An Apophatic Rendering of the Logos: Abbreviated

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Here is some research I have been doing on one of my favorite biblical topics in light of my new found interest in Negative (Apophatic) Theology.  This is an abridged version of my research.  If you would like to read the full version complete with intro., conclusion, and back matter, you can read it here.

How the Gospel of John Has Been Read

            The number of theories circulating about how best to interpret John’s body of work is staggering.  Undoubtedly, this is due not only to the literature’s unique characteristics within the broader Scriptural corpus, but also due to the wealth of theologically sophisticated concepts contained therein.  While there is a clear indication that the Johannine literature evolved over time through redaction, form criticism does not account for the literary devices or the theological erudition; and neither literary nor textual criticism make proper account of John’s place in the larger Scriptural tradition.  However, many authors seem to agree that the continued fascination over the Johannine corpus is due in large part to either the inadequacy of the historical-critical method to interpret John faithfully or the inability of any other independent method to establish the theological and cultural nuance that seems to pervade the body of literature as a whole.  Consequently, recent scholarship has drawn into question whether there is a single “best” way to interpret John.

            Carson, in his commentary on the Gospel according to John, finds the locus of such characteristics in the interplay between John and the Synoptic Gospels, identifying several points of disagreement between John and the Synopitcs as John’s “independence.”  Specifically, Carson identifies those differences as John’s failure to include large quantities of material common to the Synoptics, John’s inclusion of large quantities of material not mentioned in the Synoptics, John’s thematic contradiction to themes well established in the Synoptics, John’s anachronistic account in relation to history and the Synoptics, and the evidence of John’s heavy use of editing as revealed in his use of Greek.  Bruce, in his work on Johannine literature, instead finds the independence of certain literary characteristics to be the most striking element that sets the Fourth Gospel apart from the Synoptics.  While Bruce, like Carson, employs a method much in line with other historical-critical efforts; he seems to be quite taken with John’s use of “character-portrayal” in particular, pointing out that the prominence of John’s use of dialogue has been a favorite of scholars in distinguishing the Fourth Gospel from the Synoptics.

            Dumm and Kanagaraj see not only the challenges of historical-cultural readings and the complexity of literary composition, but also how the more abstract elements of community and faith are expressed by John.  Dumm’s work is predicated on what he calls a gospel “which is so sensitive to the spiritual, symbolic dimension of biblical revelation.”  Kanagaraj traces the history of how prominent voices as early as Clement of Alexandria on through Augustine focused on those elements.  Both authors, however, also knowingly frame their arguments within an academic community that is obviously wary about labeling John as “mystical,” though it refuses to eliminate the possibility of such readings outside of the Gnostic context. 

            Burge opts to focus on the rich theological heritage of John’s Gospel, while making connections to how that heritage has been influenced by the form criticism and historical-cultural criticism that has shaped scholastic opinions of John’s corpus.  Burge does not neglect the discussion of textual issues within John or in comparison to the Synoptics, though it is clear that he prefers a literary method because it allows him the opportunity to focus on the theological contributions of John’s Gospel.  He identifies at least three major theological arcs in the Fourth Gospel: revelation and redemption, Jewish concerns, and Christian concerns.  Of particular interest, especially in light of the work done by Dumm and Kanagaraj, is the fact that Burge sees John’s view of history as reflecting the mystical presence of God in the sacraments.  Burge says, “John has a ‘sacramental’ view of history inasmuch as the incarnation of Christ for him means the genuine appearance of God in history.  Worship can affirm such genuine appearances when worship symbols (baptism, the Lord’s Supper) take on the real properties of that which they depict.”  This perspective becomes increasingly helpful when later considering the fact that both the theology of the incarnation of the Logos in John’s prologue is largely agreed upon, and that some postulate that the prologue to John’s Gospel constitutes early liturgical poetry.

