The Incarnation and the Battle for Knowledge

John’s Prologue to his incomparable Gospel is one of the most significant works of epistemology ever penned. Its intellectual treasures are as limitless as is its subject—Jesus, God Incarnate. This overwhelms me every time I teach, preach, or write on this marvel of biblical revelation. Every battle between truth and error is explained at the deepest level by this assembly of statements. Intrepid soldiers of truth, take heed. Cognitive slackers, wake up.

“In the beginning was the Word,” John writes, alluding to Genesis chapter one: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” This Word was with God and was, in fact, God (vs. 1:2-2)! The Word in Greek is Logos, a term often used in ancient Greek philosophy. The Greeks, however, did no know the Logos as God and with God, since their conception was of an impersonal and faceless principle of logical ordering and meaning in the cosmos. John may have been giving the Greek term a new meaning, as many early church fathers believed. Or John may have been referring back to the Hebrew notion of God’s revealed word and wisdom. Either way, we learn that God is The Word.

Words can communicate ideas. Words make up sentences. Declarative sentences are either true or false. True sentences are those that agree with reality. True sentences, rationally grounded, offer us knowledge. It was no accident that the Apostle refers to The Word to name God. God is a God who reveals knowable truth through many means: nature, the Bible, and Jesus, the Word. As Carl Henry wrote, “The living God of the Bible inescapably and invincibly shows up and speaks out.” (God, Revelation, and Authority: God Who Speaks and Shows: Preliminary Considerations.  p. 18.) We speak words that can convey knowledge. God spoke creation into existence as Genesis 1 tells us. John agrees, of course:

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made (John 1:3)

The made bears the mark of its Maker, as Paul tells us.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).

All the words of creation and all the words of inspired Scripture lead up to and culminate in the Word became flesh. Perhaps no one put this better than the venerable C.S. Lewis in Miracles.

The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment of Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.

The Incarnation is the communication of knowledge through the person and achievements of Jesus, the Christ. This is God’s epistemology. We are made in the divine image to know God through our minds. Again, listen to Carl Henry.

The image of God in man . . . bears noetic implications that have constrained some of Christianity’s profoundest theologians to insist that God is the source of all truth, that the human mind is an instrument for recognizing truth, and that the rational awareness of God is given a priori in correlation with man’s self-awareness, so that man as a knower stands always in epistemic relationships with his Maker and Judge (Ibid. 78).

To that end, God makes truth about himself known that we may know him intellectually and relationally.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

Notice that Christ is “full of grace and truth.” Untruth has no part in The Word, and the Word appeared to be known. By his grace, we can know his truth, since he is full of grace and truth. In fact, he is the truth:

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:5-6).

This mighty Gospel prologue ends with a profound philosophical punch.

No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known (John 1:18).

The New American Standard Bible translates this as:

No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him (emphasis mine).

While the Word has explained God to us, some resist this divinely-revealed knowledge. As John’s prologue unfolds, we find conflict between the Word and darkness. We are told that the Word’s light “shines in the darkness” when he said, “Let there be light.” But a spiritual darkness asserts itself against this matchless revelation.

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:10-11).

The Word that made the world and became flesh for its sake was not welcomed by all. Some covered their ears and closed their eyes and loved ignorance more than knowledge. We find this in Herod, the godless ruler of Bethlehem in Jesus’ day. Having learned of the birth of Christ from the Magi, he feigned the desire to worship him; yet he feared his rule and wanted to kill him. Since the ministry of the Word would not be overruled by a tyrant.

But Mary and Joseph escaped to Egypt, since the ministry of the Word would not be overruled by a tyrant (Matthew 2:1-15).

We cannot escape this conflict between the Word and a rebellious world that fears the knowledge of the truth. Paul warns of those who are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). But we must take sides, don our soldier dress, prepare for battle, and launch ourselves into the fray for knowledge. Soldiers in this battle need supernatural strength, a reality only the Word can communicate to us. Despite those who resist and reject Christ, we may believe and receive him. John gives us hope based on reality.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:11-12).

The Word of creation and revelation is also the Word of redemption. Through him, we may be born again into a new identity and a new life. As Jesus told Nichodemus:

Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.

How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’ (John 3:3-7).

Those who are born again, whose sins are forgiven through the death of Christ on the Cross, should be knowledge warriors. Paul was one such soldier.

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5).

Paul is speaking of sound doctrine in church discipline, but the principle applies everywhere. We are in a contest for knowledge. Therefore, we must acquire the knowledge of God, explain it to others, defend it (apologetics), and live it out in the power of God. Nothing less than everything is at stake. Women and men must be born again to escape God’s judgment, as Jesus proclaimed:

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:21-29).

Those who believe and receive the Son are supernaturally given eternal life now and forever. They receive deliverance from judgment at the resurrection of the dead. This knowledge is worth fighting for. But how ought we wage war?

First, we must grow in our knowledge of God. Paul makes this plain when he speaks of his teaching to the Colossians, those at Laodicea, and for all who had not met him personally.

