Not Traditional, Original

John 1 – The meaning of the Logos; The Slippery Slope of Applying Mathematical Precision to Language Expressions

This is a rewrite of an article published a dozen or so years ago with more insight hopefully to make clearer what the beginning of the Gospel of John actually says.  As John 1:1-14 is not literal the original article focused on how languages are imprecise and could be misleading if someone tried to take the section literally,  In this rewrite, I have added more on the actual meaning of John chapter one, and that is where I want to start.

As always on this website, our goal is to discover what the original Christians believed in order to see how we got from what the scriptures actually say to the myriad denominations and traditions that disagree on so many things today, no matter how different it may be from what we think right now.

First, thinking that the first chapter of John is the first place that the concept of the logos, the word of God, in operation and as part of creation is discussed in the manner it is presented is a mistake. More likely it is God’s response to a topic already prevalent in the culture. As we will see later the concept of logos had developed in the culture at that time to take on a meaning that was very similar to and integrated with how wisdom was presented in Old Testament scripture.  This concept is recognized by writers from different denominational backgrounds today. I found an interesting article explaining just this by a Catholic priest.[1]

Part of the problem in this topic is that many people today don’t understand the concept of personification, Or, if they do, they don’t recognize it at times, like we are going to be looking at in scripture.  Look at these examples:

Let the sea roar with its fullness; the world, and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands. Let the mountains sing for joy together. Let them sing before Yahweh, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. (Psa 98:7-9 WEB)

These verses say that there are rivers that clap their hands and mountains that sing. What vivid imagery! What a powerful way to communicate. These nonhuman things, rivers, and mountains are talked about as people. That’s personification.

The waters saw you, God. The waters saw you, and they writhed. The depths also convulsed. (Psa 77:16 WEB)

Here’s another example. People writhe and convulse, waters really don’t. That’s personification. But what powerful imagery.

Yahweh said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood cries to me from the ground. (Gen 4:10 WEB)

Or how about this one? Blood may be part of a human, but it’s not a person. Yet this blood is “crying from the ground”. What a powerful impact these words make. That’s personification.

Look at how wisdom is personified in places in the Old Testament

Doesn’t wisdom cry out? Doesn’t understanding raise her voice? On the top of high places by the way, where the paths meet, she stands. Beside the gates, at the entry of the city, at the entry doors, she cries aloud: “To you men, I call! I send my voice to the sons of mankind…Yahweh possessed me in the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed. When there were no depths, I was born, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was born; while as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the beginning of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there; when he set a circle on the surface of the deep, when he established the clouds above, when the springs of the deep became strong, when he gave to the sea its boundary, that the waters should not violate his commandment, when he marked out the foundations of the earth; then I was the craftsman by his side. I was a delight day by day, always rejoicing before him, rejoicing in his whole world. My delight was with the sons of men.  (Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 WEB) [bolded emphasis added]

In the very first verse above wisdom and understanding are described as a person. “Doesn’t understanding raise her voice?” “She stands.”  “She cries out.” These are all sentences talking about a nonhuman thing as if it were a person. Personification is the figure of speech used here.

Personification is a figure of speech in which an idea or thing is given human attributes and/or feelings or is spoken of as if it were human. Personification is a common form of metaphor in that human characteristics are attributed to nonhuman things.[2]

In the above verses from Proverbs, we see that one of the ways that Jews thought about wisdom was to describe it as a wondrous lady. This wondrous lady, wisdom, was there from the beginning before the earth existed. She is described as the craftsman by Yahweh’s side. She’s described as of delight of the Lord. But wisdom is not a person. Wisdom is a quality that is extremely valuable. Wisdom is the capacity to understand and act accordingly. Wisdom is such an awesome thing, but it is not a person. Yet the Old Testament talks about it as if it were, this is one of the ways that the Jews thought about things.

Next, in verses 24 and 25 of Proverbs 8, it says this “I was born.”  Since wisdom was born, it is a created thing, it had a beginning.

Solomon is credited as the author of Proverbs. One source lists Solomon’s life as from 989 to 931 BC.[3] When Solomon wrote proverbs the Logos was not the concept that it would become later. Proverbs’ discussion of wisdom predates the promotion of the concept of the Logos especially the Stoic philosophy that was influential in the world at the time of the Apostles and which started around the fourth century BC.  The Stoics believed in the Logos as the animating, intelligent principle of the universe. The Stoics promoted seeking God’s wisdom in people’s lives by tapping into God’s powerful intelligence, i.e., the Logos.

“The Stoics believed that to achieve freedom, happiness, and meaning one should attune one’s life to the wisdom of God’s will, manifest in the second distinction (above) of Logos.”[4]

In the above statement we have a correlation between wisdom and the Logos that was part of contemporary thinking at the time of the apostles.

Having explained all this I make this claim, trying to take John 1:1-14 literally and mathematically analyze the wording to equate God, Jesus, and the Logos in the prologue of John’s gospel is a mistake and doesn’t reflect the meaning of the concept of Logos at all.  John 1:1-14 is not literal.  Just as wisdom is presented with the figure of speech personification, so is the Logos in John chapter one.

