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John 1:1 and the Doctrine of the Trinity

Trinity doctrine has been verbally rejected by a number of people within the Messianic/Hebraic Roots community these days; however, most of those spreading the negative report are only repeating negative hear-say without really knowing the full nature of the debate and all its implications.  While the doctrine of the Trinity is by no means “perfect,” and this is readily admitted by many Christian professors within most modern seminaries[1], what is often replacing this doctrine among Messianics is not necessarily “more bibical.” In fact, in some cases the alternatives being discussed within some Messianic circles by well meaning but uniformed “teachers” sounds ironically similar to a number of old ideas that resulted in the need and efforts of the Christian “church fathers” to develop the doctrine of the Trinity in the first place. In other words, several unbiblical ideas about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit such as Sabellianism (aka modalism) and Arianism (the belief that Messiah is not truly Divine, held by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Unitarians, Oneness Pentecostals, etc.), seem to be making a comeback among those “suspicious of all things Christian orthodox,” the unsuspecting, and the uninformed. The diligent Bible student would be wise to familiarize him or herself with these concepts.

Rather than argue Trinity doctrine theoretically, let’s instead take a look at the famous John 1:1 passage in detail, and see what exegetical and interpretive implications we find based on the Greek grammar and syntax. We will find that how one translates the verse into English will reveal his or her particular prejudice related to the issue of the Trinity concept.  

I’ve started by breaking down the Greek word-for-word in the original Greek word order as found in the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament.[2] [See picture of breakdown below]

Midrash

First, it’s important to understand that the Greek word order is flexible.[3] This is completely different from English. In English word order is a significant part of determining what “job” a particular word has in a sentence (i.e. noun, verb, adjective, adverb).  In Greek, “word order is employed for the sake of emphasis.”[4] Whatever words are put first are done so for emphasis. This is called “fronting.”  Fronting is an important translator insight because it tells you what the author might have wanted to emphasize in a particular sentence or context.

Second, if you ever had to “parse” a sentence in English, you know that step one is to find the subject noun of the sentence. This tells you who or what the sentence is about. Since word order is flexible in Greek, the subject noun could be anywhere in the sentence, even at the very end! Thus, when you interpret a Greek sentence you must first determine which words are in the nominative case, and then look to see which nominative nouns have the article “the”.  If there are two nominative case nouns in a sentence, look to see if one or both have the article “the”.  If only one of the two has the article then we know for certain the noun with the article is the subject noun and the second noun, as in the case of John 1:1c, is the predicate noun or predicate nominative (PrN). A predicate nominative or predicate noun is a noun that follows a “to be” verb, such as “Sam is a friend.” Sam and friend are the same, so that tells us that the noun “friend” is acting as the Predicate Nominative (PrN) in this sentence. The PrN “friend” is also describing or saying something about Sam.

With this in mind let’s break down John 1:1. Ἐν (in) ἀρχῇ (the beginning) – here beginning is in the dative case. Dative case is the same in English as our indirect object (IO) but in this case ἀρχῇ (the beginning) is acting as the object of the preposition (OP) of the preposition (P) Ἐν (in) because Ἐν (in) always takes the dative case ending. So the author here has fronted “In the beginning” likely to harken to another book, i.e. Genesis, that also begins with the words “In the beginning.”

Next is ἦν “was” (the verb of our sentence), followed by the first of three compound subject nouns (the) λόγος (Word). In other words, we have the article (the) and λόγος (Word) and this occurs three times, once in each clause. “The Word” is the subject noun of the sentence (compounded because of the two ‘and’s’).

“And” καὶ (a conjunction) is our next word followed by ὁ λόγος (the Word) ἦν (was) πρὸς (this is the preposition “with”) τὸν (The) θεόν (God). In this case the subject noun “The Word” is said to have been “with” The God from the beginning. “The God” is in the accusative case, which is the same as the English direct object (DO). This is significant because it indicates that the author is demonstrating by way of the syntax via the case ending chosen for “The God” that in some manner there is a measure of distinction between “the Word” and “The God.” However, the former was “with” the latter “in the beginning.” Christian orthodoxy, based on Trinitarian doctrine, suggests that “The God” indicates “The Father” here in 1:1b, whereas it is clear from the greater context that “The Word” in 1:1b is referencing the Word that was made flesh or manifest in the Son, Yeshua (1:14).

Finally, in 1:1c we have the key controversy and issues that determine orthodox or Trinitarian views verses anti-Trinitarian views. καὶ (and) θεὸς (“God”, but here without the article “the” indicating it is acting as the predicate nominative (PrN) or predicate noun AND it is being fronted in this clause before the subject noun “the Word”). The clause ends with ἦν (was) (the) λόγος (Word). In other words, in English word order we would say the subject noun first or “The Word,” then the verb, “was,” then the PrN (God). Why is this so significant? There are a number of reasons but we’ll keep it simple.

