whose life and death express the divine nature in which John calls us to live.
Continuing with his criterion for discernment, John makes an assertion that may be surprising:
 and every spirit that does not affirm that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is not of God; and this is the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
In verse 3 we learn not only that destructive spirits were acting in the name of Jesus, but that indeed the antichrist — the evil spirit that presents itself as Christ “so as to deceive even the elect” (Mat. 24:24) — had already appeared in the world. Later Christian doctrine would hold that the antichrist will come in the future, when our physical world comes to its end. But John has already told his readers that the presence in their world — the world of about 2,000 years ago! — of not just one but many antichrists tells them that “it is the final hour [eschate hora estin]” (1 Jn. 2:18). The people who lived in John’s day were living in the end time, the eschaton, the time of Christ’s return in glory as judge.
How can we make sense of that? The answer is revealed in the next verse.
 You are of God, little children, and you have overcome them, for greater is the one in you than the one in the world. [Emphasis added.]
“The one in the world” is the antichrist; “the one in you” is the real Christ. That assertion is consistent with the absence of the definite article in verses 2 and 3: if Christ is now alive in John’s addressees, then it is in their flesh that he has come.
 They are of the world [ek tou kosmou], and therefore their speaking is worldly, and the world listens to them.  We are of God [ek tou theou]: whoever knows God hears us, and whoever is not of God does not hear us. From this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of deception.
If “the one in the world” is antichrist, and if they,5 the false prophets, are of the world, then the spirit of the world which lives in them is the spirit of a false Christ. The world presents itself as true and good, but that presentation is a lie, for “the world” signifies the human experience as subliminally structured by self-interest.
By parallelism, John conveys that those who, despite their self-identification as members of Christ, are actually “of the world” are inhabited by the spirit of antichrist. Their words are, therefore, those of the evil spirit that pretends to be good. But we, who have been raised out of the spiritual death that is “the world,” know that their words are lies because they conflict with the words of the spirit of Christ in us, words which they ignore or deny. We judge their words through “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24) at work within us — in our flesh.
In his narrative book, John has Jesus say to people who cannot understand his teachings, “The one who is ek tou theou hears the declarations of God; therefore, you do not hear because you are not ek tou theou” (Jn. 8:47). Others who know God will, therefore, recognize God’s speaking in us. But what does it mean to know God? It cannot be simply to know about God: obviously, one can know about God and yet be of antichrist. Accordingly, in verse 6a John equates knowing God with being of God. Significantly, Paul’s letter to the Romans asserts that “that which may be known of God is manifest in them,” and Paul names that as God’s “power and divine nature” (1:19-20). We know God through participation in his nature and power: we are ek tou theou in that we are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), speaking and acting by divine inspiration.
What is that divine nature and power in which we participate? In the next verses, John will tell us explicitly that it is love — agapē in Greek, which signifies universal love, love that extends to helping even those who hate us. As that love animates us, we become “offspring of your Father in the heavens, whose sun rises on the good and the evil, and whose rain fails on the just and the unjust alike” (Mat. 5:45).
 Beloved ones, may we love each other, for love is of God [ek tou theou], and every loving one has been born of God and knows God.
Verse 7 begins with the wish that we love each other. Why should we do that? Not because it feels good — it may be very painful — nor even because it is a moral thing to do: we are invited to love “because love is of God”; that is, our loving is God’s loving in and through us. Agapic love is possible for those who have been “born of God,” who have received the divine nature in trust in the Christ — the power and wisdom of agapē — in their hearts. “Yet to anyone who received him, to the ones trusting in his name,6 he gave the right of becoming offspring of God.”
The concluding idea of verse 7, which is carried into verse 8, recalls the following passage from John’s narrative book:
… you give him authority of all flesh, that he should give eternal life to all those you have given to him. And this is the life eternal, that they may know you, the only true God, and him whom you send. (John 17:2-3).
