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The Apologists  Bible Commentary



John 1

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1b ...and the Word was with God...


Other Views Considered

Jehovah's Witnesses


objection:  Trinitarians claim that this [verse] means that "the Word" (Greek ho logos) who came to earth as Jesus Christ was Almighty God himself.  Note, however, that here again the context lays the groundwork for accurate understanding.  Even the King James Version says, "The Word was with God." (Italics ours.)  Someone who is "with" another person cannot be the same as that other person.  In agreement with this, the Journal of Biblical Literature, edited by Jesuit Joseph A. Fitzmyer, notes that if the latter part of John 1:1 were interpreted to mean "the" God, this "would then contradict the preceding clause," which says that the Word was with God (SYBT, p. 27).


response:  Trinitarians indeed claim that Christ is Almighty God, but we do not claim that He is the same person as the Father.  The classic Trinitarian formula, Una Substantia, Tres Personae (One Substance, Three Persons), recognizes the personal distinction required by John 1:1b.  We agree with the Watchtower that "someone who is with another person cannot be the same as that other person."  The Watchtower has created a strawman of the Trinitarian position (since it correctly defines the Trinity on page 3 of this same publication, it appears it intended to do so).  John 1:1b may contradict the strawman, but not the true doctrine of the Trinity.


The quote from the Journal of Biblical Literature is from Phillip Harner's famous article on Greek nouns in the grammatical construction found in John 1:1c (click here for a summary of Harner's article).  Harner is actually quoting J.H. Bernard, who is writing about a textual variant of John 1:1 that no scholars (nor the Watchtower) accept as legitimate.  Bernard says nothing about "interpreting" John 1:1c as meaning "the" God - he says that if the variant found in Codex L were genuine (ho theos instead of theos), this would signify that a personal distinction was present in both 1:1b and 1:1c, and this would be contradictory.  However, since the actual text reads theos in 1:1c (not ho theos), there is no contradiction - Harner, Bernard, and other scholars mentioned in the article (Bruce Vawter, W.F. Howard, R.E. Brown, and Rudolf Bultmann) conclude that while ho theos (1:1b) signifies the person with whom the Logos stands "face to face," theos (1:1c) points to the nature that the Logos shares with God (see Harner. p. 87).  Trinitarians do not "interpret" the latter part of John 1:1 to mean "the God;" once again, the Watchtower is arguing against a view that Trinitarians do not hold.



objection:  Trinitarianism cannot have the Word existing "with" an unqualified reference to "God," since Trinitarians accept only one God, namely the Trinity.  Thus, ho theos in John 1:1b must be reinterpreted in light of the assumed truth of Trinitarianism.  When this is done, ho theos becomes "God the Father, the first person of the Trinity." ... When Trinitarians equivocate on terms like "God" they knowingly or unknowingly confuse others into thinking that they are making some point that is rooted in the biblical text, when in fact it is rooted in post-biblical theology.... Trinitarians cannot interpret this verse without substituting ontological terms with terms limited to (in their way of thinking) personal descriptions; they are forced to use post-biblical thoughts and expressions to justify a post-biblical doctrine.  But since John did not hesitate to make an ontological distinction between God and the Word, why should we choose to do otherwise?" (Stafford, pp. 67-69).


response:  It is true that Trinitarians accept only one God who is revealed in Scripture as the Trinity.  But does this mean that Trinitarians must always interpret the word "God" in the Bible to mean the Trinity, and that failure to do so is equivocation?  I shall attempt to demonstrate that the answer is "no and no."  Mr. Stafford has created a false dilemma, based on an apparent misunderstanding of lexical semantics and a caricature of Trinitarian exegesis.


When linguists talk about the meaning of words, they define "meaning" as consisting of several general categories, two of which are:


1.  Sense - the dictionary "definition" or the entries in a lexicon.

2.  Referent - the specific object or concept referenced by a given word (1).

For example, consider the word "God" in Genesis 1:1 ("In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth").  We could look up "God" in the dictionary or Elohim in an Old Testament Hebrew lexicon and find several possible definitions listed:  1.  The Supreme Being; 2. pagan deities; 3. idols; etc.  These are the senses of the word "God."  In the Hebrew lexicon, we might also find a listing of verses following each definition, indicating the referent of each instance of "God."  The sense of "God" in Genesis 1:1 is definition #1.  The referent is the God of Israel, YHWH.


