This Jesus is the Eternal Word of God

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God (Jn 1:1-2)

John 1:1-2 was one of St Basil of Caesarea’s favorite texts, and he addresses it in multiple places in his extant corpus. His homily “On the Beginning of the Gospel of John” (In illud, In principio erat Verbum) presents his most developed discussion of the text. As Mark DelCogliano notes, in these verses Basil found both divine sanction for and succinct encapsulation of his trinitarian theology (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 242).

“In the beginning was the Word …”

Basil sees in this clause a preemptive word from God anticipating the heresies of Arius and Eunomius. “If he was begotten, he was not,” the Eunomians declare; and “Before his begetting, he was not” and “He received his subsistence from nothing” (Verb. 1). Against all such claims stands the declaration of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” Within the created world there are many beginnings, but John refers here to the absolute beginning. If we allow the Hexaemeron to be our guide, he appears to be thinking, not of the beginning of our material world but of the spiritual world (Hex. 1.5-6). But it probably does not matter which absolute beginning he is thinking of. He might well be thinking of the “beginning” of the Only-Begotten, which cannot be conceived as a beginning. “The very tip of the beginning,” says Basil, “cannot be comprehended. What is beyond the beginning cannot be found” (Verb. 1).  All talk of a moment “before” which the Word did not exist is nonsensical.  “How is it logical,” Basils asks, “that the maker of time has a begetting that is subject to temporal designations?” (Verb. 2). He thus understands the text as clearly affirming the eternal coexistence of the Son with the Father. In the beginning, “before” there was anything, there was Father and his Son (and his Spirit).

Why does the Apostle give the title “Word” to the Son? In order, suggests Basil, to indicate the immaterial, spiritual nature of the divine begetting: just as our spoken words express our thoughts, so the divine Word perfectly and passionlessly embodies the divine Intellect that is the Father. If the Apostle had used the word “Son” instead of “Word,” perhaps, DelCogliano explains, “it would be permissible to think of the Father’s begetting of the Son as involving time, passion, and suffering, since the word ‘son’ has such associations. But the use of the term Logos precludes those associations since a spoken word proceeds from the mind timelessly and without change” (p. 246). But Basil also sees another reason for the choice of “Word.” The divine Word perfectly images “his begetter, showing in himself the whole of the begetter, not divided from him in any way and existing perfect in himself, just as our word also reflects the whole of our thought” (Verb. 3). Basil joins the eternal Logos with the long-standing confession of the Son as the Imago Dei. “So then,” the Cappadocian bishop concludes, “he said Word so that he could communicate to you the Father’s passionless begetting and teach you the theology of the perfect existence of the Son, and through these demonstrate the Son’s non-temporal conjunction with the Father” (Verb. 3).

“… and the Word was with God …”

So where was this Word “before” the beginning? “With God” … but not as in a place.

For that which is uncircumscribed is not contained in a place. … The Father is infinite and the Son is infinite. Whatever place you can conceive of, wherever you can go in your spirit, you will find it filled with God, and everywhere you will find the co-extensive subsistence of the Son.” (Verb. 4)

Just as we cannot think of the eternal Creator as existing in time, so we cannot think of him as existing in space.  The Son shares in the omnipresence of God: every locatable place is filled—wholly, completely, indivisibly, perfectly—with God and his Word.

The preposition “with” also suggests the Son’s distinct subsistence. If John had instead used “in,” Marcellus and his followers might have invoked the verse to support their “claim that Father and Son and Holy Spirit are a single subject” (Verb. 4). But the Apostle snatches away the future distortions of the modalists and teaches us that the Word cannot be collapsed into the one person of the Father. The Son enjoys an eternal and distinct existence.

”… the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God.”

With these words the Apostle John sums up his entire theology of the Only-Begotten. Who is this one? This one is the eternal Word of God.

