The Colossian Christ-hymn

I've been reading Robin Parry/Gregory MacDonald's The Evangelical Universalist, and one of the things he does is use the Christ-hymn of Colossians to begin a theological framework within which he can relate all of the strands of the problem. And I'm also the Sittler Archives' para, so I'm reminded of Joseph Sittler's "Called to Unity" speech and its use of this passage for ecumenical purposes. There's a lot of possibility bound up in Colossians 1:15-20, and I do Greek, so I'm going to see what I can find down this rabbit hole. Come along!


First things first, and the first thing is, textual context. This is a metrical passage (which I'm having trouble figuring out as metrical…) inserted into pseudo-Paul's prose. It's fairly obviously a citation, which means it probably belongs to the audience, and its persuasive intent is resonance with the audience's beliefs for the sake of rhetorical leverage. Paul does this quite a lot. Using a local confession of faith and integrating its themes builds a feeling of common cause between audience and orator.

The second thing is some sense of relative historical context. I feel reasonably comfortable saying "pseudo-Paul" because I've translated quite a lot of genuine Paul, and none of his scribes wrote him like this. This author thinks in a higher literate register, which Paul does not. And yet he is clearly pushing Pauline buttons at every turn, trying just too hard to sound like Paul to an audience who knows his letters. Even Paul is not so careful to cite himself—Paul is always primarily concerned with what is going on in his audience, and does not rely on what he has said to any other audience. Paul's own realia, his bona fides, are personal story, and that's missing here.

So the letter is post-Pauline, relying on the authority of Paul the apostle. And as such it seems heavily reliant on the text of Paul's letters, which were never originally circular. They were oratorical performances in persona Pauli by an emissary of Paul, addresses directly from Paul to his audience in whatever place to which the mission was sent. That doesn't seem to be the case here. Colossians isn't specifically concerned with its audience. There's no conversation, no give-and-take, no case histories, just every ethical exhortation and theological point Paul ever made combined with personal references based on Philemon—which causes me to wonder about Philemon just a little, and whether Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians might be a set.

The stylistic incongruities and the use of different terms than Paul ever uses appear chock-a-block with legitimate Pauline realia built on textual knowledge, which is why we have the perennial debate over whether or not Paul authored this letter, perhaps late in life, perhaps after some significant life-change that would account for the differences. Because the ideas are so clearly Pauline! In the more obviously pseudonymous letters like the Pastorals, where the style is more compatible, it is the ideas that clash with Paul—and all the name-dropping realia in the world cannot save them! Whoever this author is, Colossians seems to be closer to the heart of Paul, if generic. He's a good reader, and this is a sincere attempt to "do Paul" for an audience. This author is performing a pastiche of definite Pauline notes, clearly indebted to Philemon for its character references, and combining bits of Romans, Galatians, and (I think) the Corinthian correspondence at the very least.

I'm going to call this author Tychicus, since that is the only name not borrowed from elsewhere. Colossians seems the likely origin of Tychicus' entry into the tradition, used again in Ephesians, the Pastorals, and Acts. Epaphras, whose name also sticks out at appropriate locations in the performance, seems to be the touchstone of Tychicus' approach to Colossae, if indeed that is the real audience. And yet, with all of his bona fides basically drawn from Philemon, I can't help but think that this was intentionally performed posthumously as a discovered letter rather than a direct address. It would save on questions that would otherwise be legitimate to put to an emissary, and unanswerable by a fraud. So "Tychicus" writing to "Colossae" and being read by someone else to an audience someplace else for their benefit—in other words, by the actual author to the intended actual audience. But even if this is pseudo-Tychicus, "Tychicus" will do.

All of that goes basically to the point that we cannot rely on Paul to tell us what things in Colossians mean. We must hear Tychicus for ourselves. So let's hear the text.


I'm going to start from 1:12, to give context for Tychicus' use of the citation.
… εὐχαριστοῦντες τῷ πατρὶ τῷ ἱκανώσαντι ὑμᾶς εἰς τὴν μερίδα τοῦ κλήρου τῶν ἁγίων ἐν τῷ φωτί· ὃς ἐρρύσατο ἡμᾶς ἐκ τῆς ἐξουσίας τοῦ σκότους καὶ μετέστησεν εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ υἱοῦ τῆς ἀγάπης αὐτοῦ, ἐν ᾧ ἔχομεν τὴν ἀπολύτρωσιν τὴν ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν·

… giving thanks to the Father who has qualified you for participation in the inheritance of the saints in the light; who extracted us from the realm of shadow and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, release from our failures;
That's the lead-in. Two cola that move in relative clauses from the desired action of the audience to the Father, and through the action of the Father to the Son. The hymn that follows expands in two major, reasonably parallel relative clauses on the Son. Here's the first:
ὅς ἐστιν εἰκῶν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἀρχαὶ εἴτε ἐξουσίαι· τὰ πάντα δι' αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται· καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν πρὸ πάντων καὶ τὰ πάντα ἐν αὐτῷ συνέστηκεν καὶ αὐτὸς ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ τοῦ σώματος τῆς ἐκκλησίας·

