John 1:1 Caveat Lector (Reader Beware)

“In the beginning was the word” does not mean “In the beginning was the Son

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew [1] he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified [i.e. he gave them glory in intention, not yet in reality] (Rom. 8:28-30; cf. Eph. 1:3-10).

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenlies with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. He predestined us in love to be his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will — to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the one he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will [the mystery of the Kingdom] according to his good pleasure which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment — to bring all things in heaven and on earth together in Christ (Eph. 1:3-10).

But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, to ransom those who are under the Law in order that we might receive the full status of sons. To show that you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, an heir also, by God’s own act (Gal. 4:4-7, Translators’ Translation). 

God has saved us, and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted to us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel (2 Tim. 1:9, 10).

In the hope of the life of the age to come which God who cannot lie promised before aionion times but at the proper time manifested, namely his word in the proclamation with which I was entrusted (Titus 1:2, 3a).

John and the Preexistent Purpose of God 

One day a theological storm is likely to erupt over the translation of John’s prologue in our standard versions. At present the public is offered a wide range of renderings, from the purely literal to the freely paraphrased. But do these translations represent John’s intention? Or are they traditional, based on what “everyone accepts”? Have they sometimes served as a weapon in the hands of Christian orthodoxy to enforce the decisions of post-biblical creeds and councils? The seeker after Truth of the Berean style (Acts 17:11) should investigate all things carefully.

According to the findings of a recent monumental study of the origin of Christ in the Bible, Bible readers instinctively hear the text of John 1:1 as follows: “In the beginning was Jesus and Jesus was with God and Jesus was God,” or “In the beginning was the Son and the Son was with the Father…”[2]

This reading of the passage provides vital support for the traditional doctrine of the Godhead, shared equally by Father and Son from eternity. Paraphrased versions sometimes go far beyond the Greek original. The Contemporary English Version interprets John to mean that two beings were present at the beginning. “The Word was the One who was with God.” No doubt, according to that translation, the Word would be equivalent to an eternal Son. It would certainly be understood in that sense by those schooled on the post-biblical creeds.

But why, Kuschel asks, do readers leap from “word” to “Son”? The text simply reads, “In the beginning was the word,” not “In the beginning was the Son.” The substitution of “Son” for “word,” which for millions of readers appears to be an automatic reflex, has had dramatic consequences. It has exercised a powerful, even mesmerizing influence on Bible readers. But the text does not warrant the switch. Again, John wrote: “In the beginning was the word.” He did not say, “In the beginning was the Son of God.” There is, in fact, no direct mention of the Son of God until we come to verse 14, where “the word [not the Son] became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of a unique Son, full of grace and truth.” Until verse 14 there is no mention of a Son. The Son is what the word became, but what is the word?

Imagine I told my child, “Our car was once in the head of its designer, and now here it is in our garage.” The child might respond: “How could that car fit into the head of the designer? It would be too big.” Fair point, but based on a large misunderstanding. The application to our problem in John 1:1 is simply this: The fact that the word became the man Jesus, the Son of God, does not necessarily or automatically imply that Jesus, the Son of God is one-to-one equivalent to the word before Jesus’ birth. What if the word, the self-expression of God, became embodied in, was manifested in, the man Jesus? That makes very good sense of John 1:14. It also avoids the fearful, never-resolved complexities of Trinitarianism by which there are two or three who are fully and equally God. If our theory is right, John will have been speaking about a preexisting divine Purpose, not a second divine person.

It is commonly known to Bible readers that in Proverbs 8 wisdom was “with [Hebrew, etzel; LXX, para] God.” That is to say, God’s wisdom is personified. It is treated as if it were a person, not that Lady Wisdom was really a female personage alongside God. We accept this sort of language, usually without any confusion. We do not suppose that Prudence, who is said to be dwelling with Wisdom (Prov. 8:12), was herself literally a person. When the famous St. Louis Arch was finally completed after several years of construction a documentary film announced that “the plan had become flesh.” The plan, in other words, was now in physical form. But the arch is not one-to-one equivalent with the plans on the drawing board. The arch is made of concrete; the plans were drawn on paper.

The Misleading Capital on “Word” 

Here is a very remarkable and informative fact: If one had a copy of an English Bible in any of the eight English versions available prior to 1582, one would gain a very different sense from the opening verses of John: “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. All things came into being through it, and without it nothing was made that was made.”

“All things came into being through it [the word],” not “through him.” And so those English versions did not rush to the conclusion, as does the King James Version of 1611 (influenced by the Roman Catholic Rheims version, 1582) and its followers, that the word was a person, the Son, before the birth of Jesus. If all things were made through “the word,” as an “it,” a quite different meaning emerges. The “word” would not be a second person existing alongside God the Father from eternity. The result: one of the main planks of traditional systems about members in the Godhead would be removed.

