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Showing posts with label Johannine. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Johannine. Show all posts

Friday 5 January 2024

Jesus Christ as True God in 1 John 5:20

1. Introduction
2. Syntactical Considerations
3. Contextual Considerations
 3.1. The True God in Scripture
 3.2. Jesus as "true," "life," and "God" in Johannine Literature
 3.3. The Unity of Father and Son in Johannine Literature
4. Conclusion

1. Introduction 

20 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. 21 Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

So reads 1 John 5:20-21 (NRSV). The final sentence of v. 20, however, immediately raises a question in the reader's mind: who is the true God and eternal life? The answer to this question is disputed among New Testament scholars. However, the majority view is that this statement is about Jesus. As Hills explains,
Considerations of grammar suggest that the οὗτος in 5:20f refers back to its immediate antecedent, i.e., to "Jesus Christ" in v 20e, and on this and other grounds the majority of modern scholars with more or less confidence holds that the statement "this is the true God and eternal life" is a christological affirmation.1
What are the considerations that lead most scholars to conclude that this statement is about Jesus? In this article we will look at the syntax of the verse and situate it against the broader context of 1 John and the other Johannine literature.

In Greek, following the NA28 critical text, 1 John 5:20 reads (with clause f in bold, and transliteration beneath),
οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἥκει καὶ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν, ἵνα γινώσκωμεν τὸν ἀληθινόν, καὶ ἐσμὲν ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος. 
oidamen de hoti ho huios tou theou hēkei kai dedōken hēmin dianoian, hina ginōskōmen ton alēthinon, kai esmen en tō alēthinō, en tō huiō autou Iēsou Christō. houtos estin ho alēthinos theos kai zōē aiōnios.
The one significant textual variant is in 1 John 5:20c, where some manuscripts read hina ginōskōmen ton alēthinon theon ("so that we may know the true God" instead of "so that we may know the true one").

The question we seek to answer in this article boils down to identifying the referent of οὗτός (houtos). This is the proximal demonstrative pronoun, equivalent to "this" in English. It can be contrasted with ἐκεῖνος (ekeinos), the distal demonstrative pronoun, equivalent to "that" in English. "This" (like οὗτός) points out something proximal (close to the speaker), while "that" (like ἐκεῖνος) points out something distal (away from the speaker).

Greek demonstrative pronouns contain more information than English ones. οὗτός has a case (nominative) and gender (masculine) that provide clues to its meaning. The nominative case indicates that οὗτός is the subject of the sentence. The masculine gender indicates that the referent is either a male person ("this one") or a masculine noun (which, in Greek, could denote an impersonal thing, such as κόσμος [kosmos, "world"]). There are no impersonal masculine nouns that occur explicitly in the immediate context to which οὗτός could plausibly refer, which leaves us with three possibilities: either οὗτός refers to "the true one" (NRSV: "him who is true"), or it refers to "his Son Jesus Christ," or it refers to some unspecified thing ("this"), in which case οὗτός is masculine so that it agrees in gender with ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς.2 The third option is highly unlikely for two reasons: (i) it is unlikely that a monotheistic writer would be comfortable saying that any abstraction "is the true God," even if this is meant metaphorically (e.g., knowing the true one and his Son "is the true God"). (ii) Unlike the comparable statement in John 17:3, there is no explicit statement giving content to "this." Hence, we will limit our attention to the first two possibilities: that the subject of 1 John 5:20f is the Father or the Son.

It must be stressed either of these referents is possible, and therefore we have before us a syntactic ambiguity, which may have been deliberate or accidental on the author's part. That οὗτός is a proximal demonstrative supports the referent being the nearest antecedent, "his Son Jesus Christ" (as emphasised by Hills above). However, while the nearest antecedent of οὗτός is usually the referent (including in the Johannine writings), there are counterexamples. For instance, in John 4:47 ("This one, having heard that Jesus had come from Judea..."), οὗτός refers to a royal official, but its nearest antecedent is actually the official's ill son. 2 John 7 is another commonly cited counterexample.3 It should be noted that, in such counterexamples, the referent is generally made clear in the context.

In 1 John 5:20, "The Son of God" is also the subject of the preceding sentence ("And we know that the Son of God has come...") So the Son is more "proximal" with respect to the writer's use of οὗτός in two respects: he is the subject of the preceding sentence and he is the nearest antecedent noun.

Concerning the usage of οὗτός in Johannine literature, Greek grammarian Daniel B. Wallace points out,
The demonstrative pronoun οὗτός, in the Gospel and Epistles of John seems to be used in a theologically rich manner. Specifically, of the approximately seventy instances in which οὗτός has a personal referent, as many as forty-four of them (almost two thirds of the instances) refer to the Son. Of the remainder, most imply some sort of positive connection with the Son. What is most significant is that never is the Father the referent.4
It may be worth noting that, while God (the Father) is nowhere else referred to as "this one" (οὗτός) in the Gospel and Epistles of John, which Jesus commonly is, God is referred to several times using the distal demonstrative pronoun ἐκεῖνος ("that one": John 1:33; 5:19; 5:37; 5:38; 6:29; 8:42).5 This suggests that, due to the Father's transcendence, the writer may not be comfortable referring to the Father using a proximal demonstrative pronoun like οὗτός.

All biblical references to a "true God" (including 1 John 5:20-21) set this God in explicit or implicit contrast with idols or false gods. There are three such passages in the Greek Old Testament (2 Chronicles 15:3 cp. 15:8;6 Isaiah 65:15-16 LXX cp. 65:11;7 Wisdom of Solomon 12:27 cp. 12:24).8 This usage continues in the New Testament. Paul the Apostle commends the Thessalonian church, writing,
For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God (θεῷ ζῶντι καὶ ἀληθινῷ), and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming. (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 NRSV)
Coming to the Johannine literature, in Jesus' "high-priestly prayer" in the Gospel of John, he addresses the Father as "the only true God":
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God (τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν), and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3 NRSV)
That Jesus refers to himself here in the third person as "Jesus Christ" (which is without parallel in the Gospels) may indicate that this statement reflects an confessional or liturgical formula used in the Johannine community.9 There is no explicit mention of idols or false gods in the context, but the word "only" (μόνος, monos) is an implicit polemic against any other claimants to deity. The adjective ἀληθινός (alēthinos) is also implicitly polemical; in the above passages, it probably means "genuine" or "real,"10 standing in contrast to other claimants to deity who are not genuine gods but counterfeits. The implicit polemic is similar to that in the more common biblical expression "living God."