            Köstenberger offers only a few disparaging comments about the inadequacy of historical-cultural studies in illuminating the text of John’s gospel, choosing instead to elaborate on the contributions of literary criticism in understanding the theological message of the Johannine literature.  Köstenberger sees John’s Gospel primarily as a Jewish theological treatise directed at a community of Jews after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE.  Consequently, he deviates from many scholars already mentioned here in dating the Gospel, and happens to categorize the major theological themes accordingly as God, the Christ, salvation, the Spirit, the new covenant community, and the last things.  There are, of course, myriad other approaches by scholars whose opinions are noteworthy; but only deviate from the methods already mentioned by degrees of variation, and happen to be iterations of older scholarship.

            It will be helpful, then, to place the current positions held by these authors in their place among the history of Johannine interpretation, especially that of the early church. The focus is on the early church, because much of the scholarship emanating from the middle church is easily categorized.  Carson states, “Whether the Fourth Gospel was interpreted so as to ground some form of Christian mysticism, or so as to make clear the truth of justification by faith, there was at least no doubt that it was the product of the Apostle John, that in some ways it is the most focused of the four canonical Gospels, and that fundamental reconciliation between John and the Synoptics can be achieved.”  As such, the mystical tradition of the middle church played an important role in making possible the kind of Apophatic rendering that may now be useful in understanding the full scope of John’s use of Logos as a Christological title.  However, these mystical theories neither find their origin nor their most lucid articulation in the middle church.

            The Fourth Gospel was ubiquitously held in the highest esteem in the early church.  Though, this is a point that Bruce seems to make in passing and that Carson will not deign to make, choosing instead to focus on the canonical veracity of its claims to apostolic authority through the testimony of the early church.  It is an approach, no doubt, that falls in line with the decidedly historical-critical method employed by both Bruce and Carson.  Curiously, though, both expound upon the early church’s refutation of Gnosticism without mentioning how Irenaeus soundly rejected the basis of Gnostic claims without rejecting the spiritual nature of the Gospel or its primacy over the Synoptics.  Irenaeus, though, is a good example of how John was heralded generally by the end of the second century, and how the apologists revered him specifically.  In fact, as early as Clement of Alexandria and Irenaeus, we see John’s Gospel being used not only as an apologetic for the incarnation but also as an interpretive lens for the Hebrew Scriptures, for which the prologue to the Gospel was the linchpin.  It is worth mentioning, though, that many of these authors acknowledge that it was common for prominent theologians of the early church to view John’s Gospel as having a “spiritual” component even if they do no validate such a reading themselves.

            Consequently, it bears repeating that the current state of Johannine studies is one of incorporation.  Every author certainly entertains a preference for one critical method over the other, but there is little deviation from the opinion that individual methodologies have outlived their usefulness as frameworks that are singularly capable of expressing the intent and message of the biblical authors.  There even exists a tolerance for those methodologies that see in the Johannine corpus a mystical element, though not articulated in the trappings of mystical expression per se.  Therefore, while historical-critical, literary, and textual methods still have an important role to play in our reading of the Johannine literature, there is an important contribution to be made by negative theology as well.

Placing the Prologue of John’s Gospel Through John’s Use of Logos

            The prologue of John’s Gospel is not only the conceptual summary of John’s account, but also the lens through which the Evangelist wants readers to view Jesus.  Burge calls it an “overture to the story of the rest of the Gospel.”  Because of the summary or preview nature of the prologue and the “preliminary narrative sections that have been dovetailed into it,” there is assent concerning the theory that the prologue to John’s Gospel was penned after the Gospel proper; and the notion that the original narrative probably began at verse nineteen finds similar corroboration.  Burge elsewhere identifies the prologue as one of the prominent “literary seams” or “aporias” of John’s Gospel, in which there is a clear distinction between the poetic structure and idiomatic language of the prologue and the rest of the Gospel. This view has been commonly accepted on the basis of two types of arguments: those based on form or textual criticism and those based on theological analysis.  Most often, though, the view is held in light of some combination of the two, except where the author feels sufficient doubt to label such attempts as “speculative at best.”

