The doctrine of the deity of Christ has been affirmed by the vast majority of the Christian church throughout its history. Ever since the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, it has been considered a litmus test for orthodoxy. It is one of the few doctrines that unites the main branches of the faith—Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. However, there have always been a small number of individuals who profess to be Christian and yet deny this fundamental doctrine. While most of the heresies of the early church leaned toward a Gnostic view of Christ that exalted his deity at the expense of his humanity, the sect of the Ebionites moved in the opposite direction, stressing Christ’s humanity at the expense of his deity. The controversy over the deity of Christ reached its apex in the early fourth century under the influence of Arius, who claimed that Christ was merely the first created being, and the instrumental agent through whom all other things were created. Indeed, it was largely due to Arius’ writings that the first ecumenical council in Nicaea was convened. Although Arianism was dealt a serious blow at Nicaea, it has not died out completely. The most influential advocates of Arianism today are the self-styled Jehovah’s Witnesses, also known as the Watchtower Society. They have been vocal in their denial of Christ’s deity, a fact which is reflected in key texts in their official Bible translation, the New World Translation.
Consequently, most of the debate between Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses over the deity of Christ has revolved around the proper translation and interpretation of certain passages of Scripture, and especially passages in the Gospel of John. Scholars have often noted that John’s Gospel contains some of the most explicit references to the divinity of Christ in the whole New Testament. But what are we to make of these references? And how does the New Testament’s teaching (and especially John’s teaching) on Christ’s divinity square with Judaism’s firmly monotheistic roots? It is the goal of this paper to analyze the three texts in John’s Gospel that directly apply the Greek term theos (“God”) to Jesus—John 1:1, 18; 20:28. I will compare standard evangelical translations and interpretations of these texts with the New World Translation’s renderings of them, and I will attempt to demonstrate that John’s Gospel gives us a solid basis for affirming the Nicene understanding of Christ’s deity.
It should be noted at the outset, however, that interacting with the position of Jehovah’s Witnesses is severely hampered by the fact that the sect has no significant presence in the broader scholarly community, and generally does not publish in peer-reviewed journals. Therefore, I will interact mainly with the writings of Greg Stafford, who has presented a more sophisticated apologetic for Watchtower theology in his book Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended. Ironically, Stafford is no longer a member of the Watchtower Society, but instead belongs to a splinter group known as the Christian Witnesses of Jah. However, his position on the deity of Christ still reflects the official teaching of the Watchtower Society.
Most translations of this verse read something like: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The New World Translation, on the other hand, makes a critical alteration to the last clause: “…and the Word was a god.” Jehovah’s Witnesses are in agreement with evangelical Christians that the “Word” of this verse (Greek logos) is a reference to Christ. Stafford points out that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that when the word logos is applied to Christ, it signifies Christ’s role as God’s spokesman. Evangelical commentator Leon Morris agrees: “‘The Word’ points to the truth that it is of the very nature of God to reveal himself.” But the debated point is over the relationship between the logos and the word theos. In what sense does John intend to call Jesus theos here?
Most students of biblical Greek learn early on that, unlike English, the Greek language lacks an indefinite article. Instead, indefiniteness is marked simply by omitting the definite article. Therefore, “the God” would be distinguished from “a god” simply by dropping the article ho. This is in fact what John does in 1:1. Of the two references to theos in this verse, the first has the article, while the second lacks it. Some commentators have suggested that this fact indicates that the two instances of theos here actually have two different referents. That is, the first may be taken as a reference to God the Father, while the second may be taken as a reference to some kind of lesser deity. This is the very position taken by Origen of Alexandria, who wrote in the third century:
For [John] adds the article when the noun “God” stands for the uncreated cause of the universe, but he omits it when the Word is referred to as “God.” …[E]verything besides the very God, which is made God by participation in his divinity, would more properly not be said to be “the God,” but “God.” To be sure, his “firstborn of every creature,” inasmuch as he was the first to be with God and has drawn divinity into himself, is more honored than the other gods beside him…
Origen’s comments certainly seem to be supportive of an Arian christology. And in a similar vein, Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite comfortable speaking of Jesus as “a god” in a purely derivative or metaphorical sense, just as men are called “gods” in Psalm 82:6 (and quoted by Jesus in John 10:34). Stafford explains: “…the Witnesses believe that NT references to Christ as theos were understood in relation to the OT concept of God, which allowed for the recognition of other, secondary gods, without compromising the Israelite faith of only one true God…”
However, ever since the publication of an article by E.C. Colwell in the Journal of Biblical Literature in 1933, the discussion on John’s use of theos in 1:1c has irrevocably changed. Colwell argued that when a definite predicate noun precedes the verb of a clause, it may lack the definite article and yet retain its definiteness. As a result of this study, Greek grammarians recognize that word order can play just as much of a role in determining definiteness as the presence or absence of the article. In the case of John 1:1c, the Greek text reads: kai theos ên ho logos. Here, the predicate theos precedes the verb and subject, and may therefore still be definite, according to Colwell.
