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 beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one1 John 5.6-8
The Three Heavenly Witnesses passage (also known as the Comma Johanneum, abbreviated CJ) in 1 John 5.7-8 has been a source of controversy regarding the text of Scripture for many centuries. The passage is commonly cited by advocates of the modern critical text as a demonstration of the “indefensibility” of the Confessional Text position. This is, admittedly, the most difficult text to defend from a purely materialistic framework; but here we must recognize that the modern critical text advocate and the Confessional Text advocate are at an impasse in regards to methodology. For the Modernist, the extant Greek manuscript (MSS) evidence reigns supreme; but for the Traditionalist, the extant physical evidence takes a subsidiary role. In this article, I will present a positive defense for the authenticity and, consequently the authority, of the Comma Johanneum by examining the extant MSS evidence, the historical evidence, and the internal evidence.
The MSS Evidence
Admittedly, the CJ is in very few Greek manuscripts. In fact, the majority of manuscripts which contain 1 John 5 do not contain the Three Heavenly Witnesses passage. This is often cited as the final nail in the coffin argument for the Modernist. Is this the case? Consider for a moment the principle of this argument: it is simply “counting noses.” And yet, the Modernist is not consistent even in his own methodology at this point, or else he would affirm the authenticity of the last twelve verses of the Gospel According to St. Mark. As a popular internet apologist says, inconsistency is the first sign of a failed argument. If the Modernist were consistent in his own thinking, he would not dismiss the CJ simply due to the fact that it is not found in many Greek manuscripts today.
But another point is this: arguing from extant Greek manuscripts has a fundamental flaw. It is a fact of history that thousands upon thousands of Greek manuscripts have been lost to us, whether through deliberate destruction or through the workings of time. In other words, one cannot leap from the small number of MSS available today and claim that the CJ was not original; it is very possible that the ancient MSS which contained the CJ were destroyed or lost. Consider the words of John Calvin in his Commentary on the passage: “Since, however, the passage flows better when this clause is added, and as I see that it is found in the best and most approved copies, I am inclined to receive it as the true reading.” We must say that it is at the very least possible that ancient, reliable manuscripts which we no longer possess contained the passage in question.
The Historical Evidence
A rhetorical point that is often brought up to dispute the authenticity of the Comma is that it was “unknown” in the early church. This, however, is simply not true. In fact, there are citations of the Comma dating back to the middle of the third century. The following are excerpts from various early church writers who cite or reference the Comma. These are taken from Michael Maynard’s work A History of the Debate over 1 John 5,7-8, available here.
The Lord says “I and the Father are one” and likewise it is written of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “And these three are one.” [Footnote 75: Dicut dominus. Ego et pater unum sumus et iterum de Patre et Filio et Spiritu Sancto scriptum est. Et tres unum sunt. See The Ante-Nicence Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Church Fathers down to A.D. 325.]c.250 Cyprian. De catholicae ecclesiae unitate. (CSEL 3:215)
If any one could be baptized by a heretic, and could obtain remission of sins, -if he has obtained remission of sins, and is sanctified, and becomes the temple of God? I ask, of what God? If, of the Creator, he cannot be his temple, who had believed in him; if of Christ, neither can he who denies him to be God, be his temple; if of the Holy Spirit, since the three are one [emphasis added], how can the Holy Spirit be reconciled to him, who is an enemy either of the Father or of the Son?c.250 Cyprian. Epistle to Jubaianus.
