1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Logos

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LOGOS (λόγος), a common term in ancient philosophy and theology. It expresses the idea of an immanent reason in the world, and, under various modifications, is met with in Indian, Egyptian and Persian systems of thought. But the idea was developed mainly in Hellenic and Hebrew philosophy, and we may distinguish the following stages:

1. The Hellenic Logos.—To the Greek mind, which saw in the world a κόσμος (ordered whole), it was natural to regard the world as the product of reason, and reason as the ruling principle in the world. So we find a Logos doctrine more or less prominent from the dawn of Hellenic thought to its eclipse. It rises in the realm of physical speculation, passes over into the territory of ethics and theology, and makes its way through at least three well-defined stages. These are marked off by the names of Heraclitus of Ephesus, the Stoics and Philo.

It acquires its first importance in the theories of Heraclitus (6th century B.C.), who, trying to account for the aesthetic order of the visible universe, broke away to some extent from the purely physical conceptions of his predecessors and discerned at work in the cosmic process a λόγος analogous to the reasoning power in man. On the one hand the Logos is identified with γνώμη and connected with δίκη, which latter seems to have the function of correcting deviations from the eternal law that rules in things. On the other hand it is not positively distinguished either from the ethereal fire, or from the εἱμαρμένη and the ἀνάγκη according to which all things occur. Heraclitus holds that nothing material can be thought of without this Logos, but he does not conceive the Logos itself to be immaterial. Whether it is regarded as in any sense possessed of intelligence and consciousness is a question variously answered. But there is most to say for the negative. This Logos is not one above the world or prior to it, but in the world and inseparable from it. Man’s soul is a part of it. It is relation, therefore, as Schleiermacher expresses it, or reason, not speech or word. And it is objective, not subjective, reason. Like a law of nature, objective in the world, it gives order and regularity to the movement of things, and makes the system rational.[1]

The failure of Heraclitus to free himself entirely from the physical hypotheses of earlier times prevented his speculation from influencing his successors. With Anaxagoras a conception entered which gradually triumphed over that of Heraclitus, namely, the conception of a supreme, intellectual principle, not identified with the world but independent of it. This, however, was νοῦς, not Logos. In the Platonic and Aristotelian systems, too, the theory of ideas involved an absolute separation between the material world and the world of higher reality, and though the term Logos is found the conception is vague and undeveloped. With Plato the term selected for the expression of the principle to which the order visible in the universe is due is νοῦς or σοφία, not λόγος. It is in the pseudo-Platonic Epinomis that λόγος appears as a synonym for νοῦς. In Aristotle, again, the principle which sets all nature under the rule of thought, and directs it towards a rational end, is νοῦς, or the divine spirit itself; while λόγος is a term with many senses, used as more or less identical with a number of phrases, οὖ ἕνεκα, ἐνέργια, ἐντελέχεια, οὐσία, εἶδος, μορφή, &c.

In the reaction from Platonic dualism, however, the Logos doctrine reappears in great breadth. It is a capital element in the system of the Stoics. With their teleological views of the world they naturally predicated an active principle pervading it and determining it. This operative principle is called both Logos and God. It is conceived of as material, and is described in terms used equally of nature and of God. There is at the same time the special doctrine of the λόγος σπερματικός, the seminal Logos, or the law of generation in the world, the principle of the active reason working in dead matter. This parts into λόγοι σπερματικοί, which are akin, not to the Platonic ideas, but rather to the λόγοι ἔνυλοι of Aristotle. In man, too, there is a Logos which is his characteristic possession, and which is ἐνδιάθετος, as long as it is a thought resident within his breast, but προφορικός when it is expressed as a word. This distinction between Logos as ratio and Logos as oratio, so much used subsequently by Philo and the Christian fathers, had been so far anticipated by Aristotle’s distinction between the ἔξω λόγος and the λόγος ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ. It forms the point of attachment by which the Logos doctrine connected itself with Christianity. The Logos of the Stoics (q.v.) is a reason in the world gifted with intelligence, and analogous to the reason in man.

