“In the beginning was the Logos…and the Logos was made flesh.” (Jn. 1:1,14)
The Gospel of John starts out by telling us that the Logos became the person of Jesus Christ. But was the Logos a person before that? In the beginning, was the Logos a person, a “word”, or something else? According to Trinitarian theology, the Logos was a person, and then changed dramatically at the incarnation, to become another person, a God/man.
This may come as a surprise, but for the first 150 years of the church’s existence the Logos of John 1:1 was not considered to be a person.
If the earliest church didn’t consider the Logos to be a person, then what on earth (or in heaven) was it, in their minds? Did John ever intend for the Logos to be what it later became in Trinitarian theology – a divine person who was part of an eternal godhead consisting of three persons?
Just what does this word actually mean? What sources are we going to use to help us drill down on what the author meant by “Logos”? Should we look to a Greek understanding under the influence of Plato, or the Stoics, or the Gnostics? A Greek and Roman point of view as influenced by the Jewish philosopher Philo? A strictly Jewish understanding since the author is Jewish and he wrote to a Jewish audience? Or a contemporary theological approach that insists on a Trinitarian understanding? These are the typical approaches but I submit the answer is much more simple and accessible to us all, even to non-academics.
How about we just look the word up in a dictionary?
Seriously Kirby? It’s really that easy?
Yes it is. It’s really that easy.
Here it is:
What Does Logos Mean?
The second part of a dictionary definition of Logos (from http://www.biblestudytools.net. – the same can be found in Strong’s Concordance):
- Its use as respect to the MIND alone:
- reason, the mental faculty of thinking, meditating, reasoning, calculating
- account, i.e. regard, consideration
- account, i.e. reckoning, scored.
- account, i.e. answer or explanation in reference to judgment
- relation, i.e. with whom as judge we stand in relation
- reason would
- reason, cause, ground
Does that sound like a person, or does that sound like a thought, something in someone’s mind?
This definition of logos as something in one’s mind can be clearly seen in the following usages in other places in the New Testament where logos is translated into the underlined words in all capital letters:
Ac 10:29 – Therefore came I unto you without gainsaying, as soon as I was sent for: I ask therefore for what INTENT you have sent for me?
Ac 18:14 – Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be REASONABLE for me to listen to you.”
Ac 8:21 – You have neither part nor lot in this MATTER: for your heart is not right in the sight of God.
Ac 15:6 – And the apostles and elders came together to consider this MATTER.
Mt 5:32 – But I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the CAUSE of fornication, causes her to commit adultery.
Mt 18:23 – The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a certain king, which would take ACCOUNT of his servants.
Lu 16:2 – And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of you? Give an ACCOUNT of your stewardship; for you can no longer steward.
Encyclopedia Britannica includes “plan” as one of the English equivalents for Logos, along with “word” and “reason.”
Logos as “thinking” can also be seen in our English word logic which came from the Greek word logos as well as the words biology, from bios, Greek for life, and logos, Greek for thinking, hence, the study of life, as well as anthropology, the study of man, and psychology, the study of the soul, and many other academic disciplines.
Only the scriptures that translate logos as something other than “word” are listed above to illustrate that though this is the second, less frequent use of logos, this usage was common to the Biblical writers and to their audience. If I were to travel back in time to 1st century Palestine with a drawing for a house plan, buy a lot and start building that house and showed that plan to the neighbor next door he might say I had shown him a nice logos, because he would know that the plan on paper is the plan in my head. He might also tell his relatives that the guy who bought the lot next door is making “all things according to it (the logos) and it’s going to be a fine house. I saw his logos, his house will be a good addition to the neighborhood.”
The Logos, the Plan of God
Seeing the Logos as a plan rather than a word or a person helps to explain a number of other concepts in the bible.
From the beginning of creation God created all things with a plan in mind. That shouldn’t surprise us. What should surprise us is if God created all things without a plan but rather just haphazardly threw the whole thing together on a whim. Like some of the omelettes I’ve made when my dear wife was not around to rescue me from my own cooking.