As John says “and there are three which give testimony on earth, the water, flesh, the blood, and these three are in one, and there are three which give testimony in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one in Christ Jesus.”c.380 Priscillian. Liber Apologeticus. (The quote as given by A.E. Brooke from Schepps. Vienna Corpus, xviii)
What about John then, when in his Catholic Epistle he says that there are Three that bear witness the Spirit and the Water and the Blood? Do you think he is talking nonsense? First, because he has ventured to reckon under one numeral, things which are not consubstantial, though, you say this ought to be done only in the case of things which are consubstantial. For who would assert that these are consubstantial? Secondly, because he had not been consistent in the way he has happened upon his terms; for after using Three in the masculine gender he adds three words which are neuter, contrary to the definitions and laws which you and your grammarians have laid down. For what is the difference between putting a masculine Three first, and then adding One and One and One in the neuter, or after a masculine One and One and One to use the Three not in the masculine but in the neuter, which you yourself disclaim in the case of Deity?c.385 Gregory of Nazianzus. Theological Orations His fifth oration was “On the Holy Spirit”
If they faithfully translated into the Latin language and create no ambiguity for readers and the variety of words does not contradict itself. In that place, particularly where we read about the unity of the Trinity which is placed in the First Epistle of John, in which also the names of three, i.e. of water, of blood, and of spirit, do they place in their edition and omitting the testimony of the Father, and the Word, and the Spirit, in which the catholic faith is especially confirmed and the single substance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is confirmed.c.390? Jerome [prologue to the Canonical Epistles]
Another key historical point of consideration is the usage of the passage in the formulation of the historic Reformed confessions of faith. The Westminster Confession and Second London Baptist Confession both cite the passage as the only proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity. It is the first text cited in support of Question 9 of the Westminster Larger Catechism. It is cited in Article 8 of the Belgic Confession. The history of orthodox Christianity affirms this passage as Scripture.
The Internal Evidence
Finally we come to the internal evidence that supports the Comma Johanneum. Internal evidence is that evidence arising from grammatical and theological considerations. A portion of this section will involve a simplistic discussion of Greek grammar, but I hope to explain it in such a way that will make sense to those who are unfamiliar with the Greek language.
The first point of consideration is the grammatical structure of the passage. Without the Comma, the passage contains a masculine plural participle followed by three neuter nouns. With the Comma, the masculine plural participle is followed by two masculine nouns and one neuter noun. As Gregory states in the citation above, the grammar without the Comma violates the principles of Greek grammar. This is why Calvin, in the citation above, said that the “passage flows better” with the Comma than without it.
The second point of internal consideration is the wording used in the Comma. If the Comma was simply an addition by Trinitarians, it seems rather odd that a standard Trinitarian formula was not employed. The Three Heavenly Witnesses are the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; the designation of the Second Person of the Trinity as the Word is a peculiarly Johannine idea. It echoes back to the prologue of John’s Gospel. Not only that, but it is indirectly pointing back to the first chapter of 1 John, wherein John writes: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)” (1John 1.1-2). Later in the very same passage, John refers to the Second Person of the Trinity as the Son. So if this was a later addition, the natural phrasing at this point would be the standard Trinitarian formula. However, John is making a specific point by replacing “Son” with “Word” in the list of the heavenly witnesses.
The third, and final, point of internal evidence to consider is the contextual necessity of the passage. The principle point of the passage, taking the verse before and following, is that the testimony of Jesus Christ is testified by men and by God. Verse nine reads: “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son.” This verse makes no sense if the Comma is omitted. John is placing two sets of witnesses before his reader: the witnesses in heaven, which are one, and the witnesses on earth, which agree in one. These witnesses testify concerning the promise of God that all who believe in Christ Jesus have eternal life. Furthermore, in verse ten John states that the believer “hath the witness in himself.” Notice the fact that there is one witness. This points back to verse six, where John writes, “it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.” There is one supreme witness: the witness of the Spirit. This witness may be viewed from the two perspectives: heavenly and earthly. The heavenly witnesses are one, while the earthly witnesses agree in one. Thus, in the final analysis, the chief testifier of the truth of the gospel is the Holy Spirit, who reveals that truth to them that believe. This is distinctive Johannine theology, and those who omit the Comma destroy the entire principle of the passage.
It must be kept in mind that the Confessional Text position does not begin at the same starting place as the modern critical advocate. The Modernist begins with extant evidence and seeks to reconstruct the text of Scripture based upon human reasoning and “scientific” analysis. The Traditionalist begins with the presupposition that we are to receive the text of Scripture that has been handed down through the generations of the church by the work of the Holy Spirit. So, therefore, the internal and historic arguments are placed in a higher position than extant MSS evidence. Based upon this principle, it must be acknowledged that the Comma is indeed Scripture, God-breathed and authoritative. It is required by the grammatical and contextual necessities of the text. It has a long and venerable history of recognition as Scripture by orthodox Christianity. “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified of his Son” (1 John 5.9).