2. The Hebrew Logos.—In the later Judaism the earlier anthropomorphic conception of God and with it the sense of the divine nearness had been succeeded by a belief which placed God at a remote distance, severed from man and the world by a deep chasm. The old familiar name Yahweh became a secret; its place was taken by such general expressions as the Holy, the Almighty, the Majesty on High, the King of Kings, and also by the simple word “Heaven.” Instead of the once powerful confidence in the immediate presence of God there grew up a mass of speculation regarding on the one hand the distant future, on the other the distant past. Various attempts were made to bridge the gulf between God and man, including the angels, and a number of other hybrid forms of which it is hard to say whether they are personal beings or abstractions. The Wisdom, the Shekinah or Glory, and the Spirit of God are intermediate beings of this kind, and even the Law came to be regarded as an independent spiritual entity. Among these conceptions that of the Word of God had an important place, especially the creative Word of Genesis i. Here as in the other cases we cannot always say whether the Word is regarded as a mere attribute or activity of God, or an independent being, though there is a clear tendency towards the latter. The ambiguity lies in the twofold purpose of these activities: (1) to establish communication with God; (2) to prevent direct connexion between God and the world. The word of the God of revelation is represented as the creative principle (e.g. Gen. i. 3; Psalm xxxiii. 6), as the executor of the divine judgments (Hosea vi. 5), as healing (Psalm cvii. 20), as possessed of almost personal qualities (Isaiah lv. 11; Psalm cxlvii. 15). Along with this comes the doctrine of the angel of Yahweh, the angel of the covenant, the angel of the presence, in whom God manifests Himself, and who is sometimes identified with Yahweh or Elohim (Gen. xvi. 11, 13; xxxii. 29-31; Exod. iii. 2; xiii. 21), sometimes distinguished from Him (Gen. xxii. 15, &c.; xxiv. 7; xxviii. 12, &c.), and sometimes presented in both aspects (Judges ii., vi.; Zech. i.). To this must be added the doctrine of Wisdom, given in the books of Job and Proverbs. At one time it is exhibited as an attribute of God (Prov. iii. 19). At another it is strongly personified, so as to become rather the creative thought of God than a quality (Prov. viii. 22). Again it is described as proceeding from God as the principle of creation and objective to Him. In these and kindred passages (Job xv. 7, &c.) it is on the way to become hypostatized.

The Hebrew conception is partially associated with the Greek in the case of Aristobulus, the predecessor of Philo, and, according to the fathers, the founder of the Alexandrian school. He speaks of Wisdom in a way reminding us of the book of Proverbs. The pseudo-Solomonic Book of Wisdom (generally supposed to be the work of an Alexandrian flourishing somewhere between Aristobulus and Philo) deals both with the Wisdom and with the Logos. It fails to hypostatize either. But it represents the former as the framer of the world, as the power or spirit of God, active alike in the physical, the intellectual, and the ethical domain, and apparently objective to God. In the Targums, on the other hand, the three doctrines of the word, the angel, and the wisdom of God converge in a very definite conception. In the Jewish theology God is represented as purely transcendent, having no likeness of nature with man, and making no personal entrance into history. Instead of the immediate relation of God to the world the Targums introduce the ideas of the Mēmrā (word) and the Shechīnā (real presence). This Memra (= Ma’amar) or, as it is also designated, Dibbūrā, is a hypostasis that takes the place of God when direct intercourse with man is in view. In all those passages of the Old Testament where anthropomorphic terms are used of God, the Memra is substituted for God. The Memra proceeds from God, and retains the creaturely relation to God. It does not seem to have been identified with the Messiah.[2]

