Publications: Articles - Theology
Jesus Christ – The Centre Of Our Faith:
The Scriptural Image of Christ (The Word Incarnate)
Jesus Christ - The Word Incarnate
It is in the Gospel according to St John that Jesus Christ is encountered with the title 'Logos' or 'Word'. Specifically it is seen in two places: in John 1:1 and 1:14. In the opening lines of the Gospel we see highlighted the pre-existence of the Word:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (Jn 1:1).
Applied to Jesus, the title 'Word' in this case affirmed Christ to be pre-existent, beyond the confines of time and space, divine, and as we shall see later in the Gospel the agent of creation and the mediator between the Father and the world. In fact as the Word of God, Jesus Christ was depicted not only in an intercessory role but as the very revelation of God, His Father. Jesus, as the Word of God is therefore both the revealer and the revelation of God.
As God's revealer, Jesus made known, by His actions, speeches, dialogues and indeed His entire life those things that God wanted for the world. That is to say, the incarnated Word revealed or exegeted the Father thereby making visible and comprehensible the invisible and ineffable God. At the same time, as God's revelation, encountering Jesus meant beholding God, His heavenly Father. As Word, Christ was not only the revealer of the Father's revelation but the very embodiment of that revelation as well. And so in St John's Gospel, the phrase 'Word' became a title for Jesus since His very person and work came to be identified completely with His proclamation – that is, the person of Jesus became synonymously identified with the Gospel itself. This idea of Christ as revelation of, and revealing the Father was taken up by other New Testament writings which describe Jesus as the 'image' , 'effulgence' and 'wisdom' of God. After examining the use of the expression 'Word' in the New Testament, a brief outline of the various meanings of the term will be looked at from certain extra-biblical sources to see how these shed light on Jesus Christ as the Word of God.
Exegesis of St John's Gospel
A careful exegesis of this opening verse of St John's Gospel (cited above) provides us with an insightful acquaintance with the concept of 'word' in its relation to Jesus Christ. Divided into three simple clauses, each however contains the same imperfect form of the verb 'to be', yet used slightly differently in each case. The first part of the first verse explains that the Word existed from the very beginning with God the Father. In this way, it reveals that there was never a time when God was without His Word. Later, the Fathers of the Church would speak of the co-eternity of the Father and the Son in their confrontation with Arius by stating that even though the Son (and for that matter the Holy Spirit) were from the Father, this did not mean that they came after Him. Just like the sun is not prior to its light, said St Gregory the Theologian, so too was the Father not prior to His Son. Ultimately the Patristic tradition would claim that the Word of God was begotten from the Father in a non-temporal manner (achronos) which goes beyond any logical explanations. It must be remembered that even though the Fathers spoke of the co-eternity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, they did not say that all three persons were co-unoriginate – since only the Father was the only cause and source of the Godhead.
Turning now to the second clause of the opening verse of St John's Gospel, although the same verb 'was' is used, its meaning does not describe existence, as in the first clause, but a relationship – "the Word was with God" in the sense that the Word was in the presence of God or in communion with God. One can appreciate here the unity of the Word with God yet also the Word's distinctiveness from God. For this reason the Eastern Orthodox tradition would claim that the Father and the Word are one in essence, they are united in their energies and action towards the world, but each is a distinct, unique mode of existence – i.e. a unique person. Therefore the second clause affirms the indivisible distinction and unconfused unity between the Father and the Word of God.
Finally the third clause of the first verse of St John's first chapter uses the imperfect from of the verb 'to be' in a predication which reveals the essential characteristic of the word – i.e. "the word was God" – that is, the divine quality of the Word. The word order in this case if significant since it implies that the Word in His nature was truly God. If for example, the Gospel writer wanted to imply that the Word was a lesser god he would have written o logos en theos – the Word was a god. If, on the other hand, he wanted to identify the Word completely with God without any distinction, he could have written o theos en o logos – God was the Word. From this verse taken as a whole, one can clearly see what led the Church in subsequent years to conclude that the Word was in unity with, yet distinct from, the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Now, for St John the Evangleist not only was the Word recognized to be divine with exactly the same divinity as God His Father, but in total contrast to this, fully human as well:
"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth" (Jn 1:14).
In stating that the divine Word became flesh, John wonderfully combined, in the meaning of 'Word', two diametrically opposed notions – those of divinity and humanity. The surprising unity between these two antithetical elements was now incorporated into Jesus Christ the Word. In Christ the Word, divinity became inseparably bound to humanity to such an extent that from now on Christ could most authentically be described only in a theanthropic manner (i.e. both as fully God and fully human). Even though the Word dwelt with the Father from all eternity, as the Prologue observed, in having now assumed the flesh of humanity, Christ was now depicted as a real human being. Hence those scholars who argue today that the notion of the true incarnation is not found in the New Testament does not stand since St John's Gospel strongly emphasized the 'flesh' of the Word of God. In fact the importance of the incarnational nature of Christ is further emphasised in the first letter of John to such a degree that those who reject this foundational truth are referred to as 'antichrist':
"By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world" (1Jn 4:2-3).
