In yesterday’s blog post, I asked whether any words even in Holy Scripture exceed the limits of our understanding as these do:
The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee
And the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee
Therefore also that holy born one shall be called, The Son of God.
I’m going to pick them up again tomorrow, God-willing. Today I want to turn to some words that might answer yesterday’s question, that might be even more transcendent.
These are holy words, not because they are set aside in an untouchable vessel, but because they are unreachable. They respond to the questions that arise in our souls because we are the Imago Dei, but they transcend what we can realize, either because we are mortal or because we are finite.
I refer to John 1:1:
In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God
By the time John wrote this word, both the Greeks and the Hebrews had sophisticated, complex conceptions of what the Word (Greek: Logos) was.
For the Jews, the Word was the wisdom of God. One classic text for them was Proverbs 8, where Solomon places Wisdom beside God at the creation and tells us that His delight was in the sons of men. Beginning at verse 22, we read:
The Lord possessed Me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old.
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
When there were no depths, I was brought forth;
When there were no fountains abounding with water.
Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth:
While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world .
When He prepared the heavens, I was there:
When He set a compass upon the face of the depth:
When He established the clouds above:
When He strengthened the fountains of the deep:
When He gave to the sea His decree, that the waters should not pass His commandment
When He appointed the foundations of the earth:
Then I was by him, as one brought up with Him:
And I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him
Rejoicing in the habitable part of His earth;
And My delights were with the sons of men.
The Church has always seen these words as referring to Christ, the Son of the Father, “brought forth” eternally, begotten – not made, without beginning, the delight of the Father, through whom all things were made.
Because The Lord had brought the Hebrews into a covenant relationship with Himself, they thought of Him in personal, relational terms. The Greeks received no such revelation or covenant. However, among the great Greek philosophers could be found some who believed that the world was real and that it made sense.
It is hard for us, especially my generation, to appreciate how unusual that belief was in the ancient world – or any other world untouched by Hebrew thought. Most people today, as in the ancient world, lightly declare, “You have your truth and I have mine”, which is an expression of despair. It is a way of redefining truth out of existence or knowability.
For such people, there is no “Word,” because the Word (understood practically and considering its implications for thought) is the unifying principle that makes sense of everything and that makes knowledge possible.
But for some reason, a few Greek thinkers believed the world did make sense and that it was a knowable cosmos. You might say, it was a work of art. So they speculated about how it could make sense, knowing clearly that nothing makes sense without a principle of unity. Some thought that principle was water, others fire. Some thought it was number. Eventually they came up with and more or less settled on a term for it: they called it “the Word” (Logos). But they didn’t know what it was.
For the Greeks, the Word was an abstract concept, a principle that ordered the cosmos and their own minds and souls. For the Jews, the Word never lost the glory of personhood, though in the writings of the first century Jewish philosopher Philo it also took on many of the properties of a philosophical concept.
Around the end of the 4th century, a young African, yearning to know the truth, came across the writings of the neo-Platonists, philosophers who had been influenced strongly by Plato and then went a few steps further under the leadership of Plotinus and Porphyry. Plotinus remained a Greek philosopher, but his thinking was influenced by Christian thinkers, so that so-called pagan philosophy and Christian teaching were no longer separated by air-tight categories.
According to the young African, now known as the Blessed Augustine, who began as a rhetorician, became a neo-Platonist and a Manichean, and ended up a follower of Christ, when he read John 1:1-5 he heard what he had already learned from the Neo-Platonists: that the Word was in the beginning, that it was God, that it made all things, that it was life, that it was light.
Before he read the gospels, in other words, he had arrived at an exalted, perhaps even holy, conception of the Word.
Proverbs 9 follows the mystical description of wisdom in Proverbs 8 with these words:
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom:
And the knowledge of the Holy is understanding.
Here is a different path than our world offers us. It transcends the practical anxieties and love of money that drive us. It leaps over philosophical speculation and marketing campaigns. It falls face down in humility before the Word.
It is not possible to raise a conception of the Word that is higher than the Word itself. We cannot reach it.
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 by him
And without Him was not anything made that was made.
In Him was life,
And the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness;
And the darkness comprehended it not.