Which is likely part of the official Gospel Magazine repository.
The Gospel Magazine
The Three Heavenly Witnesses
The doctrine of the Holy Trinity in Unity may be deduced from many passages of Scripture, but in only one verse is it clearly and categorically given, namely in 1 John 5:7. “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” It is noteworthy that, though the doctrine is so clearly found here, yet it is not the main point of the context, nor of the Epistle. But it is most significant that this is the one verse rejected almost unanimously by modern critics.
The controversy first arose more than 400 years ago when it was found that the Greek manuscript of the New Testament which became available for study for the first time following the fall of Constantinople, omitted this verse. Initially it was true to say that the passage was defended by believers and rejected by unbelievers, but many evangelicals are now ready to abandon it, and the new translations largely ignore it. In fact only the most conservative of scholars will now defend it.
To examine the arguments for and against a particular passage we have to look, not only at manuscripts, but also at early versions,
writings of the early Fathers, and the internal evidence.
Many say that, as the verse is absent from nearly all the Greek manuscripts it is obviously spurious, and there is no more to be said. But they overlook or ignore three factors. First, the manuscripts are not unanimous; a few do include the seventh verse. Secondly, all the really early manuscripts perished, either from sheer wear through continual use, or by the action or persecuting authorities. Thirdly, it is commonly accepted that the worst corruptions of the text occurred in the first two centuries of our era, and all complete codices now extant date from after that time. Part of the text (about 20%) has been recovered from papyri, but these are not all entirely free from doubt.
The evidence from these is not conclusive. Dr. Gill says that Jerome’s Latin Vulgate of the 4th century included our passage, though some deny it. In any case it was certainly in the Vulgate by the 8th century, taken, on the assumption that Jerome had omitted it, from the older Latin versions, which held their ground against the Vulgate as long as Latin remained a living language. The earliest of them was prepared not later than 157 A.D., and most of the early Latin manuscripts do include this celebrated passage.
Some of the other early versions are thought to have been affected by the corruption of the text mentioned above, but the Armenian included the verse, and the Waldensian Church preserved it. The Waldensian evidence is important, as that much persecuted Church claimed to have received the Scriptures direct from Asia Minor, so by-passing the tradition of the Greek Church and the corruption of the text by which the latter was troubled.
Opinions vary as to whether the Fathers did or did not know the verse. There are critics who say categorically that it is not found in their writings. Others however have pointed to numerous extracts from these same Fathers which seem to demonstrate that they did indeed know it.
The Rev. Charles Forster of Stisted, Essex, published in 1867 a powerful defence of its authenticity. He showed, from Hippolytus, Tertullian and Athanasius, that from the Scriptures alone the Fathers drew their doctrine of God and, seeing that in those early days the title of ‘Trinity’ was applied by them to the Godhead, Forster argued that, far from having invented the title, they must have derived it from the word ‘three’ in 1 John 5:7, the only place in Scripture where it is found. Forster traces the use of the term ‘Trinity’ through a succession of authorities right back to Theophilus of Antioch (writing about 159 A.D.), or within 70 years of the date of the Epistle, and he tells us that Ignatius (martyred early in the second century) has the Names of the Three Persons and their unity as given in 1 John 5:7. He also quotes Gregory Nazianzen to the same effect.
The phrase ‘these three are one’, or something very similar, is used by several of the Fathers, including Tertullian, Cyprian, Athanasius and Basil, and Forster writes, “In considering proposed examples of patristic reference or quotation, the reader should keep constantly in mind that the three-one mystery in the Godhead is the peculiarity and essence of the seventh verse: and that, wherever this antithetical combination occurs in the Fathers, it must be taken from that verse, the only text which contains it.’’ And again, “The mind of man might enlarge, but could not originate, the wonderful idea of 1 John 5:7. The original idea transcends all human thought.”
The witness of the Fathers, when properly weighed, would seem to turn the scale in favour of the verse, but critics will not accept it, and manuscripts and versions cannot finally determine the question, if only because, in neither case are they unanimous. It is therefore necessary to turn to the internal evidence, and this points strongly to genuineness. It divides itself into several branches.