There is more to be said about that innocent sentence: “In the beginning was the word.” There is no justification in the original Greek for placing a capital “W” on “word,” and thus inviting readers to think of a person. That is an interpretation imposed on the text, added to what John wrote. But was that what he intended? The question is, what would John and his readers understand by “word”? Quite obviously there are echoes of Genesis 1:1ff here: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…and God said [using His word], ‘Let there be light.’ ” “God said” means “God uttered His word,” the medium of His creative activity, His powerful utterance. Psalm 33:6 had provided commentary on Genesis: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” And so in John 1:1 God expressed His intention, His word, His self-revealing, creative utterance. But absolutely nothing in the text, apart from the intrusive capital letter on “word” in our versions, turning word into a proper noun, would make us think that God was in company with another person or Son. The word which God spoke was in fact just “the word of God,” the expression of Himself. And one’s word is not another person, obviously.

The Meaning of “Word” 

Sensible Bible study would require that we attempt to understand what “word” would mean in the background of John’s thinking. Commentators have long recognized that John is thoroughly Hebrew in his approach to theology. He is steeped in the Hebrew Bible. “Word” had appeared some 1,450 times (plus the verb “to speak” 1,140 times) in the Hebrew Bible known so well to John and Jesus. The standard meaning of “word” is utterance, promise, command, etc. It never meant a personal being — never “the Son of God.” Never did it mean a spokesman. Rather, word generally signified the index of the mind — an expression, a word. There is a wide range of meanings for “word” according to a standard source. “Person,” however, is not among these meanings.

The noun davar [word] occurs some 1455 times…In legal contexts it means dispute (Ex. 18:16, 19; 24:14), accusation, verdict, claim, transfer and provision…[otherwise] request, decree, conversation, report, text of a letter, lyrics of a song, promise, annals, event, commandment, plan (Gen. 41:37; II Sam. 17:14; II Chron. 10:4; Esther 2:2; Ps. 64:5, 6; Isa. 8:10), language…Dan. 9:25: decree of a king; [also:] thing, matter or event. Of particular theological significance is the phrase “the word of the Lord/God came to…”…In Jud. 3:19-21 Ehud delivers a secret message (i.e. a sword to kill him)…Yahweh commands the universe into existence. Yahweh tells the truth so everyone can rely on Him. The word of the Lord has power because it is an extension of Yahweh’s knowledge, character and ability. Yahweh knows the course of human events. Similarly human words reflect human nature (“the mouth speaks from the abundance of the heart/mind”)…Words are used for good or evil purposes (Prov. 12:6)…Words can cheer, correct and calm.[3]

We might add that “As a man thinks in his heart [and speaks] so is he” (Prov. 23:7). A person “is” his word. “In the beginning there was the word,” that is, the word of God. Clearly John did not say that the word was a spokesperson. Word had never meant that. Of course the word can become a spokesperson, and it did when God expressed Himself in a Son by bringing Jesus onto the scene of history. So then Hebrews 1:2 says: “God, after He had spoken long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, at the end of these days has spoken in a Son.” The implication is that God did not earlier speak through His unique Son, but later He did. There is an important chronological distinction between the time before the Son and the time after the Son. There was a time when the Son was not yet.

It would be a serious mistake of interpretation to discard the massively attested meaning of “word” in the Hebrew matrix from which John wrote and attach to it a meaning it never had — a “person,” second member of a divine Trinity. No lexicon of the Hebrew Bible ever listed davar (Hebrew for “word”) as a person, God, angel or man.

The Word “With God” 

John’s prologue continues: “And the word was with God.” So read our versions. And so the Greek might be rendered, if one has already decided, against all the evidence, that by “word” John meant a person, the Son Where was the divine word and wisdom. The divine wisdom and word was there with God and it was what God was. (The Complete Gospels)[8]

In the beginning there was the Message. The Message was with God and the Message was deity. He was with God in the beginning. (Simple English Bible)

At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. (Phillips New Testament in Plain English)[9]

In the beginning was the Word (the Logos, the expressed concept, here personified). (The Authentic New Testament)[10]

In the beginning was God’s purpose, and this purpose was revealed in a historical encounter.[11]

“The Word,” said John, “became flesh.” We could put it in another way — “the Mind of God became a person.” [12]

C.C. Torrey translates John 1:1c, “the word was god.”[13] The professor aims with this rendering to tell us that the word has the quality of God but is not identical with God. His sensitivity to the nuances of the Greek is shared by James Denny who discussed the clause “The word was God”:

