The Trinity and the Gospel of John

The Trinity and the Gospel of John

Written by Scott R. Swain |
Tuesday, September 12, 2023

In describing the true light’s reception by believers, the prologue picks up a theme already introduced in John 1:3 and elaborated more fully throughout the Gospel, namely, the indivisible operation of the persons of the Trinity. The believing reception of the Word, resulting in the reception from the Word of “the right to become children of God,” is a reception effected by God (through the Spirit: Jn 3:5-6, 8): “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn 1:12-13). 

Brandon Smith’s most recent book, The Trinity in the Canon: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Proposal (B&H Academic), offers fifteen chapters on a variety of topics related to the Trinity and the Bible written by a gifted group of biblical scholars and theologians. I was delighted to contribute the chapter on the Gospel of John. Below is an excerpt on John’s Prologue, which is posted with permission of the publisher.

The Being of the Word (Jn 1:1–2)

  1. John’s prologue begins with “three short affirmations” regarding the central subject matter of the Gospel. These affirmations tell us who that central subject matter is, how he is, and what he is: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was toward God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).[1] The threefold repetition of the verb “was” locates the Word on the divine side of the creator-creature distinction, on the side of God’s eternal and unchangeable being as opposed to the creature’s temporal and changeable becoming.[2]
  2. In affirming the Word’s eternal existence (“In the beginning was the Word”), John’s prologue echoes Proverbs 8’s speech regarding divine Wisdom in at least one regard.[3] John identifies the Word not merely as a divine attribute, much less a literary personification. John identifies the Word as an eternally and unchangeably existing “someone,” a “who” and not merely a “what.”[4] “This one,” the prologue tells us, “was in the beginning with God” (Jn 1:2).
  3. In describing the Word’s eternal relation to God (“the Word was toward God”), the prologue suggests why John has chosen the title “Word” instead of “Wisdom” to identify the second person of the Trinity.[5] The Word’s eternal, Godward repose is what qualifies him to perform the divine works of making, saving, and glorifying all things, especially human beings. According to certain ancient conceptions of human psychology, a word faces two directions and fulfills two functions.[6] As “inward logos,” the word remains within a person and grasps what a person knows. The inward word is the mind in the mode of being understood,[7] what Augustine calls “a word in your heart” (cf. Matt 12:35).[8] As “outward logos,” the word expresses and communicates to others what a person knows, making that knowledge common to, shared by others. The outward word is the mind in the mode of being uttered (cf. Matt 12:34).[9] John 1:1-2 identifies the Word as God’s “inward logos,” who eternally sees, hears, and contemplates God and God’s plan for creatures (Jn 3:11, 32; 6:46; 8:26, 38, 40; 15:15). This, in turn, qualifies the Word both to interpret and execute outwardly God’s plan for creatures (Jn 1:3-5, 14, 18; cf. Rev 5:4, 9), which, in the case of human beings chosen, redeemed, and sanctified by the Trinity, ultimately involves coming to share the Word’s own contemplative repose as friends and fellows of God (Jn 1:18; 13:23; 15:15; 17:3, 24; cf. 1 John 1:3). The Word’s eternal relation to God is what ultimately distinguishes him, not only from John the Baptist (Jn 1:5-9), but also from Moses (Jn 1:17), to whom God spoke “face to face” (Exod 33:11; Deut 34:10). “No one has ever seen God”—except the Word who faces God (Jn 1:1; 3:11, 32; 6:46; 8:38; cf. Exod 33:20). Therefore, the Word alone is fully qualified to make the Father known (Jn 1:18; cf. Heb 1:1-4).
  4. John’s prologue not only describes the eternal relation of the Word to God (“the Word was toward God”). It also predicates deity of the Word (“the Word was God”). By itself, such a predication is not necessarily distinctive or unique. Philo of Alexandria calls the Word a “second god.”[10] What distinguishes John’s predication from many Greco-Roman and Jewish descriptions of the Word, is his claim that the Word is uncreated God, and thus divine in the full and supreme sense of the term.[11] Unlike Philo’s Logos or 1 Enoch’s Son of Man, the Johannine Word is not God’s first and supreme creature, through whom God relates to all other creatures.[12] The Johannine Word is one with the uncreated God, existing before and above all other so-called “gods” (Jn 1:15, 30; 3:31; 10:30, 34-36; cf. Pss 8:5; 95:3; 1 Cor 8:4-6). As we will see more fully below, John 1:1’s predication of deity, in the full and supreme sense, to the second person of the Trinity is both comprehensive and structurally significant (Jn 20:28).
  5. One final observation regarding the eternal being of the Word is in order. Though John moves away from identifying the second person of the Trinity as the Word after the prologue, he does not move away from the conceptual framework the prologue has established. Throughout his Gospel, John offers a twofold description of the Son that mirrors the prologue’s twofold description of the Word. In conveying the distinctive nature of the Son’s person and work, John speaks in a variety of ways about the Son’s relation to God (that which distinguishes him from the Father, i.e., his mode of being God); and he speaks in a variety of ways about the Son’s oneness with God (that which he holds in common with the Father, i.e., his being God). In John’s testimony, both patterns of speech are essential to identifying who the Son is and how the Son operates. This twofold pattern of speech, in turn, becomes central to the conceptual framework of later trinitarian theology.[13]

The Agency of the Word (Jn 1:3–5)

  1. The eternal being of the Word determines the nature of his activity in the production of creatures. As we observed above, John 1:1-2 locate the Word on the divine side of the creator-creature distinction, on the side of God’s eternal and unchangeable being, not on the side of the creature’s temporal and changeable becoming. John 1:3 underlines this point by identifying the eternal Word as the creator of all things, the producer of everything that has come to into being: “All things came into being through him, and without him nothing has come into being that has come into being” (Jn 1:3).
  2. In stating that all things came into being “through” him, John identifies the Word who is internal to God’s being as an expression of God’s immediate agency, the divine Word whose utterance brings all things into existence (cf. Jn 5:25; 11:43-44; Rom 4:17; Heb 11:3).[14] To accomplish this identification, John employs the language of “prepositional metaphysics,” which in ancient philosophy was a means of identifying the various “causes” of all things (e.g., efficient, formal, material, final).[15] However, unlike Philo, who identifies the Logos as an “instrumental cause” through which God produces all things,[16] John identifies the Word as a personal mode of God’s immediate agency, in whom God’s own life-and-light-giving power resides (Jn 1:4; 5:26; 6:63).

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