John the Apostle, a Hebrew from a remote province in the Roman Empire, lived a long life. The other apostles died premature deaths, but John, a typical Hebrew, lived long enough to be elevated out of his provincial Jewish world by the God who created it. His writing, as much as any of the New Testament authors, has a strong philosophical theme, but that philosophical theme is no abstract intellectual construct.
John the one-time fisherman became familiar with the greater Greco-Roman world by which the Palestinian province of his birth was governed and influenced. That familiarity is reflected in the Gospel that bears his name.
His gospel begins philosophically: “In the beginning was the Word”, the Logos. (John 1:1) The word, logos, carried poignant philosophical meaning in the Greco-Roman world. John’s use of that word to open his account of the life and message of Jesus shows that John, the provincial Hebrew, familiarized himself with that world and its thought.
This is in keeping with the instruction from Jesus to his followers to go into all the world explaining the message Jesus gave them. To go into the world, we have to become familiar with it and conversant with the thought that predominates in the world to which we go.
Though John’s Gospel begins philosophically, focusing on the loaded word, logos, he didn’t have the abstract notions of philosophy in mind. John’s use of that word pointed outside the Greco-Roman world and transcended it.
John had an intimate, close and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. When John referred to Jesus as the Word, the Logos, he meant something very different than what a Greek or Roman might suppose. He wasn’t describing an abstraction, a Platonic ideal – but a Person. We see this in the opening progression:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1-2)
And then, John focuses in even further:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us….” (John 1:14)
The abstract just became personal!
John is also the apostle who wrote that “God is love”. (1 John 4:16) Notice that John didn’t write that love is God. John is describing God as an abstract, a platonic ideal. John is not saying that the abstract notion of love is God. He is saying that God is love. God is the embodiment of love. God is in his very nature love. God, the Person, is Love.
While the Greeks were wrestling with abstract ideas, like love, John walked the Earth with Love personified, the Person who embodied and personified love in His very nature. (The “fullness” of God “dwelt” in Jesus (Col. 1:19). In Christ all the fullness of God “dwells in bodily form”. (Col.2:9)
This is a radical departure from Greco-Roman thought.
Philosophers wrestle with the idea of God from a philosophical view. One particular philosophical view is posited by the Euthyphro dilemma made famous by Plato. “The Euthyphro dilemma rests on a modernised version of the question asked by Socrates in the Euthyphro: ‘Are morally good acts willed by God because they are morally good, or are they morally good because they are willed by God?’” (See philosophyofreligion.info)
The dilemma is posed in contrast to the “divine command theory”, which is that God is the source of all ethics, like love. The great Greek philosophers posited the issues as abstract, philosophical questions, but (in doing so) they misconstrued the character and nature of God. They didn’t conceive of an alternate solution to the problems they posed because their philosophy was rooted in the abstract. The dilemma goes something like this:
If morally good acts are willed by God because they are morally good, then they are morally good independent of God’s will. God, then, subject to what is morally good, and we don’t need God to be morally good. This is similar to Plato’s idea that perfect ideals exist in the abstract, like mathematics. The ideal is superior to all attempts to express the ideal (even the attempt of God). God is subservient to the abstract ideal.
On the other hand, if morally good acts are morally good because God wills them, then God’s moral goodness is inconsequential – it doesn’t matter whether God is good. What is good, is whatever God commands. Any such command is, however, arbitrary because it isn’t intrinsically good. It’s only good because God wills it to be good. God might have willed good to be something else.
The Euthyphro Dilemma is the kind of abstract reasoning in which philosophers at the time of John engaged. The dilemma leaves unresolved issues with both of the alternative constructs, but only because the two premises are presented as the only alternatives.
The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dichotomy, locked inside a Greco-Roman box. John transcends these abstract arguments by equating the Word, Logos, with the person of Jesus Christ. The Word, the Logos, became flesh and dwelt among us. John gives us the way out of the Euthyphro Dilemma.
When John says that God is love, he is not saying that God wills love because love is morally good. Neither is he saying that love is morally good because God wills it. John is saying that God, by His very nature, is love. If we want to see an example of what love is, we need to look for God.
Jesus defined love, and then he demonstrated it. He said, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13); and then Jesus demonstrated just that by laying down his own life for all of us.
When Paul describes love, he is describing God:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (I Corinthians 13:4-7)
Paul might as well have said:
God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, God does not boast, God is not proud. God does not dishonor others, God is not self-seeking, God is not easily angered, God keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
John’s statements about the Word (Logos) demonstrates John’s understanding of the Greco-Roman world, speaking in the language of the Greco-Roman philosophers. Those philosophers dealt in logic and abstracts, but John walked with Love – the Supreme Being and Creator of the world who left His station to take on the form of a man and lay his life down for all mankind.
John walked with God incarnate, who embodies those realities in His very nature and Person. The Word, God and love are not just abstracts; they are reality, and the ultimate reality is in the Person of God.
God doesn’t impose abstract standards upon us. He calls us to Himself, the source of all that is good. All that is good resides in His very Being. God calls us into relationship with Himself by which (as a product of that relationship) we may become good. God calls us to enter into relationship with him and be His children, and just as children are the product of their parents’ ancestral DNA, we are born again into a relationship that transforms us.
The important reality in this process is not that we become good, but that we become like God. Not because of our efforts, but because we are His children. We like God because we were made in God’s images to bear his image as children bear the image of their parents. Our very purpose is in this image-bearing relationship.
Jesus called the process being born again. We are born again into this relationship with God by which we become his children, bearing His image. We are born into Christ by our response to His prompting. We enter into this relationship by our response to Him:
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God,who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
This is not a platonic love, an abstract love that is grasped intellectually like a moral philosophy. The love that God offers is relational, intimate and personal. We are meant for this relationship. We are meant to be completed in our relationship with God, and, until we find our place in Him, we are forever unfulfilled, incomplete and lacking in the most essential need and desire of our being.
While the idea of God’s love may still seem abstract to us, it becomes our reality when we reach out and receive what He offers. Though Jesus no longer dwells with men in the flesh, He “left” the Holy Spirit, allowing access to everyone. The Holy Spirit is, in some sense, a deposit on the ultimate relationship we will have with God. The Spirit is a present “taste” of the ultimate reality we will have in God:
For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)