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The Unscholarly Scholarship of Anthony Buzzard
A Response to "John 1:1: Caveat Lector"
|In his article, "John
1:1: Caveat Lector (Reader Beware)," Sir Anthony Buzzard lays out
his case for the traditional Unitarian
interpretation of John 1:1-14. In doing so, he cites several
scholars and Bible translations in support of his views - many of them
Trinitarian. If the Trinity is, in fact, Christianity's
"self-inflected wound" as Buzzard claims in his book with that
sub-title, we might expect to find at least some Trinitarian scholars who
inadvertently undermine the Trinity and bolster Unitarian claims. On
the other hand, if we find that Buzzard has quoted selectively, stacked the
deck by not giving the entire story, thrown in a few well-placed red
herrings, and drawn ad hoc conclusions, we may well ask: "Is
Anthony Buzzard the one who has wounded himself?"
In this paper, I will review Buzzard's use of scholarly citations to see if they actually harm the Trinity or Sir Anthony Buzzard himself.
The Word "Word"
Buzzard begins his article by questioning the validity of equating "the Word" in John 1:1 to the pre-existent Son of God:
Buzzard argues that the most natural way to understand "the Word" is not as a person, but as the "plan" of God, or His Wisdom personified:
It is, according to Buzzard, the indoctrination of hundreds of years of Trinitarian creeds, confessions, and teaching that leads most modern readers to understand John to have meant: "In the Beginning was the Son, and the Son was with God, and the Son was God." But, of course, this is not was John wrote. Buzzard argues that John was merely using the well-exampled Old Testament tradition of personifying God's Word (Hebrew davar) to communicate that God had a plan, and He followed that plan when creating the world, and put that plan fully into effect by embodying it in the human Jesus. Buzzard, who criticizes paraphrased Bibles that emphasize the pre-existence of the personal Son of God,1 offers the following understanding of what John actually wrote:
It must first be noted that there is no justification "in the original Greek" for any capital letters at all. The original Greek manuscripts were written in all capital letters. The first verse of John's Gospel looks something like this in the earliest manuscripts:
One could just as easily say there is no justification for rendering "word" with a lowercase "w." That would also be an interpretation imposed on the text. When a word is used as a name or title, it is conventionally capitalized in English. "The Word" is understood by the vast majority of scholars and virtually every early church father to be a title for the pre-existent Son of God. It is a title that John applies to the Son in Revelation 19:13. The reason the overwhelming majority of Bible scholars and translators over the years have understood this to be so is the abundant evidence elsewhere in John's Gospel that the author understood the Word to have pre-existed His earthly mission (e.g., John 1:3; 1:18; 6:32-33, 38, 46, 62; 8:58; 17:5), as well as other New Testament verses such as 1 Corinthians 10:4; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2; and 1 Peter 1:11 that teach the same thing2 .
While it is true that plans, such as those for the St. Louis Arch, can be personified, this fact does not prove that the Word in John 1 is a personified plan. If the documentary to which Buzzard refers had said that the Arch was with someone before coming to St. Louis, if the Arch was said to come from somewhere else, a place it had been "before," and to which it would soon return, and if the Arch was said to influence people long ago, then it would be reasonable to conclude that it had pre-existed its "life" in St. Louis.
It is also true that the Old Testament and the Targums often personify God's word. But it is fallacious to use this fact as proof that "Word" in John 1:1 is also a personification.3 Scholars generally agree that John was drawing on various Hebrew and Aramaic sources, including the rich tradition of personifying God's attributes, but they understand that he is also expanding upon it and changing it to suit his Christological purpose.4 The literary background provided a framework that allowed John to communicate ideas that were familiar to his audience, otherwise the things he had to say about Jesus - things that went far beyond what any previous writer had written - could easily have been misunderstood:
In his commentary on the Gospel of John, C. H. Dodd sees at least two major statements in John's Prologue in which the author goes beyond what had previously been said of the Word or Wisdom.5 First, the Word was God (1:1) and second, the Word became Flesh (1:14). While both the Word and Wisdom are always depicted in close association with God, we never find anything remotely like, "Wisdom was God" in any previous Jewish literature. Likewise, Wisdom and other personified Divine attributes are depicted as living among people, walking about, talking to them, and even making friends with them (Wisdom of Solomon, 7:27), but this is a far cry from the Word being "incarnated" in the person of Jesus.
