Careful About Being Too Careful of What You Read

questOne of the things I’ve learned over the last few years of reading theology is that caution and discernment ought to be exercised in our caution and discernment in our sources for theology.

What do I mean by that?

Well, let me give you an example I ran across while reading Stephen Holmes’ excellent work The Quest for the Trinity. (I highly recommend this so far!) Tertullian was a church leader in Carthage in the North of Africa in the early part of 3rd Century and one of the greatest theologians in the West up until that point.  His writings are voluminous and he was a staunch apologist and defender of the faith against such heresies as those of Marcion, the Gnostics, and the anti-Trinitarians.

Ironically enough, later in life, embraced the teachings of Montanism–a “New Prophecy” that ended up being condemned by the Church as a heresy. It was during that time that Holmes says Tertullian penned an important text entitled Against Praxeas, which ended up becoming one of the most important texts for solidifying and shaping Latin Trinitarianism. While Holmes contends that Tertullian didn’t essentially add anything new to the doctrine of the Trinity, or work it out fully, he still refuted a number of dangerous heresies and he basically cleaned up the discussion and gave the Western church the language it needed to codify it and protect it (trinitas, person, substantia, etc).

This is all the while being technically a heretic in another area of doctrine.

What are we to make of this? Well, I think it serves as a caution that we ought to be careful about being too careful about who we read, or even who we think can teach us truth. There is a a healthy care that students of theology should take in who they select as their main sources of theological inspiration. For instance, if your major inspiration for theological development, or your only precedent for a particular position, are the rationalist Socinians in the 16th Century, that’s a good sign you’re probably on the wrong track.

Still, the Church Father Origen said some really weird things that were eventually rightly condemned by the Church. But his concept of eternal generation, in the right hands, was gold for theology, and his commentaries, defenses of the faith may still be read with intellectual and spiritual profit. God can and has used even those theologians and philosophers whose views have suffered serious deficiencies and flaws to strengthen the faith of the Church.

I’m a pastor, so I take care about the books I tend to recommend, especially with my students. If I suspect that it will lead unsuspecting students astray, I won’t recommend it. Or if it has a redeeming value beyond some issues, I will strongly caution about the aspects of a work that are could distract from its overall value. Yet pastors and other students of theology need to beware of cloistering ourselves in the comfortable halls of our own favored theological neighborhoods. I can admit in my own life, when I’ve found out that a certain author espouses a view on the atonement or God’s covenants I find defective, I’ve been tempted to simply steer clear altogether and not “waste my time.” But that would be a mistake.

We ought to be careful about dismissing the theological offerings of theologians who differ from our favored tradition in theology. As a Reformed Christian I can (and have!) read Wesleyans, or even Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox theologians with great profit, both in areas of overlap as well as areas of theology I strongly differ. Just because I disagree with them on justification or the nature of sanctification, that does not mean I can’t glean insights or have my own theological convictions sharpened and strengthened.

My brief point, then, is: be careful of what you’re careful of. Be a discerning reader. Know yourself well and have friends and mentors who can challenge you and keep you on the rails. But for the student of theology, hyper-active fear of reading the “wrong” material might be something to be something to guard against as well.

Soli Deo Gloria

Christ, the Eternal Wisdom of God

christ pantokratorRarely have I seen Turretin break forth in lyrical rapture in these first 300 pages of his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, but when he has, it’s been brilliant. Towards the back end of his section on “The One and the Triune God”, he devotes a lengthy question and marshals a bevy of nimble exegetical, philological, and theological arguments towards defending the eternal generation of the Son against the anti-Trinitarian Socinians of the day.

One of them is to appeal to the one of the classic disputed texts in Athanasius’ arguments against the “Arians”*, Proverbs declaration that:

“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth, before he had made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man. (Proverbs 8:22-31 ESV)

While Turretin himself gets into some of the lexical concerns and literary issues of whether this should be seen as a mere personification, or whether eternity, or creation should be ascribed to Wisdom, we won’t concern ourselves with that for the moment. God’s personal Wisdom, for Turretin, was brought forth by an eternal generation, before the beginning of all things. His argument that none but Jesus is the very embodiment of God’s eternal Wisdom as seen in the Proverbs stunning both for its logical force, as well as its simple beauty.