"[The Son,] who is the image of the invisible God, first-born of the whole creation—in him was made everything in the heavens and upon the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether estates, domains, sovereignties, or realms. Everything was made through him and for him. He is before all things; everything has been gathered together in him, and he is the head of the assembled body."
This is Jesus' "primogeniture," his right to the inheritance of all that is. No claim of temporal power supersedes this right. It is a right exercised over everything in the entire creation, every creature, whether in the heavens or on the earth, or in any subordinate arrangement of those spheres—everything, whether it appears to us or not. He is the Creator become visible and knowable, the image you should have in your field guide, the epiphany of God. Everything that exists has its origin and purpose and end in him, because in God. That en autō carries all the positive ambiguity of the dative: the indirect object of the verb, the agent, the means, the manner, the one who benefits, all of it. He is the head of the body, the one in whom every creature stands together, the one in whom creation is constituted as an assembly, an ekklēsia. And he is also more than this:
ὅς ἐστιν ἀρχή, πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν, ἵνα γένηται ἐν πᾶσιν αὐτὸς πρωτεύων, ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι, καὶ δι' αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτὸν, εἰρηνοποιήσας διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ σταυροῦ αὐτοῦ, εἴτε τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἴτε τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς.

[The Son,] who is the beginning, first-born from the dead, for the purpose of becoming himself the first in all things—for in him all fulfillment was pleased to reside, and through him, to reconcile all things to him, making peace by the blood of his cross between what is on the earth and what is in the heavens.
This one is clearly modeled on the first part, but I think poorly executed. It reads more like Tychicus himself, leaning more heavily on verbs and participles. (To be fair, Paul usually modifies his creedal formulas anyways.) The parallels are obvious: hos estin … prōtotokos … hoti en autō … eite … eite, the parallelism of the heavens and the earth, plenty of prepositional phrases with autos, the use of pas and ta panta. But if the first half is the "cosmic Christ," the Creator manifest in person, this is something else. This is Christ crucified and risen, the beginning of the resurrection of the dead. This is, however clumsily put, the fulfillment of all things, the reconciliation of the whole creation in its parts and to God.

Compare and Contrast

It's clear in the first part that the heavens and the earth are a merism, as in Genesis, naming the two spheres of creation and hence the whole. But I wonder, in the second part, whether Tychicus has misunderstood this, taking instead the heavens as the place of deity and the earth as the place of humanity. Certainly both of those meanings are old and well-represented elsewhere. Perhaps it's a both-and.

Another key difference between the parts is that Tychicus has added a purpose clause to this form. The first part, the "cosmic Christ," has no need for purpose clauses. No verb there is done in order to achieve any proximate purpose. All is ultimate. All belongs to God, from beginning to end and in every spatial and temporal and organizational scope possible. The verbs there are eimi, "am," ktizō, "create" (2x), and sunhistēmi, "bring together/associate/unite." No helper verbs, no participles, nothing but active and passive indicatives. Everything is achieved. The Son's preeminence simply is. But in this second part, something had to be achieved. Tychicus gives us the subjunctive phrase hina genētai prōteuōn, "in order to become first." And not only to become first, but "to become first in all things," which the first part declares that he unambiguously already is.

The Son of the second part here is not the cosmic Christ, but the one who entered into the world, lived, and died on a cross. There is no atonement necessary in the first part, but this second part is all about atonement. It's about accomplishing something. Death on the cross and resurrection from the dead have a purpose. It may be said that they establish the preeminence of Christ—or perhaps better, of the human Jesus, as the one in whom the plērōma described in the first part of the hymn was pleased to dwell.

And that's the best sense I can make of a phrase that otherwise seems so very weird. We don't have pan to plērōma used as a euphemism for God anywhere else. However, if we say "all that fulfillment," by reference to the first part of the hymn here, suddenly we have a connection made between these very different parts. These are otherwise two very different messianic images. The first echoes the sentiments also found in Hebrews, the elevation of this messiah beyond his human life, the transformation of that life, death, and resurrection into an act in a larger cosmic drama, the insistence that the man Jesus really is God in flesh, and that being the Son of God really is the hermeneutic key to understanding the man Jesus in his proper context. The second, on the other hand, insists that the man Jesus is the proper context for understanding the work of the Son of God. That this glorious cosmic primogeniture is meaningless to us, "all this useless beauty," without the crucial fact that this man was born, lived, was killed, and was raised from the dead.

The cosmic Christ needs no bloody cross. That's the plain fact of the matter. He is the compass of the fulfillment of all things from beginning to end. The natural right of the Creator over creation simply exists in him. The beginning and end of all things in God simply exists in him. But all the same, there is a bloody cross, and a man on it whom we proclaim to be this same Christ. That, too, is the plain fact of the matter. That is the promise this Creator makes, in person. The signature upon the redemption of all things. The promise given in the paradigm of the resurrection from the dead, inaugurated by God experiencing and performing it in person.

We must insist that it is not a superfluous action. We cannot rest content with the first part, with the cosmic Christ seated above in primal ultimacy. We have no knowledge of that Christ. The Christ we know is the second one, the man Jesus who is the Son of the Father. Only as that man in temporal, creaturely reality do we know the first one, the Creator who becomes him. God for us. God for all. God the unity of all from beginning to end. God, on the cross, the reconciliation of all.


  1. *chuckles

    I wish I had your time and powers of concentration on minutiae. :-)


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