In John 1:1b, the sense of "God" is the same as it is in Genesis 1:1 - the Supreme Being.  The noun "God" is preceded by the definite article (ho theos), as is the noun "Word" (ho logos).  The definite article signifies that a specific person, place, or thing is in view.  The verb "with" (pros) signifies an intimate relationship between the Logos and "the" God, the kind of relationship possible only between two persons or individuals.  The referent of "God" in John 1:1b, therefore, is not the Being of God, but rather the Person who is God, just as the referent of "Word" is the person who is ho logos.  And context makes clear that the Person with whom the Word enjoys this intimate relationship is the Father (v. 18).  So, we may safely conclude that the referent of ho theos is the Father.


"Equivocation" is a logical fallacy in which the same word is used with two different senses.  For example, "The end of a thing is its perfection; death is the end of life; hence, death is the perfection of life" (Copi, p. 121)..  The sense of "end" in the first clause is not the same as that in the second.  But when Trinitarians interpret ho theos as the Father, we are not changing the sense of ho theos from the Trinity to the Father - we are recognizing that while the sense of ho theos is "God," the referent in this context is the Father.


Thus, when Trinitarians interpret ho theos in John 1:1 as the Father, we are not importing Trinitarianism nor equivocating on the word "God," but are rather using a fundamental tenet of lexical semantics - namely that the sense of a word should not be confused with its referent, and vice versa.  John is speaking of a close, personal relationship between the Word and "the" God, and a personal relationship is one between Persons.  Trinitarians are therefore following sound linguistic principles in interpreting ho theos as the Father.


But Mr. Stafford's objection is not only that we "reinterpret" God in John 1:1b to mean "the Father," but that by this we mean "The Father, the first Person of the Trinity."  Mr. Stafford agrees that John's reference in John 1:1b is the Father, but he says Trinitarians equivocate when we interpret that Father to be a Person in the Trinity (IBID, p. 65).  He says that such a view is never articulated in Scripture.  But this is a theological objection - based on one's interpretation of the Bible as a whole - not an objection based on the logical fallacy of equivocation.


It is true that Trinitarians interpret God in John 1:1b to be the Father, the first Person of the Trinity.  But we need to distinguish between exposition and interpretation.  Exposition is the explication or explanation of the author's intended meaning in a given passage; interpretation is our exposition combined with what we know about the same subject from other Scriptures.  In our exposition of John 1:1, Trinitarians do not claim that John is speaking about who the Father is or in what way He is God.  John's purpose, instead, is to tell us who the Son is and in what way He is God.  Trinitarian exposition typically focuses on the personal distinction between the Logos and God in 1:1b and the qualitative aspects of theos attributed to the Logos in 1:1c (2).  This exposition, founded on sound grammatical principles, demonstrates a personal distinction between the Father and the Son, as well as an ontological unity.  Trinitarians do not need to import the Trinity into this verse - rather, it is the logical outcome of a careful reading of it.  From this exposition, we may deduce certain aspects of the Trinity, but it is only when we bring a systematic study to the nature of God as revealed in the entirety of Scripture that we are able to adequately interpret precisely how the personal distinction and ontological unity are worked out (see, for example, Grudem's Systematic Theology, pp. 226ff).


Mr. Stafford may disagree with the conclusions of Trinitarian theologians regarding what Scripture teaches about the nature of God, but he should recognize that the identification of ho theos with the Father is linguistically sound (if for no other reason than he does so himself), and that this identification is the basis of our exposition.  He should also acknowledge that interpretation may be legitimately based on conclusions drawn from other Scriptures, because this is precisely what he is doing when he argues that nowhere does Scripture articulate the Trinitarian view.  


