On Logos

We have often spoken of Logos and its centrality in life; all men are called to conform themselves to it. In truth, there is so great a depth to this word and what it signifies that it could not all be discovered in a lifetime. Nevertheless, as it is a fundamental concept of metaphysics and theology, I will give a very basic and brief introduction here to the Christian understanding of Logos.

In the Christian context, we encounter λόγος (logos) as an idea in the introduction to the Gospel of St. John (1:1-14).1 It is often translated as “Word.” As we read, we see that John is connecting this term to the person of Jesus Christ. Now, it is very easy to simply learn that λόγος is another title for the same person, like Son of God, Son of Man, God the Son, and Christ, and pass over it quickly; this is especially true since the English translation of “Word” seems both simple and strange to the reader at the same time. When we do so, however, we do not fully realize nor appreciate what St. John is revealing. What does λόγος mean, and what is John’s purpose for using it here? These are really questions of high Trinitarian theology; yet, without getting into such great detail that requires a vast depth of knowledge on the topic (which I lack), we can begin to recognize the richness of λόγος through its link to several concepts: Creation, Wisdom, and Reason

John’s first words are noteworthy: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1).2 Immediately, we see that this Gospel is unlike the others. Let’s initially focus on the first part of this phrase to show how λόγος relates to Creation — we will take “beginning” to mean the beginning of the universe. Straight away, there is a parallel between this first line of John and the first line of the Book of Genesis, as it starts with the very same words, Ἐν ἀρχῇ, “In the beginning” (1:1). With a general familiarity of Genesis, John’s connection becomes clearer. Notice how God creates the world throughout the seven days of creation­ — in the Greek it reads καὶ εἶπεν ὁ θεός, “And God said” (Genesis 1:3 and so on), in other words, spoke, before He forms the various creatures. This “speaking” part of creation is reiterated in the Psalms: τῷ λόγῳ τοῦ Κυρίου οἱ οὐρανοὶ ἐστερεώθησαν καὶ τῷ πνεύματι τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ πᾶσα ἡ δύναμις αὐτῶν, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were established and all the power of them by the spirit of his mouth” (32:6). If God creates by “speaking,” then there is obviously something which is being said. As λόγος can be taken to mean word, sentence, speech, story, and so forth, a very broad translation is “that which is spoken”; hence, God creates by λόγος. Now we understand why John continues, saying οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν, “The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was made nothing that was made.” (1:2-3). The word λόγος here,  by directly associating John’s introduction with the beginning of the Book of Genesis, emphasizes the importance of “speech” with regards to creation. From the beginning, from before creation and time,3 λόγος was with God, because it was through λόγος that all that was made came to be.4

This brings us to another aspect of the translation “Word.” Any word that is spoken signifies an idea which the speaker means to convey; it is recognized by the mind of the speaker who attempts to call it to the mind of his audience. For example, a person who is talking about a “dog” correctly must first understand what the term “dog” means, which is anterior to language. (This is a part of the philosophical concept of universals.)  So, there is a knowledge which the spoken word communicates. Creation suggests a mind which renders knowledge of an idea into active physical existence; for example, a carpenter, by understanding the form (to borrow Plato’s term) of “bed,” is able to assemble one. With all this in mind, another basic translation of λόγος is “that which is thought.” In this case, it must somehow relate to Divine knowledge or thought (which itself, in turn, is related to Creation). We can find the connection made explicit in the biblical wisdom literature, particularly in the Proverbs. In a passage describing and praising Wisdom, the Greek reads Κύριος ἔκτισέ [or ἐκτήσατο] με ἀρχὴν ὁδῶν αὐτοῦ εἰς ἔργα αὐτοῦ, πρὸ τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐθεμελίωσέ με ἐν ἀρχῇ, πρὸ τοῦ τὴν γῆν ποιῆσαι, “The Lord made [or possessed] me the beginning of his ways for his works. He established me before time in the beginning, before the creation of the earth” (Proverbs 8:22-23).5 The chapter continues to describe Wisdom’s presence with God during the creation of the world. With John’s usage of Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, he echoes Wisdom’s role in creation, just as he does for the spoken Word in Genesis. Therefore, λόγος not only marks a dynamic creative speech, but also the knowledge, or Wisdom, that this spoken word reveals.

