Christian Apologetic Index
David G. Nesbitt - Kelowna, British Columbia
Sola Gratia, Sola Fide... Sola Scriptura, Tota Scriptura... Solus Christus, Soli Deo GloriaHome / John 1:1 ...
"...and the Word was a god."
by David G. Nesbitt
April 9, 2003
John chapter one and verse one: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The exegetical interpretation of the prologue to the Gospel of John would never be a contested issue were it not for the explosive proliferation of Jehovah's Witnesses across not only North America but indeed the entire globe, unquestionably one the very fastest growing religions in the world today with over six million members. The reason that the correct interpretation of John 1:1 needs to be re-examined and re-exposed is precisely because of the proliferation of the Jehovah's Witnesses religion and their peculiar interpretation of this verse -- hundreds of thousands of Witnesses are knocking on doors all over the world promulgating a seriously errant interpretation and therefore unscriptural teaching.
For over fifteen hundred years the exegetical interpretation of John 1:1 was well established by educated and respected Greek scholars both within Christian ecclesiastics and without, and had remained uncontested since the Libyan heretic Presbyter named Arius of the fourth century. But that changed 130 years ago with the development of a new group headed by Charles Taze Russel, giving birth to a new religion that was predicated upon Christianity and the appropriation of their canon scriptures. It was Arianism again, a doctrine that the Son was not fully God and that he had been created by, and was subordinate to, the Father. This new group was originally called Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society. They would later change their name to Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, and eventually in 1931 adopt the generic name Jehovah's Witnesses.
Starting with a simple Bible study group in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in the early 1870s, it very rapidly spread to nearby states; by 1909 they had become an international organization and less than a hundred years later their numbers had passed six million. The rapid expansion of their religion is however by no means on account of convincing doctrine, such as it is guised as Christianity, but rather on account of their incredibly assertive evangelical efforts. The proselytization of new members is a passionate and foundational aspect of their religion. They take evangelism very seriously. Jehovah's Witnesses conduct weekly meetings at local Kingdom Halls for the purpose of training/supporting Witnesses to be better proselytizers; they also have special training schools for missionaries, like the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead. They also operate vastly elaborate printing facilities in Brooklyn that churn out hundreds of millions of copies of their literature in many languages. When I look at the evangelical mechanics of their religion and how vigorously it incorporates the laity, and the eager response of the laity, I cannot help but feel that the Christian religion could learn a lot from them, understanding that Jesus Christ commissioned his followers to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19).
It now cannot escape notice how I have implicitly differentiated the religion of the Jehovah's Witnesses from the religion of Christianity. While there is a reason for this, I can assure you that this sense of differentiation is felt on both sides of the fence, for different reasons. They feel that Christianity has fallen into apostasy primarily because of the doctrine of the Trinity, which they mistakenly infer as the worship of three gods. They wanted to proclaim a return to true monotheism (even though there was never a detraction from it) but what they began to present was anything but monotheism.
While they feel, however sincerely, that they are both steadfast monotheists and true Christians -- and present themselves as such -- it is a fact that they are neither, nor can they be. And, interestingly enough, this fact is not one imposed upon them by Christianity so much as it is borne out by the Witnesses themselves through the consequences of their own teachings. The hermeneutic disarray and internal inconsistency of their teachings are a veritable Pandora's box of problematic eisegesis precisely because they try to pass themselves off as both Christian and monotheistic, which is only further compounded by their appropriating Christian scriptures and attempting to ground their beliefs thereupon. Yet it is a fact that their own teachings admit that they are neither Christian nor monotheistic -- as this study here will barely begin to demonstrate -- because the most evidentially verifiable issue is that Christianity is a monotheistic religion, whereas the religion of the Witnesses is somewhat polytheistic but certainly henotheistic. And when a henotheistic religion attempts to present itself as monotheistic, it renders itself incoherent, dishonest, and illogical -- not to mention non-Christian.
More Than One God?
So then what is henotheism? And how does the religion of the Witnesses fall under that term?
