There is sufficient light for those who desire to see, and there is sufficient darkness for those of a contrary disposition.
At the dawn of the seventeenth century, the Western world was experiencing one of the most profound paradigm shifts in scientific and philosophic intellectual history. With the overthrow of the ancient Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology, Copernicus and Galileo had prevailed in the arena of astronomy by demonstrating the theory of heliocentrism, Francis Bacon had laid the groundwork for a new scientific epistemology (i.e., the scientific method), and Rene Descartes, impressed by strict mathematical deductive logic, rejected the a priori assumptions of the medieval Scholastic philosophers and instead set forth a new methodological process of arriving at philosophic truth. Essentially, Descartes' method emphasized a subjective approach, beginning with his classic dictum, "Cogito, ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"), thus rejecting the presuppositional acceptance of certain objective theistic assertions. So, clearly, although theism had not yet been denied, this new shift in epistemological methodology would clearly predict the ascent of reason, which, of course, would culminate during the era of the Enlightenment, or Age of Reason, in the eighteenth century. Thus, it was at the threshold of this new era, marked by the Copernican revolution and Cartesian epistemology that the spirit of skepticism and freethinking would be born - the sword had been unsheathed, and a fire had been kindled which would eventually explode into a war of worldviews, a war that we even witness today, i.e., the war between theism (revelation and reason) and philosophical naturalism (reason alone).
Blaise Pascal was born in Clermont, France in 1623, Clermont being the city from where Pope Urban II launched the First Crusade in 1095. In addition to the intellectual changes which were occurring in Pascal's world, Europe was experiencing profound religious transformation as well as political chaos. This was the era of the post-Reformation when the religious unity of medieval Christendom had been shattered, and the violence of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) would leave the old Holy Roman Empire in utter desolation, with many cities and villages, once prosperous in agriculture and industry, now razed to the ground, their memory smoldering in the ashes of their remains. So whereas the intellectual spirit of man was thriving and going through marked evolutive change, the essential nature of man still appeared unchanged, arrested by its innate tendency toward divisiveness and destruction, imprisoned in the dungeon of its own depravity.
Now although the societal context in which Pascal lived was one of heightened volatility, the young Blaise was reared in a very stable, upper-class environment, his father Etienne being a principal financial magistrate who once contended with the infamous Cardinal Richelieu, the chief prime minister of Louis XIII. Tragically, however, the young Pascal's mother died when he was only three, and his years of infancy would be plagued by illness, something that would haunt him throughout his entire life. Nevertheless, Etienne Pascal was a capable father who, with the help of his daughters, Gilberte and Jacqueline, would sustain the young Blaise and then impel him into a career of intellectual magnificence. Essentially, Etienne Pascal was an ingenious man who was not only an able financial magistrate, but he was well versed in mathematics, ancient languages, Greek literature, and the art of poetry. Yet as a freethinker, he was critical of contemporary pedagogical methods, so he decided to take the matter of his son's education into his own hands, and true to his commitment. Etienne did not fail.
Beginning at a very early age, the young Pascal began to display extraordinary signs of intellectual prowess. Whether or not the story is true, that the twelve-year-old Blaise discovered complex geometrical principles on his own, it is certain that the young Pascal was a child prodigy and savant who excelled in the disciplines of mathematics and physics. At age sixteen he wrote a treatise on conic sections - i.e., circles, ellipses, and parabolas which are formed when a cone is intersected by a plane - his essay would be published in the following year. Shortly thereafter, Pascal would invent a digital calculating machine which would aid his father in the assessment of taxes, and in subsequent years, his experiments on atmospheric pressure and the possibility of a vacuum (something that Descartes claimed could not exist) would astonish the scientific intelligentsia. In addition to these achievements, Pascal would continue to make important contributions in the fields of mathematics and physics, especially with regard to probability theory and hydrodynamics (a branch of physics that deals with the forces produced by water and other fluids). Needless to say, Pascal would be universally acclaimed for his innumerable and timeless contributions to the disciplines of mathematics and science.
In the year 1646, however, Pascal would begin a spiritual journey that would possess his mind and occupy his soul until his tragic death at the young age of thirty-nine in 1662. And during this period in his life, "Pascal the mathematician and physicist" would become "Pascal the apologist and philosopher." Though he never abandoned his scientific experiments, he nevertheless consecrated his work to the glory of God and began to focus his penetrating mind on philosophical and theological pursuits.
It was in January of 1646 when his father had severely injured his leg that two profoundly religious men came to care for the ailing Etienne - thus, Blaise would be deeply impressed by the degree of Christian charity and spirituality that these two men evoked. Since these men were Jansenists, a movement within Roman Catholicism that was based on the teachings of Cornelius Jansenius (1585-1638), bishop of Ypres and author of the controversial work Augustinus, it seemed natural for Pascal to be drawn initially toward the Jansenist school of thought. Essentially, Jansenism resurrected the ancient Pelagian Controversy, a theological debate in the ancient church (ca. 400) between Augustine and Pelagius over the issues of grace, free will, and original sin. In contrast to the Jesuit teaching that grace is effective when the recipient assents and cooperates with God through free will, Jansenius taught that grace is wholly unmerited and therefore granted to the recipient by God through predestination. Thus, the ideas proposed by Jansenius were in the tradition of Augustinian thought, and not unlike those of John Calvin. Nevertheless, his central propositions were declared heretical by Pope Innocent X in 1653, but the firestorm of controversy would continue to rage on for some time. And in the midst of this theological conflict, Blaise Pascal would enter the arena as a philosophical thinker and polemicist par excellence.
On Monday, November 23, 1654, the Feast of St. Clement, Pascal experienced a profound spiritual awakening and conversion that he described in terms of mystical illumination. Prior to that fateful night of the 23rd, Pascal had taken the Roman Catholic ritual quite seriously, especially since he experienced the profound religiosity of the two Jansenist brethren who cared for his father in 1646; nevertheless, Pascal was plagued by spiritual distress and despair - he still felt as if he hadn't yet experienced true communion with God. So at the height of his struggle, while he was yearning and hungering for a deep interpersonal relationship with the God who seemed to evade him, or the "hidden God" as he later referred to the Supreme Being, Pascal's spirit was filled with immense grace and glory, as the "hidden God" determined to reveal Himself to the earnest seeker through a profound spiritual experience. Later, Pascal would relate his mystical experience with the following words:
"From about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve, FIRE - God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certitude, certitude. Heartfelt joy, peace. God of Jesus Christ. My God and thy God. Thy God shall be my God" (This text is from what is called the Memorial, a piece of parchment which was sewn into the lining of Pascal's coat).
It was at this point, then, that Pascal dedicated himself entirely to God and sought to serve the Divine Master with austerity and rigor. With the same degree of penetrating ingenuity that he had applied to his mathematic and scientific pursuits, Pascal now immersed himself in the study of Scripture and the Church Fathers, and it was not uncommon for him to turn to Protestant and rabbinical sources as well.
During the years 1655-57, Pascal, who sympathized with the Jansenist cause, articulated a powerful defense of certain Jansenist ideas and articulated a powerful polemic against the Jesuits in what has come to be known as the Lettres Provinciales. Writing anonymously in order to avoid imprisonment, Pascal essentially attacked the contemporary moral theology of the Jesuits. As the Jesuit scholar and historian of philosophy, Frederick Copleston indicates, "Pascal regarded the casuistry (the application of moral principles to particular cases) of the moral theologians as evidence of moral laxity and as an unjustifiable attempt to make Christianity easier for the more or less worldly-minded."  In this regard, Pascal greatly respected and identified with the seriousness of Jansenist Christianity, although he never fully identified himself with any sect, so it would be an error to speak of Pascal as a committed Jansenist. Nevertheless, Pascal's polemical pen flagellated the Jesuits and caused them considerable aggravation.
