With your indulgence, I’m going to repost a set of three studies on Jesus Christ as the Logos of God. They are a bit long, but hopefully useful.
It may sound somewhat unseemly for anyone to refer to the Lord Jesus Christ as “the Logos of God,” but to conceive of Him (momentarily) in this abstract way opens up new lines of inquiry that are harder to see under His personal name. And, after all, the Apostle John was the first to do it.
If one comes to the term “Logos” with the mindset of the ancient Greek philosophers, the best thing that could be extracted from the prologue to John’s Gospel would be a personification but not a Person. But clearly John is not content with a personification. He has something extremely profound in mind; something that I believe provides a helpful fillip for a fully Christo-doxological motif.
Before we can expound a motif we must clear away the mound of misunderstandings that has been built up over the meaning of John’s Logos.
- Meaning of the Term
The basic meaning of the word logos in Greek may be summarized as, “the expression of thought – not the mere name of an object – (a) as embodying a conception or idea, (b) a saying or statement, (c) discourse, speech, of instruction etc.”[i] Thus, the idea of rationality, of a reasoned message of some sort, is central to the term.[ii] Yet, at first glance it seems far from clear why the Apostle chose this designation.
It is clear that the concept of the Divine Logos that one encounters in the opening verses of John’s Gospel is of great importance to his doctrine of Christ. The main verses are given below:
In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word [Logos] was with God, and the Word [Logos] was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were created by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. (John 1:1-5)
He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. (John 1:10).
And the Word [Logos] was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld Him… (John 1:14a).
No man hath seen God [the Father] at any time; the only begotten Son,[iii] which is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him. (John 1:18).
I have isolated these verses, not because the other verses in the Prologue (vv. 1-18) are unimportant, but solely for the purpose of definition. These are the essential verses for the Logos teaching. We see a connection between the Word and God, the created order, and man.[iv] Clearly, in these passages John is very deliberately linking the Logos who became Christ in the flesh with the Creator God. We know that the Christ was named “Jesus” at the time of His birth (Lk. 2:21). But John is reaching far back before the creation to the relationship of the Logos/Son with God the Father from everlasting (Jn. 1:1-2, 18; cf. 17:5). Therefore, John is facing us with the implication that He who was to be known as Jesus of Nazareth in “the days of His flesh,” is the eternal Logos or Word of God. It is made clear that three great pillars of the Christian world and life view, Creation (1:1, 3), Revelation (1:4, 9, 14, 17-18), and Redemption (1:12-13), are bound to His Person. But we must turn to the question of ancient parallels before exploring these things further.
- The Uses of Logos in the Ancient World
The use of the word Logos – rendered “Word” in our better translations[v], naturally brings up the question of why the Apostle, under the Spirit’s direction, employed it. To our modern ears it sounds strange, if not a bit abstruse. In fact, the sense of enigma only increases once we begin to study the word and its ancient usages. The different ways logos was used as a technical term has given rise to much speculation as to just whom John was influenced by when he penned the Prologue to his Gospel.
From about the 6th Century B.C. the Greeks, beginning with Heraclitus, started to give logos a special philosophical nuance in their descriptions of reality. For example, Heraclitus made it function as “the stabilizing, directing principle of the universe.”[vi] The Logos was conceived of as the explanatory concept of the universe; “the rational power of calculation in virtue of which man can see himself and his place in the cosmos.”[vii] That is, it functioned as the final principle of intelligibility. Stoicism would later teach that it stood for that which gives the cosmos its shape and substance. In other words, keeping in mind the fundamental connection with rationality, the Greek philosophers found Logos most suitable to describe the organizing power of the phenomenal world.[viii] With the Stoics one finds a differentiation between the logos principle which interpenetrated even non-rational matter to give it form, also imparting the power of reason to humans: the so-called logos spermatikos or seminal reason, and the source of all morality and reason in living in the world: the orthos logos.[ix] Furthermore, this idea of the organizing Logos was still current at the time the Apostle John wrote his Gospel[x], although it had undergone some transformation by then.[xi]
Other scholars point to the grand eulogy of Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22-31, a passage which still has advocates who see in it a prediction of Christ.[xii] But this connection has its problems. For one thing, the figure of Wisdom in Proverbs is feminine. And for another, the Septuagint, which has been followed by most modern versions, says, “The Lord made me [in] the beginning of his ways for his works. He established me before time was in the beginning, before he made the earth.” (Prov. 8:22-23, LXX); a translation which was used by Arius to prove that Christ was a created being![xiii] When passages like this are joined with those from wisdom writings of intertestamental times, some see a possible association with the Prologue.[xiv]
But the association should be treated with caution due to the fact that “Wisdom” (a feminine noun), though personified, is never actually personalized. What is more, as Boice notes, “any serious personalization would be radically alien to the prevailing Jewish perspective which saw Wisdom as inseparable from the Torah (1 Baruch 4:1, 2; cf. Sirach 19: 20-22).”[xv] Besides, the picture in the apocrypha of Wisdom as a “stern warrior” leaping down from heaven (Wisdom of Solomon 18:15; cf. 9:1; 16:12), hardly encourages one to tie this in with the Apostle’s themes.[xvi] Finally, in Sirach 24:9 Wisdom is said to be created, thus echoing (or influencing) the LXX of Proverbs 8:22-23.
Still others equate the Logos of John with a strong Platonic[xvii] influence, though mediated through Philo – a contemporary of John. Philo’s interpretation of Plato involved the bridging of the platonic separation of the real spiritual realm – the realm of pure ideas, or forms, from the physical realm in which we live. Although he used the term logos in a variety of ways, the two most important were combined in the role of intermediary. Dennis Johnson tells us that “[a]t times in Philo, logos stands for the word by which God created the world (Op. Mund. 20-25). At other times it refers to a mediator between the ideal and the phenomenal.”[xviii]
As mediator, the Logos was, “the means by which the mind apprehends God.”[xix] Philo placed so much emphasis upon God’s transcendence that the concept of the Logos was necessary to bridge the gap between God (in the Ideal realm) and men (in the phenomenal world).[xx] Guthrie notices five things in connection with Philo’s logos doctrine:
- Philo’s logos was impersonal. While all admit that Philo personified the logos (see below); it was not his intention to lend it the status of actual personhood.
- The logos was protogonos huios, God’s “first-born son,” and, “the eldest and most akin to God.” As such the logos was pre-existent, yet no more than a “power” of God.
- Philo does not link light and life to his logos.
- Philo’s logos belonged completely to the world of Ideas, and could not become incarnated in this lower material realm.[xxi]
- Nevertheless, the logos performed, “a mediatorial function to bridge the gap between the transcendent God and the world.”[xxii]
These facts make it unlikely that John concerned himself overmuch with his Alexandrian contemporary. It should also be borne in mind that Philo’s logos represented the faculty of reason in humans as well as in God.[xxiii] When one considers the way in which the later Alexandrians, especially Clement, used Philo to develop their logos doctrine, it seems highly unlikely that John would have used him as his starting-point. Of that logos-theory Herman Dooyeweerd wrote,
It conceived of the divine creating Word (Logos) as a lower divine being which mediates between the divine unity and impure matter. The Alexandrian school thereby actually transformed the Christian religion into a high ethical theory, into a moralistically tinged theological and philosophic system, which as a higher gnosis was placed above the faith of the Church.[xxiv]
There is too much in John which contravenes Philo, and too much in Philo to derail the Christian community.[xxv] We therefore believe that at best John gave the celebrated Jew a nod of acquaintance and thought little more about it.
The Word of YHWH
But there is yet another hypothesis. This opinion finds a correlation between John’s usage of logos in the Gospel (Jn. 1:1, 14; 6:35, 48 51, 58; 8:12; 9:1-12; 11:25; 14:24; 17:14), and the “dabar YHWH” (“The Word of the LORD”) which came to the prophets in the OT.[xxvi] As a prophetic word it is a word both of intention and of power (Psa. 33:6; Isa. 6:9-10; 24:1-3; 40:8; 45:23; 55:11; Amos 3:1, 7-8). As Morris puts it, “When God speaks He does something. His word is a divine action.”[xxvii] The Old Testament also personifies the word in places like Psa. 33:6; 107:20; 147:15, and Isa. 55:10-11. There is no question but that the Apostle would have been intimately acquainted with these passages. Furthermore, his deliberate recall of Genesis 1:1 immediately turns ones thoughts towards the creation passages, (especially Psalm 33:6 and 9). It would appear inadvisable then to drift too far from these Hebraic associations.
We should also briefly address the issue of the Targums and their usage of memra YHWH as a circumlocution for God. Although some have tried to draw parallels between the two, the mere periphrastic use of memra (Aramaic for “word”), by the rabbis never approaches the scope of the Logos terminology, either in Christian or non-Christian usage.[xxviii] Lincoln notices that besides all the evidence post-dating the time of the writing of John’s Gospel, only in a very few cases is memra employed to refer to God’s revelatory activity.[xxix]
Thesis or Synthesis?
