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The Tao and the Logos: Lao Tzu and the Gospel of John.


In the year 635 AD, the first Christian missionary, Bishop Alopen of the Nestorian Church, arrived in China. The arrival of Alopen at the Chinese capital Chang-an during the T'ang dynasty, in the reign of the emperor T'ai Tsung (627-650 AD), was described in this manner:

"The Emperor ordered Fang-li-wen-ling, first minister of the empire, to go with a great train of attendants to the Western suburbs to meet the strangers and bring them to the palace. He had the Holy Scriptures translated in the Imperial Library. The court listened to the doctrine, meditated on it profoundly and understood the great unity of truth."(1)

In that same year, St Aidan came to preach the Gospel in Northumbria in England. If the Gospel had taken root in China in the same way as it did in England, world history would have been quite different. In 1583, a young Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, accompanying Michele Ruggieri, arrived in Zhaoqing, administrative capital of the provinces of Guandong and Guangxi, to the west of Canton, to begin the modem chapter of Christian missionary work in southern China.(2) Yet these missionaries knew nothing of the existence of that ancient Nestorian church which had been established in China nearly a millennium before them.

Why had the first attempts at Christian missionary work in China not taken root? Many reasons have been put forward. However, failure at the level of interaction between the Gospel and Chinese culture has been considered an important factor.(3)

Let us start examining the interaction of Gospel and culture with John 1:1. The Greek Logos is translated into English as "the Word," and into Chinese as "the Tao." The original concept of Tao comes from Lao Tzu in his treatise Tao Te Ching, which is generally accepted to have been written in the sixth century BC.

Discovery of the ancient texts of Tao Te Ching

The earliest texts extant of Tao Te Ching, dated around the second century BC, were discovered in China between November 1973 and January 1974. Paul Lin gave this description of the discovery of these texts.

"In the Han Tombs on Ma-Wang-Tui (Horse King Heights), Changsha, Hunan, two ancient and previously lost editions of the Tao Te Ching were unearthed. Both were written with brush and ink on silk.

The first of these silk books was found on a piece of wood about 24 cms high, which included four ancient lost books without titles. There were a total of 463 lines and over 13,000 words. The book has been dated between 206 and 195 BC, based on the type of characters used (the small-seal type) and the fact that the name of Liu Pang (247-195 BC) was not avoided... Because the second book was written in clerical style characters and avoided the use of Liu Pang's name - but not the names of Liu-Ying (207-188 BC) and Liu Hung (202-157 BC) - it has been dated between 194 and 180 BC."(4)

The Tao and the Logos

In the opening verse of the first chapter of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching, we read:

"The Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao; The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name. The Nameless (non-being) is the origin of heaven and earth; The Nameable (being) is the mother of all things."(5)

In searching for a Chinese equivalent for Logos, L.X. Zhang posed these questions and gave his solution:

"One may begin to wonder, Is it possible that logocentrism or the metaphysical hierarchy with regard to thinking, speaking, and writing also exists in the Eastern tradition? Is there a Chinese word that denotes, as the word logos does, something equivalent or similar to the Western metaphysical hierarchy?

By a most curious coincidence, there is indeed a word in Chinese that exactly captures the duality of thinking and speaking... Stephen Ullmann also observes that logos as a notoriously ambiguous word has a serious effect on philosophical thought because it "has two chief meanings, one corresponding to Latin oratio, "the word or that by which the inward thought is expressed," the other to Latin ratio, "the inward thought" itself. In other words, logos means both thinking (denken) and speaking (sprechen)... In this wonderful word, then, thinking and speech literally fuse into one. Significantly, the Chinese word tao, which also represents the foremost Chinese philosophical concept, contains in one word the same duality of thinking and speaking."(6)

Tao is usually translated into English as "the Way", which is not an exact nor a complete translation of all the meanings of Tao: as such, it is often preferred untranslated as Tao to indicate the inadequacy of a translation as "the Way."

If we translate Tao as "the Way", the opening verse of Lao Tzu becomes "The Way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way." Whereas in English "way" and "to speak" have nothing in common, the first two words "Tao" in Lao Tzu's opening line, meaning "the Way" and "spoken of" respectively, are one and the same word.

L.X. Zhang said, "The word tao is repeated three times in the first line of the Laozi, and the repetition certainly makes a serious point by playing on the two meanings of tao - tao as thinking and tao as the verb "to speak"... Puns like this are really untranslatable, and the point gets completely lost in English translation."(7)

In pointing out the first Tao as "thinking", and the second Tao as the verb "to speak", he highlighted the difference in philosophical concepts between "thinking" and "speaking", which is encompassed in Western tradition by the word Logos and in Chinese tradition by the word Tao.