3. Philo.—In the Alexandrian philosophy, as represented by the Hellenized Jew Philo, the Logos doctrine assumes a leading place and shapes a new career for itself. Philo’s doctrine is moulded by three forces—Platonism, Stoicism and Hebraism. He detaches the Logos idea from its connexion with Stoic materialism and attaches it to a thorough-going Platonism. It is Plato’s idea of the Good regarded as creatively active. Hence, instead of being merely immanent in the Cosmos, it has an independent existence. Platonic too is the doctrine of the divine architect who seeks to realize in the visible universe the archetypes already formed in his mind. Philo was thus able to make the Logos theory a bridge between Judaism and Greek philosophy. It preserved the monotheistic idea yet afforded a description of the Divine activity in terms of Hellenic thought; the Word of the Old Testament is one with the λόγος of the Stoics. And thus in Philo’s conception the Logos is much more than “the principle of reason, informing the infinite variety of things, and so creating the World-Order”; it is also the divine dynamic, the energy and self-revelation of God. The Stoics indeed sought, more or less consciously, by their doctrine of the Logos as the Infinite Reason to escape from the belief in a divine Creator, but Philo, Jew to the core, starts from the Jewish belief in a supreme, self-existing God, to whom the reason of the world must be subordinated though related. The conflict of the two conceptions (the Greek and the Hebrew) led him into some difficulty; sometimes he represents the Logos as an independent and even personal being, a “second God,” sometimes as merely an aspect of the divine activity. And though passages of the first class must no doubt be explained figuratively—for Philo would not assert the existence of two Divine agents—it remains true that the two conceptions cannot be fused. The Alexandrian philosopher wavers between the two theories and has to accord to the Logos of Hellas a semi-independent position beside the supreme God of Judaea. He speaks of the Logos (1) as the agency by which God reveals Himself, in some measure to all men, in greater degree to chosen souls. The appearances recorded in the Old Testament are manifestations of the Logos, and the knowledge of God possessed by the great leaders and teachers of Israel is due to the same source; (2) as the agency whereby man, enmeshed by illusion, lays hold of the higher spiritual life and rising above his partial point of view participates in the universal reason. The Logos is thus the means of redemption; those who realize its activity being emancipated from the tyranny of circumstance into the freedom of the eternal.

4. The Fourth Gospel.—Among the influences that shaped the Fourth Gospel that of the Alexandrian philosophy must be assigned a distinct, though not an exaggerated importance. There are other books in the New Testament that bear the same impress, the epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, and to a much greater degree the epistle to the Hebrews. The development that had thus begun in the time of Paul reaches maturity in the Fourth Gospel, whose dependence on Philo appears (1) in the use of the allegorical method, (2) in many coincident passages, (3) in the dominant conception of the Logos. The writer narrates the life of Christ from the point of view furnished him by Philo’s theory. True, the Logos doctrine is only mentioned in the prologue to the Gospel, but it is presupposed throughout the whole book. The author’s task indeed was somewhat akin to that of Philo, “to transplant into the world of Hellenic culture a revelation originally given through Judaism.” This is not to say that he holds the Logos doctrine in exactly the same form as Philo. On the contrary, the fact that he starts from an actual knowledge of the earthly life of Jesus, while Philo, even when ascribing a real personality to the Logos, keeps within the bounds of abstract speculation, leads him seriously to modify the Philonic doctrine. Though the Alexandrian idea largely determines the evangelist’s treatment of the history, the history similarly reacts on the idea. The prologue is an organic portion of the Gospel and not a preface written to conciliate a philosophic public. It assumes that the Logos idea is familiar in Christian theology, and vividly summarizes the main features of the Philonic conception—the eternal existence of the Logos, its relation to God (πρὸς τὸν θεόν, yet distinct), its creative, illuminative and redemptive activity. But the adaptation of the idea to John’s account of a historical person involved at least three profound modifications:—(1) the Logos, instead of the abstraction or semi-personification of Philo, becomes fully personified. The Word that became flesh subsisted from all eternity as a distinct personality within the divine nature. (2) Much greater stress is laid upon the redemptive than upon the creative function. The latter indeed is glanced at (“All things were made by him”), merely to provide a link with earlier speculation, but what the writer is concerned about is not the mode in which the world came into being but the spiritual life which resides in the Logos and is communicated by him to men. (3) The idea of λόγος as Reason becomes subordinated to the idea of λόγος as Word, the expression of God’s will and power, the outgoing of the divine energy, life, love and light. Thus in its fundamental thought the prologue of the Fourth Gospel comes nearer to the Old Testament (and especially to Gen. i.) than to Philo. As speech goes out from a man and reveals his character and thought, so Christ is “sent out from the Father,” and as the divine Word is also, in accordance with the Hebrew idea, the medium of God’s quickening power.

What John thus does is to take the Logos idea of Philo and use it for a practical purpose—to make more intelligible to himself and his readers the divine nature of Jesus Christ. That this endeavour to work into the historical tradition of the life and teaching of Jesus—a hypothesis which had a distinctly foreign origin—led him into serious difficulties is a consideration that must be discussed elsewhere.