The plan that God had in mind when he created all things John calls a Logos at the beginning of his Gospel. This Logos was the blueprint for creation, and Jesus Christ is central to that plan. To paraphrase John, he is saying Jesus is God’s plan. Everything that God did before the time of Jesus was done with Jesus in mind. That’s what is meant by “through him all things were made” two verses later and “through whom he made the worlds” in Heb. 1:2. What was in God’s mind was finally revealed when that plan became flesh, when Jesus was born, walked among us, inspired us to repent of our wickedness and love our neighbors, was crucified and rose again.
That’s how a first century Greek speaking Christian of Jewish descent would read John. He wouldn’t be thinking of the Logos as a person. That kind of thinking came later – in the second century.
One way to understand John chapter 1 is to think in terms of predestination. Not the silly kind of predestination that Calvinists teach, but the ability to plan at one point in time and then being able to follow up at a future point in time. For example, if I buy green paint for my house, it’s not because I’m predicting that it will end up green, it’s because I am going to make sure it will end up green. When someone asks what color my house will be in a year (assuming I don’t get lazy and put it off for, uh, five years) I can predestinate what color it will be because I have a certain ability to make it happen. My logos is to have a green house. It’s through this logos I go to the paint store and buy the paint. If they try to sell me on a special for blue paint I’m going to say, “No thanks, that’s not according to my logos.” Being human, however (lazy in other words), I might not follow through with my plans, so to say I can predestinate is a bit of a stretch, but with God, that’s not a problem. His plans happen. His Logos is certain.
An example in scripture of a predestined plan with regard to the person of Jesus is when it says in Revelation 13:8 that Jesus was the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.”
Are we to believe that Jesus was actually slain in the Garden of Eden, or during creation?
Of course not.
This is a statement about God’s intention, how God had it in his mind from the beginning, in his Logos, that He would provide His Son to die on the cross for us. When God has a plan to do something, it’s as good as done so John speaks of it as a done deal from the beginning. He was “slain at the foundation of the world.”
The beauty of the Gospel is that God’s plan as manifest in the person of Jesus involves much more than salvation. That is only the first step of faith in our walk with him. John 1 is just one of many scriptures that speak of a Logos, or plan beyond our salvation.
God’s plan is also that we would become like Christ. We are continually being transformed into his likeness, being raised from one stage of glory to another by the power of God (2 Cor. 3:18). That is what the New Covenant is all about (Jer. 31:33).
Though salvation is a glorious benefit, God’s plan is not that we all get saved. God’s plan is that we all move away from wickedness and toward Christlikeness.
“Through him (the Logos) all things were made. Without him nothing was made that has been made,” (Jn. 1:3) is saying the same thing Paul said in Col. 1:16: “For in him were all things created, that are in heaven, that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created through him, and into him.” The principalities mentioned here refer to angelic and demonic powers and yes, both were created as part of God’s plan to form Christ-like character. The angels are like the carrot drawing us in that direction while the demons are like the hound chasing us in that direction. That’s a different picture than what we get from the idea that there is this cosmic war going on between the forces of evil and the forces of good – which in my mind is a silly idea if taken literally. There simply is no contest between an omnipotent God and anybody or anything else. It makes much more spiritual sense to think of demonic powers as helpless pawns in God’s grand scheme of forming godly character in his children.
These teachings reinforce the idea that Jesus is the Logos, the Plan of God, and all things are made with that plan in mind. That Plan doesn’t stop with creation or the person of Jesus Christ. It doesn’t stop with our salvation. His Plan includes the formation of godly character in mankind in much the same way godly character was formed in that child born of Mary in Bethlehem. This character was “imprinted” into Jesus’ human character, according to Heb. 1:3, where Jesus’ human nature is likened to soft clay and God’s divine nature is likened to the hard stamp that imprints that clay in a wax seal. The result is seen in Rom. 8:29, “For whom he did foreknow (to submit to his ways), he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn (read that, forerunner) among many brethren.” That is a beautiful promise, often obscured by the Calvinist interpretation which centers on who was chosen instead of to what certain people were chosen. The verse says nothing about God picking who will be saved, it is about God determining the future of those who are saved, and it is a glorious future we enjoy every day today.
The Logos as a Person Originated in the Second Century
How do we know John’s conception of Logos was that of a Plan that became a person, rather than a person who became a person of a different nature, aside from the fact that the common, dictionary meaning was that of something in someone’s mind? We know this because the idea of the Logos being a pre-incarnate person did not exist at the time of John’s writing.
