Can We Really Know Who Is God?

Continued from Part 19

A debt to Philo

God, according to Philo, is an incorporeal, indefinable, absolute Being without any knowable attributes and qualities.  God, being so removed from the world, cannot have direct relations with it. 12   

Therefore, Philo introduces an intermediary existence (“words”) between God and the world.13  The “words” are identified with the angels in the Scriptures.  These powers are also conceived of as a single independent being called Logos (“Word”), a term which Philo borrowed from Greek philosophy.  The Logos becomes the intermediary between the transcendent, absolute spiritual God, and material creation, the only form in which God reveals Himself to mankind.  The Philonic conception has its roots in the Platonic and Stoic speculations concerning the relationship of the First Divinity (God) to the world.  Philo’s system follows that of the Greeks in that it is irreconcilably dualistic, with spirit and matter constituting a polarity.  God and the world stand at opposite ends.  By means of the Logos, Philo seeks to solve the problem as to how an absolutely transcendent God may be intimately concerned with the world He created.  Philo portrays the Logos as the instrument of God’s creation and revelation and of His activity in the universe.  This conception of the Logos is derived not from the biblical text, but from Hellenistic sources.  It is primarily from the latter sources that Philo developed the concept of the Logos as mediator between God and the world in the ordering of creation.  Philo judaizes his idea by identifying the Reason of the Greek philosophers (Logos in Greek means both “word” and “reason”) with the Aramaic term memra’ (“word”).

While personifying the Logos to a significant extent, Philo does not do so in an absolute sense.  For him, the Logos is the representative of God and the mediator of man before God.  The Logos is the “High Priest, His firstborn, the divine Word.”14  The Logos announces God’s intentions to man, acting as prophet and priest.  It is through the Logos that man knows of God and raises himself toward Him.  The Logos is definitely inferior to God.  It stands midway between an unbegotten God and a begotten mankind.  It is neither unbegotten nor begotten, “neither uncreated as God, nor created as you, but midway between the two extremes, a surety to both sides.”15

Philo describes the Logos as a “god” (a “god,” without a definite article, in distinction from “the God”).16  He states that while some mistakenly “regard the image of God, His angel the Word, as His very self,”17 it is his opinion that God only “stamped the entire universe with His image and ideal form, even His own Word.”18  The Logos is the instrument by which God created the world.

For that man is the eldest son, whom the Father of all raised up, and elsewhere calls him His firstborn, and indeed the Son thus begotten followed the ways of his Father, and shaped the different kinds, looking to the archetypal patterns which that Father supplied.19

But if there be any as yet unfit to be called a Son of God, let him press to take his place under God’s firstborn, the Word, who holds the eldership among the angels, their ruler as it were.  And many names are his, for he is called, “the Beginning” [arche], and the Name of God, and His Word, and the Man after His image, and “he that sees,” that is Israel. . . .  For if we have not yet become fit to be thought sons of God yet we may be sons of His invisible image, the most holy Word.  For the Word is the eldest-born image of God.20

It is only through a cumulative study of how the relationship of Jesus to God is treated in the entire New Testament that we can determine the nature and role of the Logos as visualized by the early Christians.  As we have seen, there is no doubt that the New Testament is greatly indebted to Philo.  It is from him that the New Testament authors borrowed and adapted the concept of the Logos.  Parallels to Philo’s teachings on the Logos abound in the New Testament to the extent where they could not be merely coincidental.  In essence, Philo’s Logos, the most perfect image of God, is the elder among the angels, and acts as the creative mediator between the all-perfect, all-good God and the inherently evil world of matter.  In the New Testament, we find references to such Philonic concepts as the “firstborn Son of God,” the “image of God,” and the “mediating high priest,” but the fullness of Philo’s doctrine of the Logos finds its culmination in the Gospel of John.  A man deeply influenced by Philonic thought wrote this book.  This influence is most evident from a study of the Logos doctrine as set forth in the first chapter of that gospel.  Modifying Philo’s description of the Logos as a god, John describes the Logos as a separate divine entity who “became flesh,” and identifies it with Jesus.  The task John sets for himself is to proclaim to the Greeks that the Messiah, the Christ, the “only begotten Son of God,” has existed from the beginning of creation as a mediator, and that this divine Logos has become flesh in Jesus.

The metaphorical usage employed by Philo foreshadowed that used by pagan-influenced Christian theologians in their attempts to define the relationship between the nature of the Father and the Son.  Much of the terminology characteristic of fourth-century trinitarian polemics is already in use in Philo’s literary works, e.g., the Logos is the firstborn Son of God, His image, His impress, His likeness, a second God.  However, while Philo employs these terms in a metaphorical sense, Christian theologians construed them in a literal sense.  Despite Philo’s exaggerated personification of the Logos, he believes it to be nothing more than the messenger and minister of God, like the ministering angels.

12 Philo, trans. F.H. Colson and G.H. Whitaker, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge, Mass.:  Harvard University Press, Vol.5, On Dreams, 1962, p. 331.

13 On Dreams, pp. 333, 373.

14 Philo, p. 413.

15 Philo, Vol. 4, Who Is the Heir, 1962, p. 385.

16 Philo, Vol. 5, On Dreams, p. 419.

17 On Dreams, p. 423.

18 On Dreams, p. 463.

19 Philo, Vol. 4, The Confusion of Tongues, 1962, p. 45.

20 The Confusion of Tongues, pp. 89, 91.

© Gerald Sigal