Having seen that Logos clearly did not have a static meaning in the ancient world, even when used technically, it is reasonable to ask whether John was employing the term in a totally separate sense or whether he was creating a kind of synthesis or bridge across which both Jew and Hellenist might walk. The common Hellenistic usages of the term would have certainly been familiar to John, even if not in all their philosophic rigor.[xxx]
But more than this, John’s close familiarity with the creative (Gen. 1:3; 6:9; Psa. 32:6) and prophetic (Isa. 55:11; Jer. 1:4; Ezek. 1:3) dabar of God would surely not have been without significance to the aged Apostle. We are on more promising ground here. So whatever the source, as long as the notions of creation and/or order and rationality were in view, John could have both attracted a hearing from both “Greeks” and Jews while re-educating them about the Person and work of Jesus Christ, the true Logos. To do this he did not need to be beholden to any who went before him, not even to the Old Testament prophets. Pagan thought had recognized the rational nature of the universe and equated it, with varying degrees of precision, with their Logos principle.[xxxi] The inspired authors of the Old Testament knew that God had formed all things by His word (Psa. 33:6, 9), and that His word might be spoken of as if it were personal (e.g. Isa. 55:11), or as if it were God Himself (e.g. Psa. 29:3-5, 8). John adds to the Old Testament revelation by identifying the word with the Second Person of the Trinity.[xxxii]
All this does not mean that John has simply brought together these loose concepts and added his own twist to them. In rejecting this line of reasoning, Leon Morris objects:
This, however, seems to assume that that the whole of the Johannine concept of the Word must be explicable in terms of some part of its background, be it Jewish, Hellenistic, or what you will. This I would strongly contest. John’s thought is his own. He uses a term which would be full of meaning to men whatever their background. But whatever their background they would not find John’s thought identical with their own. His idea of the Logos is essentially new.[xxxiii]
The only thing he has done is to employ a term which was current in his day and exhibited it in its fullest truth in the Person of Christ. Doubtless he self-consciously connected the dabar YHWHwith Christ the Logos of God. John therefore makes the Logos concept his own by referring it to the pre-existent and incarnate Christ. This lends special significance to the Gospel Prologue, for John is telling us more than simply “Jesus is God!”
[i] W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words, (London: Marshall Pickering, 1991), 229. As a classical Greek scholar, Vine is authoritative here. Balz and Schneider gives a variety of meanings for logo” – word, speech, language, narrative, statement, pronouncement, question, report, account, sermon, teaching, call, sense. H. Ritt, in Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider,Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 2.357.
[ii] Gordon H. Clark even went so far as to translate John 1:1 as “In the beginning was Logic!” – See his The Johannine Logos (Jefferson, MD: The Trinity Foundation, n.d.). We agree that God is wisdom or logic in the same way that He is love, but Clark’s rendering has an absoluteness about it that has no balance. To call the second Person of the Trinity “Logic” is to miss the point that John is making. John’s purpose is far grander than Clark’s controversial translation will allow.
[iii] We are aware of the textual variant in this place. We are unconvinced that the Alexandrian text-form (which reads, “the only begotten God”) preserves the correct reading, the rule lectio difficitor notwithstanding.
[iv] Cf. Buist M. Fanning, “Logos,” in T. Desmond Alexander, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy, eds., New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000).
[v] The main commentaries are in agreement that “Word” is the best translation. Words are essential to rational thought, and, therefore, to any purposive action. Also, John’s Logos is personal, and, therefore, active, which draws the parallels with Genesis 1, plus the many creation passages in both the Old and New Testaments (e.g. Psa. 33; Heb. 1, etc.).
[vi] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 116.
[vii] H. Kleinknecht, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 4.80.
[viii] To the Neo-Platonist, logos permeated and invigorated everything – TDNT, op. cit., 85.They often saw the Logos, “as a plurality by which it brings into effect the multiplicity of phenomena.” – ibid, 86. These phenomena were brought into being by the clashing of warringlogoi. It is hardly surprising that these logoi came to be identified with the gods, in particular with Hermes (the messenger). The name of C.H. Dodd is closely associated with the proposal that the Hermetic literature formed the background for John’s Prologue, but it has met with very little support. For an assessment see Leon Morris, op. cit. 61-62.
[ix] G. B. Kerford, “Logos” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5.83.
