How to Respond to the JWs at Your Door

I found this in the library yesterday. It’s fine piece of work from 1967 by Robert Countess on the use of the Colwell Rule for understanding the text of John 1:1, “and the Word was God…..” As you know the Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the correct translation is “a god.” In so doing, they violate a canon of Greek Grammar. This rule has come to be known as “The Colwell Rule” (1933). It says that: “A definite predicate nominative has the article when it follows the verb; it does not have the article when it precedes the verb.”  In the case of John 1:1, the clause in question says και θεος ην (and was God). The verb “was” (ην) follows the noun “God” (θεος). In short, in Greek usage, we wouldn’t expect a definite article (the) because it’s not necessary. According to rule, we would expect the definite article to occur with a noun following the verb. The reason the definite article is absent is not because John is denying the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father but because the grammar doesn’t need the definite article. Further, as Countess continues, the New World Translation is not (as of 1967) even consistent with it’s own stated principles.

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  1. What are some other passages in which the same grammar is used, but would make no sense to translate it consistent with the JW translation?

    • Echo,

      Without even making reference to the rule you can spot a bunch of places that the Greek text lacks the article but the NWT (rightly) translates it as God (that is, Jehovah). My favorites are right in the immediate context of John 1, check out verses 6, 12, 13, 18 (regardless what textual variant they take – God or Son – it still lacks the definite article). In all of these instances the Greek has no article but the NWT translates it as a definite noun.

  2. I’m not well versed in Greek, but I think you are wrong about the definite article “the” being there. You say it is not there because it is “unnecessary,” but I believe that is incorrect. It is not there because “the God” in this verse appears earlier on and refers to God the Father, while the latter use of “theos” deliberately lacks “the” and is in reference to the Word’s Divinity. The way John has it worded, he was avoiding modalism (making Word=Father) while simultaneously equating the Word with Godhood/Divinity.

  3. Also, I would advise against using this in situations where they come to your door UNLESS you really have studied the issue. It is not “safe” to get into discussions of that nature unless YOU are properly equipped.
    The JWs are trained to take you to the ground when they sense improper arguments come up.

    It’s best to stick with more solid arguments against the JWs, such as the fact they officially believed Jesus is Michael the Archangel and especially that Jesus didn’t physically rise from the dead.

    That said, it’s not good to “take them on” at all unless you have invested significant time studying their major errors, how they answer objections, and how to respond to them. When they come to the door, it is not time to be a ‘hero’, because if you are not prepared they can embarrass you as well as make you look bad infront of your family (who then might give them credibility).

    • Nick,

      This is probably good advice. My point here is to let people know that the NWT is premised on a misunderstanding and misapplication of Greek grammar.

      If you read the complete article you’ll that, even before the advent of computer-aided text analysis, Countess was able to document a number of places where the NWT is inconsistent with its own stated principles and where it violates basic grammar. When Countess wrote this piece the Colwell Rule was only about 34 years old. It’s more than twice that age now!

  4. Well, I’ve been blacklisted at my current address — but hey, I’ll be moving at the end of August and I get to try again. I’ll try to keep this in mind.

  5. With all due respect, Colwell’s rule is misapplied in this case. It has been incorrectly applied so often (even by Colwell!) that everyone keeps repeating the mistake. Colwell’s research methodology was poor. And the rule he arrived at is not as useful as was once thought (not only in this passage, but in general). In the case of John 1:1, theos is neither definite nor indefinite, but qualitative.

    Please consider reading Dr. Dan Wallace’s “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics” in which he lays out the finer points. I don’t have it in front of me, so I can’t give you a page number, but there’s a verse index that will take you right to the discussion. I’ll try to double back and leave a page number for those interested.

    • Matt,

      I have Wallace to hand. On pp. 5-6 he says, “One of the most well-known rules of NT grammar articulated in this century encompassed just such an approach [i.e. beginning with semantics and involving what Wallace calls “the prescriptive fallacy”]. What became known as ‘Colwell’s rule’ was first published in 1933…. The rule is valid as far as it goes, thought it is relatively worthless for syntactical purposes since it presupposes a certain semantic force for the predicate nominatives in question.” Wallace notes that Colwell’s legacy was in the textual criticism rather than in grammar.

      On pp. 256-270 he discusses the rule at length. Obviously I can’t reproduce it all here, but Wallace complains that conservative scholars (p. 257) misunderstood Colwell’s rule. He even says that the abuse of Colwell’s rule has led scholars to jump out of the Arian frying pan into the Sabellian fire (!; p. 258). He cites the work of P. B. Harner showing that 80% of Cowell’s constructions involved “qualitative” rather than “definite” nouns (259).

      Colwell said that a predicate nominative that precedes the verb usually anarthrous (without the definite article) but it’s not necessarily the case that an anthrthrough PN that precedes the verb is usually definite.

      On this clause in John 1:1, Wallace says that the PN (θεος) is anarthrous and comes before the verb and therefore “fits Colwell’s construction, thought it might not fit the rule” (266).