Turning to the christological implications of the phrase "true God," both 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 and John 17:3 name Jesus alongside the true God as one distinct from him. However, the statement of John 17:3 also equates eternal life with knowing both the only true God and Jesus Christ, which is remarkable. Would it be contradictory or complementary for the Johannine writer to call Jesus "the true God and eternal life" in 1 John 5:20, given what is written in John 17:3? Answering this question requires a review of Johannine christology, focusing on the terms "true," "life," and "God."

Jesus is referred to repeatedly using the adjective ἀληθινός in the Gospel of John. He is "the true light" (1:9); "the true bread from heaven" (6:32); "the true vine" (15:1). In the Book of Revelation—which, admittedly, most NT scholars attribute to a different author than the Gospel and Epistles of John—Jesus refers to himself as "the true one" (ὁ ἀληθινός, ho alēthinos) in 3:7 and is later identified in a vision as one called "Faithful and True" (πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός, pistos kai alēthinos) in 19:11.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus is personally "the way and the truth and the life" (14:6) and "the resurrection and the life" (11:25). God is the ultimate source of life, but gave the Son to have life in himself and to give life to whomever he wishes (5:21; 5:26; 6:57). Jesus is the bread of life (6:48) and the living bread (6:51). In Revelation 1:18, Jesus identifies himself as "the living one" (ὁ ζῶν, ho zōn). Within 1 John, Jesus seems to be equated with "eternal life" in the somewhat oblique opening paragraph, which—in language reminiscent of John 1—says, "this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us" (1 John 1:2 NRSV).11 The Son is also identified with "life" in a kind of synonymous parallelism in 1 John 5:12: "Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life" (NRSV).

Finally, Jesus is repeatedly called "God" (θεός, theos) in the Gospel of John. The Word—who is to be identified as Christ throughout the Prologue—is called θεός in the Gospel's opening verse: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1 NRSV). While θεός lacks the article here, its occurrence at the beginning of the clause (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος, theos hēn ho logos) means that it should be understood emphatically (since word order in Greek is used for emphasis). The Word is God-with-God. The Word-Son is almost certainly called "God" again in John 1:18 (though there is a shadow of doubt on text-critical grounds). Jesus uses the stand-alone formula ἐγὼ εἰμί (egō eimi, "I am he") seven times in the Gospel (4:26; 6:20; 8:24; 8:28; 8:58; 13:19; 18:5-8). In light of the Isaianic background against which John frames these sayings (especially those in chapters 8 and 13), its meaning is tantamount to "I am God." This is because Jesus' use of this formula is modeled after God's use thereof in Isaiah 40-55 LXX, where God says "I am he" (ἐγὼ εἰμί) and "I am God" (ἐγὼ [εἰμί] ὁ θεὸς) interchangeably.12

Then, at the Gospel's climax, Thomas addresses the risen Jesus as "my Lord and my God" (John 20:28). This is probably meant to form an inclusio with the use of theos for the Word in John 1:1,13 so that the Gospel calls Christ "God" at the beginning and end of the Gospel.14 If so, the use of theos for Jesus in the Johannine literature is not incidental but a central theological claim. 

The magnitude of Thomas' confession is sometimes dulled in one of two ways: (i) it is claimed that theos is used here in an attenuated sense, or (ii) it is claimed that Thomas' words are not really addressed to Jesus as such but are a recognition that God is at work in him (cf. John 14:9-11).15 In favour of (i), it is pointed out that men are called "god/s" in Old Testament texts such as Exodus 7:1 and Psalm 82:6, the latter of which is cited by Jesus in this Gospel when defending himself against the charge of "making himself theos" (John 10:33-36). However, Jesus' argument in 10:34-36 is an a fortiori—if even mere men can be called "gods," how much more the Son of God—and thus does not imply an attenuation of theos as applied to Jesus. Furthermore, in these Old Testament texts it is God who assumes the prerogative to address men as "god/s." This is very different from a monotheistic Jew, Thomas, who knows that the Shema declares "the Lord our God, the Lord is one," addressing another man as "my God" (ὁ θεὸς μου, ho theos mou): literally, "the God of me." Interpretation (ii) is no more persuasive. Unlike John 14:9-11, where the declaration "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" is immediately qualified in terms of mutual indwelling, the Gospel does not qualify Thomas' confession in any way. Moreover, Jesus has been referred to as "Lord" five times already in the resurrection narrative, including once as "my Lord" (John 20:2, 13, 18, 20, 25), so it is improbable that "my Lord" is now directed to the Father. The idea that "my Lord" is addressed to the Son and "my God" to the Father-in-the-Son is untenable once one recognises that "my Lord and my God" is a liturgical formula of the form "my X and my Y" used repeatedly in the psalms, where both nouns X and Y always address the same person, God.16

To summarise, Jesus is called theos multiple times in the Gospel of John, and a close examination of John 20:28 reveals that he is personally addressed here as ho theos in the fullest sense of that term. To describe Jesus as "the true God and eternal life" in 1 John 5:20, therefore, would be consonant with, and not at all at odds with, the theology of the Fourth Gospel. As I. Howard Marshall writes, "it is fitting that at the climax of the Epistle, as at the beginning and climax of the Gospel (Jn. 1:1; 20:28), full deity should be ascribed to Jesus."17

By comparison, to describe the Father as "the true God" in 1 John 5:20 would of course also be consonant with Johannine theology (since the Father is called "the only true God" in John 17:3), but would also be somewhat redundant given that the Father has been called "the true one" twice already in this verse.18 To identify the Father as "eternal life" would be theologically appropriate, but less in keeping with Johannine parlance than to identify the Son with "eternal life." The Father is the ultimate source of life, to be sure, but only the Son is explicitly called "life" elsewhere in the Johannine corpus.

Before concluding, it is necessary to comment on a conundrum that arises if we accept the conclusion to which the syntactical and contextual evidence is pointing us, namely that 1 John 5:20f calls Jesus "the true God." How is it that the Father is "the only true God" and yet the Son is also "the true God"?

