Grammatical analysis of John 1:1c and John 1:14

While the doctrine of the Trinity is defended in many ways with many verses, it is the book of John that contains the most compelling evidence. John 1:1-14 is one of two primary passages used almost universally (the other is John 20:28). Its importance to Christianity cannot be overstated. Michael F. Bird underscores this point in the opening chapter of the book “How God Became Jesus”:

“I have my own view as to “when” Jesus became God…I think I can articulate the answer by way of a quotation from John the Evangelist: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1)”

The Trinitarian interpretation can be summarized with the following logical propositions.

  1. Word was God. (John 1:1c)
  2. Word became flesh. (John 1:14)
  3. Therefore, God became flesh.

If the argument is extended to note that Jesus is the Son of God, it creates an apparent logical contradiction, for it states that Jesus is both the Son of God and God. It is logically incoherent to say that something is both of something and is something. This irrationality is acknowledged as a mystery or paradox that cannot be explained but is true nonetheless.[1] However, let’s put that aside and continue.

All is not as it appears with this argument. But before the analysis can continue, some additional information must be introduced.

Grammar of John 1:1c


John 1:1c uses the copula ‘was’ to join ‘god’ and ‘the word’: “the word was God.” In the Greek this is literally “God was the word”, where ‘the word’ is the subject with the definite article and ‘god’ is the predicate nominative without the definite article. The predicate nominative comes first for emphasis.

There are a range of possible interpretations. Robert Hommel does an excellent job summarizing the grammatical issues in The Apologists Bible Commentary on John 1. Kermit Zarley discusses the competing views in more detail, including the pros and cons of the major options. Those options are shown below in (roughly) increasing order of definiteness:

#PhrasePredicate Nominative Use
(1)The Word was a godindefinite
(2)The Word was divine
OR
The Word had the same nature as God
qualitative adjectival
(3)What God was, the Word wasqualitative adjectival
(4)The Word was Goddefinite-qualitative
(5)God was the Worddefinite

The purely definite force leads to a reversible (or convertible) proposition[2] where “The Word was God” is equivalent to its converse “God was the Word.” This leads to Modalism or Sabellianism. Overwhelmingly, the historical orthodox interpretation has been definite-qualitative, though it has occasionally been translated as divine in an qualitative, adjectival sense.[3] The other qualitative interpretation suggests personification rather than divinity.[4] Jehovah’s Witnesses translate it using a purely indefinite force, where Jesus is a god, but not the God.

20th and 21st century scholarship has been moving away from the traditional interpretation towards more qualitative, adjectival interpretations, though the traditional interpretation remains popular.[5]

Regarding Jesus’ divinity, most of the attention has been and continues to be given to John 1:1 rather than 1:14. This may be a mistake.

Grammar of John 1:14


John 1:14 literally reads “And the word flesh became…” This is translated as “The word became flesh.” While in 1:1c used the copula “was”, verse 14 uses the semi-copula “became.” For all practical purposes, “became” functions in the same semantic way as “was.” This will become important shortly.

Hommel notes that Don Hartley declared that all mass terms take a qualitative force, including “flesh” in John 1:14:

“John 1:14, for example, does not teach that the Logos became The Flesh or a flesh, but rather “flesh,” signifying that all the Logos possesses all the qualities or attributes of “flesh””

John 1:14 combines ‘the Word’ and the mass noun ‘flesh’ with the semi-copulative ‘became’. The word ‘flesh‘ has a qualitative force.

Having briefly examined the grammar, the problems will now become clear.

Grammatical Problems


Let’s quickly revisit the propositions:

  1. Word was God
  2. Word became flesh
  3. Therefore, God became flesh.

In the propositions, #3 does not logically follow because #1 is not a reversible proposition. #3 is only justified if God was the Word, but such a definite grammatical use is largely rejected by scholars. However, this is not the only argument made for divinity of the Son.

Trinitarian theology fully equates the Son with the Word (the preexistent “Logos-Son”). John 1:1c is taken to mean ‘[the Son] was God’ and 1:14 is ‘[the Son] became flesh.’ In the final analysis, the effective exegetical use of God is therefore strictly definitive (identity), not merely qualitative despite the grammar. It’s not good enough that the Son is ‘a god’ or ‘god-like’, for this suggests two gods. Similarly, the use of flesh is also strictly definitive (identity), for how else can the Son (mentioned in v.14 of the flesh) be the Word?

While 1:1c can be interpreted with a definite force, no one interprets 1:14 so that the Son became flesh in the definitive or identity sense. He became flesh in the qualitative sense, that is, the Son fully preexisted humanity (the flesh). For a more detailed proof of this, see the “Copulae Redux” below. How then do we know that the Word was the Son?