As for your remark that you missed an unequivocal statement that Jesus is God, I feel inclined to say that such a statement seems unattractive to me just because it is impossible to make it unequivocal. It is not the true way to say a true thing…The NT says that theos een o logos [the word was God], but it does not say o logos een o theos [the word was the one God], and it is this last which is really suggested to the English mind by “Jesus is God”…Probably the aversion I have to such an expression as Jesus is God is linguistic as much as theological. We are so thoroughly monotheistic now that the word God, to put it pedantically, has ceased to be an appellative and has become a proper noun: it identifies the being to whom it is applied so that it can stand as the subject of a sentence. In Greek, in the first century, it was quite different. You could say then “Jesus is Theos.” But the English equivalent of that is not “Jesus is God” (with a capital G), but, I say it as a believer in his true deity, Jesus is god (with a small g) — not a god, but a being in whom is the nature of the One God…Jesus is God is the same thing as Jesus=God. Jesus is a man as well as God, in some ways therefore both less and more than God; and consequently a form of proposition which in our idiom suggests inevitably the precise equivalence of Jesus and God does some injustice to the truth.[14]

A most enlightening comment comes from Dr. Norman Kraus. Dr. Kraus commends the translation of J.B. Phillips in John 1:1 and deplores the rendering of the Living Bible which gives the impression that Jesus himself was alive before his birth. [15] He says,

The Word expressed in Jesus is the self-expression of God. Thus John tells us that from the beginning God is a self-expressive God, not transcendent and aloof as in the Greek Neo-Platonic philosophical thought which greatly influenced the orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries. God is not hidden, revealing His will only in written form as in Islam’s Koran. Neither is He the silent reality which can be discovered only in the discipline of meditation beyond all human rationality as in the practice of zazen [in Buddhism]. How different the whole meaning of John’s Gospel would be if the first verse read: In the beginning was satori(enlightenment).[16]

It is interesting that a translation was made as early as 1795, by Gilbert Wakefield, which rendered John 1:3, 4: “All things were made by it and without it was nothing made.” The same translation rendered the first verse of John 1: “In the beginning was Wisdom.” There is no doubt that from the point of view of Jewish background, Wisdom and Word carried similar meanings.

A distinguished member of the team of scholars who produced the Revised Version of the Bible (1881) noted that “word” means “Divine Thought manifested in a human form in Jesus Christ.” He rendered verse 3: “In it was the life and the light of men.”[17]

A leading British expert on the texts of the Bible, Dr. Hort, admitted that even in John’s Gospel there is no clear statement that the Son of God existed before his historical birth in Bethlehem: “An antecedent [i.e., preexistent] Fatherhood and Sonship within the Godhead, as distinguished from the manifested Sonship in the Incarnation is nowhere enunciated by John in express words.”[18]

These examples from the pens of leading Christian analysts of the Bible show that it is entirely legitimate to think of “word” as God’s utterance, not His Son at that stage of history. The Son is in fact what the word became. Thus the Son is the visible human expression of God’s pre-planned purpose. There was no Son of God until the Messiah was conceived in history. Before that God had His Design and Plan “with Him,” in His heart.

When Did the Son of God Begin to Exist?

Luke had no doubt about the reason and basis for Jesus being entitled to be called the “Son of God.” It was as a consequence of the supernatural miracle wrought in the womb of Mary that Jesus is truly “the Son of God.” “For that reason indeed [dio kai] he will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Luke/Gabriel did not believe in an eternal or preexisting Son. The Son was supernaturally conceived in history when Mary became pregnant. Matthew was careful to note that what occurred in the womb of Mary was the creation, the coming into existence, the begetting of the Son of God. He was not begotten before that miraculous moment. Matthew 1:20 states that “what is begotten [i.e., describing the Father’s procreative act, wrongly rendered “conceived” in many versions] in her is from the holy spirit.” At that moment, and not before, God became the Father of the unique Son, Jesus.

Luke 1:35 informs us that this creative act of God brought into existence the Son of God. There was therefore no Son of God until the miracle which God performed in Mary. The Son of God was begotten by the Father when Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, was six months pregnant. Professor Caird comments correctly: “What Luke is here concerned to tell us is that Jesus entered upon the status of Sonship at his birth by a new creative act of that same Holy Spirit which at the beginning had brooded over the waters of chaos. It is this new creation which is the real miracle of Jesus’ birth and the real theme of Gabriel’s annunciation and Mary’s wondering awe.”

