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Persecution, Heresies, Prison
a.d. 60 – a.d. 68
Paul’s Letter to the Colossians
a.d. 60 – 61
by Paul, under house arrest, from Rome
41. Paul Under Arrest—An Inspired Mind Takes Flight
Paul’s letters can roughly be organized into two major chronological groupings—the early letters (49-57) which are those we have considered up till now, and his final writings, usually called the prison and pastoral epistles.
After writing to the Romans from Corinth at the midpoint of his third missionary journey (56-57), the cumulative effect of his return to Jerusalem, then Caesarea, his imprisonment and trial, then his voyage to Rome to stand trial before Caesar, seems to have taken most of Paul’s time and energy. He is not heard from again by letter for three or four years. Finally reaching Rome, however, he was placed under “house arrest,” a soldier guarding him but otherwise with reasonable freedom. Many believers as well as high-ranking Romans came to him there and he preached and taught freely. One wonders if his guard became a Christian. Talk about a captive audience! This two year period (roughly from 60 to 62) is called Paul’s “first Roman imprisonment.” It is at this point, while Paul is apparently awaiting an audience with Caesar, that Luke’s account in the book of Acts ends. During this time Paul wrote his four prison letters—Colossians, Philemon, Ephesians, and Philippians. Their order of writing is unknown and, brief as they are, they come almost as a single group.
There are abundant theories supporting a belief that the captivity epistles were written all or in part from Ephesus, Philippi, or Caesarea. Though numerous arguments are brought to bear for and against each of these possibilities, none of them are widely embraced by either liberal or conservative scholars. It therefore seems unfruitful to go into detail discussing them. It is one of those scriptural tangents (like the “north Galatian” and “south Galatian” theories underlying the writing of Galatians) that are interesting but in the end accomplish little to further our practical understanding of the truth God has for us to glean from these letters. The one exception is the possibility that Philippians was written during an earlier imprisonment at Ephesus, which does have fairly widespread (though minority) support. If anyone is passionately interested in pursuing these captivity theories, most commentaries will be helpful. I make that suggestion with the greatest respect for anyone who might have such an interest. I am positively fascinated with many scriptural tangents which I realize have little practical value. But I am interested and intrigued, so I study them. I make no mention of many of these areas of interest and speculation in these Introductions and Supplements because I recognize them as my own private areas of interest. We all have them. Some are of more universal application than others.
the different tone of the captivity epistles
The order in which Paul’s letters were originally placed in the New Testament canon probably had more to do with length than anything—longest to shortest. From Romans—considered by some Paul’s seminal theological epistle and the obvious starting point—all the way down to Philemon of a mere twenty-five verses, this progression, while not absolute (the two letters to Timothy are longer than the two to the Thessalonians), can clearly be seen. In this light, memorizing the order of New Testament books is almost like an exercise in learning the A-B-Cs. My brain rattles off the Galatians-Ephesians-Philippians-Colossians sequence as automatically it does L-M-N-O-P (éleménopy) and Q-R-S-T-U-V.
But as we have been discovering in our readings, these artificial sequences do not always convey an accurate story. Matthew’s preeminence as the inaugural New Testament book obscured for centuries the historically important fact that Mark was actually written first.
Nowhere is the limitation of sequence more significant than in the consideration of these next four “captivity epistles” we will consider which in a sense form the middle strengthening dynamic that holds the Pauline corpus together. In Romans and the two Corinthian letters we have Paul’s three long epistles. At the end of the list we have his final six short letters—the Thessalonian and Timothy letters, followed by Titus and Philemon. Binding them together at the center, providing the theological triangular strength for the whole, are the four letters of approximately equal medium length—Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians.
We thus tend to think of these four as a unit, each contributing major elements to the overall doctrine of the developing first century church. At least that is how I have been accustomed to think of them. And as a unit, Galatians—coming first both historically and in the canon, the longest of these middle books, representing the foundation of Martin Luther’s personal revelation concerning justification by faith, and thus also representing the scriptural foundation for the Reformation—is often viewed as the most pivotally central of the four.
This may, however, be a mistaken evaluation. Galatians, indeed, as Paul’s first written letter, ought to precede even Romans chronologically. Were I ordering Paul’s letters in a sequence of importance, I would not link Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians with Galatians at all, but would reserve them for the denouement, for the very end, as the culminating group bookend of a life preserved in writings that began somewhat unevenly with Galatians, Paul’s flesh hanging out for all to see, and climaxed years later with these three towering books that magnificently illuminate the Christian faith.
