Is 1 John 5:7 a “Corruption”?

Paul Derengowski, ThM

 

Critics of both the Bible’s integrity and the doctrine of the Trinity often point to 1 John 5:7 as an example to bolster their arguments.  Known as the Comma Johanneum or Johannine Comma, it is a passage that was included in John’s epistle at a very late date, meaning that it was not in the original document that John had written.  It is not found in most modern translations, mainly because Bible translators acknowledge that it does not belong in the text.  It reads, especially in the King James Version, “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”

It will be the object of this article to counter the critical arguments against both the idea of Bible “corruption” and the Trinity doctrine by showing that (1) the insertion of the Comma is not necessarily a “corruption,” and (2) John taught Trinitarian doctrine elsewhere in his writings, starting with 1 John.  Moreover, that John was not alone in teaching the Trinity; that the Trinity actually is taught by writers of both the Old and New Testaments.  Finally, because the Comma is not a “corruption,” and the Trinity doctrine is biblical, the Christian may be confident that when the argument is brought up, he/she may counter the criticisms by pointing out a few basic facts, starting with a clarification of terminology.
What is a “Corruption” of Scripture?

When discussing the idea of corruption one needs to be very careful how the word is used in order to avoid confusion and thereby mislead an audience.  Though something may be “corrupt” in one context, it may not be in another.  It will be argued here that there are three kinds of contexts in which something may or may not be corrupt: secular, textual, and theological.

In the secular way of thinking a corruption can imply a whole range of things including, but not limited to fraud, deceit, malfeasance, adulteration, dishonor, depravity, pollution, distortion, and the list goes on and on.

Webster’s defines corruption, in part, as “evil or wicked behavior” and “an improperly altered word or text,” which some mind construe as applicable to 1 John 5:7, but as will be seen shortly, it does not apply.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines corruption as, “Depravity, perversion, or taint; an impairment of integrity, or moral principle.” 1

Textual corruption, especially of the Bible, involves how the Bible was transmitted.  For those who are basically clueless as to how the Bible was passed on from generation to generation, there were no printing presses or word processor programs that neatly regenerated the biblical text when needed.  The arduous task of handwriting each and every letter or book was undertaken, sometimes not in the most ideal situations.  So, errors and “corruptions” easily crept into the biblical corpus, none of which involved deceit or fraud, but, was more the result oftentimes of simply being too tired to copy.  Or if there were intentional errors incorporated into the text, it was not for malicious reasons to mislead the reader, but they were committed “in good faith by copyists who believed that they were correcting an error or infelicity of language which had previously crept into the sacred text and need to be rectified.” 2

Finally, there are theological “corruptions,” which, like that discussed previously, have to do with either the willful distortion of a text by inserting words or ideas inconsistent with the remainder of the biblical text.  An instance of a willful distortion of the biblical text that conflicts with theological teachings on the deity of Jesus would be seen in the New World Translation, as published by The Watchtower or Jehovah’s Witnesses, and its rendering of John 1:1.  Rather than concluding the verse “and the Word was God” (καὶ θεὸς ̓̑ην ὁ λόγος), as all reputable English translators have consistently done for the past 400 years, the WT decided to impose its Arian worldview upon the Bible and translate the phrase “and the word was a god.”  Not only did the imposition of the indefinite article “corrupt” the text, it completely changed the meaning of it as well.

When one considers 1 John 5:7, the secular definition of corruption does not fit.  There is nothing nefarious, as will be seen below, with its insertion into the text.  The textual definition of corruption does fit, but only in a good sense.  That is because our third definition of corruption, theological, has not been violated by its insertion.  Therefore, it may be concluded that what the author did by inserting the wording of 1 John 5:7 into the text was for benevolent, not evil, purposes.  But, just how did those few controversial words end up in the text in the first place?  A brief description of events is in order to help answer the overall question.

How Did the Comma End Up in John’s Epistle?

To answer the question is to first understand a little about English translations and the foreign texts from which they sprang.  Since the Johannine Comma is found almost exclusively in the King James Version of the Bible, then it becomes imperative to know that the Greek text which underlies its translation is the product of someone who never originally intended to publish a Greek text in the first place.  That someone was Erasmus, a Roman Catholic priest in the sixteenth century, who initially sought to revise Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.  Yet, because he was challenged, and hurried, to produce a Latin-Greek edition of the Bible before another text was planned to come off the press—the Complutensian Polyglot—Erasmus’s effort was not exactly what he had hoped for.

