The gospel of John is the most significant and often criticized biography of the historical Jesus. It receives vociferous attacks from the unbelieving community as well as revisions and reinterpretations from proponents of Christological heresies. It is the clearest possible testimony to the doctrine of the trinity and the deity of Christ, and so, throughout church history, men have labored to distort its’ true teachings, either by undermining the credibility of the narrative, or by reinterpreting what is written such that the original message is totally lost. The 17th chapter of this gospel is what is known as the High Priestly Prayer, which Jesus prayed to the Father soon before going to his death. Within this prayer we find a crystallization of a high Christology – Jesus unequivocally claims to be God. Yet, at the same time, he makes a stark and undeniable distinction between himself and God the Father. How do these two truths merge? I will analyze the text of John 17 and consider two crucially different interpretations of this passage. Does John 17 teach oneness or trinity?
The classical orthodox position has always been that John 17 is teaching the doctrine of the trinity. The doctrine of the trinity states that there is one God (Deuteronomy 6:4) who is eternally present in three persons: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Son. This means that the eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Logos, became a man (John 1:1, 1:14) and prayed to the Father in John 17. In sharp and utter contrast, the Oneness position maintains a unitarian assumption of one God who appears in three manifestations. They are just different ways that the same person – Jesus – appears to man. Accordingly, Jesus is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, just in different modes or forms. It is usually likened to a man being a father, a son, and an employee. So Jesus is thought by Oneness folks to be the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This means that the Son was the human nature of Jesus praying to his divine nature, the Father. Which of these interpretations align better with the biblical data? Does John 17 teach oneness or trinity? I propound that the classical trinitarian position succeeds as the Oneness position stumbles through this passage.
Jesus is talking to the Father. It is important to consider the nature of a prayer or communication with anybody. If I were to record a narrative wherein one person, John, was talking to another person, Bill, one would instantly gather that I was referring to two distinct people, because that is a prerequisite of communication. That is what we see in John 17. Jesus is speaking to the Father, and this dictates that there is a relationship between the two persons. If Jesus is the Father, then this amount to his just talking to himself, which most of us will find unacceptable. Thus the very concept of Jesus praying insists upon somebody else to whom he is praying.
Oneness Pentecostals are often happy to concede this point. They will suggest as an interpretive move, that the human nature (the Son) was praying to the divine nature (the Father). But consider the implications of this. This raises serious questions about the reality of this prayer and the relationship that is depicted in this gospel. Jesus tells the Father that he wants to honor him (v. 1), that he wants to glorify him (v. 4), that he has the very character of the Father (v. 11), that he has strived to give the Father’s word to the disciples (v. 14), that the Father’s word is truth (v. 17), that he is in deep communion with the Father (v. 22), that the Father has loved him from the foundation of the world (v. 24.) He concludes by saying (v. 25-26), “O righteous Father, although the world has not known You, yet I have known You; and these have known that You sent Me; and I have made Your name known to them, and will make it known, so that the love with which You loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”
Jesus loved the Father, and the Father loved Jesus. There is an inseparable bond, a relationship, a love that (quite literally) defies human comprehension. It is perfect love and perfect unity that cannot be betrayed or bought or matched or leave any participant wanting. When we strive to find a perfect relationship, we are measuring our relationships against the perfected model of love that we see in the glorious unity of the Holy Trinity. The Oneness interpretation annihilates this relationship. While they appear to be words of true love between Jesus and the Father, they form an illusion, signifying nothing and amounting to naught. The relational love between the Father and the Son portrayed in this text is reduced to Jesus putting on a show for us. For there is no relationship if there is only one person. One person cannot have a relationship with himself. That is why this is more than theological nit-picking. The Oneness interpretation makes God into a master of illusions (as Gregory Boyd pointed out in his excellent book Oneness Pentecostals And The Trinity). Does John 17 teach oneness or trinity? The trinitarian interpretation takes the text as face value and permits perfect unity between Jesus and the Father.
“Even as you gave Him authority over all flesh… (v. 2a) And all things that are Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine; and I have been glorified in them” (v. 10). Recall how Oneness theologians conceive of the Son. The Son is just the human nature of Jesus. He is not God, not divine, not eternal. He is the human nature. The Father is the divine nature, but the Son is merely a man. Accordingly, the man Jesus died on the cross, was hungry, and prayed the High Priestly Prayer. God did not pray the High Priestly Prayer. God was the recipient of this prayer. The human nature was praying to the divine nature.
However, anybody reading this passage will note a significant problem for Oneness interpreters, for it is loaded with high Christology. In this passage, the Son is not claiming to be merely a man and is not denying his divinity. He is making claims that only God could make. Some of the remarks that Jesus makes in John 17 would serve as excellent seminal texts for the deity of Christ, for he clearly claims to be God. During his prayer, he says that God has given him authority over all flesh (v. 2) and everything that the Father has is his (v. 10). He says that he shares the very character and essence of the Father (v. 10). These are claims to divinity. I could never say, “Everything that the Father has is mine.” I could never say “I have authority over all flesh.” Only God could say these things. Since God shares his glory with nobody (Isaiah 42:8), we know that God was not just making a provision for this man. God shares his glory with nobody.
God alone is sovereign, and does not hire assistants or side-kicks as the Pagans believe. Yet this is what Oneness interpreters are reduced to saying. For typically, while the Oneness advocate will not say “the Son is God,” they will say, “The Son is God incarnate, God in the flesh, the human image of the invisible God,” and they are correct about that much. The problem is that they still do not think that the Son is truly divine. God transferred his consciousness into human flesh, but he is no longer truly God when in the form of the Son. This demigod is the one who allegedly says that he has authority over all flesh and that everything that the Father has belongs to him. This would, ironically, just be to adhere to classical Paganism and polytheism where God uses non-divine assistants in his ordering of the world. Hence, all roads of Oneness theology lead rapidly to Paganism. Does John 17 teach oneness or trinity? If we accept the scriptural principle that God shares his glory with nobody, and that Paganism is false, then we must deny the Oneness interpretation of John 17. The trinitarian interpretation emerges as the plain reading of the text, where the Son, during a prayer to the Father, claims to be divine.
