The Perennial Logos

The Perennial Logos February 25, 2024

Art by Evgeni Tcherkasski

It has been said that humans are rational beings whose nature it is to know (Aristotle. The Metaphysics. Penguin UK, 2004). Such an anthropology necessitates intelligibility at both ends of the epistemological spectrum, the capacity of the mind to know, and the presence of intelligibility in the world that allows it to be understood.

The concept of intelligibility is critical to the human endeavor. Only because the philosopher, the theologian, and the scientist presuppose the existence of order and intelligibility, both at the level of the universe they investigate and at the level of their own intellect, are their respective disciplines possible. That is to say, if human beings are to have any hope of knowing, then the universe and God must be knowable to some extent, and the human intellect must be so constructed as to be able to understand. 

This is almost self-evident. However, it is necessary to take another step. Suppose the universe and God are knowable, and the human mind is capable of knowing. In that case, both are designed and not the result of random processes since randomness is, by definition, unintelligible. From this, we can infer that there must be a principle of rationality foundational to being itself. Only rationality makes order possible, and it is order that makes philosophy, theology, and science possible. 

In this essay, I will discuss this concept, known in Catholic theology as the Logos. I will begin by explaining what is meant by this term and argue that while the terms used may differ, the concept of Logos has pervaded every civilization.

The belief in a force that creates and animates the universe is very old and very philosophical. It is thought that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus created the first formulation of the Logos approximately five hundred years before the birth of Christ.

Heraclitus recognized a particular order in nature, which obeys a kind of logic. Perhaps more significantly, Heraclitus hints at the Logos being the ground of the moral order. He writes, “Humans can only act in a right way if their actions are in attunement with the Logos.” (Heraclitus. Fragments. Penguin, 2003). It is clear that Heraclitus accepted what later would be called natural law. This understanding of the Logos makes any claim to objective morality possible.

Following Heraclitus, the Stoics took a Platonic view of the Logos. Still, the Stoics saw in the Logos the “master reason” that made the world intelligible. 

Despite the recognition of rationality and intelligibility in the universe, neither the Greeks nor the Romans attributed the Logos to God. Instead, they took a pantheistic approach, thinking that the universe was the source of its own intelligibility. 

It is tempting to argue that the concept of the Logos is a construction of Western philosophy and religion. However, around the same time that Heraclitus formulated the Logos in Greek thought, Taoism flourished in Asia. 

The founder of Taoism, Lao Tzu, wrote of the “Tao,” a force that was everywhere, all-powerful, eternal, and “the mother of the 10,000 things” (i.e., the cause of all that is). (See Laozi. Tao Te Ching. 1972). Most Catholics will recognize the attributes of the “Tao” as almost identical to those of the God of the Bible. It is telling that when the Christian scriptures were translated into Chinese, they used the word “Tao” to express the concept of “Logos.”

Nevertheless, Taoism does not recognize a personal God and, like the ancient Greeks, adheres to a form of pantheism. It would be another five hundred years before a personification of the Logos would appear in the Judean Desert. 

Unlike the pantheistic and polytheistic beliefs of the Greeks, Romans, and Taoists, Judaism contended that God was not one of many gods, nor was God identical to the universe. The God of the Bible is a personal God who seeks a relationship with His people, speaks to them through prophets, and even makes covenant promises with human beings. 

 “God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” (Genesis 1:3). This revelation that God “speaks” creation into existence provides the foundation for understanding the Catholic teaching on the Logos. 

Any discussion of the Logos in the Catholic tradition would do well to begin with the prologue to John’s Gospel, which alludes to Genesis. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In order to see how John’s Gospel builds on Genesis, it is necessary to clarify the term Word.

First, it must be observed that Saint John wrote his Gospel in Greek. While the term Word can have several meanings, within the context of John’s Gospel, Word is an English translation of the Greek term Logos, itself derived from the term legein. Logos developed various senses or meanings. These include description, theory, explanation, reason, reasoning power, principle, and speech. 

In conjunction with Genesis, Saint John asserts that the power that “spoke” the universe into creation is not some impersonal property of the universe. Rather, it is the mind of a living and personal God. What makes the prologue to John’s Gospel remarkable is the claim that the mind of God, that power that imbues the universe with intelligibility, became flesh. (See John 1:14).

This understanding of the Logos has significant implications for Christology and the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Regarding Christology, Catholicism believes that the Logos is the second person of the Trinity, to wit, Jesus Christ. The knowledge of the Trinitarian God is a priori. That is to say that it is not the product of experience. Instead, human beings came to the knowledge of the Trinitarian God by virtue of Divine Revelation. This suggests that while the universe is intelligible, certain truths can only be revealed by the source of that intelligibility. It is for this reason that Catholicism speaks of the “mystery” of God.  

The concept of a rational principle that makes the world intelligible appears in religion and philosophy, both in the West and East. While many have thought this intelligibility was a product of a soulless universe, Catholicism asserts that not only is the Logos the mind of a personal God, but that the mind of God became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

Browse Our Archives