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What Could the Opening Verse of the Prologue to the Gospel of John Possibly Mean?

August 28th, 2007 by David Kronemyer · No Comments

DAVID KRONEMYER: It comprises three of the most bewildering phrases of the New Testament, if not the entire Bible – and, some of the most beguiling. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” “Beginning” means “start” or “onset,” as in the commencement of a process, or an event. And, “words” often are used for that purpose. For example, a race might start with the words: “on your mark, get set, go!” We’re talking, however, about a real beginning – as in, “the creation.” How could a “word” have been first – wouldn’t there already have to be someone there to utter it? What “was” that word? If it “was” there “in the beginning,” is it no longer around? How is it that God is nothing more, and nothing less, than a “word”?

John 1:1 is not the only place where the Bible deals with the topic of beginnings. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” This nominally makes more sense, because it posits God was there first – not a “word.”

Significantly, though, God thereupon accomplishes much of the subsequent creating by using words. God “said,” Let there be light, Genesis 1:3. God “called” the light Day, and the darkness he “called” Night, Genesis 1:5. God “said,” Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters. God “called” the firmament Heaven, Genesis 1:8. God “said,” Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, Genesis 1:9. God “called” the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters “called” he Seas, Genesis 1:10. God “said,” Let the earth bring forth grass, Genesis 1:11. God “said,” Let there be lights in the firmament, Genesis 1:14. God “said,” Let the waters bring forth abundantly, Genesis 1:20. God “said,” Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, Genesis 1:24. And, most fortuitously for us, God “said,” Let us make man in our image, Genesis 1:26.

We see from these passages that God accomplishes a result by uttering it, or by calling it, or by saying it. There are a variety of other actions God might have undertaken, which would have resulted in the same outcome. For example, in order to create, he could have “waved a magic wand.” But instead, he used words. Not, curiously, by writing them down – the Bible sets forth no evidence God was able to write, until the time of the Ten Commandments. Rather, his use of words was entirely oral.

And, it was “constitutive,” because he created a “thing” – Day, Night, Heaven, Earth, Seas – simply by uttering words. In this way, for God, at least, we might say that philology preceded ontology. Because the “word” came first, and by uttering the word (with the requisite intention), the “thing” thereupon came into existence. We might contrast this with God’s subsequent “discursive” use of words, for some other non-constitutive purpose. For example, God admonished or commanded man to “Be fruitful, and multiply,” Genesis 1:28. In doing so, he was not “creating.” Rather, he was telling man what to do – it was up to man, to do the creating. God then advised or apprised man that he (God) had given man “every herb bearing seed,” Genesis 1:29. This was more like commentary on an existing state of affairs in the already-created world.

It therefore is difficult to reconcile John’s view of creation, with the one presented in Genesis, particularly when it comes to the use of “words.” The key to unlocking this mystery lies in the Greek word “logos,” which is what John – writing in Greek – actually uses.

Modern discussion of “logos” begins and ends with Martin Heidegger. “Logos is the steady gathering, the intrinsic togetherness of the essent, i.e., being. * * * Logos characterizes being in a new and yet old respect: that which is, which stands straight and distinct in itself, is at the same time gathered togetherness in itself and by itself, and maintains itself in such togetherness,” Heidegger, M. (tr. Manheim, R.), An Introduction to Metaphysics 130 (1959).

Heidegger traces this concept of logos back to the early Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. “Heraclitus was not teaching that there is just a meaningless jumble of events. There is a principle of order and coherence among them called the Logos, which relates even opposites and maintains a unity in the midst of strife. Heraclitus *** represents … God as a ‘coincidence of opposites,’ saying ‘God is day night, winter summer, war peace, satiety hunger, all the opposites’ and presumably this God is the Logos under another name. * * * [E]verything is in process to allow for the unifying or gathering activity of the Logos,” Macquarrie, J., Heidegger and Christianity 2 (1994).

This is a lot different than translating logos as “word,” or any of its sub-derivations, such as “command” or “commandment” (the Ten Commandments sometimes are referred to as the Decalogue, “deca” for “God” and “logue” for logos). Heidegger says that, in interpreting the Gospel of John, the Christian Church has adopted a non-Heraclitean translation of logos. Because, in the Gospel of John, “logos” specifically refers to Jesus “in the role of mediator between God and men,” An Introduction to Metaphysics 134.

I don’t think this is correct, for two reasons. First, because it “refers,” “a word gathers what is named together in unity,” Inwood, M., A Heidegger Dictionary 21 (1999). At least, a referring word does. As Inwood goes on to observe, logos later gave rise to “logic.” Thus, John’s logos just as easily could mean, everything that possibly could be named, that is, come to exist, resulting from God’s meaning-conferring activity. Or, the entire structure of logical relationships itself, as in a Bertrand Russell-like derivation of higher-order mathematics from logic, Principia Mathematica (1910). If this seems far-fetched, please consider William Blake’s famous design “The Ancient of Days,” also titled “God Creating the Universe,” which depicts precisely this activity of measured circumspection.

Second, in a way, Heidegger is being un-Heideggerian. Because he doesn’t follow through with his own concept of who God is, or what God is capable of doing. For Heidegger, “God” (or “gods”) is (are) contained in a “web of social practice.” They “act with divine power by showing us what sorts of things are intelligible,” Spinosa, C., “Heidegger on Living Gods,” Heidegger, Coping and Cognitive Science 213 (2000). For the archaic Greeks in particular, the “temple” – we might as well say, “religion,” or “the concept of God” – “attuned in a specific way their practices for dealing with virtually everything else in their world,” Spinosa 210.

Gods, therefore, “have to do with the way things appear for us affectively, not with how material-physical things are caused to exist.” Viewing God only as a “creator” of “things” conceals “the divine act of revealing or disclosing of how things and people matter in attunements or moods,” Spinosa 214; also, Heidegger, M. (tr. Schuwer, A. & Rojcewicz, R.), Parmenides 110 (1992).

Thus, “When a god brings his or her energies to bear on something, the god changes the force or kind of its affective character,” Spinosa 219. The social practices thereby made possible “transmit not only an implicit understanding of what it is to be a human being, an animal, or an object, but, finally, an understanding of what it is for anything to be at all,” Dreyfus, H., “Heidegger on the connection between nihilism, art, technology and politics” in Guignon, C. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Heidegger 351 (2d ed. 2006). In turn, these “cultural practices and the understanding of being they embody allow us to direct our activities and make sense of our lives,” Dreyfus 352.

Logos” therefore really is a kind of “gathering together,” in precisely the Heraclitian sense Heidegger eschews. “The logos structures that which is into a possible unity or connection. * * * In its turn the connection motivates the search for foundations and dependencies. Something is not accepted as a being until it is presented as founded in something else; in this way the whole refers to a last, all-founding ground. The anticipation of this founding of the whole lies in the logos. In this way, the tendency toward something like unity, ground, and foundation is laid in the logos,” Vedder, B., Heidegger’s Philosophy of Religion 134 (2007).

In this way, logos returns to its original meaning. It has nothing to do with “words” or “language.” Rather, “It is a selective gathering in which the pros and cons are weighed. Logos is that which executes the activity of gathering. Thus logos does not mean in the first place something like word or doctrine; rather it indicates that gathering takes place. Logos means the gathering which is in itself permanently dominant,” Vedder 248. When God “created” “things” by “naming” them, he in effect engaged in a process of differentiating them from the background, or the clearing, in which they previously subsisted. He called them forward, or projected them, by naming them, Vedder 257. The objects named by God no longer are part of a “pre-theoretical experience of the environment.” Rather, they become an integral component of a “knowing experience,” Kalary, T., “Hermeneutic Phenomenology and Related Questions,” 21 Heidegger Studies 138 (2005).

We therefore might consider re-parsing John 1:1, as follows. “In the beginning was the undifferentiated background, the clearing, out of which everything becomes possible. God assessed all of the elements it comprised, and brought some of them forth – he highlighted them – by giving them names. In this way, he also gave them meaning and significance for us.” We need not add that, since we are the ones from which, or out of which, the background arises, to begin with, that we did this all by ourselves.