Lectures on The Principles of Unitarianism
Lecture 10 – (By J. S. Hyndman, 1824)
[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It appears that this introduction of John’s Gospel was written in opposition to the Gnostics, a sect, or rather a multitude of sects, who, having learned to blend the principles of philosophy with the doctrines of Plato, formed a system most repugnant to the simplicity of Christian faith. The foundation of the Gnostic system was the incorrigible depravity of matter. Upon this principle they made a total separation between the material and the spiritual world. Accounting it impossible to educe out of matter anything good, they held that the Supreme Being, who presided over the innumerable spirits that were emanations from himself, did not make this earth; but that a spirit, very far removed in character and rank from the Supreme, formed matter into that order which constitutes the world and gave life to the different creatures that inhabit the earth. They held that this spirit was the ruler of the creatures he had made, and they considered men, whose souls he imprisoned in earthly tabernacles, as experiencing under his dominion the misery that necessarily arose from their connection with matter, and as totally estranged from the knowledge of the true God.
Most of the later sects of the Gnostics rejected every part of the Jewish law, because the books of Moses gave a view of the creation inconsistent with their system. But some of the earlier sects, consisting of Alexandrian Jews, incorporated a respect for the law with the principles of their system. They considered the old dispensation as granted by the Demiourgos, the maker of the world. They held him to be incapable, from his want of power, of delivering those who received it, from the thraldom of matter; and they looked for a more glorious messenger whom the compassion of the Supreme Being was to send for the purpose of emancipating the human race.
Those Gnostics who embraced Christianity regarded the Christ as this messenger, an exalted Aeon, who being in some manner united to the man Jesus, put an end to the dominion of the Demiourgos, and restored the souls of men to communion with God. To this Demiourgos the Christian Gnostics gave the name of Logos. And as ‘Christ’ was understood from the beginning of our Lord’s ministry to be equivalent to the Jewish name Messiah, there came to be in their system a direct opposition between Christ and Logos. Logos was the maker of the world; Christ was the Aeon sent to destroy the tyranny of the Logos.
We have the authority for saying that the general principles of the Gnostic system were openly taught by Cerinthus before the publication of the Gospel of John. The authority is that of Irenaeus, one of the Fathers who lived in the second century, who had in his youth heard Polycarp the disciple of John, and who retained in his memory till death the disclosures of Polycarp. There are yet extant of the works of Irenaeus four books. In one place of that work he says the Cerinthus taught in Asia that the world was not made by the Supreme, but by a certain power very far removed from the Sovereign of the universe, and ignorant of his nature. In another place he says, John wished by his Gospel to extirpate the errors of Cerinthus, “and that he might show that there is one God who made all things by his Word.” And with the same view, John wrote his Gospel: “These are written that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ;” that is, that Jesus and the Christ are not distinct beings—the one a man, the other an Aeon.
Though the Evangelist does not mention the name of Cerinthus, it was necessary, in laying down the positions that were to meet his errors, to adopt some of his words, because the Christians of those days could not so readily have applied the statement of the apostle to the refutation of those doctrines which Cerinthus was spreading among them. And as the chief of those terms ‘Logos,’ which he thus applied to a vicious spirit, was equivalent to a phrase in common use among the Jews, and had just been used by Philo, a learned Jew from Alexandria, in some books he published before our Savior’s death, and had probably been borrowed by the Cerinthians; John, by his use of Logos, rescues it from the use of Cerinthus, and restores it to a sense corresponding to the dignity of the Jewish phrase.
You will perceive from this introduction the fitness with which the Evangelist introduces the word Logos in this proem, although it had not been used by the other Evangelists who wrote before the errors of Cerinthus.
Before proceeding to ascertain the precise import of the passage, I shall give that translation of the words which I conceive to be the most natural and correct. “The Word was in the beginning, and the Word was with God, and God was the Word. All things were through it, and without it nothing was that was. In it was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness overspread or admitted it not. It was in the world, and the world was through it, and the world knew it not, &c.”
