John 1:1, James White and Daniel Wallace sneaking theology into grammar

In a recent episode of the Dividing Line James White along with Daniel Wallace respond to some Muslim apologists who attack a Trinitarian reading of John 1:1, honestly some of the arguments given by those Muslim apologists are rather weak. However, the response by James White, and Daniel Wallace are also quite weak. Daniel Wallace quotes from his book Greek Grammar, Beyond the Basics. I’ll just take the quote and show why I think it’s problematic.

Daniel Wallace says:

Possible translations are as follows: “What God was, the Word was” (NEB), or “the Word was divine” (a modified Moffatt). In this second translation, “divine” is acceptable only if it is a term that can be applied only to true deity. However, in modern English, we use it with reference to angels, theologians, even a meal! Thus “divine” could be misleading in an English translation. The idea of a qualitative θεός here is that the Word had all the attributes and qualities that “the God” (of 1:1b) had. In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in person. The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was God and yet was distinct from the Father.

Here’s the problem with Daniel Wallace’s argument, in ancient Greek θεὸς was also used for angels and even human beings, for example, Moses in Exodus 7:1, and angels is Psalms 82 or the King in Psalms 45, in the LXX the all those examples use “θεὸς” to refer to those individuals who are not Yahweh.

So why must we assume that the attributes of θεὸς must be identical to τὸν θεόν? If I say “Bob was with the Professor” and “Bob was professorial,” does that necessarily imply that the use of professorial must equate to the same attributes and qualities of The Professor? Absolutely not. As we see all over the bible the word θεὸς can easily be used to describe individuals who are not Yahweh. We cannot simply assume right off the bat that θεὸς is not being used in 2 different ways. Daniel Wallace already agrees to that, according to him τὸν θεόν is God the Father, and θεὸς is not identifying a person but rather qualifying what the word is. That qualification simply just means the word is in the category of what can be described as θεὸς in some way, and we know, from all sorts of passages including John 10, that this category includes more than Yahweh.

Therefore, we have to make a decision. Is the second θεὸς attributing the exact same qualities to The Word as is found in the first τὸν θεόν? Or is the second θεὸς referring to something that both the Word and The God have in common? As already pointed out I can say Bob and the Professor are both professorial, but that doesn’t mean they have the exact same qualities, i.e. the Professor works at a University as a Professor, but Bob does not. The same principle holds with John 1:1.

The decision you make is going to depend on your starting point. At this point, we are moving away from grammar and into theology. Grammatically you can have “God,” “Divine” or “a God,” in John 1:1c, which one you choose is going to be determined by exegetical and theological considerations. The things we have to take into consideration are the things like the Worldview of the Writer and Intended reader, the surrounding Context and its logic, the entire text of John, the entire witness and theology of scripture, and so on.

So what is our starting point? Since John came from a Jewish background, and Jews were Unitarians, John would have initially understood Yahweh to be an individual person, and the same with his intended readers, so that should be our starting point. How about this “Divine λόγος” language? Do we find it anywhere else in contemporary or earlier Jewish writings? Well we in fact do, in the writings of Philo of Alexandria (which I have written about Here), and what do we find in those writings? We find the λόγος described as a secondary, created God through which all other things were created, an only begotten Son of God, an agent of God, the image of God … sound familiar? It certainly should. Philo even distinguishes the λόγος from Yahweh by use of the article. Is this something we should take into account when reading the prologue of John? Absolutely, the parallels are simply too striking to ignore.

What about the surrounding context? Well the word was with God and this word had all things come into being through him. Grace and truth came though Jesus just as the law came through Moses. Those who believed in The Word came to be Children of God, and so on. What does the context found in the prologue imply? It seems to imply an intermediary; it implies a divine being who acts as the agent of God.