Henotheism is most succinctly defined as the belief in and worship of one particular God without however denying the existence of other gods. In a very loose sense it is a form of polytheism, although this is not quite accurate as neither devotion nor worship is directed to any of the other gods. And it is patently differentiated from Christian monotheism, which opposes and denies as legitimate the existence of any other gods but one (Deut. 32:39; Isa. 43:10; 45:5, 22; 1 Cor. 8:4-6; Gal. 4:8, etc). Henotheism can also be described as an "inclusive monolatry," which is the worship of a single God but without claiming that it is the only God.
Getting down to the issue of this study, it is precisely on account of their particular interpretation of John 1:1 that Jehovah's Witnesses inadvertently establish their religion as henotheistic. Let us examine how such a conclusion is established.
In their doctrinal publication Reasoning from the Scriptures, the Witnesses insist that the only true God is Jehovah. They fully adhere to such passages as Psalm 96:4-5 which asserts that Jehovah "is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens." They also affirm that although other gods are worshipped, they are but idols (1 Cor. 8:4-6) "who by nature are not gods" (Gal. 4:8). "You are my witnesses," Jehovah declares in Isa. 43:10, "and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me." Jehovah proclaims that there is no God besides him (Deu 32:39), that apart from him there is no God (Isa 45:5). "I am God, and there is no other" (v. 22). The Jehovah's Witnesses, in their publications and in door-to-door Bible study, readily admit that since Jehovah alone is God, all other gods are false gods, who by nature are not gods, who are mere idols.
So they appear monotheistic.
But they are not because they do recognize another god -- Jesus. And this is where things start to become interesting because a visible cognitive dissonance takes place for the Jehovah's Witnesses as they at once both affirm and recoil from the idea. Yet the fact that they recognize another god besides Jehovah cannot be escaped, for they equally adhere to such passages as Isaiah 9:6 which refers to the Son as "Mighty God." But notice something: when you consult their literature or confront a Witness with this passage from Isaiah, they explain that, yes indeed, Jesus is called "Mighty God" but never is he called "Amighty God," a term reserved only for the Father, they assert. But Jesus is not merely a man (Psa. 82:6) because "Who can forgive sins but God alone" (Luke 5:21; cf. Mk 2:7)? Can a mere human create the cosmos (John 1:3; Col 1:16)? Can any mere human be called "the First and the Last" (Rev 1:17-18). He is not simply a man because to no mere human will every knee in heaven and earth bow (Phil. 2:9). No, any Jehovah's Witness will readily affirm that Jesus is in fact "a god" (John 1:1; NWT), and "Mighty God" (Isa. 9:6).
So that being said, the Jehovah's Witness is then left with only two conclusions:
- Either Jesus is a false god and they admittedly honour him, or
- Jesus is a legitimate god and their religion is henotheistic
Is Jesus "a god"?
The most important question raised in this article is, "Does the NWT [New World Translation, the Watchtower's own translation] accurately translate John 1:1?" In other words, is the second conclusion from above -- that Jesus is a legitimate lesser god -- supported by proper and correct exegesis of this passage? Because there are only two possible conclusions in the interpretation of this passage:1. Either Jesus is a legitimate lesser god and the Jehovah's Witness religion is henotheistic, orLet's examine the three separate clauses in the first verse of John chapter one.
2. Jesus is God and the Jehovah's Witness religion is false
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God en arche en ho logos kai ho logos en pros ho theos kai theos en ho logos
The first point that needs to be made here is the fact that the grammar of the Greek and English languages is quite different. For example, in a typical English sentence, the subject is followed by the predicate. Yet this structure is not necessarily followed a Greek sentence -- sometimes you will find the subject or its main verb toward the end of the sentence. Unlike English grammar, the fact that one Greek word precedes a following word does not necessarily have any significance. With this in mind, let's consider the third clause of the first chapter of John, verse one.
