“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Over the next few weeks we will be looking at this first verse of John and attempting to understand what it means especially because it gives meaning to the rest of the Gospel. And to begin with we will examine the first phrase, “In the beginning was the Word,” attending chiefly to the two words, “beginning” and the word, “Word.” But first it is important for us to keep in mind what I said last week about the four causes and especially about what I have referred to as “finality.” Everything that we are studying together will build upon the foundations we have already laid down and so it is important for us to remember what we have already talked about.
So to begin, here are four points to keep in mind: First of all the Church’s universal and ancient confidence that the Apostle John, “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” was the author of the Gospel of John, as well as the Epistles and the Revelation is reasonable and compelling. The issue of authorship is the issue of efficient cause, which answers the question “Who made this thing?” I admit that over the years I have had questions about the authorship of these texts, but the upshot of those concerns for me is that the universal, primitive, age-old agreement of the Church is greater than my puny concerns. So, as far as I am concerned, the issue of authorship is settled. The Apostle John, the brother of James, is responsible for the Epistles, the Revelation, and the Gospel that bears his name.
Secondly, I wish to expand on the issue of the material cause of the Gospel. The material cause of something is simply the nature of the matter, the material, the stuff used to make an object; the lump of clay that the potter uses to make the pot is the material cause. On the most basic level the Gospel is made of words, sentences, and paragraphs. But the words, sentences, and paragraphs communicate meaning as they take the shape of narratives about the life of Jesus – stories about his relation to the nation of Israel, stories of his relation to the God of Israel, and stories that communicate to us Jesus’ personal understanding of himself. But this is important: the Gospel of John was not the result of an evolving oral tradition that slowly morphed through the years taking form based on the needs of the Church until it reached the form we presently have today. The point I am making is that the texts of all these books, including the Gospel, were written by John essentially in the form that we presently have them today. And that brings up the third point to remember: that form, or the genera of the Gospel of John is the genera of a gospel which is the life-story of Jesus the Messiah.
The fourth point to keep in mind is the final cause: the purpose, the reason for the Gospel of John was to arouse, to enkindle, to bring about faith in Jesus the Messiah and in particular the conviction that Jesus the Messiah was a real human being and at the same time he was the God of Israel. That is the author’s stated purpose.
Finality which is identical to final cause — or another way of speaking of it would be God’s purpose — is the most difficult of the four causes to discover and to talk about. But I believe that it is not only possible for us to discover the finality of created things, but the very discovery of the purpose of things is in part the final cause of human beings. The discovery and the declaration of finality is especially a human task given to us at our creation. Pope Benedict XVI rightly wrote, “That God created the universe in order to be able to become a human being and pour out his love upon us and to invite us to love him in return.” That sums up finality for all creation, including us, but our final cause is realized according to the kind of creature we happened to be. The love that God pours out upon his whole creation is experienced differently by human beings than it is experienced by Angels or for than matter than it is experienced by the birds of the sky. But we live in a world in which final cause has been thrown out of the most important conversations in life. If not before him certainly with Bacon final cause was excluded from the work of science and it was considered, from then on, to be no more than magical thinking. This is the world we inhabit and the world in which our children are being formed and will soon have their own families. But I am suggesting that the discovery of final cause is not only a good in itself, but the task enables us to discovery our voice and sing the glory of God. Thus by dispensing with final cause, we also dispense with one great task that is necessary to our formation and maturing as the creature created in the image and likeness of his Creator. The dismissal of finality has stunted our growth and it is our job to retrieve it.
But even under better circumstances the discovery of finality is not effortless. There is a sacramental principle that there is an interiority and exteriority aspect to every created thing. Let me explain: The Latin word “signatur” is the outward, external manifestation of a thing’s finality. The Latin word “ens” means a thing, an existing, real thing. An “entity” is something that has real existence; it is a thing. If we put the two Latin words together we have the word “ensign” which refers to a banner, a flag, a standard that may be used for example by a military unit to indicate its nationality, authority, purpose or specialization. That banner, that standard is the “signatur,” the outward representation of the thing’s interior reality. In antiquity people believed in what came to be known as the doctrine of signatures, which was the belief that God had marked everything he created with a sign, a signatur that discloses its true meaning, God’s purpose, God’s final cause of each and all created things. Jakob Bohme, a Lutheran mystic living in Germany in the fourteenth century popularized what came to be known as the doctrine of signatures in his book entitled, The Signature of All Things. Bohme believed that God marked things with an external sign or signature that indicated their purpose. The signature of things in creation therefore is God’s signature indicating the purpose for which the thing exist. What I want to do is to show you how exciting, sometimes surprising, and challenging it is to discern final cause and I want to show you what I mean by looking at the end of John.
John tells us exactly why he wrote the Gospel at the end of the book. But the Gospel actually has two endings and he has to state and expand upon his reasons for writing with each ending. Much has been made of the two endings in the past, but I think it is perfectly understandable because naturally we have all experienced this kind of thing before. We all have had the experience when we think we have finished a conversation and then we recall some vital point that we meant to bring up, but forgot. John’s first ending occurs after the account Jesus’ appearance to Thomas in the upper room one week after his resurrection. We all remember that Thomas was absent at the very first resurrection appearance on Easter and we also recall that as nihilistic as he sounded at first, by the next Sunday he was with the Apostles in the Upper Room when Jesus appeared the second time and that time Jesus placed all his attention upon Thomas. Jesus invited Thomas to come in close and examine his side that was pierced by the Roman’s spear and to lay his fingers upon it and to see that he was real and to believe in him. Then John ends the chapter with these words:
“And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” John 20: 30-31
That is a perfect ending. But immediately after that John lights into one last story only to throw off the perfect ending and he has to bring the Gospel to another end which he does with very similar words about his purpose for writing the Gospel. It is the kind of thing that if a seminarian gave me a sermon to proof I would have said, “Go back and fix that last thought. You had the perfect ending, but you blow it by trying to say too much.” But the fact that the early Church did not fiddle around with this ending in order to smooth out the feeling of something being tacked on as an afterthought is important because it shows that the Church believed this Gospel had come from old John the Apostle himself. From the beginning the Church believed this document to be equivalent to the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Chapter 21 is not elegantly merged into the previous chapter because having finished his Gospel, John recalled one last narrative about Jesus that was so important to John himself and to Peter, who had by this time been crucified by the Romans, that his purpose for writing the Gospel required its inclusion. This untampered with, misaligned ending is also evidence that the text of John’s Gospel did not slowly and carefully evolve to a useful and polished text for the first generation Church, simply because at the end of the book, where rhetorical skill matters most, it is left hanging in all its glorious crudeness in the place of honor. But we will have to wait a while till we get to chapter 21 to see what the big deal was all about.
We have only touched upon the meaning of finality in John and you can see how there is the finality that refers back to the author’s intention for writing the Gospel. But we also must keep in mind that the John the Apostle co-authored the Gospel with God the Holy Spirit and God had a purpose that John did not yet see. This is what I want to suggest to you: There is a sacramental principle that there is an interior and external aspect to every created thing. The truth of the doctrine of signatures is that God had marked everything he created with a sign, a signatur that disclosed the true meaning, God’s purpose, God’s final cause of each and all created things. And in particular God has marked humanity with his own divine signatur and with the unthinkable, the inconceivable has become reality, and the God who has God has permitted our signatur to mark his own Divinity.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made… And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth.”