If to know God is life eternal, and if “every loving one … knows God,” then every loving person has eternal life. Therein is the foundation of traditional Quaker universalism.
 Whoever is not loving does not know God, for God is love [ho theos agapē estin].
As we have already noted, one can know about God — one can, for example, memorize scripture or earn a doctorate in theology — and yet not know God. One can even have an intense experiential relationship with God and yet not know God. The only way to know God directly is to allow love to operate in us. (Thus Paul writes of “faith [pistis: trust] made operative through love” [Gal. 5:6]). For agapē is what God is, and love is known only participatorily.
Perhaps even more startling than John’s earlier assertions is verse 8’s direct identification of theos (God) and agapē. I’ll have more to say about that identity when we consider verse 16b, which reiterates it in a fuller context.
 In this was manifested the love of God in us, that God has sent his only-begotten son into the world so that we may live through him.
Here again the Quaker rendering diverges from the traditional, which has “In this was manifested the love of God toward us …” (KJV). The Greek word translated as “toward” in the KJV is en, which George Fox strongly preferred to render in English as “in.” In keeping with our Quaker reading of John’s theology, “in” locates agapē, the divine nature, within the living saints. God sent his son into the world, says John, so that we might live through him: we in him and he in us. Here and now.
 In this is love: not that we love God, but that he loves us and sends his son, propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loves us, then we should be loving one another.
As noun, “love” signifies the divine nature which we may receive in increasing measure as we learn to yield our own; as verb, it signifies the self-expression of that nature in action. By receiving the dynamic Christ-nature, we are freed from sin and for loving, because sin is the selfishness of unrepentant animal-nature. “To anyone who received him, he gave the right of becoming offspring of God,” and “all who are born of God … are unable to commit sin, because they are born of God” (1 Jn. 3:9). When we “witness the birth born of God which does not commit sin,”7 Christ, “the power of God and the wisdom of God,” is raised within us. To the extent that we are able to receive agapē‘s presence and power working in us, and not deny or repress it, we are loving persons — saints.
 No one has ever looked upon [tetheatai: contemplated; learned by looking] God: if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made perfect [or, mature] in us.
Verse 12 reinforces the teaching that knowledge of God is not knowledge about: one knows God not by looking or contemplating, for God cannot be made an object of knowledge, but by participating in God’s nature. And that nature is made perfect in us: note the passive voice. Just as we do not attain to love, but simply stop resisting it (and that under love’s promptings: theology speaks of grace), so we do not perfect the love that lives in us. Each person, says the Quaker tradition, begins with the gift of a measure of God’s agapic nature, the Christ-seed. The growth of that measure is the unfolding of love’s own fullness in those who trust in it. As George Fox wrote, “None are ploughed up but he who comes to the principle of God in him, which he hath transgressed. Then he doth service to God; then is the planting, watering, and increase from God.”8
 In this we know that we are living in him and he in us, that he has given to us of his spirit [ek tou pneumatos autou].
If we are living in agapē, we partake of the spirit of God — not as a possession, but as the nature of our being-in-the-world. Recall for a moment verses 2 and 3:
You know the spirit of God by this: every spirit that affirms that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not affirm that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is not of God, and this is the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
Combining those with verses 12 and 13, we see that the text suggests an equivalence: when we love, God lives in us (v. 12); when God lives in us, we partake of his spirit (v. 13); and “every spirit that affirms that Jesus Christ has come in flesh is of God” (v. 2). That equivalence becomes even more pronounced when we compare verse 15, following, with verse 12.
 And we have seen [tetheametha] and are witnessing that the Father has sent the Son savior of the world.  Whoever affirms that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.
To affirm that Jesus is the Son of God is, then, to live in agapē, and to live in agapē is to affirm that Jesus is the Son of God come in flesh. That is another of the letter’s startling implications, one that will echo in verse 16b.
