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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Trinity: One God in Three Persons

Don Stewart :: Does 1 John 5:7 Teach the Doctrine of the Trinity?

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Does 1 John 5:7 Teach the Doctrine of the Trinity?

The Trinity: One God in Three Persons – Question 16

There is a passage in the New Testament that seems to be an extraordinarily clear statement about the doctrine of the Trinity, 1 John 5:7. To many, the question as to the existence of the Trinity is settled by this verse.

What Does 1 John 5:7 Say?

First John 5:7 reads as follows in the King James Version:

For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.

The way this verse reads in the King James Version is a clear description of the Trinity. Indeed, it says that there are three that bear witness or bear record in heaven. These three are the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. In addition, it says that these three are one. Why then, is there any controversy about this issue of the doctrine of the Trinity? These words could not be clearer!

The Problem Stated

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. Indeed, there has been a question about the authenticity of this passage. We will give a brief history of the problem as well as make some observations.

The New Testament Documents Were Originally Written in Greek

To begin with, we must note that the books of the New Testament were originally written in Greek. When they were first composed each of them were written upon perishable material. Immediately, copies were made of these original writings (called the autographs). These hand-written copies of the Greek autographs, called manuscripts, were then copied and recopied.

By the middle of the second century A.D., the books of the New Testament began to be translated and then copied into languages other than Greek. This hand-copying of the text in Greek, as well as in these other languages, continued until the invention of the printing press (about 1450). Furthermore, even some time after the printing press was invented the text was still copied by hand. In fact, it was not until the sixteenth century (1516) that a Greek New Testament was printed and published. Earlier printed versions of the New Testament were in Latin. Thus, the copying to the text of the New Testament covered some fifteen centuries.

How the Verses Became Part of the Printed Greek Text and King James Bible

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, a man named Erasmus was the first to publish a printed Greek text of the New Testament. In putting together the text for this edition, Erasmus consulted all of the Greek manuscripts which he could find. In the Greek manuscripts of First John which Erasmus examined, these words about the Trinity were not found. Consequently, his first printed edition of his Greek New Testament, issued in 1516, did not contain these words.

This omission caused a real problem among the people of that day since these words were found in the Latin text with which they were familiar. Erasmus defended himself by saying that these words were absent from the Greek texts which he had consulted and thus should not be placed into the text of the New Testament.

When Erasmus issued a second printed edition of his Greek New Testament it too was without these words in First John 5:7. However, before his third edition of the Greek New Testament was issued in 1521 a Greek manuscript was found which did contain this disputed passage. The problem was that this particular manuscript was actually composed around 1520! Yet, to quell the uproar caused by the omission of these words, Erasmus placed them in the third edition of his Greek New Testament. This reading remained in all future editions of Erasmus’ printed text.

This printed Greek text of Erasmus was basically the same text used by the translators of the King James Bible in 1611. It appears that the Greek text which the translators of the King James Version most relied upon was the 5th edition of the printed text of Theodore Beza. This was issued in 1598. This text is similar, but not exactly the same as that of Erasmus.

Since these disputed words appeared in the later editions of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, as well as other printed Greek texts immediately after his time, including Beza’s, they were used as the basis for the English translation in First John. Thus, we find these words in 1 John 5:7 which describe the various members of the Trinity as well as testifying that they are “one.” In brief, this explains how the words became part of the English Bible.

However, this is not the end of the story. When an authorized revision was made of the King James Version in 1880 these words in First John were omitted. Almost all English translations since that time do not have these words as part of the text. The reasons can be stated as follows:

Why This Passage Is Rejected

There are a number of reasons as to why this passage is rejected as being part of Holy Scripture. We can simply state them as follows:

1. The Passage Is Found in Only a Few Late Greek Manuscripts

Since the New Testament was originally written in Greek, the Greek manuscripts are our primary means of reconstructing the original text. The main reason for doubting these words were originally composed by John is the fact that they are only found in a few Greek manuscripts. Furthermore, as we examine these few manuscripts which do contain this passage we find that there are serious questions as to its authenticity.

Indeed, of the over three hundred Greek manuscripts which contain First John we find that only nine of them have this verse listed. Yet, of the nine, four of them have the verse in the margin while only five have it in the actual text.

There is more. These five manuscripts which do have this verse in the text are very late. None of the early manuscripts of First John contain it. Indeed, the first Greek manuscript that contains this verse in the actual text of First John comes from the fourteen century.

In addition, the way text reads in this particular manuscript is different from the Greek text which was used in translating the King James Version. In fact, the earliest Greek manuscript which reads exactly as the text which was used to translate this verse in the King James Bible is from the sixteenth century!

Furthermore, these few Greek manuscripts which contain the reading in the text are not actually copies of the Greek text but rather translations of the Latin text into Greek. Therefore, they are not independent witnesses to the original Greek text.

In other words, the manuscript evidence for the inclusion of this verse is just not there. This is the main reason as to why these words are not placed in the text of First John.

