THOMAS AQUINAS’ EXEGESIS OF JOHN 10:29 VINDICATED

In this post I will examine Thomas Aquinas’ exegesis of John 10:28-30, specifically v. 29, where he interprets the text in respect to the eternal begetting of the Son, to the Father communicating/conferring his Deity to the Son in all of its fullness, albeit timelessly and eternally. I will show that Aquinas’ explanation is based on a variant reading in the manuscript tradition, and is therefore completely valid and correct.

Here is what the angelic Doctor wrote:

1450 He now proves what he had said above about the dignity of his sheep, namely, that no one can snatch them from his hand. His reason is this: No one can snatch what is in the hand of my Father; but the Father’s hand and mine are the same; therefore, no one can snatch what is in my hand. Concerning this he does three things: first, he gives the minor premise by showing that the Father had communicated divinity to him, sayingwhat my Father has given to me, through an eternal generationis greater than all. “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself” (5:26). It is greater than any power: “He has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man” (5:27); it is greater than any reverence and honor: “God had bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil 2:9). Therefore, what my Father has given to me, that is, that I am his Word, his only begotten, and the splendor of his lightis greater than all.

Secondly, he mentions the greatness of the Father’s power, which concerns the major premise, when he says, and no one is able to snatch, take by violence or secretly pilfer, out of my Father’s hand, from the power of my Father, or from me, who am the might of the Father – although as Augustine says, it is better to say “from the power of the Father” than “from me.” [32] Now no one is able to snatch out of my Father’s hand, because he is the almighty One who is not subject to violence, and he is all-wise from whom nothing is hidden: “He is wise in heart, and mighty in strength” (Job 9:4).

Thirdly, he affirms his unity with the Father, and from this the conclusion follows. Thus he says, I and the Father are one. As if to say: no one shall snatch them out of my hand, because I and the Father are one, by a unity of essence, for the Father and the Son are the same in nature.

1451 This statement rejects two errors: that of Arius, who distinguished the essence [of the Father from that of the Son], and that of Sabellius, who did not distinguish the person [of the Father from the person of the Son]. We escape both Charybdis and Scylla, for by the fact that Christ says, one, he saves us from Arius, because if one, then they are not different [in nature]. And by the fact that he says, we are, he saves us from Sabellius, for if we are, then the Father and the Son are not the same [person].

Yet the Arians, deceived by their wickedness, try to deny this, and say that a creature can in some sense be one with God, and in this sense the Son can be one with the Father. The falsity of this can be shown in three ways. First, from our very manner of speaking. For it is clear that “one” is asserted as “being”; thus, just as something is not said to be a being absolutely except according to its substance, so it is not said to be one except according to its substance or nature. Now something is asserted absolutely when it is asserted with no added qualification. Therefore, because I and the Father are one, is asserted absolutely, without any qualifications added, it is plain that they are one according to substance and nature. But we never find that God and a creature are one without some added qualification, as in 1 Corinthians (6:17): “He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” Therefore, it is clear that the Son of God is not one with the Father as a creature can be. [33]

Secondly, we can see this from his previous statement, what my Father has given me is greater than all. He draws the conclusion from thisI and the Father are one. This is like saying: We are one to the extent that the Father has given me that which is greater than all.

Thirdly, it is clear from his intention. For our Lord proves that no one will snatch the sheep from his hand precisely because no one can snatch from the hand of his Father. But this would not follow if his power were less than the power of the Father. Therefore, the Father and Son are one in nature, honor and power.

[32] Ibid, 48, ch. 6, col. 1743; cf. Catena Aurea, 10:22-30.

[33] Summa, Christ is one with the Father absolutely, creatures can only become one with God in a qualified sense. (Commentary on the Gospel of John, Part II: Chapters 8-21, translated by
Fabian R. Larcher, O.P. [Magi Books, Inc., Albany, N.Y., 1998 (notes to these chapters provisional)], *10*; bold italicized emphasis mine)

Aquinas’ exegesis is based on the Latin Vulgate, which reads in the following manner:

That which my Father hath given me, is greater than all: and no one can snatch them out of the hand of my Father.” John 10:29 

[29] Pater meus quod dedit mihi, majus omnibus est : et nemo potest rapere de manu Patris mei. Douay-Rheims American Edition 1899 – Latin Vulgate (DRA)

Contrast this with the Authorized King James Version (AV):

My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand.

As the readers can see, the difference lay between whether the verse states “That which my Father has given me,” or “My Father, which gave them me.”

