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Four Interpretations of John 1:1c

Prior knowledge check: The Greek Alphabet · Some Basics in New Testament Greek Grammar · The Grammar and Syntax of John 1:1


Now that we have an understanding of what grammar and syntax are, and how John 1:1 is organized, I want to begin to focus our attention on John 1:1c for the next few posts. Just to be absolutely clear, here is John 1:1 in the English and Greek with each part labelled (a) through (c):

(a) In the beginning was the Word, (b) and the Word was with God, (c) and the Word was God.

(a) Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, (b) καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, (c) καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

For an explanation of these divisions, see the previous post.

My purpose in this post is to give an overview of four different ways Oneness Pentecostals can interpret John 1:1c. In total, there are actually six ways to interpret John 1:1c, but I think that two of them will be seen as theologically unacceptable to Oneness Pentecostals. For that reason, I want to focus on what they might say about John 1:1c.

To begin, I have to explain these six different interpretations by introducing two distinctions. Then I’ll give some reasons for why two of them are theologically unacceptable for Oneness Pentecostalism (and historic Christianity broadly).

What Kind of Noun is “God” (θεός)?

The first word that we have to get clear on is the word translated “God” (from the Greek θεός) in John 1:1c. In its lexical form, this verb is a noun. And nouns can function in one of three ways.

  1. Definite noun. A definite noun is a noun that can receive the definite article in context. (The definite article is the English equivalent of the word “the.”) I say that a definite noun can receive the definite article because it may actually lack the definite article, but could have still received the definite article in the context. For example, when a person is referred to by name in the Greek text, a definite noun is being used because we are talking about a particular person. The names of persons in the Greek can lack a definite article, but they also often have one as well. This means that definite nouns like names can receive the definite article in context. But even when personal names lack the definite article, they are still definite nouns.

    I’ve already noted one feature of a definite noun, then: it refers to a particular person, place, or thing (in the singular) or a group of them (in the plural). That’s what I mean by a definite noun.

  2. Qualitative noun. A qualitative noun indicates a kind (e.g., humanity/humankind) or a trait something has (e.g., mortality). Here’s a great example:

    God is love. (1 John 4:8b)

    ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν. (NA28)

    Notice what’s going on in this verse. The word translated “God” (θεὸς) has the masculine definite article (ὁ) in front of it. That means that God is the subject and is a definite noun. The word that occurs at the end (ἐστίν) is the third person singular of the verb “to be” (εἰμί) and means “he is.” It is an equative, or copulative verb. That leaves us with the word “love” (ἀγάπη). This word is a noun with a feminine grammatical gender, but matches the word for “God” in case and number. This means that this word “love” is saying something about God. It is functioning qualitatively to predicate the quality “love” of God. That’s why we can translate this verse as “God is love.” God is the subject, and the quality “love” is being predicated of God. “Love” is a noun in this sentence, but it is a qualitative noun.

  3. Indefinite noun. An indefinite noun is a noun that is used, in context, to refer to member in a group without specifying which one. And as I said in a previous post, koine Greek doesn’t have an indefinite article (the equivalent of the English word “a” or “an”). If a noun is indefinite in the Greek, it has to be inferred from the surrounding context.

    Let me illustrate what I mean by pointing out where the beloved King James Version (KJV) of the Bible made a poor translation choice. (If you feel upset that I just said that, I’ll point out that I first heard Jeff Arnold point this out.) In John 4:24 we read there that “God is a spirit” in the KJV. The translators of the KJV apparently felt that because the word “spirit” (πνεῦμα) is anarthrous, they should render this phrase “a [indefinite article] spirit.”

    The problem with this translation is that it is more likely, given John’s style, that “spirit” (πνεῦμα) is a qualitative predicate nominative. Not only that, but to say “God is a spirit” seems to assert God is one spirit among many “spirits.” It doesn’t seem like that’s what Jesus is getting at here. For these reasons, modern translations render John 4:24 “God is spirit” (or “Spirit”).

What Kind of Thing is the “Word” (λόγος)?

So far so good, but now we have to ask what kind of thing the Word (λόγος) is. Clearly the Word is a definite noun here because it receives the definite article. But that’s not the question. The question is, what kind of definite thing is the Word?

