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Sunday, 26 October 2014

Like Father, like Son: ambiguous pronouns in 1 John

One feature that strikes any reader of the First Epistle of John is what Lieu calls "the frequent ambiguity as to whether 'he' (autos) refers to God or to Jesus."1 Smith similarly notes that "in 1 John there is often a question of which, the Father or the Son, is the antecedent. This is a perennial and difficult problem".2 The problem is difficult, not only for the lay reader, but also for academic scholars. Griffith observes that "the use of pronouns in 1 John is often so ambiguous that commentators are frequently divided as to whether Jesus or God is the referent".3

The following is a list of pronouns whose referent is grammatically ambiguous. That is, in each case below the antecedent of the pronoun (translated 'he', 'him' or 'his') could, grammatically speaking, be either the Father or the Son. All phraseology is taken from the ESV.

Reference in
1 John
Phrase
Grammatically possible antecedents
1:5
the message we have heard from him
“the Father” (v. 3) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
1:9
he is faithful and just to forgive us
“God” (v. 5) or “Jesus his Son” (v. 7)
1:10
we make him a liar, and his word is not in us
“God” (v. 5) or “Jesus his Son” (v. 7)
2:5
whoever keeps his word...by this we may know that we are in him
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:6
whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:8
which is true in him and in you
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:12
your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
2:13
him who is from the beginning
No antecedent; could refer to the Son or the Father
2:14
him who is from the beginning
No antecedent; could refer to the Son or the Father
2:25
the promise that he made to us
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
2:27
the anointing that you received from him…his anointing teaches you…abide in him
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24) (cf. “the Holy One” in v. 20)
2:28
abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
2:29
he is righteous…everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
3:1
the world…did not know him
“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:2
when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:3
everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:5
he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:6
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
3:16
he laid down his life for us
“the Son of God” (v. 8) or “God” (vv. 9, 10)
3:19
reassure our heart before him
“the Son of God” (v. 8) or “God” (v. 17)
3:23
just as he has commanded us
“God” (v. 21) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23)
3:24
his commandments
“God” (v. 21) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23)
3:24
the Spirit whom he has given us
“his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23) or “God” (v. 24)
4:4
he who is in you
No antecedent; could refer to God or Jesus
4:17
as he is so also are we in this world
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 16)
4:19
We love because he first loved us
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 16)
4:21
this commandment we have from him
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 20)
5:14
And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us
“God” (v. 11) or “the Son of God” (v. 13)
5:15
And if we know that he hears us…the requests that we have asked of him
“God” (v. 11) or “the Son of God” (v. 13)
5:20
He is the true God and eternal life
“him who is true” (v. 20) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 20)

In each case we can try to resolve the referent of the ambiguous pronoun exegetically by making recourse to the immediate and wider context. However, there are a number of cases which are very difficult to resolve, or where the resolution that seems most likely exegetically is staggering theologically. A case in point is "born of him" in 1 John 2:29. On the one hand, the birth imagery and the reference to "children of God" in 3:1 would seem to make it quite clear that "him" refers to the Father. On the other hand, it would be very odd grammatically if the pronoun had a different referent that those in v. 28, where "when he appears" and "not shrink from him in shame at his coming" seem rather plainly to refer to the Son. Again, in 3:2 and 3:5 "when he appears" and "he appeared to take away sins" would seem theologically to refer to the Son, as is explicit in 3:8. However, grammatically the nearest antecedent for these pronouns is "the Father" or "God" in 3:1; the Son has not been explicitly mentioned since 2:24!

Moreover, theologically speaking, "By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us" (3:16) would seem certainly to refer to the Son, but the nearest antecedent is "God" (vv. 9-10), and it is God's love that is mentioned in 3:17.4 Again, in 2:12 and 5:14, grammatically and contextually the more likely antecedent is the Son, but in both cases the Christological implications would then be staggering. For the Christological implications of 2:12, see here; 5:14 would have Christ hearing prayer that is offered according to his will.

Our main purpose here, however, is not to try to resolve the referent of each ambiguous pronoun, or to tease out the theological implications of the individual cases, but rather to reflect on the theological significance of the overall pattern that we see. This pattern is, namely, that John often uses ambiguous personal pronouns which could refer either to the Father or the Son. There are several possible explanations of this phenomenon:

1) John is an unskilled and sloppy writer.
2) John does not always bother to specify the referent of his pronouns because in his mind the Father and Son are indistinguishable.
3) John does not always bother to specify the referent of his pronouns because in his mind the Father and Son are essentially equal despite being distinct persons.

Option 1) can be ruled out since one does not observe such ambiguity in the use of pronouns in the Fourth Gospel or in 2 John and 3 John,5 which are all generally regarded as being the work of the same author. Option 2) can likewise be ruled out since, as Michaels has observed, in spite of the ambiguity about antecedents, 1 John makes "a clear distinction between Father and Son".6 This can be seen in the frequent references to "the Son of God" (3:8, 4:15, 5:5, 5:10, 5:12-13, 5:18?, 5:20) or "his Son" (1:7, 3:23, 5:9-10, 5:20), as well as statements which affirm the Father and Son together (1:3, 2:1, 2:22-24, 4:9, 4:14, 5:20).

