JOHN 17:3 AND THE ONLY TRUE GOS
By Sam Shamoun | Go to Source
Jesus states emphatically that eternal life is this: Knowing the Father in an intimate way as well as His Son. Salvation depends on knowing both Father and Son. Jesus is the “way, the truth, and the life.” No one comes to the Father but through the Son, for it is the Son who “explains” the Father, the beloved and One and Only Son who is in the heart of the Father. The Son does everything the Father shows Him, is one with the Father, and assures us that when we have seen Him, we have seen the Father as well. The Son is God in every sense the Father is (1:1), does whatever the Father does (5:19); is to be honored equally with the Father (5:23), and is confessed at Lord and God (20:28).
It would be strange, indeed, if a secondary god, a created being, sent to reveal the Father, would equate knowing him with knowing the Father, in the context of salvation. Unless, of course, He was essentially equal with the one true God, who alone grants life eternal to those who believe in Him.
This Gospel is replete with assertions that life is in Christ: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4). “The Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (3:15-16). “The water I give him will become in him [who drinks it] a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:14). See also 5:21, 26; 6:33, 54; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6. These words and others like them emphatically express the central purpose of Jesus: to glorify the Father by imparting life to men.
The second sentence (v. 3) defines the nature of eternal life. It is not described in chronological terms but by a relationship. Life is active involvement with environment; death is the cessation of involvement with the environment, whether it be physical or personal. The highest kind of life is involvement with the highest kind of environment. A worm is content to live in soil; we need not only the wider environment of earth, sea, and sky but also contact with other human beings. For the complete fulfillment of our being, we must know God. This, said Jesus, constitutes eternal life. Not only is it endless, since the knowledge of God would require an eternity to develop fully, but qualitatively it must exist in an eternal dimension. As Jesus said farther on in this prayer, eternal life would ultimately bring his disciples to a lasting association with him in his divine glory (v. 24) (EBC).
`ina ginwskwin se ton monon alhqinon qeon
hINA GINÔSKÔSIN SE TON MONON ALÊTHINON THEON
so that they should [get to] know you, The only true God
- Should know (ginôskôsin). Present active subjunctive with hina (subject clause), “should keep on knowing” (RWP).
- The word know (ginôskôsin) here in the present tense, is often used in the Septuagint and sometimes in the Greek New Testament to describe the intimacy of a sexual relationship (e.g., Gen 4:1, “lay”; Matt. 1:25, “had…union”). Thus a person who knows God has an intimate personal relationship with Him (BKC).
- Of God in contrast to other gods, who are not real (BAGD).
- Opposed to what is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated, pretended (Thayer).
- Pertaining to being real and not imaginary … ‘that they may know you, the only one who is really God’ (Louw & Nida).
OTHER VIEWS CONSIDERED
This verse has become a favorite of Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who deny the Trinity. They claim that since Jesus says that the Father is the only true God, Jesus cannot also be the only true God.
Jehovah’s Witness Greg Stafford, for example, writes:
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible presents us with a monotheistic view of God, in that He is the only one who is God in the absolute (non-derived) sense. The Father is the only true God, as Jesus said. (Joh 17:3) The description “true God” is used only three times in the NT. In all three of these texts Jesus is distinguished from the true God. In John 17:3 he prays to the “only” true God….This is significant in that there is no clear indication of Jesus as this “true God” in the Bible, which would stand to reason in view of the restriction he himself places on this title in the NT (Stafford, pp. 119-120).
Trinitarians have often responded that if the Father is the only true God, and the Watchtower is correct in saying that Jesus is “a god,” then Jesus must be a false God, for anything that is not true, must be false. Greg Stafford cites such an argument presented by Ron Rhodes (Reasoning from the Scriptures with Jehovah’s Witnesses, pp. 227-228). Stafford responds:
The Greek word translated “true” (alethinos) can have one of several meanings, depending on the context and usage of the author or speaker. According to BAGD [the Baur, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker lexicon], alethinos can mean: “genuine, real . . . Of God in contrast to other gods, who are not real . . . true in the sense of the reality possessed only by the archetype, not by its copies” (Stafford, op. cit., p. 121).
