Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

The word Logos is the term by which Christian theology in the Greek language designates the Word of God, or Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Before St. John had consecrated this term by adopting it, the Greeks and the Jews had used it to express religious conceptions which, under various titles, have exercised a certain influence on Christian theology, and of which it is necessary to say something.


It is in Heraclitus that the theory of the Logos appears for the first time, and it is doubtless for this reason that, first among the Greek philosophers, Heraclitus was regarded by St. Justin (Apol. I, 46) as a Christian before Christ. For him the Logos, which he seems to identify with fire, is that universal principle which animates and rules the world. This conception could only find place in a materialistic monism. The philosophers of the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ were dualists, and conceived of God as transcendent, so that neither in Plato (whatever may have been said on the subject) nor in Aristotle do we find the theory of the Logos.

It reappears in the writings of the Stoics, and it is especially by them that this theory is developed. God, according to them, "did not make the world as an artisan does his work, but it is by wholly penetrating all matter that He is the demiurge of the universe " (Galen, "De qual. incorp." in "Fr. Stoic.", ed. von Arnim, II, 6); He penetrates the world "as honey does the honeycomb" ( Tertullian, "Adv. Hermogenem", 44), this God so intimately mingled with the world is fire or ignited air; inasmuch as He is the principle controlling the universe, He is called Logos ; and inasmuch as He IS the germ from which all else develops, He is called the seminal Logos (logos spermatikos) . This Logos is at the same time a force and a law, an irresistible force which bears along the entire world and all creatures to a common end, an inevitable and holy law from which nothing can withdraw itself, and which every reasonable man should follow willingly (Cleanthus, "Hymn to Zeus" in "Fr. Stoic." I, 527-cf. 537). Conformably to their exegetical habits, the Stoics made of the different gods personifications of the Logos, e.g. of Zeus and above all of Hermes.

At Alexandria, Hermes was identified with Thoth, the god of Hermopolis, known later as the great Hermes, "Hermes Trismegistus", and represented as the revealer of all letters and all religion. Simultaneously, the Logos theory conformed to the current Neoplatonistic dualism in Alexandria : the Logos is not conceived of as nature or immanent necessity, but as an intermediary agent by which the transcendent God governs the world. This conception appears in Plutarch, especially in his "Isis and Osiris"; from an early date in the first century of the Christian era, it influenced profoundly the Jewish philosopher Philo.


Quite frequently the Old Testament represents the creative act as the word of God ( Genesis 1:3 ; Psalm 32:9 ; Sirach 42:15 ); sometimes it seems to attribute to the word action of itself, although not independent of Jahveh ( Isaiah 55:11 , Zechariah 5:1-4 ; Psalm 106:20 ; 147:15 ). In all this we can see only bold figures of speech: the word of creation, of salvation, or, in Zacharias, the word of malediction, is personified, but is not conceived of as a distinct Divine hypostasis. In the Book of Wisdom this personification is more directly implied (xviii, 15 sq.), and a parallel is established (ix, 1, 2) between wisdom and the Word.

In Palestinian Rabbinism the Word ( Memra ) is very often mentioned, at least in the Targums : it is the Memra of Jahveh which lives, speaks, and acts, but, if one endeavour to determine precisely the meaning of the expression, it appears very often to be only a paraphrase substituted by the Targumist for the name of Jahveh. The Memra resembles the Logos of Philo as little as the workings of the rabbinical mind in Palestine resembled the speculations of Alexandria : the rabbis are chiefiy concerned about ritual and observances; from religious scruples they dare not attribute to Jahveh actions such as the Sacred Books attribute to Him; it is enough for them to veil the Divine Majesty under an abstract paraphrase, the Word, the Glory, the Abode, and others. Philo's problem was of the philosophic order; God and man are infinitely distant from each other, and it is necessary to establish between them relations of action and of prayer ; the Logos is here the intermediary.