Thus Option 3) is the most likely explanation. In John's mind, the Father and Son, although distinct, are virtually synonymous in role and function in relation to believers. This raises the question of whether John's theology led him to use ambiguous pronouns unconsciously, or whether the ambiguity represents an intentional rhetorical strategy on his part. In either case, the ambiguous pronouns could be seen as the working out in practice of some of the high Christological statements in John's Gospel. These include the reference to Jesus "making himself equal with God" (John 5:18), the claims "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) and "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), and the affirmation that Jesus is "God" (John 1:18;7 20:28). Commenting on the ambiguity in 1 John 2:5, Jobes writes:
The ambiguity of the antecedent of 'his word' (autou ton logon), whether God or Christ, continues here. Although we have argued above that Christ is the likely referent, John's Christology, which understands the Son and the Father to be one (John 10:30), would allow God as the referent as well.8
If the use of ambiguous pronouns represents an intentional theological move on John's part, then it is possible to see 1 John 5:20 as the culmination of this pattern. In that case, there can be no doubt that "He is the true God and eternal life" is at least partially a Christological statement. While scholars debate whether God or his Son is the antecedent of the pronoun here, Jobes rightly states that "Even if 'Christ' is not the explicit antecedent, John's logic requires this to be a statement of Jesus' deity...For by John's statement, to be 'in the True One' means to be 'in Jesus Christ'".9 Similarly, Griffith argues on the basis of the frequent ambiguous pronouns that "There is nothing in 1 John that precludes the identification of Jesus with the true God".10

Besides the ambiguous pronouns in 1 John, one should also notice the ambiguous referent of "the Holy One" in 1 John 2:20. In this instance, a case can be made for identifying the Father, the Son or even the Spirit as the referent. In support of "the Holy One" being God is the common use of this title for God in the Old Testament (see particularly Proverbs 9:10 and 30:3, where the concern with 'knowledge' is similar to 1 John 2:20; also 2 Kings 19:22; Job 6:10; Psalm 78:41; 89:18; 106:16; frequently in Isaiah; Jeremiah 50:29; 51:5; Ezekiel 39:7; Hosea 11:9, 12; Habakkuk 3:3). In support of "the Holy One" being Christ is the occasional use of this term as a Christological title in the New Testament, including by John (Mark 1:24, Luke 1:35?; Luke 4:34; John 6:69; Acts 3:14; Revelation 3:7). Finally, one might interpret "the Holy One" to refer to the Spirit, as Jobes does.11 Certainly the anointing has to do with the Spirit, and the Spirit is emphatically personified in John's Gospel (ch. 14-16). While the adjective hagios is nowhere else used absolutely of the Spirit in the New Testament, it is of course the most common adjective used to describe the Spirit, and is used of the Spirit by John (1:33; 14:26; 20:22). If the latter view is correct, this epistle would arguably reflect a nascent Trinitarian view of God.

However one understands the referents of the individual ambiguous pronouns scattered throughout the epistle, they collectively testify to a highly developed Christology in which the Father and the Son and their soteriological roles can be interchanged seamlessly. The writer has evidently taken to heart the teaching of his Gospel "that all may honour the Son, just as they honour the Father" (John 5:23).


1 Lieu, J. (2008). I, II & III John: A Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press, p. 215.
2 Smith, D.M. (2008). The Historical Figure of Jesus in 1 John. In J.R. Wagner, C.K. Rowe & A.K. Grieb (Eds.), The Word leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays. (pp. 310-324). Eerdmans, p. 313.
3 Griffith, T. (2002). Keep yourself from idols: A new look at 1 John. T&T Clark, p. 75.
4 The KJV translators chose to add the elliptical words 'of God' in 3:16, making explicit their view that God was the one who laid down his life for us.
5 Note, however, the ambiguous reference to 'the name' in 3 John 7. This is a remarkable turn of phrase inasmuch as Jesus is the most likely referent, but is not otherwise mentioned in this epistle! Like 1 John 2:12, this is evidence of how highly regarded the name of Jesus was in the early church (Acts 4:12; Philippians 2:9-10; Hebrews 1:4). It has taken over the function that the ineffable name of YHWH played in the Old Testament.
6 Michaels, J.R. (2005). Catholic Christologies in the Catholic Epistles. In R.N. Longenecker (Ed.), Contours of Christology in the New Testament. (pp. 268-291). Eerdmans, p. 287.
7 Following the two most respected critical texts of the Greek New Testament, UBS5 and NA28, both of which read monogenes theos rather than monogenes huios.
8 Jobes, K.H. (2014). 1, 2, & 3 John. Zondervan, p. 84.
9 Jobes, op. cit., pp. 241-242.
10 Griffith, op. cit.
11 Jobes, op. cit., p. 127.

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