Having only a handful of later Greek manuscripts Erasmus published his first edition of Novum Instrumentum in 1516.  It would not be until he published a third edition of his work—renamed Novum Testamentum—that the text of 1 John 5:7 would appear.  Initially he was hesitant about including the wording in his work, since he knew of no Greek manuscripts that contained the Comma.  A critic of his work, Edward Lee, accused Erasmus of defending the Arians—who were ardent critics themselves of the Trinity—by excluding the controversial verse.  Erasmus eventually agreed to include it, if someone could provide manuscript evidence for its inclusion.  He was told that Codex 61, a late sixteenth century document located in England at the time, contained the wording he was looking for.  He included it in his text, even though he doubted its veracity, and made the point accordingly in his Annotationes (a sort of running commentary expressing his thoughts on his Greek-Latin translation).

Erasmus’s Greek-Latin text, therefore, became the foundation for later translations, including the Geneva Bible (1557 & 1560), Coverdale Bible (1535), Matthew’s Bible (1537), Tyndale Bible (1526), and of course, the King James or Authorized Version Bible (1611).  That in itself is not necessarily evil, for as Greenlee points out, the TR (“Textus Receptus,” which stems from Erasmus’s efforts) “is not a ‘bad’ or misleading text, either theologically or practically.”  No one will become a heretic by carefully using the TR as a tool to translate the Bible or exegete biblical doctrine.  “Technically, however, it is far from the original text.  Yet three centuries were to pass before scholars won the struggle to replace this hastily assembled text with a text which gave evidence of being closer to the nt autographs.” 3

 

The Greek Text and Apparatus

 

Does John’s Epistle Teach the Trinity?

As noted already the skeptics or critics of the Bible, and especially of the Trinity, regularly cites 1 John 5:7 as an example to prove their case that (1) the Bible is “corrupt,” and that (2) the Trinity is untrue.  They know, or least they want others to think that they know, that the original Greek texts and earliest copies do not contain the Johannine Comma, therefore, by deduction, it is confirmed that some unscrupulous scribe has decimated the biblical corpus, it is no longer trustworthy, so why should anyone believe it?  In fact, why should any believe in something manmade, like the Trinity doctrine either?  Such logical questioning is shortsighted, given the broader context of John’s letter.

Starting as early as Chapter 2 in John’s epistle, he alludes to one of five places where he teaches on the Trinity!  After pointing out those who apostatize from the faith—and labels them anti-Christs (v. 18)—he then discusses one aspect of the anti-Christian, which is to reject Jesus as the Christ, since that is tantamount to rejecting the Father.  “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also” (v. 23).  This is likely a rebuke of proto-Gnostic teaching prevalent in John’s day.  But, then he goes on to affirm to his readership the reason why he is writing—that they would not be deceived—and that they have a special anointing from “the Holy One,” Jesus Christ himself (cf. Mk. 1:24; Lk. 4:34; Jn. 6:69; Act 2:27; 10:38; 13:35).  That anointing is described as the one who “teaches you about all things,” which is exactly what Jesus promised with the coming of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:26).  Father, Jesus, Holy Spirit—Trinity.

A second allusion to the Trinity in John’s letter is found in the very next chapter.  After discussing the confidence the Christian has in God by keeping His commandment, namely to love one’s spiritual brother, John writes, “And this is His commandment, that we believe in the name of His Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as He commanded us.  And the one who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him.  And we know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given” (3:23-24).  God commands the Christian to believe in Jesus, who resides in the believer by the Spirit.  Trinity.

John references the Trinity two more times in the fourth chapter.  He starts out by commanding the reader to not be gullible when it comes to spiritual claims, but to test them.  Then he writes, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”  It is another argument against the proto-Gnostic “spirit” that Jesus had not been manifest in the flesh.  Later, in verses 13-15, we see John teaching on how the believer abides in Jesus by the Spirit, and that “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”  Trinity.

Finally, in 1 John 5, the chapter where the controversial verse 7 appears, we still see John’s teaching on the Trinity in verses 4-6!  God gives birth to the believer in verse 4, the newborn believer overcomes the world by believing in Jesus, as the Son of God, and the Spirit bears witness of the truth.  This led inevitably to the Johannine Comma’s insertion, not because it was something completely out of the blue, but because it fit the context.  Rather than simply say, “For there are three bearing witness, Spirit the water and the blood,” Erasmus inserted between “witness” and Spirit” the following phrase

εν τω ουρανω, ο πατηρ, ο λογος και το αγιον πνευμα, και ουτοι οι τρεις εν εισιν.

in heaven, the father, the word and the holy spirit, even these three are one.