Just as today there are topics that are discussed around the world like evolution, Islamic Jihadism, communism, and so forth, there were concepts that were just as heavily discussed 2000 years ago.  We have already discussed the Stoic emphasis on the Logos but they were not alone in discussing the Logos in their writings.  Philosophers, religious writers, and others, one after another, identified the Logos in their scheme of reasoning as a divine principle in the grand scheme of life. Before the Stoics began incorporating the idea of the Logos there was Heraclitus centuries before them. And not only was the Logos part of Greek philosophical discussion it was in Indian, Egyptian, and Persian thinking, in their discussions of both philosophy and theology.[5]

In the previous article on stoicism, we discussed the stoic view of God, whom they defined as the Logos:

“… the universe is a single ordered whole, a perfect organism that unites within itself all that exists in the world. It is ruled by a supreme cosmic power, a fiery substance that the Stoics called Logos, Divine Reason, or God.  The Logos is the organizing, integrating, and energizing principle of the whole universe.  As a perfect entity, the universe combines within itself the Logos or Divine Reason, which is its soul, and matter, which serves as its body. Since everything is derived from God, everything is a part of God, but not separated or cut from the whole.  Each individual soul is a fragment of the universal Logos or God.”[6]

An individual who lived around the time of the writer of the gospel of John was the Jewish philosopher Philo. Philo wrote about the Logos.  Philo was familiar with the stoic interpretation of the Logos, but attempted to bring it closer to his understanding of the Old Testament.

“For the Stoics, logos was equally reason (individual and universal), nature, and God, while for Philo, logos is not ultimate reality but merely what we can see and understand of God, who is Himself very far from human comprehension. In Stoicism, logos is God; in Philo it corresponds to his specific doctrine of the dunameis, the powers of God who created the world and governs it.”[7]

These explanations of stoic and Philo’s interpretation of the Logos illustrate that the Logos was a concept people were talking about at the time that the gospel of John was written.  They also illustrate that there was debate about what it was.

Philo’s concept of the Logos as the dunameis, the power of God in action, is much closer to the explanation given in the prologue of the Gospel of John than any kind of quick mathematical analysis perfectly equating the Logos to both God and his Son.

More closely to the language of the times the prologue of John says that the Word of God is the powerful energized plan of God. It is God’s wisdom with dunamis power, This powerful energized plan of God has been with him from the beginning and is what we know about God the Father.

We see that energy in the Word of God (Logos) in Isaiah 55.

So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it. (Isa 55:11 KJV)

While man’s word may be powerless, as we see in the verse above, there is power in the word (the Logos) of God.

In reality, as tiny, short-lived, finite beings we can only understand that part of God that he reveals to us. This Word of God, this plan of redemption that God set in motion, revealed through the law and the prophets, and experienced through our spiritual connection with him is God to us.  But also in reality, the little bit of God that has been revealed to us cannot in any way fully express to our tiny minds who God is.  We will see more of this when we look at the translation of John 1:1 especially.

Now, onto the topic of trying to apply mathematical precision to language expressions because that is what a lot of people studying the Bible attempt to do with John chapter one. In a previous article, Grammar and Logic – Boring But Invaluable, I wrote “Another mistake is to substitute the logic of one discipline for another. An area where I have seen this kind of mistake is in the fields of mathematics and languages. For example, some people read the word “is” and ascribe to that word the mathematical definition of “equals”.”

One comment on the previous article was that a common-sense reading of John 1 is that the Word is someone and that someone is Jesus. This comment is taking the verses literally instead of recognizing that personification is being used here. That comment is saying that the Logos, the Word, is a person.  Then that person is equated to Jesus Christ.  That is taking the section literally and analyzing it mathematically.  The problem is that languages aren’t that precise, especially here which we shall see when we look at the Greek.

Greek, grammar, syntax, and mathematical notation are all boring, but they are the only way to know what something means. So, if you want to understand why it is important, you need to get through this more tedious part of the article

First of all, there is a mathematical language in the world that is used because it allows mathematicians to say things precisely.  There may be some English or other spoken language in Math but mainly it uses precise mathematical symbols.  For example, the following allows someone to express something precisely, in this case, part of Taylor’s Theorem:

I know, it looks like gibberish to a lot of people.  But, it’s not important what the above math says. What’s important is that this statement is free from the ambiguity of English and other languages.  It’s precise.

On the other hand, you can’t just apply mathematical precision to English or other language expressions. For example, in mathematics, we have the axiom that two things that are both equal to a third thing are equal to each other. Or, as it is written mathematically, if a equals b, and b equals c, then a equals c. You can use this axiom ad infinitum. If c equals d also, then a would equal d, and so forth.

It is written like this:

If a = b and b = c, then a = c.

The difference is that the “=” symbol means equals. The word “is” may or may not mean “equals”.

This applies universally to expressions people use to communicate. Still, the temptation is to say that anywhere someone uses the word “is”, you can substitute the word “equals” and that is a slippery slope.

First, sometimes the logic does work, and here is an example:

Minerals are inanimate.  Quartz is a mineral.  Therefore, Quartz is inanimate.

The above is a syllogism, a concept introduced by Aristotle.

