CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: Logos – The Most Usual Greek Term for “Word” in the NT

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Logos. The most usual Greek term for “word” in the NT: occasionally with other meanings (e.g., account, reason, motive); specifically in the prologue to the fourth Gospel (John 1:1, 14) and perhaps in other Johannine writings (1 John 1:1; Rev. 19:13) it is used of the Second Person of the Trinity. In ordinary Greek parlance it also means reason.

Johannine Usage. According to John 1:1–18, the logos was already present at the creation (“in the beginning” relates to Gen. 1:1), in the closest relationship with God (“with” = pros, not meta or syn). Indeed, the logos was God (not “divine,” as Moffatt—the anarthrous predicate is grammatically required but may also indicate a distinction between the persons). This relationship with God was effective in the moment of creation (1:2). The entire work of creation was carried out through (“by” = dia, v. 3) the logos. The source of life (1:4, probable punctuation) and light of the world (cf. 9:5) and of every person (1:9, probable punctuation), and still continuing (present tense in 1:5) this work, the logos became incarnate, revealing the sign of God’s presence and his nature (1:14).

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The prologue thus sets out three main facets of the logos and its activity: its divinity and intimate relationship with the Father, its work as agent of creation, and its incarnation.

In 1 John 1:1 “the logos of life,” seen, heard, and handled, may refer to the personal Christ of the apostolic preaching or impersonally to the message about him. Revelation 19:13 pictures Christ as a conquering general called the logos of God. As in Hebrews 4:12, it is the OT picture of the shattering effects of God’s word (cf. the imagery of v. 15) that is in mind.

Background of the Term. Old Testament. Diverse factors give some preparation for John’s usage. God creates by the word (Gen. 1:3; Ps. 33:9), and his word is sometimes spoken of semipersonally (Pss. 107:20; 147:15, 18); it is active, dynamic, achieving its intended results (Isa. 50:10–11). The wisdom of God is personified (Prov. 8—note especially vv. 22–31 on wisdom’s work in creation). The angel of the Lord is sometimes spoken of as God, sometimes as distinct (cf. Judg. 2:1). God’s name is semipersonalized (Exod. 23:21; 1 Kings 8:29).

Palestinian Judaism. Besides the personification of wisdom (cf. Ecclus. 24), the rabbis used the word mēʾmrāʾ, “word,” as a periphrasis for “God.” This usage occurs in the Targums.

Greek Philosophy. Among the philosophers, the precise significance of logos varies, but it stands usually for “reason” and reflects the Greek conviction that divinity cannot come into direct contact with matter. The logos is a shock absorber between God and the universe, and the manifestation of the divine principle in the world. In the Stoic tradition the logos is both divine reason and reason distributed in the world (and thus in the mind).

Hellenistic Judaism. In Alexandrian Judaism there was full personification of the word in creation (Wis. Sol. 9:1; 16:12). In the writings of Philo, who, though a Jew, drank deeply from Platonism and Stoicism, the term appears more than 1,300 times. The logos is “the image” (Col. 1:15); the first form (prōtogonos), the exact representation (charaktēr, cf. Heb. 1:3), of God; and even “Second God” (deuteros theos; cf. Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 7. 13); the means whereby God creates the world from the great waste; and, moreover, the way whereby God is known (i.e., with the mind; closer knowledge could be received directly, in ecstasy).

Hermetic Literature. Logos occurs frequently in the Hermetica. Though post-Christian, these are influenced by Hellenistic Judaism. They indicate the logos doctrine, in something like Philonic terms, in pagan mystical circles.

Sources of John’s Doctrine. John 1 differs radically from philosophic usage. For the Greeks, logos was essentially reason; for John, essentially word. Language common to Philo and the NT has led many to see John as Philo’s debtor. But one refers naturally to Philo’s logos as “it,” to John’s as “he.” Philo came no nearer than Plato to a logos who might be incarnate, and he does not identify logos and Messiah. John’s logos is not only God’s agent in creation; he is God, and becomes incarnate, revealing, and redeeming.

The rabbinic mēʾmrāʾ, hardly more than a reverent substitution for the divine name, is not sufficiently substantial a concept; nor is direct contact with Hermetic circles likely.

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1

The source of John’s logos doctrine is in the person and work of the historical Christ. “Jesus is not to be interpreted by Logos: Logos is intelligible only as we think of Jesus” (W. F. Howard, IB 8:442). Its expression takes its suitability primarily from the OT connotation of “word” and its personification of wisdom. Christ is God’s active Word, his saving revelation to fallen humanity. It is not accidental that both the gospel and Christ who is its subject are called “the word.” But the use of logos in the contemporary Hellenistic world made it a useful “bridge” word.

In two NT passages where Christ is described in terms recalling Philo’s logos, the word logos is absent (Col. 1:15–17; Heb. 1:3). Its introduction to Christian speech has been attributed to Apollos.

Logos in Early Christian Use. The apologists found the logos a convenient term in expounding Christianity to pagans. They used its sense of “reason,” and some were thus enabled to see philosophy as a preparation for the gospel. The Hebraic overtones of “word” were underemphasized, though never quite lost. Some theologians distinguished between the Logos endiathetos, or Word latent in the godhead from all eternity, and the logos prophorikos, uttered and becoming effective at the creation. Origen seems to have used Philos’ language of the deuteros theos. In the major christological controversies, however, the use of the term did not clarify the main issues, and it does not occur in the great creeds.

By A. F. Walls

See also Word, Word of God, Word of Jehovah

CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY: Word, Word of God, Word of Jehovah

Bibliography. R. G. Bury, Logos Doctrine and the Fourth Gospel; A. Debrunner, TDNT 4:69–136; C. H. Dodd, Fourth Gospel; J. D. G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making; H. Haarbeck et al., NIDNTT 3:1078–1146; W. F. Howard, Christianity according to St. John; L. W. Hurtado, One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism; R. L. Ottley, Doctrine of the Incarnation; J. Painter, “Theology, Eschatology, and the Prologue of John,” SJT 46:27–42; G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought; F. E. Walton, Development of the Logos Doctrine in Greek and Hebrew Thought. Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology: Second Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 696–697.

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