But it is not simply a matter of the retention of definiteness. Some scholars have suggested that when a Greek anarthrous (lacking an article) predicate noun precedes the verb, it is not meant to express either definiteness or indefiniteness, but rather to express some inherent quality of the subject. Philip Harner writes: “In John 1:1 I think that the qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun cannot be regarded as definite.” In saying this, Harner does not mean to lend support to an Arian interpretation of the verse, but rather to provide a third option beyond simple definiteness or indefiniteness. His concern to avoid a definite interpretation of theos in 1:1c is directed at another christological error known as Sabellianism, which eliminates any personal distinction between the members of the Trinity. In other words, we cannot interpret the phrase theos ên ho logos as simply another way of saying, for example, ho logos ên ho theos. Harner warns that such a reading “would mean that logos and theos are equivalent and interchangeable. There would be no ho theos which is not also ho logos.” Another way to say this is that John 1:1c should be regarded as a non-reciprocating proposition—that is, the Word was God, but God was not the Word. In this sense, Harner argues, theos should be understood as qualitative and not definite.
Stafford claims, however, that this is precisely what the New World Translation intends to convey by using the English indefinite article “a.” He writes: “The primary reason NWT uses ‘a’ in John 1:1c is to emphasize the qualitative aspect of the noun.” He then proceeds to establish a distinction in John’s writing between the one true God and Jesus, who is only a “divine being.” This distinction of being is necessary, Stafford argues, because John could never have conceived of a simultaneous unity of being and distinction of personhood within the Godhead, since the doctrine of the Trinity developed only much later in the history of the church. But surely he is begging question here by assuming the impossibility of the very position that he is attempting to refute. Furthermore, one might ask, did the authors of the Old Testament have a full-orbed messianic expectation, or a well-developed eschatology? It seems evident that they did not, and yet not even Jehovah’s Witnesses would claim that OT theology is contradicted by later NT theology. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the OT contains the seeds of a theology that is further developed in the NT. In the same way, one can say that the NT contains the seeds for a Trinitarian theology that took full shape only in the following centuries of church history.
It seems that the best way to understand John’s use of theos in 1:1c would be to synthesize the arguments of Colwell and Harner, interpreting theos in a definite-qualitative sense. This is in fact the position taken by Leon Morris and D.A. Carson. Both authors argue that to reduce theos in John 1:1c to a merely indefinite-qualitative sense would be the equivalent of saying that the Word was only “divine.” But John had such a word available to him—the Greek adjective theios, which is used elsewhere in the New Testament (Acts 17:29; 2 Peter 1:3, 4). And yet John seems to be saying that the Word is more than just divine; he in fact shares in the nature of the God with whom he existed in the beginning. Contrary to Stafford and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the first verse of John’s Gospel does seem to clearly affirm central truths of Trinitarian theology, including both a distinction between the persons of the Father and the Son and their unity of being. Robert Bowman suggests that perhaps the best possible English translation would read something like: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with the Deity, and the Word was Deity.” This rendering probably comes closest to avoiding the twin errors of Sabellianism and Arianism, although the idea of “Deity” would require some clarification for most English readers.
Finally, Murray Harris makes the helpful observation that the third clause of John 1:1 provides the basis on which the first two clauses can make sense. He writes:
Only because the Logos participated inherently in the divine nature could he be said to be already in existence when time began or creation occurred and to be in unbroken and eternal fellowship with the Father. This would justify regarding theos as emphatic, standing as it does at the head of its clause.