From where did this idea of the Word in John 1:1 being a person originate? To answer that we need to find the first person in history to consider a Logos to be a person rather than a thought because commonly held philosophical and theological ideas generally originate with one influential thinker.
Justin Martyr, writing about 150 AD, would be that guy to introduce this way of thinking into the Christological discussions of the early church.
Justin didn’t call the Logos a person, per se – that wording would come about 50 years later with Tertullian, and even then it wasn’t a person as we think of a person but more a modalistic manifestation of the one God – but he did think of the Logos as “numerically distinct from the Father” rather than being an aspect of the Father. He wrote “through the Word, God has made everything”. He also believed the Logos was “born of the very substance of the Father” and places the genesis of the Logos as a voluntary act of the Father at the beginning of creation. This of course would put him at odds with the later 4th century councils that adopted the Trinitarian idea of an eternal, un-created Son of God. That would make him to be a heretic with ideas closer to the arch-heretic Arius who promoted the idea of a created Son of God at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Arius and his followers would of course end up getting exiled and banished to Illyricum for this kind of thinking because it didn’t line up with Emperor Constantine’s theology and his quest to get the church to align with it.
The Logos as a Plan Originated in the 6th Century BC
Prior to Justin Martyr in the mid-2nd century the only way people thought of the Logos was as a plan in God’s mind. There were no other options. This way of thinking was established by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who, according to Bible Study Tools on the Web, “first used the term Logos around 600 B.C to designate the divine reason or plan which coordinates a changing universe. This word was well suited to John’s purpose in John 1.”
Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher and a contemporary of John who may have influenced John, took Heraclitus a step farther and defined a Logos as God’s creative principle or governing plan.
These concepts had become so ingrained in the collective thinking of the first century Greek speaking world that the word logos could be defined as something in one’s mind only, or a word along with the thought behind the word. By the first century your average Greek or Greek speaking Jewish Christian would have this understanding of the word logos and would read John 1:1 this way:
“In the beginning was the PLAN OF GOD, and the PLAN OF GOD was toward God, and the PLAN OF GOD was divine. This (plan) was in the beginning with God. All things came into existence through it (the plan), and apart from it (the plan), nothing came into existence. (skipping to verse 14) So the PLAN OF GOD became flesh and resided among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the uniquely-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” – (For the anarthrous use of theos meaning “divine” instead of “God” see W. E. Vine, Dana & Mantey, and Moffatt’s translation – four Trinitarians who don’t let their own theological conclusions interfere in their scholarship.)
A logos is something in someone’s mind, and is translated in our Bibles as “intent,” “reason,” or “cause”, which is a bit removed from Heraclitus’ original use as a plan in God’s mind, but John is applying the term to God instead of men, so naturally your average Christian of that time would think of the Logos in John 1 as “Divine Intent” or a “Plan of God.”
For John’s audience to think of the Logos as a divine person before he was a human/divine person they would have to be convinced by John himself, given the lack of contemporary influences. When you get past the English wording and drill into the Greek, John isn’t very convincing, except for those unwilling to accept any other alternatives for the meaning of Logos other than a “person.” And yes, there is a fair amount of bias against non-Trinitarian interpretations. There’s no question about that.
John’s audience would not be thinking of the Logos as a person in a godhead. That idea came later, long after John died. John’s Gospel was written at a time when Jewish Christians dominated, even to a fault, the Christian church as can be seen by the problems caused by those who taught that the Gentile Christians should be circumcised. Though they had issues with the Law, these earliest Jewish Christians were solid in their monotheism and would not have entertained the possibility that God was anything other than ONE. When they twice daily recited the Shema: “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is One,” (Dut. 6:4) they never once thought of God as “3 in 1”. Had someone suggested it at the time they would have considered that to be at best an interesting adaptation of pagan polytheism and at worst a strange perversion.
Nobody was suggesting it at the time.
There is no historical evidence that any first century Christian even thought of the Logos of the Gospel of John in terms of it being a separate person apart from the Father, yet that is the common understanding of John 1:1 taught today.
