In John 1:1, John not only calls Jesus “God” but also refers to him as “the word” (Gk-logos). John’s readers would have recognized in this term a dual reference both to the powerful, creative Word of God in the Old Testament by which the heavens and the earth were created (Ps 33:6), and to the organizing or unifying principal of the universe, the thing that held it together and allowed it to make sense in Greek thinking. John is identifying Jesus with both of these ideas and saying that He is not only the powerful, creative Word of God and the organizing or unifying force in the universe, but also that this logos became man. John’s choice in this word logos has created more problems for the development of a truly biblical Christology than perhaps any other segment of scripture.
To help us to better understand the nature of the problem, we need to go back to the time 130-180 A.D.; this was the period of the Greek apologists. The primary author of this time period was Justin Martyr, whose works were numerous. It was during the same period that the doctrine of logos was developed and propagated. The logos concept had been popular in Hellenistic culture and philosophy for some time. To the Greek mind, the logos was reason as the controlling principle of the universe. It was impersonal, existing entirely in the realms of ideas. This reason was seen as an intermediary between the “ineffable one” and physical reality. The apologists, Justin in particular, took the Hellenistic logos doctrine and incorporated it into Christian theology.
Justin was the first prolific writer to clearly teach a plurality within the Godhead. He even numbered them! The logos became the second person next to the Father, and was subordinate to Him, thus, the biblical doctrine of the logos came to be explained in terms of Greek philosophical thought rather than by Hebrew scripture, which in turn led to a false understanding of Christ and his relationship to the Father. What was the reason for the misunderstanding? The scriptural distinction between God and his Son, which related entirely to the incarnation, was wrongly imputed to the divine nature of God himself. The term Son therefore, came to be seen as a deity separate and distinct from that of the Father, instead of God’s revelation of his self to man in human form.
We should keep in mind that the early theological debates from the middle of the second century on were largely between Antioch, a center of Jewish Christianity, on one hand, and Alexandrian Christianity, heavily colored by neoplatonic speculation on the other. We have already noted that all was not well with the faith as it succumbed to the temptation to borrow religious concepts from the surrounding pagan environment. L.W. Grenstead wrote in 1933:
“The heritage from philosophy came in…insidiously. In the second century we find Justin Martyr and others proclaiming Christianity as a philosophy of the schools…The logos of Stoicism is identified with the logos of John…The [resultant] growing web of fantasy [regarding the nature of the Godhead]…It remained a very real danger, and so remains down to this present day…Meanwhile and most serious of all, a radical confusion had fallen upon the doctrine of God. The personal God of Judaism was very imperfectly fused with the demigods of popular Greek religion and with the metaphysical abstracts whereby the philosophers had sought to make the concept of God adequate as a basis for thought and being” (Grenstead, 1933-122).
The findings of scholars of the pre-Nicene development of the doctrine of Christ frequently suggest that a corrupting influence was at work on the Christian faith as it moved away from the shelter of its original Hebrew environment into the menacing atmosphere of Greek philosophy. This transition seems to have involved much more than simply the legitimate restatement of Christian truth for gentile believers.
It had been noted insightfully that in those early days of the faith, Christianity conquered paganism and in the process was itself terribly corrupted by pagan philosophy. The basic question is a simple one. Can the New Testament, with its rich heritage in the prophets of Israel, be invaded by Greek philosophy without the loss of an essential element? The answer seems to be a resounding no! As Norman Snaith points out: “the reinterpretation of Biblical theology in terms of Greek philosophy has been both widespread throughout the centuries and everywhere distinctive to the essence of the Christian faith”. Snaith makes the point that even a casual examination will reveal that, “there is often a great difference between Christian theology and Biblical theology…neither Catholic nor Protestant theology is based on Biblical theology. In each case we have a dominion of Christian theology by Greek thought”. (Snaith 1944. 187, 185).
The developments which culminated at Nicaea and Chalcedon may be traced in three major stages. First, the logos of Greek philosophy was identified by the Alexandrian theologians with an alleged pre-existent Christ. Next, Origen postulated his imagined and unbiblical doctrine of the eternal generation of the Son. Finally, we arrive at the so-called Athanasian creed and the contemporary doctrine of the trinity was foisted on an unsuspecting world as absolute divine truth.
Theologian Hans Wendt, of Jena, the author of System der Christ lichen Lehre, writes in a section entitled “Difficulties with the early Christian dogma”--“monotheism which for the Christian view of God is not an insignificant matter, but of fundamental importance, was impaired…if the logos which belongs to the eternal God is a person and as such to be distinguished from the person of the Father, there inevitably arises a plurality in God and pure monotheism is destroyed”. (Wendt 1907.368). Such is the problem created by the understanding of John’s logos on the part of orthodox Trinitarians.