Of course, providing a definitive, philosophically precise answer to this question would take the Church more than three centuries. This is not our purpose here; we seek only to determine whether there are any proto-Trinitarian hints in the Johannine writings whereby the Father and the Son are identified as in one sense indistinct (and thus one) and in another sense distinct (and thus two).

Firstly, concerning the Gospel of John, there is the famous saying in John 10:30, "I and the Father are one,"19 which prompts Jesus' opponents to want to stone him for blasphemy, specifically for "making himself theos" (10:33). Multiple recent studies have emphasised the literary relationship between the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) and John 10:30.20 Lori A. Baron writes,
The significance of this declaration can hardly be overstated: the author invokes the word 'one' (ἕν [hen]) a key word in the Shema, explicitly locating Jesus's identity within the divine אחד [echad]... A potential objection to the idea that John has the Shema in mind here is that Deut 6:4 LXX uses the masculine εἷς [heis] to translate אחד [echad], whereas John employs the neuter ἕν [hen]. But this change is necessitated by grammatical considerations: in the Shema, εἷς [heis] is masculine singular as a predicate nominative of κύριος [kyrios]. εἷς [heis] would be awkward with a compound subject such as ἐγὼ καὶ ὁ πατὴρ [egō kai ho patēr], whereas ἕν [hen] is not awkward...The Evangelist...uses the neuter ἕν [hen], which expresses the idea of one entity. John 10:30 would thus be better translated: 'I and the Father are one thing,' a unity.21
She concludes that
While 'the Jews' understand Jesus’ words as a violation of the divine unity, which is embodied in the Shema, the Evangelist frames his Christology in a way that places Jesus within that unity.22
This notion that the Father and the Son, while distinct persons, are a unity—one God—explains why Jesus is repeatedly called "God" in the Gospel of John, but always in a way that distinguishes him from the Father and acknowledges the deity of the latter. The Word both was with God and was God (John 1:1). Jesus is the only-begotten God in the bosom of the Father (1:18). Thomas calls Jesus "my God" (20:28), but shortly before that, Jesus has described the Father to Mary Magdalene as "my God and your God" (20:17).

Coming to 1 John, scholars have identified a curious phenomenon whereby the author frequently uses verbs and pronouns that are either carelessly or deliberately ambiguous as to whether they are speaking about the Father or the Son.23 This likely means that, for the author, while the Father and the glorified Son remain distinct, they are "one" to such an extent that it is not important to clarify which one is in view at every turn.24 For Georg Strecker, "the Johannine idea of the unity of the Son with the Father" posited in John 10:30 "can be seen in 1 John in the interchangeability of the personal pronouns":25

For example, when the author says that "your sins are forgiven on account of his name" (1 John 2:12), is he referring to the name of God (last mentioned in v. 5) or that of Jesus Christ (last mentioned in v. 1)?26 Again, several pronouns in 3:1-6 and 3:16 seem to refer to Christ; however, Christ has not been mentioned explicitly since 2:24, while God is mentioned thrice in 3:1-2. Finally, in 1 John 5:14, the readers are instructed, "And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us" (NRSV). This "he" who answers prayer and gives life (as described further in vv. 15-16) seems to be the Son of God, who was the subject of v. 13. On the other hand, it would be more in line with biblical tradition to identify God as the addressee of prayer.

The vagueness seen in references to the Father and the Son in 1 John seems to be a putting into practice of the close unity declared in John 10:30: "Jesus is not saying that he and the Father are a single person, but that together they are one God."27 This would explain how the Johannine literature is seemingly comfortable with calling Jesus "the true God" despite his Father being "the only true God."

In view of the foregoing syntactical and contextual considerations, and the wider Johannine theme of the Father and the Son being a unity, we can conclude with Brian J. Wright that 1 John 5:20 is one of the few New Testament texts that, with a "High Degree of Probability," calls Jesus theos.28

If we are not convinced by the evidence and instead adopt the minority position that ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς refers to the Father, we must still concede that this verse contains a very significant instance of the epistle's famous ambiguous personal pronouns. This, in a letter that has christological heresy as a central concern (1 John 2:22-24; 4:1-3), suggests that the author is not concerned that his readers would fall into heresy if they identified Jesus as "the true God."

At the very least, the epistle declines to "walk back" the divine claims about Jesus that had been made in the Gospel of John. More likely, the letter has "doubled down" on the Gospel's divine christology by applying to Jesus the very term used to circumscribe the Father's unique deity in John 17:3, and has thus anticipated the formulation "true God from true God" that would later be used to express the orthodox position.

