The Witness of God is Greater - 3 interpretations, Thomas Burgess, John Jones, Servetus

Steven Avery

1 John 5:6-9 : Three Interpretations


Thomas Burgess (1756-1837) Bishop of St. Davids

The great doctrines, which St. John inculcates both in his Gospel and Epistle, are the DIVINITY and the INCARNATION of Christ. In his Gospel the Divinity of Christ is asserted in the first verse of the first chapter, and his Incarnation in the fourteenth verse. The Divinity of Christ is proved by the witness of the Father and of the Holy Spirit, to which Christ himself appeals (John 8:16,18; 15:26) and by his own testimony of himself, attested and interpreted by his living witnesses, the Jews, for which he suffered death on the Cross. (John 10:33, 36; 19:7) In calling himself the Messiah, and the Son of God, he "made himself God," and "equal with God." For in that sense the character of the Messiah is predicted in the prophecies of Isaiah by the title of "Emmanuel, or God with us" and "the mighty God;" and in that sense, the Jews had been accustomed to understand the prophecies. The Jews understood the prophecies of the Old Testament much [PAGE 25] better than our modern Unitarians, and too well to suppose that Christ, when he called himself the Son of God, and "one with the Father," meant only that he was of the same mind and will with the Father. Such a oneness with God would not have subjected him to the death of the Cross. His Incarnation is proved by his death, and by those evidences of it which are recorded in St. John's Gospel (John 19:30, 34) namely, his expiration on the Cross, and the blood and water which issued from his side. The Apostle follows the same course of doctrine in his Epistle. In the first chapter the Divinity and Incarnation of Christ are asserted, (I Jn 1:1, 2) The two doctrines are afterwards inculcated in the strongest terms:

"Who is a liar, but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ?" (I Jn 2:22) "Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh, is not of God; and this is that spirit of Antichrist." (I Jn 4:3) The Divinity of Christ is proved, (I Jn 5:7) by the testimony of the same three witnesses, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as in the Gospel; and his Incarnation by the same three evidences of his death, the spirit, which "he gave up" (παρέδωκε τὸ πνεῦμα) the water and the blood, as are recorded in the nineteenth chapter of the Gospel (Jn 19:34). [PAGE 26] In the eighth verse the mention of the spirit precedes the water and the blood, as in the Gospel, because Christ expired on the Cross before the blood and water issued from his side, which is a correspondence with the Gospel that confirms the literal interpretation of Augustine, Eucherius, &c. and with it one of the evidences of the necessity of the seventh verse. But Christ "came by water" before he was manifested by blood; and, therefore, *water* (ὕδωρ), and *blood* (αἷμα) are placed as in the context of the sixth verse. It is worthy of remark, that the threefold testimony to Christ's Divinity, and the three evidences of his death are peculiar to the Gospel of St. John. Buy the omission, then, of either of the verses of the controverted passage, the 7th or 8th, one proof of the Apostle's argument is lost, and complete agreement of the Gospel and Epistle is destroyed. So far for the internal evidence from the *general scope* of the Gospel and the Epistle. If now we compare the seventh verse with its context in the 6th, 8th, and 9th verses, we shall again find that the passage is defective without the seventh verse. That Christ is the Son of God, is testified by the Spirit: "It is the Spirit that beareth witness." (I Jn 5:6) In the same verse the Spirit is declared to be a true witness; "the Spirit is [PAGE 27] truth;" and is proved to be so in the seventh verse, by the concurrence of HIS testimony with that of the FATHER and the SON. The seventh verse, therefore, is introduced to verify the conclusion of the sixth; and the eighth to exemplify the assertion in the sixth: "this is he that came by water and blood." He was "manifested by water" at his baptism (John 1:31), by water and blood in his death. He "came," therefore, and was "manifested" not by water only, with which he commenced his ministry on earth, but by water and blood, with which he terminated it. Again, without the ἕν [Greek word "one" as "these three are one"] of the seventh verse, the eight verse has no antecedent for its τὸ ἕν [Greek neuter article and "one" as in "these three agree in one"]. Moreover without the seventh verse, the ninth is deprived of an obvious and apposite reference. "If ye receive the witness of men," if ye allow the validity of the testimony of three men, "the witness of God," in his threefold testimony, "is greater" in every way, in dignity, in truth, and unity. It is greater in unity, because though three men "may be one" in testimony [God’s Law] by an entire unity of evidence, the three heavenly witnesses are necessarily one in testimony, being one in nature and [PAGE 28] substance. The THREE are proved to be ONE in nature by other passages of Scripture; they are, therefore, one both in nature and,testimony, but "a fortiori" (i.e., from the stronger argument) one in testimony, because one in nature. It should always be borne in mind, that the purport of the seventh verse is not to inculcate the doctrine of the Trinity, but, as in the Gospel, to prove that "Jesus is the Son of God," by the testimony of the Three Divine Witnesses.