Are Jehovah’s Witnesses right? Is Jesus really saying that only one Person – the Father – is the true God? Are the Witnesses using sound exegetical principles in defining alethinos the way they do? Let’s examine this verse closely to find out.
The Only True God
Had Jesus said, “Only you, Father, are the true God,” He would, indeed, be proclaiming what the Watchtower says. However, that’s not precisely what Jesus said. He said to the Father, “you, the only true God.” The word “only” does not modify “Father,” but rather “God.” Does this fact change the meaning of the what Jesus is saying? Stafford reasons:
While in certain contexts the word “only” might not mean only in the absolute sense, there is no indication that we have such use here in John 17:3. Also, there is no example that I am aware of where the person who makes the assertion that another person is the “only” something, means to include him- or herself in the description. (IBID, p. 120).
But is there a subtle presupposition in this line of reasoning? I would submit there is: The presupposition is that the person in question is a unipersonal being. That is, human nature is such that there is a one-to-one correspondence between Person (or Identity, Consciousness, or Will) and Being (the essence or nature that makes a human, human); therefore, any example of a human person saying that that another person is the “only” something, indeed does not mean to include him- or herself in the description. But what if there is Biblical evidence of a Being that subsists in more that one person – a multi-personal being? If such a Being exists (and Trinitarians believe the Bible teaches that God is such a Being), it must be admitted that each Person of a multi-personal Being can be described as the “only” something, without necessarily excluding other Persons of that Being from that description. Put another way, Jesus includes the Father in the identity of the True God. However, if Jesus is the same Being as the Father, He does not logically exclude Himself from that category. Indeed, it is logically fallacious to claim that He does (1).
Witnesses who argue as Stafford does deny the possibility of a multipersonal God from the outset. They therefore place considerable emphasis on their preferred definition of “true,” for without it, they would be forced to concede that the Son is a false god. However, we may ask how it is that John 17:3 excludes Jesus from the category of “true” God, when Jude 4 does not exclude the Father from the category of Lord? Indeed, here, there is not even the qualifying adjective that provides the basis of the Witness interpretation of John 17:3. Matthew 19:17 presents Witnesses with a similar problem, for here Jesus says that there is only “One” who is good; Witnesses must interpret this to mean that Jesus in His humility is denying His own goodness (or, at least, is not “as good as God,” though this distinction is not to be found in the context). In practice, Witnesses acknowledge Jesus as “good,” and Jehovah as their Lord. Their exegetical methodology appears inconsistent and subject to their theology; whereas Trinitarians are consistent in holding that an exclusive title may be given to any member of the Trinity, without excluding other members from that category.
More importantly, Stafford and the WT cannot interpret verses like John 5:44, 1 Timothy 1:17, or Jude 25, in which we find the phrase “[the] only God,” without introducing the concept “God in a non-derived sense” – that is, that Jehovah is the “only God” in the sense that He is the only true or non-derived God. However, this sense is foreign to the contexts of these verses and requires Witnesses to bring other verse, such as John 17:3, into the discussion, which they interpret in ways conducive to their theology. As we shall see, John 17:3 does not really support the idea of a “non-derived” God, at least not in the view of most lexicographers. When Scripture makes a clear declaration that there is only one God, the burden lies with any who would argue otherwise.
Only if one assumes before hand that God is unipersonal can one conclude that John 17:3 proves that only the Father is true God. Notice how the quoted passage from Stafford, above, begins with the premise, “Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible presents us with a monotheistic view of God, in that He is the only one who is God in the absolute (non-derived) sense.” He would no doubt say that the WT derives this belief from the passages he cites; however, in each case – and particularly John 17:3 – only by assuming a unipersonal God can one conclude that the Father is the only Person who is that true God.
Thus, the Watchtower and its apologists are guilty of “begging the question” with regard to John 17:3, for only by first assuming that God is one Person, can they “prove” by this verse that Jesus calls the Father the only Person who is God.
Interestingly, Stafford accuses Trinitarians of this very fallacy: Trinitarians, he says, “import their ideas into the Bible, making it practically impossible for them to view theological or christological statements apart from Trinitarian concepts” (IBID, p. 129). In the case of John 17:3, I believe the opposite is actually the case. It is Jehovah’s Witnesses who import their Unitarian view of God, while Trinitarians draw no specific conclusions regarding God’s nature from this verse.