(i) Without verse 7 the eighth verse is little more than a repetition of verse 6, though the witnesses in the two verses may be differently
interpreted; but the heavenly witnesses make the testimony complete, and readily account for any repetition.
(ii) The greater witness of God in verse 9 has obvious reference to the Trinity of Witnesses of verse 7.
(iii) Verse 7 is an essential part of the Divine and human testimony which John here brings forward to the Divinity of Jesus and his
incarnation; verses 6 to 10 together constituting proof unassailable and unanswerable.
Verse 6 speaks of Jesus coming by water and blood, probably referring to his purity and his sufferings, indicated by the water of
baptism and the blood of Gethsemane, the Holy Spirit bearing witness as promised in John 15:26.
Verse 7 gives the three heavenly Witnesses who testified to the work of the Son of God on earth, which received the Divine seal at his
resurrection and ascension. These same three heavenly Witnesses are also cited by John several times elsewhere, as mentioned later.
Verse 8 has the three witnesses on earth, the spirit here (small ‘s’ in A.V.) referring to the spirit which Jesus yielded up when he died; and the water and blood flowing from his pierced side after his death—all to prove his real humanity. These things made a great impression on John, and he was inspired to record them, he alone of the four Evangelists doing so. “He that saw it bare record.” See John 19. 30-35.
Verse 9 tells us that God’s witness is greater than man’s; and Jesus himself reminded the Jews that he had the greater witness of God.
Verse 10 refers to the witness of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the believer confirming all that has gone before.
The yawning gap produced by omitting verse 7 is obvious.
(iv) In verses 7 and 8 John has in mind the Mosaic law of witness, that at the mouth of two witnesses, or (better still) at the mouth of three witnesses shall the matter be established. (Deut. 19:15). And this law is operative throughout both Old and New Testaments.
Far more than any other New Testament writer, John emphasises the witness of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity to the Person and work of Jesus. It is seen several times in his Gospel, and repeatedly in the Revelation, but if verse 7 of chapter 5 is omitted, the harmony of the Epistle with John’s two other major works is not complete.
The Gospel records the fact of witness from heaven, the disputed verse of the Epistles gives the Names of the Witnesses, and the
Revelation reveals them bearing witness; but the harmony is shattered without 1 John 5:7.
(i) The apostle lives to see opposition to the Gospel arising from denial by men of the dual nature of the Son of God and Man, and he
refers to these heresies in several places in the Epistle. They took intermingling forms, but in general had two main branches.
Some denied the true divinity of the Son. They taught that Jesus was a mere man, born of Joseph and Mary, on whom the angelic being, Christ, descended at His baptism, and remained with him until the crucifixion, when the union was dissolved, the man Jesus suffering on the cross, while Christ ascended to heaven. Others denied the true humanity of the Lord Jesus Christ, holding that his body was a sort of phantom.
John writes against both these erroneous ideas. To counter the first he brings the heavenly Witnesses, showing that the Three, including the Word who was made flesh, are one God. And against the second he brings the three witnesses on earth as mentioned earlier. Both triads are necessary to complete the argument against contemporary heresies.
(ii) In the third and fourth centuries the rival Sabellian and Arian heresies troubled the Church. Sabellius confused the three Persons of
the Trinity, regarding them as three revelations of the one God, while Arius denied that Jesus was truly divine. As indicated later it would seem that our verse formed the subject of controversy between the two opposing heresies, and this surely points to its genuineness.
(iii) The Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) used the term ‘Homoousion’, meaning ‘of one and the same nature’, to define the relationship of the
eternal Son or Logos to the Father in the Godhead, but many in the Greek Church would not accept the term, and it became the subject of controversy. Bishop Burgess quotes Gregory Nazianzen as pointing to the necessity of avoiding the language of polytheism on the one hand, and the danger of acknowledging only one Person on the other, when dealing with the doctrine of the blessed Trinity.