(Burgess, A Letter to the Reverend Thomas Beynon, Archdeacon of Cardigan, 1829, p. 24-28)


John Jones ['Ben David'] (1766-1827) Welsh Unitarian Minister

The advocates of the Trinity at first, when the danger was most imminent, were compelled to be silent, to refer only to the disputed text [1 Jn 5:7], and suppose its notoriety, its authenticity and its purport [to be] in their favour. Then, as the danger diminished with the lapse of time, they felt themselves free to quote it, but quote it in part, and that part only which, detached from the rest, favoured their interpretation, thus carefully guarding the system, as a serpent does its head, against being crushed under the broad and ponderous foot of Unitarianism. Now, the clauses in the disputed text and its context, fatal to the Trinitarian faith, are the two following: the representation of the Father, Word and Holy Spirit as three witnesses, and the clause in the eighth verse, which explains the unity asserted in the seventh to be unity of consent or testimony [i.e., "agreement"]. For if it be asked, as it is natural to do. What were they witnesses of, or what did they bear testimony to? The whole Epistle supplies the answer, That Jesus is the Christ or the Son of God. The testimony of the Father in the beginning of the Gospel answers, That Jesus is the beloved Son of God. The Logos of God, which became flesh, answers, That Jesus is the Son of God. The descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles answers, That Jesus is the Christ, now sitting at the right hand of God. And if it be further asked, In what respect are these three witnesses one? The testimony which each gives supplies the true answer, that they are one in consent - and the same answer is given by the clause in the next verse, which says, that they "agree in one." We are then to expect that these clauses, one or both of them, should, as much as possible, be kept out of sight by the ancient advocates of the Trinity, whenever they notice this celebrated text. I propose next to examine briefly their writings without much regard to the order of time. Porson (Richard Porson 1759 – 1808), in his "Letters to Travis", p. 155, gives the following quotation: "Abbot Joachim (1135-1202 AD) compared the final clauses of the seventh and eighth verses, whence he inferred, that the same expression ought to be interpreted in the same manner. Since, therefore, he said, nothing more than unity of testimony and consent can be meant by "tres unum sunt" [Three are one] in the eighth verse, nothing more than unity of testimony and consent is meant in the seventh. This opinion the Lateran Council (1215 AD) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) confuted [Joachim's interpretation], by cutting out the clause in the eighth verse. Thomas tells us that it was not extant in the true copies; but that it was said to have been added by the Arian heresies [heretics], to [PAGE 93] pervert the sound understanding of the foregoing authority." This Abbot Joachim was an Arian: and he here at once puts a torch in our hand to guide us through the intricate windings of this subterraneous controversy. The verse pressed as hard against the Arians as against those who denied the pre-existence of Christ. And how does this champion of Arianism repel its force? By denying its genuineness? By pleading its absence from MSS. and versions? No; he admits its authenticity, and meets his antagonists by pointing out the true sense of the verse. And how did Thomas Aquinas answer? In a way which fully accounts for the silence of the more early fathers and for the erasure of the text from manuscripts and translations: They cut out the clause [[final clause of verse 8] which led to the true understanding of the verse.

(Ben David, On 1 John 5:7 [Letters to the Editor] in the Monthly Repository, 1826, p. 92-93)


Michael Servetus (1509-1553 AD) On the Errors of the Trinity

Fixed-up with the 1932-2013 Earl Wilbur Wilbur google edition as the source.

The original Latin online.

De Trinitatis Erroribvs: Libri Septem (1531)

English Texts from Earl Wilbur Morse

The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity: On the Errors of the Trinity, Seven Books, MDXXXI, Dialogues on the Trinity, Two Books, On the Righteousness of Christ’s Kingdom, Four Chapters, MDXXXII (2013)
Earl Wilbur Morse - 1969 reprint of 1932
p. 35-41