The Tao and the Logos of John

It remains pertinent to examine the third Tao, the eternal Tao of the opening line of Lao Tzu, and to compare it with the Logos of John 1:1. For the Greeks, Logos was essentially reason.(8) John tells us that the Logos is the creator of heaven and earth (v3). The Logos is the source of light and life for living beings (v4). The Logos is the God of the Old Testament (v1). Further in a sensational statement, John tells us that the Logos "became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (v14). This statement is sensational, because the sharp distinction between the transcendent world and the physical world has been abolished, when the Logos bridged these two hitherto unbridgeable worlds.

In the West, a sharp distinction has been made between a constantly changing physical world, and an eternal transcendent world. Greek philosophers Heraclitus (c504 BC) and Parmenides (c515 BC) exerted fundamental influences in Western philosophical thinking. Heraclitus declared all things are in a state of flux, in a state of "becoming" - not "being", which is unchanging. Parmenides, in contrast, stated that change is an illusion, and affirmed being as the only reality. Being, whatever its nature, cannot not be. Unlike Heraclitus, who believed that it is through our senses that we detect what is in a state of flux, Parmenides asserted that only reason can perceive the state of being.

MacKenzie wrote: "In later Greek thought, Heraclitus' emphasis on becoming and Parmenides' emphasis on being developed into a dualism, a sharp division between physical, temporal reality, which constantly changes, and a spiritual world, which is eternally unchanging. In the fourth century BC two of the world's great philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, attempted to synthesize being and becoming."(9)

Plato (427-347 BC) postulated a dualism in response to the problem of "the one" and "the many", of being and becoming. He postulated the existence of two worlds, the changeless, eternal and ideal world of "forms" or "ideas", and the changing material world, which is an imperfect, shadowy copy of the real world. In his dialogue, Timaeus, the Demiurge fashioned the material world out of pre-existent matter, using transcendent ideals as models. The Demiurge was thus an ingenious craftsman, not a creator of the universe.(10,11) The origin of matter, however, was left unspeculated on by Plato.

Aristotle (383-322 BC) disagreed with Plato's sharp distinction between being and becoming. Aristotle perceived Plato's forms or ideas as not residing in a transcendent realm but in the physical object itself - never apart from it.

He considered that knowledge of matter comes through our senses, and that knowledge of internal forms comes through intelligent apprehension by reason. To Aristotle, the motion of terrestial objects would gradually cease unless an unmoved mover keeps them in motion. This unmoved mover is pure reason and has no interaction with the material world.(12)

Aristotle's worldview held sway in the Western world for nearly two thousand years (400 BC to 1600 CE), because it was considered plausible, satisfying and comprehensive. During the Renaissance, scientific investigations sought to do away with transcendental influences. Science opened up entirely new concepts of the workings of the universe. Nature was regarded as self-sufficient, working under natural laws. New concepts of the universe arose from the studies of Nicholas Copernicus (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571 - 1630), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Newton's three principles of motion and postulate of gravitational forces led to the abandonment of Aristotle's principle of motion. Newton's first principle of motion, which states that every object will continue in its state of uniform motion unless acted on by external force, made redundant Aristotle's unmoved mover to keep the universe in constant motion. The principle of gravitation discarded the need for Aristotle's transparent spheres to support the planets.(13) The cosmology of modem science is further reinforced by Albert Einstein's principle of relativity and by quantum physics.

Neither Heraclitus nor Parmenides, neither Plato nor Aristotle subscribed to the tenet of creation out of nothing (ex nihilo), which is a fundamental premise of biblical cosmology.

Lao Tzu stated that there is an originator of heaven and earth. Later in his treatise (chapter 40), he asserted that the universe originated from nothingness:

"All things in the world are produced by being. And being is produced by non-being."(14)

Alternatively, the being and non-being of this passage can be translated as "the having" and "the not-having". Thus if you regard "the having" and "the not-having" as referring to existence, then you have being and non-being. But if you regard the reference as referring to physical reality, then matter, Lao Tzu said, comes ultimately from the absolute void.

In Genesis 1, God created by His word: "God said...," and it was so (1:6-7). This was reinforced by the psalmist who said, "By the word of the Lord were the heavens made" (Psalm 33:6). Thus, Lao Tzu is the only philosopher who, without access to biblical cosmology, concluded that the universe originated from nothingness. The Tao is, therefore, fundamentally different from Plato's Demiurge and from Aristotle's unmoved mover.

