Another Look at John 1:1 (Tsouloufis)

The following is a guest post by my friend Dan Tsouloufis. He takes another look at John 1:1. It’s a wonderful read and worth your time!

Jesus as the Word: An Examination of John 1:1

Oftentimes, non-Christians and even newer Christians will ask why Jesus is described as the Word in John 1:1, and this is certainly a valid question to ask. As the apostle John begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (NIV, John 1:1). So, what does John mean by referring to Jesus as the Word?

The purpose of this essay is fourfold. First, I will examine both the biblical and the philosophical concept of Jesus as Logos. Second, I will examine how Jesus’ deity is critical in establishing the biblical concept of God as a Trinity. Third, I will examine the limits of classical apologetics, which, though vitally important, can only lead us to Theism, not the full, Trinitarian God of the Bible. And fourth, I will outline several points of application that we can take away from our understanding of Jesus as the Word.

Concept of Jesus as Logos

It is important to remember that the whole New Testament was written in Greek during the first century A.D., and Greek was the common written language at the time. Therefore, the apostles and their contemporaries who wrote the books of the New Testament used common Greek words in order to convey their Christian message to both Jews and Gentiles. Moreover, they needed to convey that Jesus Christ was not merely a man, but that He was also divine and of the same substance as God the Father (i.e. the eternal God and Creator of the universe).   

When we examine the John 1:1 passage, “Word” is translated from the Greek word Logos,which denotes “reason” or “speech”. In ancient Greek philosophy at the time, this “reason” denoted the controlling principle in the universe. So it’s understandable why the apostle John, who wrote this passage, would use the Greek word Logos (reason) in order to describe to a Gentile who Jesus was, since John was conveying to the Gentiles that Jesus (who is also God) is the controlling principle in the universe. Thus, John was establishing that Jesus is the ultimate source of reason in the universe, from which all human reason is contingently derived. As the New Testament scholar Merrill Tenney explained: “The term LOGOS implies the intelligence behind the idea, the idea itself, and the transmissible expression of it…LOGOS was one of the purest and most general concepts of that ultimate Intelligence, Reason, or Will that is called God” (Tenney 62).

Secondly, John needed to convey who Jesus was to a Jewish audience as well, since after all, Jesus was a Jew and the gospel message was first preached to the Jews. Therefore, to a Jew, the concept of the “Word” as Logos can also be understood as “speech” or “discourse”. In this context, there’s a link between language and revelation. John was conveying the incarnation of Jesus, so he used the word Logos (speech) in order to describe to a Jew that Jesus is the self-revelation of God, the divine nature taking on human nature. Thus, John was establishing both the divinity of Jesus as well as the relational aspect between Jesus and God the Father. Since Jesus (as the Word) was in the beginning, and since Jesus was with God, this reveals a relational aspect within God’s divine nature. Therefore, from this text we can derive that Jesus is truly God in essence and substance, yet is distinct in His person, due to the inherent relationship between Jesus and God the Father. This is the foundation of the biblical understanding of God as a truly personal and relational God; whereas in the religion of Islam, for example, no such understanding can be established.  

There may be some modern critics, however, who question why the apostle John would borrow the Greek philosophical concept of Logos in order to describe the nature of Jesus as well as convey His deity. Merrill Tenney offered two cogent responses to such criticism. First:

The writer of the Fourth Gospel doubtless used LOGOS with full knowledge of its general meaning in the religious and philosophical vocabulary of his day. How could he do otherwise than adapt to his purpose the vocabulary of his time? If he refused to use it because it had connotations contrary to his meaning, he would be forced to remain silent for lack of media of expression. (62)  

And second:

His usage should be understood in terms of his own definition. LOGOS is to be received in the light of the Person whom it denotes rather than as a concept of Greek religion which the author arbitrarily foisted upon Jesus of Nazareth. John’s teaching is the starting point of a new philosophy based on the Risen Christ and expressed in a current term, rather than an attempt to absorb into paganism the teaching of and about Jesus by enveloping Him with a pagan concept. (62-63)  