First, as far as Trinitarian orthodoxy is concerned the:

“lack of a definite article keeps us from identifying the person of the Word (Jesus Christ) with the person of “God” (the Father). That is to say that the word order tells us that Jesus Christ has all the divine attributes that the Father has; lack of the article tells us the Jesus Christ is not the Father.”[5]

If this were not the case we would have two other interpretive options we could argue with regard to how we might “try” to translate this final clause.

Alternative option number one is the method used by Sabellianism or the modalist approach. They would interpret 1:1c as καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν θεὸς. In this case Sabellians would add the article “the” in front of God when translating into English. That would specifically make the sentence imply or “mean” that the Word or Son was the Father. This idea of course carries many problems and implications (including the idea of the Father being on the cross with the Son) if they are really not distinct in any way. Even ancient orthodox Jewish literature would disagree with the concept of Sabellianism with regard to God the Father and the coming Messiah. Rabbi Shapira deals with some of these issues in His book Return of the Kosher Pig.

Option number two would be the Arianism method. Arianism would read the same in the Greek καὶ θεὸςἦνὁ λόγος but they would interpret the clause as “and the Word was a god.” This of course is the method of the Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons, etc., but is clearly not Christian orthodox and is anti-Trinitarian.

Wallace, in his book Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, notes the fact that 1:1c is using θεὸς or God in its qualitative sense or manner. This allows for a careful “balance between ‘the Word’s’ deity that was already present ‘in the beginning,’” and his humanity that was added later (Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο “And the Word became flesh” 1:14).[6] The grammar supports this point in that most “pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominatives” fall into this qualitative category.[7] In other words, the grammar supports the orthodox interpretation because most predicate nominative (PrN) or predicate nouns without the article that are “fronted” or put before the verb do so in the qualitative sense.

Wallace goes on to note that 1:1c and 1:14 match in their grammatical structure. In other words, they mirror each other grammatically as they both emphasize the “nature” of the Word rather than His identity.[8]

Such an option does not at all impugn the deity of Christ. Rather, it stresses that, although the person of Christ is not the person of the Father, their essence is identical…The idea of a qualitative θεὸς (God) here is that the Word had all the attributes and qualities that “The God” (of 1:1b) had. In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in person.[9]

However, this is not to suggest that Yeshua is never identified with θεὸς or “God” with the article. This occurs in John 20:28. However, in such cases there is nothing in the context of John 20:28 that would identify Yeshua specifically with the Father as could happen or be confused if it were not for the specific nature of the grammar and syntax found in John 1:1 that eliminates such confusion or possibility.[10] 

Furthermore, another commentator named Lange notes how “θεὸς without the article signifies the divine essence, or the generic idea of God in distinction from man and angel; as σὰρξ (flesh) ver.14, signifies the human essence or nature”[11] of the divine Word.

Finally, Luther, too, supports Wallace’s interpretation summing up the issue succinctly when he states that the phrase, “‘the Word was God’ is against Arius; (and) ‘the Word was with God’ against Sabellius.”[12]

In the end, the grammar and syntax of the Greek in John 1:1 appears to best support the Christian orthodox position and doctrine regarding a Trinitarian viewpoint. Those who hastily dismiss Trinitarian views often do not even understand the original intent and nature of the doctrine itself, at least in its original form and explanation. That does not mean one has to use the phrase “Trinity” when speaking of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, nor even profess to be a Trinitarian per se; however, everyone should strive to at least understand the intent behind the Christian doctrine  and not needlessly cause more confusion by bad mouthing the position, or worse, leading the uninformed masses away from sound doctrine simply because they have a prejudice against using the term “Trinity” itself.

John1-1Article_Anderson


[1]I’ve heard at least two Professors do this exact thing during my time in two different seminaries. One during my Master’s program and one during my Doctorate program.

[2]Kurt Aland et al., Novum Testamentum Graece, 28th Edition. (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 2012), Jn 1.

[3] William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek, (MI: Zondervan, 2009), 27.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of The New Testament, page 269.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 268, footnote 29.

[11] Ibid., 268, footnote 30.

[12] Ibid.

Comments (2)

  • sandra allenworth

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    Have you considered this from the point of view of this verse being a metonym? There are well over 300 other verses in the NT where God, the Messiah, the Apostles, the Jewish religious leaders and the demons all recognised the Christ as the Son of God. He has the attributes of God but on earth is a perfect human in order to fulfill His purpose. He verbalized His submission to His Father and offered the sacrifice of His life to the Father to rectify what Adam did in order to reconcile us to the Father.

    Reply

    • Christy Anderson

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      Hi Sandra,
      Thank you for your comment. I’ve just this week figured out how to come in and find and answer the comments. :) When you ask about the metonym, are you asking whether “the Word” could be used as a metonym for Yeshua? If so, since Yeshua is the Word made flesh, I don’t see a problem with that idea here as John clearly connects the active Word with Yeshua, like we use the word “Washington” to refer to the Federal Government. Although God the Father is not distinct from the Word either. It’s clearly a dynamic relationship that mankind forever has struggled to fathom and use human language to explain.

      Blessings,
      Christy

      Reply

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