This particular clause (theos en ho logos) is known as a “preverbal anarthrous predicate nominative” construction. This means:1. we have a noun (which is the subject), logosNow as already mentioned, in Greek construction you might sometimes find the the subject, or its main verb, further down the sentence. In other words, when reading or interpretting Greek you have to know how to determine the subject of a sentence because, unlike English, you can't just take for granted that the subject is first and the predicate nominative follows. And this is what we have here: the first noun in this clause is not the subject, as it would be in typical English usage. Logos is the subject in this clause. How do we know this? Because the subject is identified by the existence of an article in front of it (in this case, ho). That's how. Now remember this simple rule because it is very important. It needs repeating: whichever noun has the article, it is the subject. In the case of the third clause of John 1:1, the Word (logos) is the subject because of the article (ho) that precedes it.
2. we have a copulative verb, en
3. and we have a nominative noun (which is the predicate), theosThe subject is made plain by the article (ho logos) and the predicate without it (theos) just as in John 4:24 pneuma ho theos can only mean 'God is spirit,' not 'spirit is God.' (Robertson 4-5)Both F. F. Bruce and James White point out another rather interesting and, for the purpose of this study, exceptionally important fact concerning the usage of the article in Greek construction. A fascinating thing happens if both of the nouns in a predicate nominative construction have the article, or if both lack the article: the two nouns become interchangeable! The reason this is important is because any Jehovah's Witness who attempts to appear as though they have at least a passing familiarity with Greek grammar try to point out that the word theos in the last clause of verse one is anarthrous, a fancy word that means the noun is not preceded with the article. Because theos doesn't have the article, they assert, it should not be translated as "God" (as in "the God") but rather as "a god." That might sound scholarly if it didn't horribly miss the whole point as to why theos is without an article here. The fact is that, if there had have been an article in front of theos, then the apostle John would have been telling us that "God was the Word" as well as "the Word was God." In other words, if both of the nouns -- logos and theos -- in this predicate nominative construction had the article, they would have become interchangeable terms. This has serious implications.
The structure of the third clause in verse 1 ... demands the translation "the Word was God." Since logos has the article preceding it, it is marked out as the subject (TGOJ Bruce 31)
The Greeks used the article to communicate to us which word is the subject, and which is the predicate. If one of the two nouns has the article, it is the subject. In this case, "Word" has the article, even though it comes after "God," and hence is our subject. That is why the last phrase is translated "the Word was God" rather than "God was the Word." (White 53)
There is no article preceding theos because John was quite intentionally avoiding "modalism" -- saying that both the Son and the Father are the same person in different "modes." This point needs repeating: there is no article in front of theos because John did not think or teach that Jesus Christ and the Father were both the same person. Modalism (also known as Sabellianism) is considered heretical. Not to put too fine a point on it, modalism also violates the very context of this verse -- if the Son and Father are the exact same person but in different modes, then "the Word was with God" makes no coherent sense, neither would verse two ("He was with God in the beginning"). A. T. Robertson points out that if theos was preceded by an article, it "would mean that all of God was expressed in ho logos and the terms would be interchangeable" (Robertson 4-5).The Word is distinguishable from God and yet theos en ho logos, the Word was God, of Divine nature; not 'a God,' which to a Jewish ear would have been abominable; nor yet identical with all that can be called God, for then the article would have been inserted..." (Nicoll 1:684)The question remains unanswered, however, for the Jehovah's Witness concerning how we are to understand the "Word" in its relationship to "God" in this passage because Witnesses have always been taught that the presence or absense of the article differentiates between "the God" and "a god." So if we cannot rely on the presence or absence of the article to differentiate, then how else do we determine this relationship? The quick and easy answer is that they have been taught wrong, and for a couple of reasons.