As the great thinker was unwittingly entering into the final phase of his life (1657-62), he took it upon himself to prepare An Apology for the Christian Religion, a work which would be written with the intent of converting skeptics and freethinkers. With his years of intimate experience among the intelligentsia of his time, and with his penetrative ingenuity, Pascal was certainly proven for such a monumental work - however, fate would have it that the great Pascal would be cut down in his prime at the young age of thirty-nine, and the world would be left with about a thousand of his maxims, aphorisms, philosophical insights, and notes, later to be compiled into a work called Pensees (lit. "Thoughts"). Although the philosophical world would have been much richer with a systematic apologetic work by Pascal, scholars have nevertheless been able to glean from his writings his essential philosophical and theological position, a rather unique apologetic approach from which contemporary Christian thinkers can learn volumes,
So, now let us approach the question regarding Pascal's philosophical contribution. Why was his thought so unique, and why has his perspective transcended the centuries? Ironically, Pascal's philosophic insight differed greatly from the thinkers of his time. For instance, whereas Descartes, who was also a mathematician of great repute, reasoned that mathematical principles could serve as the paradigm for inferring philosophic knowledge , Pascal regarded Descartes' exaltation of mathematical sovereignty as overly ambitious and useless with regard to philosophical and theological applications. And here lies the wonder of Pascal. In contrast to his contemporaries who had elevated science and mathematics to an ascendant level, the philosophical genius of Pascal was that throughout his career as a mathematician and physicist, he had plunged the very depths of reason to such a degree that only a handful of thinkers in the course of human civilization could be ranked with him. And because he deeply penetrated the very depths of reason to a point which was beyond the common reach of man, he therefore recognized the limitations of reason. He had journeyed to its very perimeter, and he thus perceived that there was no traversing beyond that point. Before him stood an unsurpassable chasm; and though he realized that the truth regarding ultimate reality awaited on the other side, he knew that not he, nor anyone else, could pass over the unsurpassable chasm. Thus, he dismissed the omnicompetence of reason and instead recognized the finitude of man's potential intellect. In one of his famous quotes from his Pensees, he humbly concedes the finitude of his own reason - and ironically it is reason herself, which he has met face to face, who instructs him as to her limitations. In one of his honest encounters with uncertainty, he wrote:
"I do not know who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I am myself I am terribly ignorant about everything I don't know what my body is, or my senses, or my soul, or even that part of me which thinks what I am saying, which reflects about everything and about itself, and does not know itself any better than it knows anything else. I see the terrifying spaces of the universe hemming me in, and I find myself attached to one corner of this vast expanse without knowing why I have been put in this place rather than that . . . All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least about is this very death which I cannot evade. Just as I do not know whence I come, so I do not know whither I am going All I can know is that when I leave this world I shall fall forever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God, but I do not know which of these two states is to be my eternal lot." (emphasis mine) Pensees 427
This spirit of uncertainty regarding the omnicompetence of reason, contrary to modern positivistic and naturalistic notions, is actually indicative of the humility of other great thinkers such as Socrates, who has served as the paradigmatic thinker for intellectual modesty and careful epistemology ever since the Greek classical era (ca. 400 BC). Thus, echoing Socrates, Pascal recognized his own limitations (despite his magnificent academic achievements which were based on reason alone), and in so doing, he anticipated the thought of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Kierkegaard, too, was reluctant to build an ambitious rationalistic system, and like Pascal, he perfectly understood the apparent ambiguity of God, and the importance of faith in the Christian life: "I contemplate the order of nature in finding God, and I see omnipotence and wisdom; but I also see much else that disturbs my mind and excites anxiety. The sum of all this is an objective uncertainty." (emphasis mine). Nevertheless, despite these realizations of the ambiguity of God, both Pascal and Kierkegaard, rather that seeing uncertainty as a weak link in an apologetic system, perceived such ambiguities as "that which must be," especially if we stand by the assertion that God is wholly transcendent and unfathomable (Rom 11:33 // Isa 55:8-9), apart from his own determined self-revelation.
Notwithstanding our discussion of Pascal's concept of God's ambiguity, the great thinker did in fact integrate an undeniable existential principle into his system which was, at the same time, both similar and dissimilar to the assertion of Descartes. Simply whereas Descartes argued that self-existence ("Cogito, ergo sum") was the key pillar upon which man must erect all subsequent knowledge, Pascal argued that it was in fact "the end of self-existence" (i.e., death) with which man must concern himself primarily and ultimately. For Pascal, knowledge and acclaim in life were future if man disregarded this essential existential problem:
"Nothing is so important to man as his state: nothing more fearful than eternity. Thus the fact that there exist men who are indifferent to the loss of their being and peril of an eternity of wretchedness is against nature. With everything else they are quite different. they fear the most trifling things, foresee and feel them; and the same man who spends so many days and nights in fury and despair at losing some office or at some-imaginary affront to his honor is the very one who knows that he is going to lose everything through death but feels neither anxiety nor emotion. It is a monstrous thing to see one and the same heart once so sensitive to minor things and so strangely insensitive to the greatest. An inevitable death, which threatens us at every moment, must infallibly in a few years face us with the inescapable and appalling alternative of being annihilated or wretched for all eternity." Pensees 427, 432
For Pascal, then, the shadow of death loomed large, and the idea of facing eternity without knowing one's destiny was simply a burden to wearisome to bear -- the stakes were simply too high. Thus, Pascal articulated his famous Wager-argument, which essentially set forth the idea that the Christian has nothing to lose (even if he is mistaken), while the atheist has everything to lose (if he is mistaken). The most reasonable position, then, would be for one to place his wager on the existence of God, since there is nothing to lose one way or the other. And the sensual pleasures he might sacrifice in his devotion to God, would simply be reciprocated by the peace of mind, joy, and harmonious living which would be the product of his devotional life. Interestingly, Pascal did not offer his Wager-argument as a conventional proof of the existence of God, but rather as a challenge to those skeptics and atheists who were unconvinced by the traditional arguments and thus remained comfortably in a state of "suspended judgment." As for Pascal, he placed his wager on the existence of God, and he found his perfect hope in the person of Jesus Christ.
At one o'clock in the morning, on the 19th of August 1662, Blaise Pascal breathed his last, his final words being, "May God never abandon me." Throughout his life he had struggled with chronic ill-health, yet as he approached the bitter end, his condition worsened to the point that he suffered terribly and tragically. There was nothing heroic about the death of Pascal - no glory or martyrdom by which he would be remembered. Nothing but a slow, progressively, gruesome disease which would consume his life at a time when the great thinker, in the eyes of man, should have been soaring through the heavens with the intellectual gifts that God had granted him. Yet perhaps this is part of the enigma of Pascal - the profound mystery. For, why would God bestow upon a young child such gifts of extraordinary magnitude, and then at the prime age of thirty nine precisely at a point when the young man would be writing a powerful systematic defense of the Christian faith - why would God snatch away his very soul? Why? Well, perhaps if Pascal could speak to us today, he would simply say that it was all part of the ambiguity of God . . . part of the uncertainty which God has purposed in His creation in order that men might come to Him through "faith," rather than simply through intellectual assent, for as the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews teaches us, "without faith it is impossible to please Him" (Heb 11:6). Thus, it was in the realm of such faith that the great Pascal attained his communion with God . . . Transcending the idea of reason alone, the great philosopher recognized that God had purposed a degree of ambiguity in His creation in order that He might discover the faithfulness of the heart, rather than the certitude of the mind.
"Acknowledge the truth of religion in its very obscurity . . . for it is not true that everything reveals God, and it is not true that everything conceals God. But it is true at once that he hides from those who tempt Him and that He reveals Himself to those who seek Him." Pensees 439, 444
1. John A. Mackay's "Forward" in Emille Cailliet, The Clue to Pascal (Philadelphia: Westminster Press), 1943, p. 10.
2. Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy - Vol. 4, Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Leibniz (New York: Doubleday), 1963, p. 156.
3. Ibid., p. 155.
4. Antony Flew, "Rene Descartes" in A Dictionary of Philosophy (New York: St Martin's Press), 1979.
5. Plato, Plato's Apology, trans. by Benjamin Jowett (New York: Simon and Schuster), 1928.
6. Soren Kierkegaard, "Concluding Unscientific Postscript," quoted by Copleston in A History of Philosophy - Vol 7, p. 346
7. Copleston, A History of Philosophy - Vol. 4, p. 169.
Perhaps this shattered dream is best represented by the story of Beethoven and Napoleon, a story which seems to encapsulate the death of political idealism in nineteenth century Europe. As the story goes, Beethoven, though not a political man, but a grand admirer of Napoleon as an apostle of revolutionary ideals, dedicated his Third Symphony (Sinfonia Eroica) to the French general, inscibing "Buonaparte" at the very top of the manuscript's title page. However, in 1804 when the orchestral master heard that Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame, Beethoven flew into a rage and said, "Now too he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge in his own ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men and become a tyrant!"3 Infuriated, the master stormed to the table upon which his work of art lay, and tore the title page into shreds, the name of "Buonaparte" being committed to the hearth and flame. The resulting imperialism of Napoleon, then, would cause much dismay and disillusionment in the hearts of the European people; the intellectual edifice of Romanticism was doomed to collapse and a new context was being formed in which a new philosophy might emerge -- indeed, the philosophy of existentialism.
Perhaps more than any other system of thought, the existential worldview is dependent on the socio-cultural context of the age. Unlike any form of transcendental idealism, existentialism envelops and engages troubled civilization, responding to the predicament of the existing individual. Thus, we can say that existentialism is a philosophy which is attentive to the anguish, aspirations, and needs of the people, a philosophy which moves the existent to realize his "ultimate concern,"4 and thus attain an authentic existence. So, when we reflect upon the societal conditions which prevailed in post-Napoleonic Europe, and then take into consideration the fact that rationalism and higher criticism had already contributed greatly to the erosion of biblical authority, it is not difficult to see how the philosophy of existentialism could have taken root, even though it would not flourish until the twentieth century.