Other New Testament writers proclaim the same truth about how God finally spoke in a Son in New Testament times. Jesus is the fulfillment of the greatest of all God’s promises: Paul wrote to Titus (1:2) about “the knowledge of the truth…in the hope of eternal life which God who cannot lie promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, namely his word in the proclamation [Gospel].” Salvation comes to us “according to His own purpose which was granted to us in Christ Jesus from all eternity, but now has been revealed, by the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:9).

Luke and Paul are in perfect agreement about the origin of the Son of God. He is a supernaturally created human being originating in time in the womb of Mary. Thus Paul carefully writes in Galatians 4:4 of the Son, that he “came into existence (genomenos)” of a woman. Paul chooses not to use the normal word for “born” (gennao). He stresses the fact that the Son came into existence at his birth. In the 50s AD Paul was already fending off any notion that the Son did not have his beginning in the womb of his mother. After all, a person who is pre-human is non-human. One is what one is, according to one’s origin. The whole point about the Messiah, Son of God, is that he is a member of the human race. As God created Adam, son of God, from the dust (Luke 3:38), Jesus was created in his mother’s womb by miracle.

F.F. Bruce and Professor Don Cupitt 

The noted Bible scholar F.F. Bruce questions the traditional translation of John 1:1 with these words: “On the preexistence question, one can at least accept the preexistence of the eternal Word or Wisdom of God, which (who?) became incarnate in Jesus.”[19]

Professor Cupitt of Cambridge writes:

John’s words ought to be retranslated: “The Word was with God the Father and the Word was the Father’s own Word,” to stress that the Word is not an independent divine being, but is the only God’s own self-expression. If all this is correct, then even John’s language about Jesus still falls within the scope of the King-ambassador model.[20]

The considered views of these leading Christian thinkers show that it is sufficient to think of “word” as God’s utterance, not His Son prior to the begetting of the Son in Mary. On this model, the Son is in fact what the word became.[21] The Son does not preexist as Son. The Son is the visible human expression of God’s pre-ordained purpose. There was no Son of God until the Messiah was conceived in history. Before that God had His Design and Plan “with Him,” as the basis of His whole intention for creation and for mankind. On this understanding the Messiah is truly a human being, a status which cannot be claimed for him if he has been alive since before Genesis!

Is John’s Unity With or Opposed to the Rest of the New Testament? 

If we read John and his introduction in this fashion, we find him proclaiming, unitedly with the other Gospel writers and the rest of the New Testament, the supremely important fact that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God. On that great truth the church is to be founded (Matt. 16:15-18) and united, and for that single purpose — to demonstrate and urge belief in Jesus as the Messiah — John wrote his whole gospel (John 20:31). But notice carefully that the Messiah is the human lord of David (Ps. 110:1), the Son of God, and that there is only one God. Remember too the wise words of a leading contemporary scholar:

Indeed to be a “Son of God” one has to be a being who is not God!…It is a common but patent misreading of the opening of John’s Gospel to read it as if it said: “In the beginning was the Son, and the Son was with God and the Son was God.” What has happened here is the substitution Son for Word (Greek logos), and thereby the Son is made a member of the Godhead which existed from the beginning.[22]

On that fatal shift the whole Trinitarian “problem” was constructed. The resolution of that problem will come only when we return to the unitary monotheism of John, of Jesus and of the whole Bible.

The celebrated Church historian, Adolf Harnack, put his finger on the root of the problem displayed in traditional views of the Godhead:

The Greeks, as a result of their cosmological interest, embraced this thought [of a literal preexistence of the Son] as a fundamental proposition. The complete Greek Christology then is expressed as follows. “Christ who saved us, being first spirit and the beginning of all creation, became flesh and thus called us.”[23] That is the fundamental, theological and philosophical creed on which the whole Trinitarian and Christological speculations of the Church of the succeeding centuries are built, and it is thus the root of the orthodox system of dogmatics; for the notion that Christ was the beginning of all creation necessarily led in some measure to the conception of Christ as the Logos. For the Logos had long been regarded by cultured men as the beginning and principle of the creation.[24]

Another distinguished historian of Christian dogma, Professor Loofs of Halle University, stated that “polytheism entered the church camouflaged” when John’s logos was turned into the preexisting second member of the Trinity.

