The Light of God in Action

By Knight, George A. F. | The Christian Century, December 16, 1998 | Go to article overview

The Light of God in Action

Knight, George A. F., The Christian Century

WHEN IT SEEKS to tell us who Jesus is, John's Gospel begins at the same place as Genesis 1:1. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God [in his "heart"], and the Word was God." (Note that the Word is no "thing," but is "He," on the ground that God is the "living" God of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.) "He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.... What has come into being in him was life [the life of the living God], and the life was the light of all people." That is why John can write later of Christ: "I am the light of the world," that light that is the creative saving love of God for all peoples.

Straightaway, however, we are up against a problem of meaning. For example, in nonscriptural literature the concept of light could cover a vast spectrum of meaning. The Dead Sea Scrolls, for one, in describing the Qumran community, refers to "us" as "sons of light," and everyone else as "sons of darkness." In the eyes of Jesus, however, this view of light was not "of God": "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'" This was probably a dictum of the community, for it does not occur in the Old Testament in so many words. Jesus continued, "But I say to you, love your enemies ..." (Matt. 5:43). Jesus very likely on occasion met members of the Qumran community, for some members paid occasional visits to the Temple, and he might have warned them that their understanding of light was not in conformity with that of Genesis.

Genesis has come down to us in the Hebrew language. John's Gospel is written in Greek, a language which has no affiliation whatsoever with Hebrew. It has been a well-known fact to people trained in languages that there are occasions in which it is virtually impossible to transfer the meanings of some words expressed in one language accurately to another language, such as from ancient Hebrew into ancient Greek--and so into modern English.

John's employment of the term "Word" can find no equivalent if it is to be translated from Hebrew to Greek. The Greek noun logos which John uses was a very general term among the intellectuals of the Hellenistic world of his day. In the ordinary language of educated people logos might mean speech, narrative, pronouncement, report, teaching, call, sense. "The Greek root log-leg represents a comprehensive and overarching unity of meaning--gather, collect, select, report, speak" (H. Ritt, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament). Among philosophers, beginning with Heraclites of Ephesus (550-480 B.C.E.), right through Hegel and Nietzsche in our era, logos has meant "the essential abiding law of the world, thought and custom."

Some might suppose that John is using Platonic and Stoic concepts of the logos in an attempt to link universal and moral and religious experience with the incarnation. No. There was no need to denigrate the true light, the Logos that enlightens everyone which "was coming into the world" (John 1:9). Christ is all in all in himself:

   Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as
   something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness (Phil. 2:6-7).

Here Christ as God is described in very personal terms. Likewise, what Logos means for John includes being a person, truly human, for true personhood is at the center of Reality, or Truth; for the Truth is that God is the supreme Person.

Today we have inserted this root log into the names of many scientific categories of study; we find it in zoology, pathology, physiology, geology and so on. The concept of logos is accepted today as having affinity primarily with the world of the sciences, all of which, it is believed, give us a handle on ultimate reality and the meaning of human existence. In this perspective, however, logos is an impersonal concept.

John begins his description of the Logos by setting it in comparison with what we read in the first verses of Genesis. …

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