And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. (Colossians 1: 17)
Many years ago I remember visiting a church in Stone – probably for an Archdeacon’s visitation – and noticing a banner with some rather dubious Trinitarian needlework. Someone had attempted to depict the Holy Trinity by stitching three circles to the back cloth, but without taking the trouble to link them so that the result was a tritheistic depiction of the Godhead – the sort of thing that Jews and Moslems accuse Christians of believing in. I may have mentioned before that my home town – not a million miles away from Stone – was the last place in England to burn someone at the stake for heresy. Tempting as it was, I thought it would be presumptuous to attempt to carry on the tradition in someone else’s parish so I put it to the back of my mind and concentrated instead on the words of wisdom emanating from the Archdeacon. Actually, I can’t remember any of it so I will give him the benefit of the doubt – and he was a very nice Archdeacon anyway!
St. Paul had noticed much earlier in the Church’s history the dubious teaching emanating from Colossae and part of the purpose of the letter which has survived to be included in the New Testament was to correct the errors. The nature of the ‘Colossian heresy’ is a matter for scholarly debate, but it seemed to centre around a teaching which defined matter as the origin of evil – a position which would have been similar to that taken by the Gnostics and which in practice tended to separate the physical from the spiritual and God from his creation, both things which Christian teaching, being rooted in the incarnation and therefore in Jesus’ divinity and humanity, found unsatisfactory if not abhorrent.
Courtesy of the Holy Spirit, working through St. Paul and his successors, we have inherited sound formulae to help us to understand who God is and to give us a way of describing him. We can be content with our creeds and with the Chalcedonian definition of Christ’s nature knowing that when we subscribe to them we are being orthodox Christians. For the Apostle, Christian doctrine was in its infancy, but through his teaching he was working hard and effectively to define what disciples of Jesus should legitimately believe, both for the glory of God – which is what orthodoxy means – and for their own salvation.
In order to express his understanding of Jesus, St. Paul used messianic theology and the contemporary understanding of ‘lordship’. For Jews, the messiah was the one anointed by God to be his representative and to initiate his work of salvation. To a lesser extent this could be applied to the king, but would apply par excellence to the Son of Man when he came. Christians added a sacrificial element to this idea based on the ‘Suffering Servant’ passages in Isaiah (52: 13f) which were seen as a prophecy referring to Jesus. In this interpretation the anointed one, the king, is also the one who suffers and offers himself as a sacrifice. It is worth re-reading the familiar passage in Philippians 2 to understand how St. Paul brings these ideas together.
In Colossians, St. Paul tackles the meaning and status of Jesus. He asks the critical question, ‘who is he in relation to the cosmos?’ He is not content just to describe Jesus as the son of Mary, a Jew, a resident of Palestine in the time of the Roman occupation, a teacher, a prophet, a martyr. The Apostle is reaching further and searching deeper for the truth so that he can relate Jesus of Nazareth to God and his creation. This is the ultimate question. To answer it he uses Alexandrian logos philosophy as does St. John in the prologue to his gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1: 1)
Jesus is the ‘Logos’ in Greek, the ‘Word’ of God who is the means of divine disclosure to the world and the agent of divine activity. Made flesh, this Jesus is not only the agent of creation, but also the intermediary between the Creator and the created.
The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1: 2-3)
The author of Hebrews makes comparable points:
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power… (Hebrews 1: 1-3)
as does the Book of Revelation:
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty. (Revelation 1: 8)
The Christ is the omnipotent one, the Lord of Hosts. As a footnote it is worth noting that all of these quotations come from the beginning of the work. The authors do not come to a grudging or tentative conclusion after much pondering and meandering - they know the truth and state it: Jesus is Lord.
At no point does St. Paul engage in idle speculation. Instead he immediately applies his understanding for the benefit of his readers. Jesus is the head of the Church which St. Paul, by analogy, describes as his body (v.18) and he is the agent of salvation through the blood of the cross. It is fitting that the one who is Alpha and Omega should be both the agent of creation and the agent of salvation. This is what the truth means and to accept it as such is to give glory to God – to be orthodox.
St. Paul took a risk in preaching these things. His fellow Jews did not see Jesus as the messiah. The Romans did not recognise Jesus as king. The Apostle’s claims were scandalous and foolish (1 Corinthians 1: 23). Outside Christendom they still are. Despite the comfort that the message brings many do not accept it. Increasingly in the West St. Paul’s words are no longer seen as true. Either they are just one truth amongst many or are not true at all. At worst those who declare their allegiance to the truth are seen not just as foolish, but as evil. It is one of the great tragedies of our age that the message of comfort and hope causes such offense. Our Lord saw this when he spoke of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: the action of calling evil or false that which is good and true.
God’s truth is clearly stated in the scriptures and in the teaching of the Church, not least in the creeds and associated statements of belief. It may seem strange to some that we rehearse these declarations of faith liturgically – they are not necessarily exciting even if some of us find them inspiring. We can counter by stating that we are declaring the truth – not just as an idea, but as a person. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It is the purpose of the creeds (and the other parts of the liturgy) to enable us to express that and to proclaim it. We may not always get it right. Depicting God as three Polo mints simply will not do, but to say a creed and to mean it is to lay a firm foundation for understanding truth and the faith which is its just response.
Father Andrew Burton SSC
7th February 2021
Image by Kelly Kiernan on Unsplash