Wednesday, September 30, 2015

on 4 comments

Personal Distinctions in the Godhead

Recently in a correspondence with a very sincere lady who is struggling between the non-Trinitarian versus Trinitarian views of Scripture, she asked me to comment on Jn. 1:1-3 and Jn. 17:5. These two passages are problematic for non-Trinitarian Pentecostals, and in her question she pointed out that in older English translations, the pronoun “he” is translated as “it” in Jn. 1:1-3. Such a translation, at least from the non-Trinitarian point-of-view, might suggest that the logos was not personal. Further, she suggested that in later English versions (KJV and after), the use of the word “he” instead of “it” was imposed on the text, implying that this was an inappropriate rendering. In the Jn. 17:5 passage, non-Trinitarian Pentecostals tend to take the words “glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was” (KJV) to mean something along the lines of “glorify thou me as thine own self…”, thus, once again, removing from the passage any personal distinction between the Father and the Son. Should you be interested in reading over my shoulder, so to speak, here is what I said to her.

...let me briefly address the passages you cited, beginning with the prologue to John's Gospel. You are correct: some of the early English translations of John's Gospel translated the Greek personal pronoun autou and the Greek demonstrative pronoun houtos as "it" in Jn. 1:2-3 (this was true in the Tyndale Version, the Great Bible and the Bishop's Bible), though John Wycliffe, who was earlier than all three, translated the pronoun as "him", not "it".  I doubt that the rendering "it" should be taken to mean that the logos was impersonal, however. Whether it is to be translated as "him"/"he" or "it" is merely a translator's choice. The personal pronouns can be translated either way, and both are grammatically correct. The deeper issue is one of grammatical agreement and contextual meaning. When one uses a word like logos, grammatical agreement might lead one to use the word "it" as a pronoun, since typically we don't think of a "word" as personal. However--and this is quite important--the larger context of the passage indicates that the logos WAS personal. The logos was the one through whom God created the world (Greek dia with the genitive case, which means "through the agency of"). The logos was the light that shined in the darkness but was not understood. The logos was the light that illumines every human person born in the world. This logos, in his incarnation, was "in" the world that he himself had made, but the world did not recognize him. The logos "became" flesh and tented among us, and here, the verb ginomai (= became) is especially important, for it cannot be swept aside as some sort of "dwelling" Christology (which is typical in non-Trinitarian thought) but must be taken as a true incarnation. By the time all three of these early versions cited above (Tyndale, Bishops, Great Bible) reach Jn. 1:10, without exception they all begin to use the pronouns "he" and "him", based on that same Greek pronoun autou. Hence, I don't think one should make too much of the translation "it" as though it favors a non-Trinitarian doctrine. It doesn't. Further, the charge that the idea of pre-existence was "imposed" on the text by later versions, such as the KJV and following, cannot be sustained. The actual Greek text, which twice says the logos was "with" God (Greek proposition pros with the accusative case), directly describes pre-existence and cannot mean anything else.

The language of Jn. 17:5 is described as "the glory that was before the world began". This, if you'll pardon me saying so, is an unfortunate way of phrasing it (and the way non-Trinitarian folks would like to phrase it as they attempt to escape what the passage plainly says). What the text plainly says in Greek is this: " glorify me with yourself with the glory which I had with you before the world [came] to be." Twice the text uses the preposition para, once in a genitive construction as para seautou (= alongside yourself) and the other in a dative construction as para soi (= by the side of you). This passage is crystal clear in describing Jesus' pre-existence, and grammatically it cannot be taken any other way! The prepositional constructions "alongside yourself" and "by the side of you" are death knells to the modalistic teaching. Non-Trinitarians want to say something like "Father...glorify me as yourself (instead of alongside yourself)", but the preposition para simply cannot be taken in this way. Such an interpretation is not possible in the Greek NT.


  1. Whatever else the prologue of John might be, it is most certainly a midrashic interpretation of Genesis 1 viewed through a second text--Proverbs 8. I am completely negative about the "history of religion" school's assertion of Stoic influence on John's "logos" theology. Similarly, I am less than convinced about the influence of Philo of Alexandria on the thought of the Fourth Gospel.

    Whatever this "logos" theology will mean for later Christian doctrine, the context of John's prologue is a set of ideas that were widely shared in first century BCE Judaism. Whether this is a metaphorical personification of God's attributes (Word and Wisdom) or the belief in a separate, distinct divine agent/mediator in creation and revelation--a mediator that overcomes the obvious tension between divine transcendence and immanence--and thus Philo's "second God" (a being superior to man and the angels, but inferior to the one true God), I cannot absolutely say.