33. It remains to reply to certain passages of Scripture from which the Moderns suppose that the three beings can be deduced: as, There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit and these three are one. (1 John 5:7) But in order to give this a more satisfactory answer, I shall reply first to two other passages of Scripture, which they also bring forward to prove this matter: I and the Father are one, and The Father is in me, and I in the Father. (John 10:30; 14:10,11) The first passage Augustine brings forward against Arius, because he said, one; and against Sabellius, because he said, are. (In Joannis Evang., Tract. Lxxi; MPL. xxv, 182; NPNF. Ser. I, ii, 328; Dods, xi, 261) And from this he argues the two beings as against Sabellius and one Nature as against Arius. Yet I think that the words make simpler sense, for CHRIST is speaking and he said, are; because, being God and man, he said, one in the neuter, as Tertullian says, (Adv. Praxean xxv; MPL. ii, 188; ANF. iii, 621; ANCL. xv, 391) and he did not say, one in the masculine. For the meaning of one in the masculine singular seems to be as if it denoted the singleness of one and the same being. But one in the neuter has reference not to singleness but to oneness of mind and harmony, so that the two might be credited with one power. And this is what the earlier writers rightly called one ousia, because there is one authority given by the Father to the Son. But later writers made a most wicked jest of the word homousion (i.e. of the same substance), as well as of hypostasis, and Persons, making Nature out of ousia, not only contrary to the proper meaning of the word, but contrary to all passages of Scripture in which that word is found. For in John and Matthew, (John 17:2; Matthew 28:18) and wherever Christ speaks of the authority given him of the Father, the expression ousia is used, which to the Greeks signifies not Nature, but wealth, treasures, possessions, riches and power, which are all in CHRIST in rich measure; and he has one authority, one sympathy and will, with the Father. And both unum for the Latins and ἑν for the Greeks include those that are of one mind, are alike, and all mind the same thing; and to take unum in the Scriptures for one Nature is more Metaphysical than Christian; nay, it is foreign to the Scriptures. Greece never knew of ἑν being taken for one Nature. Should you say, Why, then, do the Greek doctors take is so? Let Basil the Great reply to this, where he says (Adv. Eunomium, IV; MPG. xxxix, 679) that this is not in accordance with the proper meaning of the word, but is philosophical reasoning. We ought therefore to get at the interpretation of the word either from its proper meaning, or from other passage of Scripture. But you will nowhere find that unum in the Scriptures means the Metaphysical unity of nature; indeed, quite the contrary, as appears from the words of CHRIST his own self, who like a faithful teacher explains himself where he prays the Father for the Apostles, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us … and that they may be one, even as we also are one. (John 17:21,22) Repeating the word again and again, he prays that they may be one (Latin: unum). Does it follow that we, who are one in the same way as they, constitute one Nature? Of course we are one, since we are of one mind, keeping the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3) Again, I will give them one heart and one way; (Jeremiah 32:39) and, the multitude of them that believed had one heart and one soul. (Acts 4:32) And along with understanding this saying, Origen would have another saying expressly understood: The Father and the Son, he says, are one, for it is evident that they are two beings in Substance, but one in sympathy and harmony and in identity of will. (Contra Celsum, VII. XI; MPG. xi, 1534; ANF. iv, 643 f.; ANCL. xiii, 500; where he explains John 10:30 in the light of these texts.)

34-35 skipped

36. From this point on the main question is easily settled. In the first place, the Father testifies: The Father that hath sent me, he beareth witness of me; (John 5:37) for he testifies, saying, This is my beloved Son. (Matthew 3:17) In the second place, the Word testifies; for the very language of CHRIST makes it plain enough that he is from God, as he witnesses concerning himself. From his words it is seen above all how great he is, although the world today makes CHRIST’S words trifling and ineffectual. But when the spirit is given they will be found to be full of life. In the third place, the Holy Spirit testifies; but as to what this is, I say nothing here, meaning to set it forth in the following Book. (Book II, paragraph 21 ff) You shall also see what else can be understood by the Paraclete. For the present I say as CHRIST explains: For while I am present, the language that you have heard, or the words that I speak, bear testimony; (John 14:25,26; 15:26) afterwards, when ye are clothed with power from on high, as Luke says, (Luke 24:49) ye shall bear witness; and when this power had been received though the spirit coming upon them, he commanded them to bear witness. (Acts 1:8) And this is the witness of the Holy Spirit, even as Paul calls the witness of his conscience the witness of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 9:1) And these are the one, as has been explained above. (Paragraphs 33-35) And the Glossa Ordinaria itself explains: Are one; that is bearing witness of the same thing. (The Glossa Ordinaria of Walafrid Strabo served the West for five centuries as the chief source of biblical learning.; MPL 64.702 f.) For John’s intention is to show the force of the truth from the agreement of the witnesses; because their testimonies do not waver or vary so that they can be objected to by some exception taken, as often happens in the case of different witnesses in law. Besides, a note on Matthew 17:3 says, You may see Moses and Elijah talking with JESUS; for the Law and the Prophets and JESUS say one thing and agree together. (Strabo, op. cit.; MPL 64:144) Thus three testify there to the Word itself: Christ himself and Moses, that is, the Law given by the Father, and Elijah, that is, the spirit of the Prophets; because the testimony of JESUS is the spirit of prophecy. (Revelation 19:10) And these three are one, and between them there is the most complete harmony of thought. Again, an explanation is found in the words of the Master, who cites three witnesses: (John 5:33,36,37) firstly, of the witness of the spirit, for John bore witness when the spirit descended; secondly, his own witness, for the works that he does bear witness; thirdly, he adduces the witness of the Father who bears witness; and these three agree.

(Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book 1.33-36, 1532 AD; Translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, 1932, 2013 reprint, p. 35-41)
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