While the Word was God (#1) could potentially be a reversible proposition (i.e. “God was the Word”) if definite and not qualitative, The Word became flesh (#2) is not a reversible proposition because it is qualitative. The converse, “Flesh came from the Word” or “Flesh was [previously] the Word”, is not logically necessarily true. When flesh (a mass noun) became Word, this is in the qualitative, not definite (identity), sense. So you can’t conclude that the Son was the Word, because it doesn’t say the Word became the unqualified flesh of Jesus, the Son of God.

Whether ‘the Word’ is God in the definite, qualitative, or indefinite sense, it simply doesn’t matter because the Word is flesh in the qualitative sense. The consequences of this are profound. The full equivalence of ‘the word’ and ‘Son’ (or Jesus) cannot be established on grammatical grounds. This strongly militates against the preexistence of the Son. This precludes theologies based around the incarnation (and possibly angel Christologies as well). It does not, however, imply that Jesus was not divine in some sense. This permits both low and high Christologies, but does not settle the question of which one is correct.

Grammatical Illustrations


To help illustrate this conclusion, here are four supporting analogous grammatical examples:

Example #1: Consider the sentences “Lot’s wife became [some] salt” and “When you became a Christian, you became salt [and light].” While the converse might be true (as in the first statement) it is not necessarily (as in the second statement).

Example #2: If I say, “The wooden puppet became flesh”, you don’t say that all flesh is the puppet, you don’t say that a flesh is the puppet, and you don’t say the flesh is a puppet. It is not reversible. Indeed, Pinocchio is no longer a puppet, for he has transformed.

Example #3: I have a briefcase. I decide to put some clothes in it and take it with me on an airplane. The briefcase becomes luggage (another mass noun). While it is true that the briefcase can be called luggage, this is not its essence. It is still a briefcase, even after it loses the luggage attribute when I unpack. But notice again that it is not reversible. I can’t say “look, there is luggage, it must be a briefcase”, for not all luggage are briefcases.

Example #4: The day after “The Word became Flesh”, we could have said that “The word is flesh” (this is why the semi-copula should be treated like a copula).[9] As before, this is not a reversible proposition. Moreover, you can’t say flesh is the Word, because that’s not Trinitarian: his human nature (flesh) is not his divine nature (the word).

Look at example #4 more closely. The Trinitarian wishes to engage in a very subtle equivocation. The alleged proof of the Trinity reads like this: “The Word (that is God) is Jesus” and its converse “Jesus is the Word (that is God).” But that’s not what it says. Consider John 1:14 [NIV]:

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

This is the only place where the Son (Jesus) is tied to the Word. But it is “the flesh that was the word”[6] that made his dwelling, not the Son. It is “the flesh that was the word” that had glory. The glory of the Son is “the flesh that was the word”. This is obviously qualitative, as the glory of the Son is not the Son, but the Father.[7] Yet even fully granting that the flesh is Jesus doesn’t work because ‘flesh’ has a non-reversible use.

Copulae Redux


Let’s reevaluate the copula argument using the theological notion that the Prologue of John is moving the narrative forward in time from creation through to Jesus’ life and death. This is the sense used in Trinitarian doctrine when determining that Jesus preexisted the incarnation.

  1. First, the Word was God (divine; with God the Father).
  2. Then, the Word was flesh (human).
  3. Therefore, the Word was both flesh (human) and God (divine).
  4. The Word was flesh in Jesus, the Son of God.
  5. Therefore, Jesus, the Son of God, was both flesh (human) and God (divine).

It is plain from this formulation that the semi-copula in John 1:14 is treated as a copula in this theology. However, as pointed out by the grammatical analysis, the copulae (#1, #2, and #4) are not reversible. To drive this point home, “Son, the divine” could not become (change into) “Son, the flesh” by identity and still be “Son, the divine.” In order for the Son to be both divine and human, the sense must be qualitative. Therefore, the conclusion does not follow. The argument is logically invalid.

Conclusion


While there are many different interpretations for John 1:1c that can be used to support various Christologies, a number of them become implausible in light of John 1:14. In particular, it strongly militates against the preexistence of Jesus or the Son, since the full equivalence of ‘the word‘ and ‘Son‘ cannot be established. It does not, however, imply that Jesus was not divine in some sense. This permits both low and high Christologies. Thus, incarnational theologies are most affected.

The grammar suggests that the Word of God the Father dwells inside of Jesus, the Son of God. This is the traditional Unitarian monotheist position: God dwelt inside of Jesus, but was not him by identity.

For those who remain unconvinced, you can say that “The Father is God” and “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is not the Father”. If you don’t see the contradiction, it is probably because you have mentally replaced “is God” with “is fully God but a distinct person of the Trinity”. Trinitarians often do this automatically without realizing their assumption. But it is an assumption because the text just says “God” and the Bible never explicitly states that “God” means “Trinity”. The grammar does not justify this interpretation on its own. It must be added into the text.