Basil then takes a curious introspective turn:

After articulating to you how to think about him, as if impressing upon your soul what you did not know through his teaching and causing Christ the Word to dwell in your heart, he says: This one. What is this one? Do not look outside yourself, searching for what the demonstrative pronoun indicates, but enter into the hidden recesses of your own soul. There once you have identified and marveled at the God whom you have learned was in the beginning, who proceeded as Word, who is with God, once you have worshipped your own Master who dwells in you through this teaching, realize that this one was in the beginning, that is, he is always with God his Father. (Verb. 4)

I confess I do not understand how this works. Is it because I do not live in a Neo-Platonist world, or because I’m not a contemplative? I don’t think I’ve ever advised someone, Descend into your heart if you wish to confirm the equal divinity of the Son and refute trinitarian heresies. St Basil interprets the Johannine Prologue as theologia, yet would not the Evangelist counsel his readers to read his gospel if they want to know the identity of the Word of whom the Prologue speaks? There is no Logos asarkos. Not now. Not for us. There is now only the Word made flesh—the Christ baptized by John, crucified under Pontius Pilate, risen on the third day. Thomas F. Torrance speaks truly of the pastoral significance of Logos ensarkos:

Here we have to do with a theological principle which is of immense importance in pastoral care. How often people have said to me: ‘Will God really turn out to be what we believe him to be in Jesus Christ?’ That is a question I have been asked on the battle field by a young man who had barely half an hour to live: ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ Questions like that which gnaw at the back of people’s minds but which they suppress and which come to the surface only in moments of sharp crisis and hurt, tell us of the insidious damage done to people’s faith by dualist habits of thought which drive a wedge between Jesus and God. Fearful anxiety arises in the human heart when people cannot connect Jesus up in their faith or understanding with the ultimate Being of God, for then the ultimate Being of God can be to them only a dark, inscrutable, arbitrary Deity whom they inevitably think of with terror for their guilty conscience makes them paint harsh angry streaks upon his face. It is quite different when the face of Jesus is identical with the face of God. (The Mediation of Christ, p. 70)

Or as Jesus himself declared, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). Hence I am suspicious of attempts, theological and ascetical, to bypass the sacred humanity of Christ in order to encounter the pure Trinity. But perhaps the Bishop of Caesarea presupposes the spiritual internalization in his hearers of the Johannine story of the incarnate Word and is simply inviting his flock to rediscover through prayer the One who indwells their hearts. Or perhaps Basil believes that the dynamics of human consciousness analogically reveals, as Augustine believed, the trinitarian structure of the Creator. I do not know.

 
[This article was originally published on 6 January 2014.]

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16 Responses to This Jesus is the Eternal Word of God

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Yesterday on Twitter I asked Mark DelCogliano what his thoughts were on the passage about the demonstrative pronoun. Here is his response:

    It’s a curious passage. Note how Basil says that John’s previous words ‘impress’ on the soul what was not known and ’cause’ Christ to dwell in the heart. John’s words make Christ present within. According, one shouldn’t take the demonstrative pronoun, as indicating something ‘out there’. But the question remains how/why the Johannine words cause the indwelling of Christ and what one should do besides realize the Eternal One is within you. Cf. Basil’s Contra Eunomium 2.16: seems to hold to a kind of illuminationist theory of mind: the presence of the Word enables human rationality.

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  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    His kid brother offers an interesting take on this, perhaps fleshing it out a bit more. Gregory speaks of the Holy Spirit using ordinary words and concepts leads believers analogically to more exalted concepts which befit the divine nature. Through this process, according to Gregory, the divine mysteries are revealed.

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  3. Robert Fortuin says:

    Since no one believes me 🙂 here is the passage from Contra Eunomium 8.4:

    the Holy Spirit, in delivering to us the divine mysteries, conveys its instruction on those matters which transcend language by means of what is within our capacity, as it does also constantly elsewhere, when it portrays the Divinity in bodily terms, making mention, in speaking concerning God, of His eye, His eyelids, His ear, His fingers, His hand, His right hand, His arm, His feet, His shoes, and the like,—none of which things is apprehended to belong in its primary sense to the Divine Nature, — but turning its teaching to what we can easily perceive, it describes by terms well worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception. In this way, then, it employs the numerous forms of generation to present to us, from the inspired teaching, the unspeakable existence of the Only-begotten, taking just so much from each as may be reverently admitted into our conceptions concerning God.

    Paradoxically, words are able to convey meaningful information in regards to that which is ‘unspeakable existence’. I just presented an essay on Gregory’s formulation of a theory of discourse about God (i.e. ‘God-talk’) based in part on this key pericope in his argument against Eunomius’ literal reading of Scripture.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Is there a literary critical side to the Church Fathers? Could they take this insight about scripture and apply it to the pagan literature that continued to be read or use it to create a new literature of their own? The usual answer is No. One wonders why not. But of course something like that happened in western Europe… almost a thousand years later.