            An argument offered by Ed L. Miller regarding the origin of the Logos and, here, the structure and dating of the prologue to John’s Gospel in relationship to the rest of the Johannine literature proves to be of some import.  His essential claim is that both the literary and theological reasons for believing the prologue was written after the Gospel provide sufficient justification for looking first to the Johannine literature for an explanation of the Logos.  Like Burge, Miller sees the prologue’s mention of John the Baptist (1:6-8, 15) and some personal commentary (1:13, 17-18) as interruptions to a “hymn” consisting of several strophes.  Two points should be kept in mind: first, Miller is utterly convinced that the prologue is a completely distinct literary construction, though penned by the same author as the rest of the Johannine literature, and second, the appropriate chronology for the writing of the prologue is to place it after the creation of John’s first epistle; so that John first wrote the Gospel proper, then wrote 1 John, and ended by writing the prologue and attaching it to the beginning of the Gospel.  This reading that suggests that the Christological title offered in the first lines of the prologue is actually the end of a “Christological development.”

            Miller essentially bases this thesis on John’s literary style.  First, Miller points out both the frequency and the manner with which John uses Christological terminology.  According to Miller, the terms logos and rhema are used with such frequency that, “we must, then, be struck at once by this writer’s penchant for the word ‘word.’”  Miller also argues, though, that “it is not just a matter of the frequency with which ‘word’ or ‘words’ occurs in this Gospel but, more important, the manner in which they occur.  Not only are they concentrated at the center of the Johannine picture of Jesus; they function with an immediate significance for that picture.” 

            This, of course, finds corroboration with other scholars writing on John’s penchant for both literary variation and Christological imagery.  More than a denotative deconstruction and mechanical analysis, John wants to produce a connotative web of ideas that would come to mind at the mention of any one of many key terms.  Bruce elucidates the principle as it is at work in John’s use of antithesis, “Our Evangelist delights to use contrasting terms; good and evil, love and hatred, life and death, salvation and judgment, light and darkness, truth and falsehood.  The positive terms in these antithetical pairs are largely interchangeable – good, love, life, salvation, light, truth.”  Miller’s proposition is that ‘word’ be added to this list of interchangeable terms in John as also having “Christological transparency,” demonstrating that the “word” in all of its cognates pervades John’s Gospel.  Miller asks some rather poignant questions in defense of his point:

            Aside from the relatively few instances in which these terms bear an ordinary and limited meaning, do they not otherwise strive to point beyond themselves to a “Word?”  Do they not seem to be a sort of splashover from the pervasive theme of the Gospel, the divine revelation in Christ?  Do they not seem at every turn, on every page, in a variety of ways,       to point the reader to the saving truth that is in and is Christ?

Therefore, Miller’s argument seems self-perpetuating.  He believes that the prologue represents the most recent edition out of the Gospel, first epistle, and prologue, because the language of the prologue demonstrates the mature or evolved sense of Logos.  Consequently, the origin of the Logos as a Christological title is found within the Johannine corpus, and not necessarily some extant tradition as evidenced by John’s penchant for the “word” as a theological concept.

            Aside from Miller’s theory, there have been at least four common explanations for the origin and meaning of logos in the prologue of John’s Gospel, and each of them looks outside of the Johannine literature for a source from which John presumably borrowed.  First, the Old Testament use of the word dābār, “which represents the word of God as eternal, creative, sustaining, healing, redemptive, prophetic, etc., and as increasingly hypostatized and personified as it passed as the Greek logos, into the wisdom literature.”  Second, is the later Jewish construct for wisdom, Sophia that serves as a personification of the “first of God’s creations and the attendant craftsman in all subsequent creation.”  Third, some see the logos of Greek philosophy of Heraclitus, Epicharmus, and the Stoics, “which employed logos to mean the divine Reason which pervades and controls all things in such a way as to produce beauty, harmony, an unity of the whole.”  Finally, scholars also point to Gnostic sources that saw the Word as an emissary between the physical and metaphysical realms, though these claims are dismissed nearly out of hand.