  • 1 Julian Hills, "'Little Children, Keep Yourselves from Idols: 1 John 5:21 Reconsidered," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989): 301. This assessment of the communis opinio is now a bit dated, but none of the scholarship that I've consulted since then suggests that this is no longer the majority view.
  • 2 Compare αὕτη (hautē) in John 17:3, which is an impersonal proximal demonstrative pronoun that agrees in feminine gender with the noun ζωὴ (zoē): "This is eternal life."
  • 3 Here, οὗτός refers to deceivers who deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, but "Jesus Christ" is the nearest antecedent of οὗτός.
  • 4 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 327.
  • 5 ἐκεῖνος is also used of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the Johannine literature.
  • 6 "And for many days it has been for Israel without a true god and without a teaching priest and without law. And he will return to the Lord, God of Israel, and he will be found to them... And when he heard these words and the prophecy of Adad the prophet, he was both encouraged and he removed the abominations from all the land of Ioudas and Beniamin and from the cities he had gained possession of in Mount Ephraim, and he renewed the Lord’s altar that was in front of the Lord’s shrine." (2 Chronicles 15:3-4, 8 NETS)
  • 7 But to those who are subject to him, a new name shall be called, which shall be blessed on the earth; for they shall bless the true God (τὸν θεὸν τὸν ἀληθινόν), and those who swear on the earth shall swear by the true God, for they shall forget their first affliction, and it shall not come up into their heart. (Isaiah 65:15cd-16 NETS)
  • 8 For they went astray on the paths of error, taking as gods the most despised and loathsome of animals... For through those animals at which in their suffering they became incensed, which they had thought to be gods, being punished by means of them, they saw and recognized as the true God (θεὸν ἀληθῆ) the one whom before they denied knowing; therefore the utmost condemnation came upon them. (Wisdom of Solomon 12:24ab, 27 NETS)
  • 9 "Although John has Jesus speak of himself in the third person, for example, as 'the Son,' it is anomalous that Jesus should call himself 'Jesus Christ.' Elsewhere in the Gospel the name occurs in the Prologue (i 17), a Christian hymn. This verse [John 17:3] is clearly an insertion into the text of Jesus' prayer, an insertion probably reflecting a confessional or liturgical formula of the Johannine church" (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John XIII-XXI [New York: Doubleday, 1970], 741) .
  • 10 "Of God in contrast to other deities, who are not real" (BDAG, 43).
  • 11 The opening verses of 1 John are a notorious crux interpretum, since their main subject is referred to with neuter relative pronouns, which cannot refer either to a person or to nouns that feature prominently such as logos (masculine) or zōē (feminine). It is clear that the Christ-event is being described, in some way. Raymond E. Brown describes the syntactical problem and concludes, "Overall, the explanation that best fits the evidence is that the 'what' is to be equated with no specific noun in the Prologue, but refers to the whole career of Jesus, with the neuter functioning comprehensively to cover the person, the words, and the works" (The Epistles of John [New York: Doubleday, 1982], 154).
  • 12 Compare Isaiah 43:10 to 43:11, 45:18-19 to 45:21-22; 46:4 to 46:9.
  • 13 Raymond E. Brown defends the translation "The Word was God" for John 1:1c, stating, "This reading is reinforced when one remembers that in the Gospel as it now stands, the affirmation of i 1 is almost certainly meant to form an inclusion with xx 28, where at the end of the Gospel Thomas confesses Jesus as "My God" (ho theos mou) (The Gospel according to John I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 5).
  • 14 Bear in mind that the epilogue in chapter 21 was probably added in a later edition of the Gospel.
  • 15 The latter interpretation seems to have support from Ernst Haenchen: "the Father is visible in Jesus for those who believe" (John 2: A Commentary on the Gospel of John Chapters 7-21 [trans. Robert W. Funk; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984], 211).
  • 16 See "my God and my Lord" (Psalm 35:23); "my King and my God" (Psalm 5:2; 44:4; 84:3); "my God and my Saviour" (Psalm 61:3, 7 LXX).
  • 17 The Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), 254 n. 47.)
  • 18 Raymond E. Brown agrees with Schnackenburg's earlier argument that "the second sentence of 5:20 has meaning only if it refers to Jesus; it would be tautological if it referred to God the Father" ("Does the New Testament Call Jesus God?", Theological Studies 26 [1965]: 558. The view that οὗτος refers to "the true One" "makes the text rather tautologous: 'we are in him who is true...He is the true God'" (Marshall, The Epistles of John, 254 n. 47.
  • 19 The NRSV has, "The Father and I are one," but the translation given here is truer to the Greek, which has ἐγὼ in the emphatic first position.
  • 20 Lori A. Baron, The Shema in John’s Gospel Against its Backgrounds in Second Temple Judaism (PhD Dissertation, Duke University, 2015), subsequently published as The Shema in John's Gospel (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2022); Brury Eko Saputra, The Shema and John 10: The Importance of the Shema Framework in Understanding the Oneness Language in John 10 (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2019).
  • 21 The Shema in John's Gospel, 349-50.
  • 22 The Shema in John's Gospel, 360.
  • 23 Brown, commenting on the specific case of 1 John 2:25, asks, "Does the 'he' (autos) who makes the promise refer to God or to Christ, or even (by intentional vagueness) to both? ... In a previous instance of ambiguity (2:3a) I opted for God, but each case must be decided on its own merits" (The Epistles of John, 358). Judith M. Lieu speaks of "the frequent ambiguity as to whether 'he' (autos) refers to God or to Jesus" (I, II & III John: A Commentary [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008], 215). Terry Griffith notes 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" (Keep Yourselves from Idols: A New Look at 1 John [London: Sheffield Academic, 2002], 75). According to D. Moody Smith, "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" ("The Historical Figure of Jesus in 1 John," in J. Ross Wagner, C. Kavin Rowe & A. Katherine Grieb, eds., The Word leaps the Gap: Essays on Scripture and Theology in Honor of Richard B. Hays [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008], 313).
  • 24 "It is quite clear that for John the Father and Son are distinct beings, although they belong so closely together that on occasion, as we have seen, it is not clear to which of them he is referring." (Marshall, The Epistles of John, 255 n. 48).
  • 25 (The Johannine Letters: A Commentary on 1, 2, and 3 John [trans. Linda M. Maloney; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1996], 193 n. 44). He gives as examples 1 John 1:5, 6, 7, 10; 2:3-6, 25, 27-28; 3:24; 4:13, 19, 21; 5:6, 14, 15, 20. In similar fashion, he writes, "the author leaves the readers in a state of unclarity about the application of personal pronouns and words of attribution, because he cannot admit any alternative between christology and theology: God is in Christ!" (The Johannine Letters, 82).
  • 26 The notion that God will act mercifully for his name's sake is common in the Jewish Scriptures (e.g., 1 Kingdoms 12:22 LXX; Psalm 22:3 LXX; 105:8 LXX; Ezekiel 36:21-22); yet in the NT it is primarily the name of Jesus by which salvation occurs. Moreover, while "God" is the nearest antecedent that was named explicitly, Jesus seems to be in view in 2:6 ("whoever says, 'I abide in him,' ought to walk just as he walked.")
  • 27 Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament's Christology of Divine Identity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 104.
  • 28 Brian J. Wright, "Jesus as ΘΕΟΣ: A Textual Examination," in Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament Manuscripts, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, ed. Daniel B. Wallace (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 266.

Tuesday 11 February 2020

Jesus Christ in the Prologue of John: The Word Per Se, or the Word Made Flesh Only?

100-Word Summary

(Realizing that not everyone is prepared to read a 3000+-word blog article, I've decided to start providing a 100-word summary of each article for those who like their reading 'to go.')

