“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” -John 1:1, 14
In the opening of his Gospel, John refers to Jesus using the Greek term “Logos.” English Bible translators have rendered that loaded term as “Word”; unfortunately, as is true in any literary translation, much meaning is lost, as “Logos” carries with it many connotations—and indeed, an entire philosophical framework—that “Word” does not. In the ancient world, the term “Logos” didn’t really have a fixed definition, since philosophers were continually reinterpreting it, readapting it, to give it renewed meaning (among them Heraclitus, Aristotle, the Stoics, Philo, and, in the third century A.D., Plotinus). In most schools of Greek philosophy, though, the term was used to designate the underlying principle of the universe, one that was rational, intelligent, and vivifying. Some loose synonyms for Logos might be Mind, Power, Cause, Act, Ground, Reason, or Structure, but no one word adequately sums up the fullness of the term.
When John penned his Gospel in the late first century, the concept of Logos that he most likely had in mind was the concept set forth by the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo (20 B.C. – A.D. 50). Philo fused Greek philosophical concepts with Hebrew religious thought, transforming the word “Logos” from an abstract, impersonal force into a person with a mind and a will. Philo’s Logos was many things, but he was primarily an intermediary being who was needed to bridge the enormous gap between God (perfect idea) and the material world (imperfect matter) and, more than that, Philo’s Logos was an extension of God himself.
The following list, which I adapted from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Philo, highlights some of the ways in which Philo describes the Logos in his writings.
The Logos is…
1. The Utterance of God
2. The Divine Mind, or the indestructible Form of Forms
Plato’s theory of Forms, or theory of Ideas, asserts that nonmaterial abstract forms, not the material world of change known to us through sensation, possess the highest and most fundamental kind of reality. Physical objects, according to Plato, are only shadows of reality that mimic the real Forms. (For example, the chair that you’re sitting on is not as real as your perfect idea of that chair.) Philo identifies Forms with God’s glory, so to him, the Logos represents the fullness of God’s glory, a Form fixed and unchanging, and this world and all that is in the world is but a dim shadow of that glory.
3. God’s Transcendent Power, a manifestation of his thinking-acting
“… in the one living and true God there were two supreme and primary powers, Goodness [or Creative Power] and Authority [or Regent Power]; and that by his Goodness he had created every thing; and that by his Authority he governed all that he had created; and that the third thing which was between the two, and had the effect of bringing them together was the Logos, for it was owing to the Logos that God was both a ruler and good.” (De Cherubim 1.27-28)
4. Firstborn Son of God, God’s first and eternally generated thought
5. Universal Bond, in the Physical World and in the Human Soul (more on this in my next post)
6. Immanent Reason
When God “breathed into” (“inspired,” or “gave life to”) inanimate things, through this act God extended his spirit of Immanent Reason into humans (Legum Allegoriarum 1.37), giving man an intellect and free volition, which differentiates him from other life forms.
7. Soul-Nourishing Wisdom
8. Intermediary Power (between God and the world)
9. God Himself
This list can be tricky for us to wrap our twenty-first-century minds around, but John’s use of the term Logos is considerably more digestible, because he goes one step further and calls the Logos “Jesus.” Like those before him, John makes the term his own, this time giving the Logos a name and, consequently, a concrete identity. Jesus, as Logos, is the incarnate Utterance of God, communicating the way and will of God to the world. Jesus is the Divine Mind, Ultimate Reality and Truth, of which we are but imperfect copies. Jesus is the physical manifestation of God’s Transcendent Power, the cause of all the universe’s life and being. Jesus is the firstborn Son of God, begotten, not made. Jesus is the Universal Bond, who holds the universe together by his power and love. Jesus is Immanent Reason, who breathed his image into every human being, making man a rational creature. Jesus is Wisdom incarnate, perfect in knowledge, insight, and judgment. He is the Intermediary Power that connects man to God via his substitutionary death on the cross. And indeed, Jesus is God himself.
I can’t help but wonder what John was really thinking when he chose the word “Logos,” of all words, to describe Jesus in what is now considered one of the most famous prologues in history. All I know is that if we casually pass by the word in our reading of John 1, assuming only the most obvious interpretation (that God speaks to the world through Jesus), we do ourselves, and God, a sore disservice, for Jesus exists on so many levels, and he wants to be known, or at least explored, on all of them.
Reformed theologian R. C. Sproul says that the Logos-Jesus John announces is “the divine Actor, acting in creation and redemption in a coherent way.” John’s prologue is startling, Sproul says, because it tells how “[t]he cosmic Christ enters our humanity. It is the supreme moment of visitation of the eternal with the temporal, the infinite with the finite, the unconditioned with the conditioned.”
How does John 1:1 read differently to you if you read it in light of its Greco-Hebraic context? (Try reading it, for example, as “In the beginning was the Form of Forms…”, or “In the beginning was the Universal Bond…”) Which of Philo’s nine different descriptions of the Logos (Philo offers more, but I highlight only nine) resonates most with you?
I encourage you to read the entire first chapter of John and see if you can recognize in it different aspects of Philo’s philosophy (given a Christian spin, of course).
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Years ago, I realized ha John 1:1 was an echo of Genesis 1:1. “In beginning…”