            Consequently, if the prologue of John’s Gospel constitutes the “end” of John’s Christological development, then the placement of the prologue’s authorship on the Johannine timeline limits the scope of influences on the use of Logos.  More importantly, the place of the prologue within the Johannine literature contextualizes the development of John’s Christology within the Christian community and serves to further demonstrate the unique nature of John’s Gospel among the Synoptics.  Indeed, Miller concedes this in his conclusion, “the Johannine origin of Logos, the Johannine christological title par excellence, underscores the relative independence and originality of this Gospel.”

The Appropriate Utilization and Value of an Apophatic Reading

            John’s Logos serves as a sophisticated theological concept that has long been understood within both incarnational and spiritual contexts.  However, given the rather subjective history of attributing source material and subsequent meaning to John’s use of the term Logos in the prologue, three things should be reiterated in making the case for what will prove to be not only a traditional rendering of the Christological title, but also one that seems to have fallen out of favor with modern scholars.  First, the disquietude felt over allowing one interpretive framework to dictate the shape of Johannine literature is justified.  Just as many scholars have pointed to the fact that John planned his Gospel to be an independent voice proclaiming the anointed role and divine nature of Christ, the Johannine literature has defied clean taxonomical organization.  It is important, then, that the history of Johannine interpretation have a large say in the future of Johannine interpretation, and the utility that the Christian community has always played in that interpretation ought to be sought out again. 

            Second, John’s sacramental view of history ought to be kept in tension with modern understandings of his vision concerning why the Logos came.  There is ample scholarship to demonstrate that the incarnational tone of the prologue echoes John’s broader sacramental notions of Christ’s presence in the midst of the darkness as the light.  There seems to be thematic and theological harmony in the fact that many of the scholars under present discussion have ratified the notion that the prologue to John’s Gospel may have functioned as an early liturgical hymn.  There can be little doubt that John’s sacramental theology and an appropriate understanding of the Logos becoming flesh are intimately linked.

            Third, there can also be little doubt that some scholars, though erudite and in possession of proven records, have come into a place of dogmatism concerning not only critical methodology but also theologically viable understandings of the Johannine corpus.  Miller’s entire article has an undertone of facetious shock at how novel it might be to actually see John’s own work as the source of the theological force behind the Logos.  This kind of stale environment surrounding what has become the dogmatism of critical scholarship, even as it is adapted by more conservative Protestant scholars, warrants the exploration of another option.  In fact, these are precisely the conditions under which negative theology has historically driven the spiritually efficacious orthopraxy of previous generations.

            Negative or Apophatic Theology has not only been historically relevant, but can also be traced back to explicit biblical foundations according to Paul Rorem who explains,

“My thoughts are not your thoughts,” says Isaiah’s Lord (Isa 55:9).  The divine is invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible; these are all negations stemming from recognition of divine transcendence.  Early authors such as Justin, Ireneaus, Clement, and Origen of Alexandria built their theologies on these foundations.  God by definition   transcends our words, concepts, and capacities, such that all affirmations must be qualified and only negations are entirely true.

Many of these historical figures, incidentally, have also proven instrumental in demonstrating the canonical authority, historical veracity, and theological profundity of the Johannine corpus.  Kenney explains that our representation of reality develops into a dimensionless theory because, “we lose sight of the divine whenever we accept as final or complete any conceptual representation of it.  The true object of religious devotion and theological attention is not contained in the formulas of its representation, however authoritative or conceptually exact; rather it exceeds all finite capacity for conceptual similitude.”  Consequently, there has been a long struggle to understand the intent of John in some complete conceptual representation since historical-critical methods gained their popularity, but there may be negative elements endemic to the prologue of John’s Gospel that are more helpful.

