Reply to “The Word” (John 1:1)

Dear Biblical Unitarian,

I have to say this paper was quite confusing as it meandered all over the place. It made it difficult to follow any particular train of thought. There’s a rather long excursus in the middle which has nothing to do with “the Word” of John 1:1 which is, in and of itself, a topic of its own. So I’ll just get that out of the way first in order to concentrate on the more salient points.

Here’s a list of the verses brought up in the excursus (Gen 1:26-27; Mark 10:6,9; Col 1:16:17; Mark 13:19; Eph 3:9; Acts 17:24-25; Mal 2:10; Psa 33:6; Rev 4:11; Acts 4:24; Psa 50:10-12; Rom 8:17; Matt 4:8-10; Rev 3:21; Luke 1:35; Rom 1:4; Matt 28:18; Heb 1:3; Col 1:19).

I have to point out the very obvious error in all this: you are equating “God” in every verse with “Father.” The terms are different! It’s like playing a Jack of Spades as if it were an Ace of Diamonds. Sure, they all belong to the same pack of cards, but they’re not the same. This is referred to as the fallacy of substitution. I suspect the other poker players around the table will cry foul. This error is even more compounded in Old Testament passages where the terms elohim, adonai, YHWH are anachronistically interpreted by you as ab (Father). This is just an elementary exegetical gaffe.

Further, in the New Testament, when the writers wish to speak of the Father, they use the term “Father.” And when they wish to speak of God, they use the term “God.” So when Jesus refers to his Father in heaven, he uses the term, “Father.” I have to be this blunt in hopes of getting the point through. What you are doing in reverse is akin to calling Adam, humanity. Sure, you can read the early chapters of Genesis substituting the entire human race in place of Adam (after all, he is the father of us all), but we all know the story is about the first man, Adam.

Enough excursus, let’s get back to John Ch. 1.

In the same manner, you are also mistaken to assume the 2nd clause of John 1:1, “God” (ho theos), is the Father in trinitarianism. This is your statement: “So here is the first problem, everyone agrees that the “God” in the second clause is the Father [really?], which I totally agree. All the arguing is about how “God” is used in the third clause.” Right away, you are setting up a pseudo-dilemma. But before we get there, let me point out the lack of any reference to the first clause in your paper, “In the beginning was the Word,”—which cannot be overlooked as it introduces “the Word” (ho logos) of the 2nd and 3rd clauses. And what an introduction!

“In the beginning” doesn’t only attribute pre-existence to “the Word” but deliberately alludes to Gen 1:1, to what existed prior to the creation of anything, namely the Word, who was with God and was God (the 2nd and 3rd clauses). This is shocking because one expects to read, “In the beginning … God,” (as in Gen 1:1) but it is “the Word.” So John starts right away by asserting that “the Word” is indeed the divine source of all that is visible and antedates the totality of the material world. The first clause must not be overlooked if we are to make sense of the whole opening sentence.

Now, your entire argument actually hinges on one conceit: “I don’t believe the Word is a “Him”, but rather an “it”.” It’s what starts out the paper and what ends the paper, after some rather long and unrelated meanderings in the middle. It’s like the two hinges that attach a door to its frame. So I will address this specifically since the entire door collapses once the hinges are removed.

It’s strange that you choose the Geneva Bible for support when we all know it has some translation problems from the Greek of its time. This is not to malign the people who worked on it back in the 1500’s, but simply to say their knowledge of Koine Greek and availability of manuscripts were not quite up to par with more recent and better English language translations. They did the best they could with what they had.

The Geneva Bible is what is referred to as a “study Bible” (one of the first of its kind!); that is, it comes with explanatory footnotes. And when you read the footnote that references “it” in verse 3, for example, it says this: “Of all those things which were made, nothing was made without him.” [emphasis mine]. So even the Geneva Bible translators don’t agree with your impersonal “it” thesis! Further, they were following English language conventions of their time, the 16th century, which does not place so sharp an emphasis on word gender between masculine and neuter. I would argue this is the case even in modern English (see my next comment below). In any case, what matters is the original Greek behind all translations of the New Testament. So that is where we will go.