Let’s be clear: Trinitarians do not claim that John 17:3 “proves” the Trinity; we simply maintain that scripturally and logically, it does not deny it.
The Meaning of “True”
We may first note that in English, the word “true” may mean “real, in the sense of an archetype, as distinguished from a copy” or “true contrasted with false.” Alêthinos has the very much the same semantic range in Koine Greek, as BAGD makes clear (p. 37). The question is, which connotation does Jesus intend here? Extending the meaning of a word beyond that required by the context is not a sound exegetical practice. After all, the word “true” has within its semantic range the connotation of “straight,” but Jesus is not saying the Father is the only straight-line God!
Which connotation do the lexicons support for alêthinos in John 17:3? After all, Watchtower apologists have used BAGD and Thayer to support their view, haven’t they? BAGD recognizes the semantic range of alêthinos as containing “true in the sense of reality possessed only by an archetype, not its copies.” However, it references this shade of meaning for Hebrews 8:2 and 9:24, not in reference to John 17:3. When we consult the lexicon with regard John 17:3, BAGD is quite clear: “of God in contrast to other gods, who are not real.” Thus, BAGD recognizes the context of John 17:3 as requiring the “true contrasted with false” connotation.
Stafford notes: “While BAGD does not attribute the archetypal meaning to alethinos in John 17:3, we believe this sense best fits the use of ‘true’ in this and other passages” (IBID, p. 121). He then argues for this connotation in John 17:3 by citing John 1:9, John 6:32-33, Hebrews 8:5, and Hebrews 9:9 (sic; 9:24?). “In all these texts, alethinos is not contrasted with something ‘false,’ but is used to describe that which is the archetype as opposed to that which is a copy of the original” (IBID).
Stafford is quite right about the verses he cites, and interestingly, BAGD references these as well for the archetype connotation. This means that BAGD was fully aware that the verses in question supported the archetypal connotation, and yet believed the “true vs false” connotation applied to John 17:3. Stafford offers no reason why we should consider the archetype connotation in this verse; he merely asserts that Witnesses hold this view. Further, he considers BAGD authoritative with regard to the connotation of alêthinos he prefers, but does not tell us why he considers them unable to distinguish the proper connotation for John 17:3. It is possible, of course, that the authors got it right in the first case and wrong in the second, but without evidence to demonstrate why their authority should be questioned, we must conclude that Greek scholars who are capable of ascertaining the various connotations of a particular word must also be capable of determining specific usage in a given context.
We may wonder why the authors of BAGD chose the particular connotation they did in John 17:3. Let’s take a look at the context of the verses in discussion. In Hebrews 8:2 and 9:24, the writer is clearly referring to the “true Tabernacle” in heaven where Jesus is the High Priest, in contrast to the earthly (and less “real”) Tabernacle. However, in context, John 17:3 does not imply a contrast between Jesus and God. Instead, the context is Jesus’ concern that the disciples know the Father in an intimate way, that they may thus obtain eternal life. For who gives eternal life, but the true God (as contrasted with false gods)? Thus, context argues for the connotation of “the true God” who give eternal life, as opposed to “false gods,” who cannot.
If BAGD is reliable in both their understanding of the various connotation of alêthinos and their specific definition in John 17:3, we would expect that other authorities would corroborate it. Similarly, if BAGD got it wrong with regard to John 17:3, we would expect other authorities to disagree.
Grimm/Thayer defines alêthinos as “contrasts realities with their semblances” for Hebrews 8:2 and 9:24, but “opposed to what is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated, pretended” for John 17:3 (p. 27). So, Grimm/Thayer, too, recognizes the correct connotation of alêthinos in John 17:3 as “true contrasted with false.”
In his Expository Dictionary, Vine recognizes Hebrews 8:2 and 9:24 as requiring the meaning: “the spiritual, archetypal tabernacle,” but defines alêthinos in John 17:3 as: “‘very God,’ in distinction from all other gods, false gods” (p. 645).
Louw and Nida similarly recognize several connotations for alêthinos, including those discussed. They define alêthinos in John 17:3 as: “pertaining to being real and not imaginary … ‘that they may know you, the only one who is really God’” (p. 667).
