Share on facebook
Share on twitter

Bart Ehrman and the Trinity Pt. 1

Bart D. Ehrman is in my estimation one of the leading and most influential scholars of the Greek New Testament living today. Even though he is an agnostic/atheist who does not believe in the truth of the Christian faith, I have personally benefited from his writings, lectures and debates. More importantly, despite his rejection of the Christian religion (or any religion for that matter), Ehrman has made claims that actually confirm the historical veracity and cherished beliefs of Christianity, some of which I will be highlighting here in my review of certain points he has raised concerning the doctrine of the Trinity.

In a comment made in one of his lectures, which Muslims have zeroed in on, Ehrman argues that the only passage that expressly mentions the Trinity turns out to be a spurious interpolation within the manuscript tradition:

“The doctrine of the Trinity is not explicitly taught in any passage of the Bible. In other words… the doctrine that there is one God manifested in three Persons; that these three Persons are each individually and completely God, but there’s only one God. Not three gods but one God, but not one Person three Persons, so the Three in One. This is not taught in any passage of the Bible except first John chapter 5 verses 7 and 8, which the author says, ‘there are three witnesses in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these Three are One.’ That’s a pretty explicit statement about the Trinity.” (“Adding Trinity to the Bible”

Ehrman makes essentially the same point in one of his writings:

“There was one key passage of scripture that Erasmus’s source manuscripts did not contain, however. This is the account i John 5:7-8, which scholars have called the Johannine Comma, found in the manuscripts of the Latin Vulgate but not in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts, a passage that had long been a favorite among Christian theologians since it is the only passage in the entire Bible that explicitly delineates the doctrine of the Trinity, that there are three persons in the godhead, but that the three all constitute just one God. In the Vulgate, the passage reads:

There are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Spirit, and these three are one; and there are three that bear witness on earth, the Spirit, the water, and the blood, and these three are one.

“It is a mysterious passage, but unequivocal in its support of the traditional teachings of the church on the ‘triune God who is one.’ Without this verse, the doctrine of the Trinity must be inferred from a range of passages combined to show that Christ is God, as is the Spirit and the Father, and that there is, nonetheless, only one God. This passage, in contrast, states the doctrine directly and succinctly.” (Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why [HarperSanFrancisco, 2005], pp. 80-81)

According to Ehrman, 1 John 5:7 is a textual corruption, which was added later, and therefore not a part of what John originally wrote.

I will not be challenging Ehrman’s position that 1 John 5:7 is an interpolation, which does not belong to the inspired text of Scripture. My aim in this post is to show how Ehrman’s argument provides little solace for the Muslims who often misuse Ehrman to support their anti-Christian jihad. As I am going to demonstrate, Ehrman’s argument ends up proving that the Biblical writings do in fact confirm the doctrine of the Trinity, and specifically the essential Deity of the Lord Jesus.

Here is the verse in question:

“There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one (kai hotoui hoi treis hen eisin).” 1 John 5:7

Ehrman’s entire argument seems to hinge on the fact that 1 John 5:7 expressly says that the three divine Persons of the Godhead are said to be one (hen). I presume that Ehrman takes the oneness that is highlighted here as an oneness or unity of essence. Ehrman believes that John is basically affirming that the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit are one in essence, e.g., that the three are essentially one.

This immediately raises two specific issues. First, it is not at all certain that the unity that the Evangelist is highlighting in this text is in respect to the common essence that the three divine Persons share. The context is addressing the witness that God has given in respect to his Son bringing life all who would believe in his name:

“This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: The Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree. If we receive human testimonythe testimony of God is greater; for this is the testimony of God that he has testified to his Son. Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son. And this is the testimony: God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.” 1 John 5:6-13

As such, the oneness here seems to be in relation to the unified witness of the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit in their agreement and confession of the Person and work of the Son.

The great Christian reformer and theologian, John Calvin, made the same point in his exposition of the Holy Scriptures:

7.There are three than bear record in heaven The whole of this verse has been by some omitted. Jerome thinks that this has happened through design rather than through mistake, and that indeed only on the part of the Latins. But as even the Greek copies do not agree, I dare not assert any thing on the subject. 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(94) And the meaning would be, that God, in order to confirm most abundantly our faith in Christ, testifies in three ways that we ought to acquiesce in him. For as our faith acknowledges three persons in the one divine essence, so it is called in so really ways to Christ that it may rest on him.

When he says, These three are one, he refers NOT TO ESSENCE, but on the contrary to consent; as though he had said that the Father and his eternal Word and Spirit harmoniously testify the same thing respecting Christ. Hence some copies have εἰς ἓν, for one.” But though you read ἓν εἰσιν, as in other copies, yet there is no doubt but that the Father, the Word and the Spirit are said to be one, in the same sense in which afterwards the blood and the water and the Spirit are said to agree in one. (Calvin’s Commentaries; capital and underline emphasis ours)

Now one can argue that the consensual witness of the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit is due to their essential unity. I.e., the reason why the Father, the Word and the Holy Spirit are perfectly united in their confession is because they are perfectly united in their respective essence.

However, even though this would be a true statement, since the inspired Scriptures emphatically proclaim that the divine Members of the Godhead can never act independently from the others, or be in conflict with one another, but are always working in perfect, inseparable unity,

“Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God. Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but ONLY what he sees the Father doing; for WHATEVER the Father does, the Son does LIKEWISE. The Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing; and he will show him greater works than these, so that you will be astonished. Indeed, just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes. The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son, so that all may honor the Son JUST AS they honor the Father. Anyone who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life. Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself; and he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his [the Son’s] voice and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation. I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me.’” John 5:16-30(1)

“‘for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.’ Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.’” John 6:38-44(1)

“So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’” John 8:28-29

“I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge, for I have not spoken on my own, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment about what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I speak, therefore, I speak just as the Father has told me.’” John 12:47-50

“I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no power over me; but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us be on our way.” John 14:30-31

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” John 16:12-13

The fact still remains that the primary emphasis of 1 John 5:7 is not on the essential unity of the Godhead, but on their unified testimony to Jesus’ being the divine, unique Son of God who has come to give life to all who will put their trust in him.

I have more to say in the next segment of my discussion


(1) Astonishingly, the glorious Lord makes claims that no mere God-fearing creature could ever make, especially if s/he was/is a Muslim. No mere human can ever say s/he can only do whatever God does, since finite creatures are incapable of doing everything that God does, and often do things that God would never do, such as sinning.

In fact, Jesus claims to perform the very functions, which the Quran itself ascribes to God alone. For instance, the Islamic text describes Allah as the truth that gives life to the dead and who raises them from out of their graves at the impending hour:

That is because God — He is the Truth, and brings the dead to life, and is powerful over everything, and because the Hour is coming, no doubt of it, and God shall raise up whosoever is within the tombs. S. 22:6-7 Arberry

And yet Jesus states that he is the One who raises the dead from their graves at the last day/hour by the sovereign power of his all-glorious voice!

The Lord further claims to be the Truth and the Life,

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’” John 14:6

Characteristics that even the Quran agrees belong to true deity, as we just saw.

Jesus’ words confirm that the reason why the three divine Persons of the Godhead are incapable of acting independently from one another is because they are inseparably one in their respective essence. This in turn shows that their unified witness concerning the Son is grounded in their essential unity.

Related articles