Friday, August 10, 2007

"Logos" Understood In Context

I got into a conversation over at the Stand to Reason blog with, among others, an old sparring partner of mine, the Mormom Heideggerian Kevin Winters (I hope he won't mind me calling him that, but it's the most concise way of describing his position I am capable of - and if you don't know what a "Heideggerian" is, don't worry about it, or visit his blog and jump into continental philosophy to find out). The conversation centered on the translating of "logos" in John 1 as "logic" or "reason" in defense of the claim that logic comes from the very nature of God Himself. My response to Kevin ended up being so unexpectedly long and (hopefully) cogent that I decided to post it here as a blog entry. Who knows - maybe someone out there in this big great blogosphere will find my thoughts on this somewhat helpful. In any event, I put so much time into it that I thought it would be a waste not to put it up here.

Kevin's comment to which I was responding read:

The interpretation of Logos in John 1:1 as "logic" is highly anachronistic. Was John a closet Aristotelian philosopher? No, he was a common Jewish fisherman. F.F. Bruce said it best:

"No doubt the English term 'Word' is an inadequate rendering of the Greek logos, but it would be difficult to find one less inadequate... But if logos is not completely meaningless to an ordinary reader, it probably suggest something like 'reason', and that is more misleading than 'Word'. A 'word' is a means of communication, the expression of what is in one's mind...

"The term logos was familiar in some Greek philosophical schools, where it denoted the principle of reason or order immanent in the universe, the principle which imposes form on the material world and constitutes the rational soul in man. It is not in Greek philosophical usage, however, that the background of John's thought and language should be sought. Yet, because of that usage, logos constituted a bridge-word by which people brought up in Greek philosophy, like Justin Martyr in the second century, found their way into Johannine Christianity.

"The true background of John's thought and language is found not in Greek philosophy but in Hebrew revelation. The 'word of God' in the Old Testament denotes God in action, especially in creation, revelation and deliverance."The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, and Notes, 29.

The use of John 1:1 as a proof text for the necessity of logic is silly.

Here is my response.

I agree that:

1) John was not a closet Aristotelian philosopher

2) "logos" as "reason" (as understood by some strands of Greek philosophical thought, and as modern readers here are understanding it) may not communicate exactly what the author of the fourth Gospel was trying to convey, and

3) Bruce is mostly correct when he says, "The true background of John's thought and language is found not in Greek philosophy but in Hebrew revelation. The 'word of God' in the Old Testament denotes God in action, especially in creation, revelation and deliverance."

However, it is my studied opinion that a closer look at both the cultural and textual context reveals a fuller understanding of John's use of "logos" in his gospel than you or Bruce (who I fully admit is a much more qualified scholar than myself to speak on this) seem to be suggesting. Don't take that humble admission too far, though - I do have other scholarship on my side here, and am not pitting myself alone against Bruce.

The gospel of John was written during the time that the early church was dealing with the rise of proto- and early Gnosticism. (As I'm sure you know, Gnosticism varied greatly, but the basic belief was one inherited from Platonism - that all matter is evil. Consequently, according to the Gnostics, Christ did not "come in the flesh," or have a real body - since bodies are matter, matter is evil, and a divine being could not be joined to such an evil thing - but instead his appearance as a man was an illusion.)

In any event, this notion was in play when John wrote his gospel. In fact, the epistles attributed to the apostle John, who is also traditionally credited as writing the fourth gospel, were direct attacks on Gnosticism in its early form as it began to sway the first century church (2 John 1:7 - "For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.").

Within this context, then, it is important to perhaps look at the prologue as a whole to understand just how the author was using "logos". If one were a Gnostic reading it, one would be happily trucking right along and have no problem with the first thirteen verses. Suddenly, though, verse 14 hits:

"And the Word (logos) became flesh (sarx)"

What? says the Gnostic. The divine logos could NOT become flesh! (Bear in mind that sarx was the equivalent of dung, or an even stronger term perhaps, to the Gnostic mind. Furthermore, in the Greek these two terms are situated right next to each other, so the juxtaposition could not have been sharper.)

I think this textual and cultural context gives amazing insight into John's usage of "logos". He was certainly aware of the Gnostic claim, and also how they would understand in some fashion what he was talking about when he applied "logos", a term they were probably quite familiar with and to which they had tied certain associations. That he used this term, then stresses that the "logos" became flesh, became matter, argues powerfully that he had this sort of polemic in mind when writing his gospel. I see verse 14 as being the key to understanding John’s point of using logos – to incisively cut down the Gnostic view of Christ, something he would be keen to do, given that he had lived with the man for three years and was witness to both his divinity AND his humanity. I think we don’t give John, or the other apostles for that matter, enough credit when we call them merely common Jewish fishermen. These guys certainly encountered the philosophies hostile to Christianity that were circulating in the ancient world of the first century, and had adequate tools with which to combat them – not only that, but an empowerment by the Holy Spirit to do so. I see John 1 as evidence of that, though really the New Testament is full of more.

Now, I actually do think that later, more Greek-oriented thinkers (such as Justin Martyr) probably took the Logos doctrine farther that John intended. But I don’t think that an understanding of the Greek usage of the term was totally missing from the author’s mind or intent when he wrote his famous prologue. I actually think he was using the enemies own ideas against them – attempting to impale them on their own sword, so to speak.

UPDATE 10/4/07: Upon further reflection and reading, I decided I should probably have used the more specific term "docetism" rather than the much wider "gnosticism" to avoid confusion.


Sophia Sadek said...

Thanks for the posting.

For starters I must express serious doubts that the author of the Gospel of John was a poor Jewish fisherman. It is the work of a literate individual.

Secondly, as far as I know, there is nothing that ancient Gnostics would find objectionable in the incarnation of the divine Logos. They may view the process differently from an orthodox Christian, but I doubt that they would take umbrage at the notion.

I've seen a number of references to "logos" in literature that defines it as both reason and oratory. (I believe Philo of Alexandria was one of those authors.) In one of his writings, Augustine admits that logos also means "reason," but he concedes to a translation of "verbum." (This is typical of Church leaders who find an error in a colleague's work.)

Aaron Snell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron Snell said...


Thanks for commenting. I have conceded for a long time that the "beloved disciple", whether he was John son of Zebedee or some other Gallilean follower of Jesus, was certainly the source of the testimony contained in his gospel, but perhaps not the one who recorded and compliled the account. I think it likely that the literate nature of the gospel came through whoever that was, but without in any way diminishing the testimony of the beloved disciple. Actually, my whole point was some people sell the gospel writers short in thinking they lacked any sophistication (the "country bumpkin view"), so I actually concur with your first statement.

Your second statement regarding Gnositcism and the Incarnation, however, is problematic.

Secondly, as far as I know, there is nothing that ancient Gnostics would find objectionable in the incarnation of the divine Logos.

I'm not sure what you've read on the subject, but it is well-accepted by scholars that the common thread that made all flavors of Gnosticism, well, Gnostic, was the categorization of matter as evil. This had consequences for Christology - most Gnostics thought, as I said earlier, that Jesus' human form was an illusion. Others thought he was a real man but asserted that a distinct divine being spoke through him, thus equally denying the Incarnation. No Gnostic of any stripe would be comfortable with the notion that the divine logos actually became human. The flesh was not just evil in a theoretical sense to them, but indecent to the point of repugnance (hence the "dung" description). Those of the first type were known to the early church as Docetists.

This is standard scholarship, so I'm not sure what to make of your objection. Perhaps you mean they would just have a different view of how the Incarnation worked, but that seems pretty obvious - in fact, I have described how they saw it working. Again, the umbrage they would take would be with the description of the Incarnation put forward by John (or whoever) in his prologue. That was my whole point. Embedded in that point is the understanding that an Incarnation that denies the "taking on of flesh" is no Incarnation at all.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by and putting in your thoughts!

Sophia Sadek said...

Much of the scholarship on the ancient Gnostics comes from those who opposed their schools. Given the Gnostic concept of spirit as being divine spark trapped in the material prison of the mortal body, I don't see any contradiction of divine incarnation.

There is another reference to the "evil" of matter that derived from its lack of form. This was contradicted by atomists who perceived form in "unformed" matter at a minute level. Note that the human body does not qualify as unformed matter.

Aaron Snell said...


I think I overstated my case a bit, and so retract this statement:

"No Gnostic of any stripe would be comfortable with the notion that the divine logos actually became human."

However, I still think my overall point stands, which was: the author of the fourth gospel used the Greek term logos polemically as a challenge to the emerging Gnostic understanding of the Incarnation that made Christ an immaterial being who only gave the appearence that he was flesh and blood. That this view is Gnostic, flows out of Gnostic metaphysical commitments, and was historically held by Gnostic groups, is not really in dispute as far as I can see. (Note, I'm not saying that other Gnostics didn't hold to different views of the Incarnation than the one John and the early church were encountering and addressing, or even that Gnosticism as a rudimentary whole necessitates this view, though this is hard to say because of the wide range of views put under the Gnosticism title. But I do think there is a direct connection between the afore-mentioned Gnostic metaphysical commitments and this view of an incorporeal Christ.) If you still hold that "there is nothing that ancient Gnostics would find objectionable in the incarnation of the divine Logos," then you must deal with the historical reality that some, in fact, did find it objectionable.

(Just to be sure we're not equivocating here, by "Incarnation", I mean "became flesh, literally" and not "appeared as a man.")

Sorry if this is getting dragged out too long; I just want to make sure we're understanding each other. Thanks for your contributions!

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