Christ as Sermo, not Verbum, Speech, not Word

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 21

Another perspective on the significance of Anselm’s use of locutio might be to see the latter not just as a particularly linguistic interpretation of the Augustinian verbum, but as hearkening back to an even more ancient but long supresssed mode of translating the logos of John 1:1. As Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle has shown, the earliest and almost standard Latin translation of logos among the early church fathers until the fourth century was not verbum (which means a single word), but sermo, a word meaning an informal conversation or ordinary speech, and henc a more appropriate rendering of lovgoV, whose denotations include “speech: a continuous statement, narrative, oration; verbal expression or utterance; a particular utterance or saying; expression, utterance, speech regarded formally.”[1] Boyle speculates that the reason verbum came to be the preferred translation of lovgoV basically from Augustine onward (though Erasmus, Calvin, and Beza all made a return to using sermo) was owing to “a fusion or confusion of the doctrine of Christ as revelation (lovgoV) and as the only-begotten (monogenhvV) so that one Son has been conceptualized as one Word.”[2] Commenting on Augustine in particular, Boyle writes:

Concerned to distinguish God’s Persons against the Modalistic claims of Sabellius and others, Augustine’s argument lapsed into a prblematic computation which he inherited from his adversaries. Whereas he might have argued that the one Son is one Oration, he understood the Son as the Word, the Father’s single undivided utterance. Would oratio or sermo have compromised the only-begotten Son any more than the unity ofa discourse is compromised by its composition from many words? A brilliant rhetor, Augustine did not develop a theology of the Son as copious discourse (lovgoV), the Father’s full and eloquent oration.[3]


[1] Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “Sermo: Reopening the Conversation on Translationg JN 1,1,” Vigilae Christianae 31 (1977): 163-4.

[2] Boyle, 166.

[3] Boyle, 166. Boyle further cites the argument of Kenneth Burke, who “reads in Augustine’s conversion an attachment ot the singel Word in deliberate repudiation of his career as a rehtor, a salesman of many words, in The Rhetoric of Religion (Boston 1961) 114.” Boyle, 166n39.  

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