So when we go back to John 1:1, which reading is more plausible? Is it plausible that John simply is giving us Orthodox Trinitarianism, without explaining anything about it? Without explaining that actually, he is speaking of divine essence, or that God is really multi personal. Is he saying that The Word is really God in the exact same way The God is God without qualifying all his intermediary language? Without qualifying all his subordinationist language? Even though all his readers were Unitarian Jews. Even though the only reference point (that we know of) when it comes to similar λόγος language in Judaism is Philo of Alexandria’s talk of the intermediary secondary God? Or, is it more plausible that he meant that the Word was divine in a secondary sense. This would explain why The Word could be with The God and The God could use him to accomplish his purpose. It would also explain why John used the same language as Philo, since he wanted to convey a similar idea. It explains why he never challenged Jewish Unitarian theology, which is why he never brought up the idea that God was multi personal. In fact, we know in John 10, that the idea that the term “god” could refer to more than just Yahweh was a common idea in Jesus’ response to his opposers. Of course it’s more reasonable to accept that the θεὸς of John 1:1c is not God in the same way as the τὸν θεόν of John 1:1b is God.

Does this hurt monotheism? Well it depends what you mean by monotheism, the term isn’t found in, or defined in the bible. If you mean by monotheism that no one but Yahweh can be rightly called theos in any way, then clearly that belief is non biblical, since the bible calls all sorts of individuals theos who are not Yahweh. If you define monotheism as there is one Yahweh, one God who is the Most High over all, and who is the source of all creation, and the ultimate authority, then this doesn’t hurt monotheism one bit, since Jesus is not a second Most High. Rather, he is subordinate to the Most High; he is anointed by the Most High to complete his purpose.

When you translate John 1:1 as the Word was God, how is that read? How is the word God used in English? Is it used as a Qualifier? No it isn’t, to the average reader that translation is identifying the Word as God, not describing an attribute the Word possesses. Just because some people use “divine” in a not so proper way, or a more flippant way, that doesn’t justify translating the “theos” in John 1:1c, which is clearly qualitative, in a way that gives the reader the impression that the Word is being Identified as “God” rather than being qualified.

Moving on to James White. James White responds to Shabir Ally, who implies that Jesus in John is conceived of as an intermediary between God and mankind, the type that we find in ancient Jewish literature. I’m only going to deal with James White’s response to arguments dealing with John 1:1 for now. He says:

In the prologue, John utilizes the imperfect form of εἰμί right here ἦν when referring to the λόγος, when he refers to anything else he uses ἐγένετο for example verse 3 πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, all things were made through him. Ἐγένετο is the aorist form of γίνομαι, and the aorist refers to a point action, normally in the past, so a point of origination. But ἦν is timeless existence in the past, there is no point of origination with it. So when he refers to the λόγος he consistently uses ἦν, until verse 14, when in verse 14. Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο, the word became flesh, because the word became flesh at a point in time. This is the incarnation that is found there, this is a specific construction on the part of the Apostle John. So the first phrase, in the beginning was the word, as far back as you want to push back that ἀρχῇ, the word is in existence the word is eternal. The second portion of the verse καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν and the word was with God, πρὸς τὸν θεόν, face to face with, πρὸς, and again it’s an eternal relationship. So there’s a relationship between the λόγος and whatever τὸν θεόν is who were gonna see in verse 18 is the father.

Did you catch the linguistic trick Dr. White does here? He is confusing the imperfect tense with the concept of eternity, ἦν is the imperfect form of εἰμί, yes but what does that mean? It means simply that it should be translated as “was.” That’s what imperfect means, that it is a continuous action in the past. There is no indication at all of eternity, any more than if I say “I was running” it means I was running for all eternity, or any more than when John says “ἐν τῷ κόσμῳ ἦν” (He was in the world) in verse 10 would mean that Jesus was eternality in the world. ἐγένετο is the aorist of γίνομαι which means to become, so ἐγένετο means became, or came to be. So Jesus became flesh, yes that implies a point in time, but if John had written that Jesus was (ἦν) that would have been also correct, because for a continuous period of time, Jesus was flesh. Then James White correctly points out that in the beginning, however far back that goes, The Word was. However, doesn’t mean that The Word was eternal, since the beginning was a point in time. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the logos didn’t exist before that time, but it doesn’t necessitate it either.