Leaving aside the author of the Book of Wisdom, other Alexandrian Jews before Philo had speculated as to the Logos; but their works are known only through the rare fragments which Christian authors and Philo himself have preserved. Philo alone is fully known to us, his writings are as extensive as those of Plato or Cicero, and throw light on every aspect of his doctrine ; from him we can best learn the theory of the Logos, as developed by Alexandrian Judaism. The character of his teaching is as manifold as its sources:

  • sometimes, influenced by Jewish tradition, Philo represents the Logos as the creative Word of God ("De Sacrific. Ab. et Cain "; cf. "De Somniis", I 182; "De Opif. Mundi", 13);
  • at other times he describes it as the revealer of God, symbolized in Scripture by the angel of Jahveh ("De Somniis", I, 228-39, "De Cherub.", 3; "De Fuga", 5; "Quis rer. divin. haeres sit", 201-205).
  • Oftener again he accepts the language of Hellenic speculation ; the Logos is then, after a Platonistic concept, the sum total of ideas and the intelligible world ("De Opif. Mundi", 24, 25; "Leg. Alleg.", I, 19; III, 96),
  • or, agreeably to the Stoic theory, the power that upholds the world, the bond that assures its cohesion, the law that determines its development ("De Fuga", 110; "De Plantat. Noah," 8-10; "Quis rer. divin. haeres sit", 188, 217; "Quod Deus sit immut.", 176; "De Opif. Mundi", 143).

Throughout so many diverse concepts may be recognized a fundamental doctrine : the Logos is an intermediary between God and the world; through it God created the world and governs it; through it also men know God and pray to Him ("De Cherub.", 125; "Quis rerum divin. haeres sit", 205-06.) In three passages the Logos is called God ("Leg. Alleg.", III, 207; "De Somniis", I, 229; "In Gen.", II, 62, cited by Eusebius, "Praep. Ev.", VII, 13); but, as Philo himself explains in one of these texts (De Somniis), it is an improper appellation and wrongly employed, and he uses it only because he is led into it by the Sacred Text which he comments upon. Moreover, Philo does not regard the Logos as a person ; it is an idea, a power, and, though occasionally identified with the angels of the Bible , this is by symbolic personification.


The term Logos is found only in the Johannine writings: in the Apocalypse (19:13), in the Gospel of St. John (1:1-14), and in his First Epistle (1:1; cf. 1:7 - Vulgate ). But already in the Epistles of St. Paul the theology of the Logos had made its influence felt. This is seen in the Epistles to the Corinthians, where Christ is called "the power of God, and the wisdom of God " ( 1 Corinthians 1:24 ) and "the image of God " ( 2 Corinthians 4:4 ); it is more evident in the Epistle to the Colossians (1:15 sqq.); above all in the Epistle to the Hebrews, where the theology of the Logos lacks only the term itself, that finally appears in St. John. In this epistle we also notice the pronounced influence of the Book of Wisdom, especially in the description which is given of the relations between the Son and the Father: "the brightness of his glory, and the figure of his substance " (cf. Wisdom 7:26 ). This resemblance suggests the way by which the doctrine of the Logos entered into Christian theology ; another clue is furnished by the Apocalypse, where the term Logos appears for the first time (19:13), and not apropos of any theological teaching, but in an apocalyptic vision, the content of which has no suggestion of Philo but rather recalls Wisdom 18:15.

In the Gospel of St. John the Logos appears in the very first verse without explanation, as a term familiar to the readers, St. John uses it at the end of the prologue (i, 14), and does not mention it again in the Gospel. From this Harnack concludes that the mention of the Word was only a starting-point for the Evangelist, and that he passed directly from this Hellenic conception of the Logos to the Christian doctrine of the only Son ("Ueber das Verhältniss des Prologs des vierten Evangeliums zum ganzen Werk" in "Zeitschrift fur Theol. und Kirche", II, 1892, 189-231). This hypothesis is proved false by the insistence with which the Evangelist comes back on this idea of the Word, it is, moreover, natural enough that this technical term, employed in the prologue where the Evangelist is interpreting the Divine mystery, should not reappear in the sequel of the narrative, the character of which might thus suffer change.

