When the Apostle John wrote his gospel, he opened with words that would have stirred the hearts of Jew and Greek alike. “In the beginning was the Word . . . “
Old Testament Period
The Old Testament represents God’s creative act as speaking, i.e., the word of God (Genesis 1:3). God spoke and creation followed. By the word of the Lord the heavens were made (Psalm 33:6), and God’s word goes out from Him to accomplish His will (Isaiah 55:11). So in the Old Testament we have the Law, the Writings, and the Prophets all testifying to the power of God’s word.
Between the Old and New Testament times we have the “Inter-Testamental period.” One writing made during this time personifies wisdom as the Word (Book of Wisdom 18:15 cf. 9:1-2). Interestingly, it is about this time that, over in Greece, we have the rise of the philosophers (lovers of wisdom – from philos and sophia).
The Presocratics (the first philosophers, that taught before Socrates) were a group of philosophers who began their work in about 600 B.C. – about the time that Israel was being taken away to Babylon. As my professor Tom Howe once said, “As the light dimmed in Israel, it came on in Greece.”
The Presocratics emphasized the rational unity of things, and rejected mythological explanations of the world. Their investigation was of the ultimate basis and essential nature of the external world. They sought the ultimate principle of things. This they termed the “arche” – a Greek word meaning ‘beginning’, ‘origin’ or ‘first cause’. The arche is the source, origin or root of things that exist, and the method of their origin and disappearance.
The last time the prophetic phrase “the word of the Lord came to me” was used in Jewish writings (which some consider Scripture) was 2 Esdras, written between 465-424 B.C. It was during this time that the pre-socratic philosopher Heraclitus arose.
Heraclitus believed that all things are in flux – that all things are always changing, nothing is permanent, everything is constantly becoming something else or going out of existence. Heraclitus uses the river as a metaphor to depict the nature of all things: we can point to a single river, but what it really is is water in flux. “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
But change itself cannot be the arche of things, for what would be undergoing the change? What would direct it (for change does seem rational and predictable – it is not simply chaos). The principle that guided the changing cosmos was called the Logos (Greek for “word”). For Heraclitus, although all changing things are impermanent, the Logos – according to which all things change – is eternal. Finally, Heraclitus identifies the Logos with the primal element of fire, and that the cosmos is cyclically consumed by fire before reverting back to its current state (cf. 2 Peter 3:5-7!).
This idea was variously picked up, modified, and evolved by Jewish rabbis and philosophers of the Inter-Testamental period. Some rabbis considered God under the abstract idea of “the Word.” The philosopher Philo made the logos a sort of bridge between God and man (cf. 1 Timother 2:5!).
So imagine what happened when, in the New Testament period, John began his writing with the same words as the beginning of the Old Testament . . .
New Testament – St. Peter and St. John
The exact term Logos is found only in the Johannine writings:
- The Gospel of St. John (1:1-14)
- John’s First Epistle (1:1; cf. 1:7)
- The Apocalypse (19:13)
Of these, the most famous is his use in the first line of his Gospel: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the word was God.” In Greek it reads:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ Λόγος, καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, καὶ Θεὸς ἦν ὁ Λόγος.
In other words, for John in the arche was the logos, and the logos was the theos (God). Perhaps not super innovative – by now the terms for God, Beginning, and Word were being used together often. But they were not equated. John is writing in Greek but with a Jewish mind – one that probably recognized the various levels of meaning this sentence would have on both Jew and Greek. Thus, the biggest shock was yet to come.
Imagine a first century Jew and Gentile reading John’s Gospel. At first much of it echoes Moses or Philo for the Jew, and perhaps Heraclitus or some Stoic philosopher for the Gentile. John is using the terms like “arche,” “logos,” and “theos” in interesting ways – but not going completely out of the box. Then he recalls some of John the Baptist’s fairly mundane backstory . . . and then he drops the bomb:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
Jew and Gentile both spit out their drinks. “The logos . . . a person???” . . . “The theos . . . a human???” How does this make any sense?
In the subsequent history of Christian theology this difficult concept was affirmed, but not always in the same way. The early Apostolic Fathers do not spend much time dealing with John’s use of logos. St. Ignatius only says, “He is at the same time one and the other, not inasmuch as He is the Word, but as the Incarnate Word.” (To the Ephesians 7:2).
Later apologists used the idea of the logos to deal with Christian theology in a way that would make more sense to the Greek mind. St. Justin Martyr uses the theology of the logos in his “Apology“. Clement says the logos is eternal like the Father, and affirms the equality of the Father and the Son. St. Irenæus asserted the identity of the Father (theos) and the Son (logos).
But a few theologians did not agree. One church elder, Arius, taught that the logos was not the theos as was the Father. Arius believed that the Son was not eternal nor truly divine, but was merely the first and most perfect of God’s creatures – the Word through whom God made all other creatures (pretty much exactly what the Jehovah’s Witnesses would come to teach 1500 years later). This debate would come to a head at the Council of Nicaea.
The Council of Nicaea
The First Council of Nicaea was the first “ecumenical council” of the Church (not counting the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15), and it resulted in the first universal Christian doctrinal statement of orthodoxy. The persecution of Christians had just ended with the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313) by the emperor, Constantine. The council was convened by Constantine upon the recommendations of a synod in A.D. 325. Approximately 300 bishops attended from nearly every region of the Roman Empire.
St. Alexander of Alexandria and Athanasius took the position that the Son was co-eternal with the Father, and divine in just the same sense that the Father is – saying that if
the Father is eternal then the Father was always a father (and thus the Son was always a son). The Arian view destroyed the unity of the Godhead, thus contradicting the writings of the Apostle John (e.g., “The Word was God”; “I and the Father are one”; John 1:1-14; 10:30 cf. John 17:21.).
For about two months, the two sides were heard. According to tradition, the debate became so heated that Arius was slapped in the face by Bishop Nicholas of Myra who was later miraculously restored and eventually canonized as a saint (yes, the St. Nick!).The council firmly decided against the Arians by a massive majority – of the 300 or so attending bishops, only 2 were in disagreement with the council.That Jesus Christ, the logos, was “one being with the Father” would go on to form the basis of the Nicene Creed which unites Christianity in orthodoxy.
It is traditionally held that Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jewish people to present Jesus Christ as the Messiah King, that Luke wrote his gospel for the Gentile people to present Jesus Christ as the ideal man, that Mark composed his gospel from Peter’s sermons to the Romans presenting Jesus Christ as the Servant of God, and that John wrote to the whole world – Jew and Gentile – to present Jesus Christ as God. The opening lines of his gospel would have captured the imagination of both.