Aquinas on John 1: Lecture 1 on John 1:1

  • Questions:
    1. 0:00:00 What are we doing in this Meetup?
    2. 0:03:50 What does the term “The Word” mean?
    3. 0:24:40 Why does John begin by speaking about “The Word”?
    4. 0:39:26 What does the greek term “Principium” mean?
    5. 0:55:09 What is the distinction between “with” and “in” in the context of this text?
    6. 1:05:05 What does it mean that “The Word” “was with God” and also “was God”?
    7. 1:09:05 How is the opening of John’s Gospel different from the other Gospels?
    8. 1:11:07 Exercise: In YOUR own words how would you describe what John says existed in the beginning?
  • Read below the Excerpts from Aquinas’ Lecture 1 answering the 6 Questions. We will be using the text below on a shared screen for discussion during the Meetup
  • If you prefer, you can read Aquinas entire Lecture 1 here

LECTURE I Excerpts with Questions Added

In the beginning was the Word;

and the Word was with God;

and the Word was God.

He was in the beginning with God.

23 John the Evangelist, as already indicated, makes it his principal object to show the divinity of the Incarnate Word. Accordingly, his Gospel is divided into two parts. In the first he states the divinity of Christ; in the second he shows it by the things Christ did in the flesh. 

First he shows when the Word was: In the beginning was the Word; secondly where he was: and the Word was with God; thirdly what it was: and the Word was God; fourthly, in what way he was: He was in the beginning with God. The first two pertain to the inquiry “whether something exists”; the second two pertain to the inquiry “what something is.”

24 With respect to the first of these four we must examine the meaning of the statement, In the beginning was the Word. And here three things present themselves for careful study according to the three parts of this statement. First it is necessary to investigate the name Word; secondly the phrase in the beginning; thirdly the meaning of the Word was in the beginning.


25 To understand the name Word we should note that according to the Philosopher vocal sounds are signs of the affections that exist in our soul. It is fitting that what is within our soul, and which is signified by our external word, be called a “word.” But whether the name “word” belongs first to the exterior vocal sound or to the conception in our mind, is not our concern at present. However, it is obvious that what is signified by the vocal sound, as existing interiorly in the soul, exists prior to the vocal expression inasmuch as it is its actual cause. Therefore if we wish to grasp the meaning of the interior word, we must first look at the meaning of that which is exteriorly expressed in words.

Now there are three things in our intellect: the intellectual power itself, the species of the thing understood, and thirdly the very activity of the intellect, which is to understand. But none of these is what is signified by the exterior vocal word. That is properly called an interior word which the one understanding forms when understanding.

What is thus formed in the soul, is called an interior word. Consequently it is compared to the intellect, not as that by which the intellect understands, but as that in which it understands, because it is in what is thus expressed and formed that it sees the nature of the thing understood. Thus we have the meaning of the name “word.”

Secondly, from what has been said we are able to understand that a word is always something that proceeds from an intellect existing in act; and furthermore, that a word is always a notion (ratio) and likeness of the thing understood. So if the one understanding and the thing understood are the same, then the word is a notion and likeness of the intellect from which it proceeds. When the intellect understands itself, its word is a likeness and notion of the intellect. And so Augustine sees a likeness of the Trinity in the Soul insofar as the mind understands itself, but not insofar as it understands other things.

It is clear then that it is necessary to have a word in any intellectual nature, for it is of the very nature of understanding that the intellect in understanding should form something. Now what is formed is called a word, and so it follows that in every being which understands there must be a word.

However, intellectual natures are of three kinds: human, angelic and divine; and so there are three kinds of words. When the Evangelist says, In the beginning was the Word, the word about which John speaks here is the Word of God.

In God, to understand and to be are the same; and so the Word of the divine intellect is not an accident but belongs to its nature. Thus it must be subsistent, because whatever is in the nature of God is God. 

29 From the above it is clear that the Word, properly speaking, is always understood as a Person in the Divinity, since it implies only something expressed, by the one understanding; also, that in the Divinity the Word is the likeness of that from which it issues; and that it is co-eternal with that from which it issues, since it was not first formable before being formed, but was always in act; and that it is equal to the Father, since it is perfect and expressive of the whole being of the Father; and that it is co-essential and consubstantial with the Father, since it is his substance.

It is also clear that since in every nature that which issues forth and has a likeness to the nature from which it issues is called a son, and since this Word issues forth in a likeness and identity to the nature from which it issues, it is suitably and appropriately called a “Son,” and its production is called a generation.