I’m also surprised that you hinge your argument on the gender of words when you yourself state that gender tends to be inconsequential in language (e.g. “la bicicleta” is feminine, though bikes are certainly not!). The gender of words (masculine, feminine, or neuter) is simply a language convention and has no bearing on interpretation of meaning. So to base your argument on the gender of “the Word” when you ought to know better makes the screws on the hinges quite weak already. But that is not the worst of it.

You are assuming the neuter gender of the word, “Word” in English is the same in Greek. It is not! “Logos” is masculine gender. It should be obvious just from the masculine article “ho” that precedes it. Consult a Greek lexicon. Grammatically speaking, you’re trying to screw in the hinges on an entirely different doorframe. Sure they are both door frames (word & logos) but one’s in an English manor on the British isles and the other’s a Greek portico on the Corinthian plains. Just this one mistake renders your argument void. But it is not the only mistake.

It’s true that the word autos has the same form in its different Greek cases for masculine and neuter gender—so it can be translated either as “he” or “it”—but what matters, what determines the translation, is its antecedent’s gender. And no, the direct antecedent for autos in this section of John’s prolegomena is not ho logos (the Word) of verse 1—though that too is masculine—but the houtos of verse two: “He was in the beginning with God.” Houtos is singular, masculine, nominative—and there can be no mistake here because the neuter form is different: “touto”.

In a nutshell, the antecedent for houtos in verse 2 is logos in verse 1, which is then the secondary antecedent for autos in verse 3 forward. All masculine! What’s more, by using houtos (he) in verse 2, John is already anticipating the most shocking statement of verse 14: “and the Word became flesh.” Why shocking? Because with that one statement we’ve broken out of the metaphorical realm, whether in Jewish wisdom categories, or Hellenistic philosophical ones. It’s as if you were watching Lord of the Rings on your nice 5.1 dolby flatscreen entertainment system and Legolas stepped out of the screen. This is good writing! Nay, divinely inspired writing. As far as grammar goes, your “it” referent translation stinks to high heaven.

Here’s my excursus. Don’t worry it’ll be brief, and it is related to “the Word.” I just want to show how carefully and deliberately John chose his words and syntax to construct this magnificent ode to Jesus to begin his gospel.

We have already seen that John deliberately chose houtos, a masculine pronoun, to bridge the gap between ho logos of verse 1 and autos of verse 3 forward. But there is so much more! In verses 4 & 5, John speaks of the life (zōē) that was in him. Now zōē is a feminine noun, so the construction of the sentence is done with great care to make the antecedent for autos masculine by placing the prepositional phrase at the beginning of the sentence, thereby securing its referent to the previous verses 1-3. It’s not “life was in it” but “in him was life” (en autō̧ zōē ēn), and only then do we get the phrase, “and the life (zōē) was the light (to phōs) of men.” As can be seen by the neuter article “to” that precedes it, the noun phōs is neuter gender. That’s why modern biblical translators use “it” to translate the next autos in this small section (v. 5)—since its direct referent is the neuter phōs! This is to say when words with different genders are introduced in the text (zōē, phōs), John takes great care in his syntax so that his pronouns will not be confused. Then verses 6-8 speak of John the Baptist, who came to bear witness to the light. So the referent for autos in this section is masculine again as it refers to John the Baptist—besides John inserts the masculine houtos (v. 7) should there be any doubt!

Now the rest of the prolegomena (vv. 10-18) are again in reference to Jesus so that whatever autos we have in this section are masculine. To smooth the transition, John begins by omitting any personal pronoun in his opening phrase (en tō̧ kosmō̧ ēn)—literally, “In the world was (He)”. But we do know that in the Greek language the subject is contained in the verb, so that an author can deliberately omit the noun or pronoun to make a point! John omits the subject to signal a transition in this section from his other concepts (life, light, John the Baptist) back to his original referent (the Word, that is, Jesus). This is brilliant and carefully thought out writing. May I say, divinely inspired in every detail.

So I end my excursus by saying John cannot ever be accused of sloppy writing in the prolegomena. While we cannot derive interpretive meaning—as you rightly point out but forget to apply—from the gender of words, we can observe that John took great care to observe the grammatical conventions of the Greek language of his time in writing the prolegomena to his gospel. Every detail, every word and syntax have been carefully selected and arranged to show that the divine Word has indeed incarnated in Jesus for the salvation of us all.