In truth, a concrete definition of existentialism is elusive, indeed a difficult assignment. For, it is not a philosophical system or school of thought per se, nor can it be reduced to a series of propositional truths or tenets. Furthermore, the philosophers which are identified as existentialists are thinkers who differ on the essentials; thus, existential thinkers should not be viewed categorically, but rather on a continuum which spans a wide range of thought. For this reason, then, we find within existentialism such Christian thinkers as Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard on one end of the spectrum, and such atheists as Nietzsche and Sartre on the other end.5 But what is common among existential thinkers is an attitude of revolt against traditional paradigms of thought, especially the epistemological and ontological structures offered in institutionalized Christianity and systematic philosophical idealism (e.g. Platonism or Hegelianism). Rather than viewing reality and existence from an objective rationalistic perspective, existentialism makes precedent the individual's subjective presence and participation in the changing world order.6 Truth is never realized by an a priori assent to a systematic worldview, but by the existent's dialectical interaction with the dynamics of the life situation. The meditative individual contemplates his finitude in the seeming void of the infinite, and endeavors to understand his relation to the world in order that he might attain some form of "authentic existence." Thus, through his own freedom and volition, the individual shapes his own existence, an existence which is part of abstract reality, but not necessarily dependent on it. Thus, authentic existence means that one must become more and more an individual and less and less a member of the "herd," or common humanity. Essentially, then, this is what is meant by the common existential refrain, "existence precedes essence." In sum, this is existentialism.
In the text of this paper, we will explore the ideas of one of the pioneers of existential thought, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-55). Although we will allude to various aspects of his existential philosophy, our primary focus will be concerned with his distinct approach to Christianity against the backdrop of nineteenth century nominalism which prevailed in the Danish State Church as well as in Protestant Christianity in general. Soren Kierkegaard was a passionate thinker, sometimes eccentric, and sometimes cynical, who vigorously opposed "Christendom" in its nominal form. In doing so, he served as the prototypical thinker for future existentialists in their polemic against any form of institutionalized nominalism, whether religious, academic, social, or otherwise. Yet although Kierkegaard has been deemed the "father of existentialism" by many contemporary thinkers, it is doubtful that he would have recognized his own ideas in many of the twentieth century existential writings.
At any rate, Kierkegaard's purpose was to awaken the masses from their passive spiritual slumber; and, in his mind, he even sacrificed his marital commitment to Regina Olsen in order to serve God for the sake of this higher principle. He truly believed that Christianity could address the individual existential concerns of the people; but true Christianity, for Kierkegaard, would come with a price. According to his way of thinking, in the early centuries of Christianity, becoming a Christian meant sacrifice and separation from the world, indeed renouncing the ways of the kosmos and following Christ in a continual state of self-surrender, even in the face of scorn and ridicule. In Kierkegaard's day, however, as well as in any era of nominalism, becoming a Christian meant conformity to social principles which were thought to have been derived from Christianity. Thus, in the Danish-Lutheran society, everyone was a Christian. And as Kierkegaard argued in his Attack Upon Christendom, "If all men are Christians, then Christianity eo ipso does not exist."7 Thus, according to Kierkegaard, Christianity had been reduced to a meaningless and irrelevant system which was wholly foreign to its true original form as preserved in the New Testament. Rather than propagating Christian truth (as was supposed), the church was simply contributing to the abolition of authentic Christianity.
As one would expect, because of his countercultural views, Soren Kierkegaard was made the object of scorn and ridicule in the Danish state press. Thus, he was relatively unknown in his own day, unrewarded and unappreciated as a philosophical thinker. Like many of the great minds in history, he simply transcended the age in which he lived. Yet in retrospect, we can see that his philosophical and psychological penetration of the human spirit was so profound that the twentieth century zeitgeist would altogether be different without his important literary contributions.
"The stone which was rolled before Christ's tomb might
appropriately be called 'the philosopher's stone' because its
removal gave not only the Pharisees but, now for 1800 years,
the philosophers so much to think about."8
Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen, Denmark in 1813, and it seemed that tragedy would grip his family all the days of his life. By the time he was twenty-one, two of his sisters, a brother, and his mother had all died, and Soren himself would only life to the age of forty-one. Whether one would attribute such tragedy to his father, who as a young boy cursed God for seemingly condemning him to a life of obscurity on the shepherd plains of the Jutland Heath,9 or whether one would attribute such sickliness and frailty to a genetic abnormality which infected the Kierkegaard family, the fact remains that though Soren lived a short life, his proficient mind and prolific pen produced an abundance of ideas, which have earned their place in the bibliotheca of human thought.
In the mind of Kierkegaard, the rationalism which resulted from Enlightenment thinking was nothing short of repugnant. Most of all, he abhorred the philosophy of Hegel, a philosophy which could be regarded as one of the most ambitious systematic philosophies ever devised by the mind of one man.10 Not that Kierkegaard was irreverent toward the great idealistic thinker; indeed, by no means. Kierkegaard recognized the immensity and magnitude of the Hegelian achievement. But as Frederick Copleston has indicated, this was precisely the problem with the Hegelian system according to Kierkegaard. "Kierkegaard regarded Hegel as the greatest of all speculative philosophers and as a thinker who achieved a stupendous intellectual 'tour de force.'"11 Problematic for Kierkegaard, however, was that Hegelian philosophy was a "gigantic 'tour de force' and nothing more."12 It pretended to be a transcendent philosophy which could objectively discern and define all of reality -- indeed, an effort of Promethean fortitude -- but for Kierkegaard, though the Hegelian system sought to encapsulate all of reality within an objective, abstract system, Hegel neglected one very important fact, namely, the "individual existent" and his dynamic interaction within the all-comprehensive reality. Thus, with some cynicism, Kierkegaard wrote, "If Hegel had written his whole 'Logic' and in the Preface had disclosed the fact that it was merely a thought-experiment, he would have been the greatest thinker that has ever lived. Now he is a comic."13
Most importantly, however, what aggravated Kierkegaard the most was that the Hegelian ethos had been superimposed upon the Danish State Church (and Protestantism in general), and had thus reinforced the spirit of nominalism within the church. Of course, Hegel's primary effort was directed at resolving the Kantian distinction between the phenomenal and the noumenal realms,14 the solution being a progressive dialectic between the two which would result in a synthesis of theological and philosophical postulates -- or as some contemporary scholars have asserted, a transformation of the Christian mythos into a philosophical/contemporary understanding.15 Practically, however, Christianity became equated with Christendom (or institutionalized nominalism), the criterion of faith being an assent to the ethical principles of the universal Christian system.
For Kierkegaard, however, this gross nominalism presented a critical problem which had to be overcome if authentic Christianity was to have any practical realism. Within the Hegelian paradigm, there was no place for an individual dynamic faith, i.e. a subjective faith that was elementary to the authentic Christian life.16 Christendom was simply a "prodigious illusion" which distorted and masked the true essence of the Christian kerygma. As Kierkegaard himself noted in his Point of View:
"What does it mean that all these thousands and thousands call themselves Christians as a matter of course? These many, men, of whom the greater part, so far as one can judge, live in categories quite foreign to Christianity! People who never think about God, never mention his name except in oaths . . . Yet all these people are all called Christians, call themselves Christians, are recognized as Christians by the State, are buried as Christians by the Church, are certified as Christians for eternity!"17
Thus, according to Kierkegaard, most of the people within Christendom were not really true Christians, i.e. disciples of Jesus Christ. Indeed, as Kierkegaard argued in his Training in Christianity, if these people (whether minister, philosopher, or statesman) had lived contemporaneous with Christ, they certainly would not have comprised his following, but rather, his opposition. In reality, they were simply the heirs of 1,800 years of Christian civilization (i.e. "the upshot"),18 and "they live(d) in aesthetic, or at most, in aesthetic-ethical categories" (a subject to which we will allude in later discussion).19 For Kierkegaard, then, the great sea of nominalism in which the Church was immersed in his day resulted not in the propagation of Christian truth (as was commonly believed), but rather, in the abolition of authentic Christianity. The "faith that was once and for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3) had been reduced to a superficial triviality; it had been diffused among the passive recipients of mediocrity, and had thus come "dangerously close to sanctioning the Christian faith with the spirit of worldliness."20
In sum, then, the key question for the Danish thinker was, "How can one become a Christian if everybody is already a Christian?" Spoken another way, "How can one preach Christianity to those who presume to be Christians?" Kierkegaard was no fool, however. He recognized the near impossibility of resolving such a socio-spiritual problem. As he wrote in 1848, "Once in a while there appears a religious enthusiast: he storms against Christendom, he vociferates and makes a loud noise, denouncing almost all as not being Christians, yet he accomplishes nothing . . . and illusion is not an easy thing to dispel."21
Despite this, however, Kierkegaard viewed himself as the one who would "storm against Christendom" and expose the institutionalized nominalism which prevailed within the Danish State Church. In articulating authentic Christianity, he would build his system upon three pillars, namely, (1) the idea of the Three Spheres of Existence(i.e. the aesthetic, ethical, and religious) as set forth in his Stages on Life's Way, (2) his doctrine of Christ's invitation to the individual in Training in Christianity with the inherent "paradox" and "offense" associated with true faith in Christ -- the paradox and offense being the concept of "theanthropos," and finally (3) the so-called "leap of faith" which begins precisely where logical, systematic thinking leaves off. Essentially, then these are the three pillars upon which the Kierkegaardian "system" is built. Thus, it is within this core of his philosophy in which his developed ideas are contextualized and properly understood.