However, there are numerous examples where the word “is” doesn’t mean “equals”.  For example, US President Barack Obama (A) is a man (B). Nelson Mandela (C) is a man (B). Would anybody try to apply the above mathematical logic and say that Nelson Mandela is the U.S. president? Or that Nelson Mandela is Barack Obama?

Barack Obama (A) = a man (B) = Nelson Mandela (C)
Therefore Barack Obama (A) = Nelson Mandela (C).

That obviously doesn’t make sense! Nelson Mandela was at one time the President of South Africa and was a terrific world leader. Whether or not you agree with his politics Barack Obama held the power of the U.S. presidency, a position of great honor and power. Yet, trying to substitute “equals” for “is” equates Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama as the same man. These two both are men, but they do not equal each other; in fact, they are very different men. And in fact, there are no examples where one man would “equal” another. John McCain, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Peyton Manning, and James Earl Jones are all men. But we all agree John McCain is NOT Kobe Bryant who is NOT Lebron James who is NOT Peyton Manning who is NOT James Earl Jones.

Yet the application of mathematical precision to the word “is” as “equals” is exactly what many bible students do in the prologue of the gospel of John. The gospel of John says that the Logos is God.  It also says this same Logos was in the beginning with God.  A little further down the page, it says that the Logos became flesh and dwelt among men.  So, we have mathematically inclined students teaching that this is a mathematical expression. They say that the Logos equals God, that the Logos was in the beginning with God, and that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us. So, to them. we have a mathematical proof that Jesus is God, the God-man.

More specifically, defining “is” as “equals” to John 1 gives us this series of equations:

The Word = God

The  Word = Jesus Christ

Using the transitive property of mathematical precision we get:

The Word = God = Jesus Christ.

However, if you are going to apply mathematical precision defining “is” as “equals” to this statement then you need to apply it fully to all elements. The principle says that things equal to the same thing are equal to each other.  Why aren’t people saying that the Word is God and part of the Trinity?  There are three elements here all supposedly equal to each other, the Word, God (the Father), and Jesus (the word made flesh).  There is a trinity here, but there is no Holy Spirit.  The trinity here is God the Father, the Son, and the Word.  But no one is saying that the Word fully equates to God as part of the trinity (instead of the Son or Spirit), but if you apply their logic that would be a valid conclusion!

Here is more about how imprecise this language is. Take a look at John 1:1 in Greek. When the Greek refers to God the Father it uses the article “the”.  If it doesn’t include the article then it’s not referring to God the Father. Rather, it’s used to describe a “god” or even a magistrate, also used as a modifier like godly or godward.

Here’s is what Strong’s Greek Dictionary says about the word theos in Greek Texts:

Strong’s: 2316: theos: a deity, espec him. (with #3588, (the definite article “Ho”)): the supreme Divinity figuratively, a magistrate; by Heb. very:- exceeding, God, god [-ly, ward].

It is a little cryptic, but in Strong’s definition above, it says that the word theos with the definite article refers to the supreme Divinity. The supreme Divinity is God the Father. Otherwise, theos alone, without the definite article (ho), can refer to a god, or mean godly or godward.

Here’s the interlinear text:

Do you see how the Greek has “the God” the first place theos is used, but not the second? The first place theos is used it is literally referring to the God Almighty.  But, the second place doesn’t say “the God” which is the Greek that refers to God Almighty. So, the second usage of theos is descriptive rather than literal. Instead of saying the logos is God Almighty, it is saying that the logos is godly.  This is more accurate:

In this translation, I have used “godlike”.  As Strong’s says, I could have used godly.  When you don’t have the article, the meaning changes to “god” (small g) or becomes descriptive. In this verse “god” (small g) doesn’t work. So it is saying that the Logos is godlike.  The Logos is godly.  That phrase is absolutely not saying that the Logos is equal to “the God”.

The Greek text above does not support the translation, “the Word was God”.  In order to be accurately saying “the Word was God”, you really need an article before the word” God” in Greek.

However, most versions of the Bible have something like:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Joh 1:1 WEB)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (Joh 1:1 ASV)

Again, in order for this verse to be saying that the Logos is actually God, it needs an article before God in Greek. These translations are imprecise, and as such, are misleading without the proper understanding.

John 1:1-14 personifies the Logos just like Proverbs chapter 8. Remember personification is treating a thing as if it were a person.  Wisdom in Proverbs was treated like a person, the Logos referred to here is treated like a person.  But neither is actually a person.  Yet the pronouns of she, he, him, and her in these verses refer to these non-human things, wisdom, and Logos (word).  I have added [wisdom] and [Logos] to the verses to emphasize that.

The prologue of John says that the Word of God, the Logos is wisdom with dunamis (a Greek word for dynamic power). This powerful energized plan of God has been with him from the beginning and is what we know about God the Father.

The same was in the beginning with God. (Joh 1:2 WEB)

This Logos, this Wisdom with dunamis power was there with him in the beginning just like it says in Prov 8:22.

“Yahweh possessed me [wisdom] in the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed.
(Pro 8:22-23 WEB)

Both Logos and wisdom were there when things were being made.