A Gnostic Twist of John’s Words 

John 1:1 suffered at the hands of its Gnostic expositors early, even we think in the New Testament period. Whether or not 1 John 1:1-2 was written earlier or later than the Gospel of John, it provides just the commentary we need to clarify John 1:1. With utmost emphasis the Apostle tries to ensure that we think of the word as “it” not “he.” There are no less than five neuter pronouns in 1 John 1:1-3. “That which was from the beginning…concerning the word of life…and we announce to you the life of the age to come which was with [pros] the Father and was manifested to us.” It was the promise of the Life to Come, the promise of the Kingdom which was “with the Father.” That promise was manifested in the flesh at the conception of the Messiah. The Messiah embodied all the promises of God. God was and is in him reconciling the world to Himself. But to turn the promise into the actual person of Messiah, consciously in existence before his birth, is to destroy the promise and its fulfillment. God did not speak in a Son in the past ages but He did in these last days (Heb. 1:1-2).

The Jewish writer Philo, a contemporary of Paul, recognized Moses as an expression of God’s plan. He describes Moses as the “empsychosis” of God’s divine thought, i.e. as the personalization of the Divine Plan (Life of Moses, I, 28). Thus John says that while the law came through Moses, Jesus was the personalization of the character of God expressed as grace and truth (John 1:17). Jesus, if you like, is “Mr. Grace and Truth,” the expression of God in a miraculously begotten Son. But before that time there was no Son of God, except as a promise in the Divine Plan from the beginning.

In all probability John has been “turned on his head.” What he intended was to stave off all attempts to introduce a duality into the Godhead. For John the word was the one God Himself, not a second person. The later, post-biblical shift from “word” as divine promise from the beginning, the Gospel lodged in the mind and purpose of the one God, to an actual second divine “person,” the Son, alive before his birth, introduced a principle of confusion and chaos from which the church has never freed itself. This shift was the corrupting seed of later Trinitarianism. God became two and later, with the addition of the holy spirit, three. It remains for believers today to return to belief in Jesus as the human Messiah and in the One God of Israel, his Father, as the “one who alone is truly God” (John 17:3). God is one person not three.

[1] Jesus himself was foreknown (1 Pet. 1:20).

[2] Karl-Josef Kuschel, Born Before All Time: The Debate about the Origin of Christ, New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992, 381.

[3] Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, Vol. 1, 912, emphasis added.

[4] British and Foreign Bible Society, 1973, emphasis added.

[5] The transliteration reflects modern Greek pronunciation.

[6] Lord (YHWH) is the personal name for the Father. Trinitarianism includes two others in the title and thus has the Son of God communicating in OT times, contrary to the plain statement of Hebrews 1:1-2.

[7] Note that Jesus said “You, Father, are the only one who is truly God.” He did not say “your Godhead is the only Godhead.” In other words the One God is a single person, not an abstract Godhead or essence.

[8] Ed Miller, Annotated Scholars Version, revised, Harper, 1994.

[9] These two versions equivocate by insisting on the personal pronoun “he” for Message and expression.

[10] Hugh Schonfield.

[11] R.M. Grant, D.D., The Early Christian Doctrine of God, Macmillan, 1950. Dr. Grant is Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, Divinity School, University of Chicago.

[12] William Barclay, Gospel of John, Saint Andrews Press, 1957, Vol. 1, 14.

[13] The Four Gospels, A New Translation, New York: Harper, 1947.

[14] Letters of Principal James Denny to W. Robertson Nicoll, 1893 – 1917, Hodder and Stoughton, 1920, 121-125. While Denny retains his belief in the Trinity for reasons of his own, his testimony stands as evidence against a tradition of translation which has promoted belief in the Trinity on the part of many others. Such evidence has often been ignored by Trinitarians who are less cautious in their approach to translation.

[15] “Before anything else existed, there was Christ with God. He has always been alive and is himself God. He created everything there is — nothing exists that he didn’t make.” This is an obvious contradiction of Isaiah 44:24 and fifty other texts ascribing creation to the Lord alone.

[16] Jesus Christ Our Lord, Herald Press, 1987, 105.

[17] Dr. G. Vance Smith, The Bible and Popular Theology, 159. Dr. Smith was a non-Trinitarian member of the RV translating committee.

[18] Dissertation, 1876, 16.

[19] From correspondence with the author, June 13, 1981, emphasis added.

[20] The Debate About Christ, SCM Press, 92.

[21] Cp. Leonhard Goppelt, The Theology of the New Testament, Eerdmans, 1992, Vol. 2, 297: “The logos of the prologue became Jesus; Jesus was the logos become flesh not the logos as such.” This comment of Goppelt was cited by James Dunn with approval in Christology in the Making, SCM Press, 1989, fn. 120, 349.

[22] Colin Brown, D.D., Ex Auditu, 7, 1991, 88, 89.

[23] II Clement 9:5.

[24] Harnack, History of Dogma, Vol. 1, 328, emphasis added.

By Anthony Buzzard from:
http://focusonthekingdom.org/

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