Because of the brevity of this essay, in the following pages we will focus primarily on the first pillar, i.e. the Three Spheres of Existence, or "Stages on Life's Way."
The Three Spheres of Existence
In the spring of 1845, Kierkegaard wrote his Stages on Life's Way, a work which ponders the question, "How should a human being exist?" Reminiscent of Plato's Symposium, the question is addressed from different perspectives by various fictional characters who have been invited to a banquet. (In the Symposium the issue of discussion was the "meaning of love"). In this work, though, Kierkegaard (through his fictional characters) delineates three spheres of existence or realms, namely the "aesthetic, ethical, and the religious."22 Contrary to Hegel's triadic logical progression (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) which leads to the individual's greater metaphysical understanding,23 Kierkegaard's concern is the psycho-spiritual growth of the individual personality through a series of triadic stages.
The first stage, or aesthetical sphere of existence, is concerned with the sensual world of gratification, pleasure, and worldly pursuits. It is the realm in which man feeds his impulses and emotions, excluding from the forefront of his consciousness "fixed universal standards" and "religious faith."24 As Copleston observes, "Open to all emotional and sense experience, sampling the nectar from every flower, he hates all that would limit his field of choice and he never gives definite form to his life."25 It must be said, however, at this point, that Kierkegaard does not mean to equate aestheticism to mere hedonism, although hedonism would certainly be included in the aesthetic category. Rather, the Kierkegaardian concept of the "aesthetic level of existence" would include primarily, in the Epicurean sense, a priority of immediate self-fulfillment in apposition to some form of loyalty to a supreme universal law. Accordingly, then, the aesthete discovers no contentment in his self-absorbed pursuits (resulting in "despair") and is thus faced with a critical "choice," indeed an "Either/Or," i.e. whether to remain in the aesthetical sphere of existence (what Kierkegaard metaphorically regards as "the cellar,"26 never attaining any form of "authentic existence."
Nevertheless, some men realize the futility of living in the aesthetical sphere, and thus "choose" to proceed to a life of duty, commitment, and morality -- indeed, the second "stage on life's way," the ethical sphere of existence. Whereas the aesthetical stage is typified by the passionate Don Juan, who in European myth (e.g. Mozart's Don Giovanni) lived a life of immediate satisfaction in every situation, the ethical stage is typified by Socrates, a man who though it his duty to pursue a life of virtue in obedience to a universal principle.27 The ethical man, then, accepts universal moral principles and assents to a higher law, thus giving "form and consistency to his life."28 In Kierkegaardian thought, the idea of transition, i.e. of a man who moves from the aesthetic to the ethical level of existence, can be found in the analogy of a man who renounces mere sexual impulses and the convenience of non-commitment and instead enters into a state of marriage, thus making a lifelong covenant with his lover according to the dictates of a higher universal law.29 Accordingly, he has moved from the aesthetic into the ethical sphere of existence, and has thus progressed toward an authentic form of existence.
In the ethical life of duty and commitment, the existent pursues a life of virtue and moral assent to the universal; however, a truly earnest attempt to live such a life eventually results in the individual's awareness of his own insufficiency and shortcomings. He realizes that his autonomous internal volitional powers are unable to bring him to the level of an authentic ethical existence. Thus, the existent reaches the classic point of "despair" and is again faced with the critical "choice" of "Either/Or," i.e. whether to make the transition to the next level, i.e. the religious sphere of existence.
Interestingly, within the ethical stage Kierkegaard introduces to us the tragic hero, i.e. one who sacrifices himself for the universal moral law. In essence, the tragic hero divests himself of his own self-interests for the sake of the universal. An example of the tragic hero would be Socrates, who refused to participate in a last minute plot which would free him from prison, his purpose being that the integrity of his teaching might be jeopardized -- thus, a heroic action of self-sacrifice or martyrdom for the sake of the universal. Or King Agamemnon, who in the Iliad, could not set sail for the shores of Troy because he had offended Artemis (cf. Euripides', "Iphigenia at Aulis) a goddess who thwarted the efforts of his naval fleet and then demanded the sacrificial blood of his daughter Iphigenia for propitiation. as a royal figure who recognized that the fate of all Greece was at stake, and that he had made alliances with Menelaus, Achilles, and Odysseus to go to war against Troy, Agamemnon became a tragic hero by sacrificing his own daughter for the sake of the universal, i.e. the fate of his nation.30 And indeed, throughout history, how many hundreds of thousands of people have sacrificed their lives for the greater good (the universal) of their nation? Yet Kierkegaard, in his book Fear and Trembling, goes on to contrast this tragic hero (or "knight of resignation") with what he calls the "knight of faith" (a subject to which we will allude in our discussion of the "third stage on life's way," i.e. the religious sphere of existence).
Now, according to Kierkegaard, when the existent who has been living at the ethical stage becomes confronted with the "despair" of realization and thus "chooses" to move into the religious sphere of existence, he has essentially recognized the fact that authentic existence cannot be attained without God at the center. Controverting the Kantian "Categorical Imperative," which invokes God "practically" but not "existentially," Kierkegaard seeks to emphasize an immanence in the life of the existent, an immanence which affirms the individual's relationship to God on a deep and personal level. As Copleston notes in regard to this element of Kierkegaardian thought:
"Every man is, as it were, amixture of the finite and the infinite. Considered precisely as finite, he is separated from God, alienated from him. Considered as infinite, man is not indeed God, but he is a movement towards God, the movement of the spirit. And the man who appropriates and affirms his relationship to God 'in faith' becomes what he really is, the individual before God."31
Now the prototypical figure for Kierkegaard in illustrating the religious sphere of existence is the biblical patriarch Abraham. As Kierkegaard relates to us in his Fear and Trembling, God requires Abraham to appropriate and affirm his relationship to God "in faith" by suspending any adherence to the universal ethical law. According to the Kantian dictum, there could be no transcendence of the universal ethical law since it was precisely man's conformity to this law that measured man's perfection or lack thereof.32 So, whereas ethical univerality became a teleological end for Kant, it was the suspension of such ethical universality that provided the theme for Kierkegaard's hermeneutical investigation of the biblical Abraham.
Thus, God calls upon Abraham to perform an abhorrent task, a task so scandalous that no ethical mind could conceive of such an abomination. Indeed, there is nothing done for the sake of the universal in this decree. For, in commanding Abraham to slay his only son Isaac simply to prove his faith, God is purposely removing Himself from any fixed universal realm and thus encountering the existent (Abraham) on an individual plane that is far beyond comprehension or objective understanding. For this reason, then, Abraham cannot speak of his trial to Sarah, or Eleazar, or Isaac, or anyone else, because as Kierkeggard notes, "Abraham is an emigrant from the sphere of the universal."33 he has moved into a realm of solitude where only he and God can convene, a realm where the "Individual can stand in absolute relation to the Absolute."34 Interestingly, Kierkegaard resembles Thomas Aquinas here; for, as James Collins points out in his work "The Mind of Kierkegaard":
"It is a Thomistic teaching that the secrets of the heart, especially those associated with the disposition of freedom, remain inviolable. These secrets are open only to God and the individual, for not even the angels can pierce this inscrutably private zone. And it is not only inviolable but also in a way ineffable: the individual cannot, if he would, communicate to another his complete attitude."35
Thus, it is within this realm of "subjectivity" that the existent Abraham communes with God. There is no conformity to an objectively defined Hegelian system, there is no conformity to the Kantian dictum, and external impositions and influences cannot penetrate this realm of "subjectivity." Abraham stands alone before God, in "fear and trembling," unconditionally accepting the call to faith which God has required. It is here, then, that Kierkegaard contrasts the tragic hero (or "knight of resignation") with the "knight of faith" who is Abraham.
As Kierkegaard observes, the tragic hero like Socrates or Agamemnon resigns himself to the fact that his self-sacrifice will result in an irreversible finality -- nevertheless, a finality which will result in the good of the universal. For instance, Socrates knows that his death is imminent, but his conscience is assured that his sacrificial action is in congruity with the universal. And Agamemnon, as well as Iphigenia, are assured that the required propitiatory sacrifice to Artemis will result in victory for the Greeks. Thus, their action is interpreted as a "sacrifice for the universal cause." In Kierkegaardian language, then, we can say that these tragic heroes are knights of resignation because they have have infinitely resigned their fates to the good of the universal.