In the twelve to fourteen years that have passed between the incident at Antioch and the writing of Galatians in the late 40s and the prison letters of Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians of the early 60s, much has changed in the infant church. But it is Paul who has changed most of all. In Galatians we see him estranged from Peter, estranged from Barnabas, estranged from Mark, full of his own self-importance as an apostle, protesting too much, angry, sarcastic, publicly rebuking toward Jesus’ best friend Peter and brother James, showing little or no humility toward his elders in spiritual leadership (and actually boasting about that fact—Galatians 2:6), openly referring to them all as hypocrites, including Barnabas to whom he owed everything, possibly including his very life, in the early weeks and months after his conversion. Now, a dozen years after the writing of Galatians, under arrest in Rome, these relationships have been healed, Mark is with him again as one of his closest and most trusted companions, and the words that now flow from his pen ring with a far more mature tone. They are not “perfect” letters, nor has Paul yet shed all elements of self-importance and self-preoccupation. He is still possessive of his apostleship, still telling his readers to imitate him, still boastful (surely this must be his thorn in the flesh). Yet these ongoing human frailties and failings (minor compared to my own, and I have been at it far longer than Paul!) are tempered by a gentler spirit, and a mind and heart responsive and in tune with lofty themes of enormous eternal import.
In observing this growth of a living, breathing human man, we begin to appreciate, in a sense, the glory of who Paul truly was. C.S. Lewis puts it beautifully in comparing the elusiveness of Paul’s teaching to that of his Master:
“It may be indispensable that our Lord’s teaching, by that elusiveness (to our systematizing intellect), should demand a response from the whole man, should make it so clear that there is no question of learning a subject but of steeping ourselves in a Personality, acquiring a new outlook and temper, breathing a new atmosphere…So in St. Paul…The crabbedness, the appearance of inconsequence and even sophistry [false reasonings, fallacious arguments, plausible but misleading arguments—MP], the turbulent mixture of petty detail, personal complaint, practical advice, and lyrical rapture, finally let through what matters more than ideas—a whole Christian life in operation—better say, Christ Himself operating in a man’s life.” (Reflection on the Psalms, ch. 11)
My heart rejoices when I read in the opening words of Philippians (the high water mark, the crowning epistle from Paul’s hand) to hear Paul following James’ example and calling himself a servant. Scarce wonder that now he is at last ready to step up to the very apex of his wisdom as God’s man and a communicator of God’s eternal truth.
The three longer of the prison letters present three very focused and memorable messages:
Colossians—The eternal nature of Christ as the full embodiment of God.
Ephesians—Growth into Christlikeness as evidence of the unity inherent in our faith.
Philippians—Joy and the high call of God, which is universal acknowledgment of Christ’s lordship.
backgrounds and relationships
No one knows the order in which the four prison letters were written. Colossians, Philemon, and Ephesians, however, contain an interwoven relationship with one another that will explain why I present them in this order. In considering the intricate connections between them, The New Bible Commentary: Revised notes: “Both letters [Colossians and Philemon] belong to the same time of composition: Ephesians is best regarded as the last letter in the group of imprisonment Epistles.” (p. 1106)
Philippians is a separate entity. It is linked with the others only by timing not circumstance or content. Indeed, its difference from the others, and its reference to earlier issues (such as the Judaizing controversy) has led some scholars to place Philippians earlier in Paul’s life, during a different imprisonment altogether. Because I consider Philippians the summit, the mountain peak, the crown jewel of Paul’s written corpus and one of the most important books of the New Testament, notwithstanding the above quote, we will reserve it for the last of the four.
Whereas Philippians reads to some scholars as belonging to an earlier period, the language and themes of Colossians and Ephesians ring to many experts with a tone suggesting a much later period—as late as the second century. This has led to a long history of doubt about their Pauline authorship. It is thought that the undefined heresy being addressed by the author of Colossians is Gnosticism, which was not fully developed as a threat in the Church until the second century. Curiously, however, the most persistent and strenuous doubts about authorship center around Ephesians, not Colossians. Though the language and content is noticeably advanced and different from anything else found in Paul’s writing, the close connection between Colossians and Philemon, the specific circumstances spoken of, and the overlap of individuals mentioned, all contribute to a widespread acceptance of Colossians as genuine from the very earliest days of the Church.
In brief the situation prompting the writing of Colossians is as follows:
During Paul’s ministry in Ephesus years before, a man by the name of Epaphras had been converted. He had then carried the gospel message to Colossae. Acts 19:10 is often referenced as offering a glimpse into this process. A church of believers, obviously mostly comprised of Gentiles, had sprung up in Colossae, as was happening in cities and towns everywhere. Perhaps also as a result of the efforts of Epaphras or others who heard Paul’s preaching in Ephesus, Christian congregations were also growing in Laodicea and Hierapolis. The three cities were very near one another, both inland about a hundred miles directly east from Ephesus. Colossae was the smallest and least important of the three.