Now that this is none other than the Son of God, Christ our Lord, is collected not only from the name itself, Wisdom (by which he is also often distinguished in the New Testament, Lk. 7:35; 1 Cor. 1:24), but also from the attributes ascribed to this Wisdom (which most aptly square with him and can belong to no other).

For who else can deserve the name of Wisdom and indeed of Wisdoms?

Who else calls men to him, teaches them the way of true salvation, wished the law and his precepts to obtain in the church, convicts sinners of foolishness, promises life to those who regard him and denounces final destruction upon the unbelieving?

Who else was with God before the world was and was perpetually with him while creating the world?

If Jehovah is said to have possessed Wisdom form the beginning, is not the “Word” said “to have been in the beginning” and “to have been with God (Jn. 1:1)?

If it is said to have been a delight to the Father, is not Christ “the beloved Son” (Mt. 3:17)?

If ordained and anointed by the Father, was not Christ foreordained before the foundation of the world and anointed for the mediatorial office (1 Pet. 1:20)?

If Wisdom is said to have been brought forth before the hills, was not Christ before all things (Col. 1:17)?

If by her kings reign, is not Christ the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords (Rev. 19:16)?

If Wisdom teaches and cries out, calls and exhorts men to repentance in high and low places, both immediately by herself and immediately by her maidens, do we not read the same of Christ both immediately by himself preaching the gospel and mediately by his servants the apostles whom he sent through the whole world to call men to a participation of his grace?

-Third Topic, Q. XXIX, Sec. XI

Then, as now, the question is whether we will recognize Wisdom’s voice when we hear it? As Paul says, the Wisdom of God is a “secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” such that “none of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:7-8). For that reason we must pray that the eyes of our heart may be enlightened, that the fog of our foolishness may be dispersed, that we may be among “those who are called, both Jews and Greeks,” who recognize “Christ…the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

 Soli Deo Gloria

*Yes, I know that term has been complicated by Lewis Ayres’ account and others. As shorthand, it’s still rather useful.

The Liberation of the Triune God

exodusOne of the helpful emphases of the Reformed tradition is its acknowledgment of the continuity as well as discontinuity of Old and New Testaments. This comes through very strongly in Turretin’s Institutes and even makes an appearance in his doctrine of the Trinity. After a couple of clarifying questions, as well as a lengthy question devoted to proving the doctrine of the Trinity from New Testament Scripture, he moves on to try and demonstrate the revelation of the Trinity in the Old Testament. For while it is admittedly true that God reveals himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with greater clarity in New Testament, that does not at all mean that we cannot see him revealed as such in the Old as well.

He then proceeds to do some careful lexical and exegetical work in some of the usual places such as Genesis 1:26, and other references to the Divine plural in the manner of the Fathers, as well as some other surprises. The passage that caught my eye was his treatment of the salvation of Israel from Egypt. Here argues from the works of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Exodus to their unified of the Triune action in the Old Testament.

…the same may be proved from the deliverance of the people out of Egyptian bondage, the guidance of them through the wilderness, and introduction into Canaan. He is that true God whom the Israelite. He is that true God whom the Israelites acknowledged and worshipped, who brought them out of Egypt, lead them through wilderness and introduced them into the land of promise. For no other besides God could have performed so great a work, as he himself testifies in the preface to the Law. “I am the Lord thy God who brough thee out of the land of Egypt.” Also, he often claims this as his prerogative (Ex. 3:2; 23:20; 32:34), in which this work is ascribed to the three persons of the Trinity–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Concerning the Father, the adversaries do not doubt; concerning the Son, the following passages prove (Ex. 3:2; 23:20; 32:34), in which this work is ascribed to the “angel of Jehovah.” That this angel is not a created angel, but the uncreated Son of God himself, sent by God for this work and often manifesting himself under this form to the patriarchs, is evident from the description of him and the various attributes given to him (which are such as cannot apply to a creature, but belong to God alone). (1) He says he is the God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob (Ex. 3:6); calls the Israelites his people (Ex. 3:7); sends Moses to Pharaoh (Ex. 3:10); promises himself divine worship after their deliverance from Egypt (Ex. 3:12). (2) He is said to have gone before the Israelites in a pillar of cloud and fire (Ex. 4:19), which is expressly attributed to Jehovah (Ex. 13:21; Num. 11:25; 14:14). (3) It is said that “the name of God” will be in himso that they will not escape unpunished who rebel against him (Exd. 23:20, 21). (4) He is called “the very presence of God” (“My presence shall go with thee,” Ex. 33:14) because he is the image of the invisible God, the express image of the person of the Father.

