The Key to the Trinity: With God, Was God

“Ιt was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Dickens’ opening sentence to A Tale of Two Cities is masterful. By playing two seemingly contradictory statements off each other, he invites us to consider how they could simultaneously be true, drawing us further in. And yet the award for best opening line must go to the Apostle John: “In the beginning was the Word, / and the Word was with God, / and the Word was God” (Joh 1:1).[1] Not bad for a fisherman! He makes an allusion to Genesis 1:1 in the first three words, and to Genesis 1:3 (and Psa 33:6) in the next three. At the cusp of creation, before anything made had been made, the mysterious Word already was – the verb and tense form communicating the Logos’ eternal preexistence.[2]

But the real genius of the Apostle’s (inspired) opening sentence lies in its second and third parts. On the one hand, the eternal Word was with God. The preposition “with” depicts personal relationship. The Word was face to face with God, and is Himself, therefore, personal. As the rest of John’s prologue (1:1-18) will reveal, the Word is the one whom we now know as Jesus Christ.

On the other hand, the Word was God. With God. Was God. The reader wants to ask: which one is it? Was the Word with God, or was He God? Both, John answers. He’s sparking the two statements off each other, forcing us to think. John’s doorway into his Gospel is a puzzle that all who enter must ponder.

That the Word was with God means that He is in some sense distinct from God. “God” in this instance refers to God the Father, for in the final verse of the prologue (a verse that bookends with 1:1), the Word’s togetherness with God is expressed as the Son reclining on the Father’s heart (1:18).[3] That is, the “Word” = the Son, and “God” = God the Father. The Word / Son is a distinct Person from God the Father.

But the next phrase – the Word was God – means that He is in some sense identified with God. He is distinct from God, yet He is God. When John says that the Word is distinct from God, he means that the Word is a distinct Person from God the Father. Now when he writes that the Word is God, does he use the word “God” in the exact same way? Is he saying that the Word is distinct from God the Father, and He is God the Father?

Certainly not! John is careful and concise. His opening line consists of three parts. In each part, the Word is the grammatical subject of the verb “was” (ēn), but the word order is varied (in Greek) to form (with 1:2) a chiasm: beginning—Word—Word—God—God—Word—“this one” [Word]—beginning.[4] The chiasm’s climax is the two instances of “God.” As is well known, John writes the first instance with the Greek article and the second instance without. This, along with the context and word order, gives a qualitative sense to the final phrase: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and it was God that the Word was.”[5] Not, the Word was the same Person as God (the Father); rather, He was the same in nature and essence. “The Word was identical with God the Father in nature.”[6]

See what John doesn’t do. He doesn’t use the article, lest it suggest that the Son and the Father are the same Person (which is the error of Sabellianism).[7] Nor does he say that the Word was a god (or merely divine), implying that He was less God than the Father (the error of Arianism). And when he adds in verse two that the same Word “was in the beginning with God,” he wards off any possibility of Adoptionism (that God came upon the man Jesus at His baptism). Neither can the divine status Scripture accords to Christ be explained away by Functionalism or agency Christology. Yes, Moses functioned as God to Pharaoh (Exo 7:1), but he wasn’t God in nature.[8] John doesn’t tell us that God merely indwelt Christ or empowered Him or worked through Him. Rather, the Son, distinct from God the Father in Person, is one with Him in Being.

On the road again

Recall that we are on a journey in this series, and that we are presently wrestling with a gate (or objection) that goes like this: the Trinity doctrine doesn’t stem from Scripture but is a human invention. Our key, we’ve said, to opening the many locks on this gate is Christ. Each of the three parts of John’s opening verse has directed our attention to Christ, moving from His eternal preexistence to His personal intercommunion, and then to His intrinsic deity.[9] And notice what we’ve discovered along the way:

  • There are two Persons: the Father and the Son.
  • The Father is God, and the Son is God.
  • The Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Father.

These are the very building blocks of the doctrine of the Trinity.[10] The Lord Jesus is indeed the key to understanding it all. He, the Word, became flesh and dwelt among us. The Apostles saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (Joh 1:14). By His commission and Spirit the Apostles wrote down the truth He disclosed (16:12-15), truth that extends from the Son’s divine mission all the way back to who He was with the Father in eternity. And one of these Apostles put it into Scripture this way: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. [This one] was in the beginning with God.” When we turn to Christ, we encounter the Trinity, and shed our doubts that such notions are of human invention.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.

[2] “All speculation about the origin of the Logos is pointless.” Murray J. Harris, Jesus as God: The New Testament Use of Theos in Reference to Jesus (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 54. I am indebted at many points in this article to Harris.

[3] Harris, 55, who adds three more reasons.

[4] Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 Vols (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 1:364.

[5] David Alan Black, “How to Achieve Emphasis in Bible Translation,” Dave Black Online (blog), November 23, 2021,

[6] Harris, Jesus as God, 70.

[7] Daniel Wallace in William D. Mounce, Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 27–28.

[8] Harris, Jesus as God, 284–85.

[9] Harris, 71.

[10] Later articles will consider the Holy Spirit.