    But I can say with some certainty that there is no straight line between John's Gospel and Athanasius, the Cappadocian fathers, and the Niceo-Constantinople creed--much less the other traits of mature Trinitariansm (perichoresis, the mutual interpenetration and the sharing of the inner life of the persons, and accommodation, the affirmation that all divine persons are present and active in all outward divine actions).

    The prologue of John gives us the raw materials that Christians western and (especially) eastern worked with for centuries before reaching any kind of catholic (universal) resolution. Modalists, adoptionists, subordinationsts of all stripes, and even the Gnostics as well as the emerging Trinitarians found a welcome home in the John's Gospel. The language of the Fourth Gospel--and incarnation theology itself ("God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" as Paul states)--is the beginning, not the ending, of a long and drawn out discussion about the identity of Jesus and the undebated (and undebatable) reality of Jewish monotheism.

    Perhaps I will write a future post about John's prologue and midrash.

  2. I fully agree that John 1 is to be linked to Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8. I aIso think that Bultmann's attempt to link John's Logos theology to Hellenistic religious thought was far too ambitious. Raymond Brown's commentary on John's Gospel in the Anchor Bible series has, in my view, a very good analysis of the various options and their respective values. He ends up, if I remember correctly, in advancing the Memra (Aramaic for "Word") link via Judaism so that the roots of the Logos theology need not be found outside the Hebraic tradition. I believe Barnabas Lindars ends up on essentially the same note.

    My basic concern is that the language of John be allowed to say what it says without undue distortion. Some variation in ideas is possible from the Greek text of his gospel, but other notions are not possible without unduly straining the text itself. Those who attempt to work out the Logos theology using primarily (and perhaps only) an English translation can easily go astray, asserting things that are not possible. In this case, the preposition "para", used in both the genitive and dative cases in passages like Jn. 17:5, must be allowed to say what it says, however the ideas are worked out in the later theology of the Ante-Nicene Fathers.

  3. I certainly understand--as you make perfectly clear in your post--that John's Gospel makes a strong case for the distinction of Jesus and the Father who sent him. Equally true, John makes a strong case in John 17:5 and related passages (including the prologue) for the "preexistence" of Jesus --that is, the existence, in some sense, of Jesus prior to the created order. (Whether this means the co-eternal existence of Jesus with the Father is probably beyond the evidence found in the text.)

    It is precisely these two factors--the distinction of the Father and the Son and the preexistence of Jesus--that creates and/or explains the multiple Christological "trajectories"--to borrow a term from Koester and Robinson--debated for the next three centuries.

    But attempting to read John IN ISOLATION, without reference to other texts or thinkers, without trying to explain his ideas via past or future philosophies or theologies--"letting John be John" as Jimmy Dunn has directed us--I am left with the impression that he presents a simple agency Christology. Jesus appears to be a preexistent agent through whom God created the world and revealed himself to it--a being that is subordinate and in every way obedient to the one true and transcendent God. This agency/subordination Christology allows the Gospel writer to affirm a high role of Jesus in God's economy while maintaining an absolute commitment to Jewish monotheism.

    If this is the case, then this view sounds very much like the "two powers in heaven" error that the rabbis later condemned.

    Don't get me wrong! I am not really trying to debate the merit of any of these ideas. I am just trying to perform the difficult "thought experiment" of reading John in a vacuum--an experiment which is not historically appropriate, but nevertheless necessary in light of the tendency to "read into" John's Gospel the theology of one's choice.

  4. Absolutely right, Joe! I really addressed only these two passages in my post, because they were the two directly asked about by the lady whom I mentioned at the first. The back story is that some of the interpretations she has been given about these two passages are simply not possible in the Greek NT. This lady is struggling with considerable pressure from extended family members that Trinitarians are unsaved because they are not Oneness--and that her own salvation is dependent upon her "getting it right". Her father is a Baptist pastor, so he is a Trinitarian. Her husband and family are Oneness Pentecostals, so they regard her father as condemned. Hence, her reading of these passages is not merely academic, but visceral. I have advised her that "getting it right" concerning the intricacies of the godhead is not the deciding factor between being saved or lost, but she still wishes to slowly explore the subject. Since the passages she asked about were important ones with respect to the denomination we both know so well, I thought some of our readers might want to weigh in on the subject, and I'm glad that you did!