In other words, only a Trinitarian affirmation of Christ’s deity can make sense of John’s flow of thought in the opening words of his Gospel. As a result, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ interpretation of this verse is seriously flawed on grammatical, contextual, and theological grounds.
The ESV’s rendering of this verse reads: “No one has seen God; the only God [Greek monogenês theos], who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” The point of contention in this verse involves the second occurrence of theos. It should be noted that there is a text-critical problem here, for a number of Greek manuscripts have the phrase monogenês huios (“only-begotten Son”) instead of monogenês theos, including the Majority Text of the Byzantine tradition. As a result, the KJV, ASV, NKJV, and RSV all read something like “only-begotten Son.” However, the weight of the internal and external evidence favors the phrase monogenês theos. Not only is it attested in early papyri like 66 and 75 and in the Alexandrian textual tradition, but it also provides a more difficult reading than monogenês huios. It would be easier to see how an early Christian scribe would have altered it to monogenês huios, given the presence of this phrase elsewhere in John’s writings (John 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9). And so following the text-critical principle of lectio difficilior potior (“the more difficult reading is stronger”), the phrase monogenês theos should be considered original. This is the position taken by Leon Morris and Bruce Metzger, and Stafford also agrees.
Granted the likely authenticity of the phrase monogenês theos, the question then becomes, what does it actually mean? It is evident enough from the text that it is a reference to Christ, who is at the Father’s side and reveals the Father to the world. But what is the best way of translating monogenês into English? The New World Translation and NASB have “only-begotten,” while the NIV has “the One and Only,” and the ESV simply has “only.” Monogenês derives from the two Greek words monos (“only”) and genos (“kind”), but Stafford points out that the latter is etymologically related to the verb ginomai (“to become”) and in filial contexts conveys the notion of birth or generation. Ironically, this is not entirely at odds with Trinitarian orthodoxy, since the Nicene Creed itself declares that Jesus is “begotten, not made,” thus making a crucial distinction between the two concepts. But Jehovah’s Witnesses object to such a distinction, arguing that it would be anachronistic to impose it upon John’s intended meaning. Rather, they believe that John 1:18 teaches that Jesus is the only divine being that has a beginning in time—that is, he is the only god that has been begotten/made.
Harris has an extended discussion on the meaning of monogenês, in which he argues that its meaning in the NT is “concerned with familial relations, not manner of birth.” That is, it emphasizes the Son’s unique relationship to the Father, not the fact that the Son was born in a unique way, whether that is understood in terms of his “eternal generation” from the Father or his virgin birth. This means that monogenês is best understood as “only” or “one of a kind.” Harris then explains how John’s use of the term sheds further light on the uniqueness of Christ. Only Christ is huios theou; in John’s First Epistle believers are called tekna but not huioi, and Harris takes this to mean that while “Christ’s sonship is essential, that of believers is adoptive.” Moreover, Christ is unique because of the depth of intimacy of his relationship to the Father, because of his special ability to reveal the Father’s love, and because of his direct origin from the Father. Lastly, Christ is unique in that he provides humanity with the sole means of eternal salvation.
When it comes to the best way of translating the set phrase monogenês theos, Harris weighs the competing options and ultimately favors “the only Son, who is God.” The reason for his preference is that he believes monogenês should be treated as the equivalent of (ho) monogenês huios, since this conforms to the general meaning of the term throughout the NT (cf. Luke 9:38; Hebrews 11:17). Therefore, theos in John 1:18 would be functioning epexegetically, as a further description of the only Son. In the context of the prologue of John’s Gospel, an affirmation of Christ’s deity would explain how Christ is capable of revealing the Father. Since no human being is able to see God and live (cf. Exodus 33:20), it would require that someone share of God’s own essence in order to behold him and make him known. As Harris aptly explains it:
The divine nature is not foreign to the Son, for as monogenês theos he possesses it and is therefore qualified to reveal it. Inasmuch as the only Son is God by nature and intimately acquainted with the Father by experience, he is uniquely qualified to reveal the nature and character of God.