That is, if "Word" had the article, and "God" did, too, this would mean that John is saying that "God was the Word" and the "Word was God." Both would be the same thing ... equating all of God with all of the Word. (White 54)
The first reason is outlined from the beginning of this study; namely, that if Jesus is truly a legitimate god then the Jehovah's Witnesses religion is not at all monotheistic because they believe in two Gods. They assert that Jesus by nature is higher than both men and angels (he is "a god" and a "Mighty God") but subordinate to the Father so therefore not "the" God. The irony is embarrassing -- they so often accuse Christians of believing in three Gods, which is inaccurate because Christians both believe and teach monotheism, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses willfully admit, believe, and teach henotheism. They believe that Jesus is a god, and the first and only creation of Jehovah, even though God clearly states: "I am God, and there is no other ... Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me" (Isa. 45:22 and 43:10 respectively).
The second reason they have been taught wrong has to do with interpretting kai theos en ho logos as indefinite How does John wish us to understand the word theos in this third clause? Does he want us to understand it as indefinite ("a god"), as definite ("the God"), or does the emphatic preverbal position of the arnarthrous theos indicate that John wishes to convey it as qualitative ("as to his nature God")? I think it is very clear that John is making an ontological statement about Christ's nature as God. There are serious ramifications that Jehovah's Witnesses do not even consider when interpretting it as indefinite. Consider the following.
If the anarthrous theos is indeed to be taken as indefinite, and hence translated into English with an indefinite article ("a god"), then we must do the same to the other 282 times that theos appears without the article. There are, conveniently, four more instances in the first chapter of John alone where theos appears without an article, and yet the Jehovah's Witnesses inconsistently translate only the first verse as indefinite. In John 1:6 the word theos appears without an article, but they do not translate it as “There came a man who was sent from a god; his name was John." Why not? There is no article in front of the word theos so therefore it should be translated as indefinite, right? If we translated John 1:12 as indefinite we would get some equally curious results: "...to them gave he power to become the sons of a god." Same with verse 18: "No man hath seen a god at any time." Even though in every one of these verses we see theos appearing without the article, just like verse one, they do not translate them as indefinite. Nor the remaining 279 instances wherein theos appears arnarthrously.
They only translate this verse like that.The uses of the Greek article, the functions of Greek prepositions, and the fine distinctions between Greek tenses, are confidently expounded in public at times by men who find considerable difficulty in using these parts of speech in their native tongue. (TBATP Bruce 60-61)"The title ho theos, which now designates the Father as a personal reality, is not applied in the NT [sic] to Jesus Himself; Jesus is the Son of God (of ho theos)...” (1/JUL/86 Watchtower 31)
- unfinshed -
Resources & Bibliography
- 2001 Report of Jehovah's Witnesses Worldwide.
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
9 April 2003. http://www.watchtower.org/statistics/worldwide_report.htm
- Jehovah's Witnesses - Who Are They? What Do They Believe?
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
9 April 2003. http://www.watchtower.org/library/jt/index.htm
- Hunter, Preston. Adherents.com.
9 April 2003. http://www.adherents.com/Na_351.html#2095
- Slick, Matthew J. Jehovah's Witnesses and the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society.
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.
9 April 2003. http://www.carm.org/witnesses.htm
- Walker, David. Early Arianism.
Liberalis: Liberal Christian Homepage
9 April 2003. http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Olympus/2961/earian1.htm
- Green, Ed. Arianism - Early Christian Heresy.
Bibles, Articles & Commentaries
9 April 2003. http://home.sprynet.com/~eagreen/arian.html
- Robertson's Word Pictures of the New Testament
9 April 2003. http://bible.crosswalk.com/Commentaries/RobertsonsWordPictures/
- Bloom, Harold. The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation.
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992
- The Watchtower, July 1, 1986, p. 31 (footnote)
- Kolln, Martha; Understanding English Grammar - 4th Edition.
MacMillan Publishing Company: New York, 1994
- Bruce, F. F. The Gospel of John.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983
- Bruce, F. F. The Books and the Parchments.
New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1963
- Klammer, Thomas and M. R. Shultz; Analyzing English Grammar - 2nd Edition.
Allyn & Bacon: Boston, 1996
- A.T. Robertson; Word Pictures in the New Testament.
Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1932
- Nicoll, W. Robertson; The Expositor's Greek Testament.
Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983
- White, James R.; The Forgotten Trinity.
Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers, 1998