5. The Early Church.—In many of the early Christian writers, as well as in the heterodox schools, the Logos doctrine is influenced by the Greek idea. The Syrian Gnostic Basilides held (according to Irenaeus i. 24) that the Logos or Word emanated from the νοῦς, or personified reason, as this latter emanated from the unbegotten Father. The completest type of Gnosticism, the Valentinian, regarded Wisdom as the last of the series of aeons that emanated from the original Being or Father, and the Logos as an emanation from the first two principles that issued from God, Reason (νοῦς) and Truth. Justin Martyr, the first of the sub-apostolic fathers, taught that God produced of His own nature a rational power(δύναμίν τινα λογικήν), His agent in creation, who now became man in Jesus (Dial. c. Tryph. chap. 48, 60). He affirmed also the action of the λόγος σπερματικός, (Apol. i. 46; ii. 13, &c.). With Tatian (Cohort. ad. Gr. chap. 5, &c.) the Logos is the beginning of the world, the reason that comes into being as the sharer of God’s rational power. With Athenagoras (Suppl. chap. 9, 10) He is the prototype of the world and the energizing principle (ἰδέα καὶ ἐνέργεια) of things. Theophilus (Ad Autolyc. ii. 10, 24) taught that the Logos was in eternity with God as the λόγος ἐνδιάθετος, the counsellor of God, and that when the world was to be created God sent forth this counsellor (σύμβουλος) from Himself as the λόγος προφορικός, yet so that the begotten Logos did not cease to be a part of Himself. With Hippolytus (Refut. x. 32, &c.) the Logos, produced of God’s own substance, is both the divine intelligence that appears in the world as the Son of God, and the idea of the universe immanent in God. The early Sabellians (comp. Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. vi. 33; Athanasius, Contra Arian. iv.) held that the Logos was a faculty of God, the divine reason, immanent in God eternally, but not in distinct personality prior to the historical manifestation in Christ. Origen, referring the act of creation to eternity instead of to time, affirmed the eternal personal existence of the Logos. In relation to God this Logos or Son was a copy of the original, and as such inferior to that. In relation to the world he was its prototype, the ἰδέα ἰδεῶν and its redeeming power (Contra Cels. v. 608; Frag. de princip. i. 4; De princip. i. 109, 324).

In the later developments of Hellenic speculation nothing essential was added to the doctrine of the Logos. Philo’s distinction between God and His rational power or Logos in contact with the world was generally maintained by the eclectic Platonists and Neo-Platonists. By some of these this distinction was carried out to the extent of predicating (as was done by Numenius of Apamea) three Gods:—the supreme God; the second God, or Demiurge or Logos; and the third God, or the world. Plotinus explained the λόγοι as constructive forces, proceeding from the ideas and giving form to the dead matter of sensible things (Enneads, v. 1. 8 and Richter’s Neu-Plat. Studien).

See the histories of philosophy and theology, and works quoted under Heraclitus, Stoics, Philo, John, The Gospel of, &c., and for a general summary of the growth of the Logos doctrine, E. Caird, Evolution of Theology in the Greek Philosophers (1904), vol. ii.; A. Harnack, History of Dogma; E. F. Scott, The Fourth Gospel, ch. v. (1906); J. M. Heinze, Die Lehre vom Logos in der griech. Philosophie (1872); J. Réville, La Doctrine du Logos (1881); Aal, Gesch. d. Logos-Idee (1899); and the Histories of Dogma, by A. Harnack, F. Loofs, R. Seeberg.  (S. D. F. S.; A. J. G.) 

  1. Cf. Schleiermacher’s Herakleitos der Dunkle; art. Heraclitus and authorities there quoted.
  2. Cf. the Targum of Onkelos on the Pentateuch under Gen. vii. 16, xvii. 2, xxi. 20; Exod. xix. 16, &c.; the Jerusalem Targum on Numb. vii. 89, &c. For further information regarding the Hebrew Logos see, beside Dr Kaufmann Kohler, s.v. “Memra,” Jewish Encyc. viii. 464-465, Bousset, Die Religion des Judenthums (1903), p. 341, and Weber, Jüdische Theologie (1897), pp. 180-184. The hypostatizing of the Divine Word in the doctrine of the Memra was probably later than the time of Philo, but it was the outcome of a mode of thinking already common in Jewish theology. The same tendency is of course expressed in the “Logos” of the Fourth Gospel.