In my second semester of Biblical Greek in seminary, I discovered John 1:5, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not seize it.” I had to translate it for my homework. What immediately drew my attention was the verb in the second clause which the NRSV translates as “overcome” and the NIV translates as “comprehend.” It was reflecting on the intersection between these two translations that gave John 1:5 the meaning that it has for me.
The Greek word that’s being translated is katalambano. The word lambano by itself means to take or receive. The prefix kata means “against” and has a connotation of hostility. So katalambano is not just receiving or even taking something. It means that you’re snatching or seizing something away from someone else presumably at the other person’s expense or against their will.
The figurative meaning of katalambano as “comprehend” is very interesting. If you “overcome” something by “comprehending” it, it connotes a relationship of hostility between you and the object of knowledge. It is an attitude that sees knowledge as conquest. This is similar to the way that Hebrew uses the word “know” to describe having sex with someone with or without their consent.
What really hit me as I was thinking about this is that fundamentalist Christianity’s relationship to God’s truth is like this. The Bible has to be literal and completely self-explanatory and self-interpreting because otherwise the person seeking knowledge would not be able to conquer it. Much of the talk of inerrancy and so forth is not about the authority of the text as much as it’s about the authority of the interpreter. If God’s truth includes allegory and symbolism and paradox, then Joe Six Pack Fundamentalist cannot conquer it, which is why all of it has to be absolutely literal and comprehensible on a sixth-grade level.
The message of John 1:5 is that God’s light cannot be conquered by our darkness and put in a box under our custody. As I was reflecting on this, the physicality of the metaphor really struck me. Think about light. It is something that only exists in an environment where there is an open passage between the light source and the point of perception. Put up a wall between a light source and where you are, then you will be in darkness. Similarly, you can point to light but you cannot seize it, because if you close your fist around it, all that’s inside your fist is darkness.
It seems like many American Christians have precisely this problem in relation to God’s truth. In their need to have the final concluding answer, they have settled for a fistful of darkness even though what they tried to snatch really was God’s truth. To affirm God’s mystery is not to embrace “relativism”; it is to defend God’s sovereignty against those who want to make themselves God’s legal guardians. It’s not a rebellion against absolute truth to hate oversimplified caricatures of God. It exudes as attitude towards truth that considers it an object of reverence rather than conquest.