Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Is Jesus the Only God?

What Does John 1:18 Affirm about Jesus Christ?


John 1:18 in NU (Nestle Aland 28/United Bible Societies 4) reads, Θεὸν οὐδεὶς ἑώρακεν πώποτε· μονογενὴς θεὸς ὢν εἰς τὸν κόλπον τοῦ πατρὸς ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο. My literal translation is, “God no one has seen at any time: the one and only God who is in the bosom of the Father, that one has declared [Him].” At issue is the specific phrase μονογενὴς θεὸς, the one and only God. Some MSS read ο μονογενης υιος, the one and only Son. Did John write “the one and only God?” or “the one and only Son?” and what is John affirming about Jesus Christ in writing these words in the first place? It is the goal of this post to explore these two questions, while making every effort to avoid the more technical details of textual criticism. At the same time, however, we will at least be dipping our toes into the waters of the textual issues surrounding this verse, even if we do not go any further than ankle deep.

The text in question is significant because it reveals John’s views on the identity of Jesus Christ. Since John’s views in his gospel, his letters, and his apocalypse are all fully inspired by God the Holy Spirit, it follows that John’s text is a divine revelation of God Himself about the identity of the person of Jesus Christ. In addition, John informs us in this text that his view is that the unique God, Jesus Christ, is the one, the only one who has explained God to us. Hence, not only is this text telling us something about the deity of Jesus Christ; it is telling us a great deal about how we are to know and understand the Father! If the consensus understanding of this text is correct, John is telling us that 1) Jesus Christ is the unique God, and 2) He is the only way that human beings can know the Father. By consensus understanding, I simply mean the reading that is in NU (Nestle Aland/United Bible Societies), which is the base translation of most modern English versions.

Bruce Metzger tells us in his commentary that the committee regarded μονογενὴς υιος, which is the easier reading, to be the result of scribal assimilation to Jn. 3:16, 18; 1 Jn. 4:9. Scribal assimilation is the attempt on the part of the Scribe to make one reading similar to other readings he is familiar with in the document. The only begotten Son is common language for John while the unique or only begotten God is not. Our goal is to decide which one is most likely the original reading. The sources I believe providing the best information to finally make a decision regarding the text are the early MSS P66 and P75. Both of these early papyri are part of the Bodmer collection. The former dates to around the middle of the second century while the latter is dated to the late second century. [Comfort, Encountering the MSS]

P66 reads, θ̅ν̅ ουδεις εωρακεν πωποται· μονογενης θ̅ς̅ ο ων εις τον κολπον του π̅ρ̅ς̅ εκινος εξηγησατο[1]

P75 reads, θ̅ν̅ ουδεις πωποτε εορακεν ο μονογενης θ̅ς̅ ο ων εις τον κολπον του πατρος εκεινος εξηγησατο[2]

Without getting into the technical aspects of textual criticism, it is easy to see that neither manuscript contains the phrase μονογενης υιος. The only difference between the two texts is that P75 has the article while P66 does not. Concerning that issue, Metzger says, “there is no reason the article should have been deleted.” Comfort says, “Even without the knowledge of the two papyri (which were discovered in the 1950s and 1960s) Hort (1876, 1-26) argued extensively and convincingly for the reading μονογενὴς θεὸς. [Comfort, New Testament Text & Translation Commentary] As one will see, the external support for each reading is mixed. It would appear that “the only begotten Son” has more manuscript support, but this is only if one is counting manuscripts. In textual criticism, more important than the number of witnesses is the witness itself. This is why it is an essential element of textual criticism to know and understand the manuscript.

