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Chapter 4. John 17:3 – The Only True God

Chapter 4

John 17:3 – The Only True God

In Part Two of this paper, we re-evaluate the deity of Jesus Christ in the light of John’s Gospel. Because this is a confer­ence paper, we cannot cover every pass­age in John. We won’t follow the verse order in John’s Gospel, but will begin with John 17:3:

“This is eternal life, that they may know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”

This statement comes from the Lord Jesus himself. It is deep, yet clear and simple. There is noth­ing theolog­ically com­plex about it. Even if the mean­ing of “eternal” is vague to some, surely the vocabulary of the sen­tence as a whole is not beyond that of a primary school student.

What then is Jesus saying in John 17:3? Within one sentence, Jesus twice uses the pronoun “you” (which is singular in the Greek text) to address the One he is praying to. It is clear from verse 1 that Jesus is praying specifically to his Father: “Father, the hour has come, glorify your Son”. This fact is not denied by trinit­arians and is stated in most commentaries. Hence Jesus is sim­ply saying, “You, Father, are the only true God,” a state­ment that rules out everyone else, in­cluding Jesus himself, as being God.

In addressing his Father as the only true God, Jesus is ruling out any other, even a so-called “god” or “God,” as true God. This is doubly rein­forced by Jesus’ use of the article “the” and the adjective “only,” both of which, espec­ially in combinat­ion, imply strict exclus­ion. The triple emphasis (the+only+true) is a triple reject­ion of any divine person alongside the Father of Jesus Christ.

Similarly, in John 5:44, Jesus calls the Father “the only God,” a verse that is problematic to trinitarians, even early trinitarians.[1]

Who is the Father whom Jesus calls the only true God? He is none other than Yahweh Himself, the God of Israel, for who can be “the only true God” (Jn.17:3) but Yahweh who is the only God (“I am Yahweh, and there is no other, besides me there is no God,” Isa.45:5)?

How could we in our trinitarian days have imagined that the Father is not the sole person in “the only true God”? Did we really think that Jesus was praying to all three persons of the Trinity, includ­ing Jesus himself? Does the word “you” (singular in Greek) which is uttered by Jesus in­clude “me”—Jesus him­self? Is Jesus pray­ing to himself? And what do we make of the words that follow, “and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”? Here Jesus is making a sharp distinction between “you” (the Father) and “Jesus Christ” by which he excludes himself from being “the only true God”.

John 17:3 defeats every attempt to make it trinitarian

The monotheism of John 17:3 is rock solid and defeats every attempt to give it a trinitarian meaning. That is why some Bible com­ment­aries avoid mentioning this verse altogether. Some other com­ment­aries quote the words “the only true God” for the sake of com­pleteness, but give them zero com­mentary. Yet others quote only the first part of John 17:3 which they find tame and non-offensive (“this is eternal life, that they may know you”), but are silent on the second part (“the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”). I have looked at over a dozen trinitarian commentaries.

But a few trinitarians are so bold as to try to ex­plain away Jesus’ clear statement in John 17:3. Yet even the greatest minds in church history (e.g., Augustine) have failed to reverse the meaning of John 17:3. That is the clear proof of the strict and absolute mono­theism of John 17:3 and of Jesus Christ.

The usual trinitarian tactic is to alter Jesus’ words in such a way as to expand the scope of “the only true God” in order to absorb Jesus or even the whole Trinity into the redefined “only true God”.

Augustine, one of the most influential theologians in histo­ry, after quoting John 17:3 correctly and accurately, immediately goes on to alter the sequence of Jesus’ words in a way that absorbs Jesus into “the only true God”. Augustine even calls it “the proper order”. Then he does something similar for the Holy Spirit.

In the following excerpt from Augustine’s exposition of John’s Gospel, note his alteration which is highlighted in boldface:

“And this,” Jesus adds, “is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent.” The proper order of the words is, “That they may know Thee and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent, as the only true God.” Consequent­ly, therefore, the Holy Spirit is also under­stood, because He is the Spirit of the Father and Son, as the substantial and consub­stantial love of both. For the Father and Son are not two Gods, nor are the Father and Son and Holy Spirit three Gods; but the Trinity itself is the one only true God. [2]

The fact that Augustine feels compelled to alter Jesus’ words in John 17:3 is clear proof that this verse, in its unaltered form, does not sup­port the doctrine of the Trinity. His alteration of John 17:3 is all the more puzzling because he does quote the verse accur­ately before making the alteration, which means that he had access to a good text of John 17:3, not a corrupted text. (Technical note: John 17:3 has no textual issues; this verse is given zero comment in UBS5’s critical apparatus.)

A similar approach—but more subtle—is seen in the article “Trin­ity” in ISBE (vol.5, pp.3012f) by B.B. War­field, a gifted writer who is known as “the last of the great Prince­ton theolo­gians”. From his ISBE article we see the sub­tle pro­cess by which Jesus’ words—and his monotheism—are brushed aside by philosophi­cal soph­isti­ca­tion and the persuasive argumentat­ion from human wis­dom.

Only the first part of Warfield’s essay is quoted below. It is skill­fully pres­ented. First he admits what cannot be denied, namely, that trini­ta­rian lang­uage is unbiblical and derived from philoso­phy, while boldly asserting that it is nonetheless Scriptural in essence. Using the language of chemistry, Warfield says that trini­tarian truth is the “crystalliza­tion” of what is hidden in Script­ure as a “solution” and in “solvent” state. While admitting that the doctrine of the Trinity is an extrapolation from “frag­mentary allu­sions,” Warfield boldly goes on to say that it is nonetheless a “genuinely Script­ural doc­trine”.

Warfield gets bolder in the next paragraph and says that the Trin­ity is “indiscoverable” in Scripture and can only be known by revela­tion! By this clever argument, Warfield has trans­formed a glaring trinit­arian weak­ness (the lack of bibli­cal support) into a supposed strength, and the non-existent into something that is know­able only by trinitarian illumination!

For brevity we quote only the first paragraph of his essay. Note how his non-Scripture position comes out, without exagger­at­ion, in al­most every sentence:

The term “Trinity” is not a Biblical term, and we are not using Bib­lical language when we define what is expressed by it as the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons, the same in sub­stance but dis­tinct in subsistence. A doctrine so de­fined can be spoken of as a Biblical doc­trine only on the princi­ple that the sense of Scripture is Scripture. And the definition of a Biblical doc­trine in such un-Biblical language can be justified only on the principle that it is better to preserve the truth of Scripture than the words of Scripture. The doctrine of the Trin­ity lies in Scripture in solution; when it is cry­stallized from its solvent it does not cease to be Script­ural, but only comes into clearer view. Or, to speak with­out figure, the doctrine of the Trinity is given to us in Scripture, not in formulated definition, but in fragmentary allusions.

Warfield’s persistent non-use of Scripture to defend­ trinit­ar­ian­ism comes very close to an explicit admission that trinitarian doctrine is un­script­ural. He even says that it uses “un-Biblical lang­uage” and is “indiscoverable” in the Bible.

Note further that Warfield defines trinitar­ianism as “the doctrine that there is one only and true God, but in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and coequal Persons” (italics added). The words in italics are a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in John 17:3 in which Jesus declares that the Father is “the only true God”. But by failing to quote Jesus in full, Warfield is sidestepping the crucial word “you” which is singular in the Greek and refers to the Father only. In this verse, Jesus is not just saying, “there is one true God”; he is saying specifically, “You (Father) are the only true God”. Jesus is not just making a gen­eral state­ment on mono­theism but speci­fies who the only true God is (namely, the Father).

The same fundamental error is made in the hymn, “We believe in One True God,” by Tobias Clausnitzer, 1668, and translated from the German by Catherine Winkworth, 1863. Whereas Jesus says that only the Father is true God (Jn.17:3), the first line of this hymn goes off on a tangent: “We believe in one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. Just as puzz­ling, the Bible verse given by a hymnbook as the bib­lical basis of this hymn is none other than John 17:3!

A similar error is seen in the title of a book by Clarence Benson: The One True God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

It is this crucial fact—that Jesus addresses his Father as the only true God—which is suppressed in trinitarianism. The error then slides into a distortion of the word “monotheism” to make it mean something other than mono­theism, namely, that “in the unity of the Godhead there are three coeternal and co­equal Persons” (War­field). But how can a doc­trine of a three-person Godhead be monotheism, the doctrine of one and only God?

Because the Father is the only true God, it will come as no sur­prise that it is almost impossible to find the deity of Jesus in the Bible. This leads us to the next chapter.

[1] John 5:44 was so problematic to early advocates of Christ’s deity that ancient manu­scripts P66 and P75 simply removed the word “God” from John 5:44 in order to avoid saying that the Father is “the only God”. Now the Father is simply “the only,” making it possible for Jesus to be God.

[2] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, series 1, volume 7, St. Augustine: Lectures or Trac­tates on the Gospel According to St. John, tractate CV, chapter XVII.1-5, para­graph 3, translated into English by Rev. John Gibb, D.D.



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