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William Arnold III on John 1:1 (Part 1)

Over at the “Institute for Biblical Studies” (hereafter, IBS) you can find all kinds of interesting and substantive articles on Oneness Pentecostal theology. Many of them are written by Jason Dulle, who I have corresponded with and who I regard well. In my view, Dulle is a careful thinker and the most consistent writer on Oneness Pentecostal theology that I know of.

Simply put, I think that when it comes to a full examination of Oneness Pentecostal theology, you have to take into account what he has written at IBS.

But I’m not concerned right now with anything Dulle has written, but rather William Arnold III, who is another contributor at IBS. In particular, I’m going to critically evaluate his article called “Colwell’s Rule and John 1:1.” (I will refer to him as “Mr. Arnold” or just “Arnold” for the remainder of this post.) It would be beneficial if you read that article before you see what I have to say about it.

In order to follow my critique, you will want to be familiar with four of my prior posts: “Some Basics in New Testament Greek Grammar,” “The Greek Alphabet,” “The Grammar and Syntax of John 1:1,” and “Four Interpretations of John 1:1c.”

The Positive

To his credit, Mr. Arnold seems to have actually read Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (hereafter, GGBB). By contrast, I find it strange that David Bernard doesn’t respond to GGBB in his “revised edition” of The Oneness of God (published in 2000). (GGBB was published in 1996.) It also seems like Robert Brent Graves either ignored it or didn’t even consult it during his “revised and updated” edition of The God of Two Testaments (also published in 2000). (Otherwise he wouldn’t have argued that Colwell’s Rule shows that John 1:1c takes “God” to be definite.)[1] I’m honestly confused about why this is the case for both of these writers, and I’m inclined to count this as a major weakness of their books. Sure, these books are supposed to be mostly popular level overviews, but that’s no reason to (seemingly) ignore the weight of Wallace’s arguments.

In any case, I’m happy that some Oneness Pentecostal seems to have actually read Wallace’s GGBB, recognizes that it deserves a response, and has actually tried to respond to it. In “Colwell’s Rule and John 1:1,” Arnold accurately summarizes a number of points in GGBB, and I want to commend him for those summaries.

My Critique

But as we will see, Arnold has a mistaken understanding of GGBB and a number of other ideas. While he seems to understand what Wallace is saying at first, he turns around and makes arguments that seem to show he doesn’t actually understand Wallace at all. I’ll give my reasons why so that this doesn’t sound like a harsh blanket statement.

Let’s begin about halfway down “Colwell’s Rule and John 1:1.” I am going to give each paragraph that I critique in block quotes with numbers after particular sentences in bold square brackets (like [1]). For my direct response to each point he makes, refer to the numbered list immediately below that block quote. I have removed the numbers for his footnotes from each paragraph.

My question to all of these grammarians is this: “Why does a definite theos have to refer to God the Father, since all three persons are co-equal in Trinitarian theology?” [1] The Holy Spirit is identified as “God” with the article present in Acts 5:3-4. Jesus is identified as “God” with the article present in John 20:28, Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1. [2] Wallace acknowledges these passages, but states that (in John 20:28) “there is nothing in that context that would identify [Jesus] with the Father.” [3] But if God is a Trinity, I see nothing in John 1:1b (“the Word was with God”) that would require that this occurrence of theos be identified as God the Father either. It simply says that “the Word was with God (article present).” Why could this not be referring to God the Holy Spirit? Surely if God is an eternal Trinity then Jesus would have been with him (God the Holy Spirit) in the beginning as well. [4]

  1. This paragraph shifts the focus for a moment to John 1:1b, even though the preceding discussion dealt specifically with John 1:1c. This is important because how we understand John 1:1b should affect how we understand John 1:1c. He seems to think that a Trinitarian understanding of John 1:1 is inconsistent, and begins to give his reasons why.

    The answer to the question in this sentence is honestly an easy one. The writers of the New Testament as a whole mostly use the term “God” (theos) to refer to the Father.[2] But more relevantly, the Gospel of John itself uses “God” to refer to the Father most of the time (when theos is articular).[3] But notice I’ve said “mostly” and “most of the time.” This means that “God” probably refers to the Father in John 1:1b. But his question seems to suppose, by asking why it “has” to refer to God the Father, that we know this with absolutely certainty. And since we’re dealing with a probability here, that leads into his next point.

  2. Arnold is admitting here that Trinitarians and Oneness Pentecostals all agree that the Father is God, that Jesus (the Son) is God, and that the Holy Spirit is God.

  3. Wallace’s point might be this: Unless one has assumed or established that Thomas must have thought of God as a single being and a single Person, there is no reason to think that Thomas is calling Jesus “God” in the sense of “Father.” This is exactly what Oneness Pentecostals do, and therefore why they think that Thomas is calling Jesus “the Father.” But Arnold is worried more about the Trinitarian understanding of John 1:1b here, as his next sentence indicates.