What, then, is the difference between these tragic heroes and the biblical figure Abraham? Among the many similarities, where does one find the distinction? Well, as Kierkegaard explains, Socrates, Agamemnon, and Iphigenia had all resigned themselves to their irreversible fates for the sake of the universal. However, although Abraham, too, had passed through this very same fire of resignation (i.e. he infinitely renounced his claim to the one he loved -- Isaac), he went one step further. Though he had resigned to the fact that he would spill the blood of his only son on the heights of Mount Moriah, he nevertheless believed "on the strength of the absurd" that he would receive Isaac again, not in death, but in life.36 In Kierkegaard, the word "absurd" does not have the meaning as in Albert Camus' "Myth of Sisyphus," nor does it mean something that is "logically impossible," but rather, it implies something that is "humanly impossible." Thus, we could say that Kierkegaardian absurdity recognizes such impossibilities as "apparent," and thus commits them to the realm of faith and the divine potentiality. Thus, Abraham became a "knight of faith" because he believed "that for God all things are possible."37 As Kierkegaard himself writes:
"What did Abraham do? He believed on the strength of the absurd, and it was indeed absurd that God who demanded this of him should in the next instant withdraw the demand. He climbed the mountain, even in that moment when the knife gleamed he believed -- that God would not demand Isaac. Certainly he was surprised by the outcome, but by means of a double movement he had come back to his original position and therefore received Isaac more joyfully than the first time."38
The admiration that Kierkegaard (or his pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio) has for Abraham is astounding. In Kierkegaard, the scriptural saying that "Without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb 11:6) takes on a deeper meaning than is typically articulated in most commentaries which reflect on the biblical chapter of Genesis 22. Kierkegaard penetrates deep into the words of Scripture, underneath the text, if you will; thus, he probes deeply into the psycho-spiritual dimension of the man Abraham and brings forth a fresh meaning to the text. Apart from the twentieth century misinterpretations and exploitations of Kierkegaardian thought, we must not discard his thinking as it applies to the religious sphere of existence. In Kierkegaard, Christianity is a religion of personal faith, not nominalistic assent, and Abraham is the paradigm of the "man of faith" who is prepared to intercommune with God on a deep and personal level, in a realm of subjectivity which denies entry to any other. Thus, as we come to the end of this essay, I think it is appropriate to finish with the words of the great philosopher himself, Soren Aabye Kierkegaard, who in his assessment of the biblical Abraham, defined him as a man who would forever become the father of the faithful:
"No! No one shall be forgotten who was great in this world; but everyone was great in his own way, and everyone in proportion to the greatness of what he 'loved.' For he who loved himself became great in himself, and he who loved others became great through his devotion, but he who loved God became greater than all. They shall all be remembered, but everyone became greater in proportion to his 'expectancy.' One became great through expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal; but he who expected the impossible became greater than all. They shall all be remembered, but everyone was great in proportion to the magnitude of what he 'strove with.' For he who strove with the world became great in conquering the world, and he who strove with himself became greater by conquering himself; but he who strove with God became greater than all. Thus, there was strife in the world, man against man, one against thousands, but he who strove with God was greater than all . . . greater than all was Abraham."39
Notes and References
1. George Perkins, et al., eds. The American Tradition in Literature. 7th ed.
New York: McGraw, 1990, p. 245.
2. Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View. New York: Harper, 1969, p. 293.
3. Michael Hamburger, ed. Beethoven: Letter, Journals, and Conversations.
New York: Thames and Hudson, 1951, p. 47.
4. Robert Bretall, ed. A Kierkegaard Anthology. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1946, p. xxi. *Though the term "ultimate concern" was utilized and later developed by the theologian Paul Tillich, the idea is throughly Kierkegaardian.
5. Walter Kaufmann, ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre.
New York: Meridian, 1989, p. 11.
6. Antony Flew, ed. A Dictionary of Philosophy. "Existentialism"
New York: St Martin's Press, 1984, p. 115.
7. Soren Kierkegaard, Attack Upon Christendom, in Bretall, p. 446.
8. Kierkegaard, The Journals, in Bretall, p. 2.
9. Walter Lowrie, A Short Life of Kierkegaard. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1942, pp. 16ff.
10. Frederick G. Weiss, ed. Hegel: The Essential Writings, New York: Harper,
1974, p. 2.
11. Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: From the Post-Kantian Idealists to Marx, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche. Vol. 7 of 9. New York: Doubleday, 1965, p. 335.
12. Ibid., p. 335.
13. Lowrie, p. 116.
14. Copleston, p. 167.
15. Thomas Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism. Philadelphia: Westminster,
1966, p. 66.
16. Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling. Trans. Alastair Hannay.
London: Penguin, 1985, p. 29.
17. Kierkegaard, The Point of View, in Bretall. pp. 330-31.
18. Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity, in Bretall, p. 396.
19. Kierkegaard, The Point of View, in Bretall, p. 332.
20. James Collins, The Existentialists. Chicago: Henry Regenry Co., 1952, p. 16.
21. Kierkegaard, The Point of View, in Bretall, p. 331.
22. Collins, p. 6.
23. Ibid., p. 6.
24. Copleston, p. 342.
25. Ibid., p. 342.
26. Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death, in Bretall, p. 346.
27. Plato, Apology. Trans. Benjamin Jowett New York: Modern Library, 1928, p. 75.
28. Copleston, p. 343.
29. Ibid., p. 343.
30. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 139.
31. Copleston, p. 343.
32. James Collins, The Mind of Kierkegaard. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1983, p. 92.
33. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 139.
34. Copleston, p. 334.
35. Collins, The Mind of Kierkegaard, p. 96.
36. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, p. 75.
37. Ibid., p. 75.
38. Ibid., p. 65.
39. Ibid., p. 50.
Posted by William J Tsamis at 7:46 PM
For those students of Christology who have now begun their in-depth study of the Fourth Gospel, what is perhaps most important to understand is that we are reaching into the very heart of the incarnation, which is nothing less than the study of the Divine Logos and its ontological and metaphysical meaning. Most readers of Scripture believe they already have an adequate grasp of the incarnation, and to an extent this is true, yet at least on the college level it is necessary for students to press further into understanding the "Divine Logos" and its historic undercurrent which is rooted in both ancient Greek and Judaic thought. Ultimately this gives us a deeper creedal understanding of the incarnation - in fact, it is assured that once one embarks on this quest, they will never conceive of the incarnation in the same terms.
It is my hope that for your own spiritual growth and improvement of scripturual understanding you take a few minutes to read this essay - take it to heart and behold that the Holy Spirit who superintended and breathed his words into the gospel writers grafted a script so multi-dimensional that without such intense study, the jewels of this holy writing would go wholly undetected. What he has given in the concept of the "Divine Logos" is utterly mindblowing!
The Johannine Logos
The Influence of Greek Philosophy and Judaic Thought
on the Logos Christology of John: A Synergistic Approach
William J Tsamis, M.A.
In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God
All things were made through Him . . .
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us
and we beheld His glory
the glory as of the only begotten of the Father
John 1:1-2; 14
At the ancient monastery church in Daphne, Greece, there looms in the dome of the cathedral a colossal mosaic of Christ Pantocrator, its ominous presence imposing upon all who enter into the hallowed room. Indeed, the eleventh century icon reveals that awesome, majestic power that overthrew the death tyrant nearly two-thousand years ago. And like the historic Christ who pierced the veil of darkness with the glorious light of His immortality, so too, the iconographic depiction bursts forth showing Jesus Christ as the "King of kings and Lord of lords," the divine Logos, enthroned in the heavens -- the ruler and center of the universe. Obviously, from a theological perspective, the ancient Daphne mosaic reflects the high Christology of Nicaea and Chalcedon, a Christology ultimately derived from the Johannine doctrine of the Logos. But whereas it is simple to deduce the theological origin and background of the awe-inspiring mosaic, the influences which compelled the fourth evangelist to use the Logos designation as a descriptive appellation for the Savior are much more elusive. Indeed, this is indicated by the fact that, even though a considerable body of scholarly literature has been devoted to identifying the primary influence(s) behind the Johannine designation, there still remains a general lack of consensus in the academic forum as to the origin and background of the Johannine Logos doctrine.
In this essay, then, we will endeavor to explore the divergent views proposed by Christian scholars regarding the contextual influences which underlie the the Logos Christology of John. In Part One, we will examine the suggested Hellenistic background for the Johannine doctrine, tracing the evolution of the philosophical term logos from its initial Heraclitean conception to its more developed expression in later Stoicism. Then, we will consider the impact of Hellenistic thought on some of the early Church Fathers, and show how that influence affected their perception of the Johannine Logos. In Part Two, we will evaluate the proposed Judaic background for the Logos doctrine, paying close attention to Johannine dependence of the Creation/Sinai motifs and the Hebrew dabar YHWH (= word of the Lord), as well as the symmetry which exists between the Prologue and certain texts from within the corpus of Jewish Wisdom Literature. Finally, in part Three, we will set forth our own position, which is not an uncommon one -- namely, that the author of the Fourth Gospel found in the term logos a concept which, to the Gentile world, he could present Christ as the fulfillment of all metaphysical speculation; and which, to the Jewish world, He could present Christ as the ultimate revelation (word) and manifestation (theophany) of God. In his personification of the Logos, then, the inspired writer brought together the philosophical world of Athens with the religious world of Jerusalem, and, in synergistic fashion, he form a new philosophical/religious reality that is neither Hellenic nor Judaic -- but rather, a reality that is authentically and originally Christian.1
Part I -- Suggested Hellenistic Background
In any discussion of the Greek philosophical doctrine of the logos, one must regress into the pre-Socratic era to examine the religio-philosophical context of the age. For, it was during this period, the sixth century BC, that the Greek philosophers would begin to challenge the existing polytheistic structure which had dominated ancient civilization for so long. Indeed, in the midst of a plurality of gods and goddesses, the Greek philosophers recognized that there must exist some unifying principle behind the universe, and underlying Reason or Force which pervades cosmological and metaphysical reality. thus, limited to natural theology and intellectual speculation, the early philosophers began to posit various notions regarding the nature of this unifying principle.2
The first thinker to advance his thesis on this cosmological/metaphysical problem was Thales (ca. 600 BC), the founder of the Milesian school of philosophy in Ionia, the cradle of Western thought. (At that time, the Ionian Coast on the west coast of Asia Minor, or modern day Turkey, was an Athenian colony. It was also the approximate region of the seven churches of Asia Minor as mentioned in the biblical Apocalypse of John). In essence, Thales posited the idea that the unifying principle behind ultimate reality was simply water (in its gaseous, liquid, and solid forms).3 Although such a proposition may seem ludicrous to the contemporary mind, what is important here is that Thales raised the question as to the nature of the unifying prinicple, and he opened the door for further metaphyiscal speculation.4 The successors of Thales differed widely in their propositions, Anaximander positing infinity as the unifying principle, and Anaximenes suggesting air; but it was Heraclitus of Ephesus (fl. 504-501 BC) who first used the term logos in connection with the concept of the unifying prinicple. In his speculations, he identified the logos as the universal Reason, i.e. "the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law."5 Certainly, Heraclitus did not posit the existence of a transcendent monotheistic deity, but he did recognize that, in a universe of constant change, the metaphysical logos remained constant as the underlying principle of order.