Moulton and Milligan list a number of contemporary extra-biblical examples of alêthinos, including several by Christians in reference to God, and all carry the meaning ‘real’; ‘genuine’; ‘true, as opposed to false’ (p. 22).
Finally, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) does not specifically reference John 17:3 in its discussion of alêthinos, but says “As a divine attribute it has the sense of ‘reliable,’ ‘righteous,’ or ‘real,’” and cites 1 John 5:20, a verse Stafford relates to John 17:3 (IBID, p. 120). This meaning is contrasted with the archetype connotation: “In Heb 8:2 the heavenly tabernacle is ‘true’ in contrast to the earthly, and in Heb. 9:24 the human sanctuary is a copy of the true one, which is genuine as divine” (Abridged edition, p. 39).
So, we see that the standard lexical works specify the connotation of alêthinos in John 17:3 as “the only true God (as distinguished from all other gods, who are false).” This definition of alêthinos presents serious problems for Watchtower theology, for by saying “the only true God,” Jesus states quite clearly that any other who is termed “a god,” must be a false god.
Origen’s Understanding of the True God
Stafford cites Origen in support of his view that alêthinos in John 17:3 should be read with the archetype connotation:
In his Commentary on John he wrote:
God on the one hand is Very God (Autotheos, God of Himself); and so the Savior says in His prayer to the Father, “That they may know Thee the only true God;” but that all beyond the Very God is made God by participation in His divinity, and is not to be called simply God (with the article), but rather God (without the article). And thus the first-born of all creation, who is the first to be with God, and to attract to himself divinity, is a being of more exalted rank than the other gods beside Him, of whom God is the God, as it is written, “The God of gods, the Lord [Jehovah], hath spoken and called the earth.” [Ps. 136:2] It was by the offices of the first-born that they became gods, for they drew from God in generous measure that they should be made gods, and He communicated it to them according to His own bounty. The true God, then is “The God,” and those who are formed after him are gods, images, as it were, of Him the prototype [ANF 10, Book 2, p. 323. emphasis added].
Origen evidently understood that the reference to the Word as theos was not intended to make him equal to God the Father, for he wrote: “Nor must we omit to mention the Word, who is God after [hexes] the Father of all” (IBID, pp. 120-121).
Origen’s theology is complex, to say the least. Drawing conclusions from a few scattered passages does little justice to what Origen actually taught, and what his terminology meant to his contemporaries, as opposed to what it may be thought to signify today, looking back as it were through the lens of the Arian controversy which raged some hundred years after Origen died.
Stafford is correct that Origen does appear to apply the archetype connotation to alêthinos in his Commentary on John 1:1. But we may ask exactly what does Origen mean by this usage? Is it the same as that expressed by Stafford and the Watchtower? What may have led him to view the “true” God in an archetypal way? Finally, we must also consider whether Origen bases his view of alêthinos on grammar or on theology.
Let’s first consider what Origen means by the “true God.” It would be a mistake to read a post-Arian meaning into Origen’s use of autotheos or the distinction his draws between theos with the article and without. In terming the Father autotheos, Origen does not mean that the Father possesses a “true” divine nature, and the Son a “lesser” divine nature. Origen taught that the “begetting” of the Son by the Father cannot be compared to human begetting (First Principles 1:2:4), that the Son and Father share the same nature (Commentary on John 2:2:16; 2:10:76; 19:2:6;), and that there was never a time when the Son did not exist (Commentary on Romans 1:5; First Principles 1:2:9; 4:4:1 in both Rufinus’ Latin translation and Athanasius’ Greek). The begetting of the Son is a part of the Divine Being and is from all eternity (First Principles, 1:2:9; 4:41, again in both Rufinus and Athanasius) and is also continual (Homily on Jeremiah 9:4); the Father is the “source” of divinity, and the Son “attracts” that same divinity to Himself through his eternal contemplation of the Father (Commentary on John 2:2:18). (2)
It is true that for Origen, the Son’s Deity is derivative, and at times speaks of the Son as a “secondary God (Against Celsus 5:39; Commentary on John 6:39:202); but it is also true that Origen was strongly influenced by Middle Platonism in this regard, as numerous scholars have recognized:
“The parallel with Albinus, who believed in a supreme Father Who organized matter through a second God (Whom he, however, identified with the World Soul) is striking; as is the fact that both thinkers envisaged the generation of the Son as the result of His contemplation of the Father” (Kelly, p. 128).