There are only two possibilities: The Word is either personal or it is impersonal. When I say “personal” I mean that the Word is a person. To say the Word is “impersonal” is to simply negate the idea: the word is not a person (variously: the Word is a not-person).

But wait a minute. What’s a “person” anyway? Here’s a provisional list of necessary conditions for what qualities a thing must possess to be a person (and therefore personal).

  1. Rationality.
  2. States of consciousness.
  3. Recognition by others that the thing in question has states of consciousness.
  4. Ability to recognize that other beings have states of consciousness.
  5. The capacity for verbal communication.
  6. Self-consciousness (regarding oneself as conscious).[1]

A person, then, is something that has (at least) these qualities. I say “at least” because it’s debatable whether these conditions are jointly sufficient for personhood.

I want to caution readers from a verbal trick that some individuals use (knowingly or not). Sometimes a Trinitarian will argue that the Word in John 1:1c must be personal, and that makes certain other interpretations false. In response, the Trinitarian’s opponent might say, “The Word is absolutely personal! Words are used by persons after all.” But this is really an equivocation on the word “personal.” The Trinitarian is using the term to mean “the state of being a person,” but the respondent has used “personal” to mean something more like a “a reflection of a person’s will.” This response fails to understand the point, is an equivocation, and therefore fails as an objection.[2]

How Should We Understand “Was”?

As Daniel Wallace points out in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, it is a mistake to assume that the word “was” in John 1:1c always means “equals.” In a footnote he states that assuming that the equative verb (“was”) is equivalent to the mathematical equals sign is “one of the fundamental flaws in the thinking of Jehovah’s witnesses regarding the deity of Christ.”[3] That’s a pretty serious charge.

So what’s the big deal? Why doesn’t “was” always mean “equals”? When you read Wallace’s section there on predicate nominatives (which “God” in John 1:1c is) you’ll find out that this is because there’s a difference between a subset proposition and a convertible proposition.[4] I don’t particularly like this terminology on its own, so I’m going to use what I think is a simpler way of explaining this distinction.

It all comes down to what the meaning of the word “is” is. (Remember that “was” and “is” are both forms of the verb “to be.”) Sometimes we use the word “is” to predicate something (or say something about) something else. For example, we might say that Theophilus is a bad writer. That says something about me. That’s the “is” of predication.

On the other hand, we can use the word “is” to say that two things are numerically identical—that they are literally the same thing. Suppose that my actual name is “Jim” (and it’s not). We could say that Theophilus is Jim, meaning that they just are the same person. It is in the sense of numerical identity that we use the “=” sign. So, the short hand might read “Theophilus = Jim.” That’s the “is” of identity.

A convertible proposition, as Wallace explains it, is a sentence with a subject, a predicate nominative, and a form of the verb “to be” that uses the form of the verb “to be” as an “is” of identity. Both nouns refer to the same thing in a convertible proposition. For that reason, if we say Theophilus = Jim, we can turn this around and say that Jim = Theophilus and the claim asserts the same truth. The original proposition (Theophilus = Jim) is convertible.

A subset proposition, on the other hand, is a sentence where the form of the verb “to be” is an “is” of predication. When this happens, if you try to use the equals (=) sign and turn around the subject and predicate nominative, you get a false claim. For example, when 1 John 4:8 says God (subject) is love (predicate nominative), you might translate this into “God = love.” But normally when we use the equals sign, we can turn it around to read “love = God.” But that’s absurd; God isn’t equivalent to an abstract idea called “love.” Switching the subject and predicate nominative in a subset proposition doesn’t work because the “is” of predication isn’t the same as an equals sign.

Let’s return to the example above: Theophilus is a bad writer. If we understand this to be a convertible proposition (using the “is” of identity), then we would be saying that Theophilus just is the state of being a bad writer itself. But that’s absurd; “bad writer” is an abstract idea, and no human being (like myself) can be identical to an abstract idea. But if this is a subset proposition (using the “is” of predication), we are saying there is a group of things, call it “bad writers,” and that Theophilus is one member in that group. Theophilus is a subset of the group (set) called “bad writers.”