In subsequent centuries, during the Socratic, Platonic, and Aristotelian periods, the great philosophers made little contribution to the Heraclitean logos doctrine, their concerns being epistemologcial rather than speculative.6 But beginning with Zeno (ca. 300 BC) and the rise of the early Stoa, the Heraclitean logos was revived and systematized within the framework of Stoic pantheism.7 Essentially, the Stoics believed that the unifying principle behind ultimate reality was an all-pervading cosmic fiery vapor which they termed "logos spermatikos" (seminal reason), and which they identified with an impersonal pantheistic God.8 Accordingly, this seminal logos (or vital energy) was the "generative principle" of the cosmos, as well as the universal Reason (or rationale) which determined and kept in order the particulars of the universe.9 Simply, the Logos was the rational element which pervaded the universe and unified reality. Thus, in Stoic thought, the Heraclitean logos received its greatest expression, resuming a central role in Hellenistic philosophical cosmology.
Now with regard to our discussion about the origin and background of the Johannine Logos, the question natually arises: "To what extent (if any) did the Hellenistic idea of the logos prevail upon the mind of the fourth evangelist?" Well, although we will deal with the specifics of this issue in Part Three of our essay, it would be worthy to note, at this point, that some of the early Church Fathers (e.g. Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Clement of Alexandria, and so on) understood the Johannine concept to be an integration of the Heraclitean/Stoic notion.10 Justin, for instance, maintained that the Logos is the mediatorial revelation of God who was partially knonw by the Greek philosophers because of the spermatikos (a germinating seed) which they possessed within their souls; thus, he proclaimed Heraclitus worthy of being called a Christian.11 Similarly, Clement of Alexandria asserted that the Logos is Christ, the Divine Reason and Teacher of mankind, who revealed God to the Jews through the Mosaic Law, and to the Gentiles through the Greek philosophers.12
Although it appears that both Justin and Clement inferred a Hellenistic nuance from the Logos Christology of John, it must be remembered that these apologists were very much predisposed to Greek philosophy in their thinking -- Justin being a converted Stoic/Pythagorean/Platonist (he continued to wear the pallium), and Clement being a native of Alexandria, a convert from Stoicism.13 In our discussion regarding the background of the Johannine Logos, then, the early apologists are not especially helpful, since it is difficult to ascertain if they were truly reflecting the Christological tradition of the Johannine community, or if they were merely superimposing their own Hellenist preconceptions onto the Johannine doctrine (even as Philo of Alexandria sought to synthesize Hellenistic and Judaic thought). In the case of Justin, we are more inclined to believe that he utilized Greek philosophical speculation as a "point of contact" for intellectual and apologetical concerns rather than as the controlling center of his epistemic system; for, throughout his writings he continually asserts the preeminence of biblical truth over philosophy.14 Nevertheless, an appeal to Justin's Logos Christology as evidence of a Hellenistic background for the Johannine doctrine is tenuous at best.
Part II -- Suggested Judaic Background
Until recent years, the idea that the Johannine doctrine of the Logos could have originated in Judaic thought was the minorty view among scholars. Indeed, with the rise of New Testament higher criticism in the nineteenth century, many scholars asserted an extra-Judaic origin for the Fourth gospel, proposing a date of authorship as late as AD 170.15 This consensus was based on several factors, one of which was the presence of a Platonic dualism motif in the Fourth Gospel -- e.g. spirit/world, light/darkness, truth/deceit, and so on. The majority of scholars ignored the author's apparent intimacy with Palestinian customs and instead concluded that the author was firmly entrenched in Greek philosophy (or Gnosticism, cf. Rudolf Bultmann). Thus, it was almost universally acknowledged that the Johannine Logos doctrine was thoroughly influenced by Hellenistic thought.16
In the twentieth century, however, the late-date hypothesis would be overthrown with the discover of Rylands Papyrus 457 (P52), an Egyptian codex fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38, which first came to light in 1935. With the discovery and publication of this earliest extant New Testament manuscript, a hundred years of sophisticated critical theories were tossed onto the ash heap of history. Many eminent scholars such as Sir Fredrick Kenyon reconized the manuscript as early second century, dating to about AD 130.17 But a more recent analysis by Kurt Aland suggests a much earlier date probably at the "beginning of the second century."18 In either case, contemporary New Testament scholarship is now in agreement with the traditional view that the Fourth Gospel is indeed a first century composition.
Now with regard to the nineteenth century critical assertion that the dualistic paradigm in John betrays a Hellenistic influence (Platonic idealism), the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 would altogether eliminate that notion. Indeed, several of the Qumran texts, especially the Rule of the Community (1QS) and the War Scroll (1QM), exhibit a dualistic motif, which, according to most scholars, is entirely independent from Platonic idealism, yet hauntingly similar to the dualism of John.19 Hence, since the discovery of the Qumran Scrolls, the dualism which characterizes the Johannine program does not necessitate a Hellenistic antecedent, since the Essenic writings prove that such language was proper to Judean religious thought in the first century AD.
Needless to say, because of these discoveries (as well as other advances in New Testament studies), contemporary Johannine scholarship has shifted markedly from a Hellenistic orientation to a more Judeo-centric approach; and this radical change in methodology has weighed heavily in the debate regarding the origin and background of the Johannine Logos. Most scholars, instead of looking to the Heraclitean/Stoic ideologies for answers, now place tremendous emphasis on the author's dependence on the Creation/Sinai motifs and the Hebrew dabar/YHWH ("word of the Lord"), as well as some of the parallels which can be found in Jewish Wisdom Literature.20 At this point in our discussion, then, let us consider the relevancy of these Judaic elements.
A simple reading of the Prologue should immediately conjure up images of the Creation and Sinai stories from the Pentateuch. Even the words, "In the beginning" (= en arche - John 1:1), are identical to the LXX translation of the Hebrew Gen 1:1 text, indicating that the evangelist's intent, at the outset, was to establish a Judaic context for the rest of the Prologue.21 In the following verse, the evangelist would further integrate other concepts from Genesis 1-3, such as creation, light, life, darkness, etc., ultimately progressing to verse 14a (lit. "And the Word became flesh and 'pitched His tent' among us, and we beheld 'His glory'"), an obvious allusion to the Sinai/Tabernacle motif of Exodus 40:34ff. As Raymond E. Brown comments, "When the Prologue proclaims that the Word made his dwelling among men, we are being told that the flesh of Jesus Christ is the new localizaiton of God's presence on earth, and that Jesus is the replacement of the ancient Tabernacle."22 Thus, in the incarnational Christology of John the manifestation (theophany) of God's glory (shekinah) plays a controlling hermeneutical role. Therefore, the Pentateuchal context of the Prologue would suggest that we look for a Judaic background to the Johannine doctrine of the Logos.
In searching for Old Testament parallels, the recurrent phrase "word of the Lord" (dabar YHWH = logos kyriou LXX) immediately strikes us as the most likely antecedent for the the Johannine Logos. Indeed, this concept was critical to the whole idea of divine revelation, and, as a phenomenon experienced by the Hebrew prophets (e.g. "The word of the Lord came to Zechariah . . ." - 1:1), the word consisted of ther thoughts and will of God.23 Moreover, it served as the effective instrument of His divine action; thus, for the Psalmist, "the word of the Lord" served as the mediatorial agent of creation (33:6), while for the prophets of God, the "word of the Lord" possessed an inherent life-giving power (Isa 55:3).24 Interestingly, both of these themes are prevalent in the Johannine Prologue.
