Colwell's Rule and John 1:1

William Arnold III

A Greek scholar  named E. C. Colwell discovered a rule which applied to certain uses of the Greek article (in English this is the word “the”). His rule stated that “definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article.”1 The word theos (God) in John 1:1c is a predicate noun and it is anarthrous (it lacks the article). The question I would like to address is: “How does this rule apply to John 1:1 and how does this relate to a Oneness perspective of this passage?”

In the past, Trinitarians have argued that Colwell’s rule proves that the anarthrous theos in John 1:1c (the Word was God) must be taken as definite. They have done so to combat Arianism and modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses. The New World Translation, the official Bible of Jehovah’s Witnesses, translates John 1:1c as “the Word was a god.” So we can see why Trinitarian scholars would object to such a translation and instead argue for a definite theos, thus proving the deity of Christ in this passage. However, as Daniel Wallace has pointed out, simply appealing to Colwell’s rule alone does not prove that theos must be taken as definite.2 His rule would only say that if theos is definite then it would probably lack the article (and it does). But the reverse is not necessarily true. Simply lacking the article in this construction does not make the noun definite.

Wallace goes on to argue that theos should not be taken as definite but instead as qualitative, thus emphasizing “the nature of the Word, rather than his identity.” The glosses which he suggests bring out this idea are, “What God was, the Word was” (NEB), or “the Word was divine” (a modified Moffatt translation).3 He also states that a definite theos in this passage would imply Sabellianism or Modalism (making Jesus to be God the Father, i.e., a Oneness perspective). In a footnote he quotes several other Greek scholars which concur, some even more emphatically (Westcott, A. T. Robertson, Lange, Chemnitz, Alford and even Martin Luther).4

My question to all of these grammarians is this: “Why does a definite theos have to refer to God the Father, since all three persons are co-equal in Trinitarian theology?” The Holy Spirit is identified as “God” with the article present in Acts 5:3-4. Jesus is identified as “God” with the article present in John 20:28, Titus 2:13 and 2 Peter 1:1. Wallace acknowledges these passages, but states that (in John 20:28) “there is nothing in that context that would identify [Jesus] with the Father.”5 But if God is a Trinity, I see nothing in John 1:1b (“the Word was with God”) that would require that this occurrence of theos be identified as God the Father either.6 It simply says that “the Word was with God (article present).” Why could this not be referring to God the Holy Spirit? Surely if God is an eternal Trinity then Jesus would have been with him (God the Holy Spirit) in the beginning as well.

The point we should note here is that when a Trinitarian reads the word “God,” he (rightly) assumes that it refers to God the Father, unless there is reason to believe otherwise. Somehow, the Father is more ‘God’ than the other two people. So if a definite theos in this passage would make Jesus God the Father (as Wallace and the other grammarians above have stated) then I see no reason why a definite theos applied to Jesus anywhere else in the New Testament would not also make Jesus God the Father! (such as in the passages noted above).

So what other options were open to John? He could have easily left theos anarthrous and still put it after the verb, thus retaining the qualitative sense that Wallace argues for. So it was not necessary to place it before the verb merely for that reason. The fact that he chose to put it before the verb and to the beginning of the phrase would seem to indicate emphasis (The Word was God!). As mentioned before, Colwell’s rule states that “definite predicate nouns which precede the verb usually lack the article.”7 So if John intended a definite theos and wanted to emphasize the word “God,” then he would have said it exactly how he did! Now, I am in agreement with Wallace, that Colwell’s rule does not prove a definite theos, but it most definitely supports it. Even he admits that a definite theos is “certainly possible grammatically.”8

Furthermore, you could only derive a Trinitarian interpretation from John 1:1 if you come to this passage with an already developed Trinitarian theology. If you approached it with a strict Monotheism (which is what I believe John held to) then this passage would definitely support such a view. If John had wanted to emphasize the word theos then he would have moved it to the beginning of the phrase before the verb and thus, (according to Colwell’s rule) it would be anarthrous (as it is).


1. E. C. Colwell, A Definite Rule for the Use of the Article in the Greek New Testament, p. 20, quoted in Wallace, GGBB, 257. <back>
2. Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 269. <back>
3. Wallace, 269. He does not however suggest that these glosses should actually be used in a translation since they can be misleading. <back>
4. Wallace, 268. <back>
5. Wallace, 268. <back>
6. Which is how a Trinitarian reads this passage - ". . . the Word was WITH God the Father, and the Word WAS God the Son" (emphasis added). <back>
7. Colwell, A Definite Rule, quoted in Wallace, GGBB, 257. <back>
8. Wallace, 268. He still argues against it for reasons of frequency and theology, p. 269. <back>

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