Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Word – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 20, 2012

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this fifth selection we will look at the title Jesus the Word, one of the titles dealing with the pre-existence of our Lord.


Jesus the Word
It would be very difficult indeed to overestimate the impact of the title “Word” (Greek, logos) to the Christology of the first six centuries of the church. For many church fathers the title was considered crucial, for it marked the great point of contact with the philosophical speculations of the educated pagan mind. That said, the use of this term to describe Jesus in the New Testament can be found only in the Johannine writings, and even there it occurs in just a few passages: the Prologue to the Gospel of John (John 1:1-4), in i. John la, and in Revelation 19:13.

What accounts for this discrepancy between New Testament paucity and patristic favoritism? First of all, as Cullmann points out, “the point at which the author of John makes use of the Logos concept shows that the title is indispensable for him when he wishes to speak of the relationship between the divine revelation in the life of Jesus and the preexistence of Jesus.” [Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament] No wonder, then, that the patristic writers themselves found the concept indispensable too, for questions of the preexistence of the divine Son dominated discussion at that time, for reasons to be explained in Chapter 4. (Plus, the Logos concept proved a godsend, so to speak, for Christian apologists trying to justify Christianity to educated Gentiles raised in Platonic and Stoic concepts of logos.)

But before touching on these essentially theological issues, we must first outline the (very large) semantic range of the term logos, which in Greek happens to have far more meanings attached to it than the English term “word” and includes, among others, these meanings: reason, account, narrative, essence, verbalization, and, of course, the spoken word as such. But because the noun logos is the nominative form of the verb lego, legomai (“to speak”), we must first concentrate on its primary meaning as spoken word.

As speech-acts, words communicate thoughts, which themselves are the products of minds. Furthermore, words are received by ears and then understood by other minds. This basically mental feature in all words surely accounts for the rich and powerful religious symbolism that surrounds the concept of word. For unlike the other senses, which perceive objects in their brute physicality, hearing picks up something much more “spiritual,” even evanescent. Tellingly, objects that are seen, touched, smelled, and tasted can be grasped; but words stay ever elusive and disappear as soon as they are heard. For that same reason, a hearer of a word has no control over what is being heard, and this too must surely be religiously significant, as the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar notes in this insightful passage:

Hearing is different [from the other senses], almost the opposite mode of the revelation of reality. It lacks the fundamental characteristic of material relevance. It is not objects we hear but their utterances and communications. Therefore it is not we ourselves who determine on our part what is heard and place it before us as an object in order to turn our attention to it when it pleases us. No, what is heard comes upon us without our being informed of its coming in advance. It lays hold of us without our being asked…. It is in the highest degree symbolic that only our eyes, and not our ears, have lids…. The basic relationship between the one who hears and that which is heard is thus one of defenselessness on the one side and of communication on the other…. Even in a dialogue between equals in rank, the one who is at the moment hearing is in the subordinate position of humble receiving. The hearer belongs to the other for as long as he is listening and to that extent is “obeying” him.
Hans Urs von Balthasar, “Seeing, Hearing, and Reading within the Church,” in Explorations in Theology Vol 2

The religious implications of this description are clear and hold true even for the nonreligious: listeners have no choice but to receive what is heard. Moreover, what they receive is not so much the object of the speaker but his thoughts, that is, his mental life. In that regard it is telling that Aristotle defines man as the zōon logikon, usually translated as “rational animal” but which could just as accurately be given as the “verbal” or “word-using” animal.

Both in pre-Christian Greek and Jewish thought the concept of logos became more and more “hypostasized,” meaning that Greek and Jewish thought moved more and more away from the concept of word as evanescent, disappearing as soon as it entered the ear, and toward a notion of word as somehow substantial (hypostasis being the Greek word for “substance”). For example, the Stoics identified the Logos with the cosmic law that governs the universe and is at the same time operative in the human intellect. But that notion of logos as law is still only an abstraction (roughly equivalent to Newton’s Law of Gravity).

The situation is different in Platonism, but crucially it is the Idea or Form (eidos) that is hypostasized, not the Word (logos); in other words it is the mental concept that takes on the contours of substance, not that which is communicated from one mind to the other.