Christadelphians frequently refer to Jesus as 'the Word made flesh,' a qualification meant to exclude that Jesus is the Word per se. However, considerable evidence supports identifying the Word with the person of Christ throughout John 1:1-18. These include that (i) 'the Word' per se is the referent of pronouns throughout John 1:14-16, some of which clearly denote a person; (ii) 'the Light' (another impersonal noun) clearly denotes the person of Christ in John 1:7-12; and (iii) links between John 1:1-3 and 1:7-18 show that 'the Word' in 1:1-3 has the same referent as 'the Light' and 'the Word' thereafter.

1. 'The Word Made Flesh' in Christadelphian Discourse
2. The Word as the Referent throughout John 1:14-16  
3. The Personal 'Light' in John 1:7-12
4. Linking Back to John 1:1-4
 4.1. 'All things came into being through the Word'
 4.2. 'In the beginning was the Word'
 4.3. 'The Word was with God, and the Word was God'
5. Conclusion  

In Christadelphian discourse, a common way of referring to Jesus Christ is, 'the Word made flesh.' A Google search for this exact phrase and the term 'Christadelphian' yields easily dozens of uses of this expression for Christ, including as the title of articles and talks.1 The source of the expression is John 1:14, quoted below in the KJV (which strongly influenced early Christadelphian tradition) and NABRE:
And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 KJV) 
And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 NABRE)
The term 'the Word made flesh' is not intrinsically problematic. If the Word became flesh, and this refers to the event through which Jesus came into the world, then Jesus truly is 'the Word made flesh.' The problem is that Christadelphians use this term specifically to emphasise that Jesus Christ cannot be identified with the pre-incarnate Word, i.e. the Word as described in John 1:1-4. In such contexts, the statement 'Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh' is intended to avoid the divinity and personal pre-existence of Christ. For instance, in his Christadelphian catechetical manual Bible Basics, Duncan Heaster writes,
it cannot be over-emphasized that Christ in person was not "the word"; it was God's plan of salvation through Christ which was "the word". 'Logos' ("the Word") is very often used concerning the Gospel about Christ - e.g. "the word of Christ" (Col. 3:16; cp. Matt. 13:19; John 5:24; Acts 19:10; 1 Thess. 1:8 etc.). Notice that the 'logos' is about Christ, rather than him personally. When Christ was born, this "word" was turned into a flesh and blood form - "the word was made flesh" (John 1:14). Jesus personally was 'the word made flesh' rather than "the word"; he personally became "the word" through his birth of Mary, rather than at any time previously. (emphasis added)
Similarly, the well-known Christadelphian apologetics work Wrested Scriptures states, 'Christ was the result of the word made flesh, not the originator of the divine plan.'2 Again, an article by Matt Davies seeking to answer Trinitarians' questions states of John 1:14, 'If you read this verse carefully you will note that the word was with God from the beginning. Jesus was not the word. He was “the word made flesh” in v14.' A Belgian Christadelphian blogger writes emphatically, 'Jesus is not an idea thought, spoken or written down – he is a man. He is the word made flesh, not the word!'

Christadelphians do not understand 'the Word' to be a divine person who became incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth. The logos is understood as an idea or purpose that became actualised and personified in the man Jesus,3 who is also 'the Word made flesh' inasmuch as his character perfectly revealed the will of God as revealed in the Scriptures.4

The typical Christadelphian interpretation of John 1:14a described can be summarised thus: Jesus Christ is the Word made flesh because he, a human being, embodies the plan, purpose and law of God. I say typical, and not unanimous, because there has been one noteworthy dissenting voice: that of Harry Whittaker. In his book Studies in the Gospels, Whittaker describes the usual interpretation of the Word in John 1 as the eternal Divine Purpose in Christ. He rings off seven difficulties with this interpretation and thus rejects it, concluding instead that 'the Word' in John 1 refers to 'Jesus the Man, and not Jesus the Idea or Purpose.' This might appear to point toward orthodox Christological inferences (the pre-existence and divinity of Christ), but Whittaker insists that 'the beginning' described in John 1:1 is the beginning of the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry, not the beginning of all creation, and that the absence of the definite article from theos in 'the Word was God' 'weakens the meaning' of this phrase.5

The phrase 'the Word made flesh' does not occur in Scripture, but is adapted from John 1:14, which states that 'the Word became (KJV: 'was made') flesh...' However, what is often overlooked is that this is merely the first of several statements that are made about 'the Word' in John 1:14-16.

The transliterated Greek of John 1:14 reads thus,6 with my clause-by-clause literal translation. In my translation I replace pronouns with their referent to avoid having to choose between personal ('his') vs. impersonal ('its') pronouns, which could bias the reader for or against interpreting the referent as a person.7

kai ho logos sarx egeneto kai eskēnōsen en hēmin
And the Word became flesh and settled (lit. 'tented' or 'tabernacled') among us,
 kai etheasametha tēn doxan autou
and we beheld [the Word's] glory,
 doxan hōs monogenous para patros
glory as of the only Son from the Father,
 plērēs charitos kai alētheias
full of grace and truth. 

It is important to observe that ho logos is the subject of both verbs in John 1:14a. The Word became flesh and the Word settled among us, not, the Word became flesh and the resulting entity (Word-made-flesh) settled among us. Moreover, the Word is the unambiguous referent of several pronouns in vv. 14-16:
and we beheld [the Word's] glory (tēn doxan autou)... John testified about [the Word] (peri autou) and cried out, saying, 'This [Word] was the one of which/whom (houtos ēn hon) I said, "The one (ho) coming after me ranks ahead of me because he/it existed before me."' From [the Word's] fullness (tou plērōmatos autou) we have all received, and grace upon grace.
From this syntactical observation (that 'the Word' per se is in view throughout vv. 14-16) follows the exegetical conclusion that 'the Word' per se is Jesus Christ personally. If the reader harbours any doubt about this, consider the following. (i) The Word per se settled among us. (ii) The Word's glory is equated with the glory of the only Son from the Father.8 (iii) John the Baptist makes a remark about the Word (John 1:15) that is repeated almost verbatim when he sees Jesus of Nazareth approaching (John 1:30). Thus, the narrator construes John the Baptist's remark about Jesus as a remark about the Word. (iv) Finally, the Evangelist in v. 16 describes having received grace from the Word's fullness, but v. 17 states that grace came through Jesus Christ. In summary, it could not be much clearer that, throughout John 1:14-17, Jesus Christ is the Word per se,  not merely 'the Word made flesh' in some figurative sense (e.g., a human being who fulfills the Scriptures like no other). The Word, according to John 1:14-17, is personally the Son of God.

