37. Philo’s Breakthrough with Logos – from Greek Abstraction to Living Being

St. John followed Philo of Alexandria in pointing the Greek concept of logos toward the divine. The allusion of light from light shows the Logos as God.
St. John the Apostle (concept of logos)

In this post, I will discuss how Philo of Alexandria put Hebrew flesh and bone on the Greek abstract concept of logos. This made the idea of the logos so significant that, I would argue, it was the only word John could have used in chapter 1 of his Gospel. (Please see the previous post as background for this one)

Greek as the Bridge Between Judaism and Christianity

It is no accident that the New Testament was written in Greek. Greek was the language of philosophy. It came loaded with philosophical terms and ideas that the Greeks had been developing for over 400 years. And thus it leant itself to eventually being used by the Church fathers to develop Christian theology.

Paradoxically, the type of Greek in which the New Testament was written was Koine Greek. Koine (κοινή) Greek was “street Greek,” the parlance of the common person.1 It replaced the older Attic Greek or Classical Greek and was spoken widely throughout the world. But at the same time, the same philosophical terms found in classical Greek were also found in Koine Greek. Koine Greek reflected God – it was at the same time a transcendent and an immanent language.

Philo of Alexandria’s Concept of Logos and God’s Word

By attempting to bridge Hebrew and Greek thinking, Philo laid the foundation for Christian theology and philosophy.2 And his logos was the intermediary between the two. In order to bridge the Hebrew and Greek world, he introduced the Greek concept of logos conceived by Heraclitus and the Stoics into Judaism.

In the previous post, I mentioned that the logos represented both the idea of God’s inscrutable essence – His divine mind – and the manifestation of God’s existence in creation. Philo saw a parallel between this purely Greek concept and the Hebrew idea of God’s Word or utterance as found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In post 20 on Abraham, I mentioned that to the Hebrews, words and actions were synonymous. There was no such thing as a word that was not accompanied by action unless it were a “stillborn” word.

In the same way, for the Hebrews, God’s utterance or His Word was a part of His inscrutable essence, but when He spoke, His Word affected creation itself, even bringing it into existence (Genesis 1) or “breaking to pieces the cedars of Lebanon” (Psalm 29).3 It is easy to see parallelism between God’s Word and the Greek Logos. Both the Hebrew Word and Greek Logos represented God’s ideas as well as His actions in creation. The logos then becomes a manifestation of God’s thinking-acting. For Philo, then, the eternal Logos is one and the same with God’s Word.

The Logos as the First Born Son of God

According to Philo, the logos had an origin. But at the same time, since logos was synonymous with God’s transcendent eternal thought, then its generation was eternal. This is obviously a paradox that the logos could be, at the same time, both first born and eternal. In post 36, I mentioned how the Stoics developed the concept of “eternal generation” and applied it to creation. Philo now applies the same to the concept of logos.4

Philo stated that the Logos was the first begotten Son of the uncreated Father:

For the Father of the universe has caused him to spring up as the eldest son, whom, in another passage, he [Moses] calls the first-born; and he who is thus born, imitating the ways of his father, has formed such and such species, looking to his archetypal patterns.”5

(Conf. 63)

A confusing point in all of this is that eventually, Philo equates the Logos with the creative power itself.6 So the Logos is at the same time creature and creator. This was Philo’s way of saying that the logos was as close to God as possible, being like Him in all ways, but yet being distinct. Philo had many names for the logos, two of which were “image” and “sight of God.”

In addition to being creator, in the vein of Heraclitus and the Stoics, the logos is the ordering and governing principle of the universe. It is the “glue” that holds the created order together. And this includes not just inanimate objects like the solar system, but our own bodies and souls. It connects our bodies and souls as well as ourselves with the created order.

We can start to see how New Testament authors like St. Paul utilized these ideas in talking about Christ:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation;  for in him all things were created…all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

– Colossians 1:15-17

Since the Hebrew language was not a philosophical language, the New Testament authors and theologians would have been hard pressed to describe these concepts were it not for the Greek language with its philosophical heritage.

Obviously, I am simplifying much of this for the sake of brevity. Philo’s system is rather complex and includes such things as the “creative power” and “regent power” of God as well as other concepts.7

The Transcendent and Immanent Logos

It seems that in developing the concept of logos and applying it to Hebrew thought, Philo was moving a step closer to solving the transcendence and immanence problem that I discussed in the last few posts. As I mentioned above, the Logos was as close to being God as possible and, at the same time, immanently involved in creation.

Genesis states that we are created in the image of God. For Philo, this meant two things: We have intellect or rationality and we have free will.8 This distinguishes us from beasts that have only appetites and instincts. So by having a rationality and will, we have both an intellectual and a moral component to our beings that animals do not have.

The Immanency of the Logos

So far I have emphasized Philo’s idea of the logos being transcendent. Now I would like to discuss how it is at the same time an immanent idea.

Apart from holding together and governing the created order, the logos also gives us our rationality as an extension of itself and by implication, God. This is how we can be created in the image of God – the Logos bridges the gap. It transverses the great divide between transcendence and immanence. It allows God to be God by remaining transcendent, while at the same time enabling God to be immanently involved with His creating through the Logos.

So then, according to Philo, our rationality that makes us a reflection of God is simply a part of the logos of which we partake or share. Our minds are merely a portion of the divine Logos. This is what distinguishes us from all other living creatures. When God breathed life into man at creation, He gave us His spirit to partake in. Since the Logos pervades everything, then all humans can partake of the divine mind. With this spirit, we can now voluntarily choose, unlike animals that are governed by mere instinct.

The Unity of the Divine Mind

In post 34, I discussed how Heraclitus’ concept of logos was as a universal consciousness of which we all partake. This idea is evident in Philo’s idea of the logos reflecting the divine mind. According to Philo, the divine mind is one, and as we partake of the divine mind through the logos, we are one with the divine mind. But like Heraclitus said, even though we have the capacity to tap into the divine logos, not all people avail themselves to this opportunity. Those who don’t are the unenlightened. But unlike Heraclitus who said either one is enlightened or one is not, Philo had delineated various degrees of enlightenment, from the completely enlightened to the completely unenlightened.

The point is, as I discussed in the previous post, once the issue of God’s transcendence and immanence is solved, the problem of the one and many is also closer to being solved. Philo viewed the divine mind as a unity within itself and within us as well. And just as the Logos created diversity and differentiation in the universe, so too our unified minds can analyze and recognize diversity in the created order. The Logos, then, is the source of unity and diversity.

Light From Light

For those willing to take the journey upward through the mediation of the logos to behold God, then they will comprehend God. According to Philo, we ultimately perceive God through God Himself and not through any other means. We can, in one sense, understand God by what He has made. But this is still a dim reality. To truly perceive God, we must perceive Him through the agency of Himself.

This enlightenment is not sensible, but mystical. It is only possible as we transcend the material world and, through the mediation of the logos, experience God. Philo uses the analogy of only being able to see light through the agency of light. So too we can only see God through the agency of God:

“In the same manner God, being his own light, is perceived by himself alone, nothing and no other being co-operating with or assisting him, a being at all able to contribute to pure comprehension of his existence; But these men have arrived at the real truth, who form their ideas of God from God, of light from light.”9 

(Praem. 45-46)

Now we have Philo the mystic. The sensible and the mystical are both necessary if we are to comprehend the immanent and the transcendent.

“God from God, of light from light.” Let’s see…where have we heard that phrase before? How about the Nicene Creed:

God from God, Light from Light, True God from true God, begotten not made, one in being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.”

It seems as though the Church fathers borrowed more from Philo and the Greeks than most of us have realized.

Logos as the Wisdom of God

Philo equates the Logos with the Wisdom of God as found in Proverbs:

“The Lord by wisdom founded the earth;
    by understanding he established the heavens”

-Proverbs 3:19

“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of old.
 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.

-Proverbs 8:22-24

With Hebrew ideas like this, we can see how it wasn’t too difficult for Philo to see parallels between Hebrew and Greek thought. The Logos, like the Hebrew concept of Wisdom, was the agent by which God created the universe and was the first born of all creation.

Logos as the Perfect Mediator Between Heaven and Earth

For Philo, the Logos was the mediator between heaven and earth:

And the father who created the universe has given to his archangel and most ancient Logos a pre-eminent gift, to stand on the confines of both, and separate that which had been created from the Creator. And this same Logos is continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race, which is exposed to affliction and misery; and is also the ambassador, sent by the Ruler of all, to the subject race. And the Logos rejoices…saying, “And I stood in the midst, between the Lord and you” (Num. 16:48); neither being uncreated as God, nor yet created as you, but being in the midst between these two extremities, like a hostage, as it were, to both parties.”10

(Her. 205-206)

As the Logos is “continually a suppliant to the immortal God on behalf of the mortal race,” Philo also considers him a high priest figure as found in Judaism.

Hebrews 7:25 states:

Consequently he is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.

Philo transforms the impersonal logos of the Stoics to a personal one that was neither eternal like God nor created like His creatures. Someone who could stand in between and mediate blessings and forgiveness. In this way, Philo took an abstract Greek concept and gave it the humanness of a Hebrew high priest:

“For it was indispensable that the man who was consecrated to the Father of the world should have as a paraclete, his son, the being most perfect in all virtue, to procure forgiveness of sins, and a supply of unlimited blessings.”11

(Mos. 2.134)

Logos as God

In three places, Philo designates the Logos as God. In one place that describes man as the image of God (Genesis 9:6), Philo states that man cannot represent transcendent deity, but he can only represent Logos, the Second Deity, who is the image of the Father.

Philo clearly depicts Logos as the second person in the one God, the manifestation of his wisdom and creative power. The Logos is the complete personal manifestation of God’s attributes.

Logos as Christ

Anyone vaguely familiar with Christianity or Christian theology will see many similarities between the Logos and the Christ of the New Testament. Take, for example, other verses from Colossians:

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.”

-Colossians 1:9

“Christ, in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.”

-Colossians 2:3

This high Christology comports very well with the Logos of Philo. Philo took the Stoic idea of logos and supercharged it by combining it with Jewish religious ideas. In this way, faith and reason came together. The concept of logos as handed down to him would have been useless for Christianity because it was too abstract. By combining it with Old Testament Jewish thought, Philo personified it, even humanized it, thus creating fertile ground from which New Testament writers, such as St. John and St. Paul, and later Christian theologians and philosophers could reap a bountiful harvest.

St. John and the Logos

In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, verses 1-16 are some of the most profound words ever penned by the hand of man. I’d like to end this post by discussing verses 1-2:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”

A closer transliteration of what God said was, “In the beginning was Logos, and the Logos was with God, and God was the Logos.” (See if you can find the word “logos” in the copy of his Gospel that John is holding in the image at the top of this post.)

Of all the words John could have used, it was no accident that he chose “logos.” It wasn’t for lack of a better word, but really it was the perfect word. Prior to Philo, it would have been adequate but too abstract for his audience to grasp. Philo put flesh and bone on an abstract idea and made it the ideal word for John to use in describing Christ.

What Philo could not do in understanding the exact relationship the Logos had to God and to creation, John and later theologians did in formulating the concept of the Trinity. And what Philo could not do through reason alone, later Christians would complete through divine revelation. Yet without the prior work of Philo and the Greek thinkers, divine revelation would have been enigmatic.

This is the beauty of reason and revelation working together and man being a coworker with God in the discovery of Truth. In His providence, Christ did not come until the fullness of Greek thought had been developed that gave man the tools necessary to understand God’s revelation.

The Legacy of Philo

It is amazing to me that Philo is often viewed as the man who tried but failed to completely unify Greek and Hebrew thought. I think that this is a pessimistic way of looking at it. For me, the opposite is true. Without Philo’s pioneering work, those who came after him would have had a much more difficult time sorting out how Christ could be the Logos. He brought us one step closer to the Truth.

Of course, he did not understand the Trinitarian nature of God, but he went further than his predecessors at approaching that concept. He went as far as he could without more divine revelation, for he only had the Old Testament.

The relationship between faith and reason is a delicate dance between God and man. If we both work in harmony, then the two – faith and reason – blend into one beautiful representation of the truth without losing their distinctiveness.

Take note of the following quote from Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1, 5:

Perchance, too, philosophy was given to the Greeks directly and primarily, till the Lord should call the Greeks. For this was a schoolmaster to bring “the Hellenic mind,” as the law, the Hebrews, “to Christ.” Philosophy, therefore, was a preparation, paving the way for him who is perfected in Christ.12

Finally, consider the following question:

How would the Greek concept of “logos” have been deficient for use in the Christian Church without Philo’s contribution, or would it have? Please leave your comment below and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you!

Deo Gratias

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  1. Mounce, Bill, “History of the Greek Language,” https://www.billmounce.com/greekalphabet/greeklanguage
  2. Hillar, Marian, “Philo’s Logos Doctrine: Bridging Two Cultures and Creating Philosophical Foundations of Christianity,” Center for Philosophy and Socinian Studies, https://snsociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Philos-Logos-Doctrine.pdf
  3. Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, pp. 58-57, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, London, 1970
  4. Winston, David. “Philo’s Theory of Eternal Creation: ‘De Prov.” 1.6-9.” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, 46/47, 1979, pp. 593–606. 
  5. Hillar, Marian, “Philo’s Logos Doctrine: Bridging Two Cultures and Creating Philosophical Foundations of Christianity,” section d ‘First-born Son of God.’
  6. Hillar, Marian, “Philo of Alexandria,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, section m, https://iep.utm.edu/philo
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Hillar, Marian, “Philo of Alexandria,” section f, ‘Immanent Reason.’
  10. Hillar, Marian, “Philo of Alexandria”
  11. Ibid.
  12. The Stromata, Clement of Alexandria (153-217), translated by William Wilson, http://logoslibrary.org/clement/stromata/105.html

Bibliography and Sources:

Aristotle, On the Soul, translated by Fred D. Miller, Jr., Oxford University Press, Oxford World Classics, Oxford, England, 2018

Bowman, Thorleif, Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, London, 1970

Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus, Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia, 2011

Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941

Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009

Young, C.D. (translator), The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition, Hendrickson Publisher, Peabody, Mass., 1993.

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