The next conception of λόγος, Reason, is closely related to the idea of Wisdom, though it is non-biblical. In this form, we can trace it back to Heraclitus, but it is commonly associated with Stoicism.6 The Stoics held there to be a Divine Reason, or Order, which they called λόγος, that governs the world through intelligible law, accessible to all rational beings. A person must contemplate human nature to understand the overarching natural law which, when aligned with, will lead to happiness. There is an objective standard given by this universal Reason, a duty that binds all to follow in order to transcend the vicissitudes of time. The Stoics identified this Reason with the universe itself, making λόγος a governing pantheistic principle, rather unlike the creative Word of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, as his audience was the Christian community in general, and since he was writing in Greek, John is playing into the Hellenistic familiarity with λόγος as Reason; as rational universal Order. Certainly, early Christians accepted this truth and used it to their advantage. For example, St. Justin Martyr employed the Stoic conception of λόγος, coupled with Christ as λόγος, to convert non-Jews.7 Furthermore, the idea that the universe is ordered and intelligible, i.e. reasonable, was integral for the medievals both in their pursuits of natural philosophy, which later developed into the physical sciences, and in their ethics, best exemplified by St. Thomas Aquinas’ formulation of Natural Law which built on Aristotle and the Stoics. Though I cannot investigate these further for the sake of brevity and focus, the Hellenistic influence upon λόγος in Christian thought is clearly undeniable.

Finally, there is the meaning of λόγος in the sense that John is establishing in the passage. The whole point of his introduction is to explicitly link λόγος to the person of Jesus Christ. He tells us ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Now, this is obviously referring to Christ, whose story John writes through the rest of the Gospel. As a whole, his introduction is telling how Christ was present “before” and during creation, that John the Baptist came as the last prophet to prepare the way and give witness, that Christ took on flesh and came into the world, etc. John’s entire Gospel is, in essence, a witness to the Word as John knew Him in the world. He also mentions this and hearkens back to the beginning of his Gospel in his epistle8: Ὃ ἦν ἀπ’ ἀρχῆς, ὃ ἀκηκόαμεν, ὃ ἑωράκαμεν τοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, ὃ ἐθεασάμεθα καὶ αἱ χεῖρες ἡμῶν ἐψηλάφησαν, περὶ τοῦ λόγου τῆς ζωῆς… ἀπαγγέλλομεν καὶ ὑμῖν, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life… we declare to you also” (1 John 1:1-3). In the Incarnation, the Divine Word from eternity became man, or more specifically, a man — Jesus Christ. Christ himself confirms this later in the Gospel with the famous phrase πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί, “before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58). John combines these meanings of λόγος from different traditions in the person of Christ, thereby revealing that the eternal Divine Wisdom which created the universe, which is thus ordered and reasonable, is, in reality, a person who was sent by the Father into the world, fusing the Hebraic and the Hellenistic λόγος into the Christian. John asserts the duality of Father and Son, demonstrating the personhood of the Godhead.

Of course, this is only a small part of Trinitarian theology, especially since it does not include anything about the Holy Spirit. Much of this is perhaps lost as a result of the translation from the Greek into other languages and the “popularization” of the Bible since the so called “Reformation.” English can only give a term that covers a small part of the whole; at the very least, “Word” signifies the creation of the world, making the relation to Genesis apparent, and indicating that the Creator Himself came into the world. It gives a hint at the fullness of Logos, but we must look further.

1. This passage is sometimes referred to as the “Last Gospel” since it was read (and still is at “Latin Masses”) at the very end of the Roman Mass before the modern liturgical changes.

2. All Bible translations are from the Douay-Rheims version with modifications in certain parts to better reflect the Greek text.

3. Time is, after all, a part of the universe, of creation. Describing this idea with language is difficult, as the word “before” implies time, outside of which it does not make sense.

4. Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary: John 1.

5. The Greek variants in this passage were the cause of debate during the Arian Controversy. Arians took ἔκτισε to “prove” that the Son was a creature and therefore lesser than the Father and not “true God.” It has been noted that the Hebrew verb used here can be translated into either of the variants, which accounts for the discrepancy in Greek versions of the Old Testament. Many English translations use “possessed” since it is less controversial and indicates the eternal generation; however, Church Fathers in the past explained “made/created” in an orthodox Trinitarian way by teaching that it refers to the Incarnation (See Haydock Commentary on Proverbs 8).

6. Philo of Alexandria, the Hellenistic-Hebrew philosopher, is credited as the first to unite the Hebraic and Greek ideas of λόγος, albeit in a demiurgic form that was separate from God.

7. See his First Apology.

8. Haydock: 1 John 1.

Testis Gratus

Catholic, reactionary, traditionalist — "Ego vox clamantis in deserto: dirigite viam Domini"

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