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  • Writer's picturechris de ray

Jesus and the Word: a metaphysical reflection on the Gospel of John

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"

The opening words of John's Gospel are perplexing. The 'Word', we are told, is somehow 'with God' and 'is God'. The evangelist goes on to say that the Word "became flesh and made his dwelling among us", a verse crucial to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus Christ is the 'Word', who both 'is God' and 'is with God'. It would be tempting to interpret these claims metaphorically: perhaps Jesus is God's 'Word' in the sense of being the perfect expression of God's will, or of God's character. Certainly, other New Testament passages have that vibe (Col. 1:15). But the Johannine prologue seems to be saying something stronger than that. The Word, we are told, was "with God in the beginning", and " through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made". Hence, Jesus the Word preexists his incarnation, and even the creation of the world. Indeed, he is the means by which the world was created. As is well known, the evangelist is most likely drawing on the Hellenistic philosophical concept of logos, which English translations render as 'Word'. The logos, for Stoic and Platonist philosophers, was usually a kind of supreme divine spirit which sustains the order and existence of the natural world. Jewish thinkers commonly identified this logos with what the Hebrew Bible calls wisdom ( 'hokma' , Prov. 8) or word ('dabar'), as in the following verse from the Psalms:

"By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host." (Ps. 33:6) The word is the means by which God brings the world into existence, and we have seen that this is what John the evangelist has in mind. Crucially, the Word is an attribute of God -- the fact that the texts also call it 'wisdom' brings that out clearly. And yet, for the evangelist, the Word is also a divine person, who took flesh and walked among us. The question I wish to address here is, how is it possible for a person, Jesus, to be identical to a divine attribute, the Word? This is intuitively very odd. We don't normally think of attributes as things in their own right, but rather as features or aspects of things, like the color or solidity of my coffee mug. But Jesus the person clearly is a thing in its own right. To use the old philosophical jargon, we distinguish substances, which are things in their own right, and the attributes that such substances may have.

I think the answer to our question lies in a distinction between two different ways of thinking about the relationship between objects / substances and their attributes. I'm referring to what philosophers have called relational and constituent ontology (e.g. Wolterstoff 1991). Let us look at each of these in turn.

On a relational ontology, an object and its attributes are linked by a relation that may be called 'exemplification', 'participation' or 'instantiation' (these terms are largely interchangeable). Importantly, the attributes are conceived as being external to the object that exemplifies them. The attributes do not exist 'in' the objects that have them, rather, they exist in some abstract realm, a Platonic 'realm of forms'. The exemplification relation acts as a kind of bridge between the abstract attribute and the concrete object that has it. It should be clear that, given a relational ontology, the identification of Jesus with the Word is logically impossible, or at best utterly unintelligible. The person, Jesus, is a concrete thing that could be touched and directly perceived by those around him. But the Word, on a (purely) relational ontology, is an abstract thing. Surely it is impossible in principle for a concrete object to be identical to an abstract thing. The problem remains even if we take the traditional interpretation of the Platonic realm of forms as God's intellect. For if attributes are in fact ideas or concepts in the divine mind, then it would follow that the Word is an idea or concept in the divine mind. But the flesh-and-blood person, Jesus, is necessarily not an idea or concept. Hence, here again, it seems in principle impossible for Jesus to be the Word. On a constituent ontology, in contrast, the attributes of an object are constituents of the object. Attributes are said to inhere in the objects that have them. They are part of what 'makes up' the object -- or indeed, all that makes up the object, if one subscribes to 'bundle-of-properties'-type views. In some constituent ontologies, attributes are simply identified with the object's parts.

Wolterstorff notes that medieval (Christian) philosophers were themselves constituent ontologists, which is what allowed them to say, among other things, that God is his nature, i.e. his attributes taken together, rather than simply 'having' his nature. The identification of Jesus with the Word seems much less problematic given a constituent ontology. Presumably, if attributes are constituents of concrete objects, then they are (or can be) themselves concrete. Hence, identifying Jesus with the Word does not compel us to say that Jesus both is and isn't a concrete thing. Granted, the notion that one of an object's constituents could be a person, a conscious self, is still mysterious, even if the constituent isn't some otherworldly abstractum. But consider panpsychism, a metaphysical theory associated with Leibniz, and still held by some philosophers today. Panpsychists hold that fundamental entities, e.g. subatomic particles, are conscious. Arguably, this implies that such particles are conscious selves, albeit very tiny ones. If that's right, then, on panpsychism, my most basic constituents (insofar as I am ultimately constituted of subatomic particles) are conscious selves. This is would no doubt be very bizarre. But I see no reason to believe that it is in principle impossible, in the way that married bachelors, or indeed abstract persons, are impossible. I conclude that, on a constituent ontology, the identification of Jesus with the Word, while mysterious, is not in principle impossible. Some concluding observations If we take the constituent ontologist's interpretation of Jesus' identity with the Word, then, insofar as the Word is an attribute of God, and that attributes are constituents of the things that have them, it follows that Jesus the Word is a constituent of God -- more elegantly, an element of God's being. Or, to paraphrase New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, Jesus is 'included within the divine identity'. This allows us to deal with some of the theological paradoxes in the New Testament. Jesus, qua Word, is said by John the evangelist to be 'God', as we have seen. But the texts also speak of Jesus having a God, addressing God, being vindicated by God, and so on. Clearly, the relation between Jesus and God cannot be one of numerical identity, such as in 'Batman is Bruce Wayne'. What to make then, of John's claim that Jesus 'is' God? Jesus the Word is not strictly (i.e. numerically) identical to God, but is nevertheless inseparable from God, since he is an element of God's being. He is, in that sense, well and truly divine.

This, I think, sheds some light on the words of the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made.

Bauckham, R. (2002). God crucified. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans. Wolterstorff, Nicholas (1991). Divine simplicity. Philosophical Perspectives 5:531-552.

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