(Note: I am here beginning an attempt to provide something of a commentary on St. John’s Gospel. I intend to post excerpts here as I finish them, but I most certainly will go back and edit my thoughts as I go. So consider this a rough draft of a skeletal outline for perhaps a larger project one day. I have eschewed most secondary literature, except for when something comes immediately to mind, but that could change if I develop this into something more. I welcome all feedback, thoughts, or comments on anything I have written.)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
In the beginning was the Word
We begin now at the beginning, the beginning which issues forth from the God who is Word and with Word. The Word who was in the beginning “precedes” the beginning. He is above all things because He is before all things (πρὸ πάντων) (Col 1:15; cf. John 1:30). The beginning, as we know it, is more recent than He is. In saying this, we are strained by temporal language, but it is the only language we have. It is translated language, as it were, which the Word Himself takes upon His own lips: “O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was (πρὸ τοῦ τὸν κόσμον εἶναι)” (17:5); and again, “Father, I desire . . . that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (πρὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου)” (17:24). The eternity of God exists “before” the beginning, which is to say, independent of it. What we know to be the beginning does not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with God. Neither can God be identified with it. It is something that God is in (ἐν), not something that He is. The Word was (ἦν) God; the beginning was not. God contains but is not contained by it.
Nevertheless, we begin at the beginning. But why is this so? If God is before the beginning, and if the Word Himself refers to God’s life prior to the beginning, why do we not begin then? Why does St. John initiate his thunderous prologue with ἐν ἀρχῇ (“in the beginning”) and not ὁ λόγος (“the Word”)? Put differently, why is there a word that precedes the Word? Why is there something the Spirit of God would have us hear before we hear the Word?
Creatures can only begin at the beginning, for there was once a “time” when they were not. Only God Himself can begin with the Word: “Before the mountains were settled, and before all hills, He [the Father] begets me [the Word] (γεννᾷ με)” (Prov 8:25). And whatever we are to make of Wisdom’s words in Proverbs 8:22—“The Lord made me the beginning (ἀρχὴν) of his ways for his works”—it is undeniable that Christ Himself is called “the beginning (ἀρχή)” by St. Paul (Col 1:18). The Word, then, who was in the beginning, is Himself, in some sense, the beginning. He is the beginning, therefore, for God’s works. All of God’s activities (ἐνέργειαι) ad extra occur by means of His Word. But for those of us who only exist after the beginning, the Word is only known to be the beginning after we have begun with the beginning. It is only after we hear “in the beginning”—that is, after we have been created—that we can hear “the Word”. The first word we hear is “in the beginning,” for we are not the Creator. Yet it is not as if this word does come by means of the Word. Man is first made an infant, hearing the word “beginning” before he hears the Word Himself. As St. Irenaeus writes, we must “become accustomed to eat and drink the Word of God” (AH 4.38.1). Indeed, “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God (ἐκπορευομένῳ διὰ στόματος θεοῦ)” (Matt 4:4) lives, moves, and has its being in the Word of God. But we first hear the word—“in the beginning”—before we hear the Word.
It is the beginning that serves as the dividing line between God and all which is not God. God has a beginning in Himself, His Word, only with respect to “His works” (Prov 8:22). The Word was in the beginning and is Himself the beginning only for the sake of the creatures who came later. Again, St. Irenaeus: “Created things must be inferior to Him who created them, from the very fact of their later origin (μετέπειτα γενέσεως άρχὴν ἰδίαν ἔσχε); for it was not possible for things recently created to have been uncreated” (AH 4.38.1). Ad intra, in the immanent life of God Himself, there is no beginning. There was never a time when the Word was not. But for us and for our salvation the Word assumed temporality, as He was translated into our own language of flesh. The Word was in the beginning. We speak of Him in the past tense precisely because of this condescension.
Therefore, “the beginning” is the initiation of God’s economy of salvation for His creatures. And there is nothing more central, more crucial to this beginning than the Word of God: In the beginning was the Word. The divine economy is verbal; it is revelatory. God begins with speech and is a speaking God. “In the beginning (ἐν ἀρχῇ) God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). At this point, “the earth was without form, and void (ἀόρατος καὶ ἀκατασκεύαστος); and darkness was on the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (1:2). But then, God speaks: “Then God said (εἶπεν), ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (1:3). The Spirit who went forth was the slight exhale that precedes verbal speech. In a singular, twofold movement God sends His Spirit and His Word out into the cosmos, effectively bringing that cosmos into existence ex nihilo by means of His two hands, His Son and His Spirit (cf. AH 4.20.1). The formless and void earth, covered in water, was that which came to be as the exhale of God’s Breath went out, preparing the way of the Lord, the Word of God.
This will not be the last time the Word steps onto a path paved for Him by water and the Spirit. Indeed, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks through John the Baptist, “Make straight the way of the Lord” (John 1:23; cf. Isa 40:3). And it was this John who baptized with water (1:26), and was “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). John the Baptizer, a vessel of the Sacred Breath of God already in the formless and void world of his mother’s womb, serves as the exhale of God’s Spirit, hovering over the waters of a cosmos lapsed back into chaos, in preparation for the Eternal Word to be spoken. So in the creation in the world, the Holy Spirit went out and gathered to Himself from nothingness the bits and pieces of the coming cosmos in order to make ready the way of the Word of God through whom God makes the world.
Thus, we begin at the beginning. But in the beginning was the Word. This Word that was spoken in our language of flesh was not bound to be spoken to our deaf and dull ears, for He existed before the beginning and is eternally spoken. Yet we must first know this Word according to our language of flesh in order to “know Him thus no longer” (2 Cor 5:16). The Word was in the beginning for just this purpose.