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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Logos

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LOGOS.—The conception of Christ as the Logos, or eternal Word, is peculiar to the Fourth Gospel. In the Epp. to Colossians and Hebrews (writings which are likewise touched with the Alexandrian influence) the Logos theory of Christ’s Person is in some points implied (cf. Colossians 1:15-18, Hebrews 1:2-4). In Revelation (Revelation 19:13) the ‘Word of God’ is announced as the new and mysterious name which Christ bears when He comes forth to execute judgment. But only in the Fourth Gospel is the conception deliberately adopted and worked out in its full significance.

The idea of a Logos, an immanent Divine reason in the world, is one that meets us under various modifications in many ancient systems of thought, Indian, Egyptian, Persian. In view of the religious syncretism which prevailed in the 1st and 2nd centuries, it is barely possible that these extraneous theologies may have indirectly influenced the Evangelist; but there can be no doubt in regard to the main source from which his Logos doctrine was derived. It had come to him through Philo after its final elaboration in Greek philosophy.

In the 6th cent. b.c. Heraclitus first broke away from the purely physical conceptions of early Greek speculation, by discovering a λόγος, a principle of reason, at work in the cosmic process. From the obscure fragments of this philosopher that have come down to us we gather that he was chiefly interested in accounting for the aesthetic order of the visible universe. In the arrangement of natural phenomena, in the adaptation of means to ends, he discerned the working of a power analogous to the reasoning power in man. His speculation was still entangled with the physical hypotheses of earlier times, and on this account dropped out of sight, and had little influence on the greater systems of Greek thought. Plato and Aristotle were engaged in the development of the theory of ideas, with its absolute separation of the material world from the world of higher reality. Their work was of profound significance for the after history of Logos speculation, but belongs itself to a different philosophical movement. It was in the reaction from Platonic dualism that the Logos idea again asserted itself, and was worked out through all its implications in Stoicism.

The Stoics, animated chiefly by a practical interest, sought to connect the world of true being, as conceived by Plato, with the actual world of man’s existence. They abandoned the theory of supersensible archetypes and fell back on the simpler hypothesis of Heraclitus, that the universe is pervaded in all its parts by an eternal Reason. Man in his individual life may raise himself above all that limits him, and realize his identity with this Logos, which resides in his own soul, and is also the governing principle of the world. The Stoic philosophy not only furnished the general conception of the Logos to later thinkers, but also emphasized the distinction which became of prime importance in the later development. The faculty of reason as it exists in man reveals itself in speech, which is denoted by the same Greek word, λόγος. To the universal λογος Stoicism ascribed the two attributes that mark the reasoning power in man. On the one hand it is λόγος ἐνδιάθετος,—reason in its inner movement and potentiality,—and on the other hand λόγος τροφορικός,—reason projected and made concrete in the endless variety of the visible world.

1. Philo appropriates the main Stoic conception, but combines it with other elements borrowed eclectically from previous systems of thought. The Logos idea is loosened from its connexion with Stoic materialism and harmonized with a thoroughgoing Platonism, which regards the visible things as only the types and shadows of realities laid up in the higher world. It becomes identical in great measure with Plato’s idea of the Good, except that it is further regarded as creatively active. Philo’s grand innovation, however, is to press the Logos theory into the service of a theology derived from the OT. The same problem which Stoicism had tried to solve had in a different manner become urgent in Jewish thought. Here also all progress, alike in the moral and intellectual life, was like to be arrested by an overstrained dualism. The effort to conceive of God as absolutely transcendent had resulted in separating Him entirely from the world, of which He had yet to be regarded as the Creator and Governor. Already in the later books of the OT, much more in Rabbinical speculation, we can trace the idea of an intermediary between God and the world. ‘Wisdom’ is described in Job and Proverbs, with something more than a poetical personification, as God’s agent and co-worker Peculiar significance was attached by the later expositors to the various OT allusions to the ‘word’ of God. By His ‘word’ He had created heaven and earth and revealed Himself to the prophets. The actual hypostatizing of the Word in the doctrine of the Memra was subsequent to the time of Philo, but it was the outcome of a mode of thinking already prevalent in Jewish theology. God who was Himself the High and Holy One, of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, mediated His action through the Divine Word. It was natural for Philo, with his Hellenic and philosophical culture, to advance a step further and identify the Word of the OT with the Stoic λόγος.