Considering the context, did the insertion “corrupt” what John was saying?  Hardly.  John, as seen previously, had already been speaking about the activities of the Father, Son, and Spirit.  Erasmus’s insertion, therefore, might be likened to be more of a comment, like what is often found in other Greek manuscripts in the margins, when a scribe took the liberty to clarify an unclear text.  John never wrote what is attributed to him, but what is included does nothing to “corrupt” his main idea when speaking about God, which was that He was in concert with two other persons, as one witness in the things of God and the things of man.

Does John Teach the Trinity in His Other Writings?

John wrote four other letters, two of which are like 1 John in the sense that they are short, but do not mention anything about the Trinitarian nature of God.  In John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation the story is quite the opposite.  Both are long books, and both contain numerous references to the Trinity.  A few examples are provided below.

The Gospel According to John

  • (1:6, 29-33)  The Lamb of God (Jesus) is seen by John the Baptist, who also sees the Spirit descending upon Jesus.  John is informed by the One who sent Him (God cf. v. 6), that he who John sees the Spirit descending upon is the One who will baptize “in the Holy Spirit.”  Trinity.
  • (3:8, 13, 16)  In order for anyone to enter the kingdom of God he/she must be “born of the Spirit” (v. 8).  It is the Son of Man (Jesus; v. 13) who descended to earth to make redemption possible, and it is God (v. 16) who loves the world.  Trinity.
  •  (14:26 cf. 15:26) The Helper (Holy Spirit) is sent by the Father in Jesus’ name with the express mission of teaching believers all things, and bringing to remembrance the things that Jesus said.  Trinity.

The Book of Revelation

  • (1:9-10) John, et al, persevere in Jesus and wait on the word of God and testimony of Jesus, while John was “in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day.  Subsequent descriptive detail by John of Jesus are characteristic of God as well, closing with testimony from Jesus that He is “the first and the last,” which is synonymous with God’s testimony earlier that He is “the Alpha and Omega” (cf. 22:13).  Trinity.
  • (2:3-7) Jesus walks and talks among the seven golden lampstands, the Spirit speaks to the churches, and those who listen are granted the Paradise of God.  This scenario nearly plays out in all of the seven churches addressed, so will not be repeated here.  Trinity.
  •  (22:13-18) Jesus is the Alpha and Omega (cf. 1:17, 8); the Spirit encourages the coming of Jesus; Jesus warns of God’s plague being added to anyone who adds to the Book of Revelation, as well as warns of taking away that person’s name from the tree of life and the holy city.  Trinity.

Did John teach the Trinity?  The overwhelming evidence is that he did.  But, what about the rest of the Bible, starting with the New Testament?  Does it teach the Trinity as well, or was the Trinity something created by John alone?

Does the New Testament Teach the Trinity?

The doctrine of Trinity is covered more comprehensively elsewhere, so it will not be dealt in total here.  Only a few New Testament examples will be provided to show that John was not alone in his understanding of the Triune nature of God.

  • (Matthew 28:19) We are told that Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have the same name.  Elsewhere, Jesus is said to have the name of the Father (cf. Matt. 1:23; 21:9; Jn. 10:25; Phil. 2:9-10; Col. 3:17).  Other than that, no information is given as to what the name is in Matthew 28:19 that is shared among the three.
  • (Hebrew 6:1-4) The writer speaks of the elementary teachings about Christ (Jesus), advice against laying another foundation of repentance based on dead works toward God, and then tells the readers that it is the Holy Spirit that imparts enlightenment and the heavenly gift.
  • (1 Peter 1:12-13, 17)  Peter speaks of the preaching of the gospel by the Holy Spirit, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the impartiality of God the Father as a judge.

Does the New Testament teach the Trinity?  Clearly, with all that John had to say on the subject, combined with nearly every other New Testament author, the answer is a resounding Yes!  But, what about the Old Testament?  Does it teach the Trinity as well?  Although not as specific or numerous in references, the Old Testament does allude to the plural nature of God.  God’s revelation on the subject is by design, as God slowly unfolded revelation about himself.
Does the Old Testament Teach the Trinity?