  4. If Jesus was God in the beginning in the same way the Father was God, then he was also with the Holy Spirit. This is an implication of Trinitarianism. But one reason a Trinitarian would understand theos in John 1:1b to refer to the Father is because, as I’ve already said in point (1) above, that’s how John primarily uses the term. This seems to me enough to answer his charge.

    But there’s another reason to think that “God” refers to the Father in John 1:1b that Arnold completely misses. Read John 1:1, and then 1:18, for yourself. What do you notice? Probably what many readers of Scripture have noticed for a long time: John 1:18 says something very similar to John 1:1b. In John 1:1b we read that the Word is “with” the God in the beginning; but then in John 1:18 we read that Jesus is with the Father now. This means that John 1:18 repeats an idea already present in John 1:1 in order to form a common framing device called an “inclusion” (or inclusio). That means, by implication, that “God” in John 1:1b refers to the Father.

    If I haven’t been clear enough, here’s what inclusio means: “A literary framing device in which the same word or phrase stands at the beginning and the end of a section. Sometimes called bracketing.”[4]

    By missing this point about the inclusio, Arnold has (maybe unwittingly) set up a straw man against the Trinitarian by saying that he seems to have little reason for thinking “God” refers to the Father in John 1:1b. Just because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally God on Trinitarian theology doesn’t mean that anywhere the term “God” is used in the New Testament is equally likely to refer to any of them.

The point we should note here is that when a Trinitarian reads the word “God,” he (rightly) assumes that it refers to God the Father, unless there is reason to believe otherwise. [1] Somehow, the Father is more ‘God’ than the other two people. [2] So if a definite theos in this passage would make Jesus God the Father (as Wallace and the other grammarians above have stated) then I see no reason why a definite theos applied to Jesus anywhere else in the New Testament would not also make Jesus God the Father! (such as in the passages noted above). [3]

  1. Notice that he says that Trinitarians “rightly” assume that “God” refers to the Father unless otherwise indicated by grammatical and contextual reasons. So he agrees that this is how we should understand “God” in the New Testament, broadly speaking.

  2. Up until this point in his article, Arnold has given accurate summaries and reasoned (somewhat) carefully. But this is where he starts to go completely off the rails, and shows that he doesn’t really understand GGBB or Trinitarian reasoning.

    Simply put, this sentence is a straw man. No Trinitarian thinks that the Father is somehow “more God’ than the Son or the Holy Spirit. He seems to tacitly attribute an argument like this to the Trinitarian:

    (1) If the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal persons in the Trinity, then they must be referred to as “God” the same number of times in the New Testament.
    (2) But they are not referred to as “God” the same number of times in the New Testament. (i.e., the Father is referred to the most)
    (3), So, it is not the case that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-equal persons in the Trinity.
    (4) Whoever is referred to the most is “more God” than the others.
    (5) Therefore, the Father is “more God” than the others.

    The problem is that there’s just no reason, in principle, to think (1) and (4) are true at all. This is a bad argument, and no Trinitarian will accept it (or probably ever has accepted it).

  3. Finally we’ve reached something worth arguing about. Here’s his point: Wallace and grammarians that Wallace cites in GGBB admit that if “God” refers to the Father in John 1:1c and if John 1:1c is a convertible proposition, then the Word (logos) must be numerically identical to the Father. That is, it would be true that Word = Father and Father = Word, where “=” is an operator of numerical identity.

    Now, Arnold says, let’s take their point that a definite theos applied to the Word in John 1:1c would imply that Jesus is numerically identical with the Father. Let’s also grant that this isn’t the case in John 1:1c. But then, why not think that a definite theos applied to Jesus anywhere else in the New Testament means he is the Father? Even this isn’t what John 1:1c means, it could mean that in other places. So why don’t these grammarians admit that Jesus is the Father in those other places? Why do they deny that in those places that Jesus = Father and Father = Jesus?

    Recall from the last paragraph that Arnold seems to assume that if the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all called “God,” then any of the three are equally likely to be referred to in John 1:1b. I’ve already argued that this is wrong, but let’s assume that he is right. Let’s also take it at face value that he assumes that a definite theos applied to Jesus means they refer to the same being and are numerically identical.

    If he is correct, then his own presupposition leads him to a contradiction. That’s because he said that “God” refers to the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:3-4. But if any of the three referred to with a definite, singular “God” in the New Testament is equally likely to be the referent of the term at any given point in the New Testament, then “God” can just as likely refer to the Holy Spirit in any of those places. (Again, that’s just what he seems to assume in the prior paragraph when arguing against Trinitarians.) That means that a verse like John 20:28 could also be saying that Jesus is the Holy Spirit.