Rebuttal


Don Hartley, in reading John 1:1c as purely qualitative and in light of John 1:14, stated the following:

“Thus, Jesus is God in every sense the Father is”[8]

This represents a typical exegesis for John 1:1c and 1:14.

“In other words, the clear semantic of the mass or plural count noun, is meant to disambiguate the semantics of the singular count noun to which it is related in the discourse.”[8]

Thus, the use of the mass noun “flesh” disambiguates the semantics of the singular anarthrous predicate nominative count noun “God” to which it is related. Therefore, disambiguate ‘the word was God’ by interpreting ‘God’ qualitatively according to the meaning of ‘the word became flesh.’ That is, the word is both flesh and God. Sound familiar?

  1. Word was God. (John 1:1c)
  2. Word became flesh. (John 1:14)
  3. Therefore, God became flesh.

Hartley argues that we should interpret #1 in light of ‘flesh’ in #2. To what end? To show #3, of course, but also to say more than that: “Jesus is God in every sense the Father is.” This goes much farther than is justified.

‘God’ and ‘flesh’ are related through ‘the word.’ You can plausibly say that ‘the word’ is a part of (or the nature of) ‘God the Father’ and that ‘the word’ became embodied within Jesus. All of this is justified grammatically as well as being fully compatible with Hartley’s semantic argument. But qualitative embodiment of the Word comes nowhere close to justifying Hartley’s view of Jesus, which contains three errors:

“Jesus is God…

You can’t get full equivalence between flesh/word/God and Jesus for the reasons already discussed. It’s not a logically valid deduction. Being qualitatively related is insufficient.

…in every sense…

Based on what? Even if ‘God’ is purely qualitative, there are a variety of possible explanations besides “in every sense.” Moreover, he doesn’t mean “in every sense”, he means “in every sense, including essence, but not person-hood.” This is circular reasoning because it presumes Trinitarianism.

…the Father is.”

‘God [the Father]’ is subtly equivocated with ‘[the full divinity of] God [the Trinity]’. This is an equivocation fallacy and circular reasoning. It is also another mistaken example of the definite (by identity) Jesus/flesh relationship (John 1:14) and the non-definite word/God relationship (John 1:1c). This reasoning is invalid.

Afterword


This argument was developed after doing some grammatical research on John 1. The result was unexpected. I desired confirmation or a rebuttal, so I posted an early version of this argument on another forum. No feedback was forthcoming. It is undeniably possible that a critical logical mistake has been made here. It is also possible that no such mistake has been made. The goal of this academic and intellectual exercise is to see if the argument can hold up to scrutiny.

In my experience, Trinitarians will generally refuse to discuss alternatives to incarnational Christology. Historically, I would have been literally burned at the stake (along with my writings) for even making such arguments. As such, biblical unitarian monotheist authors like Kermit Zarley and Anthony Buzzard are rarely the subject of rebuttals. Rather, such arguments are likely to be dismissed with derision and scorn. This is especially frustrating for those searching for truth. Perhaps one day we will have greater dialogue.

[1] See CCC#237: (emphasis added) “But his inmost Being as Holy Trinity is a mystery that is inaccessible to reason alone or even to Israel’s faith before the Incarnation of God’s Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit.” 

[2] A reversible or convertible proposition is one in which the proposition and its converse are both true. Formally A→B and B→A are both true.

[3] The distinction between divine and God’s nature is fairly subtle and can also be stated as divine nature. Roman Catholic grammarian Max Zerwick has argued for each at different times (in 1963 and 1988). The reasoning behind each differs slightly. (Zarley, p.328, 335)

[4] Unlike the other options, #3 cannot be mistaken for a second God or identity with God. It must mean that the Word is a reflection or representation of God, not God himself (e.g. Hebrews 1:3). (Zarley, p.334,336)

[5] Prior to and after E.C. Colwell developed his rule regarding anarthrous predicate nominatives, the traditional explanation held sway. The scholarly change away from this explanation is largely a consequence of the work of Phillip B. Harner. He stated “In John 1:1 I think that the qualitative force of the predicate is so prominent that the noun cannot be regarded as definite” (Phillip B. Harner, “Qualitative Anarthrous Predicate Nouns”. p.87).

[6] “The flesh that was the word” is awkward, obscure phrasing, but does not presume theology. Using embodiment would be clearer, as in “the flesh that embodied the word” or “the word that was embodied in the flesh.”

[7] As in John 15:8 [NIV]: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

[8] Don Hartley. 1998. “Revisiting the Colwell Construction in Light of Mass/Count Nouns.” [link].

[9] Since John 1:1 is written as history (what was), it implies that the truth value of “The Word was God” and “The Word is God” are equivalent, just as the truth value of “The Word became flesh” and “The Word is Flesh” are equivalent. Context allows us to treat the semi-copula as a copula.

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