Sunday, February 20, 2011

Does John 20:17 disprove the Trinity?

I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.

I have found this verse to be used on more than a few occasions as an objection to the doctrine of the Trinity. So is this a “proof text” that the Christian Church got into apostasy around the fourth century AD to the extent that it’s worship of Jesus Christ is blasphemy? Here’s my response.

The Text

Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
John 20:11-18

The Book

This passage occurs towards the end of the Gospel of John. The evidence for the authorship of the Gospel is not incontrovertible, but, as the New Bible Commentary concludes, “In the face of … various opinions it is difficult to be dogmatic, but it is reasonable to suppose that the internal and external evidence points to John the apostle as author.” Given that John probably died in the first years of the second century AD, the timeframe for the writing of the Gospel is probably around the end of the first century AD.

So, it is likely that the whole Gospel was written by a single (human) author. Alternatively, we could postulate that it was redacted by a number of authors (which seems to be the case for the “Books of Moses”), but the Gospel has an internal literary consistency and an outlook that points to a single author, or at least a group of authors with a common style and outlook.

My point here is simply that the author who wrote John 20:17, also wrote the rest of John (with the possible exception of John 7:53 – 8:11). If he was proposing that Jesus Christ was separate to God, he would have contradicted his own opening statements in John 1:1-3. That’s actually a possibility if you believe the Bible to be a disparate collection of confused and unrelated texts, but if, like me, you believe that it is Divinely Commissioned, then this possibility is not an option. What we are left with, then, is not that John was confused, but that we might be confused in understanding what he was trying to say.

The Story

Jesus has just been crucified and buried. John’s account of Mary’s witness of the resurrection is one of five such accounts in John 20, which are arranged in a chiastic structure. The first and fifth deal with people who do not see him; Mary’s story (number 2) and Thomas’ (number 4) deal with people who see him, yet struggle to believe what they see; and the central account deals with a public, shared encounter with the risen Christ. Such a literary structure indicates that the author has deliberately and consciously arranged his material, and it may be inferred that the inclusion Jesus’ statement in John 20:17 is likewise deliberate and intentional.

The flow of the narrative in Mary’s story is remarkably natural and unforced. Though John sees special significance in what’s going on, there’s no sense that it is somehow rehearsed or staged. Mary goes to the tomb to mourn for her dead son. When she finds the tomb empty, her first reaction is that someone has taken the body, and her immediate suspicions fall on the person she thinks is the gardener. When she realizes that he’s not the gardener, but rather the son she thought was dead, she grabs him. It is at this point that Jesus says, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’”. Mary then goes to the disciples and tells them. She effectively becomes the first Apostle to the Apostles – the first with the gospel of the Risen One.

There is an on-line commentary at BibleGateway that's worth reading.

The preamble to the BibleGateway commentary infers from John 20 that Jesus deals with five barriers to faith; in Mary’s case it is grief. She grieves for her dead son, but when she finds him alive, she grabs hold of him, and Jesus has to command her to let go. We cannot let the cherished memory of a loved one halt our walk of faith.

My reading also indicates that we should not attempt to tie Christ down. He is Lord, and He does things His own way. Having found Him, Mary does not want to let Him go to do His own business, but this impulse is not faith. We have to let Christ do things in His own way, trusting in Him to come or go as He sees fit. We cannot “mother” him. Despite her instincts, Mary summons enough faith to obey, and she lets Him go. If the Mother of God needs to learn obedience, then so do we all.

The reason why Mary needs to let Him go is provided by Jesus Himself, who tells her that he is still “in transit”. He is on a journey that He must complete, else the promised Holy Spirit will not come (see John 16:7).

The Theology

Plainly, John 20:17 shows that the Father and the Son are not the same. (John 16:7 also demonstrates that the Holy Spirit is not the same either.) This is not the only instance; there are several accounts of the Father speaking to the Son (Matt 3:17, Matt 17:5 etc). For me the most striking differentiation is when the Son declares that He does not know what is on the Father’s mind in the context of His own return (Matt 24:36).

Though this has been used in an attempt to disprove the Trinity, it actually disproves Modalism and Sabellianism, both of which are opposed to Trinitarianism. So, it doesn’t contend with Trinitarianism, rather it contends with the enemies of Trinitarianism.

The doctrine of the Trinity actually supports the idea that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are distinct. However, the Trinity frames their distinctness by referring to them as “persons” within the One Godhead. However, the Trinity also acknowledges that there is One God (e.g. Isaiah 45:5), which discounts the possibility that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate “Gods” in some kind of divine council. The Christian Creeds enjoin Christians to worship the One God, not three, else they would be polytheists, contradicting the first of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:3).

If you’re reading this and wondering how it is possible to hold onto the seemingly contradictory notions that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three persons and yet One God, then you would not be the first. The fact is, however, that the Bible teaches persistently that there is One God whom we should worship, yet the first Christians had no problem in worshipping Jesus Christ, as if He were that One God (see Matt 28:9, 28:17). Hold this in tension with the fact that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are separate persons (as John 20:17 ably demonstrates), and you have the basic ingredients for the doctrine of the Trinity. If you don’t like the term “Trinity”, then I would be happy to hear from you if you’ve got a better suggestion.


John 20:17 plainly demonstrates that the Father and Son are distinct. However, the doctrine of the Trinity supports this distinction, whilst maintaining the One-ness of God. If it disproves anything, John 20:17 disproves some of the main rivals to the Trinity, not the Trinity itself.

Further, the Gospel of John was written well before the Fourth Century, so the introduction of the idea of the Trinity is there, within living memory of Jesus' first Apostles (those who saw Him in the flesh). It was not until later, when competing theories arose, that the Church Fathers saw fit to articulate it in the language of the Creeds.


  1. Greetings Martin Jacobs

    On the subject of the Trinity,
    I recommend this video:
    The Human Jesus

    Take a couple of hours to watch it; and prayerfully it will aid you in your quest for truth.

    This video also addresses John 1.1-3

    Yours In Messiah
    Adam Pastor

  2. Adam,

    Thankyou for your comment.

    I don't wish to sound like I'm arbitrarily dismissing your suggestion, but I don't have a couple of hours spare to watch the video tonight. I might find the time later.

    Would you be so kind as to summarize your position?

  3. I was wondering if I could save this article to my hard drive?

    1. James, thanks for asking. Yes, you may. If you intend to quote any part of the article, I would be grateful if you could cite me as author - Martin Jacobs.