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Showing posts with label Prologue of John. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Prologue of John. Show all posts

Tuesday 23 November 2021

The Parts of John's Prologue that Unitarians Neglect

Despite being a Catholic and a Trinitarian myself, I'm a regular listener of unitarian apologist Prof. Dale Tuggy's trinities podcast. As someone who has written a fair bit on the Prologue of John, I was keenly interested to listen to his latest episode, What John 1 Meant. This was an edited version of a talk Tuggy gave at the 2021 Unitarian Christian Alliance conference.

At the beginning of the talk, Tuggy read John 1:1-18 from the NRSV. This—together with the episode's title and 76-minute length—made very hopeful that he was going to do something that I seldom see/hear/read unitarians do when discussing this text: offer careful exegesis of the whole Prologue. For, as I wrote a few months ago in my in-depth review of Buzzard and Hunting's polemical work, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity's Self-Inflicted Wound (p. 30), there are portions of this passage that unitarian exegetes tend to neglect when arguing for a particular meaning of the Word (ho logos). I refer specifically to vv. 5-13 and 14c-18. 

Alas, I was to be disappointed once again. Tuggy lavishes time upon John 1:1-4 and 1:14ab and pre-Christian parallels to the language of both. As for the other parts? Verse 5 is discussed briefly in connection with 1-4. He states that he is going to skip vv. 6-9. Verses 10-11 then receive a brief cameo, with 12-13 then passed over in silence to arrive at v. 14. Even within this verse, the first two clauses ("And the Word became flesh and lived among us") command far more attention than the third. As he begins to wrap up, Tuggy announces that there isn't time to discuss vv. 15-18, but that it does not matter, as these verses contain no difficulties for unitarians. He does provide the briefest aside on what he thinks v. 15 means (spoiler alert: "he was before me" does not indicate that he existed before me), and then gives his own paraphrase of the entire Prologue, including the verses he's skipped over. (He also, on a couple of occasions, voices his support for the minority textual view that 1:18 calls Jesus monogenēs huios rather than monogenēs theos.)

Why should it be concerning or frustrating that a 76-minute talk on "What John 1[:1-18] Meant" (in the Christological sense) dedicates almost no airtime to vv. 5-13 and 14c-18? After all, if the main difficulty of John's Prologue is to correctly interpret the term ho logos, shouldn't we focus on the verses that use this term? Well, context is king, as they say. If John 1:1-18 is a literary unit within John's Gospel, surely we cannot neglect any part thereof if we hope to understand the whole.

If all we had in the Prologue were John 1:1-4 and 14ab, our efforts to identify who or what the Word is might devolve into a Sisyphean struggle of opinioneering. Fortunately, those other, sometimes neglected parts enable us to settle the matter decisively.

I have written in some detail about these verses in my article Jesus Christ in the Prologue of John: The Word Per Se, or the Word Made Flesh Only? (see also my review of Buzzard & Hunting, pp. 28-30), so I will just give a bullet-point overview of the exegetical arguments from the "other verses" of the Prologue.

First, concerning 1:5-13,
  • "The light" (to phōs) is—like ho logos—an abstract noun that can easily be used—and probably is, in vv. 4-5—in a purely abstract sense (and there was little Jewish precedent for regarding it as personal.) Nevertheless, it is unmistakable that from v. 7 onward, to phōs refers to a person. Otherwise, the author's clarification about John, "He was not the light," is superfluous, even absurd.
  • This person, the True Light, is in view throughout vv. 9-12, where we learn that the True Light is identical with the Word (from the parallels between 1:3a and 1:10b and between 1:7b and 1:15a) even as it remains obvious that the True Light is a person (from the words "believe in his name," amongst others). The Word and Light imagery are both drawn ultimately from Genesis 1.
  • The True Light imagery gives no idea of an ontological transition from one thing (the pre-existent Word) to another (the man Jesus). The language is seamless: he who was in the world is he through whom the world came to be. The transition is a spatial one: he comes into the world, to his own.
  • If any reader were in doubt at this point as to which person the True Light (= the Word) is, they could not remain so after reading the rest of the Gospel, which is replete with parallels to 1:8-12:
    • "He was not the light" (1:8a) = "I am not the Christ" (1:20; 3:28)
    • "the True Light" (1:9a) = "I am...the Truth" (14:6); "I am the Light of the world" (8:12; 9:5)
    • The light "was coming into the world" (1:9b) = "I came into the world as light" (12:46); "you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world" (11:27); "I...have come into the world" (16:28; 18:37)
    • "He was in the world" (1:10a) = "I am in the world" (9:5); "now I will no longer be in the world" (17:11)
    • "He came to his own" (1:11a) = "He loved his own in the world" (13:1)
    • "His own did not receive him" (1:11b) = "You do not receive me" (5:43); "Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me" (18:35)
    • "But to those who did receive him" (1:12a) = "Whoever does receive his testimony..." (3:32-33)
    • "he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe" (1:12ab) = "believe in the light, so that you may become children of the light" (12:36)
    • "believe in his name" (1:12b) = "many began to believe in his name" (2:23); "believed in the name of the only Son of God" (3:18)
Second, concerning 1:14c-18,
  • "The Word" (ho logos) is the referent throughout vv. 14-16. This is often overlooked because the statements from 14c-16 are clearly also statements about Jesus Christ:
    • 1:14c equates the Word's glory with "glory as of the Father's only Son"
    • 1:15a quotes John's testimony about the Word using the same words John will proclaim about Jesus in 1:30
    • 1:16a speaks of the Word's fullness and grace, which is linked via the conjunction hoti to a statement about grace coming through Jesus Christ in v. 17
  • But the syntax is unambiguous: the three occurrences of the pronoun autos in vv. 14c ("we saw his glory"), 15a ("John testified about him") and 16a ("From his fullness we have all received") all have ho logos in 14a as their antecedent.
  • Thus, it is not that we have one statement about the Word, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us," followed by other statements about the man who figuratively embodies the Word. The syntax disallows such a reading. Rather, "The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us" is one statement about the Word per se that is followed by several other statements about the Word per se.
  • If these statements about the Word per se are also statements about Jesus Christ, it follows inexorably that Jesus Christ is the Word per se.
  • Again, the statements about the Word in 1:14c-16 have parallels elsewhere in the Gospel.
    • "We have seen his glory" (1:14c) = "Jesus...so revealed his glory" (2:11); "Isaiah...saw his glory" (12:41)
    • "the only begotten of the Father" (1:14c) = "the only begotten God/Son" (1:18); "only begotten Son" (3:16, 18)
    • "he was before me" (1:15e; cf. 1:30) = "In the beginning was the Word" (1:1); "What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?" (6:62); "Before Abraham was, I am" (8:58); "the glory that I had with you before the world was" (17:5)
  • 1:18 causes some difficulties for unitarians if, as the UBS committee considered "almost certain" (B rating), the correct reading is monogenēs theos. It is not just that there would then be biblical warrant for the much-maligned phrase "God the Son." It is also that this would be an instance of the literary technique of inclusio, by which the Prologue is deliberately bookended by references to someone other than the Father as theos. The implication is that the one called theos in 1:1 is the one called theos in 1:18, thus reinforcing that the Word = the Son.
Given the abundant exegetical data concerning the identity of the Word in John 1:5-13 and 14c-18, can the reader blame me for feeling exasperated when a unitarian apologist devotes an hour-long lecture on John's Prologue to verses 1-4 and 14ab, giving only cursory attention to the rest of the material?