But we should not pass over verse 14 without comment. Note that the verse’s first verb, tetheametha, is used also in verse 12. If knowledge that God “has sent the Son savior of the world” is knowledge about God, it is not the same as knowledge of God through partaking of God’s agapē-nature. To obtain conceptual knowledge through sense experience is one thing, but to affirm by living in Christ is another. To see the divinity of love in Jesus is but the first step. To recognize the seed of that divine love present in oneself is the next. One then witnesses by living love, by allowing Christ to perfect his being in one’s flesh. One’s life then speaks from its “new” nature, Christ.
[16a] And we have known and trusted the love which God has in us.
Again, a Quaker reading prefers to render en as “in,” whereas in this case a traditional translation would have “to” or “for”: “the love that God hath to us” (KJV). But “in” is more consistent with the context. We encounter the divine nature, which we recognize as that which lived in Jesus, in the working of its power within us, and having thus encountered it we put our faith in it.
[16b] God is love [ho theos agapē estin], and whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them.
John again makes the direct identification of God and agapē. He neither equivocates nor predicates. As the context helps make clear, the construction ho theos agapē estin is functionally equative: it asserts not that love is a property or attribute of God, which would be to say that God possesses and exercises love, but that God is love. “God” and “love” are made synonymous. Given that the Christian God is regarded as having attributes, “God is love” must refer, as has been understood since early on,9 to God’s essential nature. (That is not to say that the divine nature is abstract or static: we’ll return to that in the excursus below).
As we noted above, John’s parallelism is striking, too. Verse 16’s “whoever lives in love lives in God and God lives in them” not only confirms the identity of God and love; it also reiterates that living in love is equivalent to verse 15’s “affirm[ing] that Jesus is the Son of God.” To do the former is to do the latter. Again we see in this letter the basis of Quaker universalism.
In the section that concludes our chapter, John concentrates on practical effects of living in God.
 The love with us has been made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, in this way: that as he is, so are we in this world.  There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out fear, because fear is related to punishment. Whoever fears is not yet perfected in love.
Verse 17 contains yet another expression of the astonishing doctrine that George Fox would express as “Christ is not distinct from his saints”: “as he is, so are we in this world.” Attributes normally predicated of God, such as omniscience, cannot be added to us, but we can partake of the divine nature itself. In agapē, we are in essence divine; that is, loving. We know God by participation in “that which may be known of God … namely, his power and divine nature.” The power of which Paul wrote is not, then, the force of dominance but the “weak” power of love: “And he has declared to me, ‘My grace suffices for you, for my power is being perfected in weakness'” (2 Cor. 12:9a).
The power of God, perfected in our weakness, is Christ, the agapē in and through which we live (or, which lives in and through us: not distinct.) Christ, as William Blake memorably put it, is forgiveness. In the Christian story, God frees us from sin, raises us from spiritual death, by joining the human and the divine: “In this was manifested the love of God in us, that God has sent his only-begotten son into the world so that we may live through him” (v. 9). Living the agapic life, life in and through the spirit that inhabited Jesus completely (“not out of a measure”: Jn. 3:34; cf. Col. 2:9), we find redemption from sin; i.e., patterns of self-centeredness are broken by the power of love. That is why loving God and loving others are not distinct. And that is why “perfect love casts out fear.”
 We love him because he first loves us.  Those who say that they love God but are hating their brother or sister are liars, for if they do not love the brother or sister whom they have seen, how can they love the God whom they have not?  And this is the direction that we have from him: that the one who is loving God be loving his brother and sister as well.
Verse 19 harks back to verse 10’s, “In this is love: not that we love God, but that he loves us.” We can know what agapē is because God manifests his nature in the human life and death of Jesus; we can know it directly in participation in that life and power within our hearts. Receiving love, the gift of himself, from God, we can recognize and unite with his/its working in us. Whoever receives that gift of divine life is of the nature of love, because love dissolves self-absorption. If, therefore, we are not loving brother and sister, then for us “loving God” really means lying or being deluded about loving the unregenerate self as God. And to lie about God, to present self-love as agapē, is to be a false prophet, an antichrist.
