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Commentary on John - Volume 1
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John 1:1-5

1. In the beginning was the Speech, and the Speech was with God, and the Speech was God. 2. He was in the beginning with God. 3. All things were made by him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 4. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

 

1. In the beginning was the Speech. In this introduction he asserts the eternal Divinity of Christ, in order to inform us that he is the eternal God, who was manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16.) The design is, to show it to have been necessary that the restoration of mankind should be accomplished by the Son of God, since by his power all things were created, since he alone breathes into all the creatures life and energy, so that they remain in their condition; and since in man himself he has given a remarkable display both of his power and of his grace, and even subsequently to the fall of man has not ceased to show liberality and kindness towards his posterity. And this doctrine is highly necessary to be known; for since apart from God we ought not at all to seek life and salvation, how could our faith rest on Christ, if we did not know with certainty what is here taught? By these words, therefore, the Evangelist assures us that we do not withdraw from the only and eternal God, when we believe in Christ, and likewise that life is now restored to the dead through the kindness of him who was the source and cause of life, when the nature of man was still uncorrupted.

As to the Evangelist calling the Son of God the Speech, the simple reason appears to me to be, first, because he is the eternal Wisdom and Will of God; and, secondly, because he is the lively image of His purpose; for, as Speech is said to be among men the image of the mind, so it is not inappropriate to apply this to God, and to say that He reveals himself to us by his Speech. The other significations of the Greek word λόγος (Logos) do not apply so well. It means, no doubt, definition, and reasoning, and calculation; but I am unwilling to carry the abstruseness of philosophy beyond the measure of my faith. And we perceive that the Spirit of God is so far from approving of such subtleties that, in prattling with us, by his very silence he cries aloud with what sobriety we ought to handle such lofty mysteries.

Now as God, in creating the world, revealed himself by that Speech, so he formerly had him concealed with himself, so that there is a twofold relation; the former to God, and the latter to men. Servetus, a haughty scoundrel belonging to the Spanish nation, invents the statement, that this eternal Speech began to exist at that time when he was displayed in the creation of the world, as if he did not exist before his power was made known by external operation. Very differently does the Evangelist teach in this passage; for he does not ascribe to the Speech a beginning of time, but says that he was from the beginning, and thus rises beyond all ages. I am fully aware how this dog barks against us, and what cavils were formerly raised by the Arians, namely, that

in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,
(Genesis 1:1)

which nevertheless are not eternal, because the word beginning refers to order, instead of denoting eternity. But the Evangelist meets this calumny when he says,

And the Speech was with God. If the Speech began to be at some time, they must find out some succession of time in God; and undoubtedly by this clause John intended to distinguish him from all created things. For many questions might arise, Where was this Speech? How did he exert his power? What was his nature? How might he be known? The Evangelist, therefore, declares that we must not confine our views to the world and to created things; for he was always united to God, before the world existed. Now when men date the beginning from the origin of heaven and earth, do they not reduce Christ to the common order of the world, from which he is excluded in express terms by this passage? By this proceeding they offer an egregious insult not only to the Son of God, but to his eternal Father, whom they deprive of his wisdom. If we are not at liberty to conceive of God without his wisdom, it must be acknowledged that we ought not to seek the origin of the Speech any where else than in the Eternal Wisdom of God.

Servetus objects that the Speech cannot be admitted to have existed any earlier than when Moses introduces God as speaking. As if he did not subsist in God, because he was not publicly made known: that is, as if he did not exist within, until he began to appear without. But every pretense for outrageously absurd fancies of this description is cut off by the Evangelist, when he affirms without reservation, that the Speech was with God; for he expressly withdraws us from every moment of time.

