Chrysostom’s Remarkable Explanation of Christological Monotheism in John 17:3

For the first day of class in my John course, I will be doing a short devotional on John17:3 where the Johannine Jesus explains “eternal life” as knowledge of “the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (NRSV).

I have always wondered how to understand the affirmation of “one true God” and the addition of “Jesus Christ.” Which one is it, John? Make up your mind! One might get the impression that there is some confusion on John’s part here about how to “fit” Jesus into Jewish monotheism.

Today I came across Chrysostom’s intriguing solution (though I get the impression he would not want to die on the hill of this interpretive viewpoint).

Here is the Greek text of John 17:3 (NA27): αὕτη δέ ἐστιν ἡ αἰώνιος ζωὴ ἵνα γινώσκωσιν σὲ τὸν μόνον ἀληθινὸν θεὸν καὶ ὃν ἀπέστειλας Ἰησοῦν Χριστόν.

Chrysostom says, wait a minute, let’s not jump to the conclusion that John is leaving Jesus out of the “μόνον”. What if Jesus is INCLUDED in the μόνον? For support, Chrysostom turns to 1 Corinthians 9:6: “Is it only I and Barnabas who have to work to support ourselves?”: ἢ μόνος ἐγὼ καὶ Βαρναβᾶς οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν μὴ ἐργάζεσθαι;

Here is Chrysostom’s reasoning: in 1 Cor 9:6, the phrase “ἢ μόνος ἐγὼ” does not exclude Barnabas. They are both part of the “only” according to the logic of the verse. So, perhaps John 17:3 intends this as well. Chrysostom does not venture a revised translation, but here is what it might look like if we follow the same idea in 17:3 as Chrysostom associates with 1 Cor 9:6

“Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, only the true God and Jesus Christ whom you sent.”

Is this a good reading? Well, admittedly Chrysostom gives only 2-3 sentences to make his case, so there is much to be considered. Still, it is remarkable, though no one else I know has come to the same reading. I am not convinced, but you have to give Chrysostom credit for being very observant.

For your information, here is the English translation of Chrysostom’s homiletical thoughts on this verse (I put the relevant comments in bold)

 The only true God, He says, by way of distinction from those which are not gods; for He was about to send them to the Gentiles. But if they will not allow this, but on account of this word only reject the Son from being true God, in this way as they proceed they reject Him from being God at all. For He also says, You seek not the glory which is from the only God. John 5:44 Well then; shall not the Son be God? But if the Son be God, and the Son of the Father who is called the Only God, it is clear that He also is true, and the Son of Him who is called the Only true God. Why, when Paul says, Or I only and Barnabas 1 Corinthians 9:6, does he exclude Barnabas? Not at all; for the only is put by way of distinction from others. And, if He be not true God, how is He Truth? Fortruth far surpasses what is true. What shall we call the not being a true man, tell me? Shall we not call it the not being a man at all? So if the Son is not trueGod, how is He God? And how makes He us gods and sons, if He is not true? But on these matters we have spoken more particularly in another place; wherefore let us apply ourselves to what follows.”

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3 thoughts on “Chrysostom’s Remarkable Explanation of Christological Monotheism in John 17:3

  1. I will join you in giving kudos to Chrysostom for the effort, but it is much more straightforward to understand the meaning to be that the Father, whom Jesus addresses in prayer in John 17, is “the only true God,” and that only true God sent Jesus. The only reason to read it any other way is if one holds to doctrinal views which are allowed to trump what seems to clearly be the most straightforward reading of the text.

    Obviously the questions of how God then relates to the Logos, and how the Logos relates to the human being Jesus, still need to be addressed. But if we are approaching it from an exegetical perspective, our answers to those questions need to take texts like John 17:3 into account.

    (It should also be mentioned that this text is the reason my book on monotheism and Christology in early Christianity bears the title The Only True God).

    • James, I agree with you that the plain meaning of the text is that there is a “one true God” and Jesus is separate from him. However, what I find perplexing is how it would be received by Jewish readers when you have the attainment of eternal life dependent on the knowledge of this “one true God” AND Jesus the Messiah. I am inclined to read this text in the manner I think Dunn proposes – that there is one true God and knowing Jesus is the means of knowing this true God. So, this text does not promote worship of Jesus per se, but the worship of the one God primarily and directly through Jesus (as also John 14:6). Thanks for the pointer to your book, one still on my reading list!

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