One of the main arguments that unitarians make against interpreting 'the Word' in the Johannine Prologue (John 1:1-18) as the Son of God personally is that ho logos, 'the Word,' is an impersonal noun (and used as such through the Old Testament). Hence, it is proposed that a literary technique such as personification is in use here, and we are not to see in 'the Word' an actual person. A serious flaw in this argument emerges from the very text of the Prologue, where 'the Light' (to phōs)—an equally impersonal noun—clearly refers to the person Jesus Christ in John 1:7-12, a portion of the Prologue that falls between the two paragraphs about 'the Word.'

'The light' is first mentioned in John 1:4-5 in connection with the Word, but here 'the light' seems to be an abstract noun opposite 'the darkness.' Only from v. 7 onward does it become evident that the author is (perhaps inspired by his language in 1:4-5) using 'the Light' in a more specialised sense to refer to the person that is Jesus Christ.

John 1:6 introduces John [the Baptist] as 'a man sent from God.'9 As in 1:15, John's function is to testify about (peri) another. The topic of John's testimony is, in 1:7, the Light; in 1:15, the Word; in 1:29-34 and 3:26-30, Jesus Christ the Son of God. This is already a clear indication that the Word = the Light = the Son of God. John testifies about the Light 'so that all might believe di' autou (through him/it).' The final pronoun autou refers to the Light rather than John, and anticipates numerous statements later in the Gospel about all/everyone believing in Jesus (e.g., John 3:15-16, 6:40, 11:48, 12:46). One hardly needs to mention that Jesus explicitly identifies himself as 'the Light' later in the Gospel (8:12; 9:5; 12:46)!10

Only in v. 8 does it become completely obvious that the narrator is using the term 'the Light' for a person. He offers a clarification concerning John the Baptist—'He was not the Light'—that would be superfluous if 'the Light' were not, like John, a person. Once again, this statement anticipates later material in the Gospel narrative in which John admits that he is 'not the Christ' (1:20; 3:28). This reinforces the identification of 'the Light' as Jesus Christ. V. 9 speaks of 'the true light' 'coming into the world.' Both of these ideas—Jesus as definitively 'true' (John 1:17; 14:6) and as having 'come into the world' as light (3:17-19; 12:46) recur later in the Gospel.11

The Prologue does not explicitly mention 'the Light' after v. 9, but vv. 10-12 contain five pronouns of which 'the Light' is the only plausible referent. Moreover, there is not the slightest doubt that a person is in view here. I will again replace pronouns with their referent to avoid biasing the reader through the gender of the translated pronouns:
[The Light] was in the world, and the world through [the Light] (di' autou) came into being, and the world did not know [the Light] (auton). Unto [the Light's] own [the Light] came, and [the Light's] own did not receive [the Light] (auton). As for those who did receive [the Light] (auton), [the Light] gave them power to become children of God, those who believed in [the Light's] name (to onoma autou)
Once again, these statements about the Light anticipate statements about Jesus later in the Gospel. The contrast between things that 'came into being' (egeneto, middle aorist of ginomai) and the Light through which/whom they came into being anticipates Jesus' contrast between Abraham, who 'came into being' (genesthai, middle aorist of ginomai) and Jesus himself who simply 'is' (John 8:58).12 That the Light was not received by the Light's 'own' (v. 11) anticipates the Fourth Gospel's emphasis on Jesus' rejection by 'the Jews.' Note, in particular, Pilate's words at the trial: 'I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me' (John 18:35). Similarly, speaking with 'the Jews' about the Scriptures: 'I came in the name of my Father, but you do not receive me' (John 5:43). The contrast between those that did not receive the Light and those that did anticipates John 3:32-33, and the statement about the Light's 'name' anticipates the Gospel's emphasis on belief in Jesus' name (John 2:23; 3:18; 20:31) and the life-giving power thereof (14:14; 14:26; 16:23-24).

Until now we have said little about the much-controverted opening statements about the Word in John 1:1-4. We have identified clear evidence that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:14-17, and that 'the Light' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:7-12. This provides us with a strong circumstantial case that 'the Word' is a person, Jesus Christ, in John 1:1-4. However, not content to rest our case, we will briefly observe how the statements about the Word in these opening lines are repeated and reinforced in the rest of the Gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [The Word] was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through [the Word], and without [the Word] nothing came into being. In [the Word] was life, and the life was the light of men. (John 1:1-4)
Of course, the most obvious link between John 1:1-4 and the rest of the Prologue is the term 'the Word' (ho logos). Barring the implausible event that the writer had two different 'Words' in mind within the Prologue, 'the Word' of John 1:14-16—who is clearly personal, as already seen—is 'the Word' of John 1:1-4.

We begin with v. 3 because it is crucial to establishing the temporal setting of the passage. We are 'in the beginning' (v. 1) when 'all things came into being.' This sounds like an obvious allusion to the Genesis creation, but some unitarians such as Harry Whittaker insist that 'the beginning' here is the beginning of Jesus' ministry, which inaugurated the new creation. True, the Johannine Jesus does use the word archē ('beginning') a few times of the start of his ministry (John 6:64, 8:25, 15:27, 16:4). However, none of these texts use the term en archē ('In the beginning'), which is borrowed from Gen. 1:1 LXX.13 The key observation here is the link between v. 3 and v. 10:
All things came into being through [the Word] (panta di' autou egeneto)
The world came into being through [the Light] (ho kosmos di' autou egeneto)
These statements clearly equate 'the Light' of v. 10 (which, as we have already seen, is the Son of God personally) with 'the Word' of vv. 1-3. Not only so, but they equate 'all things' in v. 3 with 'the world' in v. 10. Now, given the consistently negative connotation of 'the world' in the Fourth Gospel,14 there is simply no chance that the author would use 'the world' as shorthand for 'the new creation inaugurated by Jesus' ministry.' John's Gospel depicts Jesus as entering into the world to save it, not as entering the world and then creating the world!