Those who infer from the imperfect tense of the verb 99     “Pource qu’il est dit Estoit, et non pas N’este;” — “Because it is said Was, and not Has been. which is here used, that it denotes continued existence, have little strength of argument to support them. Was, they say, is a word more fitted to express the idea of uninterrupted succession, than if John had said, Has been. But on matters so weighty we ought to employ more solid arguments; and, indeed, the argument which I have brought forward ought to be reckoned by us sufficient; namely, that the Evangelist sends us to the eternal secrets of God, that we may there learn that the Speech was, as it were hidden, before he revealed himself in the external structure of the world. Justly, therefore, does Augustine remark, that this beginning, which is now mentioned, has no beginning; for though, in the order of nature, the Father came before his Wisdom, yet those who conceive of any point of time when he went before his Wisdom, deprive Him of his glory. And this is the eternal generation, which, during a period of infinite extent before the foundation of the world, lay hid in God, so to speak — which, for a long succession of years, was obscurely shadowed out to the Fathers under the Law, and at length was more fully manifested in flesh.

I wonder what induced the Latins to render ὁ λόγος by Verbum, (the Word;) for that would rather have been the translation of τὸ ῥη̑μα. But granting that they had some plausible reason, still it cannot be denied that Sermo (the Speech) would have been far more appropriate. Hence it is evident, what barbarous tyranny was exercised by the theologians of the Sorbonne, 1010     “Les Theologiens Sorbonistes.” who teased and stormed at Erasmus in such a manner, because he had changed a single word for the better.

And the Speech was with God. We have already said that the Son of God is thus placed above the world and above all the creatures, and is declared to have existed before all ages. But at the same time this mode of expression attributes to him a distinct personality from the Father; for it would have been absurd in the Evangelist to say that the Speech was always with God, if he had not some kind of subsistence peculiar to himself in God. This passage serves, therefore, to refute the error of Sabellius; for it shows that the Son is distinct from the Father. I have already remarked that we ought to be sober in thinking, and modest in speaking, about such high mysteries. And yet the ancient writers of the Church were excusable, when, finding that they could not in any other way maintain sound and pure doctrine in opposition to the perplexed and ambiguous phraseology of the heretics, they were compelled to invent some words, which after all had no other meaning than what is taught in the Scriptures. They said that there are three Hypostases, or Subsistences, or Persons, in the one and simple essence of God. The word; ὑπόστασις (Hypostasis) occurs in this sense in Hebrews 1:3, to which corresponds the Latin word Substaatia, (substance) as it is employed by Hilary. The Persons (τὰ πρόσωπα) were called by them distinct properties in God, which present themselves to the view of our minds; as Gregory Nazianzen says, “I cannot think of the One (God) without having the Three (Persons) shining around me. 1111     The reader will find our Author’s views of the Holy Trinity very fully illustrated in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book I. Chap. 13., and will be at a loss whether to admire most the marvelous acuteness, or the sobriety of judgment, by which the whole discussion is pervaded. — Ed.

And the Speech was God. That there may be no remaining doubt as to Christ’s divine essence, the Evangelist distinctly asserts that he is God. Now since there is but one God, it follows that Christ is of the same essence with the Father, and yet that, in some respect, he is distinct from the Father. But of the second clause we have already spoken. As to the unity of the divine essence, Arius showed prodigious wickedness, when, to avoid being compelled to acknowledge the eternal Divinity of Christ, he prattled about I know not what imaginary Deity; 1212     “Que c’estoit je ne scay quel Dieu qui avoit este cree, et eu commencement;”— “That there was I know not what God who had been created, and had a beginning.” but for our part, when we are informed that the Speech was God, what right have we any longer to call in question his eternal essence?

2. He was in the beginning. In order to impress more deeply on our minds what had been already said, the Evangelist condenses the two preceding clauses into a brief summary, that the Speech always was, and that he was with God; so that it may be understood that the beginning was before all time.

3. All things were made by him. Having affirmed that the Speech is God, and having asserted his eternal essence, he now proves his Divinity from his works. And this is the practical knowledge, to which we ought to be chiefly accustomed; for the mere name of God attributed to Christ will affect us little, if our faith do not feel it to be such by experience. In reference to the Son of God, he makes an assertion which strictly and properly applies to his person. Sometimes, indeed, Paul simply declares that all things are by God, (Romans 11:36) but whenever the Son is compared with the Father, he is usually distinguished by this mark. Accordingly, the ordinary mode of expression is here employed, that the Father made all things by the Son, and that all things are by God through the Son. Now the design of the Evangelist is, as I have already said, to show that no sooner was the world created than the Speech of God came forth into external operation; for having formerly been incomprehensible in his essence, he then became publicly known by the effect of his power. There are some, indeed, even among philosophers, who make God to be the Master-builder of the world in such a manner as to ascribe to him intelligence in framing this work. So far they are in the right, for they agree with Scripture; but as they immediately fly off into frivolous speculations, there is no reason why we should eagerly desire to have their testimonies; but, on the contrary, we ought to be satisfied with this inspired declaration, well knowing that it conveys far more than our mind is able to comprehend.