My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments (Colossians 2:2-4).

The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17; 16:13), provides the believer with intellectual growth and discernment. Nonetheless, this does not happen automatically. Study is a spiritual discipline that confers knowledge and wisdom over time. Learning that matters means self-denial in order to develop a hunger for lasting satisfaction in knowledge. Most Americans, including Christians, do not read; they watch. They are not edified; they are entertained. They may not even know how to learn, since they have been conditioned to pass tests instead of possessing knowledge. The author of Hebrews gave strong words against this problem (even before television). He is hindered from teaching because his readers are not prepared.

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil (Hebrews 5:11-14).

Second, as the Christian grows in knowledge, he should find ways to make the Gospel known to as many people as possible, given his place in life. Christian teachers of all kinds should not assume their students or parishioners understand or have accepted the Gospel. Neither should they be content to wade (or wallow) in the shallow end of the theology pool for their entire ministry. Paul exhorts his disciple, Timothy:

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth. Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly (2 Timothy 2:15-16; see also James 3:1-2.

Every time a teacher steps into a classroom, she joins the battle for the knowledge of God. It is contested territory, which should become a sanctuary for knowledge.

As a Christian philosopher nearing the end of my fifth decade of life, I am earnest to communicate Christianity through the media of writing, teaching, and preaching. I pursue many endeavors in order to make the Word known to a wounded world (Ecclesiastes 11:1-6). Recently, I contacted a Buddhist school with the idea of participating in a Christian-Buddhist dialogue. The President of the institution wrote back with some interest.

But my vineyard is not your vineyard. Therefore, seek out areas of life where you have influence and tell the world that “the Word became flesh.” You do not have the luxury of sitting out the battle for knowledge. No Christian can afford to be on vacation from speaking the truth in love in the strength of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:15). Eternity is too long and God’s glory too important to do Christianity on the cheap.

Author: Douglas Groothuis

Author of Christian Apologetics, Truth Decay, On Jesus, On Pascal, and others. Professor of Philosophy, Denver Seminary since 1993. Head of The Apologetics and Ethics Masters Degree Program and Co-Director of The Gordon Lewis Center for Christian Thought and Culture. Senior Fellow for Apologetics.com.

One thought

  1. I was once told that until I learned to read the Bible in its original languages, I will never have truly read it. That seemed a rather high bar to set, and yet having taken that advice, I now notice all kinds of English language mistakes folks make. One of the most common is the way you are equivocating the English word “word” in a way that the actual text of the Bible does not.

    “Λόγος” is a great example of how meaning gets lost in translation. It can be translated as “word,” but Λόγος has an antonym that’s central to its meaning, but “word” does not. The opposite of λόγος is μύθος, a concept that gets drilled into the head of any student of the Presocratics. This Greek term μύθος can also be translated as “Word” in the same way if John 1:1 had instead said “In the beginning was Mythos and Mythos was made flesh.” But it would only mean “word” in the sense that it’s the opposite kind of word as Logos.

    Given the rather clear contemporaneous meaning of the capital lettered “Λόγος” two thousand years ago in the Koine dialect of the Hellenistic world, it’s uncertain why John Wycliffe chose to translate it as “Word” prompting Tyndale and the KJV to follow suit and thus permanently obscuring its more obvious meaning in the English speaking world today. Actually Wycliffe originally followed it with a parenthetical aside: “In the beginning was the word, [that is, God’s Son,].”

    If Λόγος were to be translated as something in reference to human language, then a more precise choice would have been “Prose” as distinct from its antonym “Verse.” But the silliness of such a translation should then remind us of why the best translation of this Greek term, which means “a rational account,” is simply “God.”

    Logos was a very common philosophical euphemism for a monotheistic conception of deity as distinct from the polytheistic norm of the time. There are several candidates for possible influence on the anonymous author of the Johannes Gospel. Zeno was one of the first to use Λόγος this way, making it a mainstay of Stoicism, but a more contemporaneous candidate would be Philo of Alexandria who in the 1st Century was the first Jewish writer to do so.

    There is of course an appropriate Koine Greek word for “word” that is actually used by biblical authors in the way you are trying to use it above: “ῥήματος” (see Romans 10:17), but of course that’s not the root word for “Logic” and bears no linguistic connotation of rationality. This is a non-trivial matter, because it’s a mistake to refer to the Bible as the “Λόγος of God” when it also contains so much μύθος.

    The presence of mere “stories” in the Bible that lack historical truth-value was something accepted by Church fathers. However it’s become a touchy subject for many Evangelicals today. Up above you possibly made reference to one of them when you mentioned the account of the flight to Egypt in Matthew chapter 2. The very different account in Luke chapter 2 contradicts Matthew’s. It’s logically possible that both of them are historically false. It’s also logically possible that one of them is historically true. But it’s not logically possible that both Matthew and Luke’s accounts are both true. At best one account could be described as λόγος, making the other mere μύθος.

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