“In a more limited field the impact of Platonism reveals itself in the thoroughgoing subordinationism which is is integral to Origen’s Trinitarian scheme. The Father, as we have seen, is alone autoqeos, so S. John, he points out, accurately describes the Son simple as qeos, not ó qeos” (Ibid., pp. 131 – 32).
“Thus, Origen understands that the Word is God by derivation….Here Origen is directly indebted to the Platonism of his day” (Rusch, p. 14)
“This distinction also has its origin in Philo (quod a deo somnia, Mangey 1.655 line 20), and it is again Origen who takes it up and imports it into Christian theology” (Prestige, p. 144).
Origen’s apologetic arguments against Gnosticism and Modalism, in which he sought forcefully to affirm the true Human nature of the Son and the distinction between Father, Son, and Spirit, and his use of Platonic concepts and language, have led some to conclude, as apparently has Stafford, that Origen taught that the Son was different in nature from the Father, truly a “second god” in the sense later argued by Arius. However, a careful reading of Origen leads one to conclude that while complex and couched in philosophical terminology, Origen taught the essential unity of Father and Son in categories not incompatible with later creedal statements. Indeed, this can be seen in the passage from the Commentary on John, which Stafford quotes, above.
Immediately preceding the quote provided by Stafford, we read:
Now there are many who are sincerely concerned about religion, and who fall here into great perplexity. They are afraid that they may be proclaiming two Gods, and their fear drives them into doctrines which are false and wicked. Either they deny that the Son has a distinct nature of His own besides that of the Father, and make Him whom they call the Son to be God all but the name, or they deny the divinity of the Son, giving Him a separate existence of His own, and making His sphere of essence fall outside that of the Father, so that they are separable from each other (Commentary on John 2:2:10-13).
Thus, the Son is distinct in person, but of one “essence” with the Father. For Origen, though he may speak at times of “a secondary God,” he is also quite comfortable speaking of Father, Son, and Spirit as One God. In his Dialog with Heraclides, Origen refers to Scripture in order to show in what sense two can be one:
- Adam and Eve were two but one flesh (Gen. 2:24).
- He (the just man) who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him (Cor. 6:17).
- He introduces Christ himself as a witness because He said: “I and My Father are one.”
In the first example, the unity consisted of “flesh;” in the second of “spirit;” but in the third of “God.” Thus Origen states: “Our Lord and Savior is in His relation to the Father and God of the universe not one flesh, nor one spirit, but what is much higher than flesh and spirit, one God” (Dialog with Heraclides 2).
Thus, when Origen says that the “Word is God after the Father of all,” he is not teaching an inequality of nature or essence, as Stafford implies.
Immediately after Stafford’s quote, we find:
But the archetypal image, again, of all these images is the Word of God, who was in the beginning, and who by being with God is at all times God, not possessing that of Himself, but by His being with the Father, and not continuing to be God, if we should think of this, except by remaining always in uninterrupted contemplation of the depths of the Father (Commentary on John 2:2:18).
For Origen, then, while the other ‘gods’ are “images” of the true God, the Son is not in their category of being. He obtains His divine Nature by always being with the Father, while the other ‘gods’ are “formed” – that is created – and they derive their divinity from the Son. While some have argued that Origen refers to the Son as a created being in his reference to Colossians 1:15 (First Principles 1:2), this language should not be pressed, since Origen used the term KTISIS to refer to all the activities of God, including the eternal begetting of the Son, and therefore is not to be construed as signifying that the Son is a created being.
Contrary to what Arianism was to say, the eternity of this generation is clearly affirmed, for it is inconceivable that the Father ever existed without his Wisdom, his Reason, his Word, all expressions which, as we have seen, denote the Son. Nor did the Father begin to be Father, as if He had not been so before, since all change in God is inconceivable (Crouzel, pp. 186-187).
