John 17:3 is a Stumbling Block for the Trinity

Judaic-Islamic Monotheism in Light of John 17:3

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

Although it is true that the Gospel According to John has a rather high Christology compared to the other three canonical gospels, it does not necessarily mean that the gospel actually elevates Jesus to the level of an actual divine being equal to the Father. Such a view of Jesus belongs to the Trinitarian theology which does not occur in the Johannine material. Although some texts of John, e.g. John 1, may seem to deify Jesus in the eyes of some readers, others disagree. Such passages are usually quite controversial, cropping up divergent interpretations. The reason for such disparate views is that the texts in question are not emphatic and explicit in their claims, hence allowing multiple different ways of interpretation. The intent of the author of John can be said to be located in his concluding remarks that can be found in John 20:30-31:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (ESV)

The New International Version of the Bible calls the two verses “The Purpose of John’s Gospel,” and so reading the purpose of the author of John in writing his gospel one does not see that it was to deify or prove Jesus’ divinity. He wrote it so that his readers might be convinced of the messiahship of Jesus and in the concluding remarks, he identifies who Jesus is, i.e., the Messiah and the Son of God*, but does not name him God. If Jesus was really God, he would have said so in his conclusion for that would have been a far more significant point to stress and to mention than that of Jesus’ messiahship or sonship. Verses like John 17:3 that emphatically demonstrate Jesus’ clear inferiority to God– that he is but a servant subjected to the God that he worships and prays to –strengthens the view that the Gospel According to John is not really out to prove Jesus’ divinity. John may have a heightened christological presentation of Jesus that reaches the sky, but he evidently does not elevate Jesus to divinity in the Trinitarian sense.

John 17:3 is a powerful text that weakens the Trinitarian claim concerning Jesus as it identifies the Father as τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν Θεὸν (the only true God). The text reads thus:

“And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (ESV)

The plain reading of the text negates Jesus and the Holy Spirit and anyone else as ‘theos’ (God) when it explicitly singles out the Father as “the only true God.” No one else in the Gospel According to John or in any part of the New Testament is ever afforded such a title.

In Islam, we have the ‘sahahdah’ or ‘testification of faith’ that names Allah as the one true God and Muhammad as His messenger. John 17:3 retains the testification of faith in Jesus’ time that was uttered by Jesus in which the Father is designated as the one and only true God whilst Jesus, that is himself, is identified as that one and only true God’s ἀπέστειλας (derived from ‘apostello’ from which we get ‘apostle’ in English). The message of John 17:3 is quite emphatic and it is clearly antithetical to the Trinitarian dogma regarding God.

The clear unitarian monotheism of John 17:3 is confirmed by the dramatic reaction that we see in the writings of early patristic authorities as they encounter the verse. One such patristic figure was the great Catholic saint and Doctor of the Church** Augustine. He was so perturbed by the plain reading of John 17:3 that he attempted to revamp the whole thing completely so that it would place Jesus side by side with the Father and together they would be declared “the only true God.” Dissatisfied with what John 17:3 says, Augustine writes the following in Tractate 105 of his Homilies on the Gospel of John:

“But this, saith He, is life eternal, that they may know Thee [the Father] the only true God, and Jesus Christ, Whom Thou hast sent. The [proper] order of the words is: “That Thee [the Father] and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent, they may know to be the only true God.” [1]

The clear unitarian message of John 17:3 was far too disagreeable to Saint Augustine that he was willing to completely alter the original text. And he was not alone in such an irresponsible enterprise. Other patristic authorities were also equally disturbed by John 17:3 that they, too, suggested Augustine’s innovated reading. Commenting on this, the Trinitarian German Protestant divine Dr. Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer writes in his commentary on John 17:3 in his well-received 16-volume New Testament commentary called ‘Kritischexegetischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament’:

“Hence it was unnecessary,—moreover, even a perversion of the passage, and running counter to the strict monotheism of John, when Augustine, Ambrose, Hilary, Beda, Thomas, Aretius, and several others explained it as if the language were: ut te et quem misisti Jesum Christum cognoscant solum verum Deum. [2]

The original reading of John 17:3 in Latin as seen in Jerome’s Vulgate should be ‘ut cognoscant te solum verum Deum et quem misisti Iesum Christum,’ which corresponds to the Greek, and is correctly translated as ‘That they may know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.’ Augustine’s innovated reading totally restructures the order of the words as pointed out by Meyer above so that it reads ‘ut te et quem misisti Jesum Christum cognoscant solum verum Deum’ which translates into ‘That Thee [the Father] and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent, they may know to be the only true God.’ Augustine’s self-invented version of John 17:3 puts Jesus on an equal footing with the Father so that Jesus, along with the Father, becomes the only true God. According to Meyer, not only Augustine but also Ambrose, yet another Doctor of the Church, was aghast by the original reading of John 17:3 that he, too, pressed for a new reading of the text that would include Jesus as the only true God. Their response is in and of itself evidence that John 17:3 stands at odds with the Trinity.

Noting Meyer’s concern, the foremost unitarian biblical scholar Sir Anthony Buzzard writes:

“We note the remarkable comment of a celebrated Church Father. It was so difficult for Augustine to harmonize this original Christian creed with the Trinitarian dogma known to him in the fifth century, that this immensely influential church leader actually restructured Jesus’ words to accommodate both Father and Son in the Godhead. Augustine, in his Homilies on John, boldly asserts that John 17:3 means: “This is eternal life, that they may know Three and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent, as the only true God.” This daring alteration of the Holy Scripture seriously distorts the words given to us by Jesus. Jesus defines his own position as the Messiah, distinct from the Godhead, which consists of the Father alone. The wise believer will distance himself from such violence to the Bible. Such forcing of the text merely exposes Augustine’s desperation to find his creed in the Scripture.” [3]

Similarly, commenting on John 17:3 in his translation and commentary of the New Testament, he writes:

“Augustine, finding this creedal statement incompatible with the Trinitarian creed of the post-biblical Church, actually dared to alter the order of the sentence and fraudulently twist the words of Jesus. In his Homilies on John he said that John 17:3 ought to read: “This is eternal life, that they know you [Father] and Jesus Christ whom you sent as the only true God.”” [4]

The reaction of some of the prominent Trinitarian theologians like Augustine and Ambrose clearly show that the verse does indeed convey a very Jewish monotheistic view of God that may also be said to be Islamic. John 17:3 weakens the Trinity and it demonstrates that Jesus was evidently non-Trinitarian in his conception of God.

Notes:

* The epithet ‘Son of God’ does not mean ‘God.’ Insofar biblical language is concerned, the term ‘Son of God’ does not equal ‘God.’ For more details on this, please proceed to https://unveiling-christianity.net/2009/01/29/son-of-god/

** ‘Doctor of the Church’ is a grand title bestowed by the Catholic Church on its saintly personalities that had reached such high erudition and prominence in the field of theology in their lives.

[1] Augustine (1849). The Gospel According to St. John, and His First Epistle, Volume 2 (Henry Browne, trans.). Oxford: John Henry Parker. p. 952

[2] Meyer, H. A. W. (1895). Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John (William Urwick & Frederick Crombie, trans.). New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company. p. 462

[3] Buzzard, A. F. & Hunting, C. (1998). The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound. Maryland: International Scholars Oublications. p. 38-39

p4[ Buzzard, A. F. (2014). The One God, the Father, One Man Messiah Translation: New Testament Commentary. Georgia: Restoration Fellowship. p. 291 fn. 206

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