“A major difficulty in the interpretation of logos is determining when this common and amorphous Greek word is being used in a technical, specialized sense. Thus Heraclitus, in whom it first plays a major role, frequently employs it in its common usage, but he also has a peculiar doctrine that centers around logos in a more technical sense: for him logos is an underlying organizational principle of the universe…. Plato also used the term logos in a variety of ways, including the opposition between mythos (tale) and logos, where the latter signifies a true, analytical account…. [He also] describes the dialectician as one who can give an account (logos) of the true being (or essence, ousia) of something…. The Stoic point of departure on logos is Heraclitus’ doctrine of an all-pervasive formula of organization, which the Stoics considered divine.”
F. E. Peters, Greek Philosophical Terms (New York: New York University Press, 1967)

But as Platonism developed, the Logos too became more and more “personal,” acting as an agent or go-between, an intermediary between the inaccessible One and the finite world. Nowhere is that personalization made more explicit than in the writings of Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish contemporary of Jesus whose thought was heavily influenced by what scholars now called Middle Platonism. In a remarkable passage, Philo describes the mediatorial role of the Logos in this way:

To his Logos, his chief messenger, highest in age and honor, the Father of all has given the special prerogative to stand on the border and separate the creature from the Creator. This same Logos both pleads with the Immortal as suppliant for afflicted mortality and acts as ambassador of the ruler to the subject. He glories in this prerogative and proudly describes it in these words: “I stood between the Lord and you “
[Philo, Quis rerum divinarum heres 42.205.]

This passage certainly marks a watershed in the development of the concept of the Logos (capitalized here to show its personal, substantial nature); but it would be an error to think that Philo is influenced here solely by Middle Platonism, for he is also building on developments in the Jewish Bible. [One might be tempted to follow contemporary fashion and say “Hebrew Bible” here; but Philo used the Greek translation (called Septuagint), which is significant, because that translation includes books not found in the Hebrew canon; and it is these books above all where certain aspects of God, such as his Wisdom and his Word, are hypostasized [vocab: To be treated or represented (something abstract) as a concrete reality]. But it is also crucial to note that some Hebrew books included in the Hebrew canon also hypostasize these divine qualities, especially the book of Proverbs]

In the earlier books of the Bible God speaks his word efficaciously. God says, “Let there be light,” and light comes to be. The word of God (Hebrew, debar YHWH) is thus creative of what it speaks. As Cullmann says, “every creative self-revelation of God to the world happens through his word. His word is the side of God turned toward the world. [Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

What then happened is that this efficacious word is made the object of independent consideration, precisely because it is so powerful. The Psalmist says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made” (Psalms 33:6); crucially, this powerful word continues its activities after creation: “He sent forth his word and healed them” (Psalms 107:20) and “He sends forth his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly” (Psalms 147:15). The phrase “his word runs swiftly” might be poetic license; but if so, that license in turn licensed further extensions of the image, and with Isaiah we get close to the word acting as an independent agent: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return not but water the earth,.. . so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty but shall accomplish what I purpose” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

Finally, all that is needed now is for this hypostasized Word or Wisdom to speak on its own as an independent agent: “The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginnings of the earth. Where there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water” (Proverbs 8:22-24).

[FN: Admittedly, Proverbs speaks of Wisdom (Sophia, a feminine word in Greek), not Word (logos, a masculine word), which raises a host of issues pertaining to the feminine in God. Cullmann rightly says that "Logos and Sophia are almost interchangeable" (p. 257) in the respective theologies of the Book of Wisdom and the Gospel of John. Certainly, both authors see their favored terms in equally hypostatic ways, which is the main point of this paragraph. Plus, it should be recalled that the terms "masculine," "feminine," and "neuter" for the gender of nouns are terms of convenience invented by the Greek grammarians in Alexandria because most males are described by nouns in the masculine gender and most females by the feminine gender (for example, hippos can mean either "stallion" or "mare," depending on the gender of the preceding article); but things, concepts, abstractions, and so forth, can be described by words in any gender.

