1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. – John 1:1-3 (NIV)
It’s terribly tempting to get into the intricate theology that is contained in these few words. And I started to do just that. But as I became more and more bogged down I realized that my real purpose here is not to instruct or convince. Rather, it is to share my thoughts. They may be insightful, they may be shallow and they may (certainly at times) be dead wrong. But in the end (no pun intended) they are mine.
I am examining this text with the benefit of centuries of Christian theology. So it is easy to read into the words meaning that wasn’t intended at the time. The Holy Spirit often does that. Holy men, as they are inspired by God, write things without always understanding what the fuller meaning of their words are. So it is here, I think. The first thing that jumps out at me is the idea of “being” and “being with” as simultaneously possible. Things, created things, can’t do that. I can’t “be” myself and “be with myself” at the same time. So John is either stating an obvious impossibility, or he is more likely stating something much more profound, namely that the Word is not a created thing, that the Word is in fact God. This meshes perfectly with the more fully developed doctrine of the Trinity which will not be elaborated until the fourth century. God is both Himself and His Word: they exist in perfect unity yet they are distinct.
The “word” he is referring to is the Greek word “logos.” Without getting into all the finer philosophical points, one of the obvious meanings of that word to readers at that time would have been the Greek philosophical concept of the logos as the active creative principle in the universe. And that is pretty much the meaning that John is conveying. God, the Word, creates all that there is by His Word. That’s a pretty obvious theme in the Old testament. “God said ‘Let there be light, and there was light’.” It was God’s Word that was the active agent of creation. We see this in verse three and also in this well-known passage from Isaiah.
11 So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
Isaiah 55:11 (NIV)
“In the beginning” is the opening both of this Gospel as well as Genesis. John is talking about the time before creation. But we now know that time and space are two different ways of looking at the same thing. Physicists use the term “space-time” to refer to the matrix of being in which we exist. I believe that prior to creation there was neither space nor time. It makes no more sense to ask “when” the universe was created than to ask “where” it was created. There was no “where” there and there was no “when” then. We’re dipping our toes into that arcane subject called ontology, the philosophy of “being.” One of the main questions ontology addresses is “Why is there ‘is’ “?” Obviously the kind of “being” God possesses is profoundly different than what we perceive to be “being.” (What an unavoidable swarm of bees.) The existential theologian Paul Tillich approached it this way:
Paul Tillich was critical of the view of God as a type of being or presence. He felt that, if God were a being, God could not then properly be called the source of all being (due to the question of what, in turn, created God). As an alternative, he suggested that God be understood as the “ground of Being-Itself”.
Or as another Paul (the apostle) put it when expounding the Gospel among the philosophers at the Areopagus , “For in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) (He is quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides.) The word “ground” here is taken is the artistic sense of figure and ground. In other words, the variation (figure) is only possible against the unchanging ground. A black stroke on canvas exists because it is something other than canvas. Analogies can be helpful if not carried too far. Think of a glassy smooth body of water. No motion, no disturbance of any kind. And then think of a ripple moving across the water. The ripple exists but it only exists as a change of the otherwise unchanging water. The water s the ground and the ripple is the figure. By extension, then, our “being” is nothing more (or less) than a ripple on the ground of God’s being. We know that God is unchanging in His essence but he is also omnipotent and therefore unconstrained by His own nature. And here we come to the mystery of creation. Why, if God is complete in Himself, does He choose to create? Why is there “is?”