From the above, it follows that the 'beginning' of John 1:1-2 is the primeval beginning, not the beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry. The notion that the Word 'was' (ēn, imperfect verb) in the beginning anticipates the John the Baptist's testimony in vv. 15, 30 (concerning the Word and then concerning Jesus) that 'he was (ēn, imperfect) before me.' Since John the Baptist's testimony is unmistakably about Jesus personally, the link to vv. 1-2 shows that 'the Word' that 'was in the beginning' also denotes the same person. 

The sublime statement of John 1:1b-c contains an obvious paradox: the Word was with God, which would ordinarily imply that the Word was not God, and yet indeed the Word was God. The observation that the first theos has the definite article while the second theos lacks it is not a persuasive argument for weakening the sense of the second theos.15 That theos carries its fullest sense in 1:1b and 1:1c is supported by the way the ideas of 1:1 are restated in 1:14 and 1:18. Both of these latter texts offer statements of the Word's/Son's divinity precisely in the context of an intimate relationship with God.

The word skenoō in John 1:14 ('the Word...settled among us') is a verbal form of the Greek word for tent (skēnē). This is probably not coincidental but is an intended allusion to the Old Testament tabernacle, or tent,16 where God dwelt from the time of Moses until Solomon's Temple was built. God had promised, 'I will set my tent among you' (Lev. 26:11). The people saw God's glory when a cloud covered the tabernacle and the glory of God filled it 'in the sight of the whole house of Israel' (Ex. 40:34-38). That John intended to allude to this background in 1:14 is implied both by the explicit Moses/Jesus comparison in 1:17, as well as the similar imagery used in 2:19-22, where Jesus' body is described as a temple (paralleling the notion of 1:14 that his flesh was a tabernacle).

In the Old Testament, it is consistently God's glory that the people behold,17 whereas in John 1:14 the glory that is beheld is that of the Word. By describing the glory in terms of the Father-Son relationship, John shows that his intention in ascribing divine glory to the Word is not to displace God the Father—just as in 1:1, where the Word 'was God' but also 'was with God.' The statement that 'we beheld [the Word's] glory' anticipates two other editorial comments in the Gospel of John that refer to 'his glory' (tēn doxan autou) being revealed or seen. In both of these cases, 'his' is Jesus Christ! In the first statement, the narrator describes Jesus' sign at Cana thus: 'Jesus...so revealed his glory' (John 2:11). This text alludes to Isa. 40:5,which foretells that the glory of Yahweh would be revealed.18 Again, in John 12:41, after explaining unbelief in Jesus in terms of oracles from Isaiah 53 and Isaiah 6, the Evangelist offers the editorial comment, 'Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him.' The 'his' and 'him' can only refer to Jesus,19 yet John is referring to a vision in which Isaiah saw Yahweh's glory in the temple (Isa. 6:1-3)! 

Thus, the statements about the Word in John 1:14 draw on Old Testament statements about God's presence and glory and thus clearly convey the Word's divinity (as in 1:1c), in the context of an intimate Father-Son relationship with God (as in 1:1b). In the Old Testament we frequently read of 'the word of the Lord' and of 'the glory of the Lord,' but here in John we read of 'the glory of the Word'!

The Father-Son relationship between God and the Word is conveyed most strikingly in the adjective monogenēs ('only', 'only-begotten'), which is used in both 1:14 and 1:18. However, whereas in 1:14 monogenēs does not explicitly modify a noun (so that one implicitly reads the noun 'Son'),20 it appears in 1:18 that monogenēs modifies the noun theos; thus, 'the only-begotten God.' There is a text-critical problem here, as the earliest manuscripts have monogenēs theos but others have monogenēs huios ('only-begotten Son'). I have discussed the text-critical problem in more detail elsewhere, but if the NA28 critical edition of the Greek New Testament is correct that monogenēs theos is the original reading, then John 1:18, the closing verse of the prologue, combines with John 1:1, the opening verse of the prologue, to form an inclusio. Just as 1:1 states that the Word was with God and yet was God, so 1:18 states that the only-begotten is God and yet is in the bosom of the Father.

When studying the Prologue of John, as with any other Scripture, there is always the risk of reading one's preconceived theological ideas into the text. One remedy for this is to closely study the syntax (the way the words fit together to form clauses and sentences) and the local context (the way the author weaves the Prologue into a coherent whole that anticipates the narrative that follows). When we do this, I believe we can arrive at something approaching certainty that the author of the Fourth Gospel used the terms 'the Word' and 'the Light' in the Prologue to refer to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, personally. Jesus is the Word made flesh, but before he became flesh he was already the Word in the beginning, the Word that was with God and was God, the Word through whom all things came into being.


