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Monday, October 19, 2020

A Unique Interpretation of John 1

via Wikimedia Commons

The 1500s in Europe was a time of religious foment and novelty. This was the era of Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli. In my study of church history I learned quite a lot about them. Only with my study of Unitarian and Universalist history am I learning about 'heterodox' leaders and teachings of that era in any depth. One of those influencers was Laelius Socinus, who among other things wrote 'A Brief Exposition of the First Chapter of John.' In it he departed radically from standard thinking about the meaning of that text and the nature of the incarnation. Before I dive into an analysis of his thinking, here are the opening verses of the chapter in questions.

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it." John 1:1-5 NRSV

The most significant variance from the norm in Laelius' interpretation of this chapter is in how he handles the first few words: "in the beginning."

John teaches that the Word was with God but adds 'in the beginning,' that is the beginning of his ministry and service ... For in that beginning Christ began to be the Word to us, both as a teacher and a prophet, proclaiming his father's commandments. (McKanan, 2017)

Socinus goes on to remark on how amazing it is that theologians have misread this text, making Jesus part of the godhead and framing this chapter in the context of the creation of the cosmos. It's almost amusing to me that Socinus came up with this idea and apparently didn't think it odd that every theologian going back to when the Gospel of John first appeared got it wrong, and somehow he in the 1500s managed to get it right. This was, indeed, the spirit of the times in which he lived and reflective of the attitude of every religious reformer who yearns to go back to 'the original church.' Somehow everyone got it wrong before someone came along and got it right. This is something I experienced in the independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ, for example. Those churches are part of a 'Restoration Movement' that began with the idea that we need to scrape away centuries of traditions, councils, and creeds and instead base the church entirely and exclusively on what is found in the New Testament. 

As if it were so easy. And, as if the result won't be new formalized theologies to replace the old formalized theologies. 

The Gospel of Mark opens with these words: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Maybe Socinus could point to this as an indication that the author of John was speaking of the same time period. If Mark was discussing the beginning of the ministry of Jesus, then so perhaps was John. However, read in full, I wouldn't agree with that assessment. 

Notice again where it says: "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being." That Word is the agent through which creation came to be. Socinus should have also been familiar with Colossians.

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him."Colossians 1:15-16 NRSV

Here again we see a high Christology in which the the birth of space and time is attributed to Christ. While I now could resolve the matter by pointing out the late date of the Gospel of John and Colossians (end of the first century). Earlier Christian writings tend to be more conservative in describing the attributes of the Messiah, and as decades passed the theology grew commensurate with the elaborations of retelling. None of this would have been known to Laelius, though, and of course he was something of a literalist.

For example, in his 'Exposition' he says the following to close down the possibility of John referring to the beginning of time:

Moses accurately describes creation and no one else gives a better day-by-day account of the creation of all things (for this duty was given by God to him alone). He even enumerates all of the living things: the beasts, the insects, the vegetation, and everything after its kind." Can you tell me where the Son of God appears in the story of creation? Can it be that moses did not think him worth mentioning? (McKanan, 2017) 
Evidently Socinus never noticed that Genesis 1 and 2 each contain a different creation narrative, or that other descriptions of creation can be found in the Hebrew Scriptures. For him, the one account that matters, and that should be taken as concrete and infallible, is that of Genesis 1. It would be my guess that if he considered the variation between the first and second chapters of Genesis at all, he took the shortcut now common in evangelicalism of saying that chapter 2 represents a change of focus rather than a different account. A lot has to be ignored to make that happen, but people do it. 

For all his novelty, speculation, and literalness, Laelius Socinus was willing to stand apart from received tradition and question it. In the era in which he did so there was danger involved in doing so, and I'd say his inquiring mind, inventive analysis, and courage are worthy of respect even if his conclusions don't hold up. 


McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the 
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.