So now the first point is clear, the meaning of the term Word.


30 There are four questions on this point, two of them from Chrysostom. The first is: Why did John the Evangelist omit the Father and begin at once with the Son, saying, In the beginning was the Word?

There are two answers to this. One is that the Father was known to everyone in the Old Testament, although not under the aspect of Father, but as God; but the Son was not known. And so in the New Testament, which is concerned with our knowledge of the Word, he begins with the Word or Son.

The other answer is that we are brought to know the Father through the Son: “Father, I have manifested your name to the men whom you have given to me” (below 17:6). And so wishing to lead the faithful to a knowledge of the Father, the Evangelist fittingly began with the Son, at once adding something about the Father when he says, and the Word was with God.

31 The second question is also from Chrysostom. Why did he say Word and not “Son,” since, as we have said, the Word proceeds as Son?

There are also two answers to this. He did not say “Son,” but Word, which signifies an intelligible proceeding, so that it would not be understood as a material and changeable generation. And so in showing that the Son is born of the Father in an unchangeable way, he eliminates a faulty conjecture by using the name Word.

32 The third question is raised by Augustine in his book Eighty-three Questions; and it is this. In Greek, where we have “Word,” they have “Logos”; now since “Logos” signifies in Latin both “notion” and “word” [i.e., ratio et verbum ], why did the translators render it as “word” and not “notion,” since a notion is something interior just as a word is?

I answer that “notion” [ratio], properly speaking, names a conception of the mind precisely as in the mind, even if through it nothing exterior comes to be; but “word” signifies a reference to something exterior. And so because the Evangelist, when he said “Logos,” intended to signify not only a reference to the Son’s existence in the Father, but also the operative power of the Son, by which, through him, all things were made, our predecessors preferred to translate it “Word,” which implies a reference to something exterior, rather than “notion “ which implies merely a concept of the mind.

33 The fourth question is from Origen, and is this. In many passages, Scripture, when speaking of the Word of God, does not simply call him the Word, but adds “of God,” saying, “the Word of God,” or “of the Lord”: “The Word of God on high is the foundation of wisdom” (Sir 1:5); “His name is the Word of God” (Rv 19:13). Why then did the Evangelist, when speaking here of the Word of God, not say, “In the beginning was the Word of God,” but said In the beginning was the Word?

I answer that although there are many participated truths, there is just one absolute Truth, which is Truth by its very essence, that is, the divine act of being (esse); and by this Truth all words are words. Similarly, there is one absolute Wisdom elevated above all things, that is, the divine Wisdom, by participating in which all wise persons are wise. Further, there is one absolute Word, by participating in which all persons having a word are called speakers. Now this is the divine Word which of itself is the Word elevated above all words. So in order that the Evangelist might signify this supereminence of the divine Word, he pointed out this Word to us absolutely without any addition.

And because the Greeks, when they wished to signify something separate and elevated above everything else, did this by affixing the article to the name (as the Platonists, wishing to signify the separated substances, such as the separated good or the separated man, called them the good per se, or man per se), so the Evangelist, wishing to signify the separation and elevation of that Word above all things, affixed an article to the name “Logos,” so that if it were stated in Latin we would say “the Word.”


34 Secondly, we must consider the meaning of the phrase, In the beginning. We must note that according to Origen, the word principium has many meanings [such as “principle,” “source,” or “beginning”]. As to nature, in Christian doctrine the beginning and principle of our wisdom is Christ, inasmuch as he is the Wisdom and Word of God, i.e., in his divinity. But as to ourselves, the beginning is Christ himself inasmuch as the Word has become flesh, i.e., by his incarnation. Fourth, in order is found in the production of a thing. In this perspective there can be a principium on the part of the thing generated, that is, the first part of the thing generated or made; as we say that the foundation is the beginning of a house. Another principium is on the part of the generator, and in this perspective there are three “principles”: of intention, which is the purpose, which motivates the agent; of reason, which is the idea in the mind of the maker; and of execution, which is the operative faculty. Considering these various ways of using the term, we now ask how principium is used here when it says, In the beginning was the Word.

35 We should note that this word can be taken in three ways. In one way so that principium is understood as the Person of the Son, who is the principle of creatures by reason of his active power acting with wisdom, which is the conception of the things that are brought into existence. Hence we read: “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). And so the Lord said about himself: “I am the principium who also speaks to you” (below 8:25). Taking principium in this way, we should understand the statement, In the beginning was the Word, as though he were saying: The Word himself is the principium, principle, in the sense in which life is said to be “in” God, when this life is not something other than God.

