The African Roots of Christian Spirituality

Today, Christianity is generally thought of as a largely European and, due to European immigration and influence, North American religious and cultural movement. Christianity’s recent and ongoing remarkable growth in the so-called “Global South” of Latin America, Africa, and southern and eastern Asia, however, coupled with a significant decline in adherents to Christianity in Europe, poses a significant challenge to that assumed European hegemony of Christendom.1 There are many new questions that have arisen as a result of these recent changes, including what the decline of Christianity in Europe means for the future of the Western Civilization which it shaped and what new forms Christianity will take as it becomes fused to new cultures. The most central question being asked by Christians from both Europe and Africa is whether these forms will be faithful to the Christianity the world has known for the past 2000 years or will become something else entirely.2

Too often overlooked in these discussions are the monumental contributions that non-Europeans have already made to the Christian faith, even in its supposedly European forms. This is especially true of Africa, whose residents played a central role in Christianity’s first several hundred years. Great early and early Medieval Christian figures like the apologist Tertullian, the first Christian to write extensively in Latin, Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, whose Christology became the dominant understanding of the nature and role of Jesus to the vast majority of Christians throughout the world, and Augustine of Hippo, arguably the single most influential Christian thinker after the apostle Paul, were all Africans.3 The greatest contribution that Africa made to Christianity, though, was in the practice, piety, and intense devotion of the pioneers of Christian monasticism. Men and women like Anthony the Great, Pachomius the Great, and Syncletica of Alexandria, remembered by subsequent generations of Christians as the Desert Fathers and Mothers, developed a unique ascetic and mystical approach to Christianity which has been a major influence on all subsequent Christian history and continues to shape Christian practice, belief, and culture today.

The roots of Christian monasticism, a dedication to the practices of ascetic struggle and constant prayer coupled with a rejection of normal social expectations like marriage and family life, reach back to the faith’s earliest days and even beyond. Judaism, from which Christianity emerged as a new religion, already possessed monastic traditions “like the Essenes or the group at Qumran from which the Dead Sea Scrolls come, or the Therapeutae of Egypt described by Philo of Alexandria.”4 It is not to be overlooked that the latter monastic group was specifically located in Egypt, near Alexandria, the same geographic location in which Christian monasticism would first spring up in its fullest form.

In writings that would later become part of the New Testament, the apostle Paul, writing in the middle of the first century, counseled widows, virgins, and unmarried men to remain unmarried and to use the freedom this afforded them to serve and worship God.5 Bart D. Ehrman, a scholar and professor of early Christian writings, suggests “it may have started with Jesus himself, who anticipated that this world and life as we know it would all come to an abrupt end when God appeared in judgment to overcome the forces of evil in control of this earth and set up his own Kingdom.”6 “If this world is soon to disappear, why be attached to its pleasures?” Ehrman goes on to ask, inviting us into the thought of the early Christians, and concluding, as many of them did, “It is better to prepare for the coming Kingdom, living simply and humbly in expectation of that final day.”7 This was certainly the thinking that led Anthony the Great, the earliest major figure of Christian monasticism, to take up the ascetic way of life.

According to the biography of Anthony written by Athanasius of Alexandria, an influential fourth century bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, Anthony entered into a church one day, “and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, ‘If thou wouldest be perfect, go and sell that thou hast and give to the poor; and come follow Me and thou shalt have treasure in heaven.’”8 Antony, so Athanasius relates, went out of the church immediately and gave away the entirety of the inheritance he had received from his parents, who had recently died, commended his young sister into the care of an order of Christian virgins in Alexandria, and sojourned to the wilderness to take up the life of a hermit and ascetic.

Though not the first to retreat into the deserts of Egypt, Anthony’s example gained such reverence and notoriety that he inspired thousands more to imitate him. After the legalization of Christianity by the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine I, in 313 and the elevation of Christianity from the status of a persecuted minority religion to that of one with official imperial favor throughout his reign, which lasted until his death in 337, and beyond, ever larger numbers of former pagans began to flock to the churches for conversion. Very often, perhaps more often than not, these conversions were halfhearted and for the purpose of attaining political, social, or economic gain, keeping up with the changing times and trying to remain with the “in-crowd,” rather than being inspired by any real adoption of or devotion to the tenants of Christianity.9 According to Michael A. Smith, a scholar of early Christianity and Baptist minister, this dramatic “growth in numbers was accompanied by a lowering of standards.”10 “The monks,” on the other hand, “aimed to live the Christian life to the full, and felt that continued residence in the ‘world’ hindered this. They tried to achieve a pure Christianity and a deep communion with God which they considered unattainable in the existing churches.”11 According to scholar and philosopher David Bentley Hart, “enthusiasm for the monastic life became so great that, as a famous quip put it, the desert had become a city.”12

One of the most incredible features of this new enthusiasm was the nature of the practices which so many flocked to the Egyptian deserts to engage in. According to Athanasius, Anthony

kept vigil to such an extent that he often continued the whole night without sleep; and this not once but often… He ate once a day, after sunset, sometimes once in two days, and often even in four. His food was bread and salt, his drink, water only… A rush mat served him to sleep upon, but for the most part he lay upon the bare ground.13

The monks who followed Anthony’s example sought to imitate his extreme asceticism. According to Smith, “the main routine of the hermit was prayer and meditation, supplemented by reading of the Bible. Fasting was also important and they attempted many other rigorous feats such as standing for hours while praying.”14 This “extreme deprivation taught self-mastery, and was itself a physical form of prayer.”15

In addition to continuing the typical Christian prayer practices, such as the recitation of psalms and liturgical Eucharistic rituals, however infrequently the monks were able to gather for the latter, the monks also developed a new form of prayer, to which they attributed especially great spiritual efficacy. This new method of prayer was first fully described by John Cassian, a European Christian who traveled to Egypt to speak with the monks there, in the late fourth century. In his Conferences, a record of interviews he conducted with some of the most renowned monks of Egypt, Cassian wrote that “every monk in his progress towards continual recollection of God, is accustomed to ponder” a short prayer, “ceaselessly, revolving it in his heart.”16 Though a variety of short prayers were used by the monks, the most commonly used in Cassian’s time in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, according to Cassian, was the opening verse of Psalm 70: “O God, make speed to save me; O Lord, make haste to help me.” The monks recited this and other short prayers like it continuously as they worked and ate, and even spoke, read, and slept. The purpose of the extreme ascetic practices, they said, was to train the body in order to make this continuous repetitious prayer possible, “for he cannot possibly keep his hold over it unless he has freed himself from all bodily cares and anxieties.”17

The final goal which the monks set before them was one of union with God via continuous and automatic prayer and recollection of him. In the words of Elaine Pagels, a professor of religion at Princeton University, “Anthony – and others like him – sought the shape of his own soul, hoping to accept the terrors and ecstasies of direct and unremitting encounters with himself and, having mastered himself, to discover his relationship to the Infinite God.”18 This was, ultimately, the purpose behind the asceticism and constant prayer of the monks. John Cassian related that the monks believed that through these practices

our mind will reach that incorruptible prayer … [which is characterized by being] … not merely not engaged in gazing on any image, but is actually distinguished by the use of no words or utterances; but with the purpose of the mind all on fire, is produced through ecstasy of heart by some unaccountable keenness of spirit, and the mind being thus affected without the aid of the senses or any visible material pours it forth to God with groanings and sighs that cannot be uttered.19

One of the stories of the Desert Fathers, recorded in one of the several collections of the sayings and doings of the early Egyptian monks which made very popular reading throughout the Middle Ages, records an even more vivid description of the spiritual goal the monks set forth for themselves. According to the dramatic short story,

Abba20 Lot went to Abba Joseph and said, ‘Abba, as far as I can, I keep a moderate rule, with a little fasting, and prayer, and meditation, and quiet: and as far as I can I try to cleanse my heart of evil thoughts. What else should I do?’ Then the hermit stood up and spread out his hands to heaven, and his fingers shone like ten flames of fire, and he said, ‘If you will, you can become all flame.’21

