Friday, September 14, 2007

Jesus is God – Wayne Grudem Defends John 1:1 “the Word was God”

Further to my post quoting from D. A. Carson yesterday, I thought I would add this excellent defense of the deity of Jesus from the pen of Wayne Grudem. The following is taken directly from his Systematic Theology (Zondervan, 1994) pages 234-235. You can purchase this helpful volume from Westminster Books here.


The translation “the Word was God” has been challenged by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who translate it “the Word was a god,” implying that the Word was simply a heavenly being but not fully divine. They justify this translation by pointing to the fact that the definite article (Gk. ho, “the”) does not occur before the Greek word theos (“God”). They say therefore that theos should be translated “a god.” However, their interpretation has been followed by no recognized Greek scholar anywhere, for it is commonly known that the sentence follows a regular rule of Greek grammar, and the absence of the definite article merely indicates that “God” is the predicate rather than the subject of the sentence.’[1] (A recent publication by the Jehovah’s Witnesses now acknowledges the relevant grammatical rule but continues to affirm their position on John 1:1 nonetheless.)’[2]

The inconsistency of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ position can further be seen in their translation of the rest of the chapter. For various other grammatical reasons the word theos also lacks the definite article at other places in this chapter, such as verse 6 (“There was a man sent from God”), verse 12 (“power to become children of God”), verse 13 (“but of God”), and verse 18 (“No one has ever seen God”). If the Jehovah’s Witnesses were consistent with their argument about the absence of the definite article, they would have to translate all of these with the phrase “a god,” but they translate “God” in every case.

John 20:28 in its context is also a strong proof for the deity of Christ. Thomas had doubted the reports of the other disciples that they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, and he said he would not believe unless he could see the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and place his hand in his wounded side (John 20:25). Then Jesus appeared to the disciples when Thomas was with them. He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing” (John 20:27). In response to this, we read, “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28). Here Thomas calls Jesus “my God.” The narrative shows that both John in writing his gospel and Jesus himself approve of what Thomas has said and encourage everyone who hears about Thomas to believe the same things that Thomas did. Jesus immediately responds to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29). As far as John is concerned, this is the dramatic high point of the gospel, for he immediately tells the reader—in the very next verse—that this was the reason he wrote it:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30—31)

Jesus speaks of those who will not see him and will yet believe, and John immediately tells the reader that he recorded the events written in his gospel in order that they may believe in just this way, imitating Thomas in his confession of faith. In other words, the entire gospel is written to persuade people to imitate Thomas, who sincerely called Jesus “My Lord and my God.” Because this is set out by John as the purpose of his gospel, the sentence takes on added force.[3]

[1] This rule (called “Colwell’s rule”) is covered as early as chapter 6 of a standard introductory Greek grammar: See John Wenham, The Elements of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), P. 35; also, BDF, 273. The rule is simply that in sentences with the linking verb “to be” (such as Gk. eimi), a definite predicate noun will usually drop the definite article when it precedes the verb, but the subject of the sentence, if definite, will retain the definite article. So if John had wanted to say, “The Word was God,” John 1:1 is exactly the way he would have said it. (Recent grammatical study has confirmed and even strengthened Colwell’s original rule: see Lane C. McGaughy, Toward a Descriptive Analysis of EINAI as a Linking Verb in the New Testament [SBLDS 6; Missoula, Mont.: SBL, 1972], esp. PP. 49—53, 73—77; and the important review of this book by E. V. N. Goetchius in JBL 95 [1976]: 147—49.)

Of course, if John had wanted to say, “The Word was a god” (with an indefinite predicate, “a god’), it would also have been written this way, since there would have been no definite article to drop in the first place. But if that were the case, there would have to be some clues in the context that John was using the word theos to speak of a heavenly being that was not fully divine. So the question becomes, what kind of God (or “god”) is John talking about in this context? Is he speaking of the one true God who created the heavens and the earth? In that case, theos was definite and dropped the definite article to show that it was the predicate. Or is he speaking about some other kind of heavenly being (“a god”) who is not the one true God? In that case, theos was indefinite and never had a definite article in the first place.

The context decides this question clearly. From the other uses of the word theos to mean “God” in vv. 1, 2, 6, 12, 13, et al., and from the opening words that recall Gen. 1:1 (“In the beginning”), it is clear that John is speaking of the one true God who created the heavens and the earth. That means that theos in v. 2 must be understood to refer to that same God as well.

[2] ‘The argument is found in a detailed, rather extensive attack on the doctrine of the Trinity: Should You Believe in the Trinity? (no author named; Brooklyn, N.Y.: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1989). This group apparently deems this booklet a significant statement of their position, for page 2 states, “First printing in English: 5,000,000 copies.” The booklet first advances the traditional argument that John 1:1 should be translated “a god” because of the absence on the definite article (p. 27). But then it later acknowledges that Colwell’s rule is relevant for John 1:1 (p. 28) and there admits that the context, not the absence of the definite article, determines whether we should translate “the Word was God” (definite) or “the Word was a god” (indefinite). Then it argues as follows: “...when the context requires it, translators may insert an indefinite article in front of the noun in this type of sentence structure. Does the context require an indefinite article at John 1:1? Yes, for the testimony of the entire Bible is that Jesus is not Almighty God” (p. 28).

We should note carefully the weakness of this argument: They admit that context is decisive, but then they quote not one shred of evidence from the context of John 1:1. Rather, they simply assert again their conclusion about “the entire Bible.” If they agree that this context is decisive, but they can find nothing in this context that supports their view, they have simply lost the argument. Therefore, having acknowledged Colwell’s rule, they still hold their view on John 1:1, but with no supporting evidence. To hold a view with no evidence to support it is simply irrationality.

The booklet as a whole will give an appearance of scholarly work to laypersons, since it quotes dozens of theologians and academic reference works (always without adequate documentation). However, many quotations are taken out of context and made to say something the authors never intended, and others are from liberal Catholic or Protestant scholars who themselves are questioning both the doctrine of the Trinity and the truthfulness of the Bible.

[3] The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ booklet Should You Believe in the Trinity? offers two explanations for John 20:28: (1) “To Thomas, Jesus was like ‘a god,’ especially in the miraculous circumstances that prompted his exclamation” (p. 29). But this explanation is unconvincing, because Thomas did not say, “You are like a god,” but rather called Jesus “my God.” The Greek text has the definite article (it cannot be translated “a god”) and is explicit: ho theos mon is not “a god of mine” but “my God.”
(2) The second explanation offered is that “Thomas may simply have made an emotional exclamation of astonishment, spoken to Jesus but directed to God” (ibid.). The second part of this sentence, “spoken to Jesus but directed to God,” is simply incoherent: it seems to mean, “spoken to Jesus but not spoken to Jesus,” which is not only self-contradictory, but also impossible: if Thomas is speaking to Jesus he is also directing his words to Jesus. The first part of this sentence, the claim that Thomas is really not calling Jesus “God,” but is merely swearing or uttering some involuntary words of exclamation, is without merit, for the verse makes it clear that Thomas was not speaking into the blue but was speaking directly to Jesus: “Thomas answered and said to Him, ‘My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28, NASB). And immediately both Jesus and John in his writing commend Thomas, certainly not for swearing but for believing in Jesus as his Lord and his God.