Λόγος Christology in John, Justin, and Origen

...and yet another. (I took it out of formatting because it was being weird.)

Λόγος Christology in John, Justin, and Origen

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[1] So famously begins John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is identified as the λόγος (“Word”) incarnate, “who became flesh and dwelt among us.”[2] In the first eighteen verses of the Gospel alone,[3] we learn (among other things) that Jesus has existed from the beginning; indeed, “[a]ll things were made through him.”[4]

With these simple words, John outlined a Christological doctrine that would reverberate through subsequent Christian thought. The idea of Jesus as λόγος was hugely influential in later Christian theology:

The Prologue was so shocking, so divergent from what had gone before, so different from what the rest of the New Testament was saying about Jesus and the Word that it had an immense affect [sic] on what followed, whether that affect [sic] meant convergence with or divergence from Johannine teaching.[5]

Virtually everywhere else in the New Testament (including the Johannine corpus), the λόγος is simply the message or teaching of Christ, not Christ himself; John’s introductory proclamation to the contrary, then, is a powerful attestation to Jesus’ divinity which functions as a “signpost pointing to the incarnation and to Jesus” until Jesus himself enters the narrative.[6] (Importantly, John is not concerned with prolonged metaphysical discussions of the nature of the λόγος, as later Christians would be; John’s use of the λόγος lexeme is not primarily philosophical, but literary – “a clever ruse to grab the reader’s attention.”[7])

Of course, none of this theological reflection exists in a vacuum; long before the time of John or Jesus (in the flesh, at least), Judaism had evolved understandings of “subordinate agencies and powers” – such as God’s Spirit, Word, Wisdom, and Law – which served as intermediaries between God in Heaven (Who, it was thought, could not simply abandon His throne to address human affairs) and man on Earth.[8] (Most famously, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria – considered a forerunner of Christian thought – developed a Platonic theology of Judaism in which the λόγος was variously described as the only-begotten Son of God, man of God, and image of God.[9]) Thus, John, in equating Jesus with the λόγος, draws upon earlier Jewish concepts of divine revelation that are seen both in the ubiquitous Old Testament formula “the Word of the Lord” (suggestive of God’s power) and in the Jewish perception of Wisdom as the Word of God.[10]

As the faith spread beyond Jewish Palestine to the entire Roman Empire, this nascent Johannine Christology (along with the rest of Christian theology) was subsequently Hellenized by later Christians, who increasingly drew on Greek philosophical sources for their conceptualization of the λόγος.[11] (Greek philosophers had used “λόγος” as a technical term since the time of Heraclitus.[12]) Platonists had deemed the “transcendence of God [to be] such that it became more and more difficult to suppose that He exercised any action whatsoever upon the Cosmos.”[13] In contrast, Stoicism had thought of God as being in direct contact with the material world, operating through a divine λόγος that manifested itself in various forms (and was thus more often referred to in the plural as λόγοι – more specifically, λόγοι σπερματικοί[14]).[15] An “elegant blend” emerged as Platonists borrowed the Stoics’ λόγος to serve as an intermediary (or, in practice, as whatever they needed) between their transcendent God and His creation.[16] (One crucial consequence of this appropriation was that the λόγος was always “subordinate, in the second rank” – and indeed, for the first few centuries of Christian history, the Son was thought to be secondary to the Father.[17]) This syncretistic (and multifaceted) doctrine of the λόγος acted as the backdrop for ensuing Christian theologies, even when those theologies strayed significantly from the original meaning of the λόγος (a common occurrence; as de Faye observes, “[The] Logos, adopted by the early Christians, is not exactly the Logos of the philosophers”[18]).

One early example of a Christian thinker influenced by such Hellenistic thought was Justin Martyr (who, ironically, was unfamiliar with the Gospel of John),[19] a pagan philosopher who converted to Christianity in A.D. 132 and became the foremost Christian apologist of his time.[20] For Justin, Jesus is the incarnation of a “rational power [proceeding] from [God], who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos.”[21] Christ can bear all these names because he was begotten by the Father in the same way in which we beget words; such begetting does not diminish the Father any more than the act of speech diminishes us.[22] (In this sense, Jesus is both λόγος as spoken word and λόγος as rational principle; as Stead puts it, “The Logos is pictured in two-fold form, as the Father’s immanent Reason and as his outgoing, active and creative Word.”)[23],[24]

Why did Justin posit such a transitional divine entity? What metaphysical purpose does the λόγος serve? According to Minns and Parvis,

Justin believed that the very possibility of divine revelation required the existence of such a distinct, subordinated, or second-order divinity, for the possibility of God directly and immediately communicating himself to anyone else was ruled out by God’s own transcendence. […] This idea that God deals with the created order by means of a ‘second God’ had contemporary parallels in Jewish exegesis and in Greek philosophy.[25]
(Is Justin’s Christology implicitly ditheistic? It is difficult to say; Justin does, after all, go as far as calling Jesus “another God and Lord.”[26] In fairness to Justin, his λόγος is conceived more as a power than as a persona – following Tertullian – or as an ὑπόστασις – following Origen. Nevertheless, though his Christ is still “subject to the Maker of all things … [announcing] to men whatsoever the Maker of all things … wishes to announce to them,” the problem certainly remains.[27])

It was through the λόγος, then, that the world was created; it was through the λόγος that God spoke by His prophets; and it was through the λόγος σπερματικός (“spermatic word”) – the seed of the λόγος, reason, implanted in all people – that mankind could partially perceive the Truth.[28],[29] (Justin appropriates the concept of a “spermatic” λόγος from Philo and Stoic philosophy. [30]) This seed had afforded the Greek philosophers of antiquity (to whom Justin is heavily indebted) an imperfect view of God; it was only afterwards, however, through Jesus – “in whom the Logos dwells fully” – that a full understanding of God became possible.[31]

Evidently, Justin’s λόγος Christology was deeply rooted in the unfolding revelation of God to man – in Old Testament theophanies, in the Old Testament itself, and ultimately (and most fully) in Jesus himself. Yet, in using a lexeme married to a rich tradition in classical Greek philosophy (as well as in the pagan philosophy of his own time), Justin also clearly sought to establish a common ground with his opponents.[32] In fact, Justin goes so far as to call certain pre-Christian philosophers who have followed the (thitherto un-incarnate) λόγος “Christians”:

We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word [λόγος] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably [μετὰ λόγου] are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them.[33]

Thus, the λόγος operates not only as a mediator between God and man but also as a mediator between Justin and his interlocutors.

Justin’s λόγος Christology constitutes an unmistakable progression from that found in the Gospel of John. Justin unequivocally follows John in identifying Jesus as the λόγος, but then proceeds (as it were) to flesh out this identification; the λόγος becomes connected to classical philosophy, God’s rationality and revelation, and the faculty by which mankind discerns truth.

Origen’s λόγος Christology (aptly named, for “[t]he doctrine of the Logos … constitutes the very essence of [Origen’s] Christology”[34]) is not wholly dissimilar from Justin’s. Just as Justin sought to defend Christianity against its detractors by means of a λόγος Christology, “the whole of [the] Christology of Origen is nothing else than a learned justification of the Christian belief of his time.”[35] Finally, for both Origen and Justin, “God the Father delegates to his Logos tasks which it would be inappropriate for him to perform in his own Person. […] The Logos might therefore be described as the permanent agent of God’s self-limitation and condescension.”[36]

Yet Origen is innovative in speaking of the λόγος as a distinct ὑπόστασις (“hypostasis”),[37] and he is also the first to develop a concept of eternal generation.[38] Arguing that it would be absurd to suppose that there could have been a time at which God existed but His Wisdom (i.e., Christ) did not, Origen concludes that “we must believe that Wisdom was generated before any beginning that can be either comprehended or expressed.”[39] (This vital distinction, Trigg notes, “provided the theoretical foundation of Nicene orthodoxy. It allows the Father to be the cause of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s procession, but in such a way that, in distinction from all other created beings, they share in the Father’s eternal and incorporeal existence.”[40] Arius, in contrast, believed that “the Son came into being in time and out of non-existence.”[41])

Furthermore, Origen integrates into his sophisticated theology the belief that Christ has a divine and a human nature:

The divine nature, God’s Logos, fully shares … in the Father’s eternity and incorporeality. … [T]he Logos also shares our full human nature. […] This union is so intimate that Scripture habitually applies the properties of either nature to the other, so that the man Jesus Christ is called the Son of God and the Son of God is said to have died.[42]