Hopefully I’ve been clear enough here. In any case, I’ve explained all of that to say this: when I state the six ways we can interpret John 1:1c in the next section, we have to keep in mind whether or not each interpretation expresses a subset proposition (“is” of predication) or a convertible proposition (“is” of identity). So that technically makes 12 different ways to interpret John 1:1c (and 8 that are theologically acceptable to Oneness Pentecostals), but I’m going to focus on the six overall ways.

Six Ways to Interpret John 1:1c

Now we’re in a place to state what each of the six interpretations of John 1:1c are. There are three ways we can understand the noun “God” (θεός): definite, qualitative, and indefinite. And there are two ways we can understand the noun “Word” (λόγος): personal or impersonal. That yields the six ways we can interpret John 1:1c:

  1. Definite “God,” personal “Word.” (Abbreviation: D-P)
  2. Definite “God,” impersonal “Word.” (D-I)
  3. Qualitative “God,” impersonal “Word.” (Q-I)
  4. Qualitative “God,” personal “Word.” (Q-P)
  5. Indefinite “god,” personal “Word.” (I-P)
  6. Indefinite “god,” impersonal “Word.” (I-I)

In the next few posts, I’m going to focus on the D-P, D-I, Q-I, and Q-P interpretations of John 1:1c and see if Oneness Pentecostalism can plausibly assert any of them.

But before I get to that, I have to briefly state why I won’t be considering the I-P and I-I interpretations in any depth.

What’s Wrong with the Indefinite?

This is a website about discussing ideas, and that means I have to disagree with some of them. The idea that “God” (θεός) is indefinite in John 1:1c is one idea that I have to disagree with. This is the interpretation that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons take of this verse. To these groups, John 1:1c says, “and the Word was a [indefinite article] god.”

If we take the I-P interpretation, then the Word is a personal being that is a god. The Word could be one divine being among many, an angel, or some other being created by God. This interpretation doesn’t make sense to me for the following reasons:

(1) This doesn’t seem to square with the monotheism attested throughout the entire Bible.

(2) The Word existed with God (the Father) in the beginning (John 1:1b). According to John, it seems false that the Father created a lesser being that was with him and that he then sent to become incarnate. The truth of what John wrote takes priority over other writers, so to contradict him means that you’ve got a false idea (sorry Philo, et. al.).

(3) John’s usage of Colwell Constructions in his Gospel indicates that θεός is most likely qualitative in John 1:1c.[5]

As for an I-I interpretation, this simply doesn’t make any sense. If this is a convertible proposition, the verse says that “a god” (some lesser deity) is numerically identical with an impersonal thing. But a god is personal, and that’s a contradiction. If this is a subset proposition, the verse says that the impersonal Word (whatever it is) falls under the larger category of “gods”—that is, it must be a god. But to be a god one must be a person, something that an impersonal thing cannot be by definition. So we have the same contradiction as before: we have the same thing being predicated as a person and as impersonal at the same time.

Conclusion

For these reasons (at least), Trinitarians and Oneness Pentecostals alike will take issue with an I-P or I-I interpretation of John 1:1c. And since this series of posts focuses on how Oneness Pentecostals might interpret John 1:1c, these interpretations simply aren’t of interest to me right now. Although this isn’t an apologetics website, I’ve given (brief) reason enough to reject both of these interpretations of John 1:1c. If you want further elaboration on these points, start with a website like this one. (Although, I won’t rule out the possibility that I’ll go into greater detail on these interpretations at some point, just to be thorough.)

In the series of posts that follow, then, I will stick to the first four interpretations of John 1:1c. Let’s see how a Oneness Pentecostal understanding of God squares with each of them, starting with the Definite-Personal (D-I) interpretation.

 


Footnotes:

[1] See William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, chapter 3. He cites Daniel Dennett’s article “Conditions of Personhood” here. I’ve simplified the language from Craig’s list.

[2] e.g., Sir Anthony Buzzard says this in a debate with Michael R. Burgos, Jr.

[3] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (GGBB), 41 (footnote 14).

[4] Wallace, GGBB, 40-42.

[5] See Hartley, “Revisiting the Colwell Construction in Light of Mass/Count Nouns,” 33. Note: The page number for Hartley’s article refers to the page number in the Microsoft Word document that the website I’ve linked to allows you to download at the very top.

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