The latter reading clearly refers to the believers whom the Father has entrusted to the Son’s care and preservation, just as the following verses indicate:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” John 10:27-28

All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. For I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day. And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day. The Jews then murmured at him, because he said, I am the bread which came down from heaven. And they said, Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? how is it then that he saith, I came down from heaven? Jesus therefore answered and said unto them, Murmur not among yourselves. No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day… Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” John 6:37-44, 53-54

According to this variant, it is the Father, as the One that entrusted the believers to the Son, who is greater than all else.

On the other hand, according to the former reading it is that which the Father has given to the Son that is greater than all.

Now the question arises, what did the Father give to the Son which makes it greater than everything else?  

According to Aquinas, what was granted to the Son is his Deity which the Father has eternally and timelessly communicated to him, which makes the Son greater than all creation.

As I am about to show, Thomas’ interpretation is not only a valid interpretation of a variant reading found in the extant manuscript tradition, but this was also the view of some of the early church fathers and theologians.

TRANSLATIONS

Many of the major English translations of the Holy Bible have critical notes indicating that John 10:29 contains a “nest” of variant renderings within the extant Greek manuscript stream that affects the precise meaning of the verse. I list some of them here:

“What my Father has given me is greater than everything, and no one can snatch them away from the Father’s care.” Good News Translation (GNT)

29 [a]My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.

Footnotes

John 10:29 One early ms reads What My Father has given Me is greater than all New American Standard Bible 1995 (NASB1995)

“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”

Footnotes

John 10:29 Many early manuscripts What my Father has given me is greater than all New International Version (NIV)

What[a] My Father has given to Me is greater than all. And no one is able to snatch them out of the hand of the Father.

Footnotes

a. John 10:29 Or, That-which. Jesus may be referring to the flock itself viewed as an abstract whole; or, to His ‘authority over all flesh to give eternal life’ (17:2), making what follows ‘snatch it’. In either case, both the Father and the Son ensure the safety of the flock. Disciples’ Literal New Testament (DLNT)

“My Father, in regard to what he has given me, is greater than all,[a] and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hand.”

Footnotes

a.10.29 Other ancient authorities read What my Father has given me is greater than all else or My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition (NRSVUE)

“What my Father has given me[a] is more important than anything,[b] and no one can snatch it from the Father’s hand.”

Footnotes

a. John 10:29 Some MSS read My father, who gave them to me,

b. John 10:29 Or is greater than everything else International Standard Version (ISV)

Here are several more versions that read similarly:

AUV(i) 29 What my Father has given me [i.e., my sheep] are greater than everything [else], and no one is able to steal them from the Father’s hand.

BBE(i) 29 That which my Father has given to me has more value than all; and no one is able to take anything out of the Father’s hand.

Goodspeed(i) 29 What my Father has intrusted to me is of more importance than everything else, and no one can tear anything out of the Father’s hands.

Noyes(i) 29That which my Father hath given me is greater than all; and no one is able to tear [them] out of the Fathers hand.

Rotherham(i) 29 What, my Father, hath given me, is, something greater than all, and, no one, can carry off out of the hand of my Father:

Twentieth_Century(i) 29 What my Father has entrusted to me is more than all else; and no one can snatch anything out of the Father’s hands.

WNT(i) 29 What my Father has given me is more precious than all besides; and no one is able to wrest anything from my Father’s hand.

EARLY CHRISTIAN WRITERS

As I indicated, Aquinas wasn’t alone in exegeting the text in reference to Christ’s eternal generation. Note how the following early Christian theologians interpreted the verse:

11. We do not know Christ the God unless we know God the Begotten. But to be born God is to belong to the nature of God, for the name Begotten signifies indeed the manner of His origin, but does not make Him different in kind from the Begetter. And if so, the Begotten owes indeed to His Author the source of His being, but is not dispossessed of the nature of that Author, for the birth of God can arise but from one origin, and have but one nature. If its origin is not from God, it is not a birth; if it is anything but a birth, Christ is not God. But He is God of God, and therefore God the Father stands to God the Son as God of His birth and Father of His nature, for the birth of God is from God, and in the specific nature of God.