The cosmology of Lao Tzu

In chapter 21, Lao Tzu gave this description of the Tao:

"Intangible, formless! At its centre appears the Image. Formless, intangible! At its centre appears Natural Law. Obscure, mysterious! At its centre appears the Life Force. The Life Force is very real; At its centre appears truth."(15)

Lao Tzu's cosmology is enunciated here. Although formless and intangible, the Tao originates all things tangible, and all forms and shapes of the universe are derived from the Tao. Three essential elements of his cosmology are natural laws, life force and truth. The choice of these three essential elements is most profound and displays important differences from the cosmologies of the philosophical speculations of Plato and Aristotle, and from the cosmology of modem science.

The Newtonian principles account for the orderly terrestial and celestial motions. The universe appears to be a well designed, smooth running machine that requires neither upkeep nor adjustments. Lao Tzu states that natural laws which govern the universe come from the eternal Tao. Having declared the Tao originated heaven and earth, and that matter was created out of nothingness, Lao Tzu went on to state that the Tao sustains the smooth functions of the universe with natural laws. He was not concerned with the operations of these natural laws, which are so formulated as to achieve order in the universe. The unmoved mover has never been seen to operate through natural laws. The Newtonian principles displaced the unmoved mover, which then became irrelevant. Lao Tzu acknowledged that the Tao operates through natural laws.

The second element of Lao Tzu's cosmology concerns the origin of life force. Darwin's observations of changes within species led him to postulate the theory of special evolution, which was later extrapolated to the theory of general evolution, or the development of complex life forms from simple one-celled organisms. In both special and general evolutions, the origin of life was not speculated. Lao Tzu's acknowledgement of the Tao as the origin of life speaks of the influence of the transcendent world upon the material world in a very real and significant manner.

While the transcendent Tao is shapeless and formless, yet all shapes and forms of the material world come from the formless Tao. In Chapter 14, Lao Tzu gave this description of the Tao:

"That is why it is called The form of the formless, The image of nothingness. That is why it is called elusive. Confronted, its beginning is not seen. Followed, its end is not seen."(15)

Aristotle considered that there were deficiencies in the Platonian concept of the relationship between the changeless forms of the transcendent realm and the particular forms of the material world. Aristotle believed that the changeless forms of "treeness" is in the tree itself, not inhabiting the transcendent world.(12) Lao Tzu did not speak of a relationship between a transcendent form with a particular form of the physical world. He spoke of all particular forms originating from the eternal Tao who is formless. "That is why it is called the form of the formless, the image of nothingness." Lao Tzu did not single out motion or the changes of seasons for special consideration, but regarded all functions of heaven as governed by natural laws, whose origin is the Tao.

The Tao is eternal, therefore neither its beginning nor its end can be seen. There is, however, the suggestion that the Tao, although timeless, can be confronted at a point in time. The Tao is the originator of heaven and earth and also of life. The Tao is thus similar to the Logos of whom John said, "Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made" (1:3).

The third element in the cosmology of Lao Tzu is truth. Biblical teaching upholds the belief that God and God's revealed word are the final, absolute authority of truth. Greek philosophers like the Pythagoreans and Plato advocated reason as sufficient basis of truth. Following the Renaissance, during the Enlightenment period, rational thinking was emphasised: it was believed that truth could be discovered by reason and logical analysis. Science, being concerned with what is observable, measurable and quantifiable, became an arbiter of truth. When we come to the Romantic period, we find that feeling, not reason, has become the basis of discovering the truth. While rationalists believed in reason as the authority of truth, romanticists concluded that man's feeling was the arbiter of truth.(16) For Lao Tzu truth is eternal. Truth is changeless. Truth comes from the Tao.

The Tao is the way through which natural laws, life force and truth, which have their origin in the Tao, comes to us. Thomas asked Jesus how he could know the way, to which Jesus replied, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). The search by Lao Tzu for the Tao (or the Way) has come to an end with this unprecedented claim by Jesus Christ.

The Tao became flesh

From the ancient Greek philosophy of Parmenides and Heraclitus until the present, the tension between the one and the many has not been satisfactorily solved. The physical world is regarded not only as the world of becoming, but also of materialism and time. Unity, but not plurality, is transcendent. The elevation of the one over the many led eventually to the displacement of God, as the result of the rebellion of the many over the one.(17)

Gunton offered the doctrine of the Trinity as a way of solving this dilemma of the one versus the many. He quoted Gregory of Narzianzus as saying, "No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendour of the three: no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One." The oneness and the threeness of God are given equal weight, and in dynamic relation.(17) This is in contrast to the static concept of the one and the many, which results in conflict.

Is there a Chinese concept equivalent to the philosophy of the one and the many which has prevailed throughout the long history of western tradition? By yet another most curious coincidence, there is, indeed, the concept of oneness in Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching. In chapter 39, Lao Tzu said:

"Heaven in harmony with the One becomes clear... Heaven without clarity would probably crack."(15)

Oneness refers to the Tao. Lao Tzu called it the Tao for the sake of giving it a name: but for him the Tao is forever nameless. Lao Tzu gave primacy to the One, recognising the Tao as that which holds the universe together. Without the Tao, heaven cannot be held together and would probably fall apart. However, he did not see the conflict between unity and plurality; he emphasised over and over again the vital need for all things to be in harmony with the One, warning of the consequences of disharmony with the One.

To the Greeks, Logos was not only essentially reason, they were convinced that the transcendent cannot come into direct contact with matter.(8) John's message was precisely the reverse in that the Logos, that is the Tao, did come into the world and lived among us. Gunton offered two reasons why John identified Christ with the Logos, who is first "the Word of the Father" and secondly "that rationality which the Greeks had discerned as underlying the structures and dynamic of material being." Gunton further distinguished between an "underlying rationality", and an "embodied rationality". In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, Gunton saw the Son of God as "rightly conceived as Logos, not only the Word spoken to time from eternity, but the immanent dynamic of meaning which holds time and space together." Lao Tzu gave primacy to truth, not to reason. He saw truth, which originates from Tao, not from reason, and which is a faculty of the human mind, as underlying the structures of the universe.

John's message of the incarnation of the Logos remains the most extraordinary statement. The human mind can discern God's revelation in nature. God reveals Godself to us in nature and in the Scriptures: in and through nature, we can know certain characteristics of God. Paul in Romans 1:20 said that God's invisible qualities - God's eternal power and divine nature - can be clearly seen in nature. In fact we are without excuse for not recognising them, so clearly visible are these qualities. Therefore it is possible for people like Lao Tzu, who had no access to the Scriptures, to know these attributes of God. There is, however, no way for the human mind to know about the incarnation of the Son of God without some kind of revelation from God. In Matthew 16:17, Jesus said that the revelation to Peter could not come from any human being, only from God. There is just no way for the human mind through its own reason to come upon this knowledge. Lao Tzu could not know that the Tao could become flesh and live among us.

Lao Tzu saw that disharmony with the One meant departure from the Tao and that this would bring about disastrous consequences. What he did not know was that it requires the incarnation of the Logos, that is the Tao, to do the redemptive works necessary to restore human beings to perfection, that is, to harmony with the One. The doctrine of the Trinity will illumine this redemptive work done in this world by the Tao. Just as Jesus Christ is rightly identified with the Logos, so is He also rightly identified with the Tao.


1 Quoted by Leonard Outerbridge in The lost Churches of China, Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1952, p.37.

2 Jacques Gemet translated by Janet Lloyd in China and the Christian Impact: a Conflict of Cultures. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p. 15

3 Leonard Outerbridge, op. cit., p.47-48.

4 Paul J. Lin in "A translation of Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching and Wang Pi's commentary", Michigan, Center for Chinese Studies, University of Michigan, 1977. p.x-xi.

5 Paul J. Lin, op. cit., p.3.

6 Longxi Zhang in The Tao and the Logos: Literary Hermeneutics, East and West, Durham & London, Duke University Press, 1992, p.26-27.

7 Longxi Zhang op. cit., p.27.

8 Andrew F. Walls in "Logos" in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker House, 1989.

9 Charles S. MacKenzie in "Classical Greek Humanism" in Building a Christian World View, vol. 1: God, Man and Knowledge, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker and Gary S. Smith. Phillisburg, New Jersey; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1986.

10 Charles S. MacKenzie, op. cit.

11 Charles S. MacKenzie and W. Andrew Hoffecker in "Greek Epistemology: Plato and Aristotle," in Building a Christian World View, vol. 1., op. cit.

12 Ross A. Foster in "Cosmologies of Philosophical Speculation," in Building a Christian World View, vol.2. The Universe, Society and Ethics, edited by W. Andrew Hoffecker and Gary S. Smith, Phillisburg, New Jersey; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1988.

13 Alan W. Rice in "The Cosmology of Modem Science," in Building a Christian World View. vol.2., op. cit.

14 Paul J. Lin, op. cit., p.77.

15 R.L. Wing in "The Tao of Power: A translation of the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu", New York, Dolphin, Doubleday, 1986.

16 John D. Currid in "From the Renaissance to the Age of Naturalism." in Building a Christian World View, vol. 1. op. cit.

17 Colin E. Gunton in The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

KAY KENG KHOO is a medical doctor currently practising in Perth, Western Australia. He has been involved in WCC Christian Medical Commission activities and has written a number of books.
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Author:Khoo, Kay Kheng
Publication:International Review of Mission
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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