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Ministry and the “Word”

Posted on Monday, July 3, 2006 at 07:15PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in , | Comments4 Comments

It’s not entirely clear what Herakleitos, the ancient Greek philosopher, meant by “Logos”. But he was the first to use the term.

And the reason it appears in the Gospels of John (“In the beginning was the Logos … and the Logos became flesh, and dwelt among us…”, John 1:1,14) and Luke (“The Seed is the Logos of God…”, Luke 8:11), ultimately goes back to Herakleitos.

Why do I bring this up? It’s because I’m exploring, in this blog, what traveling in the ministry is about. And it’s a real basic fact that what a minister does — whether traveling or not — is ultimately all about the Logos. She, or he, seeks to be a good imitator of Christ, sowing the Seed. Early Friends were quite clear about this.

So what is the Logos? To say it is Christ, merely begs the question. John told his readers that Christ was the Logos because his readers knew Greek and knew something of Greek culture; knowing something of Greek culture, they knew how Herakleitos and his heirs used the term; knowing how Herakleitos used the term, they had some idea what Logos meant to John. Having some idea of what Logos meant, it helped them understand who Christ was. To say that the Logos is Christ is useful if you have such an independent understanding of Logos, but it is a rather empty statement otherwise; if his readers hadn’t had some grounding in Greek culture, John might as well have simply saved his breath.

So there is some point to trying to understand what Herakleitos, and his followers, understood by “Logos”. It might help us see Christ, as John understood him, a bit more clearly; and it also might us help see what the minister should — and should not — be doing, more clearly.

Now, one interesting thing about the meaning of Logos in Herakleitos’s own time is that most Greeks back then were illiterate. And being illiterate, they had never learned the idea that a “word” is a discrete unit of speech, something set off from its fellow words by the use of spaces between them. In fact, those Greeks who could actually write didn’t put spaces between their words on the page; they just ran them together, as if they were all one word. And the Greeks would describe the writing as a whole — everything on the page lumped together — as a “word”. “We have a word from Euripedes” (or whoever), someone would say, waving the sheet in the air.

So Logos, even before Herakleitos got to it, didn’t simply mean a particle of speech. It meant the bigger thing — a communication, a burst or web of meaning.

But “Logos” was still an ordinary word until Herakleitos got to it. And then he took it, and began talking about the complexities of meaning — about how profound, mysterious, and self-enriching, and utterly amazing in its workings, meaning can be.

Herakleitos didn’t talk about small-l logos — any old burst of meaning. He talked about Logos as a capital-L — the cosmic web of meaning, the Ultimate Web That Weaves It All Together. And Herakleitos said:

Wisdom is one thing — to know the thought whereby all things are steered through all things.

— In other words, wisdom is to know the logic by which God shapes the world —.

This Logos [wrote Herakleitos] is eternally true. Yet people remain as uncomprehending of it, after they have heard it once, as they had been before.

In other words, most people are pretty clueless, and that is a hard thing to fix. I can’t help thinking of all the difficulties Christ had, getting his teaching across to his disciples!

And failures of understanding lead to shallow judgment — as Herakleitos said,

Asses would prefer straw to gold.

Or in Christ’s version, “Pearls before swine…”!

But why do people have so much difficulty in understanding? Here Herakleitos answered by pointing to the subtleties of reality. For one thing, he said, things are always changing, so that if you rely on the same old ideas about what is, you are likely to miss the changes and get yourself into trouble:

You cannot step twice into the same river, for other and still other waters are continually flowing through.

Into the same river we step — and do not step….

Our only hope, therefore, is to let go of rigid thinking and be open to new guidance —!

And then there is the fact that things can conflict in ways that are fruitful and produce higher harmonies. As Herakleitos put it,

They fail to understand how a thing can be at odds with itself and at the same time be in agreement with itself. Yet a tension resisted can make a synergy or harmony — as in the bow and the lyre.

And of course, the Crucifixion was itself such a fruitful conflict. As also are many of the initial disagreements in our meetings for business, that lead us through the process of corporate discernment into higher wisdoms. Indeed, the whole world works a lot like this:

The harmony of the whole world is of tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.

Whether we like it or not, it is often only through such painful beginnings that we grow in the ways that matter —

Every beast is driven to pasture with blows.

But the wisdom gained thereby is precious. Through such seemingly discordant beginnings, the Logos reveals itself — the divine meaning that makes sense of the Universe. As we glimpse the Logos, the cosmic sense, we find that it is everywhere, accessible to all of us, indeed embedded in all of us.

The Logos is common to all….

The problem is that, since the path to glimpsing the Logos comes through that painful path (which we Christians sometimes call the path of the Cross), people shy away from it, choosing self-protection and self-enrichment instead, and trying to give the Universe a meaning built on self-protection and self-enrichment instead of its true meaning —

We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, the general run of people live as though each had his own special cleverness [ídia phronésis].

They are at odds with the very thing to which they are most constantly connected!

Is this a true understanding of Herakleitos’s meaning? It’s hard to say, because all that survive of Herakleitos’s writings are fragments, and the fragments can be interpreted in other ways.

But it may be significant that one of the first great Christian theologians, Justin Martyr, described Herakleitos as a true Christian before Christ. Would preaching the path of the Cross, and the the saving wisdom of the Cross, lead Justin Martyr to describe a philosopher as a true Christian? Would it lead Luke and John to adopt that philosopher’s language?

If I’m right (which is open to dispute, I know), then this is an important clue to how John understood the central nature of Christ, and how Luke understood the central gospel of Christ. And it is also an important clue to what the minister of Christ is called to preach. Remember that the magical synergy of stick and string, in the bow and the lyre, is as much a part of it as the gateway of suffering! The Logos of Herakleitos, which was the Gospel of Christ in Luke 8 if I’m reading these things right, is the path of transformation, on more levels than one.

I have every intention of returning to this topic at a later date. But in the mean time, I’d welcome your comments, whether you agree with me or think I’m full of it.

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Reader Comments (4)

I thought you’d never ask! Full of it! Pretentious, effete and self absorbed. But peace be with you, brother and Friend.

-- comment posted by Alan Palmer
July 4th, 2006 at 12:14 p.m.
Sep 3, 2006 at 09:05PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Hello again, Marshall.

As you know, this is a topic of deep interest to me. I have the sense that John was also writing with an ear to those who would be more familiar with the Dabar (Hebrew: “Word”) than with the Heraclitean Logos — that in fact the brilliance of John’s Prologue is that readers from *both* Hebrew and Greek traditions would be able to read him with a background understanding of the sort you are talking about.

Also of interest here is St Augustine’s comment in Confessions Bk VII, which I’ll quote at some length:

"Thou procuredst for me, by means of one puffed up with most unnatural pride, certain books of the Platonists, translated from Greek into Latin. And therein I read, not indeed in the very words, but to the very same purpose, enforced by many and divers reasons, that In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God: the Same was in the beginning with God: all things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made: that which was made by Him is life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not. And that the soul of man, though it bears witness to the light, yet itself is not that light; but the Word of God, being God, is that true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. And that He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. But, that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not; but as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, as many as believed in His name; this I read not there.

"Again I read there, that God the Word was born not of flesh nor of blood, nor of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God. But that the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, I read not there. For I traced in those books that it was many and divers ways said, that the Son was in the form of the Father, and thought it not robbery to be equal with God, for that naturally He was the Same Substance. But that He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and found in fashion as a man, humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, and that the death of the cross: wherefore God exalted Him from the dead, and gave Him a name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should how, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that the Lord Jesus Christ is in the glory of God the Father; those books have not."

-- comment posted by Charles, http://www.beadgaming.com/
July 4th, 2006 at 2:04 p.m.
Sep 3, 2006 at 09:07PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Thanks for the prompt feedback!

Alan, I think I was hoping for something a little more substantive; it’s hard to get a good conversation going on the basis of name-calling alone. But I thank you for your contribution all the same.

Charles (how good to hear from you, old friend!), your comment was very welcome. Just speaking personally, though: while I do understand that *Logos* can be read as a stand-in for the Hebrew *dabar*, I have several reasons for doubting that this was what John, and to a lesser extent Luke, were getting at. The most important of my reasons is that I just don’t see that either Evangelist adds that much to his Gospel by proclaiming that Christ himself was/is the *dabar* or utterance of God. Both Evangelists establish elsewhere in their writings that *what Christ said* should be taken as utterances of God; and for people thinking along Hebrew lines, this not only makes more sense than thinking of Christ himself as a divine utterance, but requires some work to reconcile with the idea of Christ himself as a divine utterance.

There is also the fact that both of these Evangelists use other words to represent utterances, when that is the idea they want to convey: *rhema* for example. John could perfectly well have said that in the beginning was the *Rhema*, the spoken utterance, of God, and gotten that idea across with a good deal less ambiguity.

On the other hand, the two Gospels in question seem to me to gain a very great deal by John saying that Christ was the very incarnation of that rich and complex ubiquitous process that Herakleitos was calling the *Logos*. And thus I think the Evangelists’ intent was deducably to have *Logos* read as a reference to Herakleitos rather than to the Hebrew. It seems to me to be the simplest interpretation that makes fruitful sense of the texts, and therefore, by Ockham’s Razor, the most likely interpretation to be correct.

I am inclined to regard the dual-meaning theory you are offering as a possible but less likely alternative.

Again, I recognize that I could be wrong, and more particularly, that I could be overlooking something important. I’d welcome more postings that contradict me, therefore, and particularly those that point things out I might not have thought about.

Friends all, do please bear in mind that my larger purpose here is to try to cast some light on what ministry, in the Quaker sense, might (or maybe should) be all about. I am not, personally, very interested in debating the Nature and Person of Christ as a pure theological abstraction — although you are all most welcome to post your thoughts about that Nature and Person here if you are feeling so led.

Our Quaker tradition of traveling in the ministry has largely died out, and a lot of its wisdom has been mostly forgotten, and I am interested in resurrecting and/or rediscovering that wisdom to whatever degree this may be possible. That is the goal I am going after in this thread.

-- comment posted by Marshall
July 5th, 2006 at 2:55 p.m.
Sep 3, 2006 at 09:11PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Hi Marshall,
It seems that the discussion between you and Charles has taken me back exactly 4O years into the Biblical Seminary at Goshen where I studied for a spell. The anabaptist perspective that I learned did not philosophize about whether Christ’s utterances were Christ himself or divine utterances but documented more about the salvation history (heilsgeschichta) of a people a people who identified with Christ in his early ministry, spoken before the elders of the synagogue (”today this prophesy is being fulfilled…..”) as well as and especially in naming and building upon the fulfilments of those revelations of his predecessors. One could argue that’s what did him in but is that our place to judge? Jah, the word which forms the last syllable of the Hebrew expression “Praise ye the Lord” or Hallelujah or as the New Testament uses the expression God for sir, acts through specially called ones, living out the leadings of the Spirit in the community of faith. I think you are reenacting and maybe even reviving the true meaning of “traveling ministry”. WE will see.

Even though this comment may not provide the synthesis or an epiphany as in a flash of insight to the philosophical views expressed in your blog it does speak to and provide a link to which I as a convinced quaker can relate, as does your traveling ministry..

-- comment posted by john hackman
July 14th, 2006 at 3:14 p.m.
Sep 3, 2006 at 09:12PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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