The Creation of the World in John 1

So the more I deal with trinitarian thought, the more I find myself resenting John 1. Not for John's sake, certainly! But I'm convinced we've done a bad job of understanding what's going on there -- partially because of the Latin fathers, but also because we insist on John 1 as a pillar of trinitarian thought. Where else, after all, did we get a "logos Christology"? Five verses: John's creation story. Mark didn't need one. Matthew and Luke chose birth narratives to begin their stories of a Jesus who represents God's saving act. And John -- John chooses to tell the story of the creator God who alone makes sense of the world.

But for all the theology and history of interpretation, we don't read it according to the language that's there in the passage! So I'm taking this post as an opportunity to refactor John's language as a grammar and syntax lesson in Koine Greek. Let us try to hear it as children of a language that the Latins found preposterous, a language where syntax is simple, elements are noted by inflection and augmentation, and pieces can be freely rearranged for emphasis without confusing the audience. A language of poetic rhetoric.

And of course, we start with John 1:1-2:
Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος· οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν.
The words are the same, but the punctuation has been changed to protect the innocent -- namely, John, who spoke as a Hellenistic Judean talking to an increasingly non-Judean Hellenistic audience. And the listening Greek hears four clauses here: three and then one. The subject of the sentence is obvious: the logos, "Reason". In three consecutive clauses using the verb εἰμί (which takes the nominative case for both subject and object), λόγος receives the article all three times. It is the substance being identified -- the subject and not the object.

So we start with three clauses joined by καί, which means they're all true. These can be re-mapped into three basic sentences:
ὁ λόγος ἐν ἀρχῆ ἦν
ὁ λόγος πρὸς τὸν θεὸν ἦν
ὁ λόγος θεὸς ἦν
So Reason exists as the first principle (arche), it exists with respect to God (pros ton theon), and it is in fact divine (theos). Three identical articular nouns, three identical verbs (which don't really need to be there -- these could be noun sentences, but the verb tense shows us the time), and three different attributes: two prepositional phrases and an adjective.

Yes, really, θεός is an adjective -- even if you don't remap the sentence. I haven't changed the grammar by normalizing the syntax. Yes, I know we never translate it that way. That's because the Latins believed in linear syntax (first thing, second thing, third thing, and so on), and rode rough-shod over the emphatic hysteron proteron of the Greek. So now that we have John's basic meaning, let's see why he chose to arrange the syntax in this pre-posterous way, with all these carts preceding their horses.

In terms of its poetics, the first thing to observe is that these three clauses make a sort of wave here in Jn 1:1 -- down, then up, then back down. And we need to remember that Jn 1:1-5 is a midrash on Gn 1:1-5 -- the first words of Genesis are the first words of John. So the first piece of reversed syntax, putting ἐν ἀρχῆ at the front, is an echo of the Septuagint. But even if you don't get the allusion, you'll still get the emphasis. And as we drop from there to the subject ὁ λόγος, we repeat it at the bottom, and rise from there to πρὸς τὸν θεόν.

This might be chiasm, matching inside and outside parts -- except that the prepositional object θεόν meets the adjective θεός at the beginning of the third clause, and then we return to rest with ὁ λόγος at its end. These three are one statement, put together poetically, about the divine principle of sufficient Reason. (Yes, that's a philosophy joke -- John is also making one.) And that Reason, John is quick to recap in the fourth clause, exists most basically with respect to God: οὗτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν.

And if John 1:1-2 meditates on ἐν ἀρχῇ in Genesis 1:1 to talk about the priority of divine Reason, John 1:3 meditates on ἐγένετο, the word that shows what happens when God creates in Genesis. (It is, after all, the verbal root of the noun "genesis.") So:
πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν.
Reason, ὁ λόγος, remains the subject here. And this is a couplet that says one thing. We have two parts, an absolute affirmation combined with an absolute negation:
πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο
οὐδὲ ἕν ὃ γέγονεν χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο

Everything happened by means of divine Reason;
not one thing that happened, happened apart from it.
And because we're talking about reason -- rationality, logic, the governing order by which all things make sense -- we're talking about a world that also is governed by an order that makes sense of it. The world is governed by a logos; the world is logikos. It is logical, but we need to know know what the logic is. And we have identified that logic with God, who is the root of the total order of the world. But that still leaves us stuck in the middle of the arguments about the nature of God -- then as now! Relating λόγος to θεός doesn't settle the question of the character of either one. It just affirms that we're talking about the root cause of everything.

After that, if you don't know that we're moving on to the first day of creation, things could get kind of confusing -- suddenly we're talking about Life and Humanity and Light and Darkness. But we're still talking about Reason, about the logos:
ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ἐστιν
καὶ ἡ ζωὴ ἦν τὸ φῶς τῶν ἀνθρώπων
καὶ τὸ φῶς ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ φαίνει
καὶ ἡ σκοτία αὐτὸ οὐ κατέλαβεν.

Life is in [the Logos],
and the life was the light of humanity;
the light appears in the darkness,
and the darkness did not surpass it.
But while Genesis goes on into the second day, and the firmament that separates the waters, and the arrangement of the rest of the stuff of the natural world, John's cosmos gets right down to human action. And when God makes a human in the Gospel, he makes him a prophet and apostle and witness. God says, "Let there be John," and there was! Ἐγένετο ἄνθρωπος: a man named John, sent by God.

This is part of the logical order of the world -- the same divine Reason is the means of John happening. John was sent, and he came: a witness to testify to the light, so that all might trust. Because the true light, the light that enlightens every person -- the light that is greater than the darkness -- was coming into the world. And while it was in the world, the world did not know or recognize the divine Reason, but those who receive and trust it are given the power to become children of God. And in flesh, divine Reason tabernacles with us.

Who are we talking about? The Spirit of God who hovered over the watery chaos of disordered matter is the same glorious presence of God who tabernacles with Israel in the midst of the chaotic world. And this Spirit is the same presence of God become flesh -- bearing the glorious likeness of an only child, the true and fully invested heir of his heavenly Father. The presence of a grace and truth descended from the source of all grace and truth.

John (the man) points to this one, this Jesus of Nazareth, in whom we trust. John (the evangelist) points to this one, Jesus Christ, as the character of both God and the true order of the world. The original order, the real guiding sense that the world is supposed to make -- Jesus is where it breaks in to our confused and darkened world of sin. The same creator Spirit becomes the creature.


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