Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is the Apsotle John doing Greek Philosophy in the Prologue to his Gospel?

One often hears that by employing the word "logos" in the prologue to his gospel, the apostle John was making use of Greek philosophy.  He was not.
But don't take my word for it; listen to the commentators.  I cite here nearly twenty passages from the commentary tradition, copied almost at random as I came to them in my study.  The number could easily have been doubled, even tripled.  Notice that the list of commentators here presented includes some of the most erudite and accomplished Biblical scholars ever, folks like F. F. Bruce, B. F. Westcott, F. Godet, L. Morris, O. Cullmann, and others.
In other words, the very most one could say about the contention that John employs Greek philosophy in his prologue is that the best scholars generally deny it.

(1.) “There can be little doubt that the roots of the ideas contained in this term [i.e., “logos”] are to be sought in the O. T.” (Ross, p. 135).

(2.) “[Philo’s] misty, vague philosophizing is worlds away from John’s concrete, historical outlook on the personal Logos, who from times eternal was with God and who became flesh in Jesus Christ.  The theory that John derived the term Logos from Philo is very wide of the mark; there is no real evidence that John had ever heard of Philo.  It is just as wide of the mark to regard John as having derived this term from Greek philosophy” (Ross, 136).

(3.) “But, though [John] would not have been unmindful of the associations aroused by the term, his essential thought does not derive from the Greek background.  His Gospel shows little trace of acquaintance with Greek philosophy and less dependence upon it.  And the really important thing is that John in his use of Logos is cutting clean across one of the fundamental Greek ideas.  The Greeks thought of the gods as detached from the world, as regarding its struggles and heartaches and joys and tears with serene divine lack of feeling.  John’s Logos does not show us a God who is serenely detached, but a God who is passionately involved.  The Logos speaks of God’s coming where we are, taking our nature upon Himself, entering the worlds’ struggle, and out of this agony winning men’s salvation”  (Morris, pp. 116-17).

(4.) “[T]he “Word” irresistibly turns our attention to the repeated “and God said” of the opening chapter of the Bible.  The Word is God’s creative Word (v. 3).  The atmosphere is unmistakably Hebraic”  (Morris, pp. 117-18).

(5.) “[W]e find that in other biblical authors, as well as in John, the word [i.e., “Logos”] is never used to signify the divine Reason or Mind; nor indeed those of any human creature”  (Alford, p. 677).

(6.) [Comparing Philo and John] “There is a wide and unmistakable difference between his logos and that of the Apostle” (Alford, p. 679).

(7.) “It would be difficult not to recognize in these first verses an allusion to the beginning of Genesis”  (Godet, John, 243).

(8.)“The term 'Word,' no less than the term 'in the beginning,' serves to recall the narrative in Genesis; it alludes to the expression:  'and God said,' repeated eight times . . . All these sayings of God John gathers into one single, living word” (Godet, John, 245).

(9.) Logos as reason “is foreign to the N.T.” (Godet, John, 246). 

(10.) “The word 'logos' in John, signifies as in the whole Biblical text, word.  In Philo, it signifies, as in the philosophical language of the Greeks, reason.  This simple fact reveals a wholly different starting-point in the use which they make of the term. . .
“In Philo, the existence of the Logos is a metaphysical theorem..  God being conceived of as the absolutely indeterminate and impersonal being, there is an impassible gulf between Him and the material, finite, varied world which we behold.  To fill this void, Philo needed an intermediate agent, a second God, brought nearer the finite; this is the Logos, the half-personalized divine reason.  The existence of the Logos in John is not the result of such a metaphysical necessity. God is in John, as in all the Scriptures, Creator, Master, Father.  He acts Himself in the world, He loves it, He gives His Son to it:  we shall even see that it is He who serves as intermediate agent between men and the Son (6: 37, 44) . . . in John everything in the relation of the Logos to God is a matter of liberty and of love, while with Philo everything is the result of a logical necessity. . .
“To the view of Philo, as to that of Plato, the principle of evil is matter; the Jewish philosopher nowhere dreams, therefore, of making the Logos descend to earth, and that in bodily form.  In John, on the contrary, the supreme fact of history is this:  “The Logos was made flesh” (Godet, pp. 287, 288).

(11.) “It is not in Greek philosophical usage, however, that the background of John’s thought and language should be sought . . . The true background of John’s thought and language is found not in Greek philosophy but in Hebrew revelation.  The ‘word of God’ in the Old Testament denotes God in action, especially in creation, revelation and deliverance” (Bruce, 29).

(12.) “John’s standpoint is that of the Old Testament and not that of the Stoics nor even of Philo” (Roberston, 3, 4).

(13.) “It constantly happens in the history of thought that the same terms and phrases are used by schools which have no direct affinity, in senses which are essentially distinct, while they have a superficial likeness . . . A new teacher necessarily uses the heritage which he has received from the past in order to make his message understood”(Westcott, p. xv).

(14.) “It is admitted on all hands that [John’s] central affirmation, ‘the Word became flesh," which underlies all he wrote, is absolutely unique.  A Greek, an Alexandrine, a Jewish doctor, would have equally refused to admit such a statement as a legitimate deduction from his principles, or as reconcilable with them” (Westcott, xv).

(15.) “Philo and St John, in short, found the same term current, and used it according to their respective apprehensions of the truth.  Philo, following the track of Greek philosophy, saw in the Logos the divine Intelligence in relation to the universe:  the Evangelist, trusting firmly in the ethical basis of Judaism, sets forth the Logos mainly as the revealer of God to man, through creation, through theophanies, through prophets, through the Incarnation. . . In short the teaching of St John is characteristically Hebraic and not Alexandrine” (Westcott pp. xvi-xvii).