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  4. Robert Fortuin says:

    I am not sure what you mean Jonathan, would you elaborate please

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    • Jonathan says:

      The miraculous thing is just as you’ve described it: “Paradoxically, words are able to convey meaningful information in regards to that which is ‘unspeakable existence’.” Or, above, you wrote, “Gregory speaks of the Holy Spirit using ordinary words and concepts to lead believers analogically to more exalted concepts which befit the divine nature. Through this process, according to Gregory, the divine mysteries are revealed.”

      This is an extraordinary development. How can words be made to say more than they say? How can language be a vehicle of the transcendent? It is, as I said, nothing short of miraculous, and it comes from this hermeneutical moment in the early history of the Church, it is a distinctly Christian phenomenon. In a word, what I am talking about is allegory or, as you know, the ‘saying something else’, the ‘speaking otherwise.’

      Western Europe from the twelfth century onward for about four hundred years developed an extremely sophisticated way of writing that grew out of allegorical reading of scripture. You see it in the lyric poetry, in the romances, in the mysticism. The supreme allegorical achievement is Dante’s Commedia, the last great effort in the mode is Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and a late afterthought is the emblem prefacing Vico’s New Science. But in the Greek-speaking part of Christendom, something similar did not happen, at least not as far as what we’d now call imaginative literature is concerned. I’m not trying to denigrate Byzantine or medieval Slavic culture, only to say that there the Spirit seems to have moved in different ways.

      The word allegory came into a bad reputation in the 17th century, from which it has not to this day recovered. Even writers like Tolkien and Lewis, medievalists, were at pains to distance their work from the allegorical tradition, for all that it plainly belongs in that tradition and would not exist without it. In the nineteenth century people started talking about ‘symbolism’ which is essentially the same thing in non-Christian garb. Although there are sophisticated attempts to parse allegory from symbolism and in fact they aren’t precisely the same thing, the gist of it is the same: how does verbal craft become visionary? Your comments brought up this fundamental question for me; and the question as to why in some parts of the Christian world the visionary insight of allegory never expanded to other language than that of scripture. But perhaps the more interesting question is why in a certain part of the Christian world it did so expand, and then eventually diminish.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Er. . . forgot to ask: In your reading of the theology and preaching of men like Gregory and other Fathers, is their something that would militate against the eventual development of allegorical writing? Is there some animus against literary art? I would not at all be surprised to learn there is — certainly the charge that poets and writers are ‘liars’ is a perennial one in the western, Latin-descended tradition as well. But then one still wonders why that tradition shaped up so differently despite such a suspicion of poesis.

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        • Ryan says:

          I think you are assuming too much about Eastern Christian culture. Certainly poetry and allegory continued to flourish in both secular and ecclesiastical literature, including romances comparable to those produced in Western Europe.

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          • Jonathan says:

            I admit to not being as familiar with the Greek and Slavic traditions. I’ve only read a few medieval Greek romances and epics, like the Digenis Akritas and the later Cretan Erotokritos. Clearly the roots of romance go back to the Hellenistic period. I guess what I’m wondering, what I’m aiming at here ultimately, is why in the west art eventually sort of displaced religion as the bearer of allegorical meaning, analogical language. If many in the west can still get out of art what very few in the west can anymore get from religion, I wonder why that is.

            But that’s a huge question that doesn’t really have any place here. A more pointed, but still vast question, would concern Patristic aesthetics and philosophy of language. Say what one will about medieval Greek and Latin Christian literature, the fact remains we do not possess an important literary deposit from anywhere in late antiquity. The energy was going elsewhere. Which is totally fine. But I just wonder if there is also an active, conscious distinction made between scripture and other writing, specifically as writing. Another way of putting it: In the thought of the Church Fathers, is revelation a special kind of writing because it is revelation, or is revelation verbal because there is an inherent allegorical potentiality in language?

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        • Robert Fortuin says:

          Hi Jonathan,

          The fathers of the undivided church used allegorical texts and were also quite comfortable in allegorical readings of scripture. So I don’t see any type of ‘systematic’ prejudice against allegory per se in the early church, this comes much later as you note. I would only be guessing as to why allegory came into its own at a later time – perhaps mere accident of history, persons, circumstances, theological needs, and what not.

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  5. Ryan says:

    “Say what one will about medieval Greek and Latin Christian literature, the fact remains we do not possess an important literary deposit from anywhere in late antiquity.” How are you defining “important?”

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  6. Jonathan says:

    Please excuse the excessive comments. Permit me a final attempt to clarify the nature of my inquiry, and forget the business about literary history, as I’m not trying to offend anyone’s sensibilities.