According to The Jewish Encyclopedia, “Judaism has always been rigorously unitarian.” Unitarian theology does not recognize a plurality in the godhead.
The Encyclopedia of Religion states:
“Theologians today are in agreement that the Hebrew Bible does not contain a doctrine of the Trinity. In the immediate post New Testament period of the Apostolic Fathers no attempt was made to work out the God-Christ (Father-Son) relationship in ontological terms.”
They didn’t have anything to work out because they weren’t thinking of God being more than one person. Jesus was not in the godhead per later Trinitarian theology, but rather the godhead was in Jesus, according to Col. 2:9: “For in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.”
Regarding New Testament times, the New Catholic Encyclopedia says:
“The formulation ‘one God in three Persons’ was not solidly established, certainly not fully assimilated into Christian life and its profession of faith, prior to the end of the 4th century. But it is precisely this formulation that has first claim to the title THE TRINITARIAN DOGMA. Among the Apostolic Fathers, there had been nothing even remotely approaching such a mentality or perspective.”
The Apostolic Fathers were those who immediately followed the Apostles between 90 and 130 AD. Some of them were trained by the Apostles.
Jesus and all of the apostles were strict Monotheists before Jesus began his ministry. After Jesus established a following among Jews, and after he was crucified, they were still considered to be a Jewish sect. They continued to be strict Jewish Monotheists – who followed Christ. When they recited the Shema, they didn’t think in their minds, “The Lord thy God is 3 in 1.” God was not 3 until much later. He was just one. Period.
In order to get to a point in the 4th century when people thought of God as three persons they would first need a developed Logos Christology and think of Jesus as an eternal person of the godhead. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,
“The Apostolic Fathers do not touch on the theology of the logos; a short notice occurs in St. Ignatius only (Ad Magn. viii, 2).”
Later, by 200 AD, instead of Shema-reciting Jewish Christians dominating the church as was the case for the first 150 years of the church it was non-Jewish Christians dominating who had been quite accustomed to Greek and Roman polytheism. Someone like Tertullian could introduce modalistic ideas of God manifesting himself with three faces, without much objection.
He would have faced a lot of objections in the first century.
Later, his idea of three faces combined with 2nd century ideas of the Logos being a separate person subordinate to God. That morphed into God being three persons in the sense that we understand “person” today, someone having his own will, and not just three different manifestations of the one God as conceived by Tertullian.
It’s interesting to note that Tertullian, the first Christian to describe God with the number 3 around 200 AD and thus popularized the nomenclature for the doctrine of the Trinity, would not be accepted as a bona-fide Trinitarian after Nicaea and is actually considered a heretic by the Catholic Church for some of his other teachings.
It was up to the church councils like the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to fine tune the implications of a more developed Logos Christology by eliminating the widely accepted Subordinationism of Arius in favor of three co-equal, co-eternal beings, a rather novel concept at the time. Nobody was writing about this in the first or second centuries. This of course would not have been a necessary exercise in the fourth century had they stuck with an earlier, Unitarian conception of God who had a PLAN that was manifest with the advent of his Son. Once you go down that path of elevating the Son to a pre-incarnate person with absolute equality with the Father you then have to have several more councils to hammer out positions regarding the Son being both God and man, positions that are invariably self-contradictory and ultimately contrary to scripture, yet must be accepted if pre-incarnate existence and co-equality are accepted.
By the way, the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD was not trying to come up with a biblical position on the godhead. That shouldn’t be surprising considering there was no Bible at the time. It was just trying to come up with a doctrinal position to please a Roman emperor who demanded one.
All the bishops and Christian thinkers of the first few centuries had their own personal theology and were free to draw from any source to teach and authenticate their positions, and be at odds with anything in our current Bibles with impunity, since there was no canon of scripture until long after Nicaea. The bishops at Nicaea were not Evangelicals trying to figure out what positions were “biblical” long before there was a Bible.
How could they?
