Testing the Texts (4):
The 1 John 5:7,8 Controversy
Of all the verses in the Bible there is none which has excited such controversy as that concerning the "three heavenly witnesses" – 1 John 5:7. When did we last hear a sermon based upon the text? Probably never, indicating the general hostility which prevails towards this portion. Are there any grounds for affirming its trustworthiness and acceptance?
Below are the readings of 1 John 5:7,8 in the Authorised (King James) Version (AV) and the New International Version (NIV) (1984 edition):
AV – the portion in bold is generally omitted in modern versions:
7 For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.
8 And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one.
7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
Regarding the missing words a footnote in the NIV mentions them, and then makes this statement: "Late manuscripts of the Vulgate/not found in any Greek manuscript before the sixteenth century."
THIS passage in the AV (reflecting the underlying Greek of the Textus Receptus), of all Holy Scripture, has been subject to the greatest scorn and ridicule by textual critics, and indeed is viewed with some misgiving and doubt by many conservative Christians who in other respects value the AV. It is rare indeed to find someone who will defend its inclusion in the Word of God.
There are several lines of thought worthy of consideration which we mention briefly: these may cause us to look more favourably on this text.
This verse states more explicitly than anywhere else in Scripture a vital and precious doctrine (the Trinity) which is revealed throughout God's Word. Therefore it agrees with the analogy of Scripture and teaches nothing discordant to it. The Westminster Divines, who met in Assembly at the height of the Puritan era, used 1 John 5:7 four times without any apparent hesitation as their major proof text for the doctrine of the Trinity. The places are: Westminster Confession of Faith ch.2, para.3, Larger Catechism Q's 6 & 9: Shorter Catechism Q.6. Under L.C. #6 it is the only Scripture proof given to demonstrate that: "The scriptures make known...the persons in the Godhead."
Many godly men have been more or less willing to affirm the text as authentic. In his Commentary on the Epistle, Calvin, although admitting that the Greek manuscripts are divided, says the following:
"But because the passage reads better with the clause added and as I see that it is found in the best and most approved copies (codicibus), I also readily embrace it."
Matthew Henry in his renowned Commentary on the Whole Bible also notes the manuscript controversy; he then has a lengthy section on rational arguments to support the present text, ending with these words:
"Here is the most excellent abridgment or breviate of the motives to faith in Christ, of the credentials the Saviour brings with him, and of the evidences of our Christianity, that is to be found, I think, in the book of God, upon which single account, even waiving the doctrine of the divine Trinity, the text is worthy of all acceptation."
Others who have made a defence of the verse include John Gill, J.C. Philpot and R.L. Dabney.
We can certainly see why the enemy of souls would wish to denigrate this text, among others. It is the case that but few, modern, extant Greek copies include the disputed words, as Edward Hills pointed out, but they are present in various ancient Latin manuscripts, Scripture versions and the writings of some of the Western Church Fathers. Cyprian of the 3rd century wrote: "...of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit it is written, And these three are one." Waldensian literature referred to it. This historic usage of the text in the Western Church lay behind its final inclusion in the Greek Text of Erasmus, the basis for the great translations of the New Testament which sprang from the Reformation.
It has been pointed out that if the highlighted words are removed from the text, there are certain grammatical difficulties which result in the Greek. The nouns spirit, water and blood in v.8 are in the masculine gender when they are normally neuter; but if verse 7 is present the terms Father and Word which are masculine would influence the structure of v.8 and explain this anomaly.
If we are asked, Was this verse in the originals or "autographs" of the New Testament, then obviously no-one can answer directly because we simply do not possess the original manuscripts to consult them. We may bring forward rational arguments as we have indicated but these do not amount to a "proof." Some speak as though only a "scientific" proof will do: they would only accept this verse as genuine Scripture if a numerical majority of Greek manuscripts was demonstrated to contain the verse. But our confidence in it as the true Word of God does not ultimately rest upon such evidence. Rather it must ever rest upon the truth of the Providential Preservation of Holy Scripture, a truth taught in the Bible itself. We begin with the presupposition that God has preserved His Word – because He said that He would: consider the following verses in the Book of Psalms alone: 12:6,7; 89:1,2; 119:89,160. The promise of God was that He would preserve His Word in His church – Isaiah 59:21. Therefore we believe that the true text of Holy Scripture is that which has been passed down through the generations of God's believing people who have preserved the faith of the gospel. This authentic text may not at every point be found in a majority of surviving manuscripts.
Ultimately this resolves into a matter of faith, not proof by manuscripts. No one individual could possibly study all the historical evidence in order to make up his own mind. The words of Christ to the Pharisees in another context seem fitting here: "And he said unto them, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." (Luke 16:31).
True faith is always generated from the Scriptures, not from evidences. The most stupendous miracle, and the most compelling evidence, presented to the sight of man, will not convince him of the truth. Conversely, a true believer will always cling to God's Word as truth, even when the evidence presented to his outward senses is to the contrary (2 Cor. 5:7): consider Abraham sacrificing Isaac (Heb. 11:17-19).
The logic of faith runs as follows. God has promised to preserve His Word (indeed words) in His church: Christians have possessed and received 1 John 5:7 as genuine to the present day; therefore we too may with confidence believe this text to be the inspired Word of God.
Dabney, R.L., "The Doctrinal Various Readings of the New Testament Greek," Discussions of Robert Lewis Dabney, vol. 1. The Banner of Truth Trust, Carlisle, PA, USA, 1967.
Hills, E.F, The King James Version Defended. The Christian Research Press, DesMoines, IO, USA, 1984, pp.209-213.
"Why 1 John 5 vs. 7-8 is in the Bible," Article No. 102. The Trinitarian Bible Society, Tyndale House, Dorset Road, London, SW19 3NN, England.