Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Col 1

Col 1:13-20: For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Christology is a major concern of Colossians. The Colossians’ fascination with or perhaps anxiety over ‘the powers’ was threatening to dethrone Christ as Lord of all. Thus, the letter was written to put ‘the powers’ in proper perspective and to argue for Christ’s absolute supremacy. A christological high point is found in the hymn-like passage 1:15-20, which looks like a further elaboration of the content of 1 Cor 8:6b: vv. 15-17 expands ‘through whom all things’, while vv. 18-20 elaborates on ‘we through him’. The basic movement of the passage is fairly clear. As Dunn notes, “from Christ’s (pre-existent) role in creation (first strophe) to his role in redemption (second strophe), from his relationship with the old creation (protology) to his relationship with the new (eschatology).” Indeed, although the hymn praises the exalted Son, the phrases ‘in him’ and ‘through him’ (1:16) leave “little doubt that a role in the original creation of the cosmos is attributed to God’s Son”. However, Dunn objects to reading this “imaginative metaphor in a pedantically literal way”, for assigning a real role in creation to the pre-existent Christ would constitute ditheism in his view. Instead,

“It must mean rather that the powerful action of God, expressed by the metaphor of the female Wisdom, in and through whom the universe came into being, is now to be seen as embodied in Christ, its character now made clear by the light of his cross and resurrection (1:18, 20).”

Again, according to Dunn’s construal, it is only Wisdom’s ideal pre-existence which is attributed to the Son. Yet, this suffers the same problems as his earlier analysis of 1 Cor 8:6 regarding both what constituted monotheism and how wisdom traditions may be applied to new situations. For instance, responding to Dunn, Schnabel states that “Paul asserts in Col. 1:16a that the act of creation (aorist ektisthē) depended causally on Christ—an assertion which does not make sense if Christ was not present at creation.” In other words, 1:16 entails the personal agency of the pre-existent Son. Thus, a solely, ideal pre-existence is inadequate. This is corroborated by the statement that the Son is ‘before all things’ (1:17), which connotes temporal priority to creation as well as pre-eminence over it. Further, a good case can be made that Wisdom is not in view in this passage either, for as Dunn acknowledges, εἰς (1:16; final causation) is not applied to wisdom in the tradition and so his straightforward identification of Christ with Wisdom is somewhat fragile. In fact, ties to Israel’s story of covenant and redemption are both explicit and closer than the alleged allusions to wisdom traditions. For example, ‘image of the invisible God’ picks up Gen 1: “The pre-existent lord of the world has become the human lord of the world, and in so doing has reflected fully… the God whose human image he has now come to bear.” (Wright) Further, as Keay argues, while ‘firstborn’ can refer to birth order, as Israel’s covenantal history progresses this meaning fades in significance, while the sense of ‘birth right’ which emphasizes special status, gains in importance. Eventually, this would centre on the promised Davidic king, so that in Col 1 we should understand ‘firstborn’ to connote a special kind of pre-eminence: messianic pre-eminence. Finally, the Son also holds all things together (1:17). Thus, in order to highlight Christ’s supremacy, Col 1:15-20 emphasizes that the Son is the eternal, pre-existent creator, the incarnate, messianic redeemer, and the sustainer of the universe. As such, the overall result is a letter in which Christ, the Son of God and exalted Lord, is absolutely preeminent – past, present, and future. And it is this pre-existent Son who was sent to rescue fallen humanity.

Up next: Gal 4:4-6; Rom 8:3-4. Series Link.


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2 Responses to “Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Col 1”

  1. Pre-existence of the Son in Paul? Conclusion « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] of the Son in Paul? Conclusion By Jonathan After analyzing the major texts (Phil 2; 1 Cor 8; Col 1; Gal 4/Rom 8; 1 Cor 10), it is clear that Paul manifestly did present a pre-existence Christology. […]

  2. Pre-existence of the Son of God in Paul? Series Link « Introspective Cogitations Says:

    […] Phil 2; 1 Cor 8; Col 1; Gal 4/Rom 8; 1 Cor 10; […]

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