Question… How do Unitarians understand John 1?
There are actually several Unitarian interpretations of the prologue of John. These differences have to do with explaining various abstractions in the prologue, and don’t have a bearing on core Unitarian Theology and Christology. John 1 cannot be used as a proof text for Trinitarian dogma, since it can be interpreted in several ways that does not require a belief in a literal pre-existence of Christ. The prologue is not explicit and there are a number of ways to read John 1 that doesn’t presuppose incarnation. This demonstrates that John 1 should not serve as the basis for Christian doctrine, but rather we should focus on the explicit statements of who Christ is – in harmony with the other Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.
Near the end of John’s Gospel in Chapter 20:31, the author wrote, “These things are written so that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.” This provides an explicit declaration of who Jesus is. The Gospel of John is actually one of the most explicitly Unitarian books in the New Testament, as evidenced by the many quotations of Jesus within it. Whatever someone might take the more ambiguous prologue to be saying, what is clear is that the correct interpretation is not Trinitarian.
Unitarians all understand the Father to be the only true God, as Jesus declared in John 17:3, and we all affirm Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of God, as supported throughout the gospel. Where Unitarians differ is how the “Word”, which is “logos” in the Greek, is to be understood in the context of the prologue, and also with respect to what beginning is being spoken about in verse 1.
Some Unitarians understand the Word “Logos” as an “it,” being a concept pertaining to what God thinks and speaks. Most English Bible translations before the King James Version, including Tyndale, Cloverdale, Matthews, Bishops and the Geneva Bible, rendered the Word (Logos) as an “it” in John 1:3. For example, the Geneva Bible reads, “All things were made by it, and without it was made nothing that was made.” According to this understanding, the concept of God’s divine Word (Logos) encompasses God’s intentions, thoughts, plan, purpose, wisdom, and reasoning. For instance, if you consider God’s Word to correspond to God’s plan, it makes perfect sense, in reference to verse 3, to say that all things came into existence through God’s plan, and that apart from God’s plan, nothing came into existence, and in verse 14, the plan of God was caused to be flesh. At the center of God’s plan for humanity, is Jesus, the Messiah, that we might be reconciled to God, through Christ.
Other Unitarians see John 1 as Wisdom Christology and understand the Word (Logos) to be the personification of Wisdom. That is, Jesus is the latest and greatest example of various personifications of Wisdom. Proverbs 8 personified wisdom as “her” and indicates that lady wisdom was with God at the foundation of the world. There are also many other passages in the deuterocanonical books in which wisdom is personified and this was especially common in contemporary philosophical writings at the time of the first Century. John was written in the backdrop of this wisdom literature and, for these reasons, some see John 1 as Wisdom Christology.
Another common Unitarian understanding of the Word of John 1:1 is that it pertains to Jesus in a direct sense, and that Jesus is considered divine, as an agent of God. Usually, this perspective is in conjunction with the view that the beginning being spoken about in verse 1, is not the Genesis creation but the beginning of the ministry. Jesus quotes in John 10:35 that those to whom the word of God came were called God, and thus Jesus can be figuratively called God, according to the biblical concept of agency, because he is a representative (Shaliach) of God. Jesus can be called God since he is an anointed and empowered servant of God who conveys the words of God, but it is to be understood that Jesus is not God in a literal ontological sense.
Some Unitarians have alternative or narrower definitions for the Word (Logos), including the physical manifestation of God, the actual speech of God, or that the Word (Logos) is a synonym for the Holy Spirit. Unitarians agree that God’s Word is associated with his physical manifestations, His speech and the operations of His Holy Spirit and so there is some overlap with all these ideas.
With regard to what beginning is being spoken about, many Unitarians believe that this is the Genesis creation, while many others believe it is the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist and Christ. A minority of Unitarians attribute this beginning to post resurrection, that is, the beginning of the apostolic ministry, or to the new creation. It is also possible to view John 1:1 as a general axiomatic statement, that pertains to any beginning. What God does (including what comes into existence) is through his Word (Logos) and that nothing is implemented, and nothing comes into existence, apart from his Logos.
All these interpretations of John 1:1 have some rational basis and is a sounder alternative to the Trinitarian dogma of incarnation. Personally, I believe it is best to understand the Word (Logos) as a concept that pertains to the mind and thoughts of God, including His intentions, reasoning, wisdom, plan and purpose. This explanation also fits well with the Greek meaning of the word logos that typically refers to something said, but can also include the thoughts or reason. It is not a significant issue if another Unitarian has a different view than mine, since again, these differences have no bearing on our core understanding of God (Theology), and of Christ (Christology). John was clearly a Unitarian, and the several Unitarian interpretations are much better supported than the single speculative Trinitarian one, which had been dogmatically imposed on Christians for centuries.
Again, in John 20:31, John said that he “wrote these things so that we may believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God – not that we would presume the Jesus, the Son of God, is God in a literal ontological sense. Rather, as Jesus said in John 17:3, when he prayed to the Father, “This is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”