Concept of God as a Trinity

Next, I will examine how Jesus’ deity is critical in establishing the biblical concept of God as a Trinity. It can plausibly be asserted that the incarnation of Jesus is the most consequential event in history, where the eternal God of the universe entered space-time history as the second person of the Trinity, and He took on flesh to dwell among His creation (John 1:14). In the incarnation, the eternal God communicates to His creation through His self-revelation, both in human form (Jesus) and in written form (His Word, the Bible). Even after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, God continues to communicate to His followers through His Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. However, as is often pointed out by skeptics and by people of other faith traditions, the word Trinity does not exist anywhere in the Bible. Therefore, what do Christians mean by referring to God as a Trinity? And how does the John 1:1 passage convey the concept of God as a Trinity?

According to Merrill Tenney, the Prologue of John’s Gospel (1:1-18) “is theological rather than biographical in its approach…it is not primarily a chronicle, it is interpretation. It asserts that Jesus, the historic personage known to man, is the Ultimate Fact of the universe” (63). The reason this is important is because Jesus is being equated with God; therefore we must understand that the nature of God is not merely Unitarian (i.e. a single-person God).

When we examine the John 1:1 passage closely, we see that it comprises three clauses:

1) “In the beginning was the Word,” 2) “and the Word was with God,” 3) “and the Word was God.” As Tenney noted, “The first predicate of the LOGOS is eternity,” and it expresses “the indefinite eternity which preceded all time, the immeasurable past” (64). In other words, Jesus as the Logos did not come into being; He always existed. The second affirmation, according to Tenney, “is that of eternal personality…In John 1:1, then, it implies being on a level with and in communication with God. The LOGOS is not an impersonal principle, but is to be regarded as living, intelligent, active personality” (64). The third affirmation, according to Tenney, “is the assertion of deity. The Greek word theos, translated God, is employed here without the article” and it “clearly asserts that the LOGOS possessed and eternally manifested the very nature of God” (65).  

The Bible clearly affirms the unity of God (Deut. 6:4), as well as the full deity of the three persons of the Godhead. According to the late theologian R.C. Sproul, “The unity of the Godhead is affirmed in terms of essence or being, while the diversity of the Godhead is expressed in terms of person” (Sproul 35). Moreover, as Sproul explained:

The term person does not mean a distinction in essence, but a different subsistence in the Godhead. A subsistence in the Godhead is a real difference, but not an essential difference, in the sense of the sense of a difference in being…Subsistence is a difference within the scope of being, not a separate being or essence. All persons in the Godhead have all the attributes of deity. (35)

Sproul also makes the point that “the Trinity does not refer to parts of God or even to roles. Human analogies such as one man who is a father, son, and a husband fail to capture the mystery of the nature of God” (36). Lastly, “The doctrine of the Trinity does not fully explain the mysterious nature of God. Rather, it sets the boundaries outside of which we must not step” (36).  In other words, it sets the limits of human speculation about the nature of God. This is critically important, since we need to ensure that we allow the Bible to inform our view of God, not our own finite preconceptions.

The Advocate, the Holy Spirit

In John’s Gospel, Jesus told His disciples, “All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (John 14:25-26). As believers, we cannot obey God’s law merely on our own power – we need His help. As Jesus declared, “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate to help you and be with you forever – the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17). Further, Jesus said, “Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you” (John 16:7). “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).

As we can see, John’s Gospel clearly reveals the third person of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit. That is why in John 16:13 it says “he” will guide you into all the truth. The “he” refers to a person, not some impersonal force or spirit. Lastly, as Jesus said about the Advocate, “He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you” (John 16:14-15). 

Significance of the Trinity

As we contemplate the concept of God as a Trinity, the following three aspects help to shed light on our understanding of the significance of the Trinity.