12. See in all that He said, how carefully the Lord tempers the pious acknowledgment of His debt, so that neither the confession of the birth could be held to reflect upon His divinity, nor His reverent obedience to infringe upon His sovereign nature. He does not withhold the homage due from Him as the Begotten, Who owed to His Author His very existence, but He manifests by His confident bearing the consciousness of participation in that nature, which belongs to Him by virtue of the origin whereby He was born as God. Take, for instance, the words, He that has seen Me, has seen the Father also John 14:9, and, The words that I say, I speak not from Myself. He does not speak from Himself: therefore He receives from His Author that which He says. But if any have seen Him, they have seen the Father also: they are conscious, by this evidence, given to show that God is in Him, that a nature, one in kind with that of God, was born from God to subsist as God. Take again the words, That which the Father has given unto Me, is greater than all , and, I and the Father are one. To say that the Father gave, is a confession that He received His origin: but the unity of Himself with the Father is a property of His nature derived from that origin. Take another instance, He has given all judgment unto the Son, that all may honour the Son even as they honour the Father. He acknowledges that the judgment is given to Him, and therefore He does not put His birth in the background: but He claims equal honour with the Father, and therefore He does not resign His nature. Yet another example, I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me , and, The Father is greater than I. The One is in the Other: recognise, then, the divinity of God, the Begotten of God: the Father is greater than He: perceive, then, His acknowledgment of the Father’s authority. In the same way He says, The Son can do nothing of Himself but what He has seen the Father doing: for whatever things He does, these the Son also does in like manner. He does nothing of Himself: that is, in accordance with His birth the Father prompts His actions: yet whatever things the Father does, these the Son also does in like manner; that is, He subsists as nothing less than God, and by the Father’s omnipotent nature residing in Him, can do all that God the Father does. All is uttered in agreement with His unity of Spirit with the Father, and the properties of that nature, which He possesses by virtue of His birth. That birth, which brought Him into being, constituted Him divine, and His being reveals the consciousness of that divine nature. God the Son confesses God His Father, because He was born of Him; but also, because He was born, He inherits the whole nature of God. (Hilary of Poitiers, On the Trinity, Book XI)

6. “And they shall never perish:” you may hear the undertone, as if He had said to them, Ye shall perish for ever, because ye are not of my sheep. “No one shall pluck them out of my hand.” Give still greater heed to this: “That which my Father gave me is greater than all.” What can the wolf do? What can the thief and the robber? They destroy none but those predestined to destruction. But of those sheep of which the apostle says, “The Lord knoweth them that are His;”3 and “Whom He did foreknow, them He also did predestinate; and whom He did predestinate, them He also called; and whom He called, them He also justified; and whom He justified, them He also glorified;”—there is none of such sheep as these that the wolf seizes, or the thief steals, or the robber slays. He, who knows what He gave for them, is sure of their number. And it is this that He says: “No one shall pluck them out of my hand;” and in reference also to the Father, “That which my Father gave me is greater than all.” What did the Father give to the Son that was greater than all? To be His own only-begotten Son. What, then, means “gave”? Was He to whom He gave previously existent, or gave He in the act of begetting? For if He previously existed to whom He gave the gift of Sonship, there was a time when He was, and was not the Son. Far be it from us to suppose that the Lord Christ ever was, and yet was not the Son. Of us such a thing may be said: there was a time when we were the sons of men, but were not the sons of God. For we are made the sons of God by grace, but He by nature, for such was He born. And yet not so, as that one may say, He did not exist till He was born; for He, who was coeternal with the Father, was never unborn.

Let him who is wise understand: and whoever understands not, let him believe and be nourished, and he will come to understanding. The Word of God was always with the Father, and always the Word; and because the Word, therefore the Son. So then, always the Son, and always equal. For it is not by growth but by birth that He is equal, who was always born, the Son of the Father, God of God, coeternal of the Eternal. But the Father is not God of5 the Son: the Son is God of the Father; therefore in begetting the Son, the Father “gave” Him to be God, in begetting He gave Him to be coeternal with Himself, in begetting He gave Him to be His equal. This is that which is greater than all.