The fact that John exceeds the bounds of all prior Wisdom literature eliminates that literature as a restricting or defining factor in what John means by "the Word." As Larry Hurtado points out:
Thus, Buzzard has failed to establish that the use of Logos in Wisdom literature should guide our understanding of this term in John's Prologue.
The Word with God
Buzzard admits that in English, a person is not usually said to be "with" a word. But he again appeals to Wisdom literature to argue that such was typical in the Bible. As with the background of Logos, the fact that there is precedent for God's word or decree being described as "with" Him does not prove that the Word in John 1:1 is an inanimate plan. One need hardly point out that throughout the Bible - including the Wisdom books - a person is said to be "with" another person far more often than with a plan or decree. Buzzard then argues that while he uses the Greek pros of the Logos, "John elsewhere in his Gospel uses para, not pros, to express the proximity of one person to another." While there is some overlap in the meaning of these two words, para when used of persons means "near, beside, at the side of, with" (so BDAG). Pros (when followed by a noun the the accusative case, as it is in John 1:1, 2) means "to, towards, by, at, near" (Ibid.). Some scholars have argued that pros does not merely mean "with" in John 1:1, but signifies intimacy (e.g. RWP) and even movement of the Word "toward" God (e.g., Vincent). There are no less than 119 instances of pros followed by an accusative noun in John's writings in the NT. Granted some of them are idiomatic expressions used with verbs of speech, but we need not leave the first chapter of John's Gospel to find examples in which pros signifies a person near or moving towards another person (e.g., 1:29, 42, 47). Buzzard has seriously misrepresented the evidence.
The Word was God
Buzzard argues that "the Word was God" need not necessarily mean what it seems to say:
In an effort to prove that "the Word was God" is nothing more than metaphor, Buzzard once again relies on limited examples of similar uses elsewhere in the Bible. The problem is that while "is" may function in metaphoric language (as in "all flesh is grass"), it does not usually function that way. As we have discussed, above, prior use does not require present use. Thus, when Buzzard concludes that the "word was fully expressive of God's mind," he is making a non-sequitur.
Buzzard goes on:
The meaning the Translators' Translation senses is not that the Word was a plan in God's heart, but rather that pre-human Son of God had the same nature as His Father. A plan, no matter how grand, does not share the nature of the one formulating it. Translations, like the one Buzzard quotes that render the Greek theos ên ho logos ("the Word was God") as "the Word was divine" or "what God was the Word was" are merely trying to bring out the meaning in English that is clear in the Greek: The Word is God in every sense "the God" of John 1:1b is, but is personally distinct from him.6
Buzzard says of the translation "the Word was God:"
It must first be noted that "The Word was God" is what the Greek actually says, so it is hard to fathom how Buzzard can complain about it. Buzzard says that we must "allow for Hebrew idiom," but in all his examples, not one includes a metaphoric declaration that a plan or decree or word is God, or shares His nature. Yet, this is the very proof that he needs. Simply because other literature may, at times, personify God's word or one of His attributes does not mean that such is the case in John 1:1, where - beyond all prior precedent - the One said to be "with" God is also declared to be God. Buzzard's paraphrase: "and was his own creative self-expression" does not rest on any evidence presented in his paper, but rather on Buzzard's presupposition of Unitarianism.
Same Old, Same Old
Buzzard next launches into a weak attack on the Trinity. He rounds up the usual suspects (i.e., verses commonly used by anti-Trinitarians), but adds nothing to what has been said before. I will not address them here, but will provide links to other pages on this website where each is addressed in some detail. Be sure to read the Other Views Considered sections (if any), particularly those dealing with Jehovah's Witnesses. While the Witnesses believe that the Son pre-existed, they deny the Trinity and base their arguments against it on the same verses Buzzard mentions here.
Buzzard also throws in a few strawmen along the way, the most glaring of which is:
He acknowledges elsewhere that Trinitarians do not believe in two Gods, so he must know that all his arguments proving there is one God will be readily endorsed by Trinitarians. Indeed, the Trinity would be Tri-Theism (belief in three Gods, similar to the Latter Day Saints), were it not for our conviction that the Bible teaches that there is only one God. Again, only if one assumes Unitarianism at the outset can one use the Shema or Isaiah 44:24 as proof that God is one Person.