As a side note, many people have a wrong understanding about “Greek thinking” as if it’s always “bad” while Jewish thinking is “good” because the Greeks were pagans and God was trying to move these pagans away from paganism and into truth, and because of what Paul says in Colossians 2:8 – “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ,” but the fact is even Jewish followers of Jesus, such as his very own apostles, borrowed concepts from the pagans if a concept was useful for explaining the one true God to a people wanting to understand more about Him, especially if the audience was pagan. Think of a helpful Greek philosophical concept as just one of many tools a teacher could pull out of his tool bag of ways to understand God. There were certainly Greek ideas Paul wanted his parishioners to avoid, such as the many “isms” like Hedonism, Asceticism, and Gnosticism, but we error in thinking Paul was laying out a general prohibition of all Greek philosophy including the ideas of Heraclitus 600 years earlier. Brad Jersak does a great job of digging into this a bit further in his article Pushing Back: ‘Greek Thinking’ vs. ‘Jewish Thinking’ is a Dualistic Error.
In addition, this blog post lists a number of times when the Apostle Paul used Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, and others in his teachings: Paul and His Use of Greek Philosophy
I also explain how Jesus made use of fables to teach truth in Jesus Used Fiction to Teach Truth.
Jesus and the apostles did not have a problem with borrowing concepts from their secular, pagan culture. It’s similar to how we might use a scene from Star Wars to make a spiritual point in a sermon, as one of our local megachurch pastors likes to do. It is, however, a method that lends itself to people from a different clime and time misunderstanding intentions. It’s easy to grab a fourth century interpretation and read that into a first century text, and miss the point of the author of that text.
Fortunately for us, we don’t really need to be swayed by or dependent on fourth century theologians and church councils or first century Jewish philosophers or sixth century BC Greek philosophers. We can just look up the meaning of Logos in the dictionary and see that a Logos is a plan. We can then read John’s Gospel and know that PLAN became a concrete reality in Bethlehem and even more so as God made him both Lord and Christ and the forerunner of all who would become like him.
The 4th Century bishops that Emperor Constantine had corralled at his summer palace in Nicaea were either Trinitarians (or better, pre-Trinitarians) led by Alexander the Bishop of Alexandria or they were Arians who agreed with the elder from Alexandria named Arius, led by Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia. They should have stuck to one question only: Was the Logos a Plan or a person prior to the incarnation? But that question wasn’t even on the table because at that time both parties assumed the Logos was a person prior to the incarnation. The question at hand then was, among other questions: Was the Logos a created person or an uncreated person? What we know now as the dictionary definition of Logos, thanks to Greek scholars like James Strong, was lost on the 4th century bishops.
Imagine this: a group of lawyers from several different countries representing international businessmen co-authoring a legal document to establish a business in America. These lawyers only have a cursory understanding of English. Now imagine them trying to do this without translators or dictionaries explaining the meaning of the English terms they are using. Who would even attempt such a thing? They would all know they all need to be able to have the same understanding of those English terms in that legal document or else the proverbial you-know-what will eventually hit the fan and they will be seeing each other in court.
Such was the case at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Greek was only an international trade language, a first language to only a few. In the Christian Latin West, Greek became associated with “paganism” and regarded as an uncouth foreign language. Translators into Greek were available at the council for some of those who wanted to speak, but to further complicate matters some of the key Greek terms used in whatever biblical and non-biblical writings they were using to validate their positions, such as the Greek words for essence, substance, nature, and person, bore a variety of meanings drawn from pre-Christian philosophers. That can only entail misunderstandings. Then they coined a new term not used in scripture, homoousia, which literally means “same substance”, and could never fully agree on what they meant when they said Jesus was of the same substance as the Father. I don’t think anyone even knows today.
If you’re thinking it was all a big theological mess you would be correct, and we are today barely even recognizing everybody had their reasons for what they believed and these folks should have just told the Emperor, “We’re going to love each other, allow for disagreements and freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, and when we get this stuff figured out and can come to an agreement we’ll get back to you. But don’t hold your breath. In the meantime we’ll pay our taxes and pacify the subjects of your glorious kingdom but we would appreciate it if you would just keep your unsophisticated nose out of our theological business, if you don’t mind, sir.”
But no, the bishops saw in this Emperor an opportunity to further their own political agendas by harnessing the powers of the state at the expense of others and we are still picking up the pieces of the forced unity of their creeds and their anathemas (damnations to Hell), with Christians still at each other for differences of opinion about disputable matters.
This article might raise more questions that it answers. For further insights I suggest checking the Biblical Unitarian website.
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