The Logos of Philo requires to be understood in the light of this double descent from Greek and OT thought. The Stoic conception, as we have seen, took account of the two meanings of λόγος as reason and uttered speech, but the distinction was of little practical importance. What the Greek thinkers sought to affirm was the rationality of the world. The Logos under all its aspects was simply the principle of reason, informing the endless variety of things, and so maintaining the world-order. To Philo, on the other hand, the idea of reason is combined with that of the outgoing of Divine power. While describing his Logos in terms directly borrowed from Plato and the Stoics, he regards it as in the last resort dynamic, like the creative word in Genesis. This difference between Philo and the Greek thinkers is connected with another and still more vital one. To the Stoics the eternal Reason was itself an ultimate principle, and the necessity was not felt of explaining it as the reason of God. The doctrine of the Logos may, indeed, be regarded as an attempt, more or less conscious, to escape from the belief in a Divine Creator. Philo could not content himself with this notion of an absolute Logos. He started from the Hebrew belief in a supreme, self-existing God, to whom the immanent reason of the world must be related and subordinated. To this clashing of the primary Greek conception with the demands of Hebrew monotheism, we may largely attribute one of the most perplexing peculiarities of the Philonic doctrine. The Logos appears, sometimes as only an aspect of the activity of God, at other times as a ‘second God,’ an independent and, it might seem, a personal being. There can be little doubt that Philo, who never ceased to be an orthodox Jew, had no intention of maintaining the existence of two Divine agents; and the passages in which he appears to detach and personify the Logos must be explained mainly in a figurative sense. The Word which is described as speaking, acting, creating of itself, is the word of God, vividly realized by an imaginative thinker. But this separate existence assigned to the Logos may also be set down in some measure to the composite origin of the idea. The Stoical doctrine of an independent Reason could not be wholly reconciled with the Jewish belief in one supreme God.

2. The Fourth Gospel sets out from a conception of the Logos which to all appearance is closely similar to that of Philo. In the Prologue the main features of the Philonic doctrine are reproduced one by one;—the eternal existence of the Word, its Divine character (ἦν θεός), its relation to God as towards Him, and yet distinct (πρὸς τὸν θεόν), its creative activity, its function in the illumination and deliverance of men. The Evangelist assumes that the idea of the Logos is already a familiar one in Christian theology. It is introduced abruptly, as requiring no explanation, and its different aspects are lightly indicated, by way of reminding the reader of truths sufficiently known to him. We can thus infer that the conception of Philo had already naturalized itself in Christian thought, but there is reason to believe that the author of the Gospel was acquainted more or less directly with the Philonic writings and consciously derived from them.* [Note: the list of parallel passages collected by Grill (pp. 111–138).]

To what extent does the Logos idea of Philo change its character as it assimilates itself to the theology of the Gospel? Before an answer can be offered to this question, it is necessary to consider a preliminary difficulty with which Johannine criticism has been largely occupied since the appearance of Harnack’s famous pamphlet.* [Note: Über das Verhältniss des Prologs des vierten Evgl. zum ganzen Werk (1892).] Is the Prologue to be regarded as an integral portion of the Gospel, or is it, as Harnack contends, a mere preface written to conciliate the interest of a philosophical public? The idea of Christ as the Divine Logos is nowhere resumed in the body of the Gospel. Although the term Logos is constantly used, it always bears its ordinary sense of spoken discourse, while the categories of Light, Life, Love are substituted for the Logos of the Prologue. The work, as we have it, is no metaphysical treatise, such as we might expect from the opening verses, if they truly set forth its programme, but a historical document, the narrative of the earthly life of Christ. In spite, however, of Harnack’s powerful argument, the almost unanimous voice of Johannine criticism has declared against him. The statement of his view has led to a closer examination of the Prologue in its connexion with the Gospel, resulting in multiplied proof that the ideas presented at the outset are woven in with the whole tissue of the work. The Prologue supplies the background, the atmosphere, which are necessary to a right contemplation of the history. Nevertheless, while Harnack’s main argument cannot be accepted, it serves to remind us of one fact which cannot be emphasized too much. St. John is not concerned merely with the Word, but with the Word made flesh. After the first few verses, in which he treats of the pre-existent Logos, he passes to the historical Person of Jesus, who is more than the abstract Word. In Him it had become visible, and acted on men through a human Personality.