All things were made through him [Logos]. Without him [Logos] was not anything made that has been made. (Joh 1:3 WEB)

Compare this to Proverbs chapter 8.

When he established the heavens, I [wisdom] was there; when he set a circle on the surface of the deep, when he established the clouds above, when the springs of the deep became strong, when he gave to the sea its boundary, that the waters should not violate his commandment, when he marked out the foundations of the earth; then I [wisdom] was the craftsman by his side. I [wisdom] was a delight day by day, always rejoicing before him, (Pro 8:27-30 WEB)

The Old Testament says wisdom, the Gospel of John says the Logos.  They are talking about the same thing, God’s power enabled wisdom, his energized plan.

In him [Logos] was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it. (Joh 1:4-5 WEB)

Compare that to:

For whoever finds me [wisdom], finds life, and will obtain favor from Yahweh. But he who sins against me [wisdom] wrongs his own soul. All those who hate me [wisdom] love death.” (Pro 8:35-36 WEB)

John 1:4 says the Logos is life, Proverbs 8:35 says wisdom is life. They are talking about the same thing.  The “him” in John 1 and the “me” in Proverbs 8 are the Logos, the wisdom. Again, this is the figure of speech, personification, calling an inhuman thing human.

Next, we have,

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came as a witness, that he might testify about the light, that all might believe through him [Logos]. He was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light. (Joh 1:5-8 WEB)

This is the first time a real man is mentioned, John the Baptist.  He is part of this Wisdom, this Logos, and was sent to bear witness to the Light.  John wasn’t the light, John wasn’t the Logos, but was sent that all might believe through him (the Logos spoken of as a person).

Next, look at:

The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. He [Logos] was in the world, and the world was made through him [Logos], and the world didn’t recognize him [Logos]. He [Logos] came to his own, and those who were his own didn’t receive him [logos]. But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, to those who believe in his name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Word [Logos] became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his [Logos’] glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. (Joh 1:9-14 WEB)

These verses have no parallel in Proverbs 8 because John is announcing that the Wisdom of Proverbs 8, this Logos, has generated a solution in the flesh.  The Word became flesh.  It wasn’t flesh before, but Wisdom, the Logos had been working toward it all along. Part of this plan was to produce a man that was capable of redeeming mankind.  Here’s how that happened.

The angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God. (Luk 1:35 WEB)

This act allowed the Word of God, Wisdom in Proverbs 8, the Logos in John 1 to become flesh and enter the world in the person of Jesus Christ. This was God’s plan all along.  This was the seed promised to Eve. This was Savior promised by the prophets. This man was created to become the embodiment of this plan.  And as such, he was a man called to be the living Word of God. He was called to carry out God’s plan for redemption.

Jesus Christ, our Lord, is that human fulfillment of God’s energized wisdom, the logos. Just as the logos is God to us, but less than the total of all that God is, Jesus is that part of God’s plan that works to provide a human savior for mankind. As such, Jesus is the embodiment, the wisdom for that energized plan.  He is the living Word of God.  That is in no ways a small feat, but that does not make the living Logos equal to the creator

In original Christianity, the Logos, which is wisdom in Proverbs 8, had a beginning.  It was before the creation of the earth, but it was not co-eternal.  All of this is important because this first chapter in John in the third century was misconstrued to say that this Logos is co-eternal with God, a foundational piece of fourth-century theology.  However, this was not the belief of the original Apostles. To see that we read Justin Martyr who around 150 AD wrote that Jesus Christ existed, before his birth, but it was only in the mind of God.  Justin wrote of the Logos and the Son as subordinate to the Father.

“Justin’s emphasis is on the divine Logos, subordinate to God the father , yet his Son,  His agent, and one with Him in some true, though rather indefinite, sense.”[8]

No matter what people believe now, this is documentation of what original Christianity believed.  In original Christianity, the Logos had a beginning,  Jesus Christ had a beginning.

It wasn’t until Kallistos in the middle of the third century that the logos Christology taught that Jesus Christ was coeternal with God. And after him, Novation (circa 250 AD) started using the terminology that Jesus Christ shared a “communion of substance”.[9] But this is hundreds of years after Pentecost and perhaps a hundred and fifty years after the passing of the apostles.

So, what we see is that the Trinitarianism that has been dominant since the fourth century didn’t even exist in the time of the original apostles. With the advent of incorporating philosophy with the apologists, we see concepts such as the Logos changing over time. But the original apostles and other Christian believers believed that the Logos, the wisdom of God, had a beginning and understood that it was a personification of something that God created because that is part of how they communicated. Yes, these concepts changed over time, but as it says in Encyclopedia Britannica, even going into the third century, Unitarianism (God as one person) was the dominant belief of Christianity. The Logos as a creation of God was still dominant even though it was changing from its original meaning in the church as the church embraced philosophy.

“Even after the elimination of Gnosticism the church remained without any uniform Christology; the Trinitarians and the Unitarians continue to confront each other, the latter at the beginning of the third century still forming the large majority.”[10]

As it says above, Unitarians still formed a large majority at the beginning of the third century, indicating the Original Christian church started out Unitarian.