What is the precise value of this concept in the writings of St. John? The Logos has not for him the Stoic meaning that it so often had for Philo: it is not the impersonal power that sustains the world, nor the law that regulates it; neither do we find in St. John the Platonistic concept of the Logos as the ideal model of the world; the Word is for him the Word of God, and thereby he holds with Jewish tradition, the theology of the Book of Wisdom, of the Psalms, of the Prophetical Books, and of Genesis; he perfects the idea and transforms it by showing that this creative Word which from all eternity was in God and was God, took flesh and dwelt among men.

This difference is not the only one which distinguishes the Johannine theology of the Logos from the concept of Philo, to which not a few have sought to liken it. The Logos of Philo is impersonal, it is an idea, a power, a law ; at most it may be likened to those half abstract, half-concrete entities, to which the Stoic mythology had lent a certain personal form. For Philo the incarnation of the Logos must have been absolutely without meaning, quite as much as its identification with the Messias. For St. John, on the contrary, the Logos appears in the full light of a concrete and living personality ; it is the Son of God, the Messias, Jesus. Equally great is the difference when we consider the role of the Logos. The Logos of Philo is an intermediary: "The Father who engendered all has given to the Logos the signal privilege of being an intermediary ( methorios ) between the creature and the creator . . . it is neither without beginning ( agenetos ) as is God, nor begotten ( genetos ) as you are [ mankind ], but intermediate ( mesos ) between these two extremes "(Quis rer. divin. haeres sit, 205-06). The Word of St. John is not an intermediary, but a Mediator; He is not intermediate between the two natures, Divine and human, but He unites them in His Person ; it could not be said of Him, as of the Logos of Philo, that He is neither agenetos nor genetos , for He is at the same time one and the other, not inasmuch as He is the Word, but as the Incarnate Word (St. Ignatius, "Ad Ephes.", vii, 2).

In the subsequent history of Christian theology many conflicts would naturally arise between these rival concepts, and Hellenic speculations constitute a dangerous temptation for Christian writers. They were hardly tempted, of course, to make the Divine Logos an impersonal power (the Incarnation too definitely forbade this), but they were at times moved, more or less consciously, to consider the Word as an intermediary being between God and the world. Hence arose the subordinationist tendencies found in certain Ante-Nicene writers; hence, also, the Arian heresy (see NICAEA, COUNCIL OF).


The Apostolic Fathers do not touch on the theology of the Logos; a short notice occurs in St. Ignatius only (Ad Magn. viii, 2). The Apologists, on the contrary, develop it, partly owing to their philosophic training, but more particularly to their desire to state their faith in a way familiar to their readers ( St. Justin, for example, insists strongly on the theology of the Logos in his "Apology" meant for heathens, much less so in his "Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon"). This anxiety to adapt apologetic discussion to the circumstances of their hearers had its dangers, since it was possible that in this way the apologists might land well inside the lines of their adversaries.