    But here’s the contradiction: on Oneness theology, the Holy Spirit refers to God’s actions, or “God in action” as Bernard says.[5] But if Jesus is equated with the Holy Spirit at any given point, where we are supposed to understand the statement as Jesus = Holy Spirit, then they are numerically identical. But then Jesus, a personal being (since he is the Father) is literally identical with something impersonal: his actions. This is a contradiction.

    I don’t think this is at all what Arnold intends, but it follows from what he seems to assume in his article. Let’s interpret him more charitably, though, and see if he might have a better argument to offer.

    Let’s take him to mean this: “God” most likely refers to the Father in the New Testament, so any place we see Jesus referred to as “God” we should look for any reason to think that Jesus is not the Father. In John 20:28, Titus 2:13, and 2 Peter 1:1 Jesus is called “God.” But given that it is John, Paul, and Peter all primarily use “God” to refer to the Father,[6] what reason is there in those contexts to reject that each other is saying Jesus = Father and Father = Jesus? Why not think that a definite theos makes Jesus the Father in those places?

    If by “makes” Arnold means that the grammar alone is evidence that Jesus = Father (and vise versa), then I would say he is begging the question. That’s a pretty serious charge on my part, so I’m going to explain exactly why I think this is the case. To make myself clear, take a look at the following three claims:

    (P1) God is one Person.
    (P2) Jesus is fully divine.
    (P3) Jesus and the Father are two persons.

    I would submit to you that these three claims get at the heart of the division between Oneness Pentecostals, Trinitarians, and biblical unitarians. That’s because any two of the above claims, when taken together, imply that the third is false. Let’s consider the options.

    If (P1) and (P2) are true, then it can’t be the case that Jesus and the Father are two persons. In other words, (P3) would be false. Jesus must be the one person who is God incarnate. Oneness Pentecostals accept these two claims.

    The theologically astute might insist that (P1) through (P3) could all be maintained if we suppose that Jesus was two persons with two natures, a claim classically attributed to Nestorius. But I would say that if Nestorianism is true, making (P3) true, and yet (P1) is also true, at best what we have is a mere human who is juxtaposed with God—being completely controlled by him, as it were—and that Jesus the man would not actually be numerically identical with God. He would only be “possessed” or controlled by God. That means that, in reality, (P2) would be false if Nestorianism is true. So much for holding onto all three claims then.

    (P1) and (P3) without Nestorianism both imply that (P2) is false. Biblical unitarians accept these two claims.

    If (P2) and (P3) are true, that means that (P1) is false. Trintarians accept these two claims.

    Now, how does this apply to each of the passages that Arnold has in mind? Each of them, in his view, supports (P2). But the only way that they can show that (P3) is false is if one already assumes that (P1) is true. In other words, those passages may support that (P2) is true, but that doesn’t mean that they, in and of themselves, also show that (P3) is false. To assume that they do is to beg the question.

    That means that the passages that call Jesus God (John 20:28, Titus 2:13, 2 Peter 1:1) refer to the Father if and only if (P1) is also true. But for that to be the case, the Oneness Pentecostal must give good reasons for thinking that every example in the New Testament that seems to support (P3) is false. And among those are John 1:1-18, John 17, and the greetings of the epistles of Paul and Peter. In the final analysis, one cannot even in principle reason from (P2) alone that (P3) is false. But since Arnold seems to be asserting that here, I think I have good reason to charge him with the fallacy of begging the question.

So what other options were open to John? He could have easily left theos anarthrous and still put it after the verb, thus retaining the qualitative sense that Wallace argues for. [1] So it was not necessary to place it before the verb merely for that reason. [2] The fact that he chose to put it before the verb and to the beginning of the phrase would seem to indicate emphasis (The Word was God!)[original emphasis]. [3] As mentioned before, Colwell’s rule states that “definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article.” So if John intended a definite theos and wanted to emphasize the word “God,” then he would have said it exactly how he did! Now, I am in agreement with Wallace, that Colwell’s rule does not prove a definite theos, but it most definitely supports it. [4] Even he admits that a definite theos is “certainly possible grammatically.” [5]

  1. The word order that Arnold is suggesting here is this: kai ho logos en theos. But according to Harner, this would “probably mean that the logos was ‘a god’ or a divine being of some kind, belonging to the general category of theos but as a distinct being from ho theos.”[7] So Arnold’s claim here is simply false. There is another way that Harner says John could have written John 1:1c that does retain a qualitative sense of theos though: kai ho logos theos en

  2. But, according to Harner, John chose to write John 1:1c the way he did, rather than kai ho logos theos en because this allowed John to emphasize the word “God.” So Arnold does have a point here. It could also be that it allowed John to form a chiasm (a well-known Hebrew framing device) in John 1:1, since the word ordering is logos . . . logos . . . ton theon . . . theos . . . logos. This not only emphasizes theos in John 1:1c, but perhaps also makes the verse easier to remember.

