Muslims are fond of citing John 17:3 in an effort to deny the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Since their own exegetical abilities are quickly taxed upon being challenged, they often appeal to various unitarian scholars in the hopes that they will be able to prop up their tottering position. One person often cited in this connection is Sir Anthony Buzzard, a contemporary advocate of the Socinian heresy. Since I was recently drawn into a discussion with Buzzard by a Muslim who solicited his help, I am providing some of my thoughts on the issue here so that others might also benefit from them.
In my conversation with Buzzard he repeatedly made the claim that John 17:3 identifies “the Father alone as the only true God,” and since Jesus is not the Father, Buzzard concludes that Jesus cannot be the only true God. In response to this I made two points:
1) The text does not say, as Buzzard did, “the Father alone is the only true God”; rather, it says, “This is eternal life, that they might know you, the only true God…” The difference here is significant. On the former reading, which adds the word alone to the English translation even though it does not exist in the Greek text, one could conclude that Jesus is asserting unitarianism; on the latter reading, which is based squarely on the Greek text, all one can conclude is that the Father is the only true God, which comports perfectly well with the Trinitarian position. According to Trinitarianism the Father IS the only true God, not a false god. Indeed, this affirmation is a critical plank in the Trinitarian position.
2) What is said about the Father being the only true God in John 17:3 is complemented in 1 John 5:20 where Jesus is also referred to as the true God:
“And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life.”
οἴδαμεν δὲ ὅτι ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἥκει καὶ δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν, ἵνα γινώσκωμεν τὸν ἀληθινόν, καὶ ἐσμὲν ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ. οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος. (1 Jn. 5:20 NA28)
Since there is only one true God, it follows from John 17:3 and 1 John 5:20 that both the Father and the Son are the only true God.
In response to the first point I raised Buzzard simply repeated his terribly inaccurate paraphrase, which adds the word “alone” to the text. This maneuver – really, propaganda technique –can be ignored for obvious reasons.
In response to my second point, Buzzard asserted that 1 John 5:20 is not referring to Jesus but to the Father. But note the following reasons for concluding that 1 John 5:20 does, in fact, refer to the Lord Jesus Christ:
[Nota Bene: 1 John 5:20 is clearly relevant here for at least three reasons: 1) Both passages were written by the same author, the apostle John; 2) both passages use the phrase aleithinos theos, "true God"; and 3) these two passages are the only passages where this phrase occurs in the entire New Testament.]
1) If John is referring to the Father in the latter phrase, then the verse results in a redundancy: “…and we are in [God] who is true…he is the true God.” In other words, John would then be saying what he just said…what he just said. Pardon the redundancy.
2) Ordinarily in the Greek New Testament the near demonstrative οὗτός [houtos], “this [one],” refers back to the nearest antecedent, which in this case is “Jesus Christ.” An example of this can be seen in this very chapter: “Who is the one who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? THIS is the One who came by water and blood…(1 John 5:5-6).” Since this is the ordinary usage — one exemplified in this very context— it also ought to be the assumed usage in 1 John 5:20 unless some necessary reason for thinking otherwise can be supplied from the context. To my knowledge no anti-Trinitarian has ever supplied any contextual reason(s) why we should depart from ordinary usage here.
3) Moreover, as Greek professor Daniel Wallace has pointed out, “The demonstrative pronoun, οὗτός, in the Gospel and Epistles of John seems to be used in a theologically rich manner. Specifically, of the approximately seventy instances in which οὗτός has a personal referent, as many as forty-four of them (almost two-thirds of the instances) refer to the Son. Of the remainder, most imply some sort of positive connection with the Son. What is most significant is that never is the Father the referent.” (Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, p. 327; emphasis original.)
4) Furthermore, both ἀλήθεια [alētheia], “truth,” and ζωή [zōē], “life,” are used for Christ elsewhere, most notably in John’s writings (e.g. John 14:6). In fact, while John uses the latter term in his writings for Jesus (q.v. John 11:25, 14:6, etc.), he never uses the term for the Father.
5) Finally, 1 John 5:20 not only identifies “this [one]” as “the true God” but also as “eternal life”: “This is the true God AND ETERNAL LIFE.” This title is one that John has already used in this epistle for Jesus: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of Life-- and the Life was manifested, and we have seen and testify and proclaim to you the Eternal Life, which was WITH the Father and was manifested to us--” (1 John 1:1-2). By opening and closing this epistle in this way John has created an inclusio, a literary device where both statements are mutually interpretative and reinforce one another. Anyone who reads John’s First Epistle who does not come away knowing that John has identified Jesus as the true God and Eternal Life has missed John’s point from beginning to end.
I have invited Anthony Buzzard over to continue the dialogue in the comments section. For the sake of Muslims who are counting on him, I hope he accepts the invitation.