The effect that this vibrant new Christian spirituality, intensely ascetic and mystical, had upon the popular consciousness, faith, and practice of Christians of later generations cannot be overstated. The Egyptian monks provided inspiration to men like Benedict of Nursia, whose Rule, based in large part on the ways of the Desert Fathers as recorded in the collections of their sayings and in the writings of John Cassian, became the standard monastic discipline in Western Europe through the Middle Ages and beyond.22

Their influence extended well beyond the cloister as well. Their technique of repetitious prayer gave birth to the Rosary and the Jesus Prayer,23 popular extra-liturgical devotional practices in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity respectively, both involving the repetition of short prayers whose number is tracked by counting on a set of beads, in the case of the former, or knots in a rope, in the case of the latter.24 In addition to this outward introduction of new practices into the repertoire of Christian spirituality, the Desert Fathers also had a remarkable impact on Christianity’s core, centering the goal of the Christian life in inner prayer, stillness, and mystical union with God.25 This emphasis on the mystical side of Christianity had a great impact on such influential Christian mystics as Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, George Fox, Seraphim of Sarov, and Thomas Merton; in fact, the mystical tradition of which these and dozens of others were a part and the monastic tradition of which all but one of these was a part would not have existed at all had it not been for the influence of the Desert Fathers.

In addition to their impact on Christian spirituality, the Desert Fathers also had a significant impact on European popular culture throughout the Middle Ages and later times. According to Benedicta Ward, herself a Christian nun in the Anglican tradition, “they have inspired poetry, drama, opera and art as well as withdrawal into solitude and prayer.”26 Whereas the first several centuries of Christians had found both inspiration and entertainment in the accounts of the deaths of the martyrs, such as the famous account of The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, perhaps written by the African Christian apologist Tertullian in the early third century, after the legalization of Christianity and the end of the age of the martyrs, the sayings and hagiographies of the Desert Fathers and other monastic saints who followed in their footsteps became standard Christian literary fare.27 Throughout the Middle Ages, the sayings and lives of the great monastic saints were popular Christian literature. “The first and most influential of such biographies” was, according to scholar Jaroslav Pelikan, “Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony,” the original fourth century account of the original Desert Father.28

Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the place of the Desert Fathers in more recent European popular culture is the 1647 painting of The Temptation of St. Anthony by the Flemish artist David Teniers the Younger.29 Though Teniers’ painting is one of the most famous, this same scene has also been depicted by such great artists as Fra Angelico, Hieronymous Bosch, Michelangelo, and Salvador Dalí. The Temptation of St. Anthony also became the title and subject of a novel by the famous author Gustave Flaubert and, more recently, an opera, based upon Flaubert’s book, by Bernice Johnson Reagon.30

The Egyptian monks and their brand of Christian spirituality have also shown up in some rather surprising places in Western popular culture. One very recent example is the 1961 novel Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger, the author most famous for writing The Catcher in the Rye.31 In the novel, Franny, one of the title characters, carries around a copy of the 19th century anonymously written Russian book The Way of a Pilgrim, a story of a wanderer who travels throughout Russia reading and discussing the writings of the Desert Fathers and practicing their method of repetitive prayer;32 Franny also reveals that she herself prays the Jesus Prayer in a search for mystical experiences and spiritual enlightenment.

The Desert Fathers also had a number of unintended and unexpected effects on the subsequent developments of Christian theology. The most significant of these indirect consequences of the early Egyptian monks’ pioneering ways may be the conversion to Christianity of Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important and influential Christian thinkers in all of Christian history, and himself a fellow African. Augustine, whose theology would later become the standard understanding of the Christian faith for the majority of Christians, originally struggled with acceptance of Christianity, wavering in his decision to join the Church. He was deeply impressed, however, by the example of Anthony. He relates his own reaction to first hearing about Anthony in his Confessions, writing as if speaking to God that “we were amazed, hearing Thy wonderful works most fully manifested in times so recent, and almost in our own, wrought in the truth faith and the Catholic Church.”33 Later, in deep emotional turbulence over his indecision in his religious beliefs, he recalled the example of Anthony. According to Augustine,