The major manuscripts that support the reading μονογενὴς θεὸς are P66 א* B C* L, and for ὁ μονογενὴς θεὸς, they are P75 א1 33. The dates of these manuscripts range from approximately 150AD (P66) to  the eight century (L - Codex  Regius) with most of them dating prior to the fifth century. In fact, Codex Regius is the only manuscript dated later than the early 400s. The variant reading, ο μονογενης υιος, is supported by A C3 K Γ Δ Θ Ψ f1.13 565 579 700 892 1241 1424 and the Majority text. The earliest of these is A (Codex Alexandrinus) and it dates to the fifth century. C3 is the 3rd corrected edition of Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus. This manuscript also dates to the fifth century. The remaining manuscripts beginning with K date from the 9th century and later. Hence, given the weight of internal and external evidence, the reading, μονογενὴς θεὸς, seems to be the preferred reading among textual scholars even though the matter remains largely open for discussion. In other words, while the door is not fully open, it is not closed shut either. Scholars are still discussing the matter even if most of them have made a decision.

With this in mind, it is time to look at the syntax of the text in question. Syntax is the study of how words within a unit relate to one another. The question of how we should interpret the phrase now comes into view. The relationship of the adjective μονογενὴς with the noun θεὸς tells us that John viewed Jesus as the unique God, the one unique God. The anarthrous construction tells us that μονογενὴς is an attributive adjective modifying θεὸς. Some translations render it the only begotten God. Wescott comments, “But the best-attested reading (μονογενὴς θεός) has the advantage of combining the two great predicates of the Word, which have been previously indicated (v. 1 θεός v. 14 μονογενής).”[3]
Lukaszewski classifies it as a Casus Pendens Clause, which is, “An classic Semitic construction, it is found Greek under the name of a suspended nominative phrase, often called the nominative absolute, or simply as a form of anacoluthon.”[4]
This construction is more common in John that in the Synoptics. [BDF $466]

This is a theologically rich text, deserving of more consideration than a blog post can give it. It sums up John’s prologue, beginning with 1:1 where John refers to the Logos as existing at the beginning with πρὸς τὸν θεόν, and then identifies the Logos as θεὸς. In verse 14, he introduces the word μονογενοῦς to describe the Man Jesus Christ and then here in verse 18, he brings the two concepts of μονογενοῦς in v. 14 and θεός in v. 1 together as he concludes his prologue. We are reminded of John’s purpose for writing his gospel in John 20:31, “but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” John seems to be opening his account of the life of Christ as if he were arguing a case. And 20:31 explicitly affirms this to be the true.

The first truth one discovers about the person of Jesus Christ is that John affirms that He is in fact, God. There is far more here than I can hope to explore in this post. Hence, I am restricted to identifying those things that stand at the front of the text. Merrill C. Tenney comments in a footnote in his commentary, “there can be no doubt that this text also asserts the deity of Christ.” [EBC, 34n18] Lenski writes, “the simple truth is that John is revealing to us who Jesus Christ really was: the Logos, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity.”[5] The preponderance of the evidence for this verse indicates that John is unapologetically affirming that Jesus Christ is the one unique God. Over the past several decades many theories have arisen asserting that there were several “Christianities” existing in antiquity and that orthodoxy just happens to be the version that won out. Craig Bloomberg says of this hypothesis, “This whole approach is deeply flawed and, as is the case in so much of this debate, reflects anachronism and exaggeration.” [Bloomberg, Fabricating Jesus] In his book on the same subject, Ben Witherington III writes, “Perhaps a better set of questions might be, what is it about our culture that makes us prone to listen to sensational claims about Jesus and his earliest followers, even where there is little or no hard evidence to support such conjectures?” [Witherington, What Have They Done with Jesus?] According to John, Jesus was the one and only unique God, the one who is the closest to the Father, and He is the one who has declared the Father to us. One should not miss the point that John’s view is that Jesus is the only one in a position to explain God to us. John also informed us that he wrote these things so that we might believe and have life. Hence it follows that believing is tied to believing what John wrote. In other words, life only comes by faith. And faith only comes by reading these things and hearing them. In other words, our personal eternal state is dependent on receiving the things that John has written. And John wrote that Jesus is God.