As to the capital question of the generation of the Word, the orthodoxy of the Apologists is irreproachable: the Word was not created, as the Arians held later, but was born of the very Substance of the Father according to the later definition of Nicaea ( Justin, "Dial.",128, Tatian, "Or.", v, Athenagoras, "Legat." x-xviii, Theophilus, "Ad Autolyc.", II, x; Tertullian "Adv. Prax.", vii). Their theology is less satisfactory as regards the eternity of this generation and its necessity ; in fact, they represent the Word as uttered by the Father when the Father wished to create and in view of this creation ( Justin, "II Apol.", 6; cf. "Dial.",6162; Tatian, "Or.", v, a corrupt and doubtful text; Athenagoras, "Legat.", x; Theophilus, "Ad Autolyc.", II, xxii; Tertullian, "Adv. Prax.", v-vii). When we seek to understand what they meant by this "utterance", it is difficult to give the same answer for all Athenagoras seems to mean the role of the Son in the work of creation, the syncatabasis of the Nicene Fathers (Newman, "Causes of the Rise and Successes of Arianism" in "Tracts Theological and Ecclesiastical", London, 1902, 238), others, especially Theophilus and Tertullian (cf. Novatian, "De Trinit.", xxxi), seem quite certainly to understand this "utterance" as properly so called. Mental survivals of Stoic psychology seem to be responsible for this attitude: the philosophers of the Portico distinguished between the innate word ( endiathetos ) and the uttered word ( prophorikos ) bearing in mind this distinction the aforesaid apologists conceived a development in the Word of God after the same fashion. After this period, St. Irenæus condemned very severely these attempts at psychological explanation (Adv. Haeres., II, xiii, 3-10, cf. II, xxviii, 4-6), and later Fathers rejected this unfortunate distinction between the Word endiathetos and prophorikos [ Athanasius (?), "Expos. Fidei", i, in P. G., XXV, 201-cf. "Orat.", II, 35, in P. G., XXVI, 221; Cyril of Jerusalem "Cat.", IV, 8, in P. G., XXXIII, 465-cf. "Cat.", XI, 10, in P. G., XXXIII, 701-cf. Council of Sirmium, can. viii, in Athan., "De Synod.", 27-P. G., XXVI.

As to the Divine Nature of the Word, all apologists are agreed but to some of them, at least to St. Justin and Tertuilian, there seemed to be in this Divinity a certain subordination ( Justin, "I Apol.", 13-cf. "II Apol.", 13; Tertullian, "Adv. Prax.", 9, 14, 26).

The Alexandrian theologians, themselves profound students of the Logos doctrine, avoided the above mentioned errors concerning the dual conception of the Word (see, however, a fragment of the "Hypotyposes", of Clement of Alexandria , cited by Photius, in P. G., CIII, 384, and Zahn, "Forschungen zur Geschichte des neutest. Kanons", Erlangen, 1884, xiii 144) and the generation in time ; for Clement and for Origen the Word is eternal like the Father (Clement "Strom.", VII, 1, 2, in P. G., IX, 404, 409, and "Adumbrat. in Joan.", i, 1, in P. G., IX, 734; Origen, "De Princip.", I, xxii, 2 sqq., in P. G., XI, 130 sqq.; "In Jer. Hom.", IX, 4, in P. G., XIII, 357, "In Jo. ', ii, 32, in P. G., XIV, 77; cf. Athanasius, "De decret. Nic. syn.", 27, in P. G., XXV, 465). As to the nature of the Word their teaching is less sure: in Clement, it is true, we find only a few traces of subordinationism ("Strom.", IV, 25, in P. G., VIII, 1365; "Strom.", VII, 3, in P. G., IX, 421; cf. "Strom.", VII, 2, in P. G., IX, 408); elsewhere he very explicitly affirms the equality of the Father and the Son and the unity (" Protrept.", 10, in P. G., VIII 228, "Paedag.", I, vi, in P. G., VIII, 280; I, viii, in P. G., VIII, 325 337 cf. I, ix, in P. G., VIII, 353; III, xii, in P. d., V*I, 680). Origen, on the contrary, frequently and formally defended subordinationist ideas (" De Princip.", I, iii, 5, in P. G., XI, 150; IV, xxxv, in P. G., XI, 409, 410; "In Jo." ii, 2, in P. G., XIV, 108, 109; ii, 18, in P. G., XIV, 153, 156; vi, 23, in P. G., XIV, 268; xiii, 25, in P. G., XIV, 44144; xxxii, 18, in P. G., XIV, 817-20; "In Matt.", xv, 10, in P. G., XIII, 1280, 1281; "De Orat.", 15, in P. G., XI,464, "Contra Cels.", V, xi, in P. G., XI,1197); his teaching concerning the Word evidently suffered from Hellenic speculation : in the order of religious knowledge and of prayer, the Word is for him an intermediary between God and the creature.

Amid these speculations of apologists and Alexandrian theologians, elaborated not without danger or without error, the Church maintained her strict dogmatic teaching concerning the Word of God. This is particularly recognizable in the works of those Fathers more devoted to tradition than to philosophy, and especially in St. Irenæus, who condemns every form of the Hellenic and Gnostic theory of intermediary beings (Adv. Haer., II, xxx, 9; II, ii, 4; III, viii, 3; IV, vii, 4, IV, xx, 1), and who affirms in the strongest terms the full comprehension of the Father by the Son and their identity of nature (Adv. Haer., II, xvii, 8; IV, iv, 2, IV, vi, 3, 6). We find it again with still greater authority in the letter of Pope St. Dionysius to his namesake, the Bishop of Alexandria (see Athan., "De decret. Nic. syn.", 26, in P. G., XXV,461-65): "They lie as to the generation of the Lord who dare to say that His Divine and ineffable generation is a creation. We must not divide the admirable and Divine unity into three divinities, we must not lower the dignity and sovereign grandeur of the Lord by the word creation, but we must believe in God the Father omnipotent, in Christ Jesus His Son, and in the Holy Ghost, we must unite the Word to the God of the universe, for He has said: 'I and the Father are one', and again: 'I am in the Father, and the Father in me'. Thus we protect the Divine Trinity, and the holy avowal of the monarchy [unity of God ]." The Council of Nicaea (325) had but to lend official consecration to this dogmatic teaching.


After the Council of Nicaea, all danger of Subordinationism being removed, it was possible to seek in the analogy of human speech some light on the mystery of the Divine generation; the Greek Fathers especially refer to this analogy, in order to explain how this generation is purely spiritual and entails neither diminution nor change: Dionysius of Alexandria (Athan., "De Sent. Dion.", 23, in P. G., XXV, 513); Athanasius ("De decret. Nic. syn.", 11, in P. G., XXV, 444); Basil ("In illud: In principio erat Verbum", 3, in P. G., XXXI, 476-77); Gregory of Nazianzus ("Or.", xxx,20,inP.G., XXXVI, 128-29) Cyril of Alexandria (" Thes." iv, in P. G., LXXV, 56; cf. 76, 80; xvi, ibid., 300; xvi, ibid., 313; "De Trinit.", dial. ii, in P. G., LXXV, 768 69), John Damasc. ("De Fide Orthod.", I, vi, in P. G., XCIV, 804).

St. Augustine studied more closely this analogy between the Divine Word and human speech (see especially "De Trinit.", IX, vii, 12 sq., in P. L., XLII, 967, XV, x, 17 sq., ibid., 1069), and drew from it teachings long accepted in Catholic theology. He compares the Word of God, not to the word spoken by the lips, but to the interior speech of the soul, whereby we may in some measure grasp the Divine mystery ; engendered by the mind it remains therein, is equal thereto, is the source of its operations. This doctrine was later developed and enriched by St. Thomas, especially in "Contra Gent.", IV, xi-xiv, opusc. "De natura verbi intellectus"; "Quaest. disput. de verit." iv, "De potent.", ii-viii, 1, "Summa Theol.", I-I, xxvii, 2; xxxiv. St. Thomas sets forth in a very clear way the identity of meaning, already noted by St. Augustine (De Trinit., VII, ii, 3), between the terms Son and Word : "eo Filius quo Verbum, et eo Verbum quo Filius" ("Summa Theol.", I-I, xxvii, 2, "Contra Gent.", IV, xi). The teaching of St. Thomas has been highly approved by the Church especially in the condemnation of the Synod of Pistoia by Pius VI ( Denzinger, "Enchiridion", 1460). ( See JESUS CHRIST ; TRINITY.)

More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Ezekiel 37:21-28
21 say, "The Lord Yahweh says this: I shall take the ... Read More

Psalm, Jeremiah 31:10, 11-12, 13
10 Listen, nations, to the word of Yahweh. On the ... Read More

Gospel, John 11:45-57
45 Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for March 28th, 2015 Image

St. Venturino of Bergamo
March 28: Dominican preacher and missionary crusader. A native of Bergamo, ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook

Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter