6 Interpretive Options for John 1:1c

Now that we have an understanding of the grammar and syntax of John 1:1, I want to begin to focus our attention on John 1:1c. Just to be absolutely clear, here is John 1:1 again in the English and Greek with each part labelled (a) through (c):

John 1:1a In the beginning was the Word
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος
John 1:1b and the Word was with God
καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν
John 1:1c and the Word was God.
καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.

For an explanation of these divisions, see the previous post. My purpose in this post is to give an overview of six different ways one might interpret John 1:1c. These six ways are not all equally probable; I’m just explaining the possibilities.

What Kind of Noun is “God” (θεός)?

The first word that we have to get clear on is the word translated “God” (from the Greek θεός) in John 1:1c. In its lexical form, this verb is a noun. There are three categories of nouns worth considering here:

1. Definite noun. A definite noun is a noun that can receive the definite article in context. (The definite article is the English equivalent of the word “the.”) I say that a definite noun can receive the definite article because it may actually lack the definite article, but could have still received the definite article in the context. For example, when a person is referred to by name in the Greek text, a definite noun is being used because we are talking about a particular person. The names of persons in the Greek can lack a definite article, but they also often have one as well. This means that definite nouns like names can receive the definite article in context. But even when personal names lack the definite article, they are still definite nouns.

I’ve already noted one feature of a definite noun, then: it refers to a particular person, place, or thing (in the singular) or a group of them (in the plural). That’s what I mean by a definite noun.

2. Qualitative noun. A qualitative noun indicates a kind (e.g., humanity/humankind) or a trait something has (e.g., mortality). Here’s a great example:

God is love. (1 John 4:8b)

ὁ θεὸς ἀγάπη ἐστίν. (NA28)

Notice what’s going on in this verse. The word translated “God” (θεὸς) has the masculine definite article (ὁ) in front of it. That means that God is the subject and is a definite noun. The word that occurs at the end (ἐστίν) is the third person singular of the verb “to be” (εἰμί) and means “he is.” It is an equative, or copulative verb. That leaves us with the word “love” (ἀγάπη). This word is a noun with a feminine grammatical gender, but matches the word for “God” in case and number. This means that this word “love” is saying something about God. It is functioning qualitatively to predicate the quality “love” of God. That’s why we can translate this verse as “God is love.” God is the subject, and the quality “love” is being predicated of God. “Love” is a noun in this sentence, but it is a qualitative noun.

3. Indefinite noun. An indefinite noun is a noun that is used, in context, to refer to member in a group without specifying which one. New Testament (koine) Greek doesn’t have an indefinite article (the equivalent of the English word “a” or “an”). If a noun is indefinite in the Greek, it has to be inferred from the surrounding context.

Let me illustrate what I mean by pointing out where the beloved King James Version (KJV) of the Bible made a poor translation choice. In John 4:24 we read there that “God is a spirit” in the KJV. The translators of the KJV apparently felt that because the word “spirit” (πνεῦμα) is anarthrous, they should render this phrase “a [indefinite article] spirit.”

The problem with this translation is that it is more likely, given John’s style, that “spirit” (πνεῦμα) is a qualitative predicate nominative. Not only that, but to say “God is a spirit” seems to assert God is one spirit among many “spirits.” It doesn’t seem like that’s what Jesus is getting at here. For these reasons, modern translations render John 4:24 “God is spirit” (or “Spirit”).

What Kind of Thing is the “Word” (λόγος)?

So far so good, but now we have to ask what kind of thing the Word (λόγος) is. Clearly the Word is a definite noun here because it receives the definite article. But that’s not the question. The question is, what kind of definite thing is the Word?

There are only two possibilities: The Word is either personal or it is impersonal. When I say “personal” I mean that the Word is a person. To say the Word is “impersonal” is to simply negate the idea: the word is not a person (variously: the Word is a not-person).

But wait a minute. What’s a “person” anyway? I agree with medieval thinkers, following Boethius, that a person is a “rational supposit.” At first this definition seems unhelpful, since I used an unfamiliar term (“supposit”) to define a familiar one. For all it seems (for the moment), I haven’t really defined anything at all. Yet, the idea of a supposit is a simple one. Timothy Pawl describes a supposit as a “greatest unified whole.” But another way to get at what he’s saying is to suppose that a supposit is the ultimate subject of predication in any statement like “is P.” If I say “my hair is blonde,” it is true that my hair is blonde. However, it is more fundamentally and ultimately true that I (the person who has that hair) am blonde. So “my hair” in “my hair is blonde” isn’t an ultimate subject of predication for the predicate “blonde.” My hair isn’t a supposit, but I am.

Others try to provide necessary (and/or sufficient conditions) for personhood. I find this approach problematic, but that’s another route one might go. William Lane Craig, for example, offers a provisional list of necessary conditions for personhood:

  1. Rationality.
  2. States of consciousness.
  3. Ability to recognize that other beings have states of consciousness.
  4. Self-consciousness (regarding oneself as conscious).[1]

Following Craig, one might say a person is something that has (at least) these qualities. I say “at least” because these conditions aren’t obviously jointly sufficient for personhood. For all intents and purposes, there could be a “zombie” (in the technical, philosophical sense of the word) that could report all of (1)-(4) of itself but lack other features that seem like requirements of personhood. Also, conditions (3) and (4) don’t apply to a fetus in the womb, but I think the fetus is still a person.

Before going on, I want to caution readers from a verbal trick that some individuals use (knowingly or not). Sometimes a Trinitarian will argue that the Word in John 1:1c must be personal, and that makes certain other interpretations false. In response, the Trinitarian’s opponent might say, “The Word is absolutely personal! Words are used by persons after all.” But this is really an equivocation on the word “personal.” The Trinitarian is using the term to mean a thing just is a person, but the respondent has used “personal” to mean something more like a “a reflection of a person’s will.” This response fails to understand the point, is an equivocation, and therefore fails as an objection.[2]

How Should We Understand “Was”?

As Daniel Wallace points out in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, it is a mistake to assume that the word “was” in John 1:1c always means “equals.” By “equals,” he means that the equative verb expresses numerical identity, where one thing just is another thing (e.g., x = y). In a footnote he states that assuming that the equative verb (“was”) is equivalent to the mathematical equals sign is “one of the fundamental flaws in the thinking of Jehovah’s witnesses regarding the deity of Christ.”[3] That’s a pretty serious charge.

So what’s the big deal? Why doesn’t “was” always mean “equals”? When you read Wallace’s section there on predicate nominatives (recall from the last post that “God” in John 1:1c is a predicate nominative), you’ll find out that this is because there’s a difference between a subset proposition and a convertible proposition.[4] I don’t particularly like this terminology on its own, so I’m going to use what I think is a simpler way of explaining this distinction.

It all comes down to what the meaning of the word “is” is. (Remember that “was” and “is” are both forms of the verb “to be.”) Sometimes we use the word “is” to predicate something (or say something about) something else. For example, the statement “my hair is blonde” uses “is” to predicate a quality of another thing. That says something about my hair. That’s the “is” of predication.

On the other hand, we can use the word “is” to say that two things are numerically identical—that they are literally the same thing. If we say “Paul is Saul of Tarsus,” we mean that Paul just is Saul. If we understand what both “Paul” and “Saul” refer to, we will understand that they name one and the same individual. It is in the sense of numerical identity that we use the “=” sign. So, the short hand might read “Paul = Saul.” That’s the “is” of identity.

A convertible proposition, as Wallace explains it, is a sentence with a subject, a predicate nominative, and a form of the verb “to be” that uses the form of the verb “to be” as an “is” of identity. Both nouns refer to the same thing in a convertible proposition. For that reason, if we say Paul = Saul, we can turn this around and say that Saul = Paul and the claim asserts the same truth. The original proposition (Paul = Saul) is convertible to another one (Saul = Paul) that expresses the same truth.

A subset proposition, on the other hand, is a sentence where the form of the verb “to be” is an “is” of predication. When this happens, if you try to use the equals (=) sign and turn around the subject and predicate nominative, you get a false claim. For example, when 1 John 4:8 says God (subject) is love (predicate nominative), you might translate this into “God = love.” But normally when we use the equals sign, we can turn it around to read “love = God.” If we take “love” to refer to an abstract idea, this is absurd; God isn’t equivalent to an abstract object called “love,” because abstract objects are causally effete by definition. Switching the subject and predicate nominative in a subset proposition doesn’t work because the “is” of predication isn’t the same as an equals sign.

Let’s return to the example above: my hair is blonde. If we understand this to be a convertible proposition (using the “is” of identity), then we would be saying that my hair just is blonde-ness itself. But again this is absurd; “blonde-ness” is an abstract idea, and no concrete object (like my hair) can be numerically identical to an abstract idea. But if this is a subset proposition (using the “is” of predication), we are saying there is a group of things, call it “blonde things,” and that my hair is one member in that group. My hair is a subset of the group (set) called “blonde things.”

Hopefully I’ve been clear enough here. In any case, I’ve explained all of that to say this: when I state the six ways we can interpret John 1:1c in the next section, we have to keep in mind whether or not each interpretation expresses a subset proposition (“is” of predication) or a convertible proposition (“is” of identity).

Six Ways to Interpret John 1:1c

Now we’re in a place to state what each of the six interpretations of John 1:1c are. There are three ways we can understand the noun “God” (θεός): definite, qualitative, and indefinite. And there are two ways we can understand the noun “Word” (λόγος): personal or impersonal. That yields the six ways we can interpret John 1:1c:

  1. Definite “God,” personal “Word.” (Abbreviation: D-P)
  2. Definite “God,” impersonal “Word.” (D-I)
  3. Qualitative “God,” impersonal “Word.” (Q-I)
  4. Qualitative “God,” personal “Word.” (Q-P)
  5. Indefinite “god,” personal “Word.” (I-P)
  6. Indefinite “god,” impersonal “Word.” (I-I)

I have already said in another post that (1) and (2) are the least likely ways to take this verse. The best understanding of this verse should be either (3) or (4). I will explain in the next section why (5) and (6) are also improbable and implausible.

What’s Wrong with the Indefinite?

The idea that “God” (θεός) is indefinite is the interpretation that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons take of this verse. To these groups, John 1:1c says, “and the Word was a [indefinite article] god.”

If we take the I-P interpretation, then the Word is a personal being that is a god. The Word could be one divine being among many, an angel, or some other being created by God. This interpretation doesn’t make sense to me for the following reasons:

(1) This doesn’t seem to square with the monotheism attested throughout the entire Bible.

(2) The Word existed with God (the Father) in the beginning (John 1:1b). According to John, it seems false that the Father created a lesser being that was with him and that he then sent to become incarnate.

(3) John’s usage of Colwell Constructions in his Gospel indicates that θεός is most likely qualitative in John 1:1c.[5]

As for an I-I interpretation, this simply doesn’t make any sense. If this is a convertible proposition, the verse says that “a god” (some lesser deity) is numerically identical with an impersonal thing. But a god is personal, and that’s a contradiction. If this is a subset proposition, the verse says that the impersonal Word (whatever it is) falls under the larger category of “gods”—that is, it must be a god. But to be a god one must be a person, something that an impersonal thing cannot be by definition. So we have the same contradiction as before: we have the same thing being predicated as a person and as impersonal at the same time.

For the reasons I gave in the prior post I linked to above, and due to the considerations in this last section, options (3) and (4) of the ones I have listed above must be the ones that we consider as viable interpretations of John 1:1c.

 


Footnotes:

[1] See William Lane Craig, Time and Eternity, chapter 3. He cites Daniel Dennett’s article “Conditions of Personhood” regarding these necessary conditions for personhood. I’ve simplified the language from Craig’s list and taken some out that (it seems to me) don’t apply to God.

[2] e.g., Sir Anthony Buzzard says this in a debate with Michael R. Burgos, Jr.

[3] Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (GGBB), 41 (footnote 14).

[4] Wallace, GGBB, 40-42.I

[5] See Hartley, “Revisiting the Colwell Construction in Light of Mass/Count Nouns,” 33. Note: The page number for Hartley’s article refers to the page number in the Microsoft Word document that the website I’ve linked to allows you to download at the very top.

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