Indeed, while he claims that we import our view of the Trinity into this verse (which we do in our interpretation, from the entire counsel of Scripture; but not in our exposition), Mr. Stafford imports his presupposition that 1 person = 1 being into not only his interpretation, but into his exposition as well.  Thus, while Mr. Stafford accuses Trinitarians of assuming what we seek to prove (which we do not actually do), Mr. Stafford is guilty of this precise fallacy.  For only by assuming the unipersonality of God can Mr. Stafford derive an "ontological distinction" between the Word and God - an essential point in his exposition.  However, if one sets aside any preconception about God's personal nature, and considers simply the semantics of John's words, we must conclude that the distinction John draws in 1:1b is personal, not necessarily ontological.  If God is unipersonal, an ontological distinction must follow; however, if God is multipersonal, there need not be an ontological distinction.  When we consider John 1:1a  (which teaches that the Word was already existing in the beginning of all creation) and John 1:1c (which teaches that the Word fully shares the nature of God), a distinction in ontology becomes impossible.  When speaking of God, then, a personal distinction must coexist with an ontological unity.  Though this is not a complete articulation of the Trinity, it points us clearly in that direction.  


Trinitarians, then, are not guilty of equivocation.  Our understanding of John 1:1 is based on sound linguistics, solid logic, and a systematic approach to Biblical truth.  Mr. Stafford's insistence that Trinitarians must always assume that "God" means "the Trinity" or risk equivocation is based on a confusion of sense and referent.  If the Bible ascribes theos with the sense of the True God to the referent the Father (and subsequently, the Word), Trinitarians will follow where Scripture leads.





1.  For a good general discussion of how linguists define "meaning," see Cotterell and Turner, Linguistics and Biblical Interpretation and Silva, Biblical Words and Their Meaning.


2.  Here is a representative sample of exegetical commentaries on John 1:1, none of which "import" or rely upon the Trinity for their analysis:


The Word was with God—The preposition translated "with" is pros. In Koine Greek pros (short for prosopon pros prosopon, "face to face") was used to show intimacy in personal relationships (see Matt. 13:56; 26:18; Mark 6:3; 14:49; 1 Cor. 13:12; 6:10; 2 Cor. 5:8; Gal. 1:18). Thus, for John to say "the Word was with God" was for him to mean "the Word was face to face with God" (see Williams’s translation) or "the Word was having intimate fellowship with God." This speaks of the preincarnate Son’s relationship with the Father prior to creation—in fact,  prior to everything (see 1:18; 17:5, 24) (RWP cf, Moulton).


With God (pros ton theon). Though existing eternally with God the Logos was in perfect fellowship with God. Pros with the accusative presents a plane of equality and intimacy, face to face with each other (RWP).


The preposition "with" in the phrase "the Word was with God" indicates both equality and distinction of identity along with association. The phrase can be rendered "face to face with." It may, therefore, imply personality, coexistence with the Creator, and yet be an expression of his creative being...The preposition ðñ’ò (pros) indicates both equality and distinction of identity.  Robertson says, "The literal idea comes out well, ‘face to face with God’" (RHG, p. 623). Thus this implies personality and coexistence with God. Robertson says it bespeaks of "the fellowship between the Logos and God" (EBC).


Thus John’s statement is that the divine Word not only abode with the Father from all eternity, but was in the living, active relation of communion with Him (Vincent).


Of the character of this relationship to God no further details are given.  [Apparently "with God" (pros + accusative) is intended as an indication not only of place but also of disposition and orientation. - note 23]  The focus is entirely on the antecedent existence of the Word, that is, that it existed before all that is created, and on the Word's participation in the divine.  This latter point is made in no uncertain terms by the emphatic positioning of the predicate noun: "And God was the Word" (Ridderbos).


What we notice about all these examples [of pros in the NT], however, is that in all but one or two peculiar constructions (e.g., 1 Pet. 3:15), pros may mean 'with' only when a person is with a person, usually in some fairly intimate relationship.  And that suggests that John may already be pointing out, rather subtly, that the 'Word' he is talking about is a person, with God and therefore distinguishable from God, and enjoying a personal relationship with him (Carson).


The Greek preposition translated with suggests the idea of communion.  The thought is lit. 'towards God', which requires some distinctiveness between God and the Word.  But the next phrase adds a further aspect, since it affirms that the Word was God...Since the Greek has no article before God, the term must be taken setting out a characteristic of the Word.  Since God is a noun, John must be affirming the Godhead of the Word.  It involves not only divinity but deity (NBC).

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