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A Common Oneness Objection to John 1:1

Sometimes Oneness Pentecostals put forward an argument that is supposed to show that a Trinitarian understanding of John 1:1 is contradictory. And of course, any claim that implies a contradiction must itself be a false claim. That’s simply a rule of logic. In this post I’ll summarize the objection and then say why I think it fails to be a good one.

The Objection

Briefly the objection goes something like this: if “God” (θεός) in John 1:1 means “the Trinity,” then the Trinitarian interpretation is clearly false. If “God” means “the Trinity” there, then John 1:1 reads: “In the beginning was the Word (λόγος), and the Word was with the Trinity, and the Word was the Trinity.” But how can the Word be with the Trinity unless the Word is something other than the Trinity? And how can the Word be the Trinity when the Word (who is supposed to be the pre-incarnate Son) is supposed to be distinct from the Father and the Holy Spirit?

The same objection works if “God” in John 1:1 is supposed to be interpreted as “Father.” Here’s the objection as David Bernard explains it:

[I]f God in John 1:1 means God the Father, then the Word is not a different person, for the verse would then read, “The Word was with the Father, and the Word was the Father.” To make this imply a plurality of persons in God would necessitate a change in the definition of God in the middle the verse.
—David Bernard, Oneness of God, 189.

A trinitarian explanation of John 1:1 is inadequate and would require a midsentence change of the definition of “God.” Is God “the Father” (as I Corinthians 8:6 states)? If so, “the word was with [the Father], and the Word was [the Father].” Is God “the trinity”? If so, “the Word was with [the trinity], and the Word was [the trinity].” But trinitarians try to have it both ways, saying “The Word was with God [the Father], and the Word was God [the Son].” Such an interpretation is inconsistent and erroneous.
—David Bernard, Oneness View of Jesus Christ, 36 (brackets in the original; bold emphasis added).

In other words, if “God” means “the Trinity” or “the Father” in both John 1:1, the Trinitarian must be claiming that the Word (i.e., the Son) is the Trinity or is the Father. But they cannot say either of those things. So, to avoid this objection, they have to take “God” in John 1:1c to mean “the Son” to avoid the contradiction. And changing the meaning of a term just to avoid a contradiction is suspect.

Since both of these books by David Bernard are prominent, and since I’ve heard this objection in Oneness debates before, I think it’s important to address this objection.

Reconstruction of the Objection

Bernard seems to be arguing something like this:

  1. Suppose that “Word” (logos) in John 1:1c means “the Son.”
  2. The Son just is the second person of the Trinity.
  3. Therefore, the “Word” in John 1:1c means “the second person of the Trinity.”
  4. “God” means “the Father” in John 1:1b.
  5. The Father just is the first person of the Trinity.
  6. If “God” means “the Father” in John 1:1b, then “God” means “the Father” in John 1:1c.
  7. Therefore, “God” means “the Father” in John 1:1c.
  8. Therefore, “God” means “the first person of the Trinity” in John 1:1c.
  9. If “God” means “the Father” in John 1:1c, then the second person of the Trinity was the first person of the Trinity.
  10. Therefore, the second person of the Trinity was the first person of the Trinity.
  11. Therefore, the “Word” (logos) in John 1:1c does not mean “the Son.”

A similar argument can be run if “God” is understood to mean “the Trinity” in John 1:1. The only difference is that we end up with the conclusion that the second person of the Trinity was the Trinity in premise (10). But the second person of the Trinity isn’t supposed to be the Trinity, but a person in the Trinity. But that’s a contradiction, so premise (1) is false.

One might justify each premise in the following ways:

  1. Assume for reductio ad absurdum.
  2. This is what Trinitarians claim about the Son.
  3. Follows from (1) and (2), since Word = Son and Son = second person in the Trinity.
  4. This is the predominate use of the term “God” in the New Testament.
  5. This is what Trinitarians claim about the Father.
  6. See the “Evaluation” section below.
  7. Follows from (4) and (6). (Modus ponens)
  8. Follows from (5) and (7).
  9. John 1:1c would then read “and the Father was the Son” if (1) and (7) are true. The consequent seems to follow from this if (2) and (5) are true, as Trinitarians claim.
  10. This is a contradiction.
  11. So, (1) must be false. It’s negation, which is premise (11), must be true.

Evaluation

This entire argument, it seems to me, hinges on the truth of premise (6). But why would Bernard, or any other Oneness Pentecostal, think that this premise is true? I can think of three reasons:

R1. The term for God is used so closely together in this verse that we have no reason to think that it’s meaning changes. In fact, there’s literally a one word difference in the Greek:

καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
kai ho logos ēn pros ton theon, kai theos ēn ho logos. (Transliteration)

R2. “God” predominately means “the Father” in the New Testament. So, it’s typically reasonable to insert “the Father” anywhere we see “God” in the New Testament.

R3. Colwell’s rule is a valid rule and applies to John 1:1c. That is to say, “God” is definite in John 1:1c due to Colwell’s rule.

(R1) is the most problematic reason for accepting premise (6). Quite truthfully, it is naïve at best and question-begging at worst. It is naïve because it assumes that the distance between words is the determining factor for meaning here. It is question-begging because it assumes that “God” is definite in John 1:1c without considering syntax.

(R2) is really a half-truth. Anybody will tell you that “God” usually means “the Father” in the New Testament. But in order to conclude that it means “the Father” in John 1:1c, you have to show that it has that meaning in its context. It is an exegetical fallacy to conclude that if word X is mostly has meaning Y, then it must have meaning Y right here. This is a fallacy because one also has to consider syntax.

(R3) at least tries to address the question of syntax. But as I’ve pointed out in another post, using Colwell’s Rule to conclude that “God” is a definite noun in John 1:1c fails to understand Colwell’s actual rule. At best, what Colwell’s rule allows us to say is that if “God” is definite in John 1:1c, then we would expect it to lack the definite article in the Greek text. (By the way, Colwell’s rule is a valid one for textual criticism, so we can use it as a reason for why two late manuscripts containing John 1:1c with an article in front of theos are not original readings of the text.) Robert Brent Graves is one example of somebody who uses (R3) to justify premise (6).[1]

And in any case, there are very good reasons for thinking that “God” in John 1:1c is most likely a qualitative noun. That, by definition, would mean that “God” is used in two different senses in John 1:1b and 1:1c. In other words, it’s possible for the antecedent of (6) to be true and the consequent false. And that’s how we show that a premise with a conditional claim is false.

As for taking “God” to mean “the Trinity” in John 1:1b, it may be a straw man argument to ascribe this translation to the Trinitarian. The main reason for this is because John 1:1b forms an inclusio with John 1:18, where the Son (incarnate Word) is now at the Father’s side. This would mean that “God” in John 1:1b should be taken to mean “the Father,” even on Trinitarianism. For that reason alone, it seems to me, Oneness Pentecostals shouldn’t claim that Trinitarians understand “God” in John 1:1b to mean “the Trinity.”

As I’ve argued, then, premise (6) of Bernard’s argument is question-begging at worst and mistaken at best. If a similar argument that takes “God” to mean “the Trinity” is used to derive a contradiction, this is simply a straw man. It is therefore a false premise, and we can put this common Oneness objection to John 1:1 to rest.

 


Footnotes:

[1] Robert Brent Graves, The God of Two Testament (Hazelwood: Word Aflame Press, 2000), 268-269, 271.

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