That the Holy Spirit also here concurred as a person with the others is evident from the noted passage: “I will mention the lovingkindesses of the Lord” (Is. 63:7-14). He said “surely they are my people, so he was their Savior.” “The angel of his presence saved them in his love, but they rebelled and vexed his Holy Spirit,” Here three distinct person are enumerated: “Jehovah,” “the angel of his presence,” and “the Holy Spirit.” Distinct operations are ascribed to each: to Jehovah, lovingkindness towards the people; to the angel of his presence, redemption; and to the Holy Spirit, vexation and contention with the people, which he was turned to be their enemy. Since, then, a truly divine work is ascribed to these three, it is necessary that they should be one true God essentially (although mutually distinguished in mode of subsisting and personall). –Third Topic, Q. XXV, sec. IX

There are a number of features worth noting in this treatment. The first is Turretin’s view of the Angel of the LORD, or the Angel of YHWH. As he makes clear in a number of places, Turretin views this as an appearance of the pre-incarnate Son. It is an appearance in angelic/human form that is, nonetheless, distinct from his incarnation in that there is no hypostatic union, but only concrete manifestation. Still, this is a thesis that Christian theologians have long appealed to in order to explain the way the Angel is both identified as a distinct agent who nonetheless is identified as the LORD somehow.

Connected with that is the issue of narrative identification of God by his works. The idea is that God is to be identified by his activities in history. God’s being is not constituted by his activity in history. Nonetheless, he is known and identified by his activity in history. YHWH is the God who rescued Israel from Egypt. That is YHWH’s activity and YHWH’s identity. Therefore, if an actor is identified as an actor in that same salvation, then they are identified with YHWH himself. In other words, if someone is doing what Scripture says only God does, then we must be dealing with God.

At the same time, there is clearly a distinction of the persons in their working of the one work of redeeming Israel from Egypt. The Fathers had a phrase that summed up this principle that while “the external works of the Trinity are undivided”–in other words, Father, Son, and Spirit are at work in the same work–nonetheless, the order and distinction among the persons should be observed. Father, Son, and Spirit are at work in the Incarnation of the Son, but only the Son becomes incarnate. The same is true here. While it is true that Father, Son, and Spirit are identified as agents of Israel liberation and are therefore identified as God, their particular activities are not lost to view. The God who is Father, Son, and Spirit acts Triunely to bring about Israel’s salvation.

Finally, the issue of “canonical” interpretation pops up in the passage. Turretin practices what might be called a form of canonical interpretation, taking the whole of the Old Testament to be the proper context for the interpretation of the Exodus event. Though the Exodus texts might not explicitly mention the activity of the Spirit, the LORD’s words in Isaiah about the same event illuminates it theologically. While we see Turretin employing this canonical reading within the Old Testament, the same principle holds true for the New Testament and the Old Testament. The New Testament’s clearer light is normative for how Christians are to read the Old Testament. Of course, that also takes some careful examination of the way that the New Testament is actually using an Old Testament text. Still, the principle holds. Jesus tells us what divorce law was about (Mark 10). Paul’s reading of the events of Exodus 34 in 1 Corinthians 10 actually helps us read Exodus 34. Hebrews tells us what the sacrificial system was really all about.

This is why I keep reading dead types. There’s gold in them thar hills. Turretin reminds us that our liberating God is our Triune God and our Triune God is a liberating God.

Soli Deo Gloria

The ‘Technical Stuff’ Matters in Preaching (Or, Theology is Unavoidable)

Matthew Levering makes a point I’ve seen confirmed time and again in my own preaching and teaching with college students and young adults:

Most Christians contemplate God liturgically and through personal prayer and study, rather than also by developing the intellectual habits proper to speculative theology. Nonetheless, attempts to speak about God (not merely to fellow theologians, but also and perhaps especially to persons in the pews) require some understanding of “technical” issues. Anyone who has ever heard a sermon on the Trinity – Catholics will attest to the painfully awkward experience that is “Trinity Sunday” – will admit that talk about the three Persons quickly becomes horribly thin unless the preacher has some metaphysical understanding (without denying the unfathomable mystery) of how the Persons are perfectly one and yet distinct. Simply put, no one in the pews wishes to hear about three gods. There is an expectation, rooted in Christian faith and the practices of faith, that the mystery must possess some intelligibility, that scriptural and metaphysical modes of reflection cannot ultimately be opposed. There must be some way of distinguishing the three Persons from the multiple gods of polytheism, beyond simply asserting that this is “not polytheism” and that the three are “one God,” whatever that might mean.

–Matthew Levering, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, pg. 6

Bold Theologian.

Bold Theologian.

Just the other night in Bible study with a group of young adults, working our way through Gospel of John, we had to stop and begin to parse doctrine of the Trinity in some detail. This wasn’t my own theological orientation jumping at the opportunity to explain eternal generation. We were forced by the logic of Jesus’ own words to attend to the trinitarian grammar of what Jesus was explaining to his disciples. Without a proper doctrine of the Trinity, or a working Christology, I don’t believe you can make it through half of Jesus’ encounters with the Pharisees, or dialogues with the disciples in that Gospel.

I mean, think about it. You can’t even make it past the most bottom-of-the-barrel proclamation represented by that guy holding up the poster of John 3:16 at the football game without encountering “the technical stuff”:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Well, okay. But what does it mean that God “gave his only Son”? God has kids? How? Where is His Wife? Why does Mrs. God get no headlines?

You see where this goes?

All that to say, at some point, for everyone, the “technical details” matter. It doesn’t matter that all you want to do, young pastor, is “preach the gospel” or “just love people.” If any of that involves more than the most shallow truisms and generalities, you’re going to have to do some theological digging. What’s more, for those who think you had all that handled in seminary, aside from the fact that there’s no way you covered all that questions you’re going to face in ministry, or that arise when worshipping an infinite God, just realize that while our basic theology may stay the same, the popular landscape is always shifting. More study is always required.

So roll up your sleeves and get to reading. We’ve got some work to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Nestland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.
Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”
In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.
In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

Defending #ClassicalTheism One Tweet at a Time

panentheismI just finished John W. Cooper’s masterful work Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers yesterday. It’s often charged that ‘classical theism’, the Augustinian tradition of theological reflection held broadly across Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions, is ‘the God of the philosophers’ that was forged via the synthesis of Greek Philosophy and the Gospel. Usually this charge is leveled by those putting forward an alternative, more biblical, or whatever view, often coming from a panentheistic framework, or largely influenced by it. Cooper’s main task in this judicious, fair-minded, and quite comprehensive work is to trace the philosophical lineage of panentheism beginning with Neoplatonism through thinkers like Eriugena, Bohme, Cusa, Schelling, Hegel, and so forth on down into contemporary thinkers such as Hartshorne, Moltmann and Clayton.

Well, feeling a bit feisty and inspired, I took to twitter and began tweeting a series of one-line defenses of ‘classical theism.’ Some are snarky, others not so much. It’s Twitter so they lack the precision, and probably the charity of Cooper’s work. Twitter theology is always a risk. Still they were kinda fun and some friends joined in, so I figured I’d share them here.

Finally, he’s not actually on Twitter to participate, but it’s not a party without Kevin.

And we’ll sign off on that note. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria