The Word of God?

The first five verses of John’s gospel tell us:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

The Greek word which our English bibles translate, rather baldly, as ‘word’ (or frequently ‘Word’), is Λόγος (Logos). The translation actually does the word a huge disservice - it reduces it to a mere collection of letters on a page, or a spoken element. But…

Logos has a huge ‘back-story’, which our translations conveniently ignore. Our translations allow us, mostly (with the notable exception of the passage quoted above), to propagate the fiction that the bible is the Logos - and why wouldn’t it? After all, the English word has, effectively, just that one familiar meaning - and even using it to refer to a book (or, rather, collection of books) feels like a bit of a stretch.

Sometimes, preachers admit that Logos can mean discourse, or reason, in addition to its ‘proper’ meaning. But they too have missed the point - or, rather, hundreds and hundreds of years of points from some very fine minds. The word Logos first began to be used as a term in Greek philosophy by Heraclitus (circa 535-475BC), who used it to define a principle of order and knowledge…

After that, just about anybody who was important in Greek philosophy got in on the act, and the word acquired a huge significance, and a wide range of meanings, and much thought lay in its background. If you would like to begin to explore this area, this Wikipedia article will give you a reasonable start: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logos#Origins_of_the_term

Why am I telling you all this? Why should you care about ancient Greek philosophy? Only this: that the writers of the New Testament were writing in Greek and, as educated people, would have been well aware (in contrast to us) of the depth of meaning of Logos, and were deliberate in their use of the term - what it actually meant really mattered to them - as it should to us!!

So, what does Logos mean?

If we ‘cut to the chase’ by leaving out most of the history of how it developed as a philosophical term, once we get to the time of the early church, the ‘basic’ meaning (which sort of nods to the philosophy which came before) can be summed up as follows.

Its meaning is that it’s God’s ‘inner voice’; it’s an idea (or lots of ideas); it’s an action following a thought; it’s divine wisdom; it’s God speaking His thoughts aloud (one internally). It’s all those ideas and more. What it absolutely isn’t is merely something which has been written down.

In our short passage above, Jesus Christ is identified as the ‘Logos’ become human. This identification is based on Old Testament concepts around the revelation of God - in the Old Testament the phrase ‘the Word of the Lord’ has connotations of God’s power and activity - his ‘energies’ if you like. In the Old Testament it also represents the Jewish idea that wisdom is what draws people to the divine.

Once we get to New Testament times, Jesus is, by implication, identified with the Logos in a number of places, but in John’s gospel, Jesus is explicitly identified with the Logos. The Logos is Jesus, and Jesus is the Logos, and He pre-existed alongside the Father.

The early Apostolic Fathers stated that Jesus Christ, as the pre-existent Logos, firstly reveals the Father to humanity and is the subject of all the Old Testament manifestations of God; secondly, He is the divine reason (or thought) in which the whole human race shares, so that Heraclitus and others who lived lives imbued with reason were Christians before Christ; and thirdly, the Logos is the divine will and ‘spoken word' by which the cosmos was created.

To ‘shrink’ the idea of a logos to a human scale, so as to perhaps make it easier to comprehend, you might like to think of your own personal ‘logos’ as being the voice of your thoughts… When you’re thinking ‘verbally’ about something (or anything, or nothing much) - that ‘inner voice’, with which you ‘express’ your thoughts, is your logos.

Protestantism has made the unfortunate error of equating Logos with the bible. It’s unfortunate because not only does it confer upon the bible more authority than God ever intended it to have, or than its human authors expected, but it also robs Jesus and the Holy Spirit of authority.

Jesus didn’t say “…I will ask the Father, and He will send you a book, to teach you all things…”

What He actually said was:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:16-17…26-27

There isn’t anything about a book there nor, especially, about a book having authority. And the bible makes no claim to be the ultimate authority - that claim is made in its behalf by people misinterpreting verses such as this:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17

There’s nothing in those verses claiming authority over everything, or even anything. All it’s really saying is what the words say; anything more is additional interpretation by people with ulterior motives.

I have a high view of scripture - I jolly-well ought to, if it is inspired by God. I’ve spent more than forty years, reading it, thinking about it, wrestling with it… I’ve come to love it (and sometimes to hate it too). But I have a far higher view of the three persons of the Holy Trinity than I do of the bible.This isn’t an attempt to devalue the bible; rather it is an attempt to place God in His rightful place, as the Lord of all, including being Lord of the bible.

One think you need to bear in mind when reading the bible is that, when you see ‘the word of God’ this was usually intended, by its original authors, to refer to Jesus Christ, the second person of the Trinity and is not the bible referring to itself. Sometimes, the effort to equate the bible with the word of God gives rise to ‘awkward’ translations, to try to make it make sense. Remember that the original isn’t written with that idea in mind. Of course, there are a few exceptions (aren’t there always?). For instance, at the beginning of 1 Kings 18, we read:

After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah…

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus came to Elijah, but it means that God spoke to him, somehow. Again, taking an example from the New Testament, in Luke’s gospel:

...during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. Luke 3:2

This could mean that Jesus came to see John and talk to him, but it’s more likely to mean that God spoke, somehow, to John.

Bear in mind too, that when the words of the New Testament were being written down, it was nothing more than a collection of writings (frequently produced by people in a hurry, whose command of Greek wasn’t particularly good) and passed around between widely scattered congregations. Our translations mostly ’smooth over’ the linguistic and grammatical issues and present us with a ‘fair copy’ (David Bentley Hart’s ’The New Testament: A Translation’ attempts to reproduce something of the immediacy, the hurry and the poor grammar - it makes for quite a different reading experience). It wasn’t until about three hundred years later that, by a process of negotiation (and other, less savoury methods), a ‘canon’ of New Testament scripture was arrived at. So when the New Testament refers to ‘scripture’ (see, for instance, the quotation from Paul’s second letter to Timothy above), it is always, always, referring to what we know as the Old Testament

Copyright Phil Hendry, 2022