Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Comma Johanneum and Christian Doctrine

          It is practically a matter of routine among Christian apologists – defenders of Christianity against objections – to insist that no textual variants have a decisive impact on any of the core beliefs of Christianity.  I consider that claim to be an oversimplification.  The doctrine of inerrancy, though not part of the major creeds of Christendom, is an important Christian belief.  Some evangelical seminaries even refer to the doctrine of inerrancy as an essential, without specifying what it is essential for.  Several textual variants which have considerable manuscript-support, if adopted, would draw the doctrine of inerrancy into question.  I am thinking specifically of textual variants in Matthew 13:35, Matthew 27:49, Mark 6:22, and a few other passages.
          Textual variants also have a potential impact on doctrines involving the role of women in the church, fasting, divorce, granting forgiveness to those who have not expressed repentance, Mary’s perpetual virginity, the physicality of Christ’s body after His resurrection, the specificity of confessions, Christ’s involvement in human history before the Incarnation, and some other issues.  These are not trivial matters.  Today, though, I want to address just one question:  Was the Christian concept of the Trinity developed as a result of the presence of the Comma Johanneum in the text?
          The answer is, “No.”  In the course of the previous two posts, we reviewed some evidence which very strongly supports the position that the Comma Johanneum is not part of the original text of First John.  It appears to have originated as an explanatory note in the Latin text, subsequent to the creation of another variant, namely the transposition of the words “the spirit, the water, and the blood,” so that the three witnesses became “the water, the blood, and the spirit.”  The Greek manuscript-support for the Comma Johanneum is extremely weak.  Although it was apparently a widely circulated reading in the Latin text that was in use in North Africa in the late 400’s, at the church-councils that sorted out Christological controversies (such as the Council of Nicea and the Council of Chalcedon), the Comma Johanneum was not invoked for any purpose.
             In the late 1700’s, a public exchange of letters between Edward Gibbon and George Travis drew public attention to the controversy about the Comma Johanneum; Gibbon was sure that it was a “pious fraud,” while Travis argued vigorously in favor of its genuineness.  This was followed in 1790 by a book by Richard Porson, a Cambridge professor, in which Porson made a detailed and hard-hitting critique of Travis’ research, his arguments, and his motives.  Travis, of course, wrote a response, which Porson considered so weakly argued as to be self-refuting.  
          Adamant refusal to acknowledge that the Comma Johanneum was not part of the original text was, to an extent, caused by something other than the manuscript-evidence and the patristic evidence.  In England, the people writing and arguing the loudest and longest against the genuineness of the Comma Johanneum tended to be Unitarian, and those who agreed openly and enthusiastically on this point ran the risk – no matter how orthodox their views were on other subjects – of becoming the lightning-rods of heresy-hunters and alarmists, just as Erasmus had been accused of planting the seeds of Arianism by excluding the passage from his first and second editions of the Greek New Testament.  
          Yet when we visit the patristic writings of those who established and disseminated the worship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the 300’s and 400’s, the use of this passage is, as we have seen, extremely sparse.  In 258 (over a century before Priscillian), the unknown author of De Rebaptismate cited First John 5:6-8 without the Comma Johanneum:  For John says of our Lord in his epistle, teaching us: “This is He who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood:  and it is the Spirit that bears witness, because the Spirit is truth.  For three bear witness, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three are one.” 
          And later, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, Leo the Great likewise quoted from First John 5, referring to the testimony of the blessed apostle John:  “‘Who is he that overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood.  And it is the Spirit that bears witness, because the Spirit is truth.  For there are three that bear witness, the spirit, the water, and the blood, and the three are one.’  That is, the Spirit of sanctification, and the blood of redemption, and the water of baptism . . . .”
 
The earliest Greek form of the Comma Johanneum
in the text of a manuscript of First John:
GA 629, fol. 105v
(Ottobianus 298 at the Vatican Library)
         For at least the first 500 years of the existence of the Christian church, the only Christians who used the Comma Johanneum were those who used the Old Latin text that circulated in North Africa and Spain.  The creedal formulations of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon were all achieved without the use of the Comma Johanneum.   It would be wrong, then, to think that 
it is necessary to retain this passage in order to maintain now what was maintained then regarding the deity of Christ.  Yet, when the Comma Johanneum is rejected, it is not because we can afford to reject it, but because the evidence compels its rejection.  No Greek manuscript before the time of Erasmus exactly corresponds to the Comma Johanneum as printed in the Textus Receptus (and nor does minuscule 61).  The true words of Scripture do not need assistance from an interpolation, even one that summarizes explicitly what is expressed elsewhere in Scripture implicitly. 



4 comments:

BallBounces said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

Smith said...

nice

Ross said...

Adam Clarke dated Montfortianus as from the 1300s apparently. Has this been addressed? Also, the claim is being made that since Erasmus does not match up with Montfortianus in the comma, Montfortianus must not be Britannicus! The implication being I suppose is that another witness to the comma existed.

Steven Avery said...

Thanks, James,
And I appreciate that you accept that different texts support different doctrines (as well as the wide difference of approach to infallibity and inerrancy.)

Ross, while both your points are good questions, my understanding is that they are addressed reasonably well. Grantley references them in:
Raising the Ghost of Arius.
https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/handle/1887/16486
p. 247-250 and
p. 283:
"Dobbin also disposed of many of the other claims made about Montfortianus. He refuted the opinions of Adam Clarke and Thomas Burgess, who had claimed a great antiquity for the codex on the basis of its script"

We can go over it in more depth on the Facebook PureBible group, if you like, however you might do well following the bouncing balls there, including Orlando Thomas Dobbin (1807-1890).
The Codex Montfortianus
http://books.google.com/books?id=khV80kOj7oAC

James Snapp
"Was the Christian concept of the Trinity developed as a result of the presence of the Comma Johanneum in the text?"

There seemed to have been a good deal of resistance to the three are one, doctrinally. We should not make an anachronism error of taking 2020 doctrinal viewpoints and putting them over the early centuries.

Here are three resources to check.

Eusebius ad Marcellum (too Sabellian)
Vulgate Prologue by Jerome (unfaithful transcibers would omit)
Homily 69 by Jerome (the sensitivity of - "how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are both three and one.")

Also look at the report from the historian Socrates of Constantine writing to Alexander and Arius, and review Frederick Nolan on Eusebius.

On the other hand, Charles Forster does make a compelling case that the heavenly witnesses provided the framework for much of the wording of the doctrinal discussions in the early centuries.

James Snapp
"Adamant refusal to acknowledge that the Comma Johanneum was not part of the original text was, to an extent, caused by something other than the manuscript-evidence and the patristic evidence."

And I would take out the "not". :) Since the thousand or so Latin mss. and the ECW evidences are exceedingly strong, along with the competing alternative historical reconstruction theories. Also the stylistic, grammatical, harmony, internal etc. And the Received Text was in hand, all over the world.

De Rebaptismate was about baptism. So it would be easy to omit the heavenly witnesess, and even easier if verse 8 is before verse 7 in their text, a theory you like to consider. Similar with Leo and the "blood of redemption". Also there are numerous direct references and allusions to the heavenly witnesses throughout both periods.

James Snapp
"the only Christians who used the Comma Johanneum were those who used the Old Latin text that circulated in North Africa and Spain. "

This simply ignores many Greek evidences, such as the Disputation of Athanasius and Arius (or an Arian) at Nicea. Jerome when he wrote the Prologue (you disagree, but have never given reasons) clearly indicates that there was Greek ms. support. And you also bypass the fact that many were fluent and skilled, or at least capable, in Latin and Greek. Including Tertullian and Cyprian and Jerome and Fulgentius, who supports the Cyprian reference.

Yes, in many cases you can make circular arguments ("but my theory of Cyprian is different, also the Prologue") but at least you should recognize the circularity!

Blessings and grace in the name of the Lord Jesus!

Steven Avery
Dutchess County, NY