I had heard of Anthony, that, accidentally coming in whilst the gospel was being read, he received the admonition as if what was read were addressed to him, “Go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven; and come and follow me.” And by such oracle was he forthwith converted unto Thee. So quickly I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I put down the volume of the apostles, when I rose thence. I grasped, opened, and in silence read that paragraph on which my eyes first fell.34

The passage which Augustine opened up to and read, Romans 13:13-14,35 struck him deeply and finally convinced him to convert to Christianity. The Desert Fathers, then, were indirectly responsible for inspiring one of the most important figures in Christian history to become a Christian in the first place.

The Desert Fathers also served the world indirectly by creating a system which would ultimately save European literature, heritage, and culture from destruction. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the monasteries of Europe became repositories of learning, preserving art, literature, and the art of literacy through a period of rapid and dramatic European cultural decline and rampant warfare.36 It was because of the monastics in Europe, part of that tradition founded by their forerunners in Africa, that Europe was able to save the Classical heritage of the Romans and Greeks from being destroyed.

The Desert Fathers were a ragtag group of men and women who came from a variety of backgrounds and had a diversity of characteristics and personalities, as can easily be seen from the titles attached to the names of many of them, such as John “the Dwarf,” Moses “the Strong” (also known as Moses “the Robber” and Moses “the Black”), and Paul “the Hermit.” Some, like Moses, had been outlaws before venturing into the monastic life in the desert, others, like Abba Arsenius, had been educated men of the Roman upper classes, others, like Pachomius, had been soldiers and civil servants, and still others, like Anthony the Great, had been peasants and farmers. As diverse a group as they were, what they all had in common was that they retreated into the deserts of southern Egypt in a search for a more intimate and personal relationship with their God and, in so doing, pioneered a new Christian way of life, one that would spread out through and from Africa and conquer the whole of the Christian world.

The Christian monastic, mystical, spiritual, and devotional traditions of today all trace their lineage back directly to these men and women in the deserts of Egypt in the fourth and fifth centuries. As Christianity continues to dwindle in numbers in Europe, with which continent it has come to be associated in the modern mind, and rises in prominence and numbers in other places in the world, especially Africa, it is in fact not going somewhere new but returning home.

1 Philip Jenkins, “Believing in the Global South,” First Things, December, 2006, accessed 11 November 2011,

4 Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (New York: Dorset Press, 1986), 176.

5 For instance, 1 Corinthians 7.

6 Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 44.

7 Ibid., 45.

8 Athanasius, “Life of Antony,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4: Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004), 196.

9 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 113-4.

10 Michael A. Smith, “Christian Ascetics and Monks,” in Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Herts: Lion Publishing, 1977), 205.

11 Ibid.

13 Athanasius, 197-8.

14 Smith, 205.

15 Frederica Matthewes-Green, The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009), 4.

16 John Cassian, “The Conferences,” part 10, chapter 10, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11: Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 405.

17 Ibid.

18 Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 82.

19 John Cassian, 408.

20 “Abba” is the word in many Semitic languages for “father.” It is still used by most Middle Eastern Christians as a form of address for their priests and monks and is the origin of the English word “abbot,” used for the head of male monasteries.

21 Benedicta Ward, tr., The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 131.

22 Ibid., xx.

23 “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”

24 Matthewes-Green, 5.

25 Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 122.

26 Ward, xxii.

28 Ibid., 135.

29 Hart, 58.

30 Lydia Mann, “Toshi Reagon: Music for Your Life: Temptation of St. Anthony” (2011) (accessed 12 November 2011).

31 J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey (New York: Back Bay Books, 2001).

32 Helen Bacovcin, tr., The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way (New York: Doubleday, 2003).

33 Augustine, “The Confessions of St. Augustin,” Book 8, Paragraph 14, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustine, with a Sketch of his Life and Work, eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 122.