Early English Translations
Buzzard attempts to justify his position by quoting several early English translations. He points to what he says is the uniform use of "it" in reference to the Word in John's Prologue prior to the late 16th Century:
If what Buzzard says here were true, we should not expect to find many citations of John 1:1 prior to 1582 as a proof of the Son's pre-existence. But the opposite is the case. Quotations from the early church fathers, alone, are sufficient to establish that from the earliest days of the Christian era, the Son's pre-existence as the Logos was widely taught and believed.7 But what of the eight translations to which Buzzard appeals?.8 The use of "it" in these translations has nothing to do with the translators' understanding of the Logos as an impersonal plan or the alleged nefarious influence of the Rheims version. Instead, it has to do with the common usage of "it" in the 16th Century and before. The Oxford English dictionary defines "it" as:
Buzzard is guilty of a semantic anachronism. He assumes "it" was used in the same way in the 16th Century as it is today. The translators were simply following the usage of their day, using "it" as the grammatically correct pronoun with the neuter antecedent noun, "Word."
English in an "inflected" language, a feature it inherited from its Middle English and Old English forbears. Modern English has lost many of its inflections, but prior to the 17th Century or so, it retained its inflected character. In inflected languages, nouns and pronouns exhibit different endings and forms, depending on their case, number, and gender. Gender agreement is an important grammatical characteristic of inflected languages. That is, if a noun is feminine, any pronoun referring to it must also be feminine. But noun gender is often not related to the gender of the noun's referent. Indeed, impersonal nouns are masculine or feminine as often as they are neuter.
Old English grammarian, Ann Curzan, provides the following example:
In Modern English, "shield" is an inanimate object, and the proper pronoun for it is "it." But in Old English, "shield" is feminine, thus the pronoun referring to it is "her." That does not mean that shields were thought to be alive and female; it was a purely grammatical feature of the language. Similarly, "it" was the proper pronoun for grammatically neuter nouns, even when they referred to personal beings ("wife" in Old English is neuter, for example).
Interestingly, the Old English translation of John's Gospel by AElfric actually breaks gender agreement:
In Middle English there was an evolution away from the Old English noun genders and toward natural gender. Thus, "shield" became neuter, and "it" (or "hit") became its proper pronoun. However, Middle English inherited its pronouns directly from Old English. And along with them came gender agreement. Thus, when a noun was normally impersonal, like "word," it was perceived as a neuter noun, and "it" was its proper pronoun - even when the referent was a person.
The first Middle English Bible is that of Wycliffe. His translation was from the Vulgate, and the NT appeared in 1380. Revised versions began appearing in 1385. While some have claimed he used "it" to refer to the Word in this version,9 this may not be the case. It reads:
In Middle English, the third person masculine pronoun was "hym" or "him," and the neuter pronoun was "hit." I have been unable to determine whether hî is an abbreviated form of "him" or "hit," but the English Hexapla of 1841, which includes the 1380 Wycliffe translation, has "hym." In any case, Wycliffe's interspersed gloss on John 1:1 reads, "the word, that is, God's Son," and the 1385 edition has "hym" as well.
The Coverdale Bible of 1535 reads, "all thinges were made by the same," which is a neutral translation that avoids both a grammatical faux pax and calling the Word an "it."
Below is a graphic image of the first page of John's Gospel in the 1560 Geneva Bible.
As you can see, the translator's notes in the margins clearly indicate that they understood "Word" to be a title for the pre-incarnate Son of God.10 The introductory comment to Chapter 1 reads: "The divinity, humanity, and office of Jesus Christ." The marginal notes read:
The English Bibles prior to 1582 that use "it" to refer to the Word are simply following contemporary usage for the third person singular neuter pronoun. As we have seen, some Bibles prior to this date broke the grammatical requirement of gender agreement to use the masculine pronoun. Others included explanatory glosses that make it clear that the translators did not regard the use of "it" even worthy of mention. The eight translations to which Buzzard refers were all made by staunch Trinitarians who understood the use of "it" was purely a grammatical nicety of their day.
