As moderns, we can forget that, in the west, it was philosophy that reigned alongside religion. That meant the two shared a sometimes contentious coexistence. Yet, overall, they inevitably enriched each other. What would become known as Western Civilization found its origins in Greek thought which combined the spiritual with the idea of truth. “Truth” was broadly understood as reality, but reality composed more than what the five senses could perceive. Just as today we know that ultraviolet light exists, even though we cannot sense it, ancients understood that lurking behind and beyond the five senses was a spiritual reality. However, they debated its features and effects on the sensible world.
The western bias about reality’s nature assumes that underpinning the physical and sensible world is a spiritual and metaphysical one. And one place to spot this bias at work is in the concept of the logos. Logos is Greek for “word,” but its meaning is deeper in Greek thought than our idea of a combination of letters. In its Greek use, logos translates as “reason” or “thought,”—but even this fails to capture for English speakers the nuanced meaning. Logos has two important aspects, “cause” and “presence.” In its causal sense, logos is creative; it reasons, thinks, and in some cases, causes something to be, similar to how a bad thought can cause tears or a good thought, a smile. Its causal aspect also has the sense of rule, as in a king ruling over a kingdom and causing things to happen; or a spiritual or divine reason/logic to the universe that gives predictability to its operations. Aristotle used logos to refer to the persuasive power of logic—a word that shares a similar meaning. Over time logos also comes to mean “presence,” particularly in religion and the philosophy of language. When you hear a person speak, that person is present with you (at least in the ancient world before technology made it otherwise), so speech gets associated with presence.
But this soon came to be understood in terms of writing as well. When you read a letter or a book, the author becomes “present” to you through the writing. Therefore, logos carries a sense of personal presence in writing too. Interestingly, much of the foundation of postmodern thought and continental philosophy (a branch of philosophy) is based on the rejection of the presence of the logos. For example, the postmodern scholar Jacques Derrida famously coined the term “logocentrism,” which he defined as a bias of western philosophy where speech is privileged over writing. In other words, for Derrida, western history was a history where written things were secondary to in-person ones because the west has traditionally thought that writing conjures or “makes present” in a lesser way the author who (obviously) is not sitting with you in your living room while you read a book. Writing makes the author present, but less so than speech. The traditional western view of speech and writing was that when you read a book or article, the author was still in some way there – in their word choice, argument, style, and most importantly, intent. The author of a book has something to say, and when you read it, his writing in a strange spiritual-logos way conjures him. Thus, the west, for many centuries, took for granted the idea that books come with authors.
But Derrida, postmodernism, and much of continental philosophy rejects this. It rejects the logos and wants to shut out logocentrism. Why? There are many reasons, but the central argument is actually the same as the ancient one: that truth is more extensive than what we sense. For postmoderns, the logos connects truth to authority, and authority shuts down the expansive possibilities of reality. If the author is present in her book, she has some share in what the text means; she shares in or participates in the text. She is not removed from it but remains present within it. And that would mean she also has some authority over what it means. But good readers know that’s not how things seem to work.
The consequences of rejecting the logos in writing are important.
Endless interpretations ensue for any book (and it need not just be the Bible). The author may have had intent, but that doesn’t mean the book functions to deliver that intent. And who’s to say that the book’s functioning in a way the author did not intend is bad? A book may “conjure” an author to our minds, but is this a genuine presence, a sort of quasi-spiritual phenomenon that takes place when we read where the author is given to us, or is the book now its own organism? Is a book like a child, its own creature birthed from an author, having its own will, and its own personality? Perhaps it shares the genetic makeup of its creator, signature features, and passed-along traits. But does it stand apart or remain part of the author? Essentially, that is a significant debate in philosophy today and a central difference between “postmodern” and “ancient” thought.
The consequences of rejecting the logos in writing are important. For all those who say that philosophers argue nonsense and sit in their ivory towers debating inane and unimportant discrepancies, a sobering look at the change in western culture in the past 100 years needs to be had. Everything from the focus on power and power relationships, the burgeoning awareness of privilege, the rejection of truth as fixed and obvious, the tension between identity and politics, the fracturing of traditional religious communities, the importance of “PC” language—all these changes can be traced in no small part to what is now called “the linguistic turn” which, among other things, began a new way of seeing human language, its operations, and the use of the logos.