John 1:1 has been subjected to more critical and minute analysis than perhaps any other verse of scripture, and by communicators of every shade of opinion. On the one hand we have the Arian interpretation of the Watchtower which makes Jesus simply “a god.” On the opposite extreme we have translations such as the Good News Bible which states, “before anything else existed, there was Christ with God. He has always been alive and himself God” (GNB). Several other translations follow this trend and offer a blatantly trinitarian interpretation of this verse.
It is a little known fact that the “word” of John 1:1 was not assumed to be a second divine person in English translation prior to the King James Version. The Bishop’s Bible of 1568, which was replaced by the King James Version in 1611, understands the “word” to be impersonal, and uses the pronoun “it”, rather than “he” or “him”. The Geneva Bible of 1560 does this as well. Why do we feel like we have to translate the masculine logos as “he”? Only because it supports the traditional interpretation of John’s prologue. If instead, logos is understood as “God’s plan”, not as a reference to a living Son prior to his birth, another major support is removed from the traditional view of preexistence and the doctrine of the trinity here in John’s gospel.
It is simply a theological assumption to say that by “word” John meant a second uncreated personal being existing alongside the One God. This is especially true when we consider that elsewhere John recognizes the Father as “the only true God” (Jn 12:3), and “the one who alone is God” (Jn 5:44-lit). We need to realize that a misunderstanding of the Old Testament will in and of itself cause the misunderstanding of the New as well. This is significant because no occurrence of the Hebrew word davan (word)--which corresponds to the Greek logos of John 1--provides any evidence that “the word from the beginning” means a person, much less an uncreated second divine person, the eternal Son of God, co-existing alongside his Father the One God of Israel. Why not assume therefore, that John instead is saying that God’s creative, and expressive activity, his word or wisdom, was “with him”, just as wisdom was “with [para] him” in Proverbs 8:30 (LXX)? Significantly, John always uses the proposition para (with) to express the proximity of one person to another (1:39; 4:40; 8:38; etc.). Yet in the prologue he chooses instead to use pros, suggesting that “word” was not intended to designate a person.
Many have recognized an obvious connection between the “word” and what is said of wisdom in the Hebrew bible. Just as in Proverbs “wisdom” is personified and said to be “with” God. (Pr 8:30), so John says that the word was “with God”, (pros ton theon ). In the Old Testament, a vision, a word or purpose, is said to be “with” the person who receives or possesses it. The word therefore, has a quasi-existence all its own. “The word of the Lord is with him”, etc. (2 Kings 3:12; Jer 23:28, I Kings 8:17; 2 Chronicles 6:7; Job 12:13, 15; 10:13, and 23:10, 14). Wisdom in the Old Testament is “with God”, in striking parallel to John’s opening sentence.
A much needed and insightful commentary on Jn 1:1 may be found in John’s first epistle. It is here that John reveals that “eternal life was with [pros] the Father”. (I Jn 1:2), on the basis of these parallels it is difficult and perhaps unwise to conclude with certainty that the “word” in John 1:1-2 must mean a second member of the trinity-- that is, the preexisting Son of God.
Wendt has shown that when the “word” is understood in the Hebrew sense as God’s creative activity--based on it’s consistent appearance in that sense in the Old Testament--there is simply no reason to assume that John meant to say: “in the beginning was the co-eternal Son of God and the Son was with the Father and the Son was God.” Such an interpretation completely ignores the central principle of all Biblical revelation that God is a single “person.” This development dealt a fatal blow to the Hebrew monotheism which Jesus himself had publically confessed in the presence of both an inquiring Hebrew theologian and his own disciples.
If the logos/word of John1:1 is taken to mean just what it says “the word of God”, it then becomes clear that John has in mind the creative word of Genesis 1:1-3; Psalm 33:6,9 and 119:103-105. The fatal step was taken, according to professor Wendt, when the “word” of John’s prologue was understood, not in terms of its Hebrew background, but in the Alexandrian sense as an intermediary between God and man.
“The opening sentences of John gospel, which might sound like the philosophy of Philo, could be understood by an educated Jew or Christian without reference to Philo. Therefore, we should not argue from Philo’s meaning of the “word” as a hypothesis that John also meant by “word” a preexisting personality. In the remainder of the Gospel and in I John, “word” is never understood in a personal sense…It means rather the “revelation” of God which had earlier been given to Israel (10:35), had come to the Jews in the Holy Scriptures (5:38) and which had been entrusted to Jesus and committed by him to his disciples (8:35, 12:48; 17:6,8,14,17; I John 1:1), and which now would be preserved by them (I John 1:10; 2:5,14). The slightly personifying way in which the word is spoken of as a coming into the world (1: 9-14) is typical of the personifying style of the Old Testament references to the word (Is 55:11; Ps 107:20; 147:15;). It cannot be proved that the author of the prologue thought of the word as a real person. Only the historical Jesus and not the original word is said to be the Son (Jn 1:14, 18),” (Wendt 1907 353:54).
It is a considerable mistake to read John 1:1 as though it means “in the beginning was the Son…” This is not what John either wrote or meant. The German poet Goethe wrestled to find a correct translation: “in the beginning was the word, thought, power, or the deed.” He settled on deed. This comes very close to John’s intention. What the evangelist wanted to say was: “the creative thought of God had been operating from all eternity.”
When John presents the eternal word he is not thinking of a being in anyway separate from God, or some hypothesis. In choosing logos, he chooses a term most appropriate for expressing his message, for is not a man’s “word” the expression of his mind? And his mind is his essential personality.
John seems in his first epistle to be correcting an emergent misunderstanding of his use of logos in the gospel (Jn 1:1-3). It was the impersonal “eternal life” which was “with the Father” (I Jn 1:2), before the birth of Jesus, not the Son Himself preexisting. In other words, John intended us to understand that when the word become flesh (Jn 1:14), it was the “word” of God being embodied as a human being.
The subsequent development of trinitarian thinking was encouraged by a misunderstanding of the Hebrew notion of “word” by Justin Martyr. For John, logos signified not a second person in the Godhead, but the self-expressive activity of God. John did not mean that a second eternal person existed alongside the Father, it was the impersonal “word” or “life” (Jn 1:1,2) which had now been manifested in a real human person--Jesus. What preexisted was not the Son of God, but the word or message--the promise of life. Thus, it is quite in order to read John 1:1-3a: “in the beginning was the creative purpose of God and fully expressive of God,” just as wisdom was also with God before creation (Prov 5:30).
It is interesting to note that Tertullian (c 155-230AD), the first to use the word “trinitias” in regard to God, translates logos as sermo or “speech”. He then notes of John 1:1 that “it is the simple use of our people to say that the word of revelation was with God.” He urged that logos should be understood in terms of “whatever you think.” Referring to a time before creation, he adds that although God had not yet sent forth his word, “he had it with him and in reason within himself.” (Ad Praxeus. 5). While Tertullian believed in the pre-existence of the son, he expressly denied his eternity: “there was a time when neither sin existed nor the son.” Elsewhere, he said: “there was a time when the son did not exist; God was not always a Father,” (Against Hermogenes, Ch. 3).
Ardnt and Gingrich in their Greek Lexicon of the New Testament, had this to say regarding the logos of John 1:1; “our literature shows traces of a way of thinking that was widespread in contemporary syncretism, as well as Jewish wisdom literature and Philo, the most prominent feature of which is the concept of the logos, the independent, personified “word” (of God)…The divine “word” took on human form in an historical person.” (Ardnt & Gingrich 1857.480). Notice they say nothing at all about the word meaning the Son before the birth of Jesus. The “word” in John 1:1 is a personification rather than a person.
John A.T. Robertson and James Dunn share the view that John’s “word” is the utterance of God personified, not a divine person, distinct from God. Only when Jesus is conceived does the “word” become personalized as distinct from personified. For Robinson the “word”, which was theos was fully expressive of God’s plan, purpose, and character. That “word” becomes fully embodied in a human person when it became flesh. Jesus is therefore, what the word became. His is not to be identified one-to-one with the pre-existent word, as though He Himself preexisted. The difference is a subtle one but has devastating implications for the development of a genuinely biblical Christology. (Dunn, 1980. Dunn on John, Theology 85 (Sept 1982): 332-338).
In Oneness theology then, the logos is God’s self-expression, “God’s means of self-disclosure” or “God uttering himself.” Before the incarnation, the logos was the expressed thought or plan in the mind of God, which had a reality no human thought could have because of God’s perfect foreknowledge, and in the case of the incarnation, God’s predestination. In the beginning, the logos was with God, not as a separate person but as God himself—pertaining to and belonging to God much like a man and his word. In the fullness of time, God put flesh on the logos; he expressed himself in flesh.