St. John therefore accepts the Philonic conception in order to assimilate it to his account of a historical Person, through whom the Word declared itself under the conditions of human life. It is evident that the conception could not be so adapted without submitting to profound modifications. (1) The Logos, which was to clothe itself in flesh and act on men with the force of a personality, must in its deepest ground be a personal Being. We have seen that Philo, partly in imaginative fashion, partly because of the composite origin of his thought, attributes a semi-independence to the Logos. This prepared the way for a complete personification; but Philo himself thinks only of a Divine principle, the creative reason of God. St. John, however, makes it an essential moment in his conception that the Logos has a ground of independent being within God (πρὸς τὸν θεόν, standing over against Him as a distinct Being). His view even of the pre-existent Logos is coloured by his knowledge of the ultimate Incarnation. (2) The creative activity of the Logos, which in Philo is central and all-determining, falls into the background. Only in John 1:3 (‘All things were made by him’) do we have any clear trace of this aspect of Logos doctrine, and the sequence of thought would still be complete if the brief allusion were omitted. It is thrown out, apparently, by way of acknowledgment of the recognized theory. Some reference to the cosmic significance of the Logos was necessary if any link with previous speculation was to be preserved. The Gospel, in point of fact, knows nothing of the absolute transcendence of God, which Philo’s whole theory is designed to mitigate. It assumes that ‘the world’ is the direct object of God’s love and providence (John 3:16). It maintains that God acts immediately on the human soul and so makes possible the redeeming work of the Logos (John 6:44, John 17:6). (3) In the Gospel, much more emphatically than in Philo, the term λόγος denotes Word as well as Reason. The Greek philosophical meaning is, indeed, discarded, or retained only as a faintly colouring element. The Word is regarded throughout as the expression of God’s will and power, the self-revelation of His inward nature. It does not represent the Divine reason but the Divine energy. Its sovereign attribute is Life, the life which it derives from God and transmits to men. Under the form of Alexandrian speculation St. John preserves the essential Hebrew conception of the living, quickening Word.

Thus, in accepting the Philonic idea, St. John does not commit himself to the precise interpretation that Philo placed on it; on the contrary, whether consciously or not, he departs from the characteristic lines of Philo’s thinking. The differences, however, do not alter the main fact that he rested his account of the Christian revelation on a hypothesis which was metaphysical rather than religious. The Jesus who had appeared in history was identified with the Logos of philosophy, and this identification involved an entirely new reading of His Person and life. St. John does not, indeed, press to its full extent his theory that the Logos became manifest in Christ. Behind his speculation there is always the remembrance of the actual life, which had arrested him as it had done the first disciples, and been to him the true revelation of God. His worship is directed in the last resort not to the Logos whom he discovers in Jesus, but to Jesus Himself. Nevertheless the acceptance of the Logos idea imposes on him a mode of thought which is often alien to his deeper religious instinct. On the one hand, he conceives of Jesus as revealing God to men and lifting them to a higher life by His ethical personality. On the other hand, he is compelled to interpret the work of Jesus in terms of metaphysic. God was manifest in Him because He was Himself the Logos, and the life He imparted was the Divine life, different in essence from that of man. The Gospel wavers throughout between these two parallel interpretations of the life of Christ,—that suggested by the history and that required by the Logos hypothesis. Superficially the two conceptions are drawn together, but they are disparate by their very nature and will not admit of a true reconciliation.

St. John does not concern himself with the questions that arose in later theology regarding the nature of the union between the Logos and the human Jesus. He assumes the union as a fact incapable of further definition. ‘The Word became flesh,’ appeared in Jesus as a human personality. How and when this Incarnation was effected, to what extent the Divine nature in Christ could be distinguished from the human,—these are questions which he does not try to answer, and which he probably never asked himself. His silence is mainly to be explained by the practical intention with which he wrote his Gospel. It was not his purpose to discuss the Divinity of Christ as a theological idea, but to impress it on his readers as a fact, by the knowledge of which ‘they might have life’ (John 20:31). At the same time, the problems which came to light in the course of later controversy are all legitimately suggested by the simple thesis ‘the Word became flesh.’ From St. John’s silence in regard to them we are compelled to infer that he did not reason out his doctrine with any fulness or clearness. He had set himself to combine ideas which in themselves were radically incompatible, and succeeded in doing so only by a certain confusion of thought.

3. The Evangelist, then, sets out from the fact that the historical Jesus was also the Divine Logos. In the body of the Gospel this hypothesis is never directly alluded to, but it is assumed throughout and modifies profoundly the whole picture of the earthly life of Jesus. (1) Peculiar stress is laid on His miracles as the ‘signs’ by which He ‘manifested forth his glory.’ The motive of compassion, to which the miracles are for the most part ascribed by the Synoptic writers, falls into the background. They are regarded as sheer exhibitions of power, intended by Jesus to inspire belief in His Divine claims. The marvellous element is uniformly heightened, in such a manner as to preclude all natural explanations. (2) Apart from direct works of miracle, certain attributes are assigned to Jesus which witness to His possession of the Logos nature. He partakes even on earth of the Divine omniscience (John 1:48, John 2:25, John 4:17, John 11:14). He appears where He will, with something of a Divine omnipresence (John 6:19, John 8:59, John 9:35). There is a majesty about His Person which quells and overawes (John 7:46, John 12:21, John 18:6). An impression is borne home on us in every episode of the history that, while He dwelt with men, He was a heavenly being, who could exercise at will the prerogatives of God. (3) The aloofness of Jesus, as of one who belonged to a different world, is everywhere brought into strong relief. In the Synoptic narratives, what separates Him from other men is His matchless wisdom and moral purity. St. John ascribes to Him a radical difference of nature. He does not participate in human weaknesses and distresses (even His sorrow over Lazarus is that of a Divine being who stands apart and contemplates the tragedy of our mortal lot). In His intercourse with the disciples He is conscious all the time that He has come from God and returns to God (John 13:3-4). (4) A still more striking emphasis is laid on the absolute freedom, the self-determination of Jesus. While submitting for a time to earthly limitations, He vindicates His higher nature by acting in everything on His own sovereign will, without compulsion from without (John 2:4, John 6:5-6, John 7:6, John 11:33). From the beginning He has fixed His ‘hour,’ and Himself ordains all the conditions that will lead up to it. His enemies are impotent until the hour willed by Himself has come (John 7:30, John 8:20), and meanwhile He goes about His work in perfect security (John 11:9). In this well-marked strain of Johannine thought we have little difficulty in discerning the influence of the Logos idea, penetrating the actual reminiscence of the life of Christ. (5) The Logos character of Jesus, which is thus illustrated on various sides by His actions, comes to clear expression in His spoken words. These are concerned almost wholly with the assertion, under many different types and forms, of the Divine significance of the Speaker Himself. Hence the peculiar value which is ascribed to them (John 6:63; John 6:68, John 15:3). They convey more clearly and emphatically than actions could do the inner secret of our Lord’s personality. Being Himself the Logos, one in essence with God, He had power to impart the higher life (see Word).

In all these directions, therefore, St. John gives effect to the idea of the Prologue that the nature of Christ was a Logos nature. His acceptance of this doctrine involves him in a new reading of the Gospel history—a reading which in some respects is artificial and inadequate. The life of Jesus becomes that of a heavenly being, and all traces of moral struggle (as in the Temptation and the Agony) disappear from it. The attributes of faith in God and infinite sympathy with men are replaced by metaphysical attributes, which are supposed to belong more essentially to the Divine nature. Jesus is the revelation of God because He is the eternal Logos, who manifests in an earthly life the absolute being and self-dependence of God. This, however, is to divest the revelation of its real worth and meaning. What we desire to know and what was actually revealed to us in the life of Jesus, is the moral character of God, and of this the Logos doctrine can render no account. In so far as the Fourth Evangelist has subordinated his conception of Christ to a philosophical speculation, we cannot but feel that he defeats his own purpose. He desires so to assert the majesty of Christ that men may be drawn to believe in Him as the Son of God, and enter into life-giving fellowship with Him. But in the endeavour to exalt the Lord’s Person by means of the Logos hypothesis, he obscures those very elements in the Divine life which constitute its true glory.

4. It is necessary at the same time to recognize that much was gained for Christian theology by the adoption of this hypothesis. (1) A middle term was discovered between Christianity and the forms of Hellenic thought, and a wider development was thus rendered possible. The new religion could now interpret itself to the Graeco-Roman world, and assimilate whatever was congenial to its spirit in the intellectual life of the time. With the help of the categories which it henceforth borrowed from Greek philosophy, it was enabled in many ways to convey its message more clearly and adequately. (2) The claim of Christianity to be the absolute religion was definitely formulated in the Logos doctrine. Jesus was identified not merely with the Jewish Messiah, but with the eternal Word who had been with God from the beginning. His revelation was not one out of many, but the supreme and final revelation. This idea is prominent throughout the Prologue, in which the ‘true Light’ is contrasted with the manifestations of God through John the Baptist and Moses. These, although burning and shining lights, were only ‘for a season’ (John 5:35). (3) By identifying Him with the Logos, St. John declared, in a manner that could not be mistaken, the uniqueness of Jesus, and assigned Him His central place as the object of Christian faith. The Logos category was in itself insufficient, and tended to confuse Christianity with metaphysical issues which were alien to its real import. But it provided a form within which the innermost truth of the religion could maintain itself for ages following. Jesus Christ in His own Person is the revelation of God, and believing on Him we have life through His name.

5. The vital and permanent message of the Fourth Gospel is little affected by any estimate we may form of the value of the Logos hypothesis. It is evident that, while the Evangelist ostensibly sets out from a philosophical theory, he derives in reality from a religious experience. From the impression created in him by the earthly life of Jesus, still more from the knowledge he had received of Him in inward fellowship, he has arrived at the conviction that this is the Christ, the Son of God. He avails himself of the doctrine of the Logos, the highest that the thought of his time afforded him, in order to express this conviction, and in some measure explain it. But the speculative idea belongs to the form, not to the essence of St. John’s teaching. It represents the attempt to interpret, in terms of an inadequate philosophy, a truth which has been grasped by faith. See also art. Divinity of Christ, vol. i. p. 478b.

Literature,—Aall, Geschichte der Logosidee (2 vols., 1896, 1899); Heinze, Die Lehre rom Logos in der griech. Philosophie (1872); Drummond, Philo Judœus; J. Réville, Le Quatrième Evangile (1901), and La doctrine du Logos dans le Lème Évang. et dans les œuvres de Philon (1881); Grill, Untersuchungen über die Entstchung des vierten Evang. (1902); Bousset, Die Relig. des Judenthums (pp. 405–431); Simon, Der Logos (1902); Meyer, Der Prolog des Johannesevang. (1902); Baldensperger, Der Prolog des vierten Evang. (1898); Harnack, Über das Verhältniss, etc. (1892); Kaftan, Das Verhältniss des evangelischen Glaubens zur Logoslehre (1896); art ‘Logos’ in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible .

E. F. Scott.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Logos'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/l/logos.html. 1906-1918.

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the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12
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