The Father is the only true God (v. 3). Verse three is one of the bastions of Oneness theology. It is always used by those who deny that Jesus is God, which, while it is a serious affront upon the character of God, it is no more severe of a heresy than Oneness theology. For Oneness theology denies that the Son is God, and they employ verse three to establish this argument. It reads, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” So, it is reasoned, Jesus is clearly denying the doctrine of the trinity. If the Father is the only true God, then this falsifies the doctrine of the trinity, correct?
Well, this seems to commit the logical fallacy known as ‘denying the antecedent.’ One denies the antecedent when they infer the inverse of the original statement. For example: “If I am eating, then I am existing. I am not eating. Therefore, I am not existing.” This is obviously poor reasoning, yet it is the same sort of reasoning that people use when they want to say that the Son denied divinity in verse 3. Their reasoning goes like this. “If I am the Father, then I am the only true God. I am not the Father. Therefore, I am not the only true God.” This is to deny the antecedent. If Jesus had said, “Only the Father is the true God,” then it seems that this would be a valid argument against the trinity. But he says, “the Father is the only true God.” And why would he not say that? As Dr James White pointed out, would you expect God incarnate to be an atheist? But this concept does not introduce unitarianism. It just demonstrates that the Father is the only true God. The Son is the only true God as well, as is the Holy Spirit, for there is only one God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Does John 17 teach oneness or trinity? The most common weapon in the arsenal of Christology heresies seems to be disarmed.
“Now, Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (v. 5). This is perhaps one of the clearest claims to divinity that I have ever seen. It is one of the soundest refutations of unitarianism available in Scripture. For if we recognize that God shares his glory with nobody (Isaiah 42:8), and the Father is sharing his glory with Jesus, it follows necessarily that Jesus is God. Further, and critically, this text says that Jesus shared glory with the Father before the world was. Since Oneness theology maintains that Jesus is, himself, the person of the Father, they could never say that he and the Father shared glory together before the world was. That would cut to the core of Oneness theology. So, how do they get around this problem?
Typical Oneness interpretive methods will posit that the Son exists as a plan or an idea in the mind of God. The Father does everything with the intention that he will become a man – become the Son – and in this way, it can be said that the Son exists before the world was. Accordingly, in John 17:5, when Jesus asked to be glorified in the same way, he is accepting the predestined plan of God. The Father predestined that the Lamb would be slain from the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:20), and now the Son was asking God to achieve that glory. The glory of the crucifixion was a plan in God’s mind, and now that plan was being carried out. That is how Oneness theologians interpret this.
The question is, where do we get that from the text? Where does the text say that the Son was a plan in the mind of God? Jesus never said, “Achieve your plans, Father.” He said, “Glorify me now with the glory that we shared before the world was.” Is the plain reading of this text that God is going to achieve his planned glory of the crucifixion, or that Jesus shared the glory with the Father from eternity? Well, to ask the question is to answer it. The trinitarian interpretation is just the plain understanding of the text. The Oneness interpretation is nothing more than an interpretation. But it is utterly unfounded. It is not derived from the text. It is ad hoc. It is constructed specifically to circumvent the biblical data. It does not ask, “What is Jesus saying?” It asks, “How can what Jesus said here fit into our theological system?” Does John 17 teach oneness or trinity? Just read John 17:5 and answer that question yourself.
“Holy Father, keep [my disciples] in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.” (v. 11) Modern advocates of the Oneness position (though not historical modalists) will heavily emphasize the “name” of Jesus. That is the only proper baptismal formula, and the words “in the name of Jesus” must be recited over the baptismal tank. Similarly, Oneness theologians will often say, “There is one God, and his name is Jesus.” They will often think that they have found refuge in this verse, for Jesus says that the Father has given the Son his own name, and presumably, that name is Jesus Christ. Therefore, they reason, the name of the Father is Jesus, vindicating the Oneness position.
Well, this is extremely simplistic. First of all, if we are going to take the word “name” in this passage to be a proper name, like my name is Richard, that does not mean that the Father’s name would have to be Jesus. Trinitarian theology maintains that the proper name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is YHWH or Jehovah. Accordingly, even if you were to take this simplistic interpretation, the name being spoken of here could simply be Jehovah. Second, a “name” is semitic thought (as well as in contemporary thought, sometimes) is more flexible than merely meaning a proper name. The name of Jesus, for example, is prince of peace, everlasting father, mighty God and wonderful counselor. Isaiah 9:6 specifically says that this is his name. Isaiah 7:14 specifically says that his name will be Immanuel. Yet his proper name was Jesus. This is because a name is often used to indicate character, or essence. It is a reflection of who one is. So Jesus was probably praying for the Father to protect the disciples in his perfect righteousness and love, et cetera, which he has given over to the Son. Accordingly, since the Father and the Son share these attributes, this is a highly trinitarian text.
Further, Jesus goes on to ask the Father to ensure that the disciples will be one – in the same way that he and the Father are one. Of course, there is a difference between the relationships of human beings and the unity of the Godhead, but if the disciples are one just as Jesus and the Father are one, does this not even offer a hint that the Father and the Son might not be the same person?
Does John 17 teach oneness or trinity? The oneness fortresses have been demolished and the trinitarian forces have seized control of the land.
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