  • Genesis 1:26 speaks of God’s plural nature when a conversation is taking place over the creation of man.  “Let Us make man in our image, according to Our likeness,” the author records.  Man is not created in the image of anyone or anything other than God.  So, who is God talking to if He is not speaking with someone else in the Godhead?
  • Judges 13:15-ff. tells a story about a man named Manoah.  The angel of the Lord, who is a Christophanous manifestation of the Lord Jesus, appears to Manoah and his wife. 4  They offer him a meal, but he commands them to prepare a burnt offering to the Lord (Yahweh).  This is all in lieu of the birth of Samson to Manoah’s wife, who has the Spirit of the Lord stir him in a camp between Zorah and Eshtaol.
  • Isaiah 48:16 recounts to Israel the eventual demise of the Babylonians.  The Lord tells Jacob that he is “the first” and ‘the last” (v. 12 cf. Rev. 1:17), and encourages Israel to assemble.  He finishes the prophetic announcement with, “And now the Lord God has sent Me, and His Spirit.”  So, while the narrative begins with Yahweh speaking, at the end another person, “Me,” finishes the discourse.

Does the Old Testament teach the Trinity?  Not like as what is found in the New Testament.  Instead, one has the seeds of the Trinitarian doctrine being planted and anticipated.  The Old Testament writers likely had no idea what they were writing toward, which is why it is absolutely necessary to seek the whole counsel of Scripture on the matter of the Trinity.  Moreover, context is more important than merely isolating verses or cherry picking certain references to suit one’s agenda.

CONCLUSION

First John 5:7 is a hobbyhorse text that skeptics of the Bible and critics of Christianity love to point out to try and discredit both.  More particularly, in the latter instance, the Trinity doctrine comes under fire.  So long as Christians allow the skeptic or critic to ride this hobbyhorse, he will do so until it is either addressed, he abandons the ride, or in the worst case scenario, the Christian succumbs to pressure placed on him/her, and he/she renounces the faith.  That final scenario is not necessary if he/she will keep a couple of things in mind.

Although the text of 1 John 5:7 does not appear in the oldest Greek manuscripts, its inclusion does not “corrupt” the Bible.  Corruption implies fraud, fakery, reprobation, and perverse behavior with an ulterior motive, among a whole host of other nefarious adjectives.  Neither Erasmus nor any Christian has engaged in behavior that was intended to deceive anyone by subscribing to what 1 John 5:7 has to teach.  What Erasmus did, which even he was apprehensive about doing, was insert a comment that fit the context of what John wrote, to defend a doctrine under attack, even though John did not write it.  No harm, no foul, no “corruption.”

As seen above, the text itself merely alludes to the Trinity, and the Trinity, starting with John’s epistle, is taught throughout the Bible.  So, even if one acknowledges the spurious nature of 1 John 5:7, then the skeptic or critic of the Bible and Trinity must address the remainder of the Bible and its Trinitarian teachings, all of which are attested by thousands of extant copies handed down from the original, in order to be consistent in his criticism and judgment.  Failure to do so is to engage in an example of special pleading, which based on the evidence, is by far a greater fallacy than anything Erasmus did to augment an argument against Trinitarian critics who were using the Bible in an untoward way in his day, much like those doing the special pleading today.

For more on the subject of Textual Criticism and the Trinity the reader is encouraged to consult the following:

Textual Criticism

A. T. Robertson, An Introduction to the Textual Criticism of the New Testament—an older text, but still quite relevant in matters of Textual Critical history.

Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration—perhaps the best text on the subject, although it is quite in-depth, and probably not the best for a novice to begin his/her journey to study the subject.

Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament—should be on the shelf of every Christian looking for answers to questions about why certain words, verses, and passages appear the way they do in not only the Greek text, but in English translations as well.

David Alan Black, New Testament Textual Criticism—short, sweet and to the point.

J. Harold Greelee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism—very basic, but a good text for beginners.

Sir Frederick Kenyon, Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts—another older text, but it is excellent in its explanation of the history of the discipline.

The Trinity

Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity—discussed from a Reformed position, Letham takes a broader, in-depth look at the development of the Trinity from the biblical, historical, and worshipful perspectives.

Robert Morey, The Trinity: Evidence and Issues—does an excellent job of tackling the Trinitarian debate from a more contemporary angle and apologetics.

The Trinity by Paul Derengowski, available online at CAPro.info—a comprehensive look at the Triune nature of God from the biblical worldview (plus, it’s free!).

Notes:

  1. Bryan A. Garner, ed., Black’s Law Dictionary, Ninth Edition (St. Paul, MN: West, 2009), 397.
  2. Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford, 1992), 195.
  3. J. Harold Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Criticism (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 65.
  4. Theophany.  Manifestation of God that is tangible to the human senses…While there are no indisputable Christophanies in the Old Testament, every theophany wherein God takes on human form foreshadows the incarnation, both in matters of grace and judgment.”—Walter A. Elwell, ed., Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 770.