34 Augustine, Book 8, Paragraph 29, 127.

35 As quoted by Augustine in his Confessions, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.”

36 Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Anchor Books, 1996), 159.


Athanasius of Alexandria. “Life of Antony.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4: Athanasius: Selected Works and Letters. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2004.

Augustine of Hippo. “The Confessions of St. Augustin.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1: The Confessions and Letters of Augustine, with a Sketch of his Life and Work. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Bacovcin, Helen, translator. The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization. New York: Anchor Books, 1996.

Cassian, John. “The Conferences.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 11: Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian. Editors Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.

Ehrman, Bart D. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Jenkins, Philip. “Believing in the Global South.” First Things. December, 2006. Accessed 11 November 2011.

Mann, Lydia. “Toshi Reagon: Music for Your Life: Temptation of St. Anthony” (2011) (accessed 12 November 2011).

Matthewes-Green, Frederica. The Jesus Prayer: The Ancient Desert Prayer that Tunes the Heart to God. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009.

Pagels, Elaine. Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. New York: Back Bay Books, 2001.

Smith, Michael A. “Christian Ascetics and Monks.” In Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity. Editor Tim Dowley. Herts: Lion Publishing, 1977.

Ward, Benedicta, translator. The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.

Ware, Bishop Kallistos. The Orthodox Way. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995.

λόγος from Heraclitus to Christianity

The Greek word λόγος (pronounced and hereafter spelled logos) is primarily the equivalent of the English word “word.” Since its introduction into the lexicon of Western philosophy by Heraclitus in approximately 500 BCE, however, it has been procured by and passed through a variety of philosophical schools, including especially those of the Stoics and Philo, acquiring new meanings and nuances while losing others along the way. Finally, beginning with the writing of the Gospel of John near the close of the first century CE, the term was adopted by Christians, who both significantly altered the use of the word and simultaneously drew and elucidated upon previous definitions. Within the early Christian movement, logos would take on the most central and expansive role in the history of its use in philosophy.

The logos as a philosophical concept was first used by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in about 500 BCE. Heraclitus, like most pre-Socratic philosophers, sought to explain the world in terms of some material element as the generative and operative agent. For Heraclitus, this element was fire, and fire Heraclitus associated with the logos, “the rational principle governing the cosmos.”1 Heraclitus saw all things as being in a constant state of flux, an eternal back and forth movement between opposing forces; the logos was the universal law and reason that stood behind this perpetual push and pull and, ultimately, the unifying principle of the universe, which combined these opposites into one harmonious whole. In the philosophy of Heraclitus, “God is the universal Reason (λόγος), the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law.”2 Heraclitus himself summarized the unifying and harmonizing work of the logos very simply: “listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that one is all /all is one.”3

Man, according to Heraclitus, should strive to live in accordance with the logos. As the logos, the eternal and ultimate principle of Reason, is “manifest in the human being’s power of reason,”4 so “man should therefore strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason and to live by reason.”5 To live in accordance with the logos was to attempt to see the world the way the logos does, understanding that existence is necessarily in a constant state of flux and being content with this ever-changing reality and one’s place within it.

This notion of seeking to conform oneself with the universal and inflexible law of the logos and to seek after equanimity within the station one was allotted lent itself naturally to the philosophy of the Stoics which developed about 200 years after Heraclitus. “In the Stoic view,” says Richard Tarnas, “all reality was pervaded by an intelligent divine force, the Logos or universal reason which ordered all things. Man could achieve genuine happiness only by attuning his life and character to this all-powerful providential wisdom.”6

The Stoic conception of the logos included the former understanding inculcated by Heraclitus, as is clear from Stoic writings like this from a poem written by the early Stoic philosopher Cleanthes in about 300 BCE:

Chaos to thee is order: in thine eyes
The unloved is lovely, who did’st harmonise
Things evil with things good, that there should be
One Word [logos] through all things everlastingly.7

The Stoic ideas also expanded upon the Heraclitean logos significantly, however. While drawing upon the idea of Heraclitus that the universal Reason is the source of and is manifest in each individual human reason, the Stoics went a step further. Richard Tarnas explains:

The existence of the world-governing reason had another important consequence
for the Stoic. Because all human beings shared in the divine Logos, all were members of a universal human community, a brotherhood of mankind that constituted the World City, or Cosmopolis, and each individual was called upon to participate actively in the affairs of the world thereby fulfilling his duty to this great community.8

Cleanthes explains in another portion of the same poem:

We are thy children, we alone, of all
On earth’s broad ways that wander to and fro,
Bearing thy image wheresoe’er we go.

Approximately 300 years after the foundation of Stoicism, in the first century CE, the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria drew upon these Stoic understandings of the logos in the formulation of his own Hellenic-Jewish philosophy. Like the Stoics, “Philo conceives the Logos as the pilot of the Universe and, in full accord with Stoicism, as ‘warm and fiery.’”9 Philo also expanded upon the Stoic ideas and combined them with Plato’s conception of a universal mind which contained the perfect ideals of all things, equating the logos of the Stoics with the universal mind of Plato:

As therefore the city, when previously shadowed out in the mind of the man of architectural skill had no external place, but was stamped solely in the mind of the workman, so in the same manner neither can the world which existed in ideas have had any other local position except the divine reason [logos] which made them; for what other place could there be for his powers which should be able to receive and contain, I do not say all, but even any single one of them whatever, in its simple form?10

As a Jew who attempted to synthesize his Judaism with Greek philosophy, Philo also made the remarkable step of attempting to find the logos within the scriptures of the Jews. He claimed, for instance, that “this divine Logos inspired and informed Moses’ status as king and god of creation, lawgiver, high priest, prophet, miracle worker, ascetic, and philosopher.”11 Unlike the Stoics, however, Philo did not identify the logos with God; he instead “seems to have wavered between conceiving the Logos as an aspect of God and conceiving it as an independent being.”12 For instance, “when the Old Testament mentions the angel of God in describing the theophanies, Philo identifies the angel with the Logos.”13 Frederick Coplestone explains that “this Logos is an incorporeal substance, the immaterial Word or Voice of God” an assertion by Philo in which there is yet another departure from Heraclitean and Stoic ideas in favor of Platonic ones, “but, in so far as it is conceived as really distinct from God, it is conceived as subordinate to God, as God’s instrument.”14

The use of the word logos to translate phrases like “the word of God” in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures which was considered divinely inspired and used by the majority of Jews in the first century CE, also played a significant role in the growing Jewish-Hellenic synthesis of which Philo’s philosophy was a major part.15 For instance, Psalm 147:4 in the Septuagint version says that “He [God] sends his oracle to the earth: his word [logos] will run swiftly.”16 Several of the Old Testament prophets wrote about the “word [logos] of God” speaking to them. Ezekiel 29:1 in the Septuagint claims, for instance, that “the word [logos] of the Lord came to me.”17 Passages like these would play an increasingly important role as the Jewish-Hellenic philosophical movement culminated in the advent and development of Christianity.

No matter what one’s own personal religious persuasion, the opening verses of the Gospel of John, the first Christian writing to discuss the concept of the logos, can be seen as nothing less than a brilliant masterpiece of world literature. In them, the author poetically and skillfully brings together the Jewish and the Hellenic into one seamless philosophical and theological whole. The author, writing in about 95 CE, begins:

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.
In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.18

No Jew of that period, reading those verses, could fail to notice the reference being made to the opening verses of Genesis in the Septuagint, which recounts the creation of the world by God. The words, in Greek, Ἐν ἀρχῇ (“in the beginning”) in John’s Gospel would immediately draw to mind the same words in the opening of Genesis: “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth.”19

Similarly, no one, Greek or Jew, familiar with Greek philosophy would miss the importance of the Word, the logos, in John’s writing. John is clearly identifying the logos concept of Heraclitus and the Stoics with the God of the Old Testament, a step that even Philo, with all of his Hellenizing tendencies, was not willing to full take.

