I like to provide my students with ‘maps’ of the NT books that we look at, giving an overview of the content, as it’s arranged in the book. So a couple of posts ago, I showed my current map of the book of James. But when it comes to 1 John, this sort of approach seems less fruitful, as the nature of the rhetoric doesn’t allow for a neat linear presentation. Though various structures of 1 John have been offered (perhaps most famously that of Law, who sees the book as progressing in three cycles), every attempt seems to come with some drawbacks.
So I Howard Marshall says (1978:26):
it seems preferable to regard the Epistle as being composed of a series of connected paragraphs whose relation to one another is governed by association of ideas rather than by a logical plan. this does not mean that John is illogical, but rather that his Epistle is not meant to be divided into large sections on a logical basis.
Colin Kruse similarly concludes (2000:31):
As a piece of epideictic rhetoric, 1 John, not surprisingly, lacks a clear structure. Instead it revisits the same themes over and over, each time amplifying them further. For this reason commentators have great difficulty describing the structure of the letter. Frequently one reads comments about the repetitive nature of the letter and its spiralling structure.
With this letter, then, I’ve found it more helpful to offer a conceptual map, rather than an overview of the arrangement of the book’s content. This conceptual map identifies the key characters, and illustrates the part they play in the letter: