You are here

Chapter 12. The Trinitarian Depersonalization of “God” in John 1:1

– Chapter 12 –

The Trinitarian Depersonalization of “God” in John 1:1

In this chapter I discuss something that is fun­damental to trinitar­ian­ism: the depersonaliz­ation of God. But first I would like to say a few things about how “ordinary” (non-specialist) trinit­arians understand the Trinity as a result of this depersonalizat­ion.

Few trinitarians understand trinitarianism

Most Christians are trin­it­ar­ian in name, but lack an accurate under­standing of trinit­arian doctrine. For example, most trinit­ar­ians think that the deity of Christ is the essence — indeed the sum total — of trinitar­ian­ism, not realizing that if they stop there, they would be des­cending into tritheism, the doctrine of three Gods. The deity of Christ is only the “public face” of trinita­rianism, not its full represent­ative.

Indeed, some “ordinary” (non-specialist) trinitarians are baffled when they find out that God is only one being, not three beings, in trinitarianism. They are not aware that in trinitarian­ism, God has been depersonalized and is no longer a person. These Christians, despite hav­ing been exposed to trinitar­ian terminology over the years, had somehow gained the fuzzy notion that God is three beings (since God is three persons) rather than one being. The con­fusion can be blamed partly on trinitar­ian language which uses terms such as “being” and “person” which are easily con­flated in the minds of most people, even thinking people. When people see the word “being,” they would immediately think of a whole individual (as in “human being”), so it is only natural for them to think of a tri­personal God as three beings.

Trinitarian­ism thrives on conflationary language in order to make an incoherent and unbiblical doctrine sound plausible to Christians. In this case, it is seen in the concept of God as “one being,” a concept that was invented to give trinitar­ian­ism some sem­blance of mono­theism on account of the word “one,” but also on account of the word “being” which to most people implies an individual, thus giving trinit­arianism a facade of monotheism, the doctrine of one God.

In fact many “trinitarian” churchgoers are tritheists in reality as noted by Tom Harpur, a former professor at the University of Toronto and a famously astute observer of Christianity:

You simply cannot find the doc­trine of the Trinity set out any­where in the Bible. St. Paul has the highest view of Jesus’ role and person, but nowhere does he call him God. Nor does Jesus himself any­where explicitly claim to be the Second Person of the Trinity … This research has led me to believe that the great majority of regular churchgoers are, for all practical purposes, tritheists. (For Christ’s Sake, p.11).

Every once in a while, I would meet a pastor or a church leader who is nominally trinitarian, yet doesn’t fully grasp trinit­arian doc­trine. Some of them hold views of the Trinity which border on tritheism (the doctrine of three Gods) or modalism (the doctrine of one God who reveals himself in one of three modes, Father, Son, or Spirit).

While some of these church leaders may be genuinely con­fused about the Trinity, I get the feeling that most of them are deep thinkers who quietly do not accept the notion that God is three per­sons in one being.

Compound­ing the problem is that the concept of “one being” is often expressed as “one substance” or “one essence” — unbiblical term­inology that was invented to con­fer pseudo-monothe­is­tic lang­uage on a doctrine that is fundament­ally tritheistic.

The trinitarian depersonalization of “God”

At the start of this chapter, I said that the depersonalization of God is fundamental to trinitarianism. This is seen in the crucial fact that God is not a person in trinitarianism. The famous C.S. Lewis, a wholehearted trinitarian, puts it frankly:

Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person. (Christian Reflections, p.79).

Lewis’s shocking statement that trinitarianism “does not believe God to be a person” is actually standard trinitarian belief, and is echoed by other trinitarian authorities such as the NET Bible which on p.2017 rejects the notion of “the person of God”. Similarly, James R. White in The Forgotten Trinity (p.27) says that God is a what, not a who. This explains why some trinitar­ians prefer the bizarre term “Godhead” to “God”.

In the rest of this chapter, I discuss the trin­it­ar­ian depersonaliz­ation of God. It partly has to do with pros, a Greek prepos­ition that is traditionally translated “with” in the clause, “and the Word was with God,” implying a second person who was “with” God.

We previously saw why trinitarians would translate pros in John 1:1 ac­cord­ing to its rare meaning (“with”) rather than its usual mean­ing (“to” or “towards”). This is to safeguard­ trinita­rian­ism by imply­ing that the Word is a second person who was “with” God in the begin­ning. We do not totally reject “with God” as a valid translation of John 1:1b, but as we shall see, this reading is improbable because it creates a grave dilem­ma for trinitarians. And it was this dilemma that forced the hand of trinitarians to depersonalize God. After read­ing the rest of this chap­ter, you will know the true face of trinitarian­ism.

Trinitarians admit that their understanding of pros creates a conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c

It may come as a surprise to many that the key word in John 1:1 is not logos (word) or even theos (God) — these words are seldom controver­sial in themselves — but the word pros. That is because the way we under­stand pros in John 1:1b governs the way we inter­pret the whole verse.

The plain fact is that pros is not an obscure or mysterious word but a common word that creates no complica­tions for John 1:1 unless we pull pros away from its common meaning as trin­itarians have done. In the last chapter we saw from BDAG and Liddell-Scott-Jones that pros has several meanings but the main one is charact­erized by “to” or “toward” whereas “with” is a possible but rare meaning.

If we don’t have a good reason for rejecting the common mean­ing of pros for John 1:1, then the choice of its rare mean­ing would be ar­bi­trary. But we do have a good reason for choosing the prim­ary mean­ing of pros: refer­ential consisten­cy. And we do have a good reason for reject­ing the rare meaning of pros: refer­ential inconsistency. To see what I mean, let us com­pare the two possible render­ings of John 1:1:

Primary meaning of pros:

a. In the beginning was the Word,

b. and the Word had reference to God,

c. and the Word was God.

Secondary meaning of pros:

a. In the beginning was the Word,

b. and the Word was with God,

c. and the Word was God.

These two renderings are identical except for the underlined words. The first one has the advantage of ref­erential consisten­cy: the word “God” means the same in line #b as in line #c. In both lines, “God” refers to the God or the very person of God. This is what gives the whole verse its natural flow and pro­gression, with line #b leading naturally to #c.

But the sec­ond reading (the trinitarian one) lacks referen­tial con­sist­ency because “God” in line #c is forced to have a different mean­ing from “God” in line #b. Trinitarians say that “God” re­fers to the Father in line #b, and to the divine essence in line #c.

The inconsistency between lines #b and #c is perplexing, yet it is demanded by trinitar­ians in order to imply a second person who was “with” God in the beginning. Many trinitarian scholars are aware of this inconsistency as any­one who reads their literature on John 1:1 would know.

The root problem

The root problem is this: It makes no sense to say that “the Word was with God” if also “the Word was God”! This is a genuine dilemma for some well-known trinitar­ians, as we shall see. When John 1:1 is tran­s­lated in the conventional way as in most Bibles, a log­ical con­flict arises be­tween 1:1b and 1:1c. The problem is not with John 1:1c (“and the Word was God,” which is a valid translation though not the only one) but with 1:1b (“the Word was with God,” an improba­ble render­ing that is nonetheless demanded by trinitar­ians to safe­guard trinitarian­ism). But the conflict is strictly a trinitarian one because it is not inher­ent to John 1:1 when read properly.

The conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c, which arises only in trinit­arianism, is not a trivial one, and is noted by many trin­itarians. We now give five exam­ples of this. The first four are brief and sim­ple. The fifth one is longer and also touches on the Jehovah’s Wit­nesses’ similarly flawed interpretation of John 1:1. Along the way we will encounter the trinitarian depersonaliza­tion of God by which “God” in John 1:1c is no longer a person but a divine essence. The depersonalization of God is not, how­ever, limited to John 1:1c but pervades all of trinitarian dogma.

Five examples of the trinitarian effort to resolve the conflict between John 1:1b and John 1:1c

Example #1. F.F. Bruce, trinitarian and eminent NT scho­lar, is aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c when they are trans­lated the conventional way. He says of John 1:1c that “the meaning would have been that the Word was com­pletely identical with God, which is imposs­ible if the Word was also ‘with God’” (The Gospel of John, p.31). Notice the strong word “imposs­ible” that F.F. Bruce uses to describe the conflict. The conun­drum impels him to search for a ren­dering of John 1:1c that would resolve the conflict but with­out surren­dering trinita­rian doc­trine. For example, he speaks pos­itively of the rendering in New English Bible, “what God was, the Word was,” but admits that it is just a para­phrase. In the end, F.F. Bruce doesn’t seem to have found a solution that is satisfactory to himself beyond taking John 1:1c to mean, “the Word shared the nature and being of God”.

Example #2. IVP New Testament Comment­ary, which often ex­presses a trin­itarian opinion, mentions the same logical pro­blem that F.F. Bruce mentions, and then concludes, “These two truths seem imposs­ible to re­con­cile logi­cally and yet both must be held with equal firm­ness.” (These “two truths” are the two conflicting clauses that F.F. Bruce points out.) But after admitting that the two clauses “seem im­possible to reconcile logically” (strong words), the com­mentary offers no sol­ut­ion beyond the bare sug­gestion that we simply accept the two positions “with equal firm­ness” — i.e., we simply accept the contradiction as it stands, without further ado.

Example #3. H.A.W. Meyer, in Critical and Exegetical Hand­book to the Gospel of John (p.48), is aware that John 1:1b can be read in the referential sense (the Word referred to God) and correctly saw that this would make the Word a “periphrasis” (an indirect term) for the person of God himself. But this periphrasis undermines the trini­tarian insist­ence that the Word is a second distinct person who was “with” God the Father in the beginning. So Meyer de-emphasizes the peri­phra­sis and retreats to the con­ventional reading, “and the Word was with God”. But he im­med­iately sees the same conflict that F.F. Bruce sees. So Meyer insists that “God” in John 1:1c “can only be the predicate, not the sub­ject,” and proposes the reading, “He was with God, and poss­essed of a divine nature” (italics Meyer’s). This is not really a satisfactory solution to the problem because the rendering simply hides the word “God” in John 1:1c. Meyer’s paraphrase may seem labored, yet it is in line with standard trinit­arian dogma, especially in the way that “God” in John 1:1c has been depersonalized into “a divine nature”.

Example #4 (an explicit depersonalization of “God”). The NET Bible (whose extensive footnotes often express a trinit­ar­ian op­inion in the NT but less so in the OT) is aware of the conflict be­tween John 1:1b and 1:1c in the way they are usually translated in most Bibles. To resolve this conflict, NET takes the principle that any read­ing of John 1:1c that collides with 1:1b must be “ruled out”. This statement is more shocking than most readers may realize. In other words, preced­ence is given to the trinita­r­ian under­standing of John 1:1b as to over­ride any possible translation of John 1:1c even if it happens to be correct. This method­ology, which violates the principles of exegesis by forcing a presuppos­ition on a verse, is seen in the following statement in the NET Bible. The crucial words in paren­theses are not mine but NET’s:

The construction in John 1:1c does not equate the Word with the per­son of God (this is ruled out by 1:1b, “the Word was with God”); rather it affirms that the Word and God are one in essence.

NET here acknowledges the conflict between John 1:1b (“the Word was with God”) and 1:1c (“the Word was God”) when they are translated the conventional way. NET rejects the common rendering of 1:1c (“the Word was God”) for mak­ing the “Word” iden­tical with “the per­son of God”. NET doesn’t want “God” in John 1:1c to mean “the God” or “the person of God” because that would undermine the trinit­ar­ianism which NET reads into John 1:1b. In wrestling with this trinita­rian di­lemma, NET boldly de­cides to depersonal­ize “God” in John 1:1c so that the “Word” no longer refers to what NET calls the “person of God” but to some­one who is “one in essence” with the Father. This is add­ing a lot of abstraction to John’s simple state­ment.

NET’s depersonalization of “God” in John 1:1c may seem cold and shock­ing, but it accurately reflects the trini­tarian view that God is not a per­son. We have already quoted C.S. Lewis as saying that, “Christian theolo­gy does not believe God to be a per­son.”

In the end, NET translates John 1:1c as “the Word was fully God,” a paraphrase that deper­sonalizes the term “God” such that it no long­er refers to the God or the person of God. It is now a state­ment of the divine essence rather than an equation of identity between the Word and God as seen in “the Word was God”. That is why some trinitarians such as James R. White (in The Forgotten Trinity) say that God is a what, not a who.

The trinitarian interpretation of John 1:1 is identical to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in terms of exegetical proce­dure

Example #5. This is perhaps the most eye-opening of our exam­ples but some may find it too lengthy. It is written in such a way that you can glide through the tech­ni­cal details and get the main point.

It is not our aim in this example to study trinita­rianism or the Jeho­vah’s Witnesses in depth but to show that the two are similar in their respective gram­mati­cal anal­yses of John 1:1. The similarity is surpris­ing given their sharp dis­agree­ment over the deity of Jesus.

Trinit­arians and the Jehovah’s Wit­ness­es are in surprisingly close agreement in their exegesis of John 1:1. In fact they seem to ag­ree on every aspect of exegetical pro­cedure that mat­ters for the inter­pret­ation of John 1:1:

  • They agree on the Greek text of John 1:1 (i.e., no textual issues)
  • They agree, down to the last word, on how the first two clauses, John 1:1a and 1:1b, ought to be translated into English (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God”)
  • Both take “the Word” in John 1:1 as referring to the preexistent Christ
  • Both take “God” in John 1:1b as referring to God the Father
  • Both take pros in John 1:1b in its secondary sense “with” (the Word was with God), rejecting its primary sense “to” or “toward”
  • Both understand “the Word was with God” as referring to two distinct per­sons, God the Father and the preexistent Christ
  • Both are aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c that arises when pros is translated in its secondary sense “with”
  • Both try to resolve the conflict by changing the meaning of “God” in going from John 1:1b to John 1:1c
  • Both take “God” in John 1:1c as predicative, qualitative, and indefin­ite; and both use the predicate anarthrous theos argument to justify their qualitative understanding of “God” in John 1:1c
  • Both depersonalize “God” in John 1:1c such that it no longer refers to the very person of God but to a divine quality or essence or nature. In other words, both take John 1:1c not as an equation of identity (that the Word is God by meto­nymy) but as a state­ment of God’s essence or divinity (which is the trinitarian view, e.g., Marcus Dods, J.P. Lange, H.A.W. Meyer, C.K. Barrett, R. Bowman).

The close agreement of trinitarians and the Jehovah’s Witnesses in their exegetical procedures comes out strikingly in one of the most detailed gramma­ti­cal-exegetical anal­yses of John 1:1 ever writ­ten by an evang­elical. Robert M. Bowman Jr., an ardent apologist for trinitarian­ism, wrote a book, Jehovah’s Wit­nesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John, in which he gives a detailed exposi­tion of John 1:1 from a trinitar­ian per­spective, inter­woven with a critique of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ inter­pret­ation of the same verse. But the incon­ven­ient fact for Bowman is that their respective interpret­ations of John 1:1 are fundamentally identical in terms of grammatical-exegetical procedure.

For convenience we refer to the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the JWs with­out intending anything pejorative in the use of that term. Their transla­tion of the Bible, New World Trans­lation of the Holy Scriptures (2013 edition), will be abbre­viated NWT.

To spare you the technical details, I won’t go into the details of Bowman’s book (which I have read twice) except to summar­ize the two main currents of his exposit­ion of John 1:1.[1] Iron­ically, these two currents, especially the second one, have the surprising result of under­mining Bowman’s own trinit­arian inter­pret­ation of John 1:1.

First current: Bowman, like many trinitarians, is keenly aware of the conflict between John 1:1b and 1:1c when they are translated in the conventional way as seen in most Bibles today. He even refers to the con­flict explicitly:

What needs to be treated in some depth is the question of how the Word can be with God and yet be God … The Word certainly cannot be with “God” and be “God” unless the term God somehow changes significance from the first to the second usage. (pp.25-26)

Here we see the true face of trinitarianism. Bowman here explains to us the very dilemma which confronts trinit­arian­ism: If the word “God” means the same in John 1:1b as in 1:1c, then trinitar­ian­ism can­not be true, for then we must choose between two poss­ibilit­ies, both of which are detestable to trinita­rians: One option is biblical mono­theism in which the Father, not the Son, is the only true God (John 17:3). The other option is the error of modal­ism (in which Jesus = Father = Spirit, just as H2O can be water, ice, or vapor).

Neither option is acceptable to trinitar­ians, and this would account for the trinitarian effort to make “God” in John 1:1c mean some­thing differ­ent from “God” in 1:1b. This is the very dilemma that Bowman is trying to resolve when he makes the astonishing demand that “the term God somehow changes sign­ifi­cance from the first to the second usage,” by which he means that we change the meaning of “God” in going from 1:1b to 1:1c!

But Bowman’s efforts to resolve the conflict is not­able for the casual manner in which he alters the words of John 1:1 here and there without batting an eye, in contrast to the careful attitude of F.F. Bruce who hesitates to do this to even one word. Bowman speaks freely of “shifts” in wording, of changing the “significance” of words, of com­ing up with a “translation-para­phrase” (which is his euphemism for “para­phrase”). So it comes as no surpris­e that after making all the changes, here is his final and fully trinit­arian reading of John 1:1:

In the beginning the Word was existing; and the Word was exist­ing in relationship with the person commonly known as God, that is, the Father; and the Word was Himself essent­ially God. (p.26)

Second current: Bowman’s analysis of John 1:1 confirms the shock­ing fact which I sensed some time ago, that the trinitarian interpret­ation of John 1:1 is fundamentally identical to that of the JWs in terms of grammatical-exegetical procedure! Trinit­arians and the JWs agree on the first 90% of their interpre­tation of John 1:1 and diverge only in the final 10%. This accounts for the many grammati­cal-exegetical presup­po­sitions that they share in common for the interpretation of John 1:1 (see the bullet points listed two or three pages back).

Bowman admits agreement with the JWs on three key aspects of theos (God) in John 1:1c: the qualitat­iveness of the anar­throus theos (p.37); the predicateness of theos (p.38); the indefinite­ness of theos (pp.41,47). In agreeing with the JWs on these points, Bowman faces the rather difficult task of disprov­ing “the Word was a god,” which is the JWs’ favored render­ing of John 1:1c.

This bring us to the greatest irony of all: Bowman, on p.62, after giving the lengthiest grammatical analysis of John 1:1 that I have seen, has no choice but to admit that the JW’s render­ing of John 1:1c (“and the Word was a god”) is “a possible ren­dering” and is “gramma­tically possible” (Bowman’s own words)! Believe it or not, Bowman is conced­ing that the JWs are grammatically correct in their rendering of John 1:1, but he rejects it only because it is not doctrinally accept­able to him.

There is nothing unusual about a trinitarian who admits that “the Word was a god” (the rendering preferred by the JWs) is grammati­cally possible. Dr. Thomas Constable, a trinitarian of Dallas Theologi­cal Seminary, likewise concedes that “the Word was a god” is grammati­cally possi­ble, but like Bowman he rejects it as doctrinally unaccept­able:

Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal to this verse (John 1:1) to support their doctrine that Jesus was not fully God but the highest created being. They translate it “the Word was a god.” Gram­matically this is a poss­ible trans­lation since it is legitimate to supply the indefinite article (“a”) when no article is present in the Greek text, as here. However, that translation here is definitely incorrect because it reduces Jesus to less than God. (Dr. Constable’s Expository Notes, 2010 edition, on John 1:1)

In the final analysis, the true disagreement between trinitarians and the JWs is over doctrine rather than grammatical-exegetical pro­ced­ure. After agreeing in the first 90%, they diverge in the final 10%, specifically over the right way of describing Jesus’ divine­ness: “God” versus “a god”.

But even here they agree more than disagree be­cause when trinita­rians speak of “God” in John 1:1c, they don’t really mean “the God” or “the person of God” or “God Himself,” but “God” in the depersonalized sense of a divine essence or nature, which is similar to how the JWs understand “a god” to mean div­ine or god­like. In fact, Bowman (on p.63) and the JWs (in a footnote in NWT) both accept “and the Word was divine” as a valid altern­at­ive reading of John 1:1c. This is further proof of the deep agreement between trinit­arians and the JWs in their grammatical-exegetical analysis of John 1:1.

In the final analysis, Bowman’s disagreement with the JWs is only skin deep, mainly over the best way of depicting the divine­ness of the Word: “God” versus “a god,” both in a qualita­tive sense. When you think about it, this is really nothing more than a theological spat over the qualit­a­tive meaning of theos in John 1:1c. Interestingly, Bow­man uses many pages just to show that his qualitative under­stand­ing of theos is better than the JWs’ qualitative understanding of theos!

The weakness of Bowman’s analysis of John 1:1 — and there­fore that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses — is that they never consider the poss­ib­ility recog­nized by Meyer that pros could be taken referentially. This mean­ing is more natural and would make John 1:1b read, “and the Word referred to God,” which har­monizes progressively with the next clause, “and the Word was God,” with­out ever depersonal­izing “God” and without ever changing the meaning of “God” in going from John 1:1b to 1:1c.

But Bowman refuses to accept the referential use of pros in John 1:1 even though it is a common function of pros in Greek. It is because this usage would under­mine Bowman’s trinitarian presup­posit­ions, some­thing that he wants to avoid at all cost, even the cost (to him) of agreeing with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the cost of depersonalizing God.

[1] For the details, see Bowman’s Jehovah’s Wit­nesses, Jesus Christ, and the Gospel of John (Baker, Grand Rapids, 1989); and the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Inter­linear Transla­tion of the Greek Scriptures, 1965, pp.1158-1160.


(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church