I have to admit I was shocked the first time I saw this (and other reputable references pointing to the same outcome) in print.   I had read a lot of things about how the Trinity was developed over time and wasn’t in place originally but I had never read that while there was debate early on, it was Unitarianism that was in place originally, that it was still the dominant belief going into the third century. What an eye-opener!

So, not only is the wording insufficient to establish the Logos is actually God, we have the historical record that shows that the original Christians didn’t believe the Logos was God the Father but subordinate to the Father. They believed that God the Father alone is God. They believed that both the son and the Logos were inferior and subordinate to the Father.  The first chapter of John personifies the Logos as a person just as wisdom is personified in the Old Testament but neither makes Wisdom or the Logos actually God. They are god-like, they represent the best we can understand of who God is.

John chapter one is an insight both into Jewish thinking and an explanation of how God works. God knew what would happen before creation so part of creation is a plan to redeem man whom God knew would sin.  God made a plan and energized it.  Proverbs 8 calls that plan wisdom, John 1 calls that plan the Logos. Part of that plan was to make produce a seed of Eve that would step on the head of the adversary, and redeem us from sin. The Logos is still working and will work until the final victory.

[1] Logos as Fulfilment of Wisdom in Israel, https://www.faith.org.uk/article/september-october-2009-logos-as-fulfilment-of-wisdom-in-israel

[2] https://literarydevices.net/personification/

[3] http://timeline.biblehistory.com/event/solomon

[4] Logos, https://www.pbs.org/faithandreason/theogloss/logos-body.html

[5] Logos philosophy and theology, https://www.britannica.com/topic/logos

[6] The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961. p.51

[7] https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/philo/

[8] A History of The Christian Church, Williston Walker, Scribner, New York, 1959, p. 47

[9] A History of the Christian church, P. 70

[10]  The Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol.23 :  Internet Archive p.963

last edited 1/18/2022

September 30th, 2021 Posted by | Biblical Translation And Interpretation, Grammar and Logic, Trinity | no comments

Faulty Logic, Interpreting Bible Verses Based On Word Order – There Is No Biblical Mandate To Always Put Others Before Yourself

“The greatest commandment is… Thou shalt love the Lord thy God… and the second … is …Thou shalt love thy neighbor as yourself”

First of all, let me say that it is admirable to see someone put someone else’s need above their own and act accordingly.  For example, both a young person and an elderly woman need to enter a building.  The young person is actually at the door a minute ahead of the woman.  But, the young person stops, and holds the door to let the woman in first.  Or, when getting a serving of mashed potatoes, you help someone else get one first.  These are just small examples, but there are bigger examples.  In fact, people make big sacrifices all the time: the wife who works to put her husband through school, the man who takes a cheaper vacation to help the young family down the street with the sick child, the people who give up their time and money to go help the Katrina or Haiti victims.  These are admirable examples and models for all of us to follow.  There are definitely times when it is appropriate to put others before ourselves.

But what I want to address is the teaching that some give that says that we should put others before ourselves ALL THE TIME.  It looks like this, in fact following are examples from the web.  I did a quick Google search and picked a couple of examples from the first  search results returned:  God First, Others Second, I am Third.[i] There is even a Facebook page: God First, Others Second, I’m Third.[ii] Another way that it is expressed is: God first, others second, self last.[iii]

If you look at these articles, you will see logic like this:

“Let’s imagine just for a moment a family in which everyone lives according to (Gale)Sayers’ little motto, “I’m third.” That is to say each would always place God first, then each other second. A husband and father would say to his wife and children, “God is first in all things and you are an immediate second.” A wife and mother would say the same thing to her husband and children. And children would grow learning in all things that God is first and to place the good and well being, the needs of others before their own. Would that introduce some new dynamics in you family if everyone lived with each other in that way?”[iv]

This is hard to argue with.  We all know how selfish we all can be and how this can make family life chaotic.  What a dream it would be if our whole family acted like the example above.

You will also read logic that itemizes all kinds of biblical arguments about how we are to be meek and humble: Blessed are the meek, Pride goes before destruction, we should all submit to one another, and so forth.  All of these admonitions are true.

So it is plain to see that there are places in the bible that teach against selfishness, and to sometimes put others first. But the truth is that there is no biblical verse(s) that says that once and for all time the order of preference in our lives is God first, others second and we are commanded to be third.

I have heard some say that the answer is in the order of the words because in the sentence the first object of love that you see is God, the second is neighbor, the third is yourself.  Since neighbor comes before yourself in the sentence then neighbor should come before yourself in life.

That is just not good biblical interpretation.  First, anyone that knows anything about Greek knows that in Greek, which is what this text is translated from, and contrary to English, the order of the words in the sentence do not determine its meaning.  Rather, it is the endings of the words that determine the flow of the sentence and its meaning.

But more important to the logic here, the key to this setting of priorities is in the word “as”.  “As” means “like, in the manner of.”  For example, consider the next sentence:

You will get paid as much as the other union members.

Would anyone think that you are supposed to be paid more because you are named before the others in this sentence?  Of course not!  Everyone understands that your pay will be the same as the others here.  Or how about:

Bill is as tall as Frank.