And without him was not any thing made that was made. Though there is a variety of readings in this passage, yet for my own part, I have no hesitation in taking it continuously thus: not any thing was made that was made; and in this almost all the Greek manuscripts, or at least those of them which are most approved, are found to agree; besides, the sense requires it. Those who separate the words, which was made, from the preceding clause, so as to connect them with the following one, bring out a forced sense: what was made was in him life; that is, lived, or was sustained in life. 1313     The difference of readings lies wholly in the punctuation, and the dispute is, whether the words ὃ γέγονεν shall form the conclusion of the Third, or the commencement of the Fourth verse. Calvin expresses his concurrence with the majority of manuscripts, which connect the words in question with the Third verse thus Καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἓν ὃ γέγονεν, and without him was not any thing made, (or, more literally, as well as more emphatically,) and without him was not one thing made which was made. Other manuscripts, certainly of no great authority, connect them with the Fourth verse: Καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἓν Ο γέγονεν ἐν αὐτῷ ζωὴ ᾖν And without him was not one thing made What was made was in him life. The preference given by our Author rests on grounds which can scarcely be questioned. — Ed But they will never show that this mode of expression is, in any instance, applied to creatures. Augustine, who is excessively addicted to the philosophy of Plato, is carried along, according to custom, to the doctrine of ideas; that before God made the world, he had the form of the whole building conceived in his mind; and so the life of those things which did not yet exist was in Christ, because the creation of the world was appointed in him. But how widely different this is From the intention of the Evangelist we shall immediately see.

I now return to the former clause. This is not a faulty redundancy, (περιττολογία) as it appears to be; for as Satan endeavors, by every possible method, to take any thing from Christ, the Evangelist intended to declare expressly, that of those things which have been made there is no exception whatever.

4. In him was life. Hitherto he has taught us, that by the Speech of God all things were created. He now attributes to him, in the same manner, the preservation of those things which had been created, as if he had said, that in the creation of the world there was not merely displayed a sudden exercise of his power, which soon passed away, but that it is manifested in the steady and regular order of nature, as he is said to uphold all things by the word or will of his power, (Hebrews 1:3). This life may be extended either to inanimate creatures, (which live after their own manner, though they are devoid of feeling,) or may be explained in reference to living creatures alone. It is of little consequence which you choose; for the simple meaning is, that the Speech of God was not only the source of life to all the creatures, so that those which were not began to be, but that his life-giving power causes them to remain in their condition; for were it not that his continued inspiration gives vigor to the world, every thing that lives would immediately decay, or be reduced to nothing. In a word, what Paul ascribes to God, that in him we are, and move, and live, (Acts 17:28,) John declares to be accomplished by the gracious agency of the Speech; so that it is God who gives us life, but it is by the eternal Speech

The life was the light of men. The other interpretations, which do not accord with the meaning of the Evangelist, I intentionally pass by. He speaks here, in my opinion, of that part of life in which men excel other animals; and informs us that the life which was bestowed on men was not of an ordinary description, but was united to the light of understanding. He separates man from the rank of other creatures; because we perceive more readily the power of God by feeling it in us than by beholding it at a distance. Thus Paul charges us not to seek God at a distance, because he makes himself to be felt within us, (Acts 17:27.) After having presented a general exhibition of the kindness of Christ, in order to induce men to take a nearer view of it, he points out what has been bestowed peculiarly on themselves; namely, that they were not created like the beasts, but having been endued with reason, they had obtained a higher rank. As it is not in vain that God imparts his light to their minds, it follows that the purpose for which they were created was, that they might acknowledge Him who is the Author of so excellent a blessing. And since this light, of which the Speech was the source, has been conveyed from him to us, it ought to serve as a mirror, in which we may clearly behold the divine power of the Speech

