John 14:23 et al: Does Jesus’ Use of Plural Personal Pronouns Prove that
Jesus and the Father are Different Persons?
The NT regularly makes a distinction between the Father and Son. Trinitarians interpret those distinctions personally, whereas Oneness adherents interpret them incarnationally. There are a few passages, however, in which plural personal pronouns1 are used to refer to Jesus and the Father. Indeed, they come from the lips of Jesus Himself:
John 14:23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and take up residence with him.”
John 17:20-22 “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, 21 that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one.” (See also John 17:11)
Trinitarians argue that Jesus’ use of plural personal pronouns makes it clear that two persons are in view. How should a Oneness believer respond? Let’s look at each passage in order.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the most difficult passages to explain from a Oneness perspective. On the face of it, it sounds as if Jesus is saying two people will indwell the believer. How can this duality be understood from a Oneness perspective?
One possibility is that Jesus is referring to the Spirit of God and Christ's human spirit dwelling us. But how could Christ’s human spirit indwell us since His human spirit is localized rather than omnipresent? Perhaps the hypostatic union would allow us to speak of Jesus’ human spirit indwelling us, but only in a very loose sense. I see no grounds, however, for thinking that Jesus meant for us to understand His indwelling of the believer in such a diluted manner.
The fact that these plural pronouns and verbs only appear on the lips of Jesus may offer a clue to the proper explanation. Jesus was self-conscious of His divine identity, so when He spoke of the Father coming to indwell the believer, He was cognitive of the fact that He was describing something that He Himself would do in His Spirit form, as Father. Given the fact that Jesus is the active agent who indwells believers, it would have been inappropriate for Jesus to exclude Himself from the act of indwelling. And yet, since Jesus would not do so in His human mode of existence, it was only appropriate that He should speak of the Father indwelling believers as well. Jesus needed both to identify Himself as the active indwelling agent, and yet also specify the mode in which He would do so (as Spirit/Father). How else could Jesus have expressed both of these truths apart from the use of plural language? To make it clear that Jesus will personally indwell believers, and to make it clear that He would do so in His cosmic mode of existence, Jesus spoke of the indwelling of believers as something that both He and the Father do. By the conventions of language, Jesus is forced to use plural language.
Linguistic limitations even govern how Oneness believers speak of the Father and Son. When I want to speak of the Father and Son together using a personal pronoun, I am forced by linguistic conventions to use “them” and “they.” I do not thereby commit myself to believing the Father and Son are two divine persons. The same is true of Jesus. He used plural pronouns and verbs when referring to both modes of His existence simultaneously because linguistic conventions require the use of a plural pronoun in such a context. This linguistic restrain should not be invested with ontological significance such that the mere use of plural language commits Jesus to believing that He is a distinct person from the Father.
Plural pronouns are called for whenever we refer to two or more distinct entities together. Since there is a real distinction between God’s cosmic and human modes of existence, plural pronouns2 must be used when referring to both modes of His existence together in a single sentence. The plurality in view, however, is not a plurality of persons, but a plurality of modes in which the one divine person exists.
A similar explanation applies to John 17:20-22. Unlike John 14:23, the problem here is not so much in understanding how the Father and Son could both be involved in some act X without being two persons, but in the fact that Jesus speaks to the Father as if the Father is a distinct person from Him – even using plural language when referring to Himself and the Father together.
Linguistic limitations and God’s dual mode of existence explain what is going on in John 17 only in part. What still needs to be accounted for is the obvious psychological distinction between Father and Son. Jesus is speaking to the Father as though the Father is “other,” and in other passages the Father even speaks back to the Son as though the Son is “other.”3 Cementing this appearance of two persons is Jesus’ use of plural language “us” and “our.” How can this be explained given the Oneness view that God is uni-personal, and Jesus is the incarnation of that one personal God?
The human nature God assumed in the incarnation allowed Him to be conscious of Himself and to function in a fully human way, even psychologically. And yet God continued to function and be conscious of Himself in a fully divine way according to His divine nature transcendent to the incarnation in His cosmic mode of existence. There is, then, a genuine psychological distinction between Jesus and the Father. One person is conscious of Himself in two distinct ways, in two distinct modes of existence, because of His possession of two distinct natures. This psychological and modal distinction allows for genuine communication between Father and Son that, for all intents and purposes, is functionally equivalent to the communication of two distinct persons. Though the distinction between Father and Son is modal rather than personal, given the psychological distinction between God’s two modes of existence, we would expect for Jesus to use plural pronouns when speaking about both himself and the Father together. See “A Oneness View of Jesus' Prayers” and “Jesus' Prayers: It Doesn't Take Two Persons to Tango” for additional reading on communication between the Father and Son.
What about singular pronouns?
If plural pronouns and verbs used to describe the Father and Son imply that the Father and Son are two divine persons, then what should we make of singular pronouns used to describe the Father and Son? Consider the following passages:
1 Thessalonians 3:11 Now may God our Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct [singular verb] our way to you. (NET)
2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved [singular participle] us and by grace gave [singular participle] us eternal comfort and good hope, 17 encourage [singular verb] your hearts and strengthen [singular verb] you in every good thing you do or say. (NET)
Both Jesus and the Father are the subject in each passage, and yet the authors use singular verbs and participles to describe them. If we adopt the Trinitarian’s principle that the number of the pronoun/verb/participle carries ontological significance, then these passages should lead us to conclude that the Father and Son are the same divine person. Since we come up with contradictory conclusions when we invest the number of a pronoun/verb/participle with ontological significance, we either need to abandon the notion that there is any ontological significance to the number of a pronoun/verb/participle (in which case the Trinitarian argument falls apart), or we need to decide which category of pronouns/verbs/participles carry ontological significance.
While I am open to abandoning the idea that the number of a pronoun/verb/participle tells us anything about the number of persons in the Godhead, if there is some ontological significance to be derived, I find the use of singular verbs/participles that have both the Father and Son as the subject to be more instructive.
Jesus’ use of plural pronouns and verbs to refer jointly to Himself and the Father can be explained by the constraints of language. We would expect for plural language to be used when referring to both modes of God’s existence, even if God is only one person. We would not expect, however, an author to violate the norms of language by using singular verbs/participles to describe a joint action of Father and Son if the Father and Son are two distinct persons. Doing so not only violates the rules of grammar, but unnecessarily gives the false impression that the Father and Son are one and the same person. There was no reason for Paul to use singular verbs/participles to describe actions involving both the Father and Son. The only reason to do so was because it reflected his belief that the Father and Son are one and the same person. If there is any argument to be made from the number of a pronoun or verb, it is best made for the unipersonal nature of God.
1. I am referring to the part of speech in English. In Greek, it could be a plural pronoun or the plural form of a verb.
2. Given the fact that the Father and Son are personal in nature, it is only appropriate to use personal plural pronouns.
3. I have in mind passages such as Matthew 3:17 n which God says at Jesus’ baptism, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Father speaks of Jesus in the third person as though Jesus were someone other than the Father.
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