Burgess also writes, “We find from Epiphanius that the fear of ill consequences which might be drawn from the perversion of certain
passages of Scripture, induced even the orthodox to omit them in their copies of the Scriptures”. This may well account for the omission of our verse from many Greek manuscripts, and in fact Dr. Hammond quotes Ambrose as saying that ‘the heretics did erade that place’.
Structure of the Passage
Greek scholars point to considerations in the actual grammar of the disputed passage which seem to indicate genuineness.
(i) The word ‘one’ in verse 8 could be rendered ‘the aforesaid one’, “these three agree in (that aforesaid) one: but without verse 7 there is no antecedent reference.
(ii) The word ‘spirit’ in Greek is neuter, and is so treated in verse 6; but in verse 8 the three words, ‘spirit’, ‘water’ and ‘blood’, all neuter
words, are treated as masculine. It is hard to account for the change if 0verse 7 is omitted, but the masculine words, ‘Father’ and ‘Word’ of that verse readily explain it.
(iii) Forster shows from the Greek that verses 6 to 9, viewed as a whole, form a perfect example of a Hebrew parallelism, and even an
English reader can easily see that the two verses, 7 and 8, answer each other by a repetition of related ideas in identical language. This is what Bishop Lowth, the authority on this subject, would call a ‘constructive parallelism’, and this method of writing has been shown to pervade the whole of Scripture. Such a passage is almost self-authenticating, and this question of parallelism may well explain why John did not cite many more witnesses in verse 8.
But there is a final question: Where did the disputed words come from?
If they were penned by the Apostle there is, of course, no problem; but critics contend that the words were originally brought into the Latin copies in Africa from the margin, where they had been placed as a pious gloss on verse 8, interpreted mystically as a reference to the Trinity. They further contend that, from the Latin, the words crept (their word) into two or three late Greek codices, and thence into the Greek text.
But it has already been shown how well the words fit into both the immediate context and the historical context of the Epistle, and even
into the grammatical structure, and it is surely incredible that words added by chance should fit so well into place. In fact interpolation
seems most unlikely, as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, as mentioned earlier, is not the subject here, nor of the general tenor of the Epistle. Deletion, either unintentional through homoiotcleuton (that is, accidental omission by a copyist of a passage between two near
occurrences of the same word); or deliberate by heretics, is much more probable, since this is the one place in the whole of Scripture where the three-one mystery of the Godhead is plainly stated.
As if to clinch the matter Bishop Burgess gives some evidence drawn from the writings of Socrates, the Church historian. Socrates says that when Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, discoursing before his clergy, observed that there was a unity in the Trinity, Anus, thinking that Alexander meant to inculcate the doctrine of Sabellius, maintained opinions the most opposite to Sabcllius’s doctrine, and endeavoured to subvert the Divinity of the Word. Socrates says that a great fire broke out from that small spark, and the Emperor Constantine wrote to Alexander and Arius in these terms: “I am informed that the origin of the present controversy was this: when you, O Alexander, inquired of your presbyters what each of them thought of a certain passage of Scripture.
Regrettably the passage is not specified, but Bishop Burgess writes, “If we consider that the doctrine of the unity of the Trinity was by
Arius accused of Sabcllianism, and that, in order to invalidate it, he endeavoured to subvert the Divinity of the Word, it will be evident that there is only one passage of Scripture which corresponds with these several particulars. There is no other passage but 1 John 5:7, to which Arius could have imputed the opinion of Sabellius; no other which teaches that Three are one; no other which mentions the Word as one of the three Persons of the Deity; no other which could have given occasion to Arius’s denying that the Word was of the same nature and essence with the Father: I conclude, therefore, that the verse of St. John was the passage intended by Constantine as the ground of the dispute between Alexander and Arius, and the origin of the Arian controversy; and therefore that it was in the Greek text of the 4th century.”
All this internal evidence, demonstrating the harmony of verse 7 with the rest of the Epistle, constitutes a strong case for it, and the final conclusion may be given in the words of Dr. F. Nolan, a defender of the passage: “Gross solecisms in the grammatical structure, palpable oversights in the texture of the sense, cannot be ascribed to the inspired writer. If of any two given readings one can be exposed to such objections, there is but the alternative, the other must be authentic.”