            First, it is important to note that both Rorem and Kenney are quite clear about the fact that Negative (Apophatic) Theology remains irrevocably tied to affirmations, especially those inherent in Scripture, because there must first be something to negate.  While Apophatic Theology is appropriately associated with mystic traditions and a pursuit of the divine presence, its means are not directed to the result of “mystical experience as such, but the combination of a firmly critical sensibility, recalcitrant to all theological dogmatism, with a strengthened awareness of divine presence.”  It is in this sense that an Apophatic rendering of the Logos is warranted.  In light of the fact that the prologue of John has historically been experienced within the pursuit of the divine presence through the incarnation, we can see the valuable application of an Apophatic perspective.

            Second, it is important also to note that Apophatic Theology does not usurp or supplant theological orthodoxy.  Such has been the fear surrounding not only the general mention of mystical elements within theology, but also specific mystic claims about the Johannine literature.  Not only is there room for orthodoxy, even dogmatism, within Apophatic theology, but the “efficacy of negative theology is proportional to the strength of the theological assertions that it serves to deny.”  However, demonstrating concern that a thing does not exceed its appropriate influence and ignoring it all together are different propositions; and certainly using the former as justification of the latter feels intellectually dishonest at the least.  As Kenney concludes, he explains that the relative success of any Apophatic theology will vary within religious traditions and their respective schools of thought in orthodoxy; but the situation “suggests a distinction between two sorts of orthodoxy: ‘authoritarian dogmatism’ which demands obeisance to formulas and those who authorize them, and ‘definitional dogmatism,’ which seeks to set down and clarify beliefs.”

            There remains to be seen how an Apophatic Theology can adequately and accurately inform an understanding of the Christological title, Logos, as it is utilized in the prologue to John’s Gospel.  As Rorem and Kenney have suggested, such an Apophasis would rely heavily on the kind of robust kataphatic orthodoxy that has been here explicated.  Consequently, Rorem offers the Incarnational Apophatic of Maximus the Confessor, who understands the Logos from the negation that concludes the text of the prologue: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18).  Maximus explains:

The knowledge of [God the Word] himself in his essence and personhood remains inaccessible to all angels and men alike and he can in no way be known by anyone.  But St. John, initiated as perfectly as humanly possible into the meaning of the Word’s incarnation, claims that he has seen the glory of the Word as flesh, that is, he saw the   reason or the plan for which God became man, full of grace and truth.  For it was not as    God by essence, consubstantial to God the Father, that the only-begotten Son gave this grace, but as having in the incarnation become man by nature, and consubstantial to us, that he bestows grace on us who have need of it.

So, it is in John’s own terms that we find that Negation leads the reader to the incarnate Christ.  Rorem explains, “For Maximus, the Apophatic recognition of God’s transcendence does not lead to endless progress as it does for Gregory, or directly to union with the unknown God as it does for Dionysius, but rather to Christ as the incarnate revelation of God.”

            Surely, though the previous negation of the prologue does not now escape our attention.  The initial negation is linked to an even clearer indication that the Logos in John’s Gospel not only finds its origin in the Johannine corpus as Miller suggests, but also points to the mystery of the identity of the transcendent that has become tangible.  John writes, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3).  Clearly, if the negation of the eighteenth verse demonstrates the incarnate Christ, then the negation of the third verse demonstrates the pre-existent Logos.


One Comment

  1. Shawn,

    I don’t have time quite yet to read the whole thing, especially as I should very much like to read the full essay – as Reed has said, I like to punish myself with my reading.

    I thought that I might point you to an essay of ++Rowan Williams’ in his “Anglican Identities” book about “Anglican Interpretations of St. John’s Gospel.” A great essay. Apparently there have been several important examinations of the 4th Gospel by Anglicans, Westcott’s in particular is a classic.


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