In conclusion, the hinges are gone, the door has collapsed. Your “it” interpretation doesn’t fit the grammar nor the context of John’s magnificent opening words. This is the sort of thesis that would have been laughed out of a seminar setting. At the very least, I hope I save you some future embarrassment. But that is the least of my hopes. I sincerely wish for you to come to see the truth of the biblical testimony concerning this Jesus of Nazareth. Is He who the Bible says He is? Consider this carefully, scrutinize the words of the biblical text concerning him with as much care as the biblical authors had in writing about him. [And no, I didn’t goof but intentionally chose to use both majuscules and minuscules in the previous two sentences.] This to say, pay attention to the details, they sometimes yield the most valuable exegetical nuggets. But more importantly, stop taking scriptures out of their context—in this case, not even a whole sentence, but one clause!—and read them in light of their context.

Having said that, dear friend, I invite you to read John 1:1-18 again, the whole thing, and while reading, ask the God whom you worship if this could be true concerning His Son? You believe in God. So do I. He does not lie. I truly believe when we are hungering and thirsting to know Him better, He honors that by revealing Himself to us. The Scriptures are His greatest revelation, and we are all like blind men groping about in the darkness when it comes to the profundity of His revelation. Without His aid, which God the Father provides by sending forth the Holy Spirit to help us discern our way through the darkness we will only strain at gnats and swallow a camel.

I end with the climax to John’s prolegomena: “No one has ever seen God (theos), the only begotten God (monogenēs theos), he who is at the Father’s (patros) side, that one makes him known (exēgeomai).” (John 1:18).

One comment

  1. I will have to refrain from debating you because it is clear that this will only result in a shouting match. I will not post again for this reason. The position you have undertaken is clearly indefensible as you yourself stated,

    “you are equating “God” in every verse with “Father.” The terms are different! It’s like playing a Jack of Spades as if it were an Ace of Diamonds. Sure, they all belong to the same pack of cards, but they’re not the same. This is referred to as the fallacy of substitution. I suspect the other poker players around the table will cry foul. This error is even more compounded in Old Testament passages where the terms elohim, adonai, YHWH are anachronistically interpreted by you as ab (Father). This is just an elementary exegetical gaffe.”

    I fundamentally disagree as to even suggest that “God” can be understood as “triune”, “essence” etc. normally is a position that is CLEARLY false. The repeated and clear usage of “God” who is an actor upon “Jesus” makes it obvious that “God” cannot be “Jesus” in most cases. Even the very title “Son of God” is clearly understood as “Son of the Father”. When it speaks of Jesus as, “at the right hand of God”; it CLEARLY means “at the right hand of the Father”. If you do not believe so then there is nothing to say. This is beyond indefensible, but failed in its very essence. If “God” carries the notion of a triune nature of God, then Jesus Christ himself would be implicated on both sides of these statements. This would invite mental incapacity, as we have to think that Jesus can be on both sides of the actor and direct object of God. For example

    “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son” Rom 1:1-3

    “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” 1 Cor 1:1-4

    “But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, 22 by putting his seal on us and giving us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment.” 2 Cor 2:22

    “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants” Rev 1:1
    Even Jesus Christ himself makes note of this difference regularly

    “It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, ‘He is our God,’” John 8:54

    “Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
    ‘ Worship the Lord your God,
    and serve only him.’ ”” Mat 4:10

    “Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” John 6:29

    “But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” John 4:23-24

    Verses such as these where the word “God” is used are clear references to the Father. There are numerous accounts of equating God with the Father such as, “God our Father”, “God the Father”, “God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. The amount of verses to mention indicating my point are so numerous as to include nearly the entire NT. If we cannot distinguish between the “God” that acts upon, and through, and in “Jesus” as- the Father, then there is nothing to debate.

    If you wanted to debate specific instances where it could mean Jesus such as Rom 9:5, I could see your point. But the word God regularly means the Father alone!

    One God & One Lord- Biblical Monotheism

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