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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Non-Covenantal Approaches to Interpretation

Although the following classification involves some oversimplification, it seems fair to say that there are three basic approaches to John 17:20-21. First, one may take an "ontological-literal" approach which suggests that Jesus speaks of "oneness of being." The concept "perichoresis" developed by Gregory Nazianzen to describe the way in which the divine and human natures of Christ "coinhere in one another without the integrity of either being diminished by the presence of the other," was also used to describe the "way in which the three divine Persons mutually dwell in one another and coinhere or inexist in one another while nevertheless remaining other than one another and distinct from one another."[6] Interpreting John 17:20-21 in these terms, the approach apparently followed by F. L. Godet, the ontological unity of the Persons of the Trinity is seen as the basis of a similar unity among believers brought about by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

Second, it is also possible to see the unity referred to here as an ethical unity of fellowship and love among the Persons of the Trinity, which is then reflected among Christians, an approach followed by H. A. W. Meyer. The third type of interpretation is one in which the ethical and ontological are combined. Hendriksen, for example, writes "To be sure, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one in essence; believers, on the other hand, are one in mind, effort, and purpose... These two kinds of unity are not the same. Nevertheless, there is a resemblance."[7]

The gap between an ontological and an ethical approach is rather wide and a combination of the two may seem risky. The reason for the diversity in interpretation is to be found in two expressions. First, in the verse immediately following those cited by Jordan, Jesus says that He has bestowed glory on the believers that may be one "just as we are one" (vs. 22). Though more explicit here in verse 22, the same suggestion that the oneness of believers is analogous to a oneness in God is already found in verse 21. To do justice to this passage, then, one must determine what kind of unity Jesus is here speaking of.

Second, Jesus uses unusual expressions for His relationship both to the Father and to believers. He does not simply say "be one as we are one," He also says "as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us." These unusual "in" expressions seem to be explaining the idea of "oneness" here: "that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us." A correct interpretation of these verses, then, will also have to explain what Jesus means by these remarkable "in" expressions.

In my opinion, the three approaches suggested above offer less than satisfactory answers to both problems. On the one hand, the oneness referred to here seems to be something other than "ontological" oneness, for although the "ontological" type of interpretation can account for the "in" expressions, it is difficult to imagine what it would mean for believers to be one in a manner similar to the ontological oneness of the Trinity. The indwelling of the Spirit does not really provide an answer, for the Spirit's residence in believers is not to be understood "ontologically."

On the other hand, an interpretation that suggests the oneness here is a mere oneness of purpose and love seems overly tame, almost trivial, and entirely unable to account for the "in" expressions. The very difficulty of making good sense of the language employed compels us to consider other possibilities.

[6] Thomas F. Torrance, The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), p. 102.

[7] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1953), vol. 2, p. 364.

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