While Origen uses the term alêthinos in a manner similar to that suggested by Stafford, it is because he viewed God as the ‘source’ of Deity, while the Son eternally partakes of that same Deity. Origen’s use of middle Platonic thought and language led him to express the relationship of Father to Son in such terms. It must be emphasized the Origen’s use of alêthinos is theological, not lexical. Origen’s language and philosophical constructs are other than those used by later theologians to describe the Trinity (as they are from those preceding him), but his theology is not far distant from them, certainly not as far as it is from the theology later proposed by Arius and his followers. He taught plurality within the unity of the Godhead; He perceived the Godhead to be Father, Son, and Spirit, each of whom participated in creation and participate in salvation.
If God is unipersonal, this verse does not teach it. If a lesser “copy” of God is not a false god, the context of this verse does not demonstrate it. Jesus says that eternal life is an intimate personal knowledge of God (not “taking in knowledge about God,” as the Watchtower teaches), and of Jesus Christ, whom the Father has sent. Our hope for eternal life, then, resides in knowing both the Father and the Son in a personal way, and knowing them as they truly are: One God, One Lord, One Savior.
1. In fact, the entire argument that Jesus cannot be the true God based on John 17:3 is an example of a logical fallacy known as “denying the antecedent.” To illustrate this point, let’s rephrase John 17:3b in the form of a logical proposition:
If one is the Father, one is the only true God.
“If one is the Father” is the antecedent of the proposition. “One is the only true God” is the consequent. In the terms of formal logic, it is not logically valid to deny the antecedent, and conclude that the consequent is also denied. For example, consider the following proposition:
If one is a man, one is mortal.
Now, consider the denial of the antecedent:
Fido is not a man, therefore Fido is not mortal.
Clearly, since (sadly for dog lovers) dogs do not live forever, denying the antecedent does not prove that the consequent must also be denied. Technically speaking, if one is a man, that is sufficient cause for the conclusion that one is mortal. However, if one is mortal, that is not a necessary cause that one is a man. There are numerous other mortal creatures, including man’s best friend.
From the standpoint of pure logic, then, it is not valid to argue that because Jesus is not the Father (denying the antecedent in our paraphrased proposition) He cannot be the only true God. Being the Father is sufficient cause for being the only true God; however, being the only true God is not a necessary cause for being the Father.
Some may object at this point that in our canine example, we do not have the restricted language of John 17:3b (“the only true God”). However, while placing “only” before the antecedent can have the effect of making the antecedent both sufficient and necessary, placing “only” before the consequent (as it is in John 17:3b) does not. That is, in logical terms, affirming that the Father is the true God is the same as affirming that He is the only true God. The antecedent, in either case, is sufficient, but not necessary.
2. Much has been made of the fact that large portions of Origen’s writing is preserved only in Latin translations by Rufinus and Jerome. Rufinus, in his preface to the Treatise of First Principles, states that he suppressed some passages on the Trinity which he judged to be inserted by heretics. Jehovah’s Witness apologists, when confronted by the quotations I have provided here often reply that we cannot be certain that they reflect Origen’s beliefs, but rather are interpolations by Rufinus. First, this objection cannot be raised with regard to the Commentary on the Gospel of John or the Homily 9 on Jeremiah, since we possess the Greek text of the books quoted. The passages quoted from First Principles exist both in Rufinus’ Latin and Athanasius’ Greek. There is no evidence that these two witnesses are related; therefore, we have two independent sources suggesting that these quotes accurately reflect Origen’s original words. As Henri Crouzel notes, Rufinus’ translation suffers primarily from omissions, often arising from a desire to abridge or avoid repetition: “Comparisons of the texts in the Philocalia [containing about 1/7 of the Greek text of First Principles] with Rufinus’ work yields on the whole a favorable result” (Crouzel, pp. 46-47). Any discrepancies between Rufinus’ Latin and Origen’s Greek would, then, seem to be in the area of omissions rather than interpolations, and the extent to which Rufinus altered the text has, perhaps, been exaggerated by some. Thus, we have several works, some preserved in Greek, others in Latin but corroborated by independent Greek witnesses, which demonstrate that Origen held the belief that the Son was of the same essence as the Father, co-eternal and uncreated.