 (16.) “We must not overlook the fact that the Gospel of John begins with the same words as the first book of the Old Testament.  If we, like the first Christians of the Diaspora, were accustomed to reading the Old Testament in Greek, this would immediately catch our attention” (Cullmann, p. 250).

(17.) “[T]he Gospel of John did not derive from the widely spread Logos idea a doctrine of general, not exclusively Christian, revelation . . . on the contrary it completely subordinated the extra- and pre-Christian Logos to the one revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and in this way, completely re-formed it”  (Cullmann, 254).

(18.) “If the author takes over many statements about the Logos from Hellenism as well as from the Old Testament, he does not mean to say thereby that the Greeks, for instance, because they spoke of the Logos, already possessed true knowledge.   That would be a modern way of thinking.  This is what the evangelist is saying:  The Greeks spoke of the Logos without knowing him” (Cullmann, 264).

(19.) “False philosophy was dealing out to the world all kinds of error in regard to God and the modes of the Divine existence.  What darkened reason was thus struggling after when ‘the world by wisdom knew not God,’ John was commissioned to set forth, as God’s own revelation of Himself.  The Evangelist borrowed none of his doctrines from those systems.  But he takes, in this case, a term that had become so universally familiar in the chief philosophies of the world before Christ’s coming, and this Logos that they had spoken of so blindly and ignorantly, he declares unto them” (Jacobus, p. 21).


jonathanvanderhout said...

Thank you, Dr. Bauman. This cleared some confusion out of my mind.

Jonathan Vander Hout

Anonymous said...

David says:

I'm curious as to why it would matter if John drew upon the common culture and Greek philosophy to make known his far deeper, richer, and more complete understanding of the truth, having known Truth in the flesh? Also, am I to assume that your sample of commentary crosses time, place, and various Christian traditions. I am sensitive to this, since so often from the media and politically correct educational system, we get claims made and bolstered by some large consensus of experts that really isn't a true sample. Too often in our day people have a result they already want then work to prove it by whatever means they think makes it look most believable. I don't know if you have an agenda or not but the whole consensus thing makes me pause. Teachers must be very careful as teachers will be held more accountable for their truth claims.

David U.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a gracious response, I will go back and read your views on natural theology as time allows.

Best regards to you as well,
David U.

W.LindsayWheeler said...

The "Logos" referred to by Heraclitus is about the "reason" found in nature. The Logos, in Greek philosophy, is the laws of nature or natural law. St. John is most certainly using a Greek philosophical term. Many Jews were Hellenized. Christ uses the term "hypocrite" which is not a Jewish term, but Greek. Christianity is a Greek religion, not Jewish.

The Greek idea of the logos is more precise than it is in Genesis. True, God spoke all of creation into being. But the laws and principles embedded in nature, that was spoken into being, comes from God and is therefore the Logos.

I have a small article on that:

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

It is patently absurd to say that "Christianity is a Greek religion, not Jewish."

W.LindsayWheeler said...

Jesus Christ himself said, "The Faith will be taken away from you and given to another "ethnos"" "Ethnos" in Greek is race. Again, this statement is in connection with Christ's parable of the Wine Skins. Christ said, "You can't pour New Wine into Old Wine Skins". The New Wine is the Gospel. The "Old Wine Skin" is Judaism and Jewish culture. The New Wine of the Gospel was poured into the New Wine Skin of Hellenism.

I point to Ph.D, Jerry Dell Ehrlich, "Plato's Gift to Christianity" where he talks of the hellenization of Christianity. My religious teacher, Father Archimandrite Boniface Luykx, Roman Catholic, Eastern rite, also talked how Christianity ""enculturated"" hellenism.

Furthermore, the Trinity is not a Jewish/Semitic concept. It is Greek/European. Jews attack Christianity by teaching the "simplicity and unity" of God. It was Jewish influence that caused the Socianist movement. (I spelled that right with an "n", not an "l".) The Socianist movement rejected the Trinity in Christianity. Christianity is not Jewish, it is a Greek religion.

Dr. Michael Bauman said...

!. The fact that salvation is not restricted to the Jews does not mean Christianity is Greek. The inclusion of other nations is as old as the call of Abraham, who was to be the spiritual father of many nations, because in him all nations were to be blessed. The nations there mentioned included Greeks but was not limited to to them. "Ethnos" includes far more than just Greeks.

2. Yes, some doctrines and some traditions have, over the centuries, become unduly and improperly Hellenized. To say so is not to say that they ought to have been. Those moves are, with regard to Jesus and His teachings, aberrations and sell outs. He, not subsequent theological defectors, is the measure of true Christianity. Barth and Cullmann have shown both theologically, on the one hand, and exegetically, on the other, why that is true. The Trinity, as subsequently articulated, is one such concept. It arises centuries after the fact. But the Bible itself doesn't go there. The Bible begins with a communal and articulate Maker in Genesis 1:1, a plurality-in-unity who speaks worlds into existence, and He is not Greek. "Elohim" is a plural word and it is connected to a singular verb. God is both a "He" and an "us." To have tried to translate that into Greek concepts was a fool's errand and is evidence of how theologically misguided the church became by the 4th and 5th centuries. What it was by then is not what it was in the beginning or ever ought to have been. To think that the councils did theology the right way is to say that Christ, the apostles, and the prophets all did theology in a defective way because not one of them did theology in that mode or after that fashion.