God the Word

Famously, the prologue of the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel speaks of the Logos, who has existed eternally with God from the beginning, and is God.  It became extremely common to read these statements in the prologue philosophically.  To read them as an attempt by St. John to philosophically represent the deity of Jesus Christ in relationship to the God of Israel as a Jewish monotheist.  Philo of Alexandria’s mention, as a Jewish Middle Platonist, of the divine Logos as an emanation of the one true God is seen as either a parallel or a precursor by this view.  Others looked to the idea of the logos in Stoic philosophy.  This line of thought has so permeated patristic studies that early statements of Christology in the Fathers are read in this philosophical way as well, are seen as part of an evolutionary development, and are termed ‘Logos Christology’.  Unfortunately, this is based upon a whole series of incorrect presuppositions.  In fact, the ‘Word of the Lord’, or the ‘debar Yahweh‘ in Hebrew, is a known entity, a divine person or hypostasis of Israel’s God, from even the earliest phases of the Old Testament revelation.  St. John and Philo are discussing this known figure.  Philo is attempting to fit this figure into his philosophical system in a way which will also be adopted by the later Gnostics.  St. John is speaking of this divine person whom he has met incarnated in the person of Jesus Christ.

Several of the problematic presuppositions regarding the ‘Word of the Lord’ have to do with the reading of the Old Testament, before St. John’s prologue is even approached.  When we read ‘The Word of the Lord came to’ a particular prophet, there are certain assumptions made as to what this means.  In modern Christian discourse, the phrases ‘the word of God’ and ‘the word of the Lord’ are used commonly, even primarily, to refer to the scriptures, in the scriptures themselves they are never clearly used in this way.  In fact, other than a bare handful of debatable cases, the hundreds of uses of these terms in scripture clearly refer to someone or something else.  The scriptures, in contrast, are referred to as ‘that which is written’, from which the word ‘scripture’ derives.  However, because of this common modern association, when it is read that ‘the Word of the Lord’ came to a prophet ‘saying’, the common picture is either that the prophet heard a voice, or in truly modern readings, was just generally ‘inspired’ to speak in some vague spiritual way which gave the prophet’s own speech a special authoritative status.  Setting all of this aside and seeing how ‘the Word of the Lord’ is described in the Old Testament text itself, however, produces a different picture.

Fundamental to this understanding is that it is, in fact, a picture.  The first explicit reference to ‘the Word of the Lord’ in the scriptures comes in Genesis 15:1.  The ‘Word of the Lord’ comes to Abram ‘in a vision’.  Literally ‘in a seeing’.  Abram sees something or someone who tells him that he should not be afraid, because ‘I am your shield’.  Abram responds to the figure in his vision as ‘the Lord Yahweh’ in v. 2, pointing out that he has no heir to inherit all of the blessings that God is giving to him, and so it is all for naught.  In v. 4, the Word responds to Abram’s difficulty with the promise of a son, and in v. 7, identifies himself as Yahweh, who brought Abram out of Ur of the Chaldeans.  Centuries later, when Israel had been brought out of Egypt and into Canaan to settle there, they entered a dark period, corresponding to the time of the Judges, during which much of Israel fell into apostasy and therefore came under foreign oppression.  1 Samuel 3:1 describes the situation in saying that ‘the Word of the Lord’ was rare in those days, then defines this as meaning that there were not many ‘visions’.  It is worth noting that this period in which people did not ‘see’ the Word of the Lord corresponds to the period following the Angel of the Lord’s departure from Israel (Jdg 2:1-5).

The text which follows in 1 Samuel 3 gives further clues as to who or what is actually being seen by the prophets.  In the story that follows, the Lord repeatedly calls to the young Samuel in the night, and Samuel thinks it is Eli, the priest with whom he lives, who is calling him, because we are told that Samuel had not yet come to know the Lord because the Word of the Lord had not yet been ‘revealed’ to him (v. 7).  Once Eli has told Samuel that it must be the God of Israel calling to him, we are told that the Lord comes to stand next to Samuel’s bed, as he had at the other times (v. 10).  The vision which Samuel is having is therefore of a standing figure; a person.  The Lord then tells Samuel some very dire news for Eli and his family, and the next morning, Samuel is afraid to tell Eli the contents of his ‘vision’ (v. 15).  In summary, we are told that throughout Samuel’s upbringing, the Lord continued to ‘appear’ at Shiloh to Samuel, and that he revealed himself to Samuel by ‘his Word’ (v. 21).  There is a similar scene in Jeremiah 1.  The ‘Word of the Lord’ comes to Jeremiah and speaks (v. 4).  When he speaks again, he is identified simply as ‘Yahweh’ (v. 7).  Then he reaches out his hand and touches Jeremiah (v. 9).  Through this vision in which the Word of the Lord appears, Jeremiah is called to be ‘a prophet to the nations (Gentiles)’ (v. 5), and so we can see the close parallel between this vision, and the similar vision experienced by St. Paul on the road to Damascus (Gal 1:11-16).

In pre-Christian Judaism, therefore, the Word of the Lord was identified as a divine person who had appeared and spoken to the prophets in bodily form.  This person was both distinguished from, and identified as, Yahweh, the God of Israel.  Therefore, what St. John is doing in his prologue is not philosophical speculation or the attempt to construct a theological view of the divinity of Christ that is congruent with some pre-existing monotheism.  Rather, St. John is identifying this figure with the person of Jesus Christ, and is then exegeting the Old Testament scriptures accordingly.  This begins with his identifying the Word as the agent of creation in John 1:3.  Psalm 33:6 says, “By the Word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their hosts.”  The word here rendered as ‘breath’ is in Hebrew ‘ruach‘ and in Greek ‘pnevmati‘, both of which are more commonly translated in scripture as ‘Spirit’.  We see the Spirit present in creation in Genesis 1:2.  When the Fathers speak of the Father, Son, and Spirit in creation as mouth, word, and breath they are not inventing Trinitarian analogies, they are exegeting scripture, and interpreting it in the same manner as St. John the Theologian.

In John 1:12-13, St. John speaks of the incarnate Word as having given those who believe the authority to become sons of God.  In the previously discussed text of Genesis 15, the Word makes the promise to Abram that a son of his own flesh and blood will inherit all of the blessings which God is giving to him, and that his offspring will be like the stars of the heavens (v. 4-5).  St. John contrasts this with the sons (and therefore heirs) of God who are born not of flesh and blood or the will of man, but born of God himself.  In the final verses of his prologue, St. John makes clear his identification.  He identifies Jesus Christ as the Word having become flesh (v. 14).  He then identifies the figure in the visions of the Lord in the Old Testament as being Christ himself, the Word, in that ‘No one has ever seen God, but the unique God who is at the side of the Father, he has made him known’ (v. 18).  St. John is not here invalidating all of the visions of God which clearly appear in the Old Testament, in favor of a view that God is only seen in the person of Jesus Christ incarnate.  Rather, he is identifying the God, the Yahweh, who was seen by the prophets as Jesus Christ, incarnate in these latter days.

6 comments:

  1. I encountered some of these ideas in Christ the Eternal Tao by hieromonk Damascene and I am completely entranced.

  2. Father Stephen,
    Thank you for another very helpful explanation of what St. John was saying in the prologue of his gospel. In the past, I was under the impression that the OT Yahweh was God the Father…and I say impression because a pre-incarnate Christ of the OT was not addressed, so one was left with ‘impressions’. It was upon entering Orthodoxy that Christ is explicitly taught as The Word in the OT, and the Incarnate Word in the New. Such clarification sheds an entire new light on the entire meaning of Holy Scripture.
    Your mention of Plato’s influence on “Jewish monotheism” and “Logos Christology” helps me understand how Christ’s identity can be misunderstood under a purely philosophical view. In light of such errors, I can understand the importance of the Creed needing further defining in successive Ecumenical Councils.

    I have a question that I perhaps should have asked in your previous post “The Angel of the Lord”. I have noticed that some Orthodox sources identify Michael the Archangel as the Angel of the Lord in some verses of the OT. They identify him as the Angel in Josh 5:13-15, as well as being the pillar of cloud and fire in the Exodus, the defender in the account of the 185 thousand Syrian soldiers in 2Kings 19:35, and the protection of the three holy youths in the fiery furnace, to name a few. Would you comment on this, please, as I’m not sure how to read this properly.
    Many thanks, Father.

  3. I suppose your response to my question, now that I think of it, would be to refer to the previous post. What strikes me is the different interpretations of the Angel of the Lord. You state clearly why you say it is Christ.

  4. I’m just now discovering your blog by way of Ancient Faith Radio. Outstanding. I’ll add you to my regular readings. Thank you, so much.

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