As Jesus taught, agapic love is an active caring for the other’s basic needs, whether or not we find the person congenial. If “that which can be known of God” is the divine nature and its power, then from the human (mythological or theopoetical) perspective it makes sense to say that the basic need of God is to share his nature with those he loves. We love God, then, by “receiving” his agapic nature and allowing it to animate and guide us. When we do so, we live in agapē as agapē lives in us; we are “as he is in this world”; we are the imago Dei, the human face of divine love, the body of Christ in the world.
 The scriptures were not originally divided into chapters and verses. The chapter divisions date to the 13th century and the verse divisions to the 16th, and they can be tendentious and misleading. As Don Stewart advises, “The first step in Bible interpretation is to ignore the modern chapter and verse divisions.” Capitalization and punctuation are also arbitrary; as The Aquila Report tells us, “The earliest Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters (called uncials), and were written without spaces between the words but with some punctuation, though the punctuation seems not to have been used consistently.”
 Pisteuete is a form of pistis, which signifies trust, faith, belief — primarily in the sense of trusting faith, as when one person can say to another, “I believe in you.” “[P]istis does not mean ‘to recognize as true,'” according to Georgio Agamben’s philological analysis in his The Time That Remains (p. 113). See also A. Katherine Grieb’s explanation, quoted in my post “A Quaker Reading of John 4:1-42”.
 See, for example, George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded, Works Vol. 3, 1831 ed., pp. 291-292.
 John Wisdom, Philosophy and Psycho-analysis (1969), p. 166.
 For an interesting discussion of the “they,” see Graham Harmon, Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing (2007), p. 67.
 “[T]he name of Christ consists not of letters and syllables, but in righteousness, mercy and judgment, &c.”: James Nayler, Weakness above Wickedness and Truth above Subtlety (originally published in 1656). From The Works of James Nayler, Vol. 3 (Glenside, Pennsylvania: Quaker Heritage Press, 2007), p. 458.
 George Fox, The Great Mystery of the Great Whore Unfolded, Works Vol. 3, 1831 edition, p. 89.
 “An exhortation to Friends in the ministry.” George Fox, Works Vol. 1, 1831 edition, pp. 287-289. Available on line at http://books.google.com/books?id=BU5mGfV-XD8C.
 See, for example, Augustine of Hippo’s statement in his On the Trinity that “Love … is of God and is God ….” Augustine also wrote, “where the Holy Spirit is called Love, is to be found by careful scrutiny of the language of John the apostle, who, after saying, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God,’ has gone on to say, ‘And every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love.’ Here, manifestly, he has called that love God, which he said was of God; therefore God of God is love . . . .”
 Karen H. Jobes, 1, 2, & 3 John, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, pp. 190-191. Jobes is Hawthorne Professor of New Testament Greek and Exegesis at Wheaton College.
 Ibid., p. 191.
 Ibid., p. 198.
 R. W. L. Moberly, “Test the Spirits,” in Stanton, Longenecker, and Barton, eds., The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins: Essays in Honor of James D. G. Dunn (2004), pp. 305-306.
 Ludwig Feuerbach, The Essence of Christianity (2nd edition, 1881), p. 14: “All the attributes of the divine nature are … attributes of the human nature.”
 See John 1. Reading Jobes’s comment that the syntax of the ho theos agapē estin statement does not permit reversal, I was reminded of the first verse of John’s “gospel” book: kai theos En ho logos, which literally translates to “and God was the Word” but which is always rendered “and the Word was God.”
 That love is the inner life of the Trinity is classic Catholic theology, dating back to Augustine and Aquinas and continuing in contemporary times, as in this from Pope John Paul II’s Dominum et Vivificantem: “In his intimate life, God ‘is love,’ the essential love shared by the three divine Persons ….”
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Act and Being,” quoted in Kelly and Nelson, eds., A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1995), p. 67.