    I’m trying to get at the confusion or problem Fr. Aidan describes in the original post. He says, “There is no Logos asarkos. Not now. Not for us. There is now only the Word made flesh—the Christ baptized by John, crucified under Pontius Pilate, risen on the third day.” So I am asking about language, asking whether in the Christian tradition, because it is the Word of God that we believe incarnated, we might not continue to find that Incarnation in the very aspect of our lives, of our consciousness — language — which is a name for the Son. After all, while it is true that for us now there is no Logos asarkos, we only read or hear about the Incarnation through language. There is participation in divine liturgy, a bodily participation in the Incarnation, but without language that liturgy would not happen nor could we understand what it was. Still, though, for all that we may admit our lives are mediated in a fundamental way by language, it is no doubt also possible to make an idol of language. Fr. Aidan writes, “I am suspicious of attempts, theological and ascetical, to bypass the sacred humanity of Christ in order to encounter the pure Trinity.” Me too — maybe throw literary theory into the list of suspicious characters! But I also wonder whether in the fourth century we’ve got a theory of language, or specifically of the language of revelation (I am asking if there is a hard distinction), that we might call Incarnational.

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  7. brian says:

    Jonathan,

    Language is such a rich topic for reflection. There is a great passage in Rowan Williams’ The Edge of Words that your thoughts brought to mind. It is so richly apt, I quote at length from his explication of Waldo Williams’ Welsh poem, `Ty Ddewi’ (St. David’s).

    Its first line offers an instance of one of the simpler forms of cynghanedd: Nos Duw am Ynys Dewi, the assonance of four consonants, n, s, d and w, in the two halves of the line. The literal meaning is `The night of God on the island of David’: `God’, Duw, and `David’, Dewi, are associated in a fairly obvious way: this is a poem that has something to do with a man of God. But the association of nos, `night’ and ynys, `island’ is a more challenging one: this place, David’s peninsula, is a place where a certain kind of darkness falls: the darkness of God’s presence. To be in this place is to be in the night. The stanza continues with an evocation of the water flowing onto the beach as a metaphor for hiraeth, the nearest word in Welsh to eros: there is a long or slow movement of `longing’ towards the seashore (traeth, echoing hiraeth), the waves crying in the midst of the stones. And then we are confronted with the idea of a universal longing which finds expression in the language of memory: Araith y cof yw hiraeth y cyfan (The eros that belongs to all things is what the memory says), a line where hiraeth chimes with araith (speech). Language, in other words, chimes with longing: as memory, cof, chimes with the totality of things, y cyfan. And the stanza ends by juxtaposing the deep slumber of the mountain with the ceaseless hiraeth of the ocean. Sleep, remembrance, night – apparent stillness; longing, the unceasing waves on the shore, movement towards a goal of desire . . .

    The search for assonance produces a very strong form of the analogical vision that allows us to see one thing through another – all the stronger because it arises from the accident of similarities of sound. And of course there can be play with diverse kinds of similarity, as when the consonantal pattern of the first line is repeated much later in the poem, further complicating the resonances of the opening phrase: Mae anwes dawel am Ynys Dewi (there is a still embrace around David’s island) or `stillness hugs David’s island to itself’. So, indirectly, the `night’ of the first line of the whole poem is linked, by the repeated assonance, to the intimate anwes (fondling, caressing). This is indeed language under pressure deployed as a means of exploration . . . (pp. 132 – 133).

    Our language struggles to grasp and illuminate reality; our words fail, the real eludes us. Yet without language our knowledge wanes to almost nothing. Even in our knowing unknowing, the mystic must gesture with art. William’s exposition indicates a metaphysical depth to language that touches on language as a mysterious gift beyond any sense of it as a mere utilitarian tool. Reality announces itself, our inspiration in language is also our communion with being. Beyond the jejune hopes of the magician to master through naming is the Word and creation that comes from nothing and abides in the Word. Edith Stein has some interesting thoughts on naming as well . . . there is a kind of divine theurgy that is also the secret of naming.

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    • Jonathan says:

      Thanks for the passage from Williams’ book. I might have to pick that one up. Whereabouts in Stein are you thinking of?

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      • brian says:

        Jonathan,
        I am thinking of certain aspects of Finite and Eternal Being, especially her thoughts on the tension between language and unique, personal being that eludes our attempts at linguistic capture.

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  8. Ryan says:

    Explicitly I don’t know if there is a theory of incarnational language, but it seems to me to be embodied and implied in the hymnography of the church and in all the startling allegories and parallels that appear therein.

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