This translation is an exact rendering of the original, and is the translation adopted in Wickliffe’s Bible, in the old English translation authorized by Henry VIII., and by Luther in his German translation; also by Dr. Lardner, Dr. Priestly, Mr. Wakefield, &c.
The Cerinthians supposed that Logos was a distinct being from the Supreme, and not God himself considered in the energy of his power, the sense attached by the Jews to the phrase, ‘the word of the Lord.’ John, by saying that ‘God was the word,’ teaches them that the Logos was not, as they supposed, an intelligent being. The Cerinthians further supposed that the Logos was the supreme artificer of the world. To overthrow this notion, John informs them that all things were merely through the Word; that the Word was merely the instrument in creation. And this Word was declared to be God, ascribing the creation of all things to the Word as an instrument, was but a peculiar mode of informing them that all things were created by God himself, as the supreme architect. Thus their notions of matter and the creator of it were overturned.
According to the Gnostics, the Christ, the light of the world, came into the territory of another to emancipate men from the tyranny of their maker. And in opposition to this idea it is that John speaks of the Word as having “come into its own.” In some of the systems of the Gnostics, the ‘only begotten and Logos‘ were different Aeons. Here it is implied that there is no real distinction between them; that, indeed, Jesus Christ who was flesh, a proper human being, was the real Word and the only begotten of the Father.
It may appear rather strange that God should be represented as an attribute, and as being that which is afterwards represented as the medium of creation, and that personal actions are attributed to the Word. But, as to the latter, when we consider how common the use of the figure of personification was at the time this Gospel was written, and that it was the constant custom of the Jews to personify the Word, by which they meant Jehovah considered in his authority, commanding or creating power and energy, the mode of speech here adopted seems just what we might have expected it. The same observation serves to remove all difficulty from the first noted particular; for God may be spoken of as doing this or that by means of any of those attributes which the performance of the specific work calls more specially into exercise; while it is at the same time clear that those attributes are not instruments abstractly considered or viewed apart from the voluntary mind in which they inhere, and which is of course the real cause and the only proper agent.
The Scriptures evidently afford some instances of this form of expression. For instance, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” “By his spirit he hath garnished the heavens, and his hands have formed the crooked serpent.” In the first passage it is evident that ‘the breath of his mouth’ is synonymous with ‘his word,’ indeed, in both is evidently meant the active commanding might of God, displayed in its creative energy. As the Scriptures speak of God doing certain things through his might, through his power, through the breath of his mouth, through his wisdom, his will, his mercy, and his goodness; so John emphatically declares, in language that would be well understood at the time it was written, that “all things were through the Word.” As to the identification of the Word with God, it is in the style of many other passages of Scripture, some of which, as in John’s Epistles, represent God as light, as love, &c. Since God is thus spoken of, because holiness and benevolence are inseparable from his nature, as that without them he would not be what he is; so, in like manner, God is called the Word, because active power, creating energy and might, are essential to his existence. And what foundation is there in all this for the Deity of Jesus, or even for the personality of the Word?
The translation I have proposed, which undoubtedly appears to be correct, and which is also according to the order of the words in the original, determines the meaning of the Word to be the power of God , and God himself. This was the meaning attached to it by the Jews, and in their signification of it the Evangelist would certainly use it. It has been affirmed, that by ‘the word of the Lord,’ the Jews understood an intelligent being, and that Philo and the Targums give personal names and ascribe personal actions to the word. There are certainly a few expressions in the Targums respecting the Word apparently of a personal kind; but there are also thousands in the Old Testament of a similar kind equally strong, which yet confessedly do not imply that the subject spoken of is a person. We should therefore regard such expressions as imply the Word’s personality in the same view as the other, viz. as idioms of the language. For instance, what more than a strong personification can we understand in the following words of the wisdom of Solomon, which refer to God’s judgments in Egypt? “Thine almighty Word leaped down from heaven out of thy royal throne , as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction, and brought thine unfeigned commandment as a sharp sword, and, standing up, filled all things with death; and it touched the heavens, but it stood on the earth.”