Does anyone think Bill is taller than Frank because he is named first? Again, of course not.   They are the same height.  So why would anyone say that “love others as yourself” means anything but loving others the same as yourself?!  There is no good reason.

The mandate that we are being given here is to bring the love that we have for others up to the level we have for ourselves.  That is the challenge.  The problem that we have is:

for no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church;  (Ephesians 5:29)

Paul is attesting to the fact that we love ourselves, we take care of ourselves.  We tend to think of ourselves first.  Paul tells us to put God first, and then to add the concerns of others to our concerns:

doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.   (Philippians 2:3-4)

Notice that “counting other better than himself” does not say “loving other more than himself.”  The context is esteem, humbling ourselves to others.

The natural standard of care for each of us is to “look upon our own things.”  Paul exhorts us to do the unnatural thing, to look “to the things of others.”  He is exhorting us to give the same standard of care to others that we give to ourselves.

Why is this distinction important?  Let’s look at a few examples first.

1.  Barry loves sports cars.  He buys one as soon as he is able and drives it all the time.  He meets Meg whom he eventually marries.  Soon, little Georgette comes along.  Meg wants to stay home with Georgette but it will mean giving up the sports car.  Barry reasons he needs to put his family first so he gives up the car, although he misses it.

2.  Joe has volunteered to coach a youth basketball team.  Bill comes to him and asks him to trade one or two of his best players for some other players that are not so good.  Joe reasons that he should follow the mandate of making others second and himself third.  He makes the trade.  His team suffers; with the original players they would have been better, with the lesser skilled players they have a losing season.  The team he traded with beats him badly every time they play, and they rub it in.

3.  Mary has some places she wants to go for vacation, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite.  Her husband, Frank, never wants to go to those places, he likes golfing vacations.  Their budget is limited, thy can only go one place a year.  Mary reasons that she should follow the mandate of making others second and herself third.  She always goes where Frank says.  She gets depressed that she never gets to go the places she wants.

Do you think that any of these examples would be an unrealistic application of “God First, Others Second, I am Third”?  After all, the teaching isn’t that you are only supposed to do it when the other person is loving also.  The teaching is that you are just supposed to make yourself third.

Who can argue that Barry did the wrong thing, but what about Joe and Mary?  I am going to say that Joe should have taken care of himself and kept the better players.  And there is no way that Mary should always have to give up where she wants to go.  Couples that love each other alternate so that each sometimes gets what they want.  That would really be applying the “love others as yourself” rule when each gives to the other as much as they insist on their way for themselves.

When one person is always giving in to the other that makes for an unhealthy, unbalanced relationship.  Foolishly believing that you are always supposed to live under the “God First, Others Second, I am Third” rule could keep an abused person under the thumb of an abuser. I have seen both men and women who lived like their way was the only way, and the spouse was supposed to just go along with whatever the dominating spouse wanted.

The healthy relationship is based on give and take, not one person always making themselves third to the other person.

Most importantly, is correctly reading and interpreting what the verse says.  It says that we are to love others the same as ourselves.  Not more than, not less than, the same as.

If you have to number a priority, instead of “God First, Others Second, I am Third”, it would be:

“God First, Others and I are tied for Second.

April 10th, 2011 Posted by | Grammar and Logic | no comments

Axiomatic Systems ?!?!

What does Axiomatic Systems have to do with a study of Christianity?  In fact, what are Axiomatic Systems?  Why would anyone care about Axiomatic Systems in the first place? Well, it’s because Christianity is an axiomatic system!

To give a little history, when I was growing I was one of the school math whizzes.  Math came easier to me than most, and I was fascinated with it. The incredible logic of it was (and still is to some small degree) awesomely beautiful.   So I was advanced in school, took calculus in high school, and started college as a math major.  I took more classes, Differential Equations, and so on.  One of the last classes I took was one called Axiomatic Systems.

So what are Axiomatic Systems?  Well, first we must look at what an axiom is.  An axiom is a truth or principle that is assumed because it is self-evident.  There is no way of proving or disproving an axiom, it is just so obvious it is universally accepted.  An axiom cannot have a single contradiction ever.  For example, in algebra one axiom is:

The whole of a quantity is greater than a part.

Pretty simple, right?  Does anybody disagree with this?  Is there any time a whole orange would be less than some of its segments.  Is there any time a bunch of 50 grapes would be less than say, 20 of those same grapes, taken from it?  No, of course not.  The whole bunch will always be greater than part of the grapes from the bunch.  And the whole orange will be greater than some of the segments.  This axiom is self-evident, and no one has found a contradiction.

There are quite a few other axioms that form the basis of algebra.  Examples include:

  • a + b = b + a
  • a times b = b times a

Now, whereas axioms are just self-evident truths, theorems are truths that are deduced from axioms or other theorems.  (I know all this may sound complicated, but bear with me, I will relate this to Christianity pretty soon.)  Most people have heard of the Pythagorean Theorem.  Of course, this theorem relates to triangles which are more related to trigonometry, but algebra is also involved in working with the theorem.

The Pythagorean Theorem says that the area of the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.  There are “proofs” that show how this is logically deduced.

Algebra is an axiomatic system because it is based on a number of axioms.  Trigonometry is another axiomatic system, and so forth.  An Axiomatic System is any set of axioms that can be used to logically derive theorems.

What made the Axiomatic Systems class both fascinating and maddening is that this class went through the exercises of taking existing axiomatic systems like abstract algebra and trigonometry and changing some of the axioms.  For example, there is an example in classic geometry that says that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Some of you may know that this particular axiom is changed in some higher systems. Einstein, for example, postulated that space-time is a curve and that the shortest distance between two points is a curve.

It is this example, and others like it, that brings me back to the study of original, primitive Christianity.

There are certain “truths” taught by different churches and denominations as basic tenets. These truths are presented in that they can neither be proven nor disproven.  That makes them axioms. Things deduced from these axioms, therefore, are theorems. That makes these theologies axiomatic systems.

As we have seen in different places of this website, however, there are many disputed doctrines, which means that we don’t have a clean and precise single axiomatic system that we can call Christianity.

One of the first things that we need to do when we have an axiomatic system that produces competing results is to examine the axioms and verify whether or not there are contradictions to the axioms.

Of course, we don’t have any churches or denominations that define their theology as axioms and theorems. However we do have creeds, and statements of belief. And when we look at these we find that at least some of these have axioms.  Some parts of the statements of belief are axioms, and others are deductions or theorems.  For example, some common statements in statements of belief define the status of the scriptures, the definition of the Trinity, and the role of the sacraments as well as more basic statements about the saving nature of believing in Christ.  For example, Christianity Today, a mainstream Christian magazine says the following on its website about the status of the scriptures:

“A. The sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error. They constitute the only infallible guide in faith and practice.”[i]

This is presented as an axiom.  Since there are no copies of the originally written scriptures this statement cannot be either proven or disproven.  To the holders of this belief, this statement is represented as so obvious that it is unthinkable to think otherwise.

This axiom and a few others then form the basis for other statements.  The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is a very long statement that expands on the meaning of the above simple statement. (Remember that this, as with most church doctrines, can have subtly different shades of meaning among proponents) It elaborated with phrases such as:

“We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.,..

We deny that church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible…

We affirm that the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God.

We deny that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation, or only becomes revelation in encounter, or depends on the responses of men for its validity…

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.

We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. We further deny that any normative revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings…

We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.

We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind….

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant…

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science…

We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.

We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism…”[ii]

The writers of this statement take the position that these statements cannot be disproven, that makes axioms.

The Southern Baptist Convention holds a very similar statement on the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture to Christianity Today.  A later statement after SBC’s statement on scripture is this:

“VI. The Church

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”[iii]

If you look for “proof” on how the SBC gets this, the obvious answer is they will refer to numerous passages of Scripture to document that each of the ideas in this particular statement is deduced from the principal axiom, that being that the Scriptures, with the Holy Spirit being the teacher for us to understand the Scriptures, “proves” that this is how the church is to operate.   A clue that is relevant to our discussion is “associated by covenant”.  This denomination promotes Covenant Theology over Dispensationalism.

One key to working with axioms is to verify that they really are self-evident, i.e., that they do not have any contradictions.  And if you do find a contradiction, then the challenge is to see what the ramifications are.  Just as when one element is wrong in a story, it doesn’t mean the whole story is a lie, just the element that was wrong, and any related facts that were based on it, so the same goes for evaluating an axiomatic system.

Amazingly, after I took Axiomatic Systems I started losing interest in Math.  I found the classes too abstract (I can hear the laughs!), and for years I wondered why I was so interested at one point and so uninterested after that.  (So if you found this article hard to follow I totally understand.  It’s just that it is important to resolving a lot of the disputes between the differing doctrines.)  After I started studying all these competing Christian theologies, I was thankful I had taken the class as I realized that the concepts of working with axiomatic systems applied to this study.

We will go further in future articles examining this tool of axiomatic systems and how it can help us find out what is true or not about so many of these Christian theologies.  Hopefully, it can help us sift the wheat from the chaff concerning what is true Christianity.

[i] From the Christianity Today Website, this page located at http://www.christianitytoday.com/help/features/faith.html

[ii] From The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy located at http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/chicago.htm

[iii] official website of the Southern Baptist Convention. This page located at http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp#xi

© copyright 2011-2019 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

February 22nd, 2011 Posted by | Grammar and Logic | no comments

Grammar and Logic – Boring But Invaluable

Oh, it would be but so very wonderful and great if the books of the Bible had been written recently in my language by someone in my family. I would understand it much more easily. I would understand all of the colloquialisms, the grammar, the jokes, and all the other nuances of language that affect the meaning of things written.

I am adding a section called Grammar and Logic because, alas, the above is not true. In fact, it is very complicated. The writings that tell us about ancient Christianity were written thousands of years ago in a distant part of the world in dialects that are no longer spoken. What that means to the Bible student, the student of ancient writings in general, is that the current rules of grammar do not apply, rather the rules of grammar that apply are the ones that were in effect when the writings were written. For example, in modern English, the order of the words is very important. The position of a noun in the sentence tells you whether it is the subject, object, or perhaps indirect object. But, in Koine Greek, the order of the words is irrelevant. It is a mistake to think that the first noun in a sentence written in Koine Greek is the subject. The case, tense, gender, and other grammar information are communicated via the word endings.

One of the interesting elements of any language are figures of speech. For example, if I were to say to you, Fred had a real dilemma, he was looking for a needle in a haystack, would you think that Fred is really looking for a needle in a big stack of hay? No, of course not, you would know that the dilemma that Fred was facing was extremely difficult. That’s what the colloquialism, “needle in a haystack” means. That is just one example of a figure of speech, and there are many figures of speech.

It is also a mistake to think that you can just apply common sense to everything in the Bible. First of all, I’m not exactly sure what “common sense” is! Often, when people say is common sense is nothing more than their opinion based on their very limited experience, or the current attitudes in a person’s culture. We saw that big-time with slavery. It was perfectly logical, it was just common sense that people of color were less than human, less capable, less intelligent, and less everything then the race of the people in power. With such a powerful prevailing attitude in white society, then arguments could reasonably be found to substantiate that viewpoint with certain references from the science of the times and even the Bible.

Another mistake is to substitute the logic of one discipline for another. An area where I have seen this kind of mistake is in the fields of mathematics and languages. For example, some people read the word “is” and ascribe to that word the mathematical definition of “equals”. In mathematics, as most people know, the transitive principle says that if A =B and B =C, then A =C. If C =7, then A = 7. However, language is rarely as precise as mathematics. Let’s apply this same transitive principle to language. Jesus is the rock. A rock is a “mass of hard consolidated mineral matter”. Therefore, Jesus is a “mass of hard consolidated mineral matter”. I think you can see the point. That conclusion doesn’t make sense. Using the transitive principle of mathematics wherever you see the word “is” is a slippery slope.

On the other hand, not everything in the bible is complicated. “Jesus wept” is not complicated unless you start adding meaning beyond what the words say. Look at these verses, which, if you just read the words and don’t read more into the words, are fairly easy to understand:

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, (Matthew 3:1)

Now when the Pharisees gathered to him, with some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem, they saw that some of his disciples ate with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands properly, holding to the tradition of the elders, and when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash. And there are many other traditions that they observe, such as the washing of cups and pots and copper vessels and dining couches.) And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”  (Mar 7:1-5 ESV)

Here the Pharisees are asking Jesus why his disciples do not follow the washing traditions and other traditions of the elders.

Jesus’ response was that they were teaching their doctrines, not God’s.  It is fairly simple and straightforward.

There are many sections in ancient writings that are easy to understand as long as you read what is written and avoid reading into verses things that are not there.

In fact, the reason that the Bible uses figures of speech, parables, images, and other communication tools is to make the passage more easy to understand. Look at this parable:

And the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman taken in adultery. And standing her in the midst, they said to Him, Teacher, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the Law commanded us that such should be stoned. You, then, what do you say? They said this, tempting Him so that they might have reason to accuse Him. But bending down, Jesus wrote on the ground with His finger, not appearing to hear. But as they continued to ask Him, He lifted Himself up and said to them, He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her. And again bending down, He wrote on the ground. And hearing, and being convicted by conscience, they went out one by one, beginning at the oldest, until the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. (John 8:3-9)

(Before continuing, I need to add that this parable is in all modern texts but is missing in a number of early texts.   That means that although teachers for many centuries have taught this parable it may have been added.  It does bring up some issues.  As I have discussed in other posts Jesus was accused of breaking the law, but in fact, only broke the pharisee’s incorrect interpretation of the law.  Here the law is simple and correctly applied.  If someone is caught in adultery they are to be stoned according to Leviticus 20:10. Despite the fact that this is in every modern text I have seen, because this text is missing in early manuscripts and because it appears to be teaching that Jesus is advocating breaking the law by not stoning I do not believe this text is part of this gospel.)

This parable is about judging other people. A woman was caught in adultery. The law prescribed the death penalty for that sin. The scribes and Pharisees asked Jesus what they should do with her. His response was “let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. He knelt down, he wrote on the ground, and one by one, each one left, “being convicted by conscience”.

Jesus’s message was “he who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone”. Guilty people shouldn’t condemn other guilty people. That’s the simple message here.  The principle was set in a parable that was easy to follow.

Now, what does the parable not say?  That is why I bring up the passage here.  I’ve heard pastors teach that when Jesus knelt down, he wrote down the sins of the woman’s accusers. Do we know that? I’ve heard the teaching that Jesus, being God, had the knowledge of each and every one of their sins. It is possible he was writing their sins. It’s a viable guess. But do we know that absolutely from this verse? No, we don’t.  That is what I mean by reading into the verse. If we don’t know it from the verse, or from the context, then it is poor interpretation to read things into it.

So, the point is we should rejoice and learn from what the verse actually says, and absolutely avoid reading into the message. “He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone” is the message and not that Jesus wrote down each man’s sins because he had perfect knowledge of them. And to increase our understanding of the ancient writings we need to hone our understanding of grammar and logic.

© copyright 2011-2019 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved. Revised 2019

February 22nd, 2011 Posted by | Grammar and Logic | no comments