Jehovah’s Witnesses therefore err by putting the emphasis in the wrong place. To say that Christ is monogenês theos does not mean that he is the only divine being that has been begotten (as opposed to the one true God who has never been begotten), but rather that he has a unique relationship to the Father because he shares in his Father’s deity. Harris’ interpretation fits much more naturally with John’s flow of thought as well as with the New Testament’s use of the term monogenês.
This is the last place in John’s Gospel where Jesus is explicitly called theos. It occurs in the resurrection account of Jesus appearing to his disciple Thomas. Thomas, who initially doubts the veracity of the reports of Jesus’ resurrection, is commanded by Jesus himself to touch the wounds in his hands and on his side and to believe. Thomas then says to him, “My Lord and my God” (Greek ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou)! What is noteworthy about this occurrence of theos is that, unlike John 1:1, it actually has the definite article attached to it. And unlike John 1:18, there are no significant text-critical problems with this verse. It would seem, therefore, that we could not possibly expect a more explicit affirmation of the deity of Christ.
And yet Jehovah’s Witnesses reject such a reading. Stafford argues that, although Thomas’ words were spoken to Jesus, they could have actually been directed to God the Father. Stafford writes: “It would not be out of place for Thomas to offer an exclamation of praise to the Father as ‘Lord’ and ‘God,’ for He proved to be such by raising His Son from the dead.” Stafford then attempts to defend this reading by pointing out that kurios here occurs in the nominative case, whereas John could have used the vocative case (kurie) if he intended to convey direct address. While he concedes that the nominative case can be and often is used in a vocative sense (cf. Revelation 4:11, where ho kurios kai ho theos hêmôn is clearly vocative), he believes there is no necessary reason to take it as such in John 20:28. Stafford also suggests another possibility, that the words kurios and theos in this verse actually have two different addressees—the former addressed to Jesus and the latter addressed to the Father.
But surely this is a case of special pleading. Harris summarily dismisses the possibility of two different addressees in Thomas’ statement, noting that nothing in the context could possibly indicate a shift in addressee. Likewise, it is extremely difficult to understand Thomas’ words as an exclamation directed to God the Father. If, according to John, Thomas said these words to Jesus (eipen autô), does that not most naturally mean that Thomas was addressing Jesus? Indeed, how can a person be speaking to one person and yet simultaneously be addressing another? Harris concludes:
[Ho theos mou] is neither an assertion made about the Father or Jesus, nor is it an ejaculation referring to the Father that was made in the presence of Jesus or referring to Jesus but not addressed to him. Rather it is an exclamatory address, an exclamation specifically directed to Jesus as its subject and recipient.
Supporting Harris’ comments, Carson adds the following observation:
Thomas’ utterance cannot possibly be taken as shocked profanity addressed to God (if to anyone), a kind of blasphemous version of a stunned ‘My word!’ Despite its popularity with some modern Arians, such profanity would not have been found in first-century Palestine on the lips of a devout Jew.
It would therefore surely be a stretch of the imagination to take Thomas’ words in John 20:28 as anything other than a confession of Jesus as God. But this is not to say that John intends to identify Jesus with the Father. Again, context helps us recognize the distinction between the two persons, for in 20:17 Jesus says to Mary Magdalene, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Stafford tries to avoid reading Trinitarian theology into the text, but it is difficult to see how one can take it any other way. Indeed, how else can we make sense of both the distinction between Jesus and the Father and their common attribution as theos, especially in light of Judaism’s strict monotheism? Nor will it do to reduce the attribution of theos to Christ to merely functional or positional (rather than ontological) terms. Harris points out that, while NT christology is primarily functional, a functional christology necessarily presupposes an ontological christology. That is, Christ can perform divine actions only because of his divine nature.
In sum, John’s Gospel provides us with some the most explicit affirmations of the deity of Christ in all of the New Testament. Jesus is described as the one who has existed from the beginning with the Father, who is in a unique position to reveal the Father to the world, and who receives the worship and titles that are reserved for God alone. All of this can only be true if Jesus actually shares in the divine nature of his Father. While the doctrine of the Trinity might not have reached its fully developed form until the fourth century, there is no doubt that it rests firmly on biblical foundations.
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