[x] Dennis H. Johnson, “Logos,” in, Joel B.Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall, eds.,Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 481.
[xi] Kleinknecht reminds us that, “It should not be overlooked, however, that for the Greeks [logos] is very different from an address or a word of creative power. No matter how we construe it as used by the Greeks, it stands in contrast to the “Word” of the OT and NT.” – TDNT, op. cit. 79.
[xii] Wayne Grudem believes that the newer translations have not represented the passage correctly. See his Systematic Theology, (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 229-230. Though Grudem does not find a link with the Johannine Prologue.
[xiii] Karen H. Jobes and Moises Silva, Invitation To The Septuagint, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), 25. They write, “Of course, one must also consider that the Greek translator himself originally rendered the Hebrew in ways that were to some extent influenced by the Greek culture and thought, making the text even more congenial to a later exegesis that would be similarly influenced.”
[xiv] E.G. Graham Stanton is sure of it. See Graham N. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 114-115.
[xv] James M. Boice, Witness and Revelation in the Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 160.
[xvi] Also, as Nash notes, “The Wisdom of Solomon does not use the word logos.” – Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel And The Greeks, 2nd edition, (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003), 72.
[xvii] Guthrie claims that “Plato did not expound a logos principle.” – Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1981), 322. However, a major interpreter of Plato makes it clear that he did employ the term in similar ways to Heraclitus, particularly in his teaching of the soul’s own exploration of itself. See Eric Voegelin, Plato, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1966), 84-85. In fact, although the “eternal model” (paradeigma) of the creation “cannot be seen by the logos of man in its eternal being [save] as embodied in the cosmos,” nevertheless, “The cosmos is intelligible, and we can give an account of it” insofar as our finite minds share some kinship with the logos of the Demiurge. – See Voegelin, 195-196. Thus, a strong logos teaching permeates Plato’s thought, and it is this which the Alexandrians, including Philo, would enlarge upon.
[xviii]Dennis H. Johnson in, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, “Logos”, 482. See also Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1999), 3.186.
[xix] J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, revised edition, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1978), 10.
[xx] Kerford, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 5.84.
[xxi] “The pure logos of Philo is the logos of the Greek philosophers and belongs to the incorruptible world of higher reality. It could never have endured an incarnation into corruptible matter.” – James M. Boice, Witness and Revelation in the Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970), 161. Compare also, Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, 122 n. 147 for a direct quote from Philo to this effect.
[xxii] This information may be found in Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology, 322-323.
[xxiii] Andrew T. Lincoln, The Gospel According to Saint John, (New York: Continuum, 2005), 95.
[xxiv] Herman Dooyeweerd, A New Critique of Theoretical Thought, (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1953), I.177.
[xxv] With his customary insight, the conservative German scholar Zahn commented, “If John had applied to Christ a Logos speculation derived from non-Christian sources, and under its influence had attempted a higher conception of Christ, inevitably the clear figure of the man Jesus would have faded away like a shadow and been distorted into ghostly form.” – Theodor Zahn, Introduction To The New Testament, (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1977 Reprint), 3.318.
[xxvi] cf. Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, 3.174.
[xxvii] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, 118.
[xxviii] Andrew F. Walls, “Logos” in Everett F. Harrison, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Carl F. Henry, editors, The Wycliffe Dictionary of Theology, reprinted (Peabody: Massachusetts, Hendriksen Publishers, Inc., 1999), 328. James Boice adds that, “while both rooted in the Old Testament themes and traditions, [memra and Logos] have no direct bearing upon each other. Memradoes not refer to a divine mediator of God or of the divine revelation.” – James M. Boice,Witness and Revelation in the Gospel of John, 161.
[xxix] Lincoln, 95.
[xxx] For example, Zahn noted that, “there was a synagogue of the Alexandrians in Jerusalem, and many Hellenists in the membership of the mother Church.” – Zahn, op. cit., 317-318. In addition, as pastor of the church at Ephesus for a number of years, John would have known firsthand the influence of Hellenistic belief-systems, superstitions and practices. (For confirmation of this, see Clinton E. Arnold, Ephesians: Power and Magic, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1992) 14-20).
[xxxi] The Stoics held that there were clashing logoi that were responsible for the differences in form in the cosmos.
[xxxii] “Jesus Christ is entirely in the stream of the divine revelation in history. And Jesus is in this stream and not outside of it or in opposition to it simply because He is the same one who has been active and, indeed, the only one who has been active in the revelation of God at all times in the past.” – Boice, op. cit, 70.
[xxxiii] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, 122.