      Ironically, he goes on to refute the NWT by quoting a later version of the very material linked above (! — the article became a book in 1982 – The Jehovah’s Witnesses NT: A Critical Analysis of the NWT of the Christian Greek Scriptures Philipsburg: P&R, 1982) noting that Countess pointed our the inconsistency of the NTW, that there are 282 occurrences of the anarthrous θεος. The NWT was consistent with it’s own approach in only 16 of the 282 places or 6% of the time. Countess continues by arguing that John 1:1-18 “furnishes a lucid example of NWT arbitrary dogmatism.” Of the 8 occurrences of θεος six times the NWT translates it “God,” once “a god,” and twice “the god.”

      Wallace notes that if anarthrous = indefinite then αρχη should be “in a beginning” rather than “in the beginning.”

      According to Dixon, if θεος were indefinite in Jn 1:1 “it would be the only anarthrous pre-verbal [= before the verb] PN in John’s Gospel to be so.” Wallace is more restrained. He says that “…contextually and grammatically, it is highly improbable that the Logos could be ‘a god’ according to John.” The short story seems to be that, for Wallace, this is as much a case of bad exegesis as it is grammar.

      He says that εν αρχη…θεος ην is parallel to σαρξ εγενετο and that both emphasize the quality or the nature of the Word. Among the possible translations: “What God was, the Word was” (NEB). “The construction the evangelist chose was the most concise was he could have stated that the Word was God and yet distinct from the Father. In a footnote he says that he prefers the translation, “And the Word was God.”

      Interestingly, CFD Moule, Idiom Book agrees with Wallace’s claim about Sabellianism. “It would be pure Sabellianism to says “the Word was ho θεος” (p. 116).

      Thanks for this. It was good for me to look into this a little more deeply.

      • Providentially, I was just looking into this matter yesterday. I came across a very helpful essay by James Dennison from Kerux on the text: “Symmetries of Equivalence: Logos and Theos in John 1:1-2.”

        He also appears to agree with Wallace’s claim about Sabellianism.

        Please confirm if I am understanding Wallace’s point and Dennison’s adoption of it correctly:
        *Colwell’s rule rules out the JW’s insistence that the anarthrous theos in John 1 must be translated with an indefinite article. However, Colwell’s rule does not prove that it must be translated with a definite article. The issue must therefore be settled by “theology, syntax, grammatical context, etc.” which clearly demonstrates that a definite article is appropriate.

        • Hi Bryan and all,

          Back home with my grammars. Just recording my research (such as it is) for the sake of completeness:

          1. My copy of Blass, Debrunner, and Funk (Chicago, 1961) doesn’t deal with this at all.

          2. J H Mouton, vols 1-2, don’t address it (but they were publ. c. 1920 so 13 years before Colwell’s essay).

          3. N. Turner, Grammatical Insights… (Edinburgh, 1965), 16-17 says, “Dr Moffatt, in a version [of the NT] which is now more generally recognized as a brilliant paraphrase than as skillful translation, set a fashion in this kind of thing when he changed St John’s proclamation that “the Word was God” into an ambiguous assertion that “the Logos was divine” (John 11). The implication is that even human persons may be called divine, in a sense. Dr Moffatt considered that he had Greek grammar on his side. The word for God, theos, does not have the definite article; therefore theos is not a noun but a kind of adjective; thereofre it must be translated “divine” and not “God.” The fallacy of this has long bee exposed since Dr. Moffatt’s time, but he has never lacked a followeing. The one he would doubtless be most anxious to disown is the utterly unsuitable translation of a German ex-Roman priest, “the Word was a god.” [he refers to a 1937 translation of the NT by Johannes Greber] Understandably, unitarians find difficult the apparent contradiction that in the first verse of the gospel “God” appears to mean the Father, while it is predicated of the Word in the same verse. Christians may be illogical, but they find no difficulty in thinking that this verse refers to God the Son.”

          “The claim of unitarians to be logical should of course be respected, but the grammarian will resist their attempts to impress grammatical principles in the service of their cause in a way which is not legitimate. The fact that theos has no article does not transofrom the word into an adjective. It is a predicate noun, of which the subject Logos, and it is a fairly universal rule in NT Greek that when a predicate noun precedes a verb it lacks the definite article; grammatical considerations therefore requires that ‘there need be no doctrinal significance in the dropping of the article, for it is simply a matter of word order.’ [quoting Moulton-Howard-Turner, 3.183]

          Once again dilution of the high Christology of a NT author is seen to be based on a fallacious appeal to unfounded grammatical principles.”

          4. Zerwick (Rome, 1963, p. 55) “Hence it is sometimes stated as a “rule” that the “article is not used with the predicate.” In fact, predicates commonly lack the article, but this is not in virtue of any “rule” about predicates in particular, but in virtue of the universal rule; for in the nature of things, the predicate commonly refers not to an individual or individuals as such but to the class to whcih the subject belongs, to the nature of quality predicated of the subject; e.g. Jo 1,1 και θεος ην ο λογος, which attributes to the Word the divine nature (ο θεος ην ο λογος, at least in NT usages, would signify the personal identity of the Word with the Father, since the latter is ο θεος).”

          As to Sabellianism, I think Zerwick gets it right. The Sabellians argued that The only differentiation in the deity is a succession of modes of being. John’s point is precisely opposite. John’s point is that the Logos is consubstantial with theos but personally distinct from him. I agree with Wallace that in avoiding the unitarian/arian/JW error we don’t want to fall into Sabellianism.

  6. When Jehovah’s Witnesses stop at your door, you say:”Yes, I would like a Bible study because I want to serve God and you people are doing it the best.”

    John 1:1 is the most irrelevant scripture. Since it is controversial, how can doctrine be derived from it?

    Go to that which is not controversial.

    John 3:16 says that God gave his only begotten son. It does not say that he gave himself.

    • Steve,

      Attempting to lead people to hell is not what I would call “doing it best.” Twisting the Word of God and denying the explicit teaching of God’s Word, that Jesus is God the Son incarnate and that, as such, he is co-essential with and personally distinct from God the Father.

      Christians, who actually believe God’s Word, should not back down from the clear teaching of God’s Word. What does it mean to say that “For God so loved the world” or “only-begotten Son” if we don’t know what “only-begotten” means? We have to understand “only-begotten” in the light of John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The very co-essential, second Person of the Holy Trinity, became incarnate and dwelt among us and we beheld his glory.

      Disputed? Yes, but it’s the truth of God and it needs to be announced to those who are wolves going about seeking whom they may devour.

      • We don’t lead anyone to hell. People are born on that path since they are born as sinners.

        JWs do not twist the word of God. We have a good understanding of it.

        We teach that Jesus is the son of God incarnate. But he is not God and we agree that he is distinct from the father. Sounds like you don’t know what you are writing about.

        The Word was not God. Theos en ho Logos. The Word was divine or godlike, a spirit being in heaven like God, but not Jehovah God.

        There is no second person of a holy trinity. So it was the son of Jehovah God, the first of his creation that became man and dwelt among us. That is the truth. And that is what saves.

        • According to the Apostle John, anyone who denies that Jesus is God the Son incarnate is anti-Christ. You deny God the Son, Repent because the wrath of God abides on all who do not flee to Jesus, God the Son, the eternally begotten Son of God.

          It’s not too late for you. The law of God demands perfect righteousness and neither you nor I nor anyone else but Jesus has ever performed that perfect righteousness. Recognize your sins, your idolatry (unitarianism is idolatry), recognize your wickedness in body and soul and trust in God the Son, consubstantial with the Father and the Spirit, as the only Savior. Trust in him and in his righteousness by grace (unearned favor) alone, through faith (resting and receiving) alone and you will be saved.

          If you continue to trust in your own righteousness, in your doing, in your going door-to-door, if you continue to lie about Jesus, you shall face the wrath of the lamb and you shall be consumed by his holy justice. But as long as it’s called today, it’s not too late.

          • “According to the Apostle John, anyone who denies that Jesus is God the Son incarnate is anti-Christ.”

            Where does he say that?

            (1 John 2:22) . . .Who is the liar if it is not the one that denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one that denies the Father and the Son. . .

            Is that the one? JWs do not deny that Jesus is the Christ, we affirm that he is. Since the Christ means anointed and Jehovah is the one doing the anointing, that means he is the son of Jehovah God. We do not deny the father and the son but affirm that Jehovah is the father and Jesus is the son.

            “You deny God the Son” Yes, because that is not scriptural. You have added to the Bible.

            (Revelation 22:18) . . .If anyone makes an addition to these things, God will add to him the plagues . . .

            So your God the son brings plagues.

            • Steve,

              You are anti-Christ. Repent.

              1John 2:18 Children, it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. 1John 2:22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. 1John 4:3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 2John 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

  7. The funny thing with JWs is they seem to think that the full divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity rests on single proof texts such as John 1:1. What is neglected is the overwhelming testimony of Scripture, ascribing to Christ the names (John 1:1; 8:58; Titus 2:13; Phil 2:11 cf. Isa 49:6), attributes (cf. Heb 1:11-12; 13:8), work (such as creation – John 1:3; 1Cor 8:6; providence – Heb 1:3; Col 1:15-17; forgiveness: Mark 2:1-12; judgment – John 5:22-27), and worship (Luke 24:51-52; Rev 5:12, 14) as proper to God alone.

    It’s hard to miss that Jesus is claiming that he himself is Jehovah (from the Hebrew YHWH; cf. Ex 3:14f), all the times he breaks basic grammar to say “I AM” (eg. John 8:58).

    Yeah, God the Son brings plagues if the Father does. Every action of the Trinity begins with the Father, proceeds through the Son and is completed in the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself says he brings judgment and the sword doesn’t he? So with that kind of violence, what’s the hang up on plagues?

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