  • 1 See, e.g., the online archive of talks from the Eastern Christadelphian Bible School in 1999; and the 2014 edition of Christadelphian magazine Glad Tidings.
  • 2 Ron Abel, Wrested Scriptures: A Christadelphian handbook of Suggested Explanations to Difficult Passages (Pasadena: Geddes, n.d.), 194; emphasis original.
  • 3 'He was so powerfully and completely the word made flesh... all the ideas inherent in God and in His word were expressed seamlessly in Jesus' (from Christadelphian Advancement Trust); 'God’s plan and purpose which had previously been expressed in the words that He had communicated to the patriarchs and through prophets, had now been embodied in human form' (John Carter, 'The Word Made Flesh,' Glad Tidings, 1567 [2014]: 15); '[Q:] Did the Lord Jesus pre-exist before his miraculous birth that was the result of the Holy Spirit coming upon Mary? [A:] He existed only in the mind, plan and purpose of Yahweh and this is the reason why in the opening chapter of the gospel of John he is described as “the word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Baptismal Review Book, p. 30); 'Because God instructed His Son and placed His words in his mouth, Jesus was also called “the Word made flesh”' (Christadelphian Bible Mission, Lesson 18, p. 4).
  • 4 'Christ’s character and his whole way of life were formed by God’s word. So complete was its effect on his mind that he is described as the “word made flesh” (John 1:14)' (Rick O'Connor, The Things of the Kingdom and the Things of the Name); 'So if the word was a declaration of God and His plan, how could this be made flesh? ... the first aspect of Jesus being the word made flesh is the actual realisation of God’s declaration foretelling the birth of His Son through the seed of a woman... The second aspect of God’s word being manifest in the flesh was down to the life followed by the sacrifice of Jesus... As Jesus was a man who never once gave in to the lusts of human flesh common to all humanity and who was always totally obedient to his Father’s will, this demonstrated that he was indeed the ‘word made flesh’: a perfect manifestation of his Father’s character, will and purpose in everything he said and did' (Chris Maddocks, God's Word/Logos; Maddocks goes on to describe two other aspects related to Jesus' atoning sacrifice and resurrection).
  • 5 Harry Whittaker, 'The Word (John 1:1-5),' Study 13 in Studies in the Gospels (n.d.).
  • 6 Following NA28 critical text. There are no significant text-critical problems pertaining to this verse.
  • 7 The Greek pronouns used are all masculine, but this is basically necessitated by the masculine gender of the noun logos. Gender does not play the same role in Greek syntax as in English, so the gender of the pronouns does not help us to determine whether or not the author regards this logos is a person.
  • 8 The conjunction hōs ('as') need not be understood as comparing the Word's glory to the glory of another, the only Son—this would make little sense. Rather, hōs functions as a marker pointing to the nature of the thing described. BDAG lexicon regards John 1:14 as an instance in which hōs functions as a 'marker introducing the perspective from which a person, thing, or activity is viewed or understood as to character, function, or role' (p. 1104). For similar instances, see 1 Peter 4:15a ('Let no one... suffer as a murderer': not like a murderer but actually being a murderer), 1 Thess. 2:7 ('we were able to impose our weight as apostles of Christ'; not like apostles of Christ but actually being apostles of Christ), Col. 3:12 ('Put on then, as God's chosen ones...': not like God's chosen ones but actually being God's chosen ones), and Heb. 12:27 ('That phrase, "once more," points to removal of shaken things, as of created things': not like created things but actually being created things. Basically, the sense is: 'we beheld the Word's glory—glory, that is, of the only Son of the Father.
  • 9 This expression is sometimes used by unitarians as evidence that the abundant language in John's Gospel about Jesus being 'sent from God,' 'coming from God,' 'coming down from heaven,' etc. does not imply pre-existence. However, John the Baptist's own words in John 1:15 and 1:30 undercut this interpretation by contrasting his own origin with that of Jesus Christ.
  • 10 Particularly striking is the parallel between John 1:7-9 and 12:46: 'that all might believe through [the Light]... The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.' 'I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in me might not remain in darkness.'
  • 11 On Jesus having come into the world, see also John 6:14; 10:36; 11:27; 16:28; 17:18; 18:37.
  • 12 Of course, John 8:58 also draws on God's great 'I am he' statements in Isaiah 40-55 (Isa. 41:4; 43:10-13; 43:25; 45:18; 45:19; 46:4; 48:12; 51:12; 52:6), and ultimately on the divine name in Exodus 3:14, and also parallels the psalmist's declaration about God in Psalm 89(90):2 LXX, 'Before the mountains came into being... you are.'
  • 13 See John 8:44 for another use of archē in a primeval sense.
  • 14 E.g., John 1:29, 3:16-19, 7:7, 8:23, 12:31, 14:17, 14:27, 15:18-19, 16:8-11, 17:9, 17:14-16, 18:36.
  • 15 To translate John 1:1c 'and the Word was a god' is syntactically legitimate, since theos lacks the article, unlike in 1:1b and 1:2. However, the word order of the clause (kai theos ēn ho logos) reverses the pattern of 1:1b and 1:2, in which the subject ho logos precedes the verb, and instead puts theos first. In Greek, word order does not affect syntactical sense but instead conveys emphasis. Thus theos is the most emphatic word in John 1:1c, which does not square with the theory that the writer intends theos to have a weaker sense than in 1:1b. The absence of the article in 1:1c can be explained as the author's way of clarifying that the Word is not a separate God from ho theos of 1:1b. The statement conveys the divinity of the Word, rather than positing a second, lesser god.
  • 16 In the Septuagint Greek translation of the Torah, the tabernacle is referred to as hē skēnē, 'the tent.'
  • 17 Thus, for example: 'Moses said, "Please let me see your glory!"' (Ex. 33:18); 'Yahweh, our God, has indeed let us see his glory and his greatness' (Deut. 5:24); 'I look to you in the sanctuary to see your power and glory' (Ps. 63:3); 'The heavens proclaim his justice; all peoples see his glory' (Ps. 97:4); 'Then the glory of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together' (Isa. 40:5); 'I am coming to gather all nations and tongues; they shall come and see my glory' (Isa. 66:18).
  • 18 John, like the other Evangelists, has already interpreted this oracle from Isaiah 40 as being fulfilled in Jesus' ministry, by having John the Baptist identify himself as the one who makes straight the way of the Lord (John 1:23).
  • 19 See the autos of v. 37.
  • 20 As is explicit in John 3:16, 18.

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
Grammatically possible antecedents
the message we have heard from him
“the Father” (v. 3) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 3)
he is faithful and just to forgive us
“God” (v. 5) or “Jesus his Son” (v. 7)
we make him a liar, and his word is not in us
“God” (v. 5) or “Jesus his Son” (v. 7)
whoever keeps his word...by this we may know that we are in him
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
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)
which is true in him and in you
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
your sins are forgiven for his name’s sake
“Jesus Christ the righteous” (v. 1) or “God” (v. 5)
him who is from the beginning
No antecedent; could refer to the Son or the Father
him who is from the beginning
No antecedent; could refer to the Son or the Father
the promise that he made to us
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
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)
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)
he is righteous…everyone who practices righteousness has been born of him
“the Son” (v. 24) or “the Father” (v. 24)
the world…did not know him
“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
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)
everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure
“God” (v. 2)/“the Father” (v. 1) or “the Son” (2:24)
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)
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)
he laid down his life for us
“the Son of God” (v. 8) or “God” (vv. 9, 10)
reassure our heart before him
“the Son of God” (v. 8) or “God” (v. 17)
just as he has commanded us
“God” (v. 21) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23)
his commandments
“God” (v. 21) or “his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23)
the Spirit whom he has given us
“his Son Jesus Christ” (v. 23) or “God” (v. 24)
he who is in you
No antecedent; could refer to God or Jesus
as he is so also are we in this world
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 16)
We love because he first loved us
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 16)
this commandment we have from him
“Jesus” (v. 15) or “God” (v. 20)
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)
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)
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.