What the Scholars Really Said
Buzzard says, "Contemporary scholars are coming to the same conclusion about John’s opening words." This makes it sound as though there is a growing consensus of Unitarian understanding of John 1:1 among modern scholars. This implication is simply wrong. While scholars can be found that argue this view, there are plenty of others that have a very different understanding (e.g., Richard Bauckham, Larry Hurtado, Martin Hengel, N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington III, etc.), and Buzzard stacks the deck when he ignores them.
Scholarly citation is a form of an "argument from authority." Such an argument cannot establish the truth or falsity of a given assertion; it can merely lend credence or cast doubt. Sound arguments from authority will consist of an accurate quotation from the scholar in question, which entails insuring that the context of the authority's statements are consistent with the argument being presented, and that contrary statements in the same passage are not removed with creative use of ellipses ("..."). Further, the scholar must be a recognized authority in a field that pertains directly to the assertion being made.
When Buzzard cites scholars that support the his view, we must first establish that the scholar is, indeed, a recognized expert in the field of Biblical Studies, and that he or she has been quoted accurately. When given careful consideration, many of the scholars used by Buzzard do not actually constitute a sound argument from authority. I'm not suggesting that no scholars may be found in support of his understanding of John 1:1, but these are in the minority and often have an anti-supernatural bias which prejudices their views - indeed, some are so liberal that Buzzard himself would disavow most of what they have written, except the few points in which they agree with him.
Robert J. Miller
The Complete Gospels
Buzzard mistakenly cites him as Ed Miller. The Complete Gospels is the work of the Jesus Seminar. It would not surprising to find a translation conducive to a purely human Son from a group of liberal scholars who, for the most part, argue that Jesus was a largely misunderstood Jewish rabbi or sage, whose earliest followers gave confused and altered accounts of his life, who performed no real miracles, did not rise from the dead, and was not exalted by God, who probably does not Himself exist. Nevertheless, Miller actually supports the traditional understanding of the Word as the pre-Incarnate Son. His use of "divine word and wisdom" is, as he explains, an attempt to render the full meaning of the Greek Logos into colloquial English. But nowhere does he suggest that it does not refer to the Son. Indeed, he says, "the word is identified with the person of the Son of God in verse 14."
The Authentic New Testament
Schonfield, author of "The Passover Plot," advocates a malign version of the "swoon theory" in which Jesus plots his "resurrection" with Judas. Schonfield does not believe the Bible is the word of God, indeed, he denies that God even exists. His presupposition of naturalism is the only foundation for his view that the "Word" is a personification.
Commentary on the Gospel of John
Buzzard seriously misrepresents Barclay by his selective quote:
Anyone who has read Barclay's commentary knows that Barclay understood John to be teaching that the Word was the pre-Incarnate Son of God. Here are some representative quotations from his comments on John 1:1:
Elsewhere, Barclay commends the translation of John 1:1 in Kenneth Wuest's New Testament:
Barclay is certainly not an example of a modern scholar who is "coming to the same conclusion" as Buzzard about the nature of the Word.
The Four Gospels, A New Translation
Buzzard seems unaware that his own paraphrase of Torrey's meaning supports the traditional understanding of John 1:1. He says Torrey, "aims with this rendering to tell us that the word has the quality of God but is not identical with God." Trinitarians do not think the Logos is identical with God; if they did, they would not be Trinitarians, but Modalists. Instead, they recognize that "God" in John 1:1c refers to the nature or qualities of God. This view is explained in detail here. There is nothing in Torrey's translation or comments that suggest he believed the Word to be anything other than the pre-Incarnate Son of God.
Letters of Principal James Denny to W. Robertson Nicoll, 1893 – 1917
The same comments made about Torrey could be made with even greater emphasis about Denny. Buzzard admits Denny is a Trinitarian, but says:
Denny's objection to the traditional translation is that in Biblical Greek, theos ("God") was not a proper noun (i.e., the name of God) but an "appellation" of Deity. This is exactly what Greek scholars mean when they say that "God" in John 1:1c is "qualitative" (signifying the qualities or nature of God). Denny spells this view out in detail in the very quote Buzzard provides:
It is not Trinitarians, but Buzzard who is ignoring evidence and being less that cautious in his approach.
