KJV: 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.
NIV: 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water and the blood; and the three are in agreement.
ESV: 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.
CSB: 7 For there are three that testify: 8 the Spirit, the water, and the blood—and these three are in agreement.
One of the more common accusations I hear about modern translations is that they omit the Trinity. The facts behind the accusation is that the Greek manuscripts used by modern translations unanimously recognize that 1 John 5:7b–8a was added centuries after John wrote his epistle and so these words are relegated to the footnotes. This passage is called the Comma Johanneum.
If John had written these words, they would be the only explicit reference to the Trinity in the Bible. Thankfully, the doctrine of the Trinity doesn’t depend on this passage! Even though modern translations put these words in the footnotes, there are many passages in our Bible that lay the groundwork for the doctrine of the Trinity. But these words here are not original, and it is better to base doctrine on words that we know were written by the New Testament authors.
Here are seven points that summarize why we don’t consider this verse to be the original text.
- The words occur in only eight late Greek manuscripts: four in the text, and four listed as variant readings. This means every Greek manuscript until the 14th century lacks the words (except for a variant reading in a 10th century manuscript).
- They are not quoted by any of the early Greek Fathers until the fifth century, who would have certainly used them in their defense of the Trinity if the words were authentic.
- The words are absent from all ancient translations (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopic, Arabic, Slavonic) except Latin.
- They are not present in the Old Latin used by Tertullian, Cyprian, or Augustine.
- They are not in Jerome’s Latin Vulgate but were added to the Vulgate in the ninth century.
- The words first appear in a fourth century Latin treatise, Liber apologeticus.
- The Comma Johanneum was not in Erasmus’ first or second edition of his Greek text, what eventually came to be called Textus Receptus.
How did these words get into the Bible? Erasmus states that they were not original, but due to church pressure he added them from a suspected forged Greek manuscript (minuscule 61, Codex Montfortianus.) in his third edition of the Greek New Testament. And this edition was essentially the basis for the KJV.
Bruce Metzger recounts the story behind the forgery. Erasmus did not include the words because he could find no Greek manuscript with the words, but he felt the pressure to insert the Comma Johanneum “in future editions if a single Greek manuscript could be found that contained the passage. At length such a copy was found—or was made to order! As it now appears, the Greek manuscript had probably been written in Oxford about 1520 by a Franciscan friar named Froy (or Roy), who took the disputed words from the Latin Vulgate. Erasmus inserted the passage in his third edition (1522), but in a lengthy footnote that was included in his volume of annotations, he intimated his suspicion that the manuscript had been prepared expressly in order to confute him” (Bruce Metzger and Bart Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament. Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 4th ed [Oxford, 2005] 146–47).
Why even include these words as a footnote? Most modern translations include them out of respect for the tradition of the King James. A lot of angry words have been spilt over this passage in the blogosphere, but I would add that if it is wrong to drop out words from the Bible, it is equally as wrong to add them (Rev 22:18–19).
The Biblical Doctrine of the Trinity
The doctrine of the Trinity is revealed progressively throughout the Bible. There are hints in the Old Testament, such as Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (see also 3:22; 11:7; Isaiah 6:8; all citations are from the NIV). The most obvious passage that sees some sort of plurality in God is the personification of “wisdom” in Proverbs 8:22–31, which at times moves beyond personification to speaking of a separate divine individual, especially vv 30–31.
Even a passage like Genesis 1:1–2, when looked at from the New Testament point of view that understands God the Son actually created all things (Col 1:16), betrays the hints of the Trinity. “In the beginning God [the Son] created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the [Holy] Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.”
There are passages in the New Testament that implicitly teach the doctrine of the Trinity. The Great Commission refers to the singular “name” possessed by all three members of the Trinity. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
2 Corinthians 13:14 includes a Trinitarian formula. “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
1 Corinthians 12:4–6 uses “Spirit,” “Lord,” and “God” in reference to the Holy Spirit, Jesus (“Lord,” God the Son) and God the Father. “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work” (see also Eph 4:4–6; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 20–21).
Ephesians 1:3–14 also tightly ties the working of the Trinity together (also Titus 3:4–6).
Historically, there were three steps in determining the Trinity.
1. God (the Father) is clearly the one and only God. the single entity among the pagan pantheons of gods (Deut 6:4).
2. Jesus is also explicitly taught to be God (John 1:1–4). In John 1:18, “God” and Jesus, “the one and only Son, who is himself God,” are two distinct persons, and yet both are fully God. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” In Titus 2:13, Paul tells Titus that “we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.” The grammar is explicit; “God and Savior” is “Jesus Christ.”
3. Once the divinity of Christ was understood, then adding a third member to the Godhead was logical as he was “another Advocate” (John 14:16). There are many passages that intermix God and the Holy Spirit, such as Acts 5:3–4. “Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? ... You have not lied just to human beings but to God.”
When you look at the whole of the Bible, it appears that God the Father plans and decides, God the Son begins the work, and God the Spirit completes the work. For example, God the Father decided to save us, it was made possible by the work of God the Son on the cross, and is made effective in the life of individual believers by God the Holy Spirit. The word “Trinity” is a Latin term meaning “three-ness.” While there is not an explicit statement of the Trinity in the Bible, it clearly teaches the doctrine of the Trinity, progressively revealed through time.
As a final note, this should not come as a surprise. We are not like God. He is not an Olympian god with the strengths and weaknesses of humanity. He is essentially different, wholly different (except for his image that he created in each of us). It should come as no surprise that we are unable to fully understand him. But he revealed enough of himself so we can love and obey him.