We know that the Jews had no revelation respecting the existence of a being distinct from God, called the Word. Whence could they have derived the knowledge of such a being? Justin Martyr, in his dialogues with Trypho the Jew, expressly ascribes to him the opinion which he endeavors to refute, that the Messiah would be simply, as to his nature, a man. The early Jewish converts thought the same, and so did those among the later Christians, who boldly appealed to antiquity against the confusion introduced into church theology by identifying the Word with the Son of God. The Word, they say, is not the Son of God; but only an attribute, a faculty, a property of the divine Nature. It is the man Jesus Christ who became the Son of God by the communication of the Word.
It is well known, says Dr. Lardner, that in the Chaldee Paraphrases it is very common to put Mimra Jehovah, the Word of the Lord, for Jehovah or God; and that the Jewish people, more especially those of them who were most zealous for the law and most exempt from foreign and philosophical speculations, used this way of speaking commonly, and by the Word, or the word of God, understood not a spirit separate from God, but God himself, as St. John does.
As to Philo’s writings, in which the Word is called ‘the Son of God, the image of God, the instrument of creation,’ there is no evidence that John had ever seen them, neither is it certain that Philo did not borrow both his ideas and language from the school of Plato. Moreover, several very learned Trinitarians have seen cause to believe that Philo had no conception that the Word was an intelligent being; that he considered it was nothing else than the conception formed in the Divine Mind of the work he was to execute. But supposing it could be proved that the Jews did suppose the Word to be an intelligent being, the Evangelist’s declaration, that “God was the Word,” is inconsistent with their notion.
I shall here quote the illustration that Dr. Watts has given of the meaning of this passage.
“The great and blessed God, considered in his own nature, is far superior to all our thoughts, and exalted high above our most raised apprehensions. And because we are not capable of taking in heavenly ideas in their own sublimest nature, God has been pleased to teach us the heavenly things that relate to himself, in earthly language; and by way of analogy to creatures he has let us know something of what God is.
Among all the creatures that come within the reach of our common and obvious cognizance, human nature is the most perfect; and, therefore, it has pleased the great and glorious God, by resemblances drawn from ourselves, to accommodate the descriptions of himself to our capacities. When he speaks of his own nature in the language of men, he often uses the names of human parts, and members, and faculties, to represent his own properties and actions thereby, that he might bring them within the notice of the lowest capacity and the meanest understanding among the children of men. Therefore he speaks of his face, to signify the discovery of himself; his eyes to describe his knowledge; his heart to describe his thoughts; his hand and arm to signify his power and activity; and his mouth to denote his resolutions or revelations.
But since in the composition of human nature there are two distinct parts, a soul and a body, and the soul is much the nobler and more exalted principle, it has also pleased God to rise above corporeal images, and to describe himself, his attitudes, properties, power, and operations by way of analogy to a human soul. We know by our own consciousness, or by an inward inspection into ourselves, that our soul or spirit is a being which has understanding, and will, thoughts, inclinations, knowledge, desires, and various powers to move the body. Therefore our Savior has told us, God is a spirit, and the brightest and sublimest representations of God in Scripture, are such as bear an analogy and resemblance to the soul of man, or a spiritual, thinking nature.
As the chief faculties of our souls are the power of the mind and will, or rather a power of knowing, and a power of acting, so God seems to have revealed himself to us as endued with two divine faculties, his word or wisdom, and his spirit or efficient power. It is by this word and this spirit, that he is represented in Scriptures managing the great concerns of the creation, providence, redemption and salvation: and these three, viz. God the Father, his Word and his Spirit, are held forth to us in Scripture as one God, even as the soul of man, his mind and his will, are one spiritual being. Since reason and scripture agree to teach us the nature of God, and inform us who and what God is by this analogy, I think in our inquiries on this sacred subject, we ought to follow this analogy so far as reason and Scripture allow us. Now it is evident that a human soul, in its nature, is one conscious mind; and it is utterly inconsistent with the nature of it to have two or three distinct conscious principles, or natures, in it, that is, to include two or there different conscious beings; and since we are told that God is one, and God is a spirit, it would be something strange if we must believe that God is two or three spirits.—If there be some distinctions or differences in the Divine nature greater than of relations, modes or attributes, and less than that of substances, I know not what name to give it better than that of divine powers. Let us therefore suppose the great and blessed God to be one infinite spirit, one conscious being who possesses real distinct, or different powers, which in sacred language are called the Word and the Spirit. And though this difference or distinction be not so great as to allow of different consciousnesses, or to make distinct spirits, yet these two powers may be represented in Scripture in a figurative manner, under distinct personal characters.
May not the human mind and the will be represented in a personal manner, or as distinct personal agents, at the least by a figurative way of speaking, though they are but two powers of the same soul? May I not use such language as this: ‘My mind has labored to find out such a difficulty; my will is resolutely bent to pursue such a course?’ And many other common expressions there are of the same nature, wherein the mind and will are still more evidently and plainly represented as persons.
And since human powers are thus represented as persons, why may not the word and the spirit, which are divine powers, be thus represented also? And why may not God be represented as a person transacting his own divine affairs with his Word and his Spirit under personal characters, since a man is often represented as transacting human affairs with his understanding, mind, will, reason, fancy, or conscience, in a personal manner?
With respect to the term person, since neither Scripture itself applies it to the Word or Spirit, nor the elder nor later writers of the church have confined themselves to the use of this term, I can see no necessity of the confinement of ourselves or others to it, when we are speaking of the pure distinctions in the Divine Nature. And when we are endeavoring to explain them in a rational manner, and to form and adjust our clearest ideas of them, I think we may use the term, divine properties, or rather divine powers, for this end. Perhaps this word, powers, comes nearest to the genuine ideas of things, so far as we can apply human words to divine ideas, and this word, powers, makes the distinction greater than properties, and I think it so much the better. But we have several precedents for the use of both of these terms among the ancient writers.
The divine Logos seems to be represented, both in Scripture and in the primitive writers, as much distinct from the Father as the same essence admits of, or as distinct as may be, without another conscious mind. Now this seems to be something more than a mere attribute; and therefore I call the Logos a divine power; imitating herein both the ancient Jews and the primitive fathers, who call him frequently Sophia and Nous, and Dunamis Theou, and particularly Clemens Alexandrinus, who makes him Patrike tis energeia. But since God and his co-essential Word do not seem to have two distinct consciousnesses, or to be two distinct minds, this eternal Logos can hardly be called a person, in the common and literal sense of the term, as a distinct man or angel, but only in figurative and metaphorical language.
The Spirit seems to be another divine power, which may be called the power of efficience; and although it is sometimes described in Scripture as a personal agent, after the manner of Jewish and eastern writers, yet if we put all the Scripture relating to this subject together, and view them in a corresponding light, the Spirit of God does not seem to be described as a distinct Spirit from the Father, or as another conscious mind, but as an eternal, essential power, belonging to the Father, whereby all things are effected.
Thus it appears, that, as outward speech and breath are powers of the human body, as reason and vital activity or efficience are powers of the human body, as reason and vital activity are powers of the human soul, so the great God in Scripture has revealed himself to us as a glorious Being, who has two eternal, essential, divine powers, which in condescension to our weakness, he is pleased to describe by means of analogy to our souls and bodies; and this he doth by terms Logos and Pneuma in Greek, and in English, Word and Spirit.” 
I shall conclude this lecture by giving another view of the passage which has been entertained by some. I shall state it in the words of Dr. Lawson, and add his reasons in support of it.
He maintains that it cannot be the design of the Evangelist to treat here of the metaphysical nature and essence of the Divinity, but of the relation in which he stands to us as the author of our spiritual life; and that otherwise the context would be without any connection. He supposes that by ‘the Word,’ the Evangelist means (what is meant by it in all other places of Scripture) the Gospel. His translation of the passage is what I have preferred. The following is his defence of it.
“If there is any weight in the objection urged against this rendering, it appears to me to be altogether in favor of it. For it is usual with St. John, and indeed it is a propriety of style, to omit prefixing the article to the predicate, when the predicate is to be understood in a more general or indefinite sense, and to prefix the article, when it is to be taken in a more particular or definite sense. Thus in 1 John i. 6, one of the instances brought to support the objection, God is styled Light, without the article; because it is meant indefinitely, not restricted to any particular object. But let us see how it is circumstanced when the Evangelist uses it definitely, and to signify a particular light, for example the light of the Gospel. It is used in this definite sense in the 4th. verse of chap. i. A still more pertinent example we find at verse 8, “He was not the light,” viz. that particular light which enlightened the world, that is, the Gospel light. Here the article is prefixed, and I believe it is to all predicates throughout this writer, which are under the same circumstance of definiteness or restriction to a particular object, with Logos, in this case. So that, supposing the evangelist to mean the Gospel, by this word Logos, it is quite agreeable to his style to prefix the article to it. Out of the many instances to this purpose, I shall produce chap. vi. 35, 48, 50, 51, in which texts the article serves to specify or define the word to which it is prefixed, just as the English article the does, and which for the same reason we use it in translating, viz. “I am the bread.” But at the 55th verse of the same chapter, where the predicate is left more indefinite or general, the Greek article is omitted; nor can we prefix the English one in the translation without altering the sense. See also John viii. 12. & xiv. 6. 1 John v. 5. the latter of which, according to the objection, should be rendered, ‘the Christ is Jesus,’ ‘the Son is Jesus,’ if the last clause of John i. 1. is not capable of any other rendering than, ‘the Word was God.’
St. John seems to mean no more by these words than to preface his account of the Gospel, which he styles, the Word, with the high original of it. This was, he tells us, from God himself; for that in the Beginning, before it was published to the world, it ‘was with God;’ God was the Word, the original author and giver of it. It “was in the beginning with God,” lay hid from the foundations of the world in the eternal counsels of the Almighty. All was done by him, the whole was from God; and without him was not any thing done of that which has come to pass; that is, every part of the Gospel Dispensation, published by Jesus Christ, was from God; and whatever works he wrought in confirmation of it, not one of them was of himself or came to pass without God.”
“But then, it may be thought that, taking ‘the Word’ in the sense I have given it, viz. for the Gospel itself, it sounds extremely harsh to say that ‘God was the Word.’ To which I answer, that the harshness objected to, arising from the peculiarity of St. John’s phraseology, will be found in favor of the translation I have offered. For what is more common with this writer than to say of God, that ‘he is light, or truth, or love?’ And also of Jesus Christ, that ‘he is the way, the truth, the life,’ nay, ‘the resurrection?’ To assert that ‘God was the Word,’ is not more harsh than to say, ‘God is love.’ When St. John thus expresseth himself, he does not mean to affirm, that God is that very thing by which he calls him, or that God and love are the same thing. We very well know what his meaning is, that God is possessed of that very thing or quality whereby he names him, in this instance, of love and good-will to his creatures.
So again, when our Savior according to this Evangelist saith, ‘I am the resurrection,’ he means not to affirm that he and the resurrection are one and the same thing; but that he is the author of our resurrection to life, some such word being always understood in this kind of phraseology. And therefore when it is here asserted that ‘God was the word,’ the meaning is natural and easy, viz. that he was the author or giver of the Word which came by Jesus Christ.
Once more, with regard to the harshness of the expression, ‘God was the Word.’ Is it more harsh than that we have in the vulgar translation, ‘the Word was God?’ So far from it, that, if we were not used to it (and use will reconcile to any thing), this last would appear intolerably uncouth; and, even under our present prejudice from custom, will appear strange enough considering how these other similar phrases sound constructed as this has been. Reverse these sentences, ‘God is love; God is light; Christ is the resurrection;’ and read them thus, ‘love is God; light is God; the resurrection is Christ;’ and then say which of these constructions sounds the most harsh; or whether the last be capable of any sense being affixed to it. The case is just the same with respect to the expression in the text. If our translators had rendered it as they have all other phrases similar to it, viz. ‘God was the Word,’ we should have the more easily understood it, and interpreted it in the same manner with the other texts, viz. God was the author of the Gospel dispensation.
But it may be made an objection that this Word is said to have existed ‘in the beginning,’ which manner of speaking may seem more agreeable to the common interpretation and to refer to the person of Christ, as the Gospel did not exist till his coming into the world, and therefore had not a being, was not (as is here asserted of the Word) in the beginning. To which I answer, that nothing is more common with the writers of the New Testament, that to represent those things as having had existence from the beginning which was always designed by God to come to pass and were promised in the Prophets. And as this was more especially the case of the Gospel so we find it represented throughout Scripture as having existed in the eternal counsels of the Almighty. Hence the expressions which occur in 1 John i. 1, 2. Matth. xxv. 34. Ephes. i. 4. 1 Cor. ii. 7. Ephes. iii. 9. 2 Tim. i. 9. Rev. xiii. 8.
There is one objection more that may be made, and that is, that this is not the only place in which the word (Logos) seems to relate to the person of Christ, for this title is given to him both at the 14th verse of this chapter and also in Rev. xix. 13.
But in both these places this title is given to him on account of his being the minister of the Word or Gospel to men, and this relates not to his dignity in a prior state of existence, but to his office on earth. Thus ‘he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood;’ here is a manifest reference to his humanity; ‘and his name is called the word of God,’ as having been the minister and publisher thereof to men.
And this is quite agreeable to what the Evangelist has asserted in the other passage, viz. at the 14th verse of the chapter in which our text is, not indeed according to the present translation ‘the word was made flesh,’ but according to one no less literal and more agreeable to the original.
For by flesh (sarx) is plainly meant (and all agree in it) man. It is equally evident that the word egeneto, here rendered was made, might, more agreeably to the original, have been rendered became. This verse therefore may be full as literally and more exactly translated thus, viz. ‘And flesh, that is, a man, became the Word, and dwelt among us, &c.’ As God had before been styled the Word, as being the author of it, so Jesus Christ is here styled the Word as being the publisher of it. The Evangelist had asserted that God was the original author of the Word; that he did all that was done, properly speaking; that in him was that life, that word of life, which was the light of men, bringing them to the knowledge of God, whom, before, the world knew not, though he was in the world and the world was made by him. He now tells us, that it came to pass that the Word of God was published to the world by a man. The Word was still the Word of God, and not of man: but whereas, in the beginning, it was with God, and no one else, it was now with men, come forth, as it were, from God, and come down from heaven in to the world, being committed to a man, the man Christ Jesus, to publish it to the world. Accordingly, becoming the Word, he is said in this same verse to be ‘full of grace and truth.’ Now this grace and truth of which he was full, can mean nothing else than the Gospel, the word of God (O Logos tou Theou), for it is put in opposition to law. ‘The law was given by Moses, but grace and truth,’ or the true grace, that is, the Gospel, ‘came by Jesus Christ,’ ver. 17. Jesus Christ therefore at the 14th verse, is not called the word, with respect to his office in this; since the Evangelist is contrasting the law given by Moses with the word which came by Jesus Christ.” 
Indeed, whether we adopt Dr. Dawson’s translation, or ‘Flesh was the Word or was made the Word,’ or ‘the Word was flesh or became or was made flesh,’ the passage affords no ground for the pre-existence, much less the incarnation or hypostatic union of Christ; and there is one circumstance that may very naturally be taken into view in order to account for the peculiarity of the Evangelist’s language; which is, that as in John’s Epistles, so here the Evangelist had in view the error of the Docetae, who maintained that Christ had no corporeal nature. Or we may suppose that the evangelist in saying, ‘that the word was flesh,’ or that ‘flesh became the Word,’ wished to show that the true Word was not a spiritual Aeon, but a real human being. And possibly he may have intended by the expression also to show, that since the real Word was of a corporeal nature, matter could not be depraved, as they supposed it to be.
[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this lecture, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]
1. See Dr. Watts’ Treatise, entitled, “The Arian invited to the Orthodox Faith,” Part 2. Back to top
2. See illustrations of several Texts of Scripture, by B. Dawson, LL. D. Rector of Burgh, in Suffolk. Back to top