I should state that I reject the idea that continental philosophy or postmodern thought carries within itself a threat to western civilization or traditionally Christian ways of doing theology. I think such views present a challenge but not a threat. Much within postmodernism stands to correct abuses and overextensions of modernist thought, appropriating, in some cases, ancient ideas and intuitions while rejecting others and striking out on its own ground. Like so much in life, wisdom is needed, and one can appreciate certain aspects of the challenge and correction without the wholesale purchase of the entire enterprise. We gain nothing by turning postmodernism and continental philosophy into a bogyman. And we have much to lose if we do.
That may not be obvious, and time does not permit me in this article to explain why. But in my remaining time with you, I want to set this change in the logos over and against the ancient understanding of Christ as The Logos. I hope we’ll see that, even if we were to follow Derrida in rejecting the logocentrism of speech over writing, Christian theology, in its orthodox expression, needs a traditional sense of logos.
Jesus as The Logos comes from the Bible itself: “In the beginning was the Word (Logos) and the Word (Logos) was with God and the Word (Logos) was God (John 1:1; in total Logos, is used 331 times in the New Testament). The early church fathers quickly pointed out the consequences of Jesus being the Logos. Justin Martyr was the first father to do so explicitly, though Ignatius and others before him set the groundwork. Justin uses the idea of Jesus as Logos to overcome an objection by critics of early Christianity. That criticism was that if Jesus were the Son of God, it would mean that he could not be co-equal, partly because it would mean there was a time when he was not. This criticism charged that Jesus-as-son was a creation of God and, therefore, not God himself. Justin used the Greek concept of logos (building off John’s usage and Greek thought) to articulate a profound response.
The Logos makes salvation possible because it merges God and Man in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Essentially, the patristic explanation of the Logos went like this (my summary): The Father and the Son are inseparable; they are one God, not two, nor is one lesser than the other. The Son is not a creation of the Father but has always eternally existed with the Father and is equal to the Father. There was no time when he was not. How? Because the Gospel of John teaches that Jesus is the Logos. What does that mean? Well, it's like the (imperfect) distinction between a thought and a person who has the thought. The thought is part of the person, not a separate individual (you cannot separate thoughts from persons, if you try, they become ideas but they are no longer thoughts). As The Logos Jesus is like the thought in God the Father’s mind that created the whole universe. When God spoke the universe into creation, it was the Logos that proceeded from his "mouth," a Word. But the Word was God. It was God's reason (intelligence) that created the universe, and this Word also was causal-creative; it made it happen. There was no time when God was not thinking; there was no time when God was not with the Logos. And when the Logos took on flesh and lived among us, he did not cease being God’s Logos and, therefore, still eternally God. Before the incarnation, the Logos did not have a body, "but for our sake became man." Thus, in his incarnation, the Logos became Jesus, the God-Man. The Logos makes salvation possible because it merges God and Man in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Let me put it another way—the Logos is true God of true God, begotten, not made (i.e. not created) and “one in being with the father, through whom all things were made," and this was done, “for us and for our salvation.” So, while we can still debate the role of presence in writing, or how presence operates in discourse, what we cannot do is abandon the long-standing confession of the Church. As it concerns the Divine Logos, Jesus Christ is fully God, fully present in his word. Logos theology gives a foundation for sacramental theology, where Christ is seen to be present in the bread and wine. Logos theology allows God's word to be miraculous, killing with the law and resurrecting in the gospel. Logos theology also grounds ultimate truth  in a person, The Logos, and thus at the same time objectifies and makes eternal the limits of truth.
The concept of logos makes philosophically possible (and therefore conceptual/intelligible) the promise that Jesus will never leave or forsake us. This promise does not just refer to the gift of the Holy Spirit but also to Jesus himself, who comes to us in word and sacrament, who is "head" of the body, and who invites us to take upon ourselves his yoke of ease. Logos theology is a theology of presence without division. It is a way of unification, of which the incarnation is the greatest visible example. But, it is also a window into our own glorification. As the church father Athanasius rightly quipped, “God became man that man might become God.” This is a statement about unity and oneness, the very oneness Jesus prayed and foresaw in the garden with his High Priestly Prayer. Logos theology does not solve all our recent philosophical meanderings, but it offers a place to say that, when it comes to God and what God is doing, he is here, he is present in his Church, and he is the Way, Truth, and Life. Logos theology offers presence beyond the senses, indivisibility in a broken world, and partnership that overcomes our alienation.