Commentary on Colossians 2:6-15 [16-19]
Re-thinking, re-imagining, and even re-casting our ideas about who God is, apparently, nothing new.
As Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) put it, “Christ didn’t come to Earth to give us the willies… He came to help us out. He was a booster. And it is with that take on our Lord in mind that we’ve come up with a new, more inspiring sigil. … I give you… The Buddy Christ. … Doesn’t it…pop?”1
This (or something like it) is what seems to be at issue in the Colossian church. There are some whose understanding of who Jesus is and what Jesus means for us is in conflict with the Colossian Christology as expressed in the Christ-hymn of 1:15-20. This part of Colossians urges the listener/reader to “continue,” “be rooted in,” and “abound” in Christ, and this in a particular way, “as you were taught” (2:7).
Two very different ideas, or worldviews, are presented as rivals. On the one hand there is “philosophy” which is characterized as “empty deceit,” locked in the jaws of “human tradition” (2:8). On the other hand there is the “true word of the gospel” (1:5), “the knowledge of God” and “spiritual wisdom and understanding” (1:9). These competing worldviews might be paired up as three opposites:
philosophy true word of the gospel
empty deceit knowledge of God
human tradition spiritual wisdom and understanding
If your college philosophy course was anything like mine (If God is the source of all things, then it stands to reason that God is in all things, and if God is in all things then God is in this chair, this table…Yuck.), you might be inclined to take Colossians and run with it, but with the exception of the middle pair these are not necessarily diametric opposites. What they are is different.
Philosophy is not gospel, nor are human traditions–even (and maybe especially) religious, church-related traditions–the same thing as spiritual wisdom or understanding. Still, philosophy and the gospel need not be in opposition; nor are human traditions in and of themselves hurdles to wisdom and understanding. When philosophy attacks the gospel, or human tradition becomes a burden to faith (cf. Colossians 2:16-19) they must be set aside, but when they serve the church and the proclamation of the gospel they may be embraced (to put this in terms familiar to Lutherans, this is the question of adiaphora). It is only deceit and the knowledge of God which are in pure opposition of each other.
The tension in Colossians lies in what the governing influence in one’s life is. The headings above these two series of “opposites” might be, on the left, “the elemental spirits of the universe” and on the right “the Christ,” and it is here that the real tension comes to the fore. Does one orient faith and daily living according to:
the elemental spirits the whole fullness of
of the universe(1:8) OR deity which is in Christ
philosophy true word of the gospel
empty deceit knowledge of God
human tradition spiritual wisdom and
At the risk of over simplifying these two “camps,” what we have here is not so much the tension of extreme opposites as a question of priorities. The word translated as “elemental spirits,” stoicheion in Greek, is used in the New Testament for the major forces which contend with God and the gospel (cf. 2 Peter 3:10, 12), but more often it is used to summarize the basics, the simplest parts of something (cf. Hebrews 5:12, “the basic elements of the oracles of God”; Galatians 4:9, “how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits?”); this is how the word stoicheion is employed in Greek mathematics, these are sequences, steps, ordered things.
What Colossians maintains here is a higher Christology. The basics of life–philosophical reflection, human traditions–are not to take the place of the gospel. The basics of life are, in the big picture, an empty deceit compared to the fullness of God which is revealed to us in Christ Jesus. Theology was once considered the “queen of the sciences,” a stance which Colossians maintains.
There may be any number of points of contact for us as we preach Colossians 2. Each congregation will have its own issues which might threaten the primacy of the gospel. I will offer two possibilities, two mismatched examples of philosophy/human tradition which vie with the gospel according to Colossians.
1. Other Gospels
I often joke in my college Bible courses that if I had been thinking straight, I would have studied the Gospels of Peter, or Mary Magdalene, or Judas, instead of the Old and New Testaments. The money is a lot better there these days. The Gnostic “Gospels” are big business; they present alternate views of Jesus which are characterized as “silenced voices” of the early church, misrepresented, under-represented, and marginalized. But these alternative views of Jesus, these other Christologies, other so-called-gospels, are not simply “other,” they are opposite to the gospel of Colossians, or Romans, or Mark. They reduce Jesus to something less than “the fullness of deity” dwelling bodily in Christ. Other gospels are just this, other, and when compared to the biblical gospel, they are empty deceits.
2. Who is buried in Lincoln’s Tomb? What is nailed to the cross and who nailed it there?
These are not trick questions, but the answer given is often wrong. For Colossians it is not our actions which nail Jesus to the cross, as if our sins are daily acts of re-crucifixion. Nor is it even the powers of this world which crucify the Christ. Colossians is much more Johannine is this sense. It is Jesus who takes our sin–our trespasses, our uncircumcision, the record which stands against us (2:13-14)–and he nails them to the cross. To make of the cross and Christ’s death upon it anything other is, again, a reduction of gospel truth to empty deceit.
What the movie Dogma gets at, albeit somewhat sacrilegiously (and perhaps unintentionally), is a problem the church faces in every generation, and apparently faced in its first generation. There are some, even within the church, who think it would be more convenient or better or more attractive or less offensive or less of a burden if God and/or Jesus looked different.
To quote Cardinal Carlin again, “People find the Bible obtuse…even hokey. … For example, the crucifix. While it has been a time honored symbol of our faith, Holy Mother Church has decided to retire this highly recognizable, yet wholly depressing image of our Lord crucified.”2
Colossians 2 exhorts us to remain steadfast in the gospel which we have been taught. Will we, like Esau, chase after potage and ignore our birthright? Will we pursue an imaginary renewed cultural relevancy through a re-imaging Jesus? Or will we continue to live our lives, build our churches, and make our proclamation as we have received it, “rooted, built up, established in the faith” of Christ Jesus, in whom the whole fullness of God dwells, and in whom we too have our fullness?
1Dogma, Dir. Kevin Smith, Lions Gate Entertainment, 1999.