5. And the light shineth in darkness. It might be objected, that the passages of Scripture in which men are called blind are so numerous and that the blindness for which they are condemned is but too well known. For in all their reasoning faculties they miserably fail. How comes it that there are so many labyrinths of errors in the world, but because men, by their own guidance, are led only to vanity and lies? But if no light appears in men, that testimony of the divinity of Christ, which the Evangelist lately mentioned, is destroyed; for that is the third step, as I have said, that in the life of men there is something more excellent than motion and breathing. The Evangelist anticipates this question, and first of all lays down this caution, that the light which was originally bestowed on men must not be estimated by their present condition; because in this corrupted and degenerate nature light has been turned into darkness. And yet he affirms that the light of understanding is not wholly extinguished; for, amidst the thick darkness of the human mind, some remaining sparks of the brightness still shine.

My readers now understand that this sentence contains two clauses; for he says that men are now widely distant from that perfectly holy nature with which they were originally endued; because their understanding, which ought to have shed light in every direction, has been plunged in darkness, and is wretchedly blinded; and that thus the glory of Christ may be said to be darkened amidst this corruption of nature. But, on the other hand, the Evangelist maintains that, in the midst of the darkness:, there are still some remains of light, which show in some degree the divine power of Christ. The Evangelist admits, therefore, that the mind of man is blinded; so that it may justly be pronounced to be covered with darkness. For he might have used a milder term, and might have said that the light is dark or cloudy; but he chose to state more distinctly how wretched our condition has become since the fall of the first man. The statement that the light shineth in darkness is not at all intended for the commendation of depraved nature, but rather for taking away every excuse for ignorance.

And the darkness did not comprehend it. Although by that small measure of light which still remains in us, the Son of God has always invited men to himself, yet the Evangelist says that this was attended by no advantage, because seeing, they did not see, (Matthew 13:13.) For since man lost the favor of God, his mind is so completely overwhelmed by the thralldom of ignorance, that any portion of light which remains in it is quenched and useless. This is daily proved by experience; for all who are not regenerated by the Spirit of God possess some reason, and this is an undeniable proof that man was made not only to breathe, but to have understanding. But by that guidance of their reason they do not come to God, and do not even approach to him; so that all their understanding is nothing else than mere vanity. Hence it follows that there is no hope of the salvation of men, unless God grant new aid; for though the Son of God sheds his light upon them, they are so dull that they do not comprehend whence that light proceeds, but are carried away by foolish and wicked imaginations to absolute madness.

The light which still dwells in corrupt nature consists chiefly of two parts; for, first, all men naturally possess some seed of religion; and, secondly, the distinction between good and evil is engraven on their consciences. But what are the fruits that ultimately spring from it, except that religion degenerates into a thousand monsters of superstition, and conscience perverts every decision, so as to confound vice with virtue? In short, natural reason never will direct men to Christ; and as to their being endued with prudence for regulating their lives, or born to cultivate the liberal arts and sciences, all this passes away without yielding any advantage.

It ought to be understood that the Evangelist speaks of natural gifts only, and does not as yet say any thing about the grace of regeneration. For there are two distinct powers which belong to the Son of God: the first, which is manifested in the structure of the world and the order of nature; and the second, by which he renews and restores fallen nature. As he is the eternal Speech of God, by him the world was made; by his power all things continue to possess the life which they once received; man especially was endued with an extraordinary gift of understanding; and though by his revolt he lost the light of understanding, yet he still sees and understands, so that what he naturally possesses from the grace of the Son of God is not entirely destroyed. But since by his stupidity and perverseness he darkens the light which still dwells in him, it remains that a new office be undertaken by the Son of God, the office of Mediator, to renew, by the Spirit of regeneration, man who had been ruined. Those persons, therefore, reason absurdly and inconclusively, who refer this light, which the Evangelist mentions, to the gospel and the doctrine of salvation.


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