In the beginning

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. 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”.

http://religiousnaturalism.org/god-as-ground-of-being-paul-tillich/

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?”

 

4 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Philosophy

4 Responses to In the beginning

  1. Shaylee

    Hi Steve,

    Interesting thoughts! I like the question “Why is there ‘is?’.” I’m sure I can’t write my thoughts as eloquently as you, but hopefully this is at least “follow-able!”
    As you said, God, in His divine nature is many things–eternal, immutable, self-existent, holy, sovereign, omnipotent, etc.–which is to say, He is all in all (Eph. 4:6). In addition to all those things, He is love. He is perfect love, which is beyond my finite comprehension, certainly! Like the old saying goes, “Love isn’t love ’til you give it away;” knowing from the foundations, everything that creation would become–a ruinous cesspool basically–He chose to create anyway and then lavish His love on us in the most perfect demonstration of unconditional, sacrificial love we as humans will ever experience by sending Jesus to die so we could be reconciled (Rom. 5:8). Creation “is” for His pleasure (Rev. 4:11) and even though in creation’s current state we have yet to fulfill God’s ultimate plan, one day there will be a new heaven and earth and we will dwell with Him in righteousness. Hallelujah!

  2. Hilary

    Steve,

    You have highlighted some interesting points. Shaylee and I met today to discuss chapters 1-5. We quickly realized it is almost impossible to discuss 5 chapters in less than one hour. We have decided to go chapter by chapter for future weeks. Anyway, I will highlight some of the things we discussed. I apologize in advance for the sporadic and fragmented thought patterns presented here.
    First and foremost, as you mentioned, the idea of the Word seems to point to the idea that Jesus is God and the fulfillment of God’s word/design/plan simultaneously (idea of the trinity). Chapter 1 verse 7 then speaks about Jesus as the Light of the world. Shaylee mentioned the idea that the book of John seems to highlight who Jesus is (she references a later chapter in John that speaks of Jesus as the Vine). We then discussed how it appears that the very foundation of salvation seems to be found in John chapter 3 in Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus. Salvation is the belief in Jesus Christ; a belief that drives change in the very core of a person. The idea of a water birth and a spiritual birth are also mentioned here. It reminds me of one of our first conversations in which you highlighted man’s spirit and the need for a spiritual connection or purpose. We then laughed at the disciples who seem to take everything Jesus says quite literally and quickly came to the conclusion that we are not unlike the disciples in our need for intervention and explanation. The one point that hit home with me personally is the idea that the disciples made a choice to believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. It is the same choice I am presented with today. Jesus presented the disciples with signs and wonders; I can point to various moments in my life that I would consider to be divine intervention. Ultimately, I must choose to believe. I must have faith in the process. The pharisees saw the same signs and miracles and chose a different path.

    I grew up with knowledge of the Bible but have spent a lot of time away from the Bible and Christianity. I truly am taking this time to get back to the basics. We have discussed how surrender is based in love and not fear. This is my search for God’s love. I apologize if my discussions seem simplistic and elementary, it is back to the basics for me. I did forward the link to Shaylee, she is much more knowledgeable and will hopefully challenge both of us.

    As for questions/comments regarding your post, I appreciate the idea that a created being cannot be itself and be with itself. I do not fully understand the trinity but this makes sense to me. I also appreciate Paul Tillich’s view that God is the “ground of Being-Itself.” If God is omnipotent and Jesus is God, why did God create, especially knowing the fall that would take place and the ultimate sacrifice that would be required? Shaylee made a good point in that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen and yet, time and time again, he continues to be patient with his disciples and fulfill the will of his Father. This idea alone seems to speak of the love and devotion Jesus and the Father have/had to redeem fallen man.

    Hilary

  3. Steve

    You have hit the essence of the fourth Gospel. John is fundamentally christological (the study of Jesus as the Christ) and soteriological (the theology of salvation). In many ways, John’s Gospel has more in common with the Epistles than with the synoptic Gospels. While all four were written in hindsight, John’s is more developed in its theology. Like Paul, John was conversant with Greek (pagan) philosophy and sought to set out the Gospel in terms that were consonant with that system, hence the identification of Jesus with the Logos. I deliberately confined my self to the first three verses because I wanted to focus on the Logos. My next post on John will take in more of the christological elements. But I think I will first address the issue of why God created in the first place.

  4. verbus_admin

    Hooray! You made it. You’ll see my replies as verbus_admin or Steve. Same guy.

    You’re very close to what I want to say in my next post so I will save my remarks for that.

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