Now although the "word of the Lord" was never explicitly personified in Hebraic thought, it nevertheless possessed a "quasi-substantial existence of its own."25 Certainly, this is evident from numerous texts, but there is one scripture in particular in which the "word" serves an independent function which is almost identically parallel to the incarnational motif of the Johannine Prologue. In the Isaian invitation to the abundant life (Isa 55), a chapter to which Jesus often alluded, there is a verse (11) which says, "So shall my 'word' be that goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it." As Brown indicates, "We have here the same cycle of coming down and returning that we encounter in the Prologue."26 Thus, it seems an inescapable conclusion that the Johannine Logos, as the incarnation and revelation of the mind and will of God, is firmly rooted in the Old Testament concept of dabar YHWH // logos Kyriou LXX // memra Adonai Targum.
On a similar plane, another conceptual parallel to the Johannine Logos comes from the corpus of Jewish Wisdom Literature (Proverbs, Sirach, Baruch, and the Wisdom of Solomon). Interestingly, whereas in the Torah and the Prophets the "word of the Lord" only possesses an implicit independent function (or personification), in the Wisdom literary genre the idea of a "personified" Wisdom (Sophia LXX) is fully developed, serving as a controlling hermeneutical theme. Indeed, many of the attributes and actions which are ascribed to the Logos of John can also be ascribed to personified Wisdom.27 The following should suffice in demonstrating the Johannine dependence on the canonical and apocryphal Wisdom Literature:28
1. "In the beginning was the Word (Logos)" (John 1:1).
-"The Lord created me (Wisdom) at the beginning of His work" (Prov 8:22).
-"From eternity, in the beginning He created me (Wisdom)" (Sir 24:9).
2. "All things were made through Him" (John 1:3)
-"For Wisdom is the fashioner of all things" (Wis 7:2).
3. "That which came to be in Him was life" (John 1:3-4).
-"For he who finds me finds life" (Prov 8:35).
4. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5).
-"For the light is succeeded by night, but against Wisdom evil does not prevail"
5. "Yet the world knew Him not" (John 1:10).
-"No one knows the way to her (Wisdom) or is concerned about the path to her"
6. "He came to His own" (John 1:11)
-"Afterward she (Wisdom) appeared upon earth and lived among men. She is the
Book of the commandment of God and the law that endures forever" (Bar 3:37-4:1).
7. "And His own received Him not" (John 1:11).
-"You (Israel) have forsaken the fountain of wisdom" (Bar 3:12).
8. "And the Word (Logos) became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14).
-"Then the Creator of all things gave me (Wisdom) a commandment, and . . .
assigned a place for my tent. And he said, 'Make your dwelling in Jacob . . .'"
In analyzing the parallels between the posed writings, it is important to recognize that the similarities are not only conceptual, but also stylistic, reflecting anlalogous linguistic phrases and poetic patterns.29 Furthermore, comparative studies between the Prologue and Sirach, for instance, have revealed that not only are the mediatorial functions of Wisdom and the Logos strikingly similar, but "the order in which these functions are presented is roughly the same."30 Thus, from this evidence, Johannine dependence on Jewish Wisdom Literature is more than certain.
Part III - A Synergistic Approach
In sum, it seems that the suggested Judaic background provides a sufficient context for the origin of the Johannine doctrine of the Logos. Even as contemporary New Testament scholarship has concluded, the Creation/Sinai motifs, the Hebrew dabar YHWH, and the parallels within Jewish Wisdom Literature all provide a firm foundation upon which the Johannine theologian could have presented his Christian Logos. Nevertheless, to dismiss entirely the Greek philosophical nuances inherent in the word Logos (1:1) would be to disregard the Hellenistic zeitgeist which prevailed during the Roman era; and furthermore, it would ignore the historical/geographical considerations which are pivotal in one's understanding of the authorial intent of the Johannine writing.
If the author of the Fourth Gospel was indeed the Apostle John writing from Ephesus about AD 90,31 then we can be certain that he would have been well-acquainted with certain Hellenistic ideologies, including the Heraclitean/Stoic conception of the Logos.32 Ephesus, which was the capital of proconsular Asia, was one of the chief centers of Hellenistic culture; and though the city was renowned for its Artemis cult and accompanying polytheistic ritualism, it was also the home of the ancient Heraclitus, the father of the cosmological logos doctrine, who incidentally was greatly revered even in John's day. And nearby was the city of Miletus (about 20 miles away),33 the very cradle of Greek philosophy, where Thales, Anximander, and Anaximenes once speculated about the unifying principle, and wondered about the underlying reason which pervaded metaphysical and cosmological reality.
When all things are considered, then, it is not unreasonable to assume that the holy Apostle found in the term Logos a concept, which to the Greek world he could present Christ as the fulfillment of all metaphysical speculation; and which, to the Jewish world, he could present Christ as the ultimate revelation (word) and manifestation (theophany) of God, the incarnation of personified Wisdom (Sophia). Astonishingly, in the Johannine doctrine of the Logos we have the convergence of numerous ideological motifs which find their ultimate meaning in the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the words of Archibald Alexander would serve as an appropriate conclusion to the thesis we have set forth in this essay:
"From whatsoever source the term Logos was originally derived, whether from Hebrew tradition or Hellenic speculation - on Christian soil it is a new product. It is neither Greek nor Jewish, it is Christian. The philosophical abstraction has become a religious conception. Hellenism and Hebrewism have been taken up and fused into a higher unity, and Christ as the embodiment of the Logos has become the creative power and the world-wide possession of mankind."34
Notes and References
1. Archibald Alexander, "Logos" in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
ed. James Orr, 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939, 3:1916.
2. Frederick Copleston, Greece and Rome: Pre-Socratics to Plotinus Vol. 1 of A History of Philosophy, 9 vols., New York: Image, 1946, p. 20.
3. Ibid., p. 22.
4. Ibid., p. 23.
5. Ibid., p. 43.
6. G. A. Turner, "Logos" in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible,
ed. Merrill C. Tenney, 5 vols. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975, 3:953.
7. Copleston, pp. 387ff.
8. Ronald H. Nash, Christianity in the Hellenistic World, Grand Rapids: Zondervan,
1984, p. 69.
9. Alexander, 3:1912.
10. Ed. L. Miller, "The Logos of Heraclitus: Updating the Report,"
Harvard Theological Review 74:2 (1981):161-76.
11. Johannes Quasten, Patrology, 4 vols. Westminster: Christian Classics,
12. Ibid., 2:21.
13. Ibid., 2:4-5.
14. Theodore Stylianopoulos, "Justin Martyr" in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, London: Garland, 1990, pp. 514-16.
15. Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, Downers Grove: InterVarsity,
Revised Edition 1990, p. 297.
16. James H. Charlesworth, "Reinterpreting John: How the Dead Sea Scrolls Have
Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Gospel of John" in Bible Review (Feb 1993):
17. Guthrie, p. 297.
18. Raymond E. Brown, "The Gospel According to John I-XII" in The Anchor Bible,
ed. David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 1966, LXXXIII.
19. Charlesworth, p. 21.
20. John Ashton, "The Transformation of Wisdom: A Study of the Prologue of John's
Gospel" in New Testament Studies (vol. 32: 1986), 161-86.
21. Brown, Sec. 1, p. 4.
22. Ibid., p. 33.
23. "Dabar" in Vine's Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, eds. W. E. Vine et al.
Nashville: Nelson, Revised 1985, p. 240.
24. Brown, p. 521.
25. Ibid., p. 521.
26. Ibid., p. 521.
27. Thomas H. Tobin, "Logos" in Anchor Bible Dictionary vol. 4,
ed. David Noel Freedman, New York: Doubleday, 4:348-56.
28. Ibid., 4:348-56
29. Ibid., 4:348-56
30. Brown, p. 523.
31. Contrary to sophisticated critical theories which are prevalent in scholarly circles today, we have presupposed the tradition of the early Church -- a tradition passed on from Polycarp (c. 71-156) to Irenaeus (c. 115-202) -- namely, that the Fourth Gospel was the work of John the apostle in the last decade of the first century. It must be noted that modern criticism has attacked the Irenaean testimony of apostolic authorship, but this assessment is not based on objective, historical evidence; but rather, it is motivated by the implications of critical presuppositions which cannot be reconciled with the early testimony of the Bishop of Lyons (cf. Guthrie, p. 270). As an aside, a similar scholarly criticism was leveled against Irenaeus in his depiction of Gnosticism (Adversus Haereses), the claim being that Irenaeus was a propagandist who sought to present the Gnostics in their worst possible light. However, after the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices in 1949, the polemical writings of Irenaeus were corroborated and thus proved accurate by the Gnostic texts themselves. In my view, then, Irenaeus is a reliable witness to the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel. and furthermore, this confidence is buttressed by the testimony of the Muratorian Canon (AD 170), Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen. Simply, if Irenaeus claimed that, as a young boy, he heard Polycarp (a disciple of John) attest to the apostle's authorship of the Fourth Gospel, there is really no reason to disbelieve him. Indeed, if we cannot rely on a tradition as strong as this, then in my view, the whole category of "tradition" as a means of discovering historical truth is entirely worthless.
32. The First Epistle of John, in its polemical thrust against the Gnostic heresy, demonstrates that John was very well-acquainted with Hellenistic ideologies. (cf. John Stott, The Epistles of John, Leicester: InterVarsity, 1960).
