Friday, March 24, 2017

The Colossal Impact of Colossians

The Apostle Paul   5-67 CE
            In a survey of roughly 100 attendees at the 2011 British New Testament Conference in Nottingham, England. Only 51% felt Colossians was actually written by the apostle Paul.1 Split right down the middle. Clearly nothing is certain, yet I find the debate makes an impact on my approach to the text. Epistles like Romans, 1 Thessalonians, etc., texts which scholars do not debate their authenticity, these somehow seem easier. Attempting to discern a document that is a 50/50 toss up regarding authenticity forces me to conclude the possibility of an agenda in the true author’s intent, should it not be Paul himself. It places a coating over the entire text for me. That is not to say it doesn’t have its value, both sociological as well as theological. But it asks me to read between the lines and to my heart when examining them.
This becomes especially problematic for me considering the Christological importance of the Epistle to the Colossians. It is particularly defining of Jesus as consubstantial2 with God which the later Council of Nicea, nearly 300 years hence, would advocate to the level of theological pissing contest. So the Christology of Colossians challenges me and I take it with a grain of salt.
Whoever did write Colossians, however, was clearly desirous of thwarting movements such as the “Colossian Philosophy” within Christianity as well as other traditions that seek to remove the intermediary between humanity and God. Scholars have proposed Gnosticism, mysticism, “visionary experiences involving angelic worship,” and the promotion of spiritual wisdom to be the undercurrent of this “heretical” Colossian philosophy of the day.3 Paul’s (or Pseudo Paul’s) retort to this is, No. “Christ is all, and is in all.” In other words, you can’t get there from here. Christ is God, ergo Christ is the only pathway to God.
Colossians describes Christ as “the head of the body, the church,” the “firstborn of all creation,” “not begotten.” It elevates Jesus to the deity we have since defined him to be, for better or worse. To me, this disproportionate emphasis on Jesus-as-God—whether or not it be true—has caused confusion and subversion of Christ’s salvific teachings. The teachings are physically evident. But there has been placed an unnecessary level of importance on elements of the sacred story which are arguable at best, namely the value of the cross being Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than Luke’s description of remarkable forgiveness while still living (23:34). It is not a spiritual opinion that Jesus practiced forgiveness. These teachings are recorded. That he saved humanity in the cosmic realm by dying on earth has no practical value and is commentary by comparison, as insulting to believers as that may sound.
If the epistle has been written by a subsequent follower of Paul, rather than Paul himself, who felt Paul’s teachings about Christ needed a bit more emphasis on the consubstantial, the text becomes a manipulation of the understanding of the person of Christ to the degree that later debates would be entirely underpinned by it. If it is truly Paul, however, then what? Did Paul suddenly need a bigger argument in favor of it? Did he suddenly need a greater level of licensing authority to testify on God’s behalf? Was this simply the next level of rhetorical weaponry needed to combat the individualism of faith?
I wonder why Paul felt it was even necessary to extrapolate the celestial origins of Christ in the first place. In hindsight I resent it for all the theological power struggles it has created since the very beginning; subverting and even weaponizing the love of Christ for its own political ends.
I hope the Epistle to the Colossians was not Paul. In my heart it cannot be.
It is important to say, since I have dared to boldly editorialize in the first place, I do not deny the Resurrection, nor the miracles, nor even the possibility that Jesus was consubstantial with God. All I am saying is that I can have no earthly idea about their reality and to spend my time conjecturing the Cosmos when I could be doing the work of Christ seems a pitiful waste of breath.

1. 100% maintained that Paul wrote Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, Galatians, and 1 Thessalonians.
99% agree that he wrote Philippians and Philemon;
57% 2 Thessalonians;
36% Ephesians;
24% 2 Timothy;
23% Titus;
21% 1 Timothy;
0% Hebrews.”
 (Paul Foster, “Who Wrote 2 Thessalonians? A Fresh Look at an Old Problem,” JSNT 35 (2012):150-75 (on 170-71)).

2. Consubstantial in this usage is the term used to refer to Jesus as being of the same substance as God, or that Jesus is God. This is the view of the Trinity. The opposite view is that God and Jesus are not the same being, which the Council of Nicea in 325 CE voted against in favor of Jesus being consubstantial with God.

3. Bruce W. Longenecker and Todd D. Still. Thinking Through Paul: A Survey of His Life, Letters, and Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, 223-4

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