The Hymn of Colossians – the heresy

Thomas

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Colossians in context:

In Colossians St Paul addresses an emerging heresy in a church not of his founding. He wrote from Rome, where is was being held, around 60AD.

The 'problem' of Colossae was an assumption that in Paul's warning to the Colossians to beware a "hollow and deceptive philosophy" (2:8) signified an Hellenic philosophical sect. Based on this, Clement of Alexandria (ad 150-215) proposed that it was the Epicureans; Tertullian (ad 160-220) thought the same, and commentators have followed suit ever since. Neo-Platonic thought has also been proposed as the underlying problem at Colossae, as well as a mixture of Eastern and Western philosophy, but all on the basis that the term 'philosophy' applied to a Greek or Greek-influenced sect.

But from the text itself (2:8-23), scholars can deduce at least some if not the main elements of this heresy:
1 A denial that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Christ (2:9),
2 A denial that the Christian was complete in Christ (2:10).

In the case of the latter, it would seem that certain practices were being introduced as a means by which one might 'enhance' one's spiritual power. Paul alludes to:
1 Physical circumcision (verse 11),
2 The acknowledgement of 'principalities and powers' – a spiritual hierarchy (15),
3 Dietary restrictions – eating, drinking (16),
4 The observance of a cosmological calendar – new moons, sabbaths, etc. (16-17),
5 The practice of a false humility (18),
6 The worship of angels (18),
7 Ascetic restrictions (19-23).

The above points indicate that the heresy was not denying the value of Christianity nor was it endorsing a departure from the Church at Colossae, rather, the implication is of a denial of the adequacy of Christ (points 1 and 2), that more was required for salvation than faith alone, or more than what Christ had to offer. Paul's observation (2:18-19) that these teachers were "puffed up" and had "lost connection with the Head" tells us they were Christians, had they not been, Paul would have said simply that they had rejected Christ and dismissed them as unbelievers.

The teaching of circumcision signifies a teaching of Hebrew heritage. The Jewish philosopher Philo (10 b.c.-ad 50) wrote of “the philosophy of Moses” and also referred to Judaism as “the philosophy of our fathers” and as “Judaic philosophy”. Similarly, Josephus wrote of the three Jewish sects as “three philosophies” – three schools of philosophy. Likewise the worship of angels was neither Greek nor Phrygian, but a tenet of Judaism that had evolved since the exile. Angel worship developed in the Gnostic schools of the 2nd century (eg Cerinthus and Valentinus).

The idea seems to have been the Christian’s need to reach beyond Christ to a Supreme God through the mediation of angelic beings. The believers who sought to reach God directly or through one mediator, Christ, were presumptuous and needed a measure of self-abasement that would enable them to begin lower down on the scale. They could seek gradual completeness by invoking the mediation of lower, but more readily accessible, beings. This self-imposed humility, along with extreme physical ascesis, would enhance their spiritual capacity and the quest for completeness.

Paul's evaluation of the Colossian heresy was that it did not amount to true humility, but to a type of pride, the "appearance of wisdom" (2:23).

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed much light on an Hebraic gnosis practiced by the Essenes. Josephus’ description of the Essenes speaks of a non-Hebraic dualistic approach in the life of the Qumran community. They believed that "coming forth from the most rarefied ether they are trapped in the prison-house of the body ... but once freed from the bonds of the flesh, as if released after years of slavery, they rejoice and soar aloft" which runs contrary to orthodox Hebrew anthropology. (The Jewish War, p 374).

The Essene practiced a rigourous process of initiation and ongoing purification. The rule of the sect was preserved with great care, "and in the same way the names of the angels". An accidental touch or even a look could render the Essence impure. All secular conversation was forbidden, and the Essence was ever on the knife-edge of ritual impurity. Ascetic practice included abstinence from certain foods such as oil, meat and wine. Sabbath-keeping was the strictest possible. The Essenes avoided any physical pleasure, they prohibited marriage, the possession of wealth or property, even the changing of shoes and clothes.