2. This Passage Is Missing from All Ancient Versions

There are more problems with this passage. Indeed, the words in question are missing from all of the ancient translations, or versions, of the New Testament. This includes the following languages: Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, and Slavonic. The only exception to this is Latin. While the words in dispute are found in certain Latin manuscripts they are not found in the oldest ones. This is important to realize. The words did begin to become part of the Latin text of First John until about the fifth century. Even so, the wording of the passage was different than what became the basis for the King James Version.

3. The Passage Was Never Cited in the Trinitarian Debates

There is something else which must be appreciated. If this verse was actually part of First John, it is inconceivable that it would not have been used in the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century. However, it is never cited, by either side, as reference to the Trinity.

It is missing from the writings of Christians such as Irenaeus (died about A.D. 200), Clement (died about A.D. 210), Tertullian (who died around A.D. 220) and Athanasius (who died in A.D. 373). If this verse were found in the text of First John it would have been the primary verse used in these debates but it was never cited!

Observations and Conclusions

After looking at the facts surrounding the inclusion of these disputed words in First John we can make the following observations:

1. This Verse Does Not Belong in Scripture

Although this verse clearly does teach the doctrine of the Trinity, as we have seen, there is serious question as to whether it belongs in Holy Scripture. Indeed, the evidence for its inclusion in the New Testament is almost nil. In fact, almost every modern translation of Scripture, with good reason, rejects its authority. We should make the same conclusion.

2. Rejection of This Passage Is Not a Rejection of the Trinity

Contrary to what some have written and said, the rejection of this verse has nothing to do with any conspiracy to keep the Deity of Christ, or the Trinity, out of the Bible. The reason for its rejection is the lack of evidence for its inclusion; it is not some sinister plot to remove parts of God’s Word. Indeed, an objective look at the evidence would lead one to conclude that these words were not part of the original text of First John.

3. It Should Not Be Used to Argue for the Trinity

Consequently, this verse should not be used in discussion about the Trinity. As we have repeatedly emphasized, there is sufficient evidence in the Scripture to support the doctrine of the Trinity without appealing to these words in 1 John 5:7. The Trinity doctrine does not depend upon this verse. It never has. This must be understood.

How Did This Verse Get into Certain Printed Texts?

There is one final question. If these words were not original with John then how did they become included in certain Latin manuscripts of First John? What led to their inclusion? While nobody knows for certain the best answer seems to be that they were placed as a marginal note in some early Latin manuscripts. Later, certain Latin copyists then placed them into the text of First John. Eventually, in the sixteenth century, they came to be viewed as part of the original text by some in the church. Yet, as we have seen, there is no real evidence that these were the words John originally composed.

Whatever the case may be, the evidence for their placement as part of First John is sadly lacking. Trinitarians should not cite this verse to support their case. Indeed, the evidence for the doctrine of the Trinity is overwhelming without quoting this passage.

Summary – Question 16
Does 1 John 5:7 Teach the Doctrine of the Trinity?

First John 5:7 as it reads in the King James Version says that there are three which bear witness, or record, in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. It also says that these three are one. This is a clear statement of the Trinity. To many people, this verse should end the debate about this doctrine. The Bible has spoken!

However, there is a problem. Although 1 John 5:7, as it reads in the King James Version, is a clear Trinitarian statement, there does not seem to be much chance that it is original with First John. There are a number of reasons for this. Briefly, they are as follows.

For one thing, these words are missing from all of the ancient manuscripts of First John. The manuscripts of First John which have this particular verse are few and they are very late. Indeed, the earliest is from the fourteen century. Even this manuscript does not read the same as the text that we find in the King James Version. The earliest manuscript that reads exactly the same as we find it in the King James Bible comes from the sixteenth century. In other words, there is no real evidence that these words were part of the text of First John.

In addition, only nine Greek manuscripts of First John contain this verse. Furthermore, only five of them have it in the text while the other four have it written in the margin. Because of the lack of evidence for its inclusion, almost all textual scholars reject it as being original with John. Thus, the external evidence is just not there.

These words are also lacking in all of the ancient translations of the New Testament. The only exception to this is Latin. However, the oldest Latin manuscripts do not contain this passage. In the manuscripts which do have them we find that the wording is different.

Add to this, there is no evidence of this verse in the writings of early Christians who commented on this book of Scripture. Neither do we find it cited in any of the Trinitarian debates of the fourth century. If it existed at this time it is inconceivable as to why it was not cited in the debates. Indeed, it would seem to settle the issue.

Thus, this particular verse should not be used as support for the biblical doctrine of the Trinity. However, we must emphasize that the doctrine of the Trinity does not stand or fall on this verse alone. Indeed, there is sufficient evidence in Scripture for the Trinity doctrine without appealing to 1 John 5:7. Therefore, it is best to ignore this verse in discussions about this subject.

Does the New Testament Mention the Three Distinct Members of the Trinity Together? ← Prior Section
How Do the Different Members of the Trinity Work with Each Other? Next Section →
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