Students of John’s Gospel have long pondered the question: Why does John call Jesus “the Word” in his prologue? Given the prologue’s resonance with discussions of Wisdom in the Old Testament (e.g., Job 28; Proverbs 8) and within ancient Judaism (e.g., Wisdom 7, which bears multiple similarities to John 1:1-18), the obvious title for the second person of the Trinity seems to be “Wisdom.” But John calls him “the Word.” Why is that?
The title “Word,” and the psychological analogy it lends itself to, best serves one of John’s major theological themes, namely, that Jesus knows the Father fully, in a manner that transcends all other messengers in the Old Testament, including Moses (to whom the Lord spoke “face to face”), and beyond the Old Testament, e.g., John the Baptist, both of whom are mentioned in John’s prologue. Because Jesus knows the Father fully, he is qualified to reveal the Father fully, thus bringing the objects of God’s saving grace into the fullest possession of eternal life, which lies in seeing God’s glory, seeing God’s face (Jn 1:18; 17:3, 24).
John seems to choose the title “Word,” a term already pregnant with meaning in the OT (e.g., Gen 1:3ff; Ps 33:6; Isa 55:10-11), because of its twofold function in ancient understandings of human psychology (a function observed in thinkers like Aristotle and Philo). In the human mind, a word faces in two directions and fulfills two functions. A word exists in the human mind, facing inward, as the conceptual grasp of what the human mind knows. The word is a thought in the mode of being understood. A word also faces outward, expressing outwardly what the human mind knows, communicating that knowledge to others. The word is a thought in the mode of being uttered, in the mode of being communicated (literally, “made common”) to others. By means of the word, two persons come to share one mind. (Compare the way Paul employs this analogy with reference to the Spirit in 1 Corinthians 2.)
This psychological analogy fits both the grammar and the literary shape of John’s prologue. With respect to the prologue’s grammar, John says that, in the beginning, before creation, the Word was toward God, facing God, employing a preposition (“pros”) commonly used in ancient philosophy and Second Temple Jewish writings to describe the act of contemplating the (divine) mind. With respect to the prologue’s literary shape, John’s prologue begins by demonstrating what qualifies Jesus to fully reveal the Father, i.e., by describing his eternal attention to the Father: “the Word was toward God” (Jn 1:1). John’s prologue concludes by proclaiming that the Word has revealed the Father in a manner that transcends all other mediators of divine revelation: “No one has ever seen God. The only-begotten God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (Jn 1:18).
John’s title, then, capitalizes on OT and Jewish Wisdom traditions even as it transcends them, laying the foundation for trinitarian analogies that will be deployed across the tradition from Augustine to Aquinas and beyond. The Word, on this understanding, is a mode of divine Wisdom. The Word is divine Wisdom in the mode of being understood within the divine mind. Therefore, the Word is qualified to be the mode of uttering divine Wisdom in the acts of making, saving, and glorifying creatures.
While John moves away from this title in the rest of his Gospel, he does not move away from the conceptual framework it establishes for understanding the Son’s person and work. The Son, according to John, is qualified to fully reveal the Father to us at the fullness of time because he has seen, heard, and perceived the Father fully from all eternity (Jn 3:11, 32, 34; 8:26, 40; etc.).