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#29 - John 1:1 controversy
by Robert Nguyen Cramer
This BibleTexts website administrator has very much enjoyed questions and insights that have been emailed to him ever since this site was launched in September of 1996. On this page I share with BibleTexts browsers a few of the questions, insights, and responses, so that we all can further learn from and with each other.
Question/insight #29: "I have been trying to understand what the controversy is about John 1:1. One website says the end should be translated 'and what God was, the Word was too' or 'and the Word was fully God.' I do not believe your site mentions anything about Colwell's Rule. What is Colwell's Rule?"
Response #29: You refer to the translation of the third statement about the Word (the Logos) in John 1:1. Colwell's Rule is the Greek grammatical rule regarding an equational Greek sentence construction. In 1933 E.C.Colwell ("A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament," in Journal of Biblical Literature, 1933, Volume 52, p. 21) stated:
[The data I present] show that a predicate nominative which precedes the verb cannot be translated as an indefinite or a 'qualitative' noun solely because of the absence of the article; if the context suggests that the predicate is definite, it should be translated as a definite noun in spite of the absence of the article.
Scholars have long been divided as to the application of Colwell's rule.
The rule affects the Greek translation of what in English is a predicate nominative as compared with what is a predicate adjective. Previously there had been an understanding among many Greek scholars that in an equational Greek sentence construction, (1) if such a noun does not have a preceding article, it should be considered an adjective (a predicate adjective); and (2) if such a noun does have a preceding article it should be considered a noun (a predicate nominative).
Daniel B. Wallace in his excellent work on Greek Grammar and its application to New Testament translation and exegesis (Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996, p. 827 pages) writes (on pages 257 and 269):
Almost immediately many scholars (especially of a more conservative stripe) misunderstood Colwell's rule. They saw the benefit of the rule for affirming the deity of Christ in John 1:1. But what they thought Colwell was articulating was actually the converse of the rule, not the rule itself... For the most past, they either quote Colwell without much interaction or they read into the rule what is not there... Our point is that Colwell's rule has been misunderstood and abused by scholars...
Is Theos in John 1:1c Qualitative? The most likely candidate for Theos is qualitative. This is true both grammatically (for the largest proportion of pre-verbal anarthrous predicate nominatives fall into this category) and theologically (both the theology of the Fourth Gospel and of the NT as a whole)... Such an option does not at all impugn the deity of Christ. Rather, it stresses that, although the person of Christ is not the person of the Father, their essence is identical...
In the case of John 1:1, the Greek construction is: "Theos en ho Logos" [word-for-word: Godly/divine was the Word]. A literal word-for-word translation would be, "God was the Word." However, only "Logos" [Word] has the modifying article "ho" [the]. "Theos" [God] has no preceding article; thus, according to the "qualitative" understanding the Greek meaning, "Theos" should be translated "Godly" or "divine." This is why the New English Bible and the Revised English Bible translate this passage, "what God was, the Word was." The TEV (1976) translates it, "the Word was the same as God." Goodspeed translates this, "the Word was divine." And Moffatt translates this, "the logos was divine."
In A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, Unabridged, 4th Revised Edition (by Max Zerwick and Mary Grosvenor, Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1993, page 285), we read regarding this phrase: "the Word was divine,… insisting on the nature of the Word."
In Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament (by Ritz Rienecker, edited by Cleon Rogers Jr., Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980, page 217), we read, "The word is without the article and is the predicate emphasizing quality, 'the word had the same nature as God' (s. Phillip B. Harner, "Qualitative Anarthros Predicate Nouns," JBL, 92 [March, 1973], 75-78)."
Many scholars use John 1:1c either to affirm or to deny the teaching that Jesus himself is God himself. Rudolph Bultmann (The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971, pages 19-36) addresses many aspects of this complex issue. He writes:
For us, of course, the identity of the Logos will become clear only in the light of what is said about him. And the first thing we see is that he is a divine figure, at once Creator and Revealer. But it is here that the mystery lies! For is he not there designated as God himself? For he was en arche [word-for-word: in beginning]. And in fact it is said of him: Theos en ho Logos [word-for-word: Godly/divine was the Word -- meaning: the Word was [or: had/has eternal being as] Godly/divine]! And yet he is not God himself; for it is also said of him: en pros ton Theon [word-for-word: was with/beside/toward the God]!… [ibid., page 19]
The intention of the text cannot be unravelled by guessing or by a Faustian speculation. Two things are needed for the interpretation: firstly, a view of the whole, and secondly, knowledge of the tradition out of which the assertions of the text have grown… [ibid., page 20]
The hymn that forms the basis of the Prologue praises the Logos as the Revealer, and the Evangelist's aim is to show that the Logos has become flesh in Jesus of Nazareth. That is to say: in the person and word of Jesus one does not encounter anything that has its origin in the world or in time; the encounter is with the reality that lies beyond the world or in time. Jesus and his word not only bring release from the world and from time, they are also the means whereby the world and time are judged… In what relation does the Logos stand to God, who is really the only who can be thought of as being en arche [word-for-word: in the beginning]… This answer regards it as self-evident that in the beginning God was: but he was not alone; the Logos was with him. [ibid., page 32]
There is therefore no talk of subordination; the status of the Logos is one of equality with God: he was God. For it cannot be taken as meaning: he was a god, a divine being, as if Theos were a generic concept such as anthropos [man] or animal, so that there could be two divine beings, either in the naïve polytheistic sense, or in the sense of the Gnostic idea of emanation. This is clearly out of the question… The word Theos is intended in its strict monothesistic sense… [ibid., page 33]
The Logos is therefore given the same status as God, just as faith confesses the Son, who has been raised again to the glory that he had had before (17.5), to be ho Kurios mou chai ho Theos mou [literal word-by-word: the Lord my and the God my - meaning: my Lord and my God] (20:28)… Of course, the placing of the phrase Theos en ho Logos between these two clauses also shows that no simple identification is intended. A paradoxical state of affairs is to be expressed which is inherent in the coept of revelation, and which will bee developed further in what follows: the paradox that in the Revealer God is really encountered, and yet that God is not directly encountered, but only in the Revealer… [ibid., page 34]
It has rather to be grasped from the succession of contradictory propositions. But this is the same contradiction that pervades the whole of the Gospel: certainly the Father and the Son are one (10:30), and yet the Father is greater than the Son (14.28). Certainly the Son carries out the Father's will obediently (5.30; 6.38), and yet the Son has the same power as the Father; he bestows life and claims the same honour as the Father (5.21-27), and whoever sees the Son, sees the Father (14:9). God is there only in his revelation, and whoever encounters the revelation, really encounters God… [ibid., pages 34-35]
The idea of God is therefore determined from the outset by the idea of revelation. To speak of God, means: to speak of his revelation; and to speak of his revelation, means: to speak of God. And revelation is not here intended in any general sense; it is rather the saving will of God that can be experienced in the incarnate Revealer. God was always the God that was made known in the historical revelation, and he was this alone. As such, however, he is the God beyond the world and time, who is never identical with his revelation in the way he would be, were he immanent in the world and time… The world and time will not be understood by reference to themselves, but by reference to the God who speaks in the revelation… [pages 35-36]
Biblical passages that relate to man or Christ as the image/likeness of God (or reflecting God's nature, qualities, and power) shed considerable light on the meaning of John 1:1c. To read the full text of some of those biblical passages, browse the topic "IMAGE/LIKENESS OF GOD" in the webpage at http://www.bibletexts.com/topics/i.htm.
To read an additional commentary on John 1:1c ("the Word was God" or "the Word was the same as God") and a further explanation of the Greek grammar affecting its translation, browse http://www.bibletexts.com/verses/v-joh.htm.
Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer