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The Philosophy and Theology of 'Logos'

Updated on December 19, 2009

Logos is a Greek term important in the history of philosophy and theology. A Greek noun, it is usually translated as "word", and sometimes as "reason". It is perhaps best understood as a combined word-reason-meaning, signifying a structure and activity inherent in the cosmos, akin to human reason, which can be articulated or described at least to some extent. The word is best known through the opening phrase of the Fourth Gospel of the New Testament: "In the beginning was the logos" (John 1:1). Here "logos" represents a confluence of Greek and Hebrew patterns of meaning that still influences Western thought.

Greek Origins

Heraclitus of Ephesus (5th century B.C.) used the term to designate the ordering pattern that is half hidden, half recognizable in the flux of the world. Differing from predecessors, notably Parmenides, who saw reality only in the unchanging, Heraclitus emphasized the ceaseless movement of nature. One cannot step in the same river twice; both the river and the self have changed in the interim. Nevertheless, he saw that change did not mean sheer chaos. Hence he found in nature a rationality that was also present in the human soul. The logos could be conceived, in this sense, as an immanent law of nature.

Although Plato and Aristotle made little use of the term, both believed that the world was capable of being known through a human rationality that corresponds to or participates in the rationality of the universe. Among their successors, the Stoics made logos a fundamental concept. Logos was the ordering principle of the universe, a germinal power (hence the term "spermatic logos") that comes to consciousness in man. Some of the Stoics tended to equate the concepts of God, nature, and logos. They sometimes further equated these with fate or providence. Because they held that all mankind shares in this logos, the Stoics believed in a universal humanity, and they understood ethical conduct as conformity to nature or reason.

Hebrew Roots

In Hebrew thinking, which was less rationalistic and speculative than Greek philosophy, the word of God was not believed to be an immanent reason or a rational principle, but the voice of the living God, calling his people to faithfulness in a covenant relation. The word of God, while it is speech, is also content and power. God speaks in the creation of the world (Genesis 1; Psalm 33:6). His word has continuing effectiveness: "it shall not return to me empty" (Isaiah 55:11). In late Old Testament writings the "Wisdom" of God is sometimes personified as a power created or formed by God before the world (Proverbs 8:22-31). In the Wisdom of Solomon, the concept of the divine Wisdom approaches rather closely the Platonic reason and the Stoic logos.

Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus of Nazareth, living in a center of Hellenistic speculation, sought to work out a synthesis of the Jewish and Greek traditions. His thinking was largely Neoplatonic, and he frequently allegorized and reinterpreted the Biblical tradition. For Philo, "logos" represented the Hebrew word of God, as colored by the later idea of the divine Wisdom. His concept also formed a bridge to Hellenistic Stoicism. It also had affinities with some Neoplatonic conceptions, wherein God, the ultimate unity from whom all things emanate, is so remote from the diversity of the experienced world that some intermediary or some principle of plurality within the divine unity becomes a conceptual necessity. If the logos had these advantages for Philo, his doctrine ran the risk of compromising Jewish monotheism. Philo faced this issue, sometimes by emphasizing the unity of the logos with God - as the reason of God - and sometimes by depicting the logos as an intermediary being between God and men.

The New Testament

The original and unique affirmation of the Fourth Gospel is that the logos became flesh in Jesus Christ. The same theme is strongly suggested elsewhere in the New Testament (Philippians 2:5-11, Colossians 1: 15-20, Hebrews 1:1-4, I John 1:1-3, Revelation 19:13), but the unequivocal statement is in the prologue to the Fourth Gospel: "In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was with God, and the logos was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made... And the logos became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." (In the revised standard version, logos is translated Word.)

Three aspects of this statement deserve comment. (1) The Gospel is reporting the activity of God. The Logos is not an intermediary, but belongs to the divine unity: the Logos was "in the beginning" - a deliberate echo of the first verse of Genesis - and "the logos was God." Yet there is a differentiation within the unity: "the logos was with God," and appears related to God as Son to Father. Here are posed the issues of unity and distinction within the Godhead, issues which, among others, were later to give rise to the intense discussions that led to formulations of the doctrine of the Trinity. (2) The Logos is related to creation as well as to salvation: "All things were made through him." This is less a cosmological speculation than the insistence that the Saviour is no deus ex machina, no divine interloper, no arbitrary wonder-worker. Rather the Creator recalls an alienated world to the purpose inherent in the creation. (3) The Logos became flesh. This doctrine of "enfleshment," or incarnation, as distinguished both from visionary appearances and from rescues of men from their fleshly existence, directly refuted the prevalent Hellenistic dualisms that separated the material from the spiritual. This central doctrine of the Incarnation means that Christianity, in contrast to many religions, is committed to a serious concern for the material world and the historical process as ultimately important both for men and for God.

The sources of the Johannine doctrine, and especially its relation to Philo, have often been debated. The writer, it is generally agreed, was familiar with Philo, as he was with the Old Testament and with the Stoic doctrine of the logos. But his principal source, the belief in Jesus Christ, led him to distinguish his belief from all other sources. In contrast to the concepts of Philo, Neoplatonism, and Stoicism, his God was neither a remote Unity from which the universe emanated nor an immanent principle of nature, but the biblical Father. The doctrine of the enfleshment of the Word, who is both transcendent and yet the reality through whom all things were made, sets off this doctrine from prior Hebrew or Hellenistic sources.

Post-Biblical Development

The idea of the Logos became important to Christians who sought to find positive relations with non-Christian thinking. For example, Justin Martyr, writing in the 2d century, taught that every man at birth participates in the Logos and that heathens like Heraclitus and Socrates who live according to the Logos are, in effect, Christians. St. Augustine (354-430) said that he found in Greek philosophy the Logos, but not the Logos made flesh.

The doctrine has been congenial to monistic, pantheistic, idealistic, and mystical philosophies, insofar as they emphasize the unity of the world and find no sharp break between God and man. Modern "liberal" theology has used the doctrine of the Logos, or some equivalent for it, in relating Christianity to other religions and to common human experience. Various world religions have concepts that are comparable to the logos. Translators of the New Testament into Chinese, for example, have written, "In the beginning was the Tao," using a word fundamental to Taoism and familiar to all Chinese language, a word representing the "Way" of the universe.

The concept of logos is minimized or rejected by radical revelationists, who set the Christian faith decisively apart from other religions or from the widely shared intuitions of mankind. One perennial strain in Christian thought has emphasized that the Gospel of Christ is an affront to conventional wisdom, and that "the foolishness of God is wiser than men" (I Corinthians 1:25). Those who hold such a conviction are not required to reject all forms of the logos-doctrine, but they—along with all those who emphasize the great distinction between God and man—criticize many interpretations of "logos." Among philosophers, those who question the unity and rationality of the universe are likely to find the doctrine uncongenial. These include radical pluralists, nominalists, existentialists, and those instrumentalists who regard human thought more as a means for coping with the universe than as a human sharing in the rationality of the scheme of things.

Paul Tillich, the 20th century philosopher of religion, sought to integrate the two styles of thought by relating the doctrines of kairos and logos. Kairos means time—not the mechanical time of sheer succession, but decisive time, "the fullness of time," historical time in its meaningfulness for human consciousness. "Logos" for him signifies rational structure and timeless truth. It avoids the vagaries of personal caprice and cultural relativity, but in its static quality it misses the dynamism of life. "Kairos" signifies a world of activity, conflict, and decision. It recognizes the dynamism of life, but at the risk of irrationality. A meaningful interpretation of reality, said Tillich, must root knowledge in kairos without yielding to subjective arbitrariness or the identification of truth with power. In a creative relationship kairos reveals logos, and man becomes aware of living, tension-filled, disturbing truth.


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    • philosophos profile image

      philosophos 7 years ago

      More philosophy based hubs coming soon!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      This is another terrific hub, very well researched, and very, very interesting. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write and publish this hub. A lot of religion and philosophy makes more and more sense as we go along. Please don't stop!