Saturday, July 9, 2016

John 1:1: 'Biblical Unitarianism' and Its Eisegesis

by Michael R. Burgos Jr.
Over at there is a piece titled “But What About John 1:1”[1] that is designed to dissuade the reader that the term λόγος doesn't refer to the Son of God, but rather to “God’s creative self-expression.” The author first appeals to a litany of definitions for λόγος that are present in “any good Greek lexicon.” The writer then notes that “’Jesus Christ’ is not a lexical definition of logos.” Rather says the writer, λόγος refers to God’s “self-expression, or communication, of Himself” (sic). This argumentation is however, is indefensible. When one looks up the lexical meaning for the noun ἄρτος (artós), one wouldn’t find “Jesus Christ” listed either. Yet, Jesus said, “I am the bread (ἄρτος) of life” (John 6:35).
What the writer of ‘’ doesn't seem to understand is that John is entirely intent on utilizing metaphor to convey the identity and role of the Son of God. Jesus is called bread because he is the spiritual food upon which the redeemed metaphorically feast upon, receiving eternal life. Jesus is identified as the λόγος because he is and has always been the perfect expression of God, and has now come in human flesh (v. 14).
In section four of the aforementioned article, the writer has provided an attempt at an actual exegesis text of John. So too, the writer had much to say regarding what “Jewish readers” would have understood regarding the λόγος. However, instead of importing a presumed pre-existing understanding of the λόγος, it is more likely that John’s Jewish readers would have formed their opinions around what John actually wrote. While the question of the literary backdrop of John’s prologue is a relevant consideration, it is not necessary for one to be aware of what literature John has called upon in order to understand the characterization that John has made of the Word.[2] Rather, the means by which one is to understand what has been communicated of the Word is to allow John’s characterization to speak for itself. Thus, it is a careful reading of the text which ought to inform the interpreter, and not a preconceived understanding of the term. From the Old Testament’s use of dabar, or even the multifaceted Greek concept of the logos one can easily demonstrate that unitarian dogmatism regarding an apersonal Word is unfounded.[3]
There is good evidence to suppose that the unitarian stream of rabbinic theology was a reaction against pre-Christian second temple Jewish binitarianism and subsequent primitive Christianity. Boyarin, a Talmudic scholar and Orthodox Jew has observed:
Two different strands of the religious imagination, one in which the ancient binitarianness of Israel’s God is essentially preserved and transformed and one in which that duality has been more thoroughly suppressed, live side by side in the Jewish thought world of the Second Temple and beyond, being mixed in different ways but also contesting each other and sometimes seeking to oust the other completely.[4]
Semitic literature scholars have documented that there was a strain of Judaism that was within orthodoxy that did not affirm unitarianism.[5]
For the balance of this article, I will provide a positive exegesis of John 1:1, and throughout I will refute the untenable assertions of so-called ‘biblical-unitarians.’ In a future post I will go into greater detail regarding its context.
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)
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὗτος 
ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα διʼ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ 
ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν (John 1:1-3, NA28)
The above text begins with the familiar words, “In the beginning” ( Ἐν ἀρχῇ) which are certainly intended to invoke Genesis 1:1.[6] John, by placing the Word in the place where we might expect God, has already identified the Word with Yahweh. Throughout vv. 1 and 2, John utilized the imperfect verb of being (ἦν) thereby indicating that the Word was in existence before the beginning. The use of ἦν is distinguished from vv. 3, 6, and 14 wherein the the verb ἐγένετο is employed to communicate something coming to exist or coming to a place. Therefore, given the placement of the Word within John 1:1a, in the same way that the personhood and eternality of God is assumed in Genesis 1:1, the personhood and eternality of the Word ought to be assumed.
Like the first clause, the Apostle has placed the Word in the nominative case, indicating that his intention is to tell his audience about the Word. The preposition used to distinguish the Word and God is πρὸς, and it used as “a marker of association, often with the implication of interrelationships.”[7]Morris has noted that if one were to take a wooden translation of the term the clause would be rendered, “the Word was toward God,”[8] as πρὸς generally indicates movement toward an object.[9]However, Wallace has identified that in phrase ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν “the preposition and the verb do not match: The verb is stative and the preposition is transitive.”[10] Thus, the context dictates that the preposition be translated “with.”
Carson has observed,

In all but one or two peculiar constructions (e.g., 1 Pet 3:15), pros may mean ‘with’ only when a person is with a person, usually in some fairly intimate relationship. And that suggests that John may be pointing out, rather subtly, that the ‘Word’ he is talking about is a person, with God and therefore distinguished from God, and enjoying personal relationship with him[11]
‘Biblical unitarians’ can't affirm the notion that the Word is personal and was with God, and thus they, contrary to the actually meaning of the preposition, insist otherwise. Buzzard and Hunting have resorted to untenable argumentation to obscure the force of the preposition:
Significantly, John always uses the preposition para (with) to express the proximity of one person to another (1:39; 4:40; 8:38, etc.). Yet in his prologue he chooses pros (with) suggesting that “the word” is not meant to designate a person alongside God.[12]
The above comments are highly problematic for two main reasons. First, no trinitarian interpreter I have ever read argued that πρὸς is to be interpreted as indicating “a person alongside of God.” Rather, as Carson has noted, “In all but one or two peculiar constructions (e.g., 1 Pet 3:15), pros may mean ‘with’ only when a person is with a person, usually in some fairly intimate relationship.” Second, even if one would grant that πρὸς doesn't imply that the Word was personal and with God, and that it is rather παρὰ that indicates as much, the use of παρὰ by John in passages like John 8:38 and 17:5 would therefore demonstrate the trinitarian contention. Thus, even using Buzzard and Hunting’s own contrived standard, Jesus was personally with the Father prior to his incarnation.
The third clause states that “the Word was God” (θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος). The Word remains the subject and the anarthrous predicate nominative θεὸς takes the place of emphasis. The articular λόγος makes it plain that this is not a convertible proposition. That is, one may not translate the clause “God was the Word” with grammatical justification. John has neither used θεὸς indefinitely as the subordinationists, thereby invoking a theology alien to John’s gospel, nor has he used θεὸς definitely, thereby identifying the Word as the God whom he was with. Rather, as Wallace has forcefully argued,[13] θεὸς is to be taken qualitatively. Hence, to suppose as ‘biblical unitarians’ do, that the Word is both a non-personal entity (e.g., God’s reason, power, plan, purpose , or creative expression) and that the Word is God himself is a non-sequitur. John has identified the Word as God, throwing θεὸς in the front of the clause so as to emphasize the deity of the Word. The Word is God and not a part of God, or God’s plan. So much for unitarian damage control.

[2] It is likely that John’s depiction is something of a composite with his first person experience with the incarnate Son dominating his characterization. Although, I believe both the Targums, Septuagint, and Hebrew Bible contributed in differing measures. Among these, Ronning has argued persuasively for Targumic influence not only in the prologue, but throughout the fourth gospel. See Ronning, The Jewish Targums and John’s Logos Theology, (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010).
[3] Take for example the the use of דָּבָר (dabar) in 1 Samuel 3, esp. vv. 7, 10, and 21. There the “word of the LORD” is not merely the spoken language of God, but a visible revelation of the LORD who is at the same time distinguished from the LORD. This deeply Hebraic depiction is entirely similar to the trinitarian conception of John’s λόγος (see also Gen 15:1, 4). Regarding the use of  λόγος amongst hellenized Jews, it has been well established that Philo’s λόγος was an intermediary figure who is the “firstborn” and “son” of the “Father,” who represented God in creation. See Yonge, Charles D., The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, Updated Ed., (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006), 15.0.63. See also Hillar, Marian, From Logos to Trinity: The Evolution of Religious Beliefs from Pythagoras to Tertullian, (New York: Cambridge, 2012), 58.
[4] Boyarin, Daniel, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ, (New York: The New Press, 2012), Kindle, loc. 1405.
[5] For a consideration of the various views both in Rabbinic theology and prior, see Segal, Alan F., Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports About Christianity and Gnosticism, (Waco: Baylor Univ. Press, 2012), 135-155, and Barker, Margaret, The Great Angel: A Study of Israel’s Second God, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 12-47. See also Boyarin, Daniel, 2001. “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue of John.” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 94, No. 3 (July): 245-284.
[6] cf. Heb 1:10.
[7] Louw-Nida, 89.112.
[8] Morris, Leon, NICNT: The Gospel According to John, Rev. Ed., (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), Kindle, loc. 2053.
[9] See GGBB, 358.
[10] ibid., 359.
[11] Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 216-217.
[12] Buzzard, Anthony, Hunting, Charles F., The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self Inflicted Wound, (New York: International Scholars Pub.,1998), 194-195.
[13]See ibid., 266-269. See also Wallace, Daniel Ed., Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament:Manuscript, Patristic, and Apocryphal Evidence, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Academic & Professional, 2011), 91-126.