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.