And John continues to shock as he goes on. The most shocking statement of all comes in verse 14: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”20 John has not only identified the logos with the Jewish God but, in words that would be equally shocking and appalling to both Greeks and Jews, now claims that this Logos-God became a human being!21 The most important unique contribution of Christianity to the development of the philosophical concept of the logos was not only to identify the logos with the God of the Old Testament but to simultaneously identify both the logos and the Jewish God with the historical human person Jesus Christ. This unique understanding of the logos would become a central feature of later Christian philosophical and theological development. John Behr, a scholar of Christian patristics, summarizes the centrality of the identification of the logos with Christ:

In the term “Word” (λόγος) there are at least two interconnected ideas, that of revelation and that of the revealer, and these should not be separated too hastily. Christ is the Word of God, who, as such, exists before the world, with God, and is, to use later imagery, spoken out into the world; he is God’s own expression in the world. The function of revealer is so closely bound up with the person of Jesus, that he is, in fact, the embodiment of the revelation: he is the Word made flesh. Not only are his words revelatory, but he is revelatory in himself, coming into the world from above, a divine self-revelation.22

What this revelation consisted of could only but add to the shock of both Greeks and Jews at the Christian ideas already discussed. While the apostle Paul was not referring to the conception of Christ as logos specifically in his statement, his words in his first letter to the Corinthian church adequately express the reaction that non-Christians of that period had to the Christian beliefs about the logos: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness.”23 Jaroslav Pelikan, a scholar in Christian history and theology, explains that

what made this portrait of the Logos as Cosmic Christ special was the declaration that the Word had become flesh in Jesus and that in Jesus the incarnate Word had suffered and died on the cross.24

From these ideas of the logos, some of them derived from the thought of other philosophical schools and others entirely uniquely Christian, Christians continued to explore their own theology and to ferret out its implications. Most important among these elements of Christian logos theology were the unique Christian ideas about the relationship of the logos to mankind.

The most obvious, and most uniquely Christian, implication of the relationship of the Christian conception of the logos to man was encapsulated by the apostle John in what is probably the most famous verse from his Gospel:

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.25

The word here translated “world” is, in the original Greek, κόσμος (kosmos), the same word used by previous Greek philosophers to refer to the harmonious order of all of material existence. For Christians, then, the logos was not just the generative principle behind existence who directs it into a harmonious order, the logos in fact became a part of the created order and gave himself for it to save it because of his love for it.

Another important aspect of the relationship of the logos with man in Christianity was similar to, but not identical with, the ideas of earlier philosophers who had used the concept of the logos. This idea was first enunciated by the second century Christian philosopher Justin Martyr in about 150 CE. Similar to the claim of Heraclitus and the Stoics that the eternal Reason is manifested in the reason of individuals, Justin claimed that “the seed[s] of reason” have been “implanted in every race of men” by the Supreme Reason, the logos.26 Later, in the fourth century, the Christian bishop and mystic Gregory of Nyssa expressed much the same idea at greater length, saying:

And if you were to examine the other points also by which the Divine beauty is expressed, you will find that to them too the likeness in the image which we present is perfectly preserved. The Godhead is mind and word [logos]: for “in the beginning was the Word [logos],” and the followers of Paul “have the mind of Christ’ which “speaks” in them: humanity too is not far removed from these: you see in yourself word [logos] and understanding, an imitation of the very Mind and Word [logos].27

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, a modern Eastern Orthodox bishop and scholar, explains the same point in words heavily reminiscent of the writings of Heraclitus and the Stoics, but without reference to them:

As the Word or Logos of God he is also at work before the Incarnation. He is the principle of order and purpose that permeates all things, drawing them to unity in God, and so making the universe into a “cosmos”, a harmonious and integrated whole. The Creator-Logos has imparted to each created thing its own indwelling logos or inner principle, which makes that thing to be distinctively itself, and which at the same time draws and directs that thing towards God. Our human task as craftsmen or manufacturers is to discern this logos dwelling in each thing and to render it manifest; we seek not to dominate but to co-operate.28

