Recently, the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) has been of particular interest in the text-critical discussion. I initially address some of the talking points here and Dr. Jeff Riddle here. Typically, advocates of the modern critical text appeal to the lateness of the manuscripts that have the passage to demonstrate why they believe it should be taken out of the text. Occasionally, the argument is made that it is a “Roman Catholic” reading, and should therefore be rejected by Protestants from a theological perspective. In this article, I will demonstrate why this is not a valid argument. It may have certain rhetorical value for those that are unfamiliar with Reformation history, but it is not devastating by any means as it pertains to the Comma Johanneum. Dr. Riddle makes several powerful observations in Word Magazine 149 (linked above) on this point, but I wanted to add several observations that should provide additional clarity.
Reformation history is often challenging, because it is easy as modern Protestants to conflate the Jesuit stream of Catholicism with the whole of the western church leading up to and during the Reformation. What we have to remember, firstly, is that nearly everybody was a “Roman Catholic” leading up to the Protestant Reformation, with the exception of the Hussites and the Lollards and other groups that were driven underground until the 16th century by the inquisition. Secondly, nearly all of the Protestant Reformers were Christian humanists – including Luther, Melanchton, Zwingli, and John Calvin. We have to be more careful when we hear the term “Roman Catholic Humanist,” because nearly all of the Reformers were “Roman Catholic Humanists” until they weren’t. In other words, the term “Roman Catholic Humanist” can be used to describe just about everybody worth mentioning by Protestants during the early 16th century. The humanist Renaissance is an important and necessary component of the Protestant Reformation itself, and to rebrand the term “humanist” into a pejorative based on modern definitions is simply irresponsible.
Throwing the Baby Out With the Bathwater
The tendency of modern Protestants to reject anything and everything “Roman Catholic” from the late medieval period through the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is an unfortunate error. The humanist Reformers were not rejecting every part of the western church’s teaching, just the parts that they considered grave errors that departed from Scripture, such as the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification, the Lord’s Supper, authority of the pope and councils, and so forth. In rejecting the sum total of “Roman Catholic” theologians leading up to and during the Reformation, Protestants can mistakenly hand over some of the greatest theologians in church history, like Thomas Aquinas, to the post-Trent Roman Catholic church. The fact is, and many modern scholars such as Richard Muller have argued, that it is a shame to surrender the sum total of Medieval scholastic theology, because the Reformers didn’t. Again, the Reformers were Reforming what they considered to be grave errors of the Western church, not rejecting all of the theology that developed in the Western church outright.
That said, I want to examine an argument against the Comma Johanneum, and evaluate the claim that a “Roman Catholic” provenance should cause Protestants to reject the extant manuscripts as inauthentic as a result. In the first place, the claim that the Comma Johanneum itself has a “Roman Catholic” provenance is rather disingenuous at the start. Dr. Riddle answers the question of “Do the late manuscripts of 1 John really have Roman Catholic provenance?” in Word Magazine 149, but I want to answer the question, “Even if they do have Roman Catholic provenance, does it matter?” The short answer is, no.
Theologically speaking, the medieval scholastic schoolmen, to this day, provided some of the most clear and concise articulations of Theology proper and the Trinity. In today’s world of social Trinitarianism and other heterodox views of the Trinity, it is actually important that Protestants understand the value that the medieval scholastic theologians provided to the formulation of the doctrine of God. While the schoolmen certainly had their pitfalls, and the humanist reformers were outspoken about these errors, this is one area of Theology that modern Protestants should not simply lump in with “Roman Catholic” Theology. In fact, if modern Protestants completely reject the sum total of medieval scholastic theology, they lose a large piece of their own heritage as Christians. It is important to remember that the Roman Catholic church did not become corrupt overnight, and there were many, many faithful men within the Western church leading up to the Reformation, despite the errors that we all know about. God didn’t abandon His people for 1,000 years, as some seem to indicate. Just like with any beloved theologian of the past, it is a valuable skill to reject what is not Biblical, and benefit from what is Biblical. The fact is, that many of the Western theologians were quite critical of the immorality of Western bishops and Popes, and there were many forerunners to the Reformation who were outspoken against the doctrines we associate with Reformation era Rome.
In other words, it is important to have the discernment to know that 1) not all “Roman Catholics” leading up to and during the Reformation represent the thought of the Jesuits and 2) that many of the theologians casually called “Roman Catholic Humanists” were actually men who contributed greatly to the cause of the Reformation, even if they didn’t make a clean break with the Protestants. Erasmus of Rotterdam is a great example of this. Erasmus was one of the most effective polemicists against the wickedness of the Roman Catholic church during his day. He is famously credited with writing works such as “Julius Excluded From Heaven,” wherein he comically depicts the Pope being denied entrance to heaven. Upon seeing some of the more questionable decisions of Martin Luther, such as his influence on German nobility during the Peasant Revolt, Erasmus thought it better to try to Reform the church from the inside instead of causing chaos in the church. It is valuable to recognize the heterodoxy of Erasmus while also recognizing his contributions to the Reformation as well. Luther actually put a bad taste in the mouths of the Roman Catholic humanists who were trying to reform the church and were actually quite sympathetic to the reformers up to a point. Ultimately, this lead to Erasmus dying in isolation, effectively ostracized. It is easy to simply use the terms “Roman Catholic Humanist” as a rhetorical device, but this does disservice to Reformation history, and the contributions of the men who were simply trying to be faithful, despite their various errors. It is actually inconsistent to admit that the term “humanist” meant something different then as it does now, and also use it as a pejorative to discredit men like Erasmus.
There are four simple takeaways that I want to leave my reader with from this article.
- Nearly everybody we call a Reformer today was Roman Catholic until they weren’t. In fact, pretty much everybody in the Western church was a “Roman Catholic” until the Reformation.
- Even those that did not break clean with the Protestants still had critiques of the Roman Catholic church – not everybody was a Jesuit
- Nearly everybody we call a Reformer today was a Christian humanist
- During the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of the Trinity as articulated by the schoolmen was actually a point of common ground between the Protestant Reformers and the Roman Catholic church
Since the support of the Received Text is a theological appeal, it would make sense that advocates of the Modern Critical Text would attempt to make a theological argument against various readings in it. It is actually the right approach, if you understand the Received Text position at all and wish to cast doubt on the historical Protestant text of Holy Scripture. The fact is, that the Protestant Orthodox remained in agreement with the Roman Catholic church on the point of the Trinity during the Reformation, and the medieval scholastic schoolmen still provide us with valuable contributions to Theology proper and can be benefited from greatly today. In other words, the so called “Roman Catholic” provenance of later manuscripts which contain 1 John 5:7 have no bearing on the textual discussion whatsoever. Especially considering the context of the time they received this reading. They, above anybody in our modern context, would have been especially in tune with sketchy provenance.
I’ll end this article with an appeal to common sense. Theological precepts are not a function of the axioms of the modern critical text. The only function a theological appeal has from a modern critical perspective is polemic, and is not productive if the goal is defending the text of Holy Scripture. It is strange that advocates of the modern critical text have decided to aim this polemic arm at the historical protestant text. It seems rather counterproductive, if the goal is to defend the Scriptures. In the case of the Comma Johanneum, the appeal to Roman Catholic provenance of later manuscripts of 1 John to advocate against the Comma are ultimately disconnected from Reformation history, and the goal of this article is to demonstrate that it is really not a meaningful argument. Again, I highly recommend Dr. Riddle’s Word Magazine 149, where he drives this point home well. Further, an appeal to provenance is rather curious, as nearly all of the preferred manuscripts of the modern critical text are without definitive provenance, and where the provenance of these manuscripts is inspected, the conclusions are that they possibly were produced by non orthodox sources. This is yet another reminder that it is not wise to throw stones in glass houses. See this quotation from Herman Hoskier as cited by Dr. Royse in Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri:
“In the first place we do not believe that the scribe of B [Vaticanus] was a Christian. He seems to have been more or less a Western Unitarian.”Jim Royse. Scribal Habits in Early Greek New Testament Papyri. 3. Bracketed material added.
So if those in the modern critical text camp really wish to appeal to provenance as a meaningful argument against a text, it may be wise to first take a look at the “earliest and best” extant manuscripts rather than a text that was considered orthodox by the Protestant church during the Reformation, whose provenance provides no negative context to the text at hand. This kind of appeal most importantly demonstrates the disconnect between evangelical advocates of the modern critical text and their history, if anything. For those that are discerning whether or not they wish to continue using the modern critical text or move over to the Received Text, this conversation may be enlightening for you. Note that when advocates of the modern critical text attempt to make theological arguments, it is for the purpose of proving a Scripture not authentic. The goal is to cast doubt on a reading which the historical Protestants have defended. Ironically, the arguments employed by modern critical text advocates against the Received Text are of Jesuit provenance. The purpose of which is to persuade Christians to adopt the axioms of modern textual criticism, which do not consider inspiration, preservation, or the Holy Spirit at all. Compare this with the polemics of those in the Received Text, who desire that Christians reject the notion that God has not preserved and delivered His Word. Simply looking at the outlook of each position is a great way to put the conversation in perspective. One side is arguing that Christians adopt the assumption that,
“We do not have now – in our critical Greek texts or any of our translations – exactly what the authors of the New Testament wrote. Even if we did, we would not know it.”(Gurry & Hixson, Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism, xii)
The other side is arguing that God, “In His singular care and providence, has kept His word pure in all ages.” Take a stand on Scripture, Christian, and be blessed knowing that God has not abandoned His church. The fact stands that despite the confidence in modern textual scholars, they simply cannot prove that the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7) entered the manuscript tradition by way of the Latin tradition. There is nothing that prevents us from believing that God inspired this text, and preserved it in both Greek and Latin manuscripts.