Then he moves on to καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, and claims this relationship must be eternal. No, I’m sorry, it does not imply eternality, it implies that he was with God for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s the same idea as if I would say, “I was with Bob,” it of course does not imply eternality.

What James White does here is take the timelessness of the imperfect tense and pretend it necessitates eternality, comparing it to the aorist, but that simply isn’t the case grammatically. What James White does is nothing more than a wordplay trick.

James White continues:

And then we get to the last phrase here καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. And what Shabir is saying here is that if John wanted to say that Jesus was the ultimate God. Now of course I’d like to remind Shabir that John is a monotheist, and that this idea of ultimate gods and lesser gods is more of a Greek concept than it is an Old Testament concept. Now there are certain Old Testament scholars that want to play around with that particular issue to.

There most certainly are those scholars, and they would be right to do so, because the concept of lesser gods is certainly an Old Testament concept. As I went over earlier in this post, in both the New Testament (such as 1 Corinthians 6:5,6 John 10:34, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians 4:4 and so on) and the Old Testament (such as Exodus 7:1, Psalms 82 and Psalms 45) there are those who are not Yahweh who are called gods. One might say “oh but they aren’t gods in the same way God is God” well fair enough, and so we can posit the same thing for the Logos.

James White goes on to criticize Shabir Ally’s point that had John wanted to identify the Logos as the ultimate God he would have used the article, by stating that when you have 2 nominative nouns connected by a verb, one can use the article to indicate which is the subject and which is the predicate nominative is. Fair enough, but this fits perfectly with what Shabir Ally is saying. Had John been identifying ὁ λόγος with ὁ θεὸς, with Yahweh then the phrases “God was the Word” and the “Word was God” could have been interchangeable. But that isn’t what John was doing. As we already established is that John was qualifying the Logos with Theos, not identifying the Word with God. What was Shabir Ally’s point? It was exactly that, Theos can mean divine, it can mean a god, it can mean God, whereas Ho Theos means “The God,” Yahweh, The Father, so the best translation is that The Word was divine. What’s wrong with that explanation? Other than the fact that James white doesn’t like the connotations of that.

So in conclusion both Dan Wallace and James White want to pretend that a Trinitarian exegesis of the prologue is just a matter of Greek grammar, when if you actually look at what they say carefully, both of them are sneaking in preconceived theology and bringing in little wordplay tricks. Dan Wallace uses terms like “true divinity,” without explaining what that means. Does is mean the thing or person being called god is done so in a correct way? If so then sure the logos is that, as are angels. Does it mean Yahweh? Well no, in that case you would simply be stating that no other being could be rightly called Theos, a theological presumption not found in the bible, and in fact contradicted in the Bible. James White also tries to sneak in the word “eternal” all over the place in John where it doesn’t exist and where there is nothing to warrant its usage. Both of them assume monotheism means that no one else can rightly be called God but Yahweh, despite that being opposed in scripture. If these are the best arguments for a Trinitarian Exegesis of John 1:1 then the Trinitarian Exegesis is a complete failure.

I think the lesson we can learn from all this is that sometimes all you need to fight against bad arguments are the questions “what do you mean by …?” and “why do you assume …?” It doesn’t matter how prominent of a scholar someone is, a bad argument is a bad argument.

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John 1:1, James White and Daniel Wallace sneaking theology into grammar

3 thoughts on “John 1:1, James White and Daniel Wallace sneaking theology into grammar

  1. karlos says:

    And who wrote this article? DANIEL WALLACE is a highly qualified Scholar-this article has no authors name. nothing-the identity is hidden. and claim Daniel Wallace is wrong-? serious? it would be like a doctor giving a lecture and then a no body stands up and says-doctor . you are wrong.

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