It seems then, that the Collosian heresy was not Greek in origin, but at source Hebrew, Essenic, and essentially cosmological.

Thomas
 
Re: The Hymn of Colossians – the teaching #1

Colossians in context #1

In Colossians, Paul is asked to address an emerging heresy in a church not of his founding. Paul is a prisoner in Rome, somewhere round 60AD. Perhaps out of respect for Epaphras, Paul does not attack the heresy head-on, as we can see that when dealing with churches of his own founding, Corinth or Galatia, he cuts straight to the chase. Here, he is more circumspect, and before he counters the alien doctrine, he makes an unambiguous statement of Christian doctrine, which has intrigued scholars ever since.

The 'problem' of Colossae was an assumption that in Paul's warning to the Colossians to beware a "hollow and deceptive philosophy" (2:8) signified an Hellenic philosophical sect. Based on this, scholars looked for a solution that would involve an intrusion of Greek philosophy into OT practices (Colossians 2:16). Clement of Alexandria (ad 150-215) proposed that it was the Epicureans; Tertullian (ad 160-220) thought the same, and commentators have followed suit ever since. Neo-Platonic thought has also been proposed as the underlying problem at Colossae, as well as a mixture of Eastern and Western philosophy, but all on the basis that the term 'philosophy' applied to a Greek or Greek-influenced sect.

But from the text itself (2:8-23), we can deduce at least some if not the main elements of this heresy:
1 A denial that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Christ (2:9),
2 A denial that the Christian was complete in Christ (2:10).

In the case of the latter, it would seem that certain practices were being introduced as a means by which one might 'enhance' one's spiritual power. Paul alludes to:
1 Physical circumcision (verse 11),
2 The acknowledgement of 'principalities and powers' – a spiritual hierarchy (15),
3 Dietary restrictions – eating, drinking (16),
4 The observance of a cosmological calendar – new moons, sabbaths, etc. (16-17),
5 The practice of a false humility (18),
6 The worship of angels (18),
7 Ascetic restrictions (19-23).

The above points indicate that the heresy was not denying the value of Christianity nor was it endorsing a departure from the Church at Colossae, rather, the implication is of a denial of the adequacy of Christ (points 1 and 2), that more was required for salvation than faith alone, or more than what Christ had to offer. Paul's observation (2:18-19) that these teachers were "puffed up" and had "lost connection with the Head" tells us they were Christians, had they not been, Paul would have said simply that they had rejected Christ and dismissed them as unbelievers.

The teaching of circumcision signifies a teaching of Hebrew heritage. The Jewish philosopher Philo (10 b.c.-ad 50) wrote of “the philosophy of Moses” and also referred to Judaism as “the philosophy of our fathers” and as “Judaic philosophy”. Similarly, Josephus wrote of the three Jewish sects as “three philosophies” – three schools of philosophy. Likewise the worship of angels was neither Greek nor Phrygian, but a tenet of Judaism that had evolved since the exile. Angel worship developed in the Gnostic schools of the 2nd century (eg Cerinthus and Valentinus).

Paul's evaluation of the Colossian heresy was that it did not amount to true humility, but to a type of pride, the "appearance of wisdom" (2:23).

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed much light on an Hebraic gnosis practiced by the Essenes. The Essene practiced a rigourous process of initiation and ongoing purification. The rule of the sect was preserved with great care, "and in the same way the names of the angels". An accidental touch or even a look could render the Essence impure. All secular conversation was forbidden, and the Essence was ever on the knife-edge of ritual impurity. Ascetic practice included abstinence from certain foods such as oil, meat and wine. Sabbath-keeping was the strictest possible. The Essenes avoided any physical pleasure, they prohibited marriage, the possession of wealth or property, even the changing of shoes and clothes.


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St Paul's presentation of doctrine at Colossae is what scholars are coming to regard as an example of the use of hymnody to express the doctrine of Christ in the primitive church, although the structure matches neither Greek nor Hebrew forms. What is present is a rhythmical prose, with a strophic arrangement that is also found in much early Christian hymnody, as in Philippians 2:6-11.

The First Strophe (1:15-16)

He Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature:
For in him were all things created in heaven and on earth,
visible and invisible, whether thrones, or dominations, or principalities, or powers.
All things were created by him and in him.

This first strophe celebrates the role of Christ in creation, as the Wisdom of God.

In the wisdom literature of the OT, wisdom is the hypostasis of the Divine or of the Law, but the NT writers speak of Wisdom in personal terms, they consciously refer to One who is alive, one whose ministry on earth was still remembered by many. To all those writers, as to Paul, Christ was the personal (not personified) and incarnate Wisdom of God, who was before all creation, the preexistent Christ.

Such a view is manifest in the wisdom literature of the OT, in Philo of Alexandria, in Platonic-Pythagorean thought, in Iranian cosmology, and in Stoic concepts of the logos spermatikos and the logos endiathetos, the creative and sustaining reason. In the syncretism of late antiquity Iranian concepts of God becoming pregnant with the entire creation were combined with Orphic notions of the cosmos as the body of Zeus. The author of Colossians, in such a climate of opinion, finds it necessary to set things straight; hence he adds to the phrase kephale tou somatos (“head of the body”) the words tes ekklesias ("the church") in 1:18. He does a similar thing at the end of the second strophe (1:20), adding dia tou haimatos tou staurou autou ("by the blood of his cross"). Both additions connect the cosmic Christ with the historical and earthly church and Jesus.

God's creation, like His election, is accomplished "in Christ" and not apart from Him. When the preposition is changed, and creation is said to have taken place "through him", as it is at the end of verse 16, He is denoted as the Agent by whom God brought the universe into being. This is in line with the testimony of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which affirms that through the Son, God made the worlds (Heb. 1:2), and of the Fourth Gospel which states that "all things came into being through him [through the Logos, who is identified with the Son), and apart from him none of the things that exist came into being" (John 1:3).

This is to be distinguished from Philo's doctrine of the function of the logos in creation. It is easy to see affinities between Pauline language and Stoic terminology, but Paul's thought is derived not from Stoicism but from Genesis and the Old Testament wisdom literature, where wisdom is personified as the Creator's assessor and master-workman. However, for Paul, "master-workman" is no longer a figure of speech but a description of the actual role of the personal, preexistent Christ.

Thus Christ through whom the divine work of redemption has been accomplished (Col. 1:14) is the One through whom the divine act of creation was effected in the beginning. His mediatorial relation to the created universe provides a setting to the plan of salvation which helps his people appreciate the gospel all the more.

Probably with special reference to the "Colossian heresy" Paul then emphasized that if all things were created by Christ, then those powers for which such high claims were made in that heresy must have been created by Him. "Thrones, principalities, authorities, powers, and dominions" probably represent the highest orders of the spirit world, but the variety of ways in which the terms are combined in the New Testament warns against attempting to construct a fixed hierarchy from them. The point is that the most powerful angel princes, like the rest of creation, are subject to Christ as the One in whom, through whom, and for whom they were created.

tbc...
 
Re: The Hymn of Colossians – the teaching #2

The Transitional Link (1:17-18a)

And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.
And he is the head of the body, the church:

The teaching of the first strophe is recapitulated in a twofold reaffirmation of the preexistence and cosmic significance of Christ. The phrase "before all things" sums up the essence of His designation as "Firstborn before all creation" and excludes any possibility of interpreting that designation to mean that He Himself is part of the created order (albeit the first and chief part).

The statement "all things consist" adds something to what has been said about His agency in creation. What has been brought into being by Christ is maintained by being in Him. The idea has both Platonic and Stoic references. According to Philo, the material of the human body "consists" and is quickened as into flame by the providence of God. The Greek translator of Ben Sira, using a synonymous verb, says that by the Word of God "all things hold together" (Sir. 43:26).

Thus far the doctrine of Christ has been set forth in terms that Paul shares with other New Testament writers - terms which indeed may have belonged to a widely used Christian catechesis or confession, even if Paul stamped them here with the imprint of his own experience and thought. But now he went on to make a contribution to apostolic Christology which is distinctively his own. Christ, he wrote, is also "the Head of the body, the church."

It is widely supposed that in the original form of the hymn the 'body' was the 'kosmos'. Christ is certainly presented in this letter as Ruler of the kosmos, as Head, but when "Head" and "body" are used as correlative terms, as they are here in 1:18a, the physiological analogy is to the fore. Where the kosmos was viewed as a body, as in Stoicism, it is animated by the divine world-soul and not by a power functioning as head of the body. But if the identity of the church with the body of which Christ is the Head is implied or expressed in the original hymn, is Paul then dependent on an existing composition (a supposedly pre-Pauline hymn) for this insight? Whereas the portrayal of the church as the body of Christ appears in his earlier letters (cf. 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Rom. 12:4-5), the portrayal of Christ as Head of the body is found first in Colossians and Ephesians. It seems unlikely that this development of Paul's earlier thought first took shape in someone else's mind. More probably the hymn was composed within the circle of the Pauline churches, under the influence of Paul's own teaching.

The Second Strophe (1:18b-20)

who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all [things] he might have the preeminence.
For it pleased [the Father] that in him should all fulness dwell;
And, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, [I say], whether [they be] things in earth, or things in heaven.

As the first strophe celebrates Christ's role in the old creation, the second strophe celebrates His role in the new creation, especially with regard to His work of reconciliation. In relation to the old creation and the new He holds the rank of "Firstborn." The new creation is the resurrection order; over it, as over the old order, He is "the Beginning." He is not only "the Beginning" in whom heaven and earth were first created, but also by His rising from the dead He is proclaimed the One in whom men and women who died in the first Adam are "made alive" (1 Cor. 15:22).

His resurrection marked His victory over all the forces that held men and women in bondage. Now Christ is "the Firstborn among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29); He is "the Firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor. 15:20). He who has been "designated Son of God in power . . . by the resurrection of the dead" (Rom.1:4) exercises universal primacy; the divine purpose is thus fulfilled "that He should be preeminent in all things" (Col. 1:18). The fact that the designation "Firstborn from the dead" appears independently in Revelation 1:5 suggests that it may have had a wider currency in first-century Christianity.

In the following words of the hymn the statement that God has decreed the preeminence of Christ over every order of being, both in this age and in the coming age, is repeated in different terms. These terms may have been calculated to appeal with peculiar force to the Colossian Christians in their present situation.

The meaning of 'fullness' Gk: pleroma, in this sentence must be examined and determined. So far as Paul's intention is concerned, its sense is scarcely in doubt; it is repeated more fully in Colossians 2:9: "It is in Him [i.e., Christ] that all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form." If, then, Colossians 1:19 is construed to mean that "in Him all fullness of deity was well pleased to take up residence" this is tantamount to saying that God Himself, in all His fullness, was pleased to dwell in Him. No substantial difference exists, then, in meaning between the two constructions.

This leaves open the possibility that in the original hymn, if it were an independently existing composition, the sentence had a different meaning from what has been placed on it by its being incorporated into the argument of this letter. But one should ask for evidence that the original meaning was different, before accepting that it was so; and such evidence is hard to obtain.

The word pleroma had a special sense (or senses) in Gnostic terminology, but it does not follow that the present occurrence originally bore that special sense (or senses). The word is used by Paul and other New Testament writers in a variety of senses. Conceivably it may have been used in a technical sense by the false teachers at Colossae, and there may be some allusion to that technical sense here; but nothing can be established as a matter of fact on the bare ground of its being conceivable.

In the mid-second century the Valentinians used pleroma to denote the totality of aeons (divine entities or emanations), and the word may have borne some such meaning in incipient forms of Gnosticism in the mid-first century. But it is necessary to insist no information on the Colossian heresy is known apart from inferences drawn as cautiously as possible from the argument and wording of this letter. It would make sense — one can say no more than that — if the Colossian heresy thought of a hierarchy of powers among which the divine fullness was distributed and which occupied the intermediate realm between the supreme God and the world of humanity.

In that situation, any communication between God and the world, in either direction, would have had to pass through the spheres in which those powers exercised control. Those who thought in this way would see the point of treating such powers with due respect. The nature of the Colossian heresy is the subject of the next article in this series, but if it was anything like this, then it is undermined in one simple affirmation: the totality of the divine essence and power is resident in Christ. Christ is the One and all-sufficient Intermediary between God and the world of humanity, and all the attributes of God are disclosed in Him. There is no good reason to suppose that the hymn at any stage bore a different meaning from what it bears in the context of the Letter to the Colossians.

It was God's good pleasure, moreover, to "reconcile all things to Himself" through Christ. The fullness of divine energy is manifested in Him in the work of reconciliation as well as in that of creation. In the words that follow in Colossians 1 this reconciling activity is applied particularly to redeemed humanity, but first its universal aspect comes into view. In reconciliation as in creation the work of Christ has a cosmic significance; it is God's eternal purpose (as stated in Eph. 1:10) that all things should be summed up in Him.

If "all things" (both in heaven and on earth) were created through Him, and yet "all things" (whether on earth or in heaven) are to be reconciled to God through Him, it follows that "all things" have been estranged from their Creator. Paul had spoken of the creation as involuntarily "subjected to futility" but also as destined to "be set free from its bondage to decay and to "obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:20-21). Since the liberty of the children of God is procured by the redemptive work of Christ, the release of creation from its bondage to decay is assured by that same redemptive work.

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Scholars have noted that the Apostle of Tarsus seems to have been easily familiar with the Greek philosophical method. His use of dialogical form of argumentation reveal that he knew the themes of its discourse. His use of concepts such as “inner man” (Rom. 7:22; 2 Cor. 4:16) and “self‐sufficiency” (2 Cor. 9:8; Phil. 4:11), along with his fondness for body imagery (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12) reveal that he also knew the terminology of its discourse well and was comfortable using it.

The similarities between Paul’s letters and the writings of the great Stoic philosopher Seneca convinced many in the early church, in fact, that Seneca must have been a convert to Christianity and a disciple of Paul. This belief gave rise to a series of spurious letters between Paul and Seneca, which many early Christians regarded as genuine. No wonder that one Pauline scholar remarks, “Paul’s practice of deliberately using Stoic themes in redefined ways is an early Christian attempt at crosscultural communication.”

What is important to note is that in the larger historical context of Paul’s letters and preaching there does not seem to be a necessary contradiction or conflict between the gospel and philosophy itself. Paul seems, rather, to acknowledge philosophical concepts and language and to use them to further the gospel.

Thomas
 
I should say (obviously) that much of this is research from varied sources, rather than the fruit of my own contemplations, although the Hymn of Colossians is one of my favourite texts, so thanks for the encouragement, but allow me to accept it in the spirit of 'orthodox theology is not a wasted pursuit' ...

... what has come out is the relation of Stoic thought to Christian doctrine. I had a vague notion of the St Paul/Seneca 'connection', which recalls a similar idea that Plato must have read Moses ... (I do not hold to either).

There is some evidence (eg, Jean Danielou) that there were close links between the Essences and the Christians, many of the former converting, and that St Paul was actually instructed by Christian converts from the Essenes after his conversion experience.

... in which case there would be an interesting debate between those who see St Paul as the father of 'churchianity' one the one hand and the Essenes as exemplars of a 'true Christianity' on the other. What is emerging is some evidence to suggest that the early church adopted an Essenic ecclesiastical model for its administrative structure ... the negative aspects of St Paul are Essene in principle ...

One speculation might be that the Collosae Church adopted this Essenic admin structure, and in so doing allowed Essene administrators to start telling the people what to do according to their idea, rather than according to the Christian method.

Danielou has suggested The Epistle to the Hebrews (not written by St Paul) was addressing an Essene audience, and that John was aware of them also ... if so then it would seem both were using Greek philosophy to argue the case against certain aspects of extreme Essenism ... the Stoic idea of the Logos would provide much contextual detail in arguing against dualism.

Thomas
 
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