This full human nature includes not only a human body, but also a human soul (which, according to Origen, the divine λόγος assumes before assuming the body itself);[43] in Origen’s words, “[T]his altogether surpasses human admiration … how that mighty power of divine majesty, that very Word [λόγος] of the Father … can be believed to have existed within the limits of that man who appeared in Judea.”[44]

At this point, it may be the case that Origen diverges slightly from John and Justin Martyr. Origen does not believe, as John and Justin did, that the λόγος became Jesus; instead, Origen believes that the λόγος “cohabits with Jesus and remains himself. So independent is he [the λόγος] that … it is permissible for him to leave the man he has chosen, to absent himself, to return and again take up his associate.”[45] In his own words,

[I]f in that man [Jesus] as He appeared among men there was something divine, namely the only-begotten Son of God, the first-born of all creation … of this Being and His nature we must judge and reason in a way quite different from that in which we judge of the man who was seen in Jesus Christ.[46]

Origen does, of course, affirm that Jesus and the λόγος are “one personality.”[47]

Nothing in Origen or Justin, fortunately, indicates any radical departure from the λόγος of John’s Gospel. The same dominant themes of incarnation, creation, rationality, revelation, and subordination to the Father reappear in all three Christologies (though some of these themes are inevitably only implicit in John, given the brevity with which he discusses the λόγος). Differences exist, obviously, mainly indicative of general trends in the evolution of a Christianity that was increasingly Hellenized and systematized; the λόγος of Light and Life in John gave way to the rational power of Justin and finally to the ὑπόστασις of Origen. Ultimately, however, the best summation of the λόγος doctrine remains the opening words of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.[48]

[1] John i. 1. (Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references come from the English Standard Version.)

[2] John i. 14.

[3] The only other potential New Testament reference to Jesus as the λόγος occurs in Revelation xix. 13. Peter M. Phillips, The Prologue of the Fourth Gospel (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 88.

[4] John i. 2-3.

[5] Phillips, 90.

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] Ibid., 140-141.

[8] Christopher Stead. Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 148-149.

[9] “logos.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[10] “Philo Judaeus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[11] “logos.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[12] John Mark Reynolds. When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 39.

[13] Eugène de Faye, Origen and His Work (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929), 100.

[14] Stead, 47.

[15] De Faye, 100.

[16] Ibid., 101.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 103.

[19] Helmut Köster, “Rome and Religious Sectarianism in the Second Century (From the Death of Paul to Irenaeus).” Andover Hall 102, Cambridge, MA. 24 Sept. 2009. Lecture.

[20] “Saint Justin Martyr.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[21] Justin Martyr, Dialogus cum Tryphoni, LXI.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 61.

[24] Stead, 156.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Justin Martyr, Dialogus cum Tryphoni, LVI.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Helmut Köster, “Christianity and Philosophy.” Andover Hall 102, Cambridge, MA. 8 Oct. 2009. Lecture.

[29] It should be noted that Minns and Parvis argue that Justin – unlike Philo before him and the majority of Christians after him – does not “explicitly assign a mediatorial role to the Logos in the creation of the world. […] His remarkable coyness about ascribing a directly mediatorial role to the Logos or Son in the work of creation, especially when set beside the fact that it is from God as creator that Justin habitually distinguishes the Logos or Son, suggests that he was chary of the idea – perhaps suspecting that it would provide comfort for Gnostic heretics who sought to disparage creation and to deny that it was the work of God.” Minns and Parvis, 62-65.

[30] Minns and Parvis, 65.

[31] Helmut Köster, “Christianity and Philosophy.”

[32] Minns and Parvis, 65.

[33] Justin Martyr, Prima Apologia, XLVI.

[34] De Faye, 99.

[35] Ibid., 113.

[36] Stead, 156.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Joseph W. Trigg, Origen (London: Routledge, 1998), 24.

[39] Origen, De principiis, I.II.2.

[40] Trigg, 24.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 25.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Origen, De principiis, II.VI.2.

[45] De Faye, 105.

[46] Origen, Contra Celsum, VII.XVI.

[47] De Faye, 105-106.

[48] John i. 1-5.