And this is the explanation of Origen. And so the Evangelist says In the beginning here in order, as Chrysostom says, to show at the very outset the divinity of the Word by asserting that he is a principle because, as determining all, a principle is most honored.

36 In a second way principium can be understood as the Person of the Father, who is the principle not only of creatures, but of every divine process. It is taken this way in, “Yours is princely power (principium) in the day of your birth” (Ps 110:3). In this second way one reads In the beginning was the Word as though it means, “The Son was in the Father.” This is Augustine’s understanding of it, as well as Origen’s. The Son, however, is said to be in the Father because both have the same essence. Since the Son is his own essence, then the Son is in whomsoever the Son’s essence is. Since, therefore, the essence of the Son is in the Father by consubstantiality, it is fitting that the Son be in the Father. Hence it says below: “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.”

37 In a third way, principium can be taken for the beginning of duration, so that the sense of In the beginning was the Word is that the Word was before all things, as Augustine explains it. According to Basil and Hilary, this phrase shows the eternity of the Word.

38 And thus the first explanation asserts the causality of the Word; the second explanation affirms the consubstantiality of the Word with the Father, who utters the Word; and the third explanation affirms the co-eternity of the Word..

41 Someone may ask how the Word can be co-eternal with the Father since he is begotten by the Father: for a human son, born from a human father, is subsequent to his father.

God did not first exist and then begin to generate the Word: for since the generation of the Word is nothing other than an intelligible conception. For God the Father, understanding himself, conceives the Word; and so God the Father did not exist prior to the Son.

An example of this, to a limited degree, appears in fire and in the brightness issuing from it: for this brightness issues naturally and without succession from the fire. Again, if the fire were eternal, its brightness would be coeternal with it. This is why the Son is called the brightness of the Father: “the brightness of his glory”. 

The Council of Ephesus says that the Son always coexists with the Father: for “brightness” indicates his unchangeability, “birth” points to the Word himself, but the name “Son” suggests his consubstantiality.

42 And so we give the Son various names to express his perfection, which cannot be expressed by one name. We call him “Son” to show that he is of the same nature as the Father; we call him “image” to show that he is not unlike the Father in any way; we call him “brightness” to show that he is coeternal; and he is called the “Word” to show that he is begotten in an immaterial manner.


43 Then the Evangelist says, and the Word was with God, which is the second clause in his account. The first thing to consider is the meaning of the two words which did not appear in the first clause, that is, God, and with; for we have already explained the meanings of “Word,” and “beginning. “Let us continue carefully by examining these two new words, and to better understand the explanation of this second clause, we must say something about the meaning of each so far as it is relevant to our purpose.

When it says here that the Word was with God, it is necessary that God stand for the person of the Father, because the preposition with signifies the distinction of the Word, which is said to be with God. And although this preposition signifies a distinction in person, it does not signify a distinction in nature, since the nature of the Father and of the Son is the same. Consequently, the Evangelist wished to signify the person of the Father when he said God.

45 Here we should note that the preposition with signifies a certain union of the thing signified by its grammatical antecedent to the thing signified by its grammatical object, just as the preposition “in” does. However, there is a difference, because the preposition “in” signifies a certain intrinsic union, whereas the preposition with implies in a certain way an extrinsic union. And we state both in divine matters, namely, that the Son is in the Father and with the Father. Here the intrinsic union pertains to consubstantiality, but the extrinsic union (if we may use such an expression, since “extrinsic” is improperly employed in divine matters) refers only to a personal distinction, because the Son is distinguished from the Father by origin alone. And so these two words designate both a consubstantiality in nature and distinction in person: consubstantiality inasmuch as a certain union is implied; but distinction, inasmuch as a certain otherness is signified as was said above.

The preposition “in,” as was said, principally signifies consubstantiality, as implying an intrinsic union and, by way of consequence, a distinction of persons, inasmuch as every preposition is transitive. The preposition “with” principally signifies a personal distinction, but also a consubstantiality inasmuch as it signifies a certain extrinsic, so to speak, union. For these reasons the Evangelist specifically used here the preposition “with” in order to express the distinction of the person of the Son from the Father, saying, and the Word was with God, that is, the Son was with the Father as one person with another.

46 We should note further that this preposition with has four meanings. First, the preposition with signifies the subsistence of its antecedent. But things that do subsist of themselves are properly said to be “with” another; thus we say that a man is with a man, and a stone with a stone.

Secondly, it signifies authority in its grammatical object. For we do not, properly speaking, say that a king is with a soldier, but that the soldier is with the king. Thirdly, it asserts a distinction. For it is not proper to say that a person is with himself but rather that one man is with another. Fourthly, it signifies a certain union and fellowship. For when some person is said to be with another, it suggests to us that there is some social union between them.

Considering these four conditions implied in the meaning of this preposition with, the Evangelist quite appropriately joins to the first clause, In the beginning was the Word, this second clause, and the Word was with God. For if we omit one of the three explanations of, In the beginning was the Word (namely, the one in which principium was understood as the Son), 

51 And so, and the Word was with God, indicates: the union of the Word with the Father in nature, according to Basil; their distinction in person, according to Alcuin and Bede; the subsistence of the Word in the divine nature, according to Chrysostom; and the authorship of the Father in relation to the Word, according to Hilary.

52 We should also note, according to Origen, that the Word was with God shows that the Son has always been with the Father. For in the Old Testament it says that the word of the Lord “came” to Jeremiah or to someone else, as is plain in many passages of sacred Scripture. But it does not say that the word of the Lord was “with” Jeremiah or anyone else, because the word “comes” to those who begin to have the word after not having it. Thus the Evangelist did not say that the Word “came” to the Father, but was “with” the Father, because, given the Father, the Word was with him.


53 Then he says, and the Word was God. This is the third clause in John’s account, and it follows most appropriately considering the order of teaching. For since John had said both when and where the Word was, it remained to inquire what the Word was, that is, the Word was God, taking “Word” as the subject, and “God” as the predicate.

The Word of God is with man and with God in different ways. The Word is with man as perfecting him, because it is through him that man becomes wise and good: “She makes friends of God and prophets”. But the Word is not with God as though the Father were perfected and enlightened by him. Rather, the Word is with God as receiving natural divinity from him, who utters the Word, and from whom he has it that he is the same God with him. And so, since the Word was with God by origin, it was necessary to show first that the Word was in the Father and with the Father before showing that the Word was God.

56 The other question comes from his saying, with God. For since “with” indicates a distinction, it could be thought that the Word was with God, i.e., the Father, as distinct from him in nature. So to exclude this he adds at once the consubstantiality of the Word with the Father, saying, and the Word was God. As if to say: the Word is not separated from the Father by a diversity of nature, because the Word itself is God.

Thus the Word is called God absolutely because he is God by his own essence, and not by participation, as men and angels are.

“Christ, who is God over all things, blessed forever,” and again the article is used with “God” in the Greek. Further, in 1 John (5:20) it says: “That we may be in his true Son, Jesus Christ; he is the true God and eternal life.” Thus, Christ is not God by participation, but truly God. 

60 Then he says, He was in the beginning with God. This is the fourth clause and is introduced because of the preceding clause. 

63 Origen gives a rather beautiful explanation of this clause, He was in the beginning with God, when he says that it is not separate from the first three, but is in a certain sense their epilogue. For the Evangelist, after he had indicated that truth was the Son’s and was about to describe his power, in a way gathers together in a summary form, in this fourth clause, what he had said in the first three. For in saying He, he understands the third clause; by adding was in the beginning, he recalls the first clause; and by adding with God, he recalls the second, so that we do not think that the Word which was in the beginning is different than the Word which was God; but this Word which was God was in the beginning with God.


66 Note the difference in what has been said between John and the other Evangelists: how he began his Gospel on a loftier plane than they. They announced Christ the Son of God born in time: “When Jesus was born in Bethlehem” (Mt 2:1); but John presents him existing from eternity: In the beginning was the Word. They show him suddenly appearing among men: “Now you dismiss your servant, 0 Lord, in peace, according to your word; because my eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk 2:29); but John says that he always existed with the Father: and the Word was with God. The others show him as a man: “They gave glory to God who had given such authority to men” (Mt 9:8); but John says that he is God: and the Word was God. The others say he lives with men: “While living in Galilee, Jesus said to them” (Mt 17:21); but John says that he has always been with the Father: He was in the beginning with God.

67 Note also how the Evangelist designedly uses the word to show that the Word of God transcends all times: present, past and future. It is as though he were saying: He was beyond time: present, past and future.

7. Exercise: In YOUR own words how would you describe what John says existed in the beginning?

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