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Grammar and the Divinity of Christ

It is hard to underestimate the importance of grammar. As it has been said before, “There is a big difference between, ‘Let’s eat, Grandma!’ and ‘Let’s eat Grandma!’” One comma determines whether Grandma is invited to attend a meal or whether Grandma is the targeted entrée at the meal! When it comes to our understanding of God’s Word and the theology we derive from it, the significance of grammar is even more important. Don’t be fooled; some of the essential doctrines of the historic Christian faith are rooted in the grammar of the Greek New Testament. That is why Luther provocatively said, “We will not long preserve the gospel without the languages.”[1] In this article, we are going to look at one place where this is true. In John 1:1, we see that John chose precise grammar to articulate both that Jesus is God and that Jesus is distinct from the Father.[2] In order to see this, we are going to examine John 1:1 phrase by phrase.

The first phrase, “In the beginning was the Word,” alludes to the Word’s eternal existence as God. This wording harkens the reader back to the creation account in Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created…” In fact, John 1:3 distinctly describes the Word’s active role in creation: “All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created.” The verb that John uses in this first phrase is significant. He uses ην (ēn) which is in the imperfect tense form. Depending on which grammarian you are referencing, the imperfect tense form usually depicts continuous action in the past time. In this context, the verb stresses the Word’s prior existence to the beginning, i.e. Jesus was not created. This is hard to see in most English translations. The ESV, as well as nine other prominent translations, say, “In the beginning was the Word.” While this is an accurate translation, it can hinder the reader from understanding all that John is actually saying. A fitting and more precise translation could be that of the NLT, “In the beginning the Word already existed.” John is not saying that in the beginning the Word was created, but rather, in the beginning the Word had always previously existed.

The second phrase “And the Word was with God” describes Jesus’s relation to the Father. In John’s writings, “God” with the article (In Greek, not English) almost always refers to the Father. Therefore, based on context that follows (1:18), we can infer that the word “God” here is referring to the Father. John is, in some way, making the Word and the Father distinct. Yet, while he is distinguishing them, he uses the preposition “with” to describe the closeness or proximity of one person to another. In this context, it is describing the Word’s active communion with God.[3] In other words, you could say, as A. T. Robertson does, the Word was “face to face with God.”[4]

Finally, that last phrase “and the Word was God” is the most crucial piece of the grammatical puzzle in which Jesus’s deity is clearly stated. This phrase could be listed as one of the most important phrases in the Bible. When studying this phrase, it is important to look at the Greek text (don’t be alarmed). The Greek reads “καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος (kai Theos ēn ho Logos).” Here “God” is fronted before the verb and lacks the definite article. Typically, in Greek, when the predicate nominative comes before the verb, it will not have an article. There are three options for how to render “God:” it could be indefinite, definite, or qualitative. Jehovah’s Witnesses have argued that since “God” does not have the article it should be rendered indefinite, as in, “The Word was a god.” However, just because a noun lacks the article does not mean it is automatically indefinite. Jehovah’s Witnesses have essentially created their own grammatical rule, and the problem with this rule is twofold. First, non-Jehovah’s Witness Greek grammarians deny the rule altogether. Second, they are extremely inconsistent with applying this rule to other texts, even in the same context. R. H. Countess has pointed out: “In the New Testament there are 282 occurrences of the anarthrous θεὸς (God). At sixteen places NWT [The New World Translation] has either a god, god, gods, or godly. Sixteen out of 282 means that the translators were faithful to their translation principle only six percent of the time.”[5]

For example, let’s apply their rule to just the first 18 verses of the Gospel of John. That means that we should translate vs. 1 as “In a beginning” instead of “In the beginning.” In vs. 4, we should translate it as “In him was a life” instead of “In him was life.” In vs. 6, we should translate it as “A man came, sent from a god” instead of “A man came, sent from God.” And there are at least 2 more examples before vs. 18. Do you see the inconsistency with the implementation of their own rule?

Well, if it shouldn’t be translated as indefinite, then does that mean that God should be translated as definite? Not so fast. Ultimately, the reason this should not be understood as definite is that it would directly identify “The Word” as “The Father.” What is the problem with that you might ask? If the Word is directly identified with the Father, then we would have Modalism or Sabellianism. This teaching denies the three persons of Godhead. It states that God is one person but appears in three “modes” i.e. Father, Son, and Spirit.

So, if it shouldn’t be translated as indefinite or definite, then the last option is that “God” should be understood as qualitative. Qualitative simply means that it pertains to the quality or to the nature of something. Therefore, it could be said that “the Word was in nature God.” Or “the Word was in essence God.” Dan Wallace comments on the qualitative option, “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.” Wallace goes on to say, “The idea of a qualitative θεὸς here is that the Word had all the attributes and qualities that “the God” (of 1:1b) had. In other words, he shared the essence of the Father, though they differed in person. The construction the evangelist chose to express this idea was the most concise way he could have stated that the Word was God and yet was distinct from the Father.”[6] Or as Luther said, “‘The Word was God’ is against Arius; ‘the Word was with God’ against Sabellius.”[7]

This article has attempted to demonstrate that it is, indeed, hard to overestimate the importance of grammar. It can distinguish between whether Grandma gets called to attend a meal, or if she is the meal herself; or on a much more serious note, it can distinguish between Jesus as creature or Jesus as eternal Creator. In John 1:1, the grammar reveals that Jesus existed before the beginning, that he is distinguished from the Father but is in active communion with Him, and that he is in fact God.

[1] Martin Luther and Hans Joachim Hillerbrand, Annnotated Luther, The Christian Life in the World Volume 5, Volume 5, (Baltimore, MD: Project Muse, 2017), 260.

[2] In this article, it is assumed that “The Word” is Jesus based on the context of John 1:1-18.

[3] Murray Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus, (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1992), 57.

[4] A. T. Robertson, The Divinity of Christ in the Gospel of John, (New York: Revell, 1916), 39.

[5] R. H. Countess, The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ New Testament: A Critical Analysis of the New World Translation of the Christian Greek Scriptures (Philipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1982), 54-55.

[6] Italics mine- Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 269.

[7] Ibid., 268.

Tyler Sykora

Tyler Sykora is a Master of Divinity student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the research assistant to Dr. Jason K. Allen, president of MBTS, and a recruitment specialist in the Admissions office. He is also a resident in the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church with Jared Wilson.

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