33. This is the site where Thales founded the Milesian school of philosophy, and also, where Paul exhorted the Ephesian elders as recorded in Acts 20.
34. Alexander, 3:1916.
Posted by William J Tsamis at 11:59 PM
For nearly 1800 years, Jesus of Nazareth was regarded as the "King of kings" and "Lord of lords" -- the divine Logos, the ruler of the universe, to whom all creation would one day bow down. It was he, the Son of God, who willingly entered into the human realm -- yes, the great mystery of the Incarnation, of God becoming man, of which Thomas Aquinas once wrote, "involved no change in God's eternal state, but united him in a new way with what he created, or rather, united what he created with himself." It was that great mystery which C.S. Lewis so eloquently called "the Grand Miracle," the miracle of God descending into the human sphere, "down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity . . . to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him." Indeed, this was the orthodox portrait of Christ - in fact, the only christological portrait that hung in the museum of classic orthodox theology. Now, however, the gallery is full of a number of portraits, all depcting something different, all reflecting contrary interpretations of the Jesus figure -- meanwhile, the orthodox portrait seems to be decomposing . . . How did this come to be?
Another aspect of Bultmann's methodology was to "demythologize" the Gospels - in other words, to take out the mythological elements such as miracles, etc., and thereby discover the heart of each pericope (i.e. short story, for instance, Jesus's baptism by John, the feeding of the 5,000 and/or 4,000). By taking out the apparent mythological elements in the Gospels, Bultmann believed that he could discover the "real Jesus," and through this process, understand the concerns of the early Church. Moreover, according to Bultmann, who was highly influenced by the existentialism of Martin Heidegger, it wasn't the historical Jesus who was so important (after all, it was impossible to totally reconstruct him) -- rather, it was the Christ of faith who demonstrates his power to believers in the hear and now. Bultmann's Jesus no longer walks the countrysides of Galilee, or the streets of Jerusalem; no, instead, Bultmann's Jesus walks the battlefields of war torn Europe, an alienated landscape of death, destruction, misery, starvation, and ultimate sorrow (World War I).
The scholar E.P. Sanders, in his study called "Jesus and Judaism," as well as in his "The Historical Figure Of Jesus," uncovered eleven undisputable facts about Jesus, a core around which the rest of Jesus's story could be reconstructed. By only resorting to undeniable "core facts" in the New Testament, Sanders uncovered at least fifteen undisputable facts about the life of Jesus around which one can rebuild the essential New Testament portrait of Jesus:
1) Jesus was born ca. 4 BC, near the time of the death of Herod the Great.
2) Jesus spent his childhood and early adult years in Galilee (Nazareth).
3) Jesus was baptized by John the baptist.
4) Jesus called disciples to follow him.
5) Jesus taught in towns, villages, and in the countryside (but not in cities).
6) Jesus preached the kingdom of God (justice, peace, equality, love, etc.)
7) Jesus went to Jerusalem for Passover when he was about 30 years old.
8) Jesus created a disturbance in the Temple compound.
9) Jesus had a final meal with his disciples.
10) Jesus was arrested and interrogated by Jewish authorities - high priest.
11) Jesus was executed on the orders of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate.
Sanders's aftermath of the life and death of Jesus is as follows:
1) His disciples fled at first.
2) His disciples saw him after his death (but in what way is uncertain)
3) His disciples accordingly believed that he would return to found kingdom.
4) His disciples formed a community to await his Messianic return, and sought to win others to faith in him as God's Messiah.
The importance of Sanders's work is (1) his emphasis on the sociological and political elements which were present in the first century AD, and (2) the idea the Jesus's action in the Temple is what eventually led to his crucifixion. The latter would become a standard for nearly all liberals involved in the New Quest. The most recent research has hearkened back to the period of "oral tradition," where stories about Jesus were told over and over in the context of an "oral culture." The difficulties for us to understand the "oral culture" (due to our post-Gutenberg paradigm) are nicely illustrated in James Dunn's work "A New Perspective on Jesus: What The Quest For The Historical Jesus Missed." Other criteria for uncovering the historicity of the real Jesus can be determined by invoking the methodology of the oral culture.
The Jesus Seminar
Without doubt, the most controversial group to arise in recent years is The Jesus Seminar. The Seminar was founded in 1985 by Robert Funk and John Dominic Crossan, and it was essentially comprised of 40-200 North American scholars who would gather twice a year to "vote" on which sayings of Jesus were authentic, and which sayings were not. Although the inferences of these scholars would be better read on a horizontal continuum, the "four-color" scheme that they devised and utilized in their The Five Gospels became notorious. Just as many New Testaments have the words of Jesus in red text, the so-called Scholars Version separated the sayings of Jesus into four categories:
Red = "that's Jesus" (It's something Jesus would definitely say)
Pink = "sure sounds like Jesus" (It's something Jesus might possibly say)
Gray = "well, maybe" (It's something consistent with what Jesus might say)
Black = "there's been a mistake" (It's impossible that Jesus could have said such a thing)
It is important to note that the Jesus Seminar is a self-appointed body with a mission to offset the conservative scholarly thrust which is present throughout North America. The Seminar, regardless of subjecting its works to peer review (except in some cases), has determined to bring liberal academic scholarship to the common man -- for this reason, the aisles of Barnes and Noble are adorned with books written by fellows of the Jesus Seminar. Also, special television shows on National Geographic and Discovery Channel are crammed with liberal scholars spouting out all sorts of heterodoxies to an unsuspecting public. All in all, as a polemical campaign, the effort has been somewhat successful because most readers and viewers are not widely read in these areas. Thus, the effect of the Jesus Seminar has been rather shocking to the North American public. Heralds such as Time and Newsweek have quoted many of the fellows of the Seminar, stating that only 25% of the Jesus sayings in the New Testament are authentic. Or, Jesus never uttered the Lord's prayer. Or that the Gospel of John is a complete fabrication. Without the Jesus Seminar preparing the field, books and films like "The Da Vinci Code" could have never been made.
So although the Jesus Seminar has succeeded in offering alternative Jesus theories to the public, theories that run counter to the traditional Gospel portrayal, it should be pointed out that the Seminar does not have the blessing of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) which is the authoritative governing body for biblical scholarship, comprised of 6,900 members. In fact, only a handful of fellows from the Jesus Seminar are connected in any way to the SBL. Nor is the American Academy of Religion (AAR) supporting the efforts of the Jesus Seminar. A great problem has arisen because the Jesus Seminar has portrayed itself as a "representative scholarly body" when, in fact, it is not, and because of this, many biblical scholars (conservatives, moderates and liberals) have heaped scorn upon the Jesus Seminar. Fr. Luke Timothy Johnson has written a scathing critique of the Seminar in his book The Real Jesus
Though the methodology of the Jesus Seminar has been exposed for its flaws and biases, the fellows of the Seminar present themselves as doing inductive, scientific work (with an air of triumphalism), exploring the sayings of Jesus against the cross-currents of first century sociological and political conditions. Some might respond, "Yes, but their work is scientific and democratic. What's wrong with that?" Well, sadly, "appearances" aren't always what they seem to be, especially in the case of the Jesus Seminar. Their methods are neither scientific or democratic, and the ghost of Schweitzer has come back to haunt them, accusing them of creating a Jesus figure in their own image. Nearly all of the scholars involved in the Jesus Seminar already had a presupposed construct of the historical Jesus, not only in their minds, but in their writings - even before the advent of the Seminar. There is nothing objective about the method and process of the Jesus Seminar, although they have hoodwinked the North American populace into thinking that what they are doing is sound scholarship which is representative of cutting-edge hypotheses. In sum, no one comes to the Seminar's table with a tabula rasa - each scholar has his own hypothesis, and he or she will pick and choose which sayings of Jesus fit into his or her presupposed construct.
Some Key Sources For Understanding The Historical Jesus
1. Jesus Under Fire - Moreland/Wilkins, IVP
2. Historical Figure of Jesus - Sanders, Penguin
3. The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was And Is - Wright, IVP
4. A New Perspective On Jesus - What the Jesus Quest Missed - Dunn, Baker
5. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography - Crossan, HarperCollins
6. Backgrounds of Early Chrstianity - Ferguson, Eerdmans
7. The Real Jesus - Luke Johnson, Harper
8. Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods - Bock, Baker
9. The Historical Reliability of the Gospels - Blomberg, IVP
10. A Marginal Jew, Vol. 1 - John Meier,
11. Death of the Messiah (2 vols.) - Raymond Brown, Anchor
12. The Resurrection of the Son of God - Wright, Fortress
13. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels - IVP
14. Dictionary of Paul and his Letters - IVP
15. Dictionary of New Testament Background - IVP
16. New Testament Introduction - Guthrie, IVP
*It is important to note that there are numerous key works on the topic of the Historical Jesus which range from the popular to the scholarly. In the above list I have tried to provide a combination of works, some specific, some encyclopedic, all scholarly, in order to enhance the student's understanding of this most interesting and important topic.
Posted by William J Tsamis at 2:29 PM