  1. The philosophical significance: The Trinity as the answer to the problem of finding ultimate unity in diversity.
  2. Created in God’s image: The Trinity as the ground of all personality, communication, and love which flows from God through man, His special creation (Gen. 1:26).
  3. God’s personal self-disclosure: The self-revelation of God in Christ, the second person of the Trinity (John 1:1, 14).

Regarding the third aspect – the incarnation – Merrill Tenney explained that Jesus as the Word “expressed Himself in a human personality that was visible, audible, and tangible. He partook of flesh and blood with its limitations of space and time, and with its physical handicaps of fatigue, hunger, and susceptibility to suffering, so that He belongs to humanity as well as to God” (Tenney 70). The effect of Jesus’ incarnation was revelatory since, as the apostle John said, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  

British theologian Michael Reeves offers some insightful points regarding the Trinity in His excellent book, The Good God: Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit. In it, Reeves addresses the contrast between the biblical view of God’s nature as Trinitarian (i.e. a three-person God) and the non-biblical view of God’s nature as Unitarian (i.e. a single-person God). As Reeves states:

Oneness for the single-person God would mean sameness. Alone for eternity without any beside him, why would he value others and their differences? Think how it works out for Allah: under his influence, the once diverse cultures of Nigeria, Persia and Indonesia are made, deliberately and increasingly, the same. Islam presents a complete way of life for individuals, nations and cultures, binding them into one way of praying, one way of marrying, buying, fighting, relating – even, some would say, one way of eating and dressing. (Reeves 84)

In contrast to such a movement toward sameness, Reeves says that “Oneness for the triune God means unity. As the Father is absolutely one with his Son, and yet is not his Son, so Jesus prays that believers might be one, but not that they might all be the same” (84). This is at the heart of Jesus’ high-priestly prayer in John 17:20-23.

In another helpful section in his book, Reeves discusses God’s attribute of mercy. Here, Reeves states:

If God were not personal, he could not be merciful (things do not show mercy); but if God were just one person, then love of the other would not be central to his being. There would have been nobody in eternity for him to love. Thus the only God inherently inclined to show mercy is the Father who has eternally loved his Son by the Spirit. (91)    

In summary, we affirm the doctrine of the Trinity because God has chosen to reveal Himself in this way to us, first by means of His incarnation, and second by means of His Word. In the incarnation, Jesus is the embodiment and self-revelation of God. Because God is triune, we can know Him better, since the Son revealed the Father through the incarnation, and the Holy Spirit inspired and illuminates God’s Word to us (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:21). In relation to the Trinity, we affirm that Jesus is God in essence, yet Son of God in personality; and we affirm that the Holy Spirit, the Helper whom Jesus promised would come, is equally God in essence, yet distinct in His person in relation to God the Father and God the Son.

As the Athanasian Creed states so simply but profoundly: “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons nor dividing the Substance.” And in another line it states: “In this Trinity, nothing is before or after, nothing is greater or less; but all three Persons co-eternal, together and equal.”

Limits of Classical Apologetics  

Next, I will examine the limits of classical apologetics, which, though vitally important, can only lead us to Theism, not the full, Trinitarian God of the Bible. This is because the classical apologetics approach can only take us so far in its conclusions regarding the nature of God.

When I use the term classical apologetics, what I mean by this is: rational arguments for the existence of God by appealing to our reason and to natural revelation, without presupposing any supernatural or special revelation, such as the Bible, or the incarnation of Christ, or the Holy Spirit. Note, there are many other valuable approaches in the field of Christian apologetics as well, such as evidential apologetics, presuppositional apologetics, and experiential apologetics. Some of these approaches overlap somewhat, particularly evidential apologetics and classical apologetics. But such a discussion is beyond the scope of this essay.

I firmly believe the Bible is the primary means by which Christians base our theology and our morality. But since God is the author of both the Bible and nature (i.e. special revelation and natural revelation), we can therefore know something about God and something about nature. However, I believe that classical apologetics – while important – is limited, since it can only lead us to Theism; whereas it cannot lead us to believe in such doctrines as the Trinity, or the incarnation of Christ, or the inspiration and authority of Scripture. For these doctrines, we need the Holy Spirit to illuminate the truth to us, since they are wholly beyond anything we can reason or deduce on our own. This is because ultimately, reason and experience alone (natural revelation) come up short. Therefore, we need Scripture combined with the Holy Spirit in order to truly grasp the God of the Bible. While natural revelation can certainly point us to a divine Creator, it proves inadequate for grasping the nature and character of God as revealed in Scripture, such as His triune nature, His sovereignty, His holiness, His love, etc. In other words, we may deduce that God exists by our reason and by our senses, but we cannot know Him personally except by divine revelation. We receive this revelation only through the work of divine grace and faith, as God intervenes in our lives and accommodates Himself toward us.   

Therefore, I am a firm believer in a “faith seeking understanding” approach to apologetics, since many of the central doctrines of Christianity are only fully learned and understood once we become born again. But how can one become born again without the intervention and illumination by the Holy Spirit? Nature, by itself, does not inform us of the gospel, certainly not specifically. But the God who created nature accommodates Himself toward us and reveals the One whom the gospel proclaims – Jesus Christ.

Without the Holy Spirit, one cannot make the jump from a belief in a mere human Jesus to a belief in His incarnation; nor can one deduce the triune nature of God, or deduce something as mysterious as the substitutionary atonement and all it encompasses. Moreover, there are many solid reasons for believing in the historical Jesus, including even His resurrection. But one can know these things and not necessarily put their trust in them. This is where natural revelation ends and where special revelation must intervene. Ultimately, saving faith requires a true work of the Holy Spirit. Also, saving faith requires not only belief, but trust. Paul says in 1 Cor. 2:14: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” Clearly, classical apologetics can only take us so far. It cannot, by itself, bring one from spiritual death into spiritual life. However, classical apologetics is still very useful for two reasons: 1) for solidifying the intellectual foundation for those already in the faith by demonstrating the reasonableness of their faith; and 2) for making the persuasive case to unbelievers that they are “without excuse” if they deny God, due to the general revelation that they already have since they are created in God’s image (Rom. 1:18-20).  

Application

There are several points of application with respect to the passage in John 1:1 and how it affects our understanding of God’s nature and the divinity of Jesus. First, there are many faith traditions that reject the notion of Jesus’ deity as well as the triune nature of God. In this list we can include Islam, Judaism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and of course most non-Christians in general.

For example, in the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ translation of John 1:1 in their Bible, the New World Translation, they have: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was a god.” Why do they do this? First, they presuppose that Jesus is not of the same substance as God the Father, and therefore not co-equal or co-eternal with the Father. This is purely a theological bias, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain a strict Unitarian view of God’s nature (i.e. God is one substance, one person). Second, grammatically, the Watchtower Society argues that since the use of theos in John 1:1 is without the definite article (a “the” preceding the noun), the translator must insert the indefinite article “a” in front of theos. This renders the translation “a god.” But is this translation correct? Below are three reasons why it is not correct.

  1. First, the rule in Greek grammar allows for, but does not demand, the indefinite article in place of the missing definite article. There is no indefinite article in Greek, so the rule then becomes one of consistency with the grammatical construction of the sentence, as well as consistency with the rest of the passage.
  2. Second, in verse 1, the use of theos does not include the definite article because grammatically it is an anarthrous noun. In effect, with the absence of the definite article, the noun is stressed all the more; it becomes more significant. John was clearly conveying that God Himself was the Word. As D.A. Carson states in his commentary The Gospel According to John, “It has been shown that it is common for a definite predicate noun in this construction, placed before the verb, to be anarthrous (that is, to have no article). Indeed, the effect of ordering the words this way is to emphasize ‘God’” (Carson 117). Also, Carson notes, “There are many places in the New Testament where the predicate noun has no article, and yet is specific” (117).
  3. Third, the Watchtower Society is blatantly inconsistent in its translation of the rest of the Prologue of John’s gospel. In verses 6, 13 and 18, the noun theos is used without the definite article, yet the New World Translation mysteriously fails to insert the indefinite article in its place. Thus, it seems clear that their use of grammar in John 1:1 has more to do with the theological implications regarding the nature of Jesus in His incarnation.

A second application to consider is how the concept of God as a Trinity and the incarnation of Jesus are rejected by atheists and agnostics due to the supernatural nature of these Christian doctrines. Such skepticism toward these doctrines is usually governed by a belief in man’s unaided reason combined with a rejection of metaphysical knowledge in general. 

Regarding the agnostic notion that metaphysical knowledge is not accessible to our reason and is out of reach, in the eighteenth century Enlightenment this thinking was made prevalent by Immanuel Kant, who popularized the idea that we can only know things as they appear to us (phenomena), but not as they are in themselves (noumena – objects that are known to exist and are conceived in the mind, but cannot be experienced). Thus, we can only know the appearance of a thing, but not the reality (thing in itself), since this cannot be known. Regarding Christianity, Kant denied the possibility of special revelation, since he denied the possibility of metaphysical knowledge in general. Therefore, man cannot really know God, since God is beyond man’s reach, and thus man’s experience. Man’s reason can only apply to the phenomenal, material world, not the metaphysical or spiritual world.

The implications of this type of thinking are profound, since a form of naturalism or deism will ultimately pervade one’s thinking. The denial of metaphysical knowledge precludes the possibility of God revealing Himself to mankind through the Holy Spirit, or through the Bible, or through the incarnation of Christ. However, Kant had a blind spot here. We must notice the self-refuting nature of Kant’s argument, as Kant himself presupposes knowledge of the noumena in asserting that it is out of reach. For how does Kant know this about noumena? Thus, Kant’s blind spot demonstrates the inadequacy of his argument.    

Another blind spot for many atheists and agnostics is the reality that one would have to be omnipresent in order to disprove God. Therefore, claiming God doesn’t exist anywhere is a universal negative – a universal negative that is impossible to prove. In contrast, there is credible evidence of God’s handiwork and fingerprints throughout the universe. Thus, as Christians, we can be confident that our belief in God’s existence is not only reasonable, but plausible, since without God’s existence it would be difficult – if not impossible – to maintain a logically coherent worldview. Knowledge is only possible when there is a coherent foundation to reality. This acknowledgement of a coherent, rational order of the universe is a necessary foundation for acquiring knowledge, discerning truth, and doing science. Whether one accepts or denies this basic premise, it would be impossible to practice science (or mathematics or physics) in a random, disorderly universe. The only rational explanation is that there must be a self-existent and intelligent Designer of the universe. Thus, we accept the proposition that God is the ultimate foundation of reality, order, and rationality. Moreover, God is the ultimate foundation of revelation, including the self-revelation of God in Christ and the revelation of the inspired Holy Scriptures. 

 A third, and final, application to consider regarding the John 1:1 passage is how we as Christians can rest in the assurance of our salvation. We do this by recognizing that it is God who created us, and it is God who voluntarily “made himself nothing by taking the very natureof a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:7-8). For those who put their trust in Jesus, this is amazing grace indeed! Jesus not only loves and cares for us, but He promises to walk with us and to never leave or forsake us (Rom. 8:38-39; Heb. 13:5). Jesus also assures us: “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me” (John 10:14). “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27-28).  

Works
Cited

Carson, D. A. The Gospel
According to John
.
Inter-Varsity Press, 1991.

NIV. New International Version. The Holy Bible. Biblegateway.com.
Accessed 7 July 2019.

Reeves, Michael. The Good God:
Enjoying Father, Son and Spirit
. Paternoster, 2012.

Sproul, R. C. Essential Truths
of the Christian Faith
. Tyndale
House Publishers, 1992.

Tenny, Merrill C. John: The Gospel
of Belief
. Wm. B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948.

Christian, husband of Rach, Church Planter,musician,

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