With this statement, one sees the culmination of the philosophical tradition of the logos in its fullest development. The concept of the logos had certainly come a long way from its roots in the philosophy of Heraclitus in 500 BCE, where it was identified with the material element of fire and remained rather underdeveloped and vaguely defined. As it entered Stoicism, it took on new meanings, especially in its identification with God, and in the implication that mankind is a brotherhood of children of the logos, subject to its providential care. In the philosophy of Philo of Alexandria, the logos was stripped of the gross materialism that had previously weighed it down and brought into contact with the philosophy of Plato as well as with the theology and tradition of the Jewish Bible. Finally, the logos became man, or at least became identified with a certain man, in Christianity, and so became a historical figure as well as a personal and loving savior. Through all of these quite different philosophical contexts, however, the concept of the logos never lost its central meaning of which Heraclitus first spoke. It remained the Supreme Principle directing the order of the cosmos and the source of human reason to which human beings must conform themselves or perish. On the contrary, the movement of the concept of the logos through time and through various philosophical schools not only did no damage to the original concept, but in fact greatly enhanced, expanded, and deepened its original meaning. In the end, the logos was not simply a vague and abstract philosophical principle mindlessly balancing the cosmos, but a real and concrete person lovingly ordering his creation.


1 Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Ballantine Books, 1991), 45.

2 Frederick Coplestone, A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome (Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946), 43.

3 “Heraclitus of Ephesus” (2006) (Accessed 18 Februrary 2011).

4 Tarnas, 45.

5 Coplestone, 43.

6 Tarnas, 76.

7 Coplestone, 393.

8 Tarnas, 76.

9 R.E. Witt, “The Plotinian Logos and Its Stoic Basis,” The Classical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1931): 104.

10 Philo of Alexandria, “On the Creation,” 5.20, tr. Charles Duke Yonge (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

11 Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 146-7.

12 Coplestone, 460.

13 ibid.

14 ibid.

15 R.M. Price, “’Hellenization’ and the Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr,” Vigiliae Christianae 42, no. 1 (March 1988): 20.

16 “Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English),” tr. L.C.L. Brenton (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

17 ibid.

18 John 1:1-5, King James Version.

19 “Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English).”

20 John 1:14, KJV.

21 John Behr, Formation of Christian Theology, Volume 1: The Way to Nicaea (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 69.

22 ibid., 67.

23 1 Corinthians 1:23, KJV.

24 Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 70.

25 John 3:16, KJV.

26 Justin Martyr, “Second Apology,” VIII, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994), 191.

27 Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Making of Man,” V, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc., eds. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.), 391.

28 Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way: Revised Edition (Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 32-3.


Behr, John. Formation of Christian Theology, Volume 1: The Way to Nicaea. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Chadwick, Henry. The Early Church. New York: Dorset Press, 1986.

Coplestone, Frederick. A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Gregory of Nyssa. “On the Making of Man.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5: Gregory of Nyssa: Dogmatic Treatises, Etc. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.

“Heraclitus of Ephesus” (2006) (Accessed 18 Februrary 2011).

Justin Martyr. “Second Apology.” In Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1: Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1994.

Miller, Ed. L. “The Johannine Origins of the Johannine Logos.” Journal of Biblical Literature 112, no. 3 (Autumn 1993): 445-57.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. Jesus Through the Centuries: His Place in the History of Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Philo of Alexandria. “On the Creation.” Translated by Charles Duke Yonge (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

Price, R.M. “’Hellenization’ and the Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr.” Vigiliae Christianae 42, no. 1 (March 1988): 18-23.

Roetzel, Calvin J. The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972.

“Septuagint Old Testament Bilingual (Greek-English).” Translated by L.C.L. Brenton (2010) (Accessed 18 February 2011).

Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.

Ware, Metropolitan Kallistos. The Orthodox Way: Revised Edition. Crestwood: Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995.

Witt, R.E. “The Plotinian Logos and Its Stoic Basis.” The Classical Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1931): 103-11.