At all events, either Cullmann is right and Wisdom and Word are interchangeable, which means that the question of gender is irrelevant; or the gender of the noun is theologically significant, which means that the Fourth Evangelist must have deliberately chosen Logos instead of Sophia for theological reasons. But semantically considered (which is the focus of this writing), I would say that Wisdom refers more to the internal mind of God prior to creating, whereas Word is an inherently expressive concept, which is why Cullmann can say, rightly again, that in the Old Testament the "word of God" always refers (no matter how early or late the text) to the side of God that is turned toward the world. What Wisdom stresses is that when God creates the world, or relates to it thereafter, he always does so in ways that manifest his providence, his governance, his beneficence. Creation, in other words, is not ill-considered but is aboriginally "well thought out." In other words, God's outward and expressive Word is always a Wise Word, expressive of God's internally well-ordered mind.]

How much the Fourth Evangelist was influenced by these various trends has become a matter of enormous controversy in biblical scholarship, especially as it pertains to the influence of Greek sources in general, and Philo specifically.

[FN:The influence of Gnosticism on the Fourth Gospel should be mentioned here as well, albeit briefly. Speaking very broadly, Gnosticism is a "moralization," so to speak, of Plato's theory of the Divided Line. Plato divided his world into two separate realms, Reality and Appearance, with Reality above the dividing line and Appearance below it. Above the line is static Being as such, the realm of the Ideal, of stasis, and finally of the One. Below the line were matter, division, change, copies of the Ideas, and so forth, in short the realm of Becoming. Because Plato also called the One the Good, Gnostics extended the contrast by calling the realm of matter evil. At a stroke this made evil an independent principle. (For Plato what appeared below the line had but a shadowy claim on being, in contrast to the "really real" realm of true Being; but that did not make Appearance "evil," only less "real.")

For the Gnostics, then, salvation had to be interpreted as a complete escape from the realm of matter. The anthropological correlate of this view meant that the soul of man inhabited the body like "gold in the mud” And salvation could only be effected by a divine hypostasized being coming down from heaven merely clothed in the flesh. It would seem rather obvious, judging by the surface of the text, that the Gospel of John polemicizes against this view and thus John must have known of this worldview beforehand. The only trouble is, our sources for Gnostic beliefs all come from documents written after the New Testament was in circulation. In any case, we are concentrating in this chapter on the concept of Logos for its semantic import solely and only later in the next chapters on its role in determining christological doctrine, so these points need not be stressed further.]

But if we concentrate not on the historical antecedents of the Fourth Gospel (already taking for granted the same trend of hypostatization in both Greek and Jewish sources) but on the meaning of Logos in the text itself, two points emerge immediately. First, Jesus was addressed as Kyrios (in the “high,” divine sense of that word) in Christian worship, whereas the Logos designation must have arisen as a result of theological reflection (even today, Christians do not address Jesus in their worship as “Word”).

Second, prior developments in the intellectual history of Jewish and Greek thought would later make the concept of Jesus as the divine Logos perfectly suited for Christianity’s apologetic purposes, as we shall see in later (and this will account for the greater stress in patristic times of the Logos-concept than is found in the New Testament itself).

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Leaving aside all questions of historical antecedents, these verses drive home one essential point that is the key to the whole of the Fourth Gospel: in Cullmann’s words, “Jesus not only brings revelation, but in his person is revelation. He brings light, and at the same time he is Light; he bestows life, and he is Life; he proclaims truth, and he is Truth. More properly expressed, he brings light, life and truth just because he himself is Light, Life, and Truth. So it is also with the Logos: he brings the word, because he is the Word “
[Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament]

Finally, we must note that John both distinguishes the Logos from God, yet also identifies that Logos with God. In other words, God and the Logos are not two beings, and yet they are also not simply identical. This blunt juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory statements brings us back once again to the inherently paradoxical character of Christian doctrine, a paradoxicality that will prove immensely provocative for later Christian thought (“The paradox gives rise to theology,” as we said earlier). Here again the key will be to let theology arise out of paradox without thereby resolving the paradox in a way that would make thought control the doctrine, or theology determine revelation. As Cullmann rightly says:

We must allow this paradox of all Christology to stand. The New Testament does not resolve it, but sets the two statements alongside each other: on the one hand, the Logos was God; on the other hand, he was with God. The same paradox occurs again in the Gospel of John with regard to the “Son of God” concept. We hear on the one hand, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); and on the other hand, “The Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

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