Norman C. Kraus
Jesus Christ Our Lord
Kraus does, indeed, believe that the Son of God did not exist prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But this view is just a part of a complete re-thinking of Christian theology that Kraus undertook as the result of his missionary work in Japan. He no longer considers the Bible inerrant. He believes panentheism the most legitimate understanding of God's relationship to creation. He argues that the atonement should be viewed in light of Japanese culture in which "shame" plays an important role. He justifies this odd view on the basis that the Holy Spirit "inspires" the reading of Scripture and so the Bible becomes a "cross-cultural" book. While some have found various parts of Kraus' re-tooled theology provocative, most theologians have not found it entirely persuasive.
Buzzard's quotation, removed from its context, makes it appear that Hort supports Unitarianism. This implication is highly deceptive, if intentional. Hort is discussing the Greek monogenês theos ("the only Son, God") in verse 18 of John's Prologue. Hort argues for the propriety of that reading (as opposed to monogenês huios, "the only Son") because it admirably suits John's theme in the opening of his Gospel. He notes that monogenês is used elsewhere by John to signify the unique filial relationship the Son enjoys with His Father.
Here is the quote with the context restored (Buzzard's selective quotation is in bold):
There are two points to stress:
Hort expanded on his belief of Christ's eternal Sonship in a piece of personal correspondence:
Far from supporting Buzzard's Unitarianism, Hort's comments actually endorse the classic Trinitarian understanding of John's Prologue. The best that can be said of Buzzard's selective and misleading quotation is that is it a sloppy use of a scholarly source.
Buzzard quotes Bruce as follows: “On the preexistence question, one can at least accept the preexistence of the eternal Word or Wisdom of God, which (who?) became incarnate in Jesus.” This quote comes from personal correspondence between Bruce and Buzzard. Even as Buzzard presents it, it certainly does not provide an unqualified endorsement of Buzzard's view ("who?"), but more importantly, it is impossible to tell in what context Bruce wrote this comment or what further qualifications he may have added. In any event, Bruce makes his position clear numerous times in his commentary on John's Gospel, such as here:
Presenting one out-of-context sentence from personal correspondence as "the considered view" of F.F. Bruce is simply misleading and false.
The Debate About Christ
Cupitt has become a popular source for the so-called "religionless Christianity" of post-modernism. Cupitt seeks to 'rescue' Christianity from hidebound tradition and invigorate it in post-Darwinian modernity. His solution is reject all supernatural aspects of Christianity. He no longer believes in a personal God: "We should give up the old realistic idea of God as an infinite, all-powerful Person-out-there who controls all world-events" (Cupitt, "An Apologia for my Thinking"). He does not believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God: "By the end of the Eighties, however, as I moved into all-out postmodernism, I was claiming the latitude to borrow religious symbols and themes and to reinterpret them in whatever way seemed to be necessary" (Ibid.). He no longer believes that the Bible can be used as a moral compass: "There's no moral truth out there, there are no moral values out there, morality is human" (Interview with Don Cupitt, 1 Dec 2002).
Is is any wonder that someone with such presuppositions would argue that Christ did not exist prior to his birth?
What can be said of Buzzard's claim that "contemporary scholars are coming to the same conclusion about John’s opening words?" While Buzzard has produced some scholars who, indeed, have come to that conclusion (e.g., Colin Brown and G. Vance Smith), the majority of scholars he cites - when examined in context - actually have reached a very different conclusion. Some have abandoned the Bible as their sole rule of faith and their presuppositions preclude them from considering the pre-existence of the Son because they deny any pre-existing entities at all, including God Himself. But most of the quoted Scholars actually understand John's Prologue to describe the pre-Incarnate Son of God, who existed from all eternity in an intimate relationship with His Father.
The Consistent New Testament Testimony
Near the end of his article, Buzzard asks the question: "Is John's unity with or opposed to the rest of the New Testament?" Those looking for a discussion of other New Testament texts that appear to clearly teach the existence of the Son of God prior to His human birth will look in vain. Instead, Buzzard quotes three scholars (Harnack, Loofs, and Brown) who attack Nicene Trinitarianism, but fail to answer Buzzard's question. John 1:1-3 teaches that the Son has always been in an intimate relationship with the Father and that He was an active participant in the creation of all things. This teaching is reinforced by such verses as Colossians 1:16-17 and Hebrews 1:2, 10. The latter is particularly significant in that the Father applies to the Son a Psalm that refers in its original context to YHWH. Paul and the Hebrews author do not use a title for the Son, like "Word," but simply refer to the pre-Incarnate Jesus as "the Lord" or "Son," so Buzzard's primary objection to John 1:1 does not pertain. In John 3:13, Jesus says, "no one has ascended into Heaven, but He who had descended from Heaven, the Son of Man." The claim that He has "come from Heaven" or "come from the Father" are repeated throughout John's Gospel (e.g., 3:31; 6:38; 16:27, 28). Paul and Peter taught that Jesus was active in the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:4; 1 Peter 1:11). Finally, Jesus specifically refers to His glory (John 17:5) and intimacy (John 17:24) with His Father before the world began.
Contra Buzzard, the NT clearly teaches a pre-Incarnate Son, and he has offered no evidence to the contrary.
I have sought to demonstrate the sloppy and unconvincing scholarship of Anthony Buzzard in his paper, "John 1:1 Caveat Lector." His arguments, while initially seeming plausible, actually fall apart under scrutiny. Far from convincing us that his Unitarian interpretation of John 1:1 is correct, his faulty reasoning and outright abuse of scholarly citation demonstrate its numerous weaknesses.
The Unitarianism of Anthony Buzzard stands or falls in the pre-existence of Christ. Buzzard can rail all he wants against the Trinity, like many before him. But his own Christology cannot be proven by disproving the Trinity (if that were possible). If the Bible teaches - as it plainly does - that Jesus existed prior to Bethlehem, that does not necessarily prove the Trinity to be true, but it certainly proves Unitarianism to be false.
One must ask the question: If the Bible denies the pre-existence of Christ, why does Buzzard have to use logically fallacious arguments and misquoted scholars to try to prove it?
1. Buzzard writes:
2. Unitarians, of course, have interpreted these verses in such a way as to deny Christ's pre-existence, but one must weigh these interpretations individually and collectively and ask if they are the most natural way to understand the verses in question. Further, can the Unitarian interpretations be found throughout church history, or did they arise relatively late among certain rationalists who founded the Unitarianism more than 1000 years after Christ.
3. In terms of formal logic, Buzzard commits the Fallacy of Limited Depth. This fallacy may be defined as an argument that does not appeal to an underlying cause, but merely to membership in a class. Buzzard categorizes John's use of logos, but does not prove that John is using it in the same way that his sources did. Further, in this paper at least, Buzzard ignores other evidence that suggests that John and other early Christians believed the Son pre-existed His earthly ministry, which is the Fallacy of Exclusion.
4. "But in my opinion all those personifications of Wisdom have a poetic character that can in no way be equated with the mode of existence of the Logos in John 1" (Ridderbos, p. 34); "One must go further. The wealth of possible backgrounds to the term logos in John's Prologue suggests that the determining factor is not this or that background but the church's experience of Jesus Christ" (Carson, p. 116). These and other scholars note that John's linguistic background, while certainly including Word and Wisdom, also include Prophet motifs and Biblical traditions about the name of God and the Angel of the Lord. Focusing on just one or two of these backgrounds leads Buzzard to draw hasty conclusions. See also Longenecker and Hurtado for general studies on how the NT authors drew upon, and went beyond, Jewish background material in communicating Jesus to their readers.
5. Dodd, C. H. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p. 275.
8. Buzzard does not list the eight translations he has in mind. The most often cited by Unitarians on the Internet are the translations by Wycliffe(1380), Tyndale (1537, 1549), Cranmer (1539), and the Geneva Bible (1557). See, for example, "What about John 1:1?" from the Biblical Unitarian website. To these we may add the Coverdale Bible (1535), Matthew's Bible (1537), the Taverner Bible (1539), and the Bishop's Bible (1568)
10. Bruce Metzger comments on these "noteworthy features" of the Geneva Bible: