The Ancient Worldview in Biblical Interpretation

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My passion is to pursue the truth.  This is not as easy as one might think when it comes to trying to draw out the original intended meaning of the ancient Greek text.  There is a huge time span between the Scripture we have in our hands today and the ancient world with which the text was first penned.  We have huge gulf between the modern Western framework of thought and the ancient world.  What we are confronted with is the pictures conjured within the mind of the writer as they write the  Scriptures as well as in the mind of those who read and heard them may not be the same as what we perceive in the modern world.  I have said many times that there is no such thing as Biblical Greek.  Christians do not have a monopoly on this ancient language.  There are numerous extra-biblical Koine Greek texts in which we can draw from to gain some insight into what the writers may have had in mind when they used certain words and phrases.  The challenge today is to find some consistency between the Biblical text and the ancient secular writings.

When I started to translate the Book of John, I had a specific approach in mind.

  1. To be mindful of the Latin Heresy where we have multiple dualisms, pagan influences and logical inferences imposed on the ancient text.
  2. to be more mindful of the theme of objective union, especially in the light of the clause in the Nicene Creed, homoousios to Patri.  The union between the Father, Son and Spirit and the inclusion of humanity into this union should be maintained throughout.
  3. Of course I wanted to be aware of perichoresis which is the mutual indwelling of the persons of the Trinity where humanity is now included in this dynamic relationship.

As I began to embark on this epic journey, I was troubled by the very first verse, εν αρχη ην ο λογος, which is rendered, “In the beginning was the Word.”  When I first came into Trinitarian theology, I was so very confused as I entered into Trinitarian understanding.  When I received the revelation of the Trinity, I felt like I had to start all over again and question everything I was led to believe.  This is something that I do constantly.  When I started at this very first verse, there was something in me that at first would not let me pass.  When I proceeded to go further, I was drawn back to this first verse, particularly the word, αρχη which is where the word beginning was rendered from.

The verse begins with a preposition, εν, followed by a dative feminine, αρχη, followed by the imperfect indicative verb, ην, the article ο, then the nominative singular masculine noun, λογος.  Now in interpreting these words, I have to avoid, a Latin heretical mindset which also has the tendency to relate everything to time in a linear fashion.  Is beginning associated with a point in time?  What is the relationship between eternity to time?  When we think of the Eternal Word prior to creation is there really a time or beginning point for God?  Often when we try to understand eternity from the point of view using time as the foundation, then it is difficult to conceive what eternal life really means.  Has deism crept into how this first verse in John 1:1a has been rendered?  From the point of view of ontological union, eternal life is a way of being rather than a state of timelessness.  For this reason I was compelled to try and find another approach to what this word might mean and what picture is conjured in the mind of those who read or heard this word.

In ancient Greek philosophy the use of the word was in line with cause (ἀρχῇ) and effect.  In addition we have source also as a rendering. Eg it was thought that the liver was the Arche (Source) of all diseases (Preus, A., 2001, Essays in Ancient Greek Philosophy: Before Plato, State University of New York Press, Albany, USA p. 83).  This word was used as the starting point to bring the rest of the topic into line with it.  In the same way, I believe John is using the first few verses as a means of bringing the rest of the book into line with this very important point of Jesus as the aligning stone or cornerstone.

Plato also uses this word to explain his theory of motion.  If an object moves then something causes it to move.  This cause of motion is what he refers to as ἀρχῇ (archē).  (Ashbaugh, A. F., 1988, Plato’s Theory of Explanation: A study of the Cosmological Account in the Timaeus, State University of New York Press Albany p. 55).

The author makes an interesting note, ‘things that share an archē share also their mode of being. The account and the object, therefore, must be items of the same sort.  To be of the same sort they need not have identical characteristics, they only need to be in the same way. . . . Instead, one must give true accounts of true beings and verisimilar accounts of images ’(Ibid p. 11) .

At this point I would like to draw on a quote from T F Torrance where you can see how this word might be interpreted in this very first verse.

“Of far reaching importance is the stress laid on the Monarchy of the Godhead in which all three divine Persons share, for the whole indivisible Being of God belongs to each of them as it belongs to them together. This is reinforced by the unique conception of the co-inherent or perichoretic relations between the different Persons in which they completely contain and interpenetrate one another while remaining what they distinctively are in their otherness as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God is intrinsically Triune, Trinity in unity and Unity in Trinity. There are no degrees of Deity in the Holy Trinity, as is implied in a distinction between the underived Deity of the Father and the derived deity of the Son and the Spirit. Any notion of of subordination is ruled out. The perfect simplicity and indivisibility of God in His Triune Being mean that the Arche (ἀρχῇ) or Monarchia cannot be limited to one Person, as Gregory the Theologian pointed out. While there are inviolable distinctions within the Holy Trinity, this does not detract from the truth that the whole being of God belongs to all of them as it belongs to each of them, and this does not detract from the truth that the Monarchy is One and indivisible, the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity.” (Statement at the Orthodox/Reformed Commission 1985) found in The Doctrine if the Christian God by T F Torrance p. 185.)

Theologically, Jesus is the immanent God, the One who causes, where creation and everything in it, is the economic, or the effect of God’s action.  Being and Act in Jesus Christ are interconnected and one and the same.  If we are using language of contemporary Biblical times with world views and concepts of these times, the use of the word archē may have far greater implications for the way John 1:1a should be translated and subsequently understood.

The word archē is rendered beginning as the commencement or an order of time, and there is no diminishing the fact that Jesus was there at the beginning.  In fact He was there ‘before the beginning,’ in an eternal way of being.  However, Greek thought implies a relationship between the Logos and archē where they actually share their mode of being.  The noun archē and the noun Logos may have a unified relationship, ‘of the same sort.’  Whereas the word beginning implies a start of an order of time, I suggest that the beginning is about the eternal Word Himself being in union with eternity, i.e. The Father, Son and Spirit.  It is not the Trinity then the beginning.  Rather, the Trinity is the beginning where there was never anything before because the Triune God was always, i.e. eternal.  If we bring the very first clause of the Nicene Creed into this, ‘We believe in the One God,’ then following this, they expand on what this means including all Persons of the Godhead.  Could this verse have intended that the Logos indwells the archē but is distinct in His Person? Let’s look at another compelling quote from Torrance in regard to describes the relationship Athanasius had of the Godhead with the Arche:

 “For Athanasius as for Alexander, his predecessor as Archbishop of Alexandria, that the Father alone is Arche, Principle, Origin or Source, in this sense was an Origenist concept that had become a main plank in Arian deviation from the Apostolic and Catholic faith.  Athanasius, on his part, held that since the whole Godhead is in the Son and in the Spirit, they must be included with the Father in the one Originless Source or Arche of the Holy Trinity.” (ibid. p 181)

Given that archē and the Logos share their mode of being and must be ‘items of the same sort,’ how are we to understand the very first verse of John 1:1a?  This is something that I wrestled with for over two years.  Scripture does tell us Jesus is the one through whom all things were created (Col. 1:15-22) so in effect He is the ‘Cause’ of all things.  Jesus is described as the kephalē which is also rendered as ‘Source.’  Therefore it could well be that archē could also be describing him as ‘in the Source.’ ‘Sharing their mode of being’ is a perichoretic concept.

We have to consider how this would fit in with perichoresis, the homoousion and objective union.  This is where we need to look at the rest of the Greek text.  The word ην, rendered ‘was’ has a sense of timelessness that evokes the Logos as the eternal one.  It is like a tape on spool that goes over the same thing again and again.  It appears that ην has the sense of something that is eternal rather than timelessness, that which has always been as a state of being and is tied in with the verb εἰμί or ‘I exist’.  Proper exegesis of the Greek text must consider the background and historical context of which these words originate from.  So far all the Greek words John 1:1a , in their historical context, appear to imbue perichoresis, ontological union and the homoousion.

Now we need to look into John 1b as follows καὶ ὁ Λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν Θεόν, normally rendered ‘and the Word was with God.  What is added to the intro is pros which is rendered ‘with’.  Yet pros is movement towards to interface with, interaction and reciprocity.  Is this not the true concept of prosopon?  The word is face-to-face with God in intimacy and has always been eternally so.  This also displays a sense of the overlapping of beings between God and the Word, i.e. perichoresis.

The punch-line is found in John 1c και θεος ην ο λογος rendered the ‘The Word was God.’  This I believe completes the circle of perichoresis.  The word ην connects God to the Word in an eternal sense as someone who shares their being and exists with God and therefore is God in such a far reaching way that we can hardly imagine.  It literally throws the hand grenade in the pervading ancient world view that may have existed to a certain degree in the Diaspora where Greek dualistic ideas may have crept into Hebrew thinking.

In the ancient Catholic church surrounding the Nicene era, the Greek word “monarchia” was used extensively to describe the one God as in the Shema, “The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.”

This has enormous implications in our understanding of Genesis 1:1.  If there is a relationship between the archē and the object, is this how the beginning of the bible is to be understood?  The text in the Greek is as follows: ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν. Again we have the very same ἐν ἀρχῇ.  Using contemporary Koine Greek as a backdrop, the very same thing might be implied here.  There is a starting point for the creation of the heavens and the earth.  My concern from a Trinitarian point of view is have we looked through the glasses of deism when we render the verse this way?  Karl Barth and T F Torrance see creation as being internal to God.  Can we possibly render the verse that bests reflects this truth as revealed in Col 1 and John 1 and other passages in the New Testament?  What ἀρχῇ may imply here is God as the very Source who Causes creation to be created within His being.  The relationship  between the heavens, the earth and everything in it is contained within the very being of God.

I believe there is sufficient external evidence of how this word ἀρχῇ is understood in the secular world to reconsider how both of these verses might be rendered.  It is my role I believe to challenge why something should be so simply because this is the way it is always done.  It is God who governs how He is to be defined and we are the ones who must listen to Him through the only time in history He has revealed Himself in the Person and work of Jesus Christ.  What we say about the whole Bible must reflect how He defines Himself and what He says and does.  The two are inseparable.  In the meantime, I must press on.