How is the Son the life, and the possessor of life? What He has, He is: as for thee, thou art one thing, thou hast another. For example, thou hast wisdom, but art thou wisdom itself? In short, because thou thyself art not that which thou hast, shouldst thou lose what thou hast, thou returnest to the state of no longer having it: and sometimes thou re-acquirest, sometimes thou losest. As our eye has no light inherently in itself, it opens, and admits it; it shuts, and loses it. It is not thus that the Son of God is God—not thus that He is the Word of the Father; and not thus is He the Word, that passes away with the sound but that which abides in its birth. In such a way hath He wisdom that He is Himself wisdom, and maketh men wise: and life, that He is Himself the life, and maketh others alive. This is that which is greater than all. The evangelist John himself looked to heaven and earth when wishing to speak of the Son of God; he looked, and rose above them all. He thought on the thousands of angelic armies above the heavens; he thought, and, like the eagle soaring beyond the clouds, his mind overpassed the whole creation: he rose beyond all that was great, and arrived at that which was greater than all; and said, “In the beginning was the Word.” But because He, of whom is the Word, is not of the Word, and the Word is of Him, whose Word He is; therefore He says, “That which the Father gave me,” namely, to be His Word, His only-begotten Son, the brightness of His light, “is greater than all.” Therefore, “No one,” He says, “plucketh my sheep out of my hand. No one can pluck them out of my Father’s hand.” (Augustine of Hippo, “Lectures or Tractates on the Gospel according to St. John,” in St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. John Gibb and James Innes, , A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), Tractate 48. John 10:22-42, Volume 7, pp. 267–268)

There is a considerable difference in these words, as rendered by Augustin, from that which is found in our English version: “My Father who gave them me is greater than all.” The latter is certainly the more intelligible and suitable to the context. But the variation of the mss. between the two readings, “ὅ … μεῖζον” and “ὅς … μείζων,” is somewhat remarkable. The far larger number are certainly in favor of the latter, as followed by our English Bibles, but the former is countenanced by some of the more important; while others which have ὅς have at the same time μεῖζον (neut.) and vice versa. Thus the Sinaitic reads ὅ (neut.), and μεῖζων (masc.); while the Alexandrian has ὅς (masc.), and μεῖζον (neut.). The Vulgate, and some of the other early versions, have Augustin’s reading; but the Peshito (Syriac), which is the earliest of them all, supports the other, its literal rendering being, “For my Father, who gave to me, than all greater [is] He.” Modern critics have generally adopted the masc. reading,—Griesbach, Bengel, and others, almost ignoring the other, and Stier dismissing it as wholly inadmissible; while Alford, in a very strange and unsatisfactory way, gives the neuter in his Greek text, and not a syllable of explanation in his notes. It seems to us that the transcriber had first let ὅ creep into the text, perhaps from the previous similar expression in chap. 6:39; and then μεῖζον was made neuter by some other to agree with it. This is more likely than the reverse; and our English reading is every way more satisfactory than Augustin’s.—Tr. (Philip Schaff, ed., St. Augustin: Homilies on the Gospel of John, Homilies on the First Epistle of John, Soliloquies, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series, New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888, Volume 7)

COMMENTARIES

I now turn my attention to some more recent and modern commentaries on John’s Gospel. All emphasis will be mine.

Which (ος). Who. If ο (which) is correct, we have to take ο πατηρ as nominative absolute or independent, “As for my Father.”

Is greater than all (παντων μειζων εστιν). If we read ος. But Aleph B L W read ο and A B Theta have μειζον. The neuter seems to be correct (Westcott and Hort). But is it? If so, the meaning is: “As for my Father, that which he hath given me is greater than all.” But the context calls for ος … μειζων with ο πατηρ as the subject of εστιν. The greatness of the Father, not of the flock, is the ground of the safety of the flock. Hence the conclusion that “no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” (Robertson’s Word Pictures in the New Testament (A.T. Robertson), Chapter 10)

29. which gave them] Better, which hath given them . Comp. 17:6, 24. This enforces the previous assertion. ‘To snatch them out of My hand, he must snatch them out of My Father’s hand; and My Father is greater than all:’ even than the Son (14:28). But the reading is not certain. The most probable text gives, that which the Father hath given Me is greater than all. The unity of the Church is strength invincible.

out of my Father’s hand] The better reading is, out of the Father’s hand. ‘Out of His hand’ would have sufficed; but ‘Father’ is repeated for emphasis. (Cambridge Greek Testament Commentary for Schools and Colleges, Chapter 10)

29. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all (ὁ πατήρ μου ὃς δέδωκέ μοι, μείζων πάντων ἐστιν). There is considerable confusion here about the reading. Westcott and Hort and Tischendorf read ὁ πατήρ μου (Tischendorf rejects μου) ὃ δέδωκέν μοι πάντων μεῖζόν ἐστιν. That which the Father (or my Father) hath given me is greater than all. Rev. gives this in the margin. For gave, render hath given. (Marvin Richardson Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies in the New Testament, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887, Volume 2, 197)

The last statement is sustained by a still loftier assumption. Before translating, it is necessary to notice the three readings of the text.

(1) That of the T.R. and the Revisers’ Text: £ My Father who gave (them) to me is greater than all the powers that can possibly be arrayed against them.