The second truth that John reveals concerns Jesus’ mission on earth. The implications are far-reaching. John informs us in v. 18 that our knowledge of God is insufficient. No one has ever seen God at any time. There is a barrier between God and man and hence, a chasm between true knowledge of God and man’s knowledge of God. This is a serious problem for man. Without true knowledge of God, life is impossible and death is certain. John does not leave us hopeless. He tells us in no uncertain terms that Jesus Christ has ἐξηγήσατο the Father to us. This word is where we get our English word, “exegesis.” John is informing us that Jesus Christ has explained the Father! The word means to make fully known, to inform, to provide detailed information. Prior to Jesus Christ, the revelation of God was veiled and incomplete. Previous revelation pointed to a fuller revelation to come. Calvin writes, “Nevertheless, all things will tend to this end, that God, the Artificer of the universe, is made manifest to us in Scripture, and that what we ought to think of Him is set forth there, lest we seek some uncertain deity by devious paths.” [Institutes, V. I, 71] Jesus Christ Himself has shown us the Father. And that revelation itself is contained in the revelation that is Holy Scripture. In essence, one revelation contains the other. Francis Turretin observes, “Christ is our only teacher (Matt. 23:8) in such a sense as that the ministry of the word is not thereby excluded, but necessarily included because now in it only he addresses us and by it instructs us. Christ is not set in opposition to the Scriptures; rather he is set in opposition to the false teachers of the Pharisees who ambitiously assumed the authority due to Christ alone.” [Turretin, Institues, V. I, 59] Without the Word from God, we will surely perish because the very knowledge of God that brings life depends upon our ability to know and understand His Word. Keep that in mind the next time an ignorant fool claiming to know and love Christ opens his mouth to reduce or detract from the significance of divine revelation. The accusation of bibliolatry is most often leveled by enemies of the cross, not friends. Anytime anyone speaks negative about Scripture in any way, it should serve as the reddest of red flags.

The apologetic practical implications of this text are just as noteworthy as the theological ones mentioned above. To begin with the apologetic implications, it is significant that all true knowledge of God is derived only through Scripture. While it is true that man knows God apart from special revelation in Scripture, that is, in the natural order of things, it is also true that that knowledge is always perverted by the sinful intellect. That knowledge, while sufficient for culpability, is insufficient for eternal life. Contrary to William Lane Craig, the gospel is not found in natural revelation. Natural theology is a falsehood that is nowhere advocated in Scripture. Because all knowledge is indelibly linked to ultimate reality, it is impossible to divorce the two as many philosophers do. You cannot escape having some idea of reality bound up in your views on what passes for knowledge. Since God is ultimate reality, our knowledge must begin with the reality of God. Hence, man’s dependence on God for all knowledge leads us to the conclusion that all knowledge of God is revelational for the believer and unbeliever alike. John 1:18 informs us that Jesus Christ Himself has revealed God to us. The person of Jesus Christ is the key to any and all true knowledge of God. Since God is ultimate reality, we can know nothing apart from knowledge of God. Not only does John 1:18 pin the redemptive hopes of all mankind on the person and work of Jesus Christ, he pins all hope of any true knowledge on Christ as well.

What are the practical implications? For believers, we are obligated to believe all that Scripture teaches. Scripture teaches that Jesus Christ is God and that He and He alone has explained God to us. That explanation has come to us by the revelation of the inspired text. Hence, we are duty bound to embrace it, to teach it, and to defend it. In order to know God, we must know Christ. Christ brings God to us. Without Christ, we are without God. Christ reveals God to those whom He pleases even if that does not exactly please us. This is true even if we cannot always understand it. Every human being who hears what Christ has explained and taught about the Father has an obligation not to question it, but instead, to receive it with all humility. God commands men to repent on the basis of the resurrected Christ who has explained the Father to all of us. Paul tells us that the fact of the resurrected Christ will serve as God’s basis for judging the entire human race.

[1] Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 389.
[2] Philip Wesley Comfort and David P. Barrett, The Text of the Earliest New Testament Greek Manuscripts (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 2001), 568.
[3] The Gospel According to St. John Introduction and Notes on the Authorized Version, ed. Brooke Foss Westcott and Arthur Westcott, Classic Commentaries on the Greek New Testament (London: J. Murray, 1908), 15.
[4] Albert L. Lukaszewski, The Lexham Syntactic Greek New Testament Glossary (Logos Bible Software, 2007).
[5] R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 97.

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