Through the Bible: John 1:1

As pointed out a few days ago, this “through the Bible” session is going to begin with Tatian’s Diatessaron, a harmony of the four Gospels put together around the year 160. This will let us go through all the Gospels at once and cover the parables and stories of Jesus just once rather than three times. (Matthew, Mark, and Luke share a lot of the same parables and stories.)

The Diatessaron appropriately begins with John 1:1-5. While John was the last Gospel written, the existence of the Word of God separate from God the Father precedes any reference to his birth on earth.

In future posts, you might find it easier to follow my commentary by opening the Diatessaron with the link in the first paragraph. It will open in a new window. In this post, I am focusing on just John 1:1, so you won’t need to keep referring anywhere.

Translating John 1:1

First, let’s get the translation of John 1:1 right. In my first Greek class, I learned that the Greek of John 1:1 literally says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word.” Modern versions translate the last phrase as “the Word was God” because of an advanced Greek grammar rule. That rule says that in a phrase like the one we are addressing, the noun with “the” is the subject and the noun without “the” is being used as an adjective.

Of course, reading “the Word is God” does not make it sound like “God” is an adjective, so my Greek teacher suggested “the Word has the character and nature of God” as a better translation.

As it turns out, a lot of Greek scholars agree! I found a web site that discusses John 1:1 the way my Greek teacher did. He writes, “… the fact that the word ‘God’ is used first in the sentence actually shows some emphasis that this Logos (Word) was in fact God in its nature.” Cory Keating, the author of that web page, then lists a group of Greek scholars who agree (under “Consulting with Other Well Respected Greek Scholars and Grammarians”).

I am not a Greek scholar, but I do speak English pretty well. Rather than odd constructs like “the Word has the character and nature of God” or “the word was in fact God in its nature,” I suggest the English word that is actually “God” used as and adjective: divine. “The Word is Divine.”

No matter how we translate it, in verse 1, John is trying to teach us about the relationship between the Father and Son. In doing so, he tells us that the Son, in the beginning was the Word. In Greek he uses the word Logos. This, in my opinion makes him the first to describe “Logos theology.”

Logos Theology History

As I describe Logos theology, try to think of the Greek word Logos, not the plural of the English word logo. I am going to help you by continuing to italicize the word.

Logos theology is out of favor with Protestants and Catholics, but for the most awful of reasons. Historian Nathaniel Hill explains the rejection of Logos theology in these words:

This is known as ‘subordinationism’, since although it recognizes the divinity and unity of all three Persons it regards the Father as the source of the Trinity and therefore as greater than the other two members. It would not be until the 4th and 5th centuries, with the work of Augustine, that this legacy of Logos theology would finally be laid to rest.(Hill, 2003, bold & italics mine).

This quote brings up “subordinationism,” a term even more abhorred than Logos theology! Hill is commenting on a teaching by Tertullian, a Christian lawyer in Carthage who was a prolific writer around the turn of the third century. He also says of Tertullian, “Tertullian still lives in the thought world of Justin and his followers” (ibid., location 683).

Justin and his followers would include Tatian, Theophilus, and Irenaeus. Tatian we have looked at, and he created a gnostic sect of his own later, so we can ignore him, but not the others. Justin was a noted defender of the Christian faith around 150. Theophilus was the bishop of Antioch during the last half of the second century. Irenaeus would be the most important of them all! He grew up in the church at Smyrna under Polycarp, who, according to Eusebius’ Church History, was instructed by apostles.

In my opinion, it takes a lot of audacity to suggest that a theology held by all the major Christian writers from Justin Martyr to Tertullian, from AD 150 to 210, needed to be “laid to rest” by Augustine, especially when it is so solidly supported by John 1:1.

Logos Theology Explanation and Defense

Basically, the Logos doctrine teaches that before the beginning God, in some mysterious way we cannot understand, begat a Son, his Word. This Son was not created, he was literally the Word/Reason/Wisdom of God generated from out of himself. Athenagoras, another apologist from the era that supposedly needed to be corrected by Augustine 250 years later, explained the Logos this way:

We acknowledge … a Son of God. Don’t let anyone think it ridiculous that God should have a Son. … The Son of God is the Logos of the Father … He is the first product of the Father, not as though he was being brought into existence, for from the beginning God, who is the eternal Mind, had the Logos in himself. (A Plea for the Christians 10)

Simply put, if you asked Christians about the Trinity in the second century, Christians would tell you that God has a Son. It was as simple as that, except that they would add that the Son was not created, but that he came out of the Father and was of the same essence, and thus the same divinity, as the Father. You can see dozens of quotes from before the time of Augustine on my Trinity quotes page, and even more in my book, Decoding Nicea.

I hope you have caught that I do not think Augustine corrected anything. The idea that God generated a divine Son before the creation is both biblical and was universally believed in the second century. In 325, almost a century before Augustine, Logos theology was agreed to by all the churches of the Roman empire at the Council of Nicea. For some reason, modern historians don’t seem to recognize Logos theology in the Nicene Creed, in its most basic form, reads, “We believe in one God, the Father … and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God … and in the Holy Spirit.”

Some verses that agree with the “subordinationist” Logos theology of the second-century Christians—besides John 1:1-3 which directly teaches it—include:

  • John 1:18: “No man has seen God at any time. The only-begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has explained him.”
  • John 17:3: [Jesus praying] “This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
  • 1 Corinthians 8:6: “For us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”
  • Colossians 1:15: “[He] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”

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Hill, Jonathan (2003-08-22). History of Christian Thought (Kindle Locations 686-688). Lion Books. Kindle Edition.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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