The emphasis is clearly upon the historical reality of the existence of Jesus Christ, the Logos incarnate in the flesh since Jesus Christ is the incarnation of the pre-existent Word. Having looked at the biblical notion of 'Word' as it applied to Jesus Christ, we now turn our attention to its use in certain extra-biblical literature as this will give us insights into the various other meanings of Christ as the Word of God.
Ancient world understanding
In the ancient world, the notion of 'word' was heavily reflected upon by many philosophers as it conveyed important and meaningful insights from which they were able to explain the meaning and existence of the world. In its attempt today to determine the source of the various nuances of this profoundly rich expression of the term 'word', much literature and debate have arisen within biblical scholarship. There is however agreement that the phrase the 'word' originated either from within Hellenistic philosophy, Gnosticism or Jewish literature. Whilst the contention of many scholars who argue that the term came to predominate in St John's Gospel as a reaction to the Gnostic frequent use of God as wisdom, is not entirely incorrect, it is more plausible, though to conclude that Christ came to be referred to in this way since He was believed to be the all pervading 'reason' (logos) or 'cause' which created and sustained the universe. Besides, this was the interpretation that many fathers, such as Justin Martyr and Maximus the Confessor gave to the title 'Word' in reference to Jesus. Furthermore this was how Greek philosophy understood the title as this too is evidenced in the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato, Heraclitus, the Stoics and Philo.
Coupled with this notion, the concept of 'word' implied much more than simply an expression of thought, but included its result, that is the analogous action or deed. Therefore beyond speech and thought the notion of 'word' implied the reason of existence, that power which gathered together the various scattered elements of the world and put harmony into them. For example Heraclitus wrote that the Logos was "the omnipresent wisdom by which all things are steered" thereby attributing the Word with divine qualities. On the other hand, for the Stoics, the 'word' was the common law of nature, the raison d'etre of existence, immanent in the world and maintaining the unity of the universe. And for Philo, the Logos was the agent of creation, the means by which God could be known. And so for St John the Evangelist it is Jesus as the Word of God by whom, through whom for whom all things were made, the one in whom all things hold together.
So rich was the meaning of 'word' in the ancient world, that the Gospel of St John was able at once to convey with this title not only the divinity of Jesus, but also His powerful action as the life-force behind the entire universe. This dynamic character of the meaning of 'Word', as God's expression and accomplishing act is found everywhere in the Scriptures. And so in the Old Testament it is through the mighty utterance of God's word that the entire world is created from non being:
"By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth" (Ps 33:6).
In the Psalms of the Old Testament, the Word is even personified:
"he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction (Ps 107:20)… [He] sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly…He sends out his word, and melts them; he makes his wind blow, and the waters flow (Ps 147:15;18).
The Patristic tradition interpreted these passages as sustaining actions by the Son of God, the Father's Word, betraying also God's continued care and providence for the world which He created out of love. Unlike the ancient use of the term, St John's gospel never described the Word as a faceless emanation overflowing out from God's divinity, but identified the Word with the person of Jesus. It is this personification of the Word that the author of the Gospel of John takes up, to begin his Gospel in order to affirm that it was through His Word, that God, the Father brought about His entire divine purpose in history. And so, in reference to Jesus, as the Word of God, this implied Christ's identification with God whose expression, deed and unifying cause He was. And as the unique expression of God Himself, divine sonship was now possible for all believers. Communion with God the Father was only possible because Jesus Christ was ultimately depicted as the Word of 'God', divine with the exactly the same divinity as His Father. In the next issue of VEMA we will examine those landmark statements which explicitly refer to Jesus Christ as God.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. Cf Jn 1:18 "No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (exegesato)".
2. Cf Col 1:5 "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation" and 'In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God' (2Cor 4:4);
3. Cf Heb 1:3 "He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high".
4. Cf Wis 7:26 " For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness".
5. Arius was a pious priest from Alexandria who lived in the fourth century but who did not believe in the divinity of the Son of God believing instead that He was a creature (albeit the most exalted of all God's creatures) begotten in time. For this reason he was condemned at the first Ecumenical Council in 325AD. Since the Scriptural Christ was depicted as co-eternal with the Father (and the Spirit), then there "was never a time when the Son of God was not."
6. Cf St Gregory the Theologian, Third Theological Oration, 29.3.
8. Gnosticism basically was a sect of the early Church which believed that though Jesus was a divine figure, He nevertheless was one of the many aeons and therefore not divine like the absolute God. Their general view was that God could not assume a materially human nature since matter was considered evil and therefore was not divine like God the Father who was utterly transcendent and far removed from the material world.
9. James Adam, The Religious Teachers of Ancient Greece (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1909), 216-34.