(2) The reading of א, D, With reference to that which my Father, One greater than all, gave me, and no one is able to pluck from the hand of the Father.Meyer, however, translates this differently; he supposes the μεῖζον to refer to the Father “a something greater, a greater potence.” Westcott and Hort prefer the reading with ὅ and μείζονand Westcott translates, That which my Father has given me is greater than all,and regards it as a reference to the sheep as a collective unity. The internal reasons compel Luthardt, Godet, and Lange to fall back on T.R., and surely the extraordinary strain of the meaning justifies them. Our Lord would sustain with even stronger assurance the safety of his sheep. The Father’s gift to himself, the Father’s own eternal love and power, the Divine omnipotence of the Lord God himself, is pledged to their security. “My hand” becomes “my Father’s hand.” He seems to say, “If you question my capacity, you need not question his power. Sacrilegious violence may apparently nail my hands to the cross; the sword may awake against Jehovah’s Shepherd. But none can outwit, surprise, crucify, conquer, my Father, none can invalidate his care.” (The Pulpit Commentaries, Chapter 10)

This assumes that the niv rightly preserves the best reading of the Greek. There is a nest of variants here, and more than one way to translate several of them. The reading chosen is that of the Byzantine tradition, more recently supported by an early papyrus, P66. It makes the most sense in the context, and various reasonable conjectures have been advanced to explain how this obvious reading might well have been corrupted so thoroughly in the manuscript tradition. (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991)

As B. Metzger has noted, there are indeed a “nest” of variant readings at 10:29 concerning the matter of power (TCGNT, 232). The issue basically comes down to whether it is the Father or what he has given that is greater than all. The NIV probably is correct, but in any case the source of power rests ultimately in the Father, even if here it is focused on the gift. (Gerald L. Borchert, John 1–11, The New American Commentary, Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996, Volume 25A)

10:29 The clause who has given them to me, is greater than all follows the reading of the majority of manuscripts (the Byzantine text) as well as one of the earliest manuscripts (p66). This reading makes the most sense, but then why would the text have been changed if this were the original meaning (Metzger 1994:198)? Of the other readings (cf. Beasley-Murray 1987:165), the main alternative to the NIV is “what has been given to me is greater than all.” This could mean that the flock that the Father has given to Jesus is greater than all, which would comment on the superiority of the community Jesus is gathering around him. Or this reading could mean that the power the Father has given to Jesus is greater than all (cf. Grundmann 1967:537), thus reinforcing his claim that no one can snatch them out of my hand (v. 28). Thus, any of the major readings could fit the present context. (Rodney A. Whitacre, John, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series, Westmont, IL: IVP Academic, 1999, Volume 4)

John 10:29

ὁ πατήρ μου ὃ δέδωκέν μοι πάντων μεῖζων ἐστίν

My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can seize them from the Father’s hand.

There are several variations in this verse, and the textual evidence is scattered. The variation accepted BY MOST English translations for the beginning of the verse is literally translated, “What my Father has given to me is greater than all,” though one early witness has “the Father” instead of “my Father.” The alternate form of this is rendered “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all.” (Rick Brannan and Israel Loken, The Lexham Textual Notes on the Bible, Lexham Bible Reference Series, Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014, Jn 10:29a)

CONCLUSION

The foregoing data demonstrates that Aquinas’ exegesis of John 10:29 wasn’t novel, nor a departure from the plain contextual meaning of the text. Rather, the angelic Doctor’s explanation is based on a variant reading within the manuscript stream of this verse and is, therefore, a valid interpretation. It even has the support of some of Christianity’s earliest and greatest thinkers/scholars/theologians/apologists etc.

FURTHER READING

HILARY’S TRINITARIAN BELIEFS

Ignatius of Antioch’s Proclamation of the Essential Deity of Christ

Justin Martyr’s Witness to Christ’s essential and eternal Deity

IRENAEUS AND THE DEITY OF CHRIST

MORE FROM IRENAEUS ON THE DEITY OF CHRIST

Tertullian and the Doctrine of the Trinity

DID TERTULLIAN DENY THE ETERNAL NATURE OF CHRIST?

Origen’s Christology

Ante-Nicene Witness to Jesus’ Deity

WERE EARLY CHRISTIANS TRINITARIANS?

Did the Ante-Nicene Fathers Worship the Holy Spirit as God Almighty?

THE EARLY CHURCH ON THE ETERNAL BEGETTING OF THE SON

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