  3. This is probably right. But see the next point to see why this statement is superfluous.

  4. He’s right that Colwell’s Rule (hereafter, CR) doesn’t “prove” a definite theos like some sort of deduction: (1) If CR, then definite. (2) CR. (3) Therefore definite. But what does “supports” mean here? Does he mean Colwell’s Rule provides evidence that theos is definite? That’s still false. Colwell’s Rule is irrelevant for grammar! It’s application is for textual criticism.[8] I’m going to assume Arnold read the rest of Wallace’s chapter and knows this, and thereby interpret him charitably.

    So perhaps by “supports” he means “is consistent with.” That’s presumably why he asserts in the next paragraph that if John had a definite theos in mind and wanted to emphasize this, then he would have written John 1:1c exactly how he did. So, perhaps Arnold recognizes that CR is irrelevant for establishing (by either “proving” or “supporting” a definite theos), but is consistent with CR. But then his point about this being “just what we would expect” is completely superfluous as an argument. We can only expect John to have written John 1:1c the way he did, on CR, if we already assume that “God” is definite. Again, John 1:1c is obviously consistent with Oneness Pentecostal theology assuming that theos is definite, but that’s not even an argument.

  5. As a good scholar, Wallace isn’t going to pretend that other interpretations aren’t grammatically possible. But the mere fact of possibility shows nothing. As Wallace says, “most heterodox (whether theological or exegetical) positions are built upon what is possible; but whether they are probable is a different matter.”[9] And as I’ve argued elsewhere, this possibility is a remote one for a number of reasons.

Furthermore, you could only derive a Trinitarian interpretation from John 1:1 if you come to this passage with an already developed Trinitarian theology. [1] If you approached it with a strict Monotheism (which is what I believe John held to) then this passage would definitely support such a view. [2]  If John had wanted to emphasize the word theos then he would have moved it to the beginning of the phrase before the verb and thus, (according to Colwell’s rule) it would be anarthrous (as it is).

  1. In other words, Trinitarians beg the question when they attempt to use John 1:1 to establish their position. I hope you can see by now how disingenuous, and incorrect, this statement is. It is disingenuous because it simply dismisses any arguments the Trinitarian can give for a Qualitative-Personal (Q-P) interpretation of John 1:1 (assuming that a Q-P interpretation isn’t consistent with Oneness or any other unitarian theology). That leads to why he is incorrect: take a look at this argument reconstruction I’ve made to see why this claim is also question-begging. 

  2. By “strict Monotheism” here Arnold probably means that God is one being and one Person. What I want to know is why he thinks that John held to “strict Monotheism” when he wrote his Gospel. What features of that Gospel indicate that John believes (P1), as we discussed above? And if John does indicate his acceptance of (P1), should we reject (P2) or (P3)? Arnold will presumably say we should reject (P3). But this is far from obvious

    Again, what does he mean by “supports” here? It can’t mean “provides evidence for,” as we’ve already seen above. He probably means “is consistent with,” which means there’s not even an argument to consider here.

Conclusion

If Mr. Arnold wrote this article in order to argue for a definite interpretation of theos in John 1:1c, then my comments show how this project completely fails. There’s quite literally nothing that he says in this article that provides support for this view.

If, on the other hand, he wanted to show to other Oneness Pentecostals that their view is consistent with Greek grammar (provided their view is correct), then his article succeeds. I guess that is a good thing if Oneness Pentecostals are used to hearing that their views are “impossible” given rules of Greek grammar. But as far as I’m aware, no Trinitarian scholar who is immersed in the language actually holds that. As Wallace says, and as Arnold pointed out, of course the Oneness Pentecostal interpretation of John 1:1c is possible. But that point isn’t in dispute, and it certainly doesn’t provide evidence that it’s correct.

In a later post I’ll also go through Arnold’s article called “In the Beginning was the Word.” I think that it’s filled with many of the same errors that I’ve pointed out in this post, but there are other things to discuss there.


Footnotes:

[1] Robert Brent Graves, God of Two Testaments, 268-269, 271.

[2] Murray Harris, Jesus as God40-47.

[3] Dixon, “The Significance of the Anarthrous Predicate Nominative in John,” 36.

[4] Matthew DeMoss, Pocket Dictionary for the Study of New Testament Greek, 71.

[5] David Bernard, The Oneness of God, 164.

[6] Harris, 45-47.

[7] Harner, Philip, “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns: Mark 15:39 and John 1:1,” JBL 92, no. 1 (March 1973): 85.

[8] Wallace, 10.

[9] GGBB, 10 (bold emphasis added).

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