Wednesday, February 03, 2016

An Internal Argument for the Comma Johanneum

I re-read today the Trinitarian Bible Society article by G. W. Anderson and D. E. Anderson titled "Why 1 John 5:7-8 Is In The Bible?" (You can read it here).  The article reviews the comments of three interpreters from three different eras who defended the authenticity of the so-called Comma Johanneum or "Three Heavenly Witnesses" passage: Matthew Henry (1700s), Robert Lewis Dabney (1800s); and Edward F. Hills (1900s).

The external evidence for the CJ is admittedly weak, but Dabney and Hills both point out what, I believe, is one of the strongest arguments from internal evidence in favor of the CJ based, in particular, on gender agreement.

If the CJ is omitted the passage would read:

5:7a  For there are three which bear witness [hoti treis eisin hoi martyrountes]

5:8b  The Spirit and the water and the blood, and the three are one [to pneuma kai to hudor kai to haima, kai hoi treis eis to hen eisen].

The problem would be that the three neuter singular nouns in v. 8b would be preceded by the masculine adjective number three [treis] and the masculine plural article and participle [hoi martyrountes] and followed by the masculine plural article and masculine adjective number three [hoi treis]. 

If, however, the CJ were original, v. 7a would be followed instead by "in the heaven, the Father, and the Word, and the Holy Spirit [en to ourano, ho pater, ho logos, kai to hagion pneuma]," which, with two masculine singular nouns [ho pater, ho logos] and one neuter singular adjective and noun [to hagion pneuma], would appear to fit better grammatically in the context.

This point is made by Dabney and cited in the article:

First, if it be made, the masculine article, numeral, and particle…are made to agree directly with three neuters—an insuperable and very bald grammatical difficulty. But if the disputed words are allowed to stand, they agree directly with two masculines and one neuter noun…where, according to a well known rule of syntax, the masculines among the group control the gender over a neuter connected with them....

The same point is made by Hills and cited in the article:

In the third place, the omission of the Johannine comma involves a grammatical difficulty. The words spirit, water, and blood are neuter in gender, but in 1 John 5:8 they are treated as masculine. If the Johannine comma is rejected, it is hard to explain this irregularity. It is usually said that in 1 John 5.8 the spirit, the water, and the blood are personalized and that this is the reason for the adoption of the masculine gender. But it is hard to see how such personalization would involve the change from the neuter to the masculine. For in verse 6 the word Spirit plainly refers to the Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity. Surely in this verse the word Spirit is “personalized,” and yet the neuter gender is used. Therefore, since personalization did not bring about a change of gender in verse 6, it cannot fairly be pleaded as the reason for such a change in verse 8. If, however, the Johannine comma is retained, a reason for placing the neuter nouns spirit, water, and blood in the masculine gender becomes readily apparent. It was due to the influence of the nouns Father and Word, which are masculine. Thus the hypothesis that the Johannine comma is an interpolation is full of difficulties.

This does indeed appear to represent a substantial internal argument in favor of the originality and authenticity of the CJ.



Anonymous said...

Thanks for your defense of the Traditional Text. Interested in what you make of the contra argument regarding the grammar at (see under Internal Argument and in comment section) I would like to see a blog post replying to Nolan and Dabney detractors....

Pastor Jeff said...


Thanks for the comment and pointing out this article and comments. Very interesting. I'll try to take a closer look at it. Preliminary thoughts: (1) It would be worthwhile to test the assertion that an apposition must agree in case but need not agree in number and gender by comparison to the LXX, the NT, and patristic Greek; (2) Hills had credentials in NT and text criticism and saw the argument as valid; (3) I hardly see the last quote from Dabney in comment as evidence of his reversing his position. Rather, I think his point is that you could not (and need not) make your case for the Trinity on the CJ alone.


Steven Avery said...

The comments by "Jim" are based on numerous conceptual errors and even blunders and quirky grammatical theories. If you track down the threads on CARM where he plied these unusual grammar theories, you can learn about them. Since CARM is not permanent, I would prefer to go over them on the Facebook PureBible or Heavenly Witnesses forum, or a forum I have called PureBibleForum if they actually puzzle anybody. I'll even go over the history of his blundering accusations. (Which changed when he the Eugenius Bulgaris info was pointed out to Jim.)

Denver McDaniel said...

1. The Comma doesn’t solve the supposed difficulty. The 3 neuter earthly witnesses are treated as masculine both in the adjective and verb at the beginning of verse 8 which is within the Comma, and the end of verse 8 is masculine when referring back to the earthly witnesses. The supposed “problem” happens twice in the Comma, only once without the Comma.

2. There isn’t an additional grammar problem by omitting the Comma for 2 reasons:
a) in the NT, when an adjective modifies multiple nouns, the normal practice is for it to take the neuter REGARDLESS of the gender of the nouns, whether the nouns agree in gender or not (e.g. 1 Cor 13:13 where you have three feminine nouns modified by a neuter adjective), so in that case this is a departure from the norm even if you accept the Comma.
b) “Three” is functioning substantivally in verse 7 and 8, with or without the Comma, for “the witnessing ones”. There are a few other times in scripture where “three” is substantival and in every case it is masculine, either because it stands alone and it is normal for the number three to be regarded as masculine, or as may be the case here, the noun which is implied is “witnesses” which is of course masculine. Either way, it is not outside the normal pattern of scripture for “three” to be masculine here.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Denver, thanks for the comment.


1. If the point, however, is that the masculines in v. 8b refers back to the two masculine nouns in the CJ, this would mean 0 problems with the comma.

2.a. You note that it is the "normal" practice for a numerical adjective modifying multiple nouns to take the neuter and cite one example (1 Cor 13:13 with the neuter ta tria tauta, in reference to three feminine nouns). If so, then 1 John 5:7-8 is clearly an exception, with or without the CJ. Would it not make more sense for this "exception" to take place if the masculine number was in reference to two masculine nouns? That is the point indeed. You offer no other examples from the NT, the LXX, the apocrypha, or Patristic evidence. I admit that I have not done a detailed study on this. So, I am going to reserve making any sweeping assertions about what the "normal" practice is. It simply seems to make sense grammatically for a numerical adjective to tend toward agreement with the nouns it modifies, and which are in near proximity to it, in gender, case, and number.

2.b. I'm not sure this is as clear as you make it out. How do you know for certain the the "three" here is substantival? I admit it is possible, but this conclusion is a suggestion, an interpretation, that may or may not be right. Can you definitively cite the other times in the NT where the adjective three (or another numerical adjective) is used in the manner? What about in the LXX, apocrphya, and Patristic writings? Again, I have not done a detailed study of this so would be hesitant to make a sweeping assertion on this, especially given the historical and theological importance of this passage. Come it think of it, isn't the verse you cited above (1 Cor 13:13) a possible exception to the dictum you present? It could be taken substantivally and it is in the neuter. According to your dictum it should be masculine, since this supposedly happens "in every case." Perhaps things aren't as cut and dried as we might think.


Denver McDaniel said...

Pastor Riddle, I plan on responding in more detail shortly. But I do want to say thank you for your ministry work in this area. I have enjoyed your WM podcasts. I am sympathetic to the TR position, but hold to more of a Byzantine priority (Maurice Robinson) position. I would say I stand on the Byzantine line but ” look toward” the TR. I don’t think the two positions are very far apart. I think you could still consistently affirm the LBC/WCF and hold to either, but the CT would require you to say there was a “gap” in the preservation until the 19th century where it was restored.

I am also KJV preferred personally, but we read the NKJV as a family.

Anyway, thank you, and more to come.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

Denver, thanks for your comment and look forward to the detailed response. Glad to hear you've profited from the WMs. I'm still a student of these things. I noted some of what I perceive to be problems with the Majority Text position from a confessional perspective in the review of Pickering's Greek NT in WM 86. Namely, this text has produced no ecclesiastically viable vernacular translations. I'd be curious to know what you make of that objection. My family uses the KJV in our devotions and I find my younger ones grasp the meaning well. Our church governing documents say we will make use of Bible translations in public worship based on the traditional original language text of Scripture. I and my fellow elder use the KJV, but our deacon often reads from the NKJV. We'd also allow the Geneva Bible. So, we do not approach this from a staunch KJV-only perspective.