Peter Gurry - confusion and error on the heavenly witnesses

Steven Avery

Peter Gurry - Twitter

A little trip in Church history via one of the Bible’s most famous variants: 1 John 5:7–8, known as the “Johannine clause” (or Comma Johanneum)...

In the KJV the text reads, “For there are three that bear record *in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth,* the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.”

(For an English translation, see
‘s blog here:

It drew the attention of many leading lights like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, and Edward Gibbon. A major reason for the debate was that both the orthodox and the unorthodox agreed that the Comma really was proof of the Trinity.

For a good example, see the Racovian Catechism III.1, a key document among anti-Trinitarians.


(Some have thought that Codex Montfortianus was made to order for Erasmus, but I’m a bit skeptical. See here: )
In doing so, the decree cites 1 John 5.7–8 but does so with the qualification that this is “according to some manuscripts.” As it happens, most (all?) of our Greek witnesses to the Comma shows signs of Latin influence.

The note is from Thomas Aquinas’s comments on the Fourth Lateran Council’s decree on Abbot Joachim. In it, Aquinas criticizes Joachim for following the Arian interpretation (and corruption) of this text.

The Complutensian’s point is as clear as ink: anyone who rejects this text must be an Arian like Joachim. Erasmus, take note!

In the second decree, the council condemns Abbot Joachim for his writings regarding the unity of the Trinity. See here:
(For a thorough look at the Greek manuscripts, see here: )

Today, orthodox theologians rarely, if ever, appeal to the Comma in defending the doctrine of the Trinity. In this, they are doing little more than the Greek-speaking church did for a millennium.

To really make the point, the page of the Complutensian Polyglot that had the Comma was reprinted, after Erasmus’s edition, with a long note added at 1 John 5.7–8.


What’s between asterisks is absent in about 500 Greek manuscripts of 1 John and found in only 10. Only 2 of these predate the printed Greek New Testament (GA 629, c. 1362; GA 61, c. 1500) and the first of these is a Greek-Latin bilingual. Several are copies of printed editions.


Much of that pressure came from his Spanish competitor, Stunica, who was at work on the Complutensian Polyglot. This massive, multi-lingual edition of the Bible had printed the NT portion two years before Erasmus. But work on the OT kept it from public sale until 1520.


Famously, when Erasmus published his Greek New Testament in 1516 he did not include the three heavenly witnesses because it wasn’t in his Greek manuscripts (see pic). He did the same in his 2nd edition in 1519 and only included it in his third edition of 1522 under pressure.


The first evidence we have of the three heavenly witnesses in Greek is from the translation of the acts of the Fourth Lateran Council held in 1215. These were written in Latin but translated for the benefit of the Eastern, Greek-speaking church.

After Erasmus, the debate about the Comma only intensified. Although Luther flatly rejected it and Calvin wasn’t quite sure, it became a touchstone of orthodoxy in the centuries to come.

Erasmus never did change his opinion. But he did add it once Codex Montfortianus (GA 61) was brought to his attention. His own take was that the Comma was inauthentic and that, in any case, it spoke of a unity of testimony (akin to the earthly witnesses) and not one of essence.
Seizing on Erasmus’s lack of the Comma, Stunica, eventually joined by Edward Lee in England and Alberto Pio in Italy, criticized his edition and accused him of Arianism.


While it has lost much of its ability to galvanize church leaders like it once did, it remains fascinating because it offers a window onto larger questions about the Bible’s authority, its textual history, and the history of its interpretation and use. /fin

For an outstanding book on this, see


Steven Avery

Peter Gurry

In doing so, the decree cites 1 John 5.7–8 but does so with the qualification that this is “according to some manuscripts.” As it happens, most (all?) of our Greek witnesses to the Comma shows signs of Latin influence.


Hi Peter, Joachim interpreted the phrase "tres unum sunt" as unity of consent. That was (dubiously) considered an Arian interpretation. Lateran Council, Thomas Aquinas and the CP therefore published without including the phrase with the earthly witnesses.
joachim antijacobin.jpg

Thus "according to some manuscripts" - "in quibusdam codicibus invenitur" - was not related to the text of the heavenly witnesses. Granted, Joseph Pohle and Grantley McDonald (in Raising the Ghost of Arius but not in Biblical Criticism, which often updates RGA) make this error.


Steven Avery

Hi Peter, Little chronology tweak. Lee 's notes got to Erasmus by 1518 and preceded Stunica, who was considered more of a scholastic heavyweight (not to belittle Lee). Alberto Pio wrote to Erasmus in 1531. In 1527 was the Valladolid inquisition.


Incorrect. Joachim did not reject the heavenly witnesses. He was accused of Arianism because his (correct, majority) Latin text had two 'tres unum sunt'. Easier for the unity of consent/agreement interp e.g. Calvin as opposed to the interp of the unity of essence (ontological)


Lots of pushback. Luther's pastor-teacher John Bugenhagen railed that the heavenly witnesses was an Arian blasphemy! Grotius said Arian interpolation. Nolan and Hills et al theorize the dropping of the verse as due to its favoring the Sabellians in the 2nd century controversies

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Steven Avery


Nick Sayers - yes, Screech made this cancel-sheet case, which is not strong. (They like to mix the Arian issue of Joachim with that of Erasmus, they are totally different.)

In fact, A J. MacDonald Jr. points out to Peter that it was strongly countered by Ignacio García Pinilla
On p. 67-68 ofIgnacio J. García Pinilla, “Reconsidering the relationship between the Complutensian Polyglot Bible and Erasmus’ Novum Testamentum”, in Kaspar von Greyerz, Silvana Seidel Menchi, Martin Wallraff (eds.), Basel 1516. Erasmus’ Edition of the New Testament (Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck), 2016, pp. 59-77übingen_Mohr_Siebeck_2016_pp_59_77


My two twitter posts on the Pinilla paper:

Feb 27 Replying to @AJMacDonaldJr and @pjgurry

Thank you AJ. Good source. The Complutensian margin note is solidly in the Latin tradition (Lateran to Joachim-Aquinas to CP). It is a large stretch to try to make into a staggered response to Erasmus. In that case you would expect a note on Jerome’s Vulgate Prologue support.

Two Pinilla points were quite strong. One, the lack of extant supposed first edition sheets. Two, the unusual spacing on the heavenly witnesses page is just as well a first edition phenomenon, once the margin note came into play. The cancel sheet theory is hyper-conjectural.
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Steven Avery

Joachim's text was the standard Latin combination of the heavenly and earthly witnesses, where both end with tres unum sunt. Aquinas embraced a textual corruption where the early witnesses did not have the phrase, in order to more easily allow a unity of essence interpretation.

This is the first extant Greek manuscript evidence. There are ECW evidences like the Disputation of Athanasius with Arius at Nicea and the Synopsis of Scripture and the Psalm scholium attributed to Origen. And more. Jerome's Vulgate Prologue points to early Greek and Latin mss.

Additional earlier usages. Erasmus used the verse in Ratio seu methodus compendio perveniendi ad veram theologiam in 1518. His English paraphrase, published Jan 1521, included the verse, and is very interesting. And Erasmus included it in 1521 Latin edition, published by Froben.