During Paul’s imprisonment, Epaphras came to visit with news apparently of two kinds. First he tells Paul of the Colossians’ faith and love in the Spirit. His general report of the health of the church is favorable. Secondly, however, though it is not stated directly, the chief occasion of Epaphras’ visit seems to be his concern about false teachers of some kind who were circulating in the area. He must have considered the situation serious because obviously it was a long trip. It is believed as well that he might even have had to give himself up to imprisonment with Paul in order to complete his mission (in Philemon Paul calls Epaphras his “fellow prisoner.”) Obviously, then, he thought the threat grave enough to pay the high price of going to see Paul personally in Rome.
Paul’s letter of response was thus to combat what is commonly called “the Colossian heresy.” Of course Paul’s statement in Col. 2:8 may simply be a general exhortation to watchfulness. Indeed, the entire idea that there was a “heresy” circulating in Colossae must be inferred from between the lines of Paul’s response. It could be that Paul was merely using Epaphras’ visit to write a letter of greetings to the Colossians and taking the opportunity to illuminate the character of Christ more fully. It is generally thought, however, that there was more to it than that. The exact nature of the false teachings being spread about is unknown. Most scholars conclude the threat to have been an early form of Gnosticism.
42. The Gnostic Threat
Gnosticism as a specific “Christian” philosophy or heresy had not begun to develop by the year 60 when Paul wrote Colossians. For this reason, as noted above, some date the letter much later. In any event, we can all be grateful, whatever the exact circumstances, for Paul’s response. Because in Colossians we have his most thorough and spiritually stimulating articulation of the character and nature of Jesus Christ. As I read Colossians 1 and 2, I hear striking echoes of the first chapter of John’s gospel. One might argue that, not written until the second century when Gnosticism was indeed becoming an openly serious threat, an unknown author of Colossians was aware of John’s portrayal of Jesus as “the word” who had existed from the beginning with God and as God. Or one might say with equal credibility that it was John who had been influenced by Paul’s groundbreaking theology and used some of his ideas when it came time for him to write his gospel.
Aren’t these fascinating questions to consider!
The New Oxford Annotated Bible (NRSV) gives this overview:
The letter begins with a highly complimentary description of the Colossians’ lives, but unnamed teachers, who observe Jewish rituals and pursue mystical experiences through ascetic practices (2:8-23), pose a threat to their faith. Unfortunately, we possess no independent description of these teachings, and the polemical tone of this letter (for instance, “empty deceit, according to human tradition,“ 2:8) makes their precise identification difficult. The practices advocated are best understood as a form of Jewish apocalyptic mysticism, although others have preferred to see a synthesis of Judaism with proto-Gnostic thought, local Phrygian religious practices, or Hellenistic philosophy. The fact that these Jewish practices, which did not focus on Christ, were attractive to Christians reflects the continuing close connection of the synagogue and the church, as well as a typical first-century Christian ambivalence toward Judaism: A Jewish eschatological outlook and morality are central to the author’s Christian vision, although many Jewish practices are simultaneously rejected as incompatible with Christ. (p. 334, NT)
As a side note to the above comment about the continued connection between Judaism and the new Christian movement, did any of you notice when reading in Acts what Paul did after reaching Jerusalem (Acts 21:26) upon the advice of James and the Jerusalem elders? He went to the temple and apparently offered purification sacrifices for himself and four others. In spite of his stringent writings that salvation is not to be found in the Law, to the extent his conscience would allow Paul continued, it seems, being faithful to many of the religious practices of his youth.
About the situation in Colossae, The Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary on the Bible offers these possibilities:
It is impossible to reconstruct the details of the false teaching Col. opposes, and it is likely that the author himself had only general information about its doctrines and sponsors. Certain of its features, however, are discernible. It called itself a “philosophy” (2:8) and appealed to some special tradition in support of its teachings (2:8, 22). Its central doctrine concerned the “elemental spirits of the universe (2:8) probably to be identified with the “principalities and powers” (or “authorities”) mentioned in 1:16; 2:10, 15. They were probably regarded as angelic beings who collectively contributed to the “fullness” of God and exercised demonic control over men’s lives. This errant teaching probably held that men, to gain freedom from these controlling fates and powers, must pay them homage (2:18). Perhaps for this reason emphasis was placed on the observance of ritual fast days (2:16).
This teaching stressed not only the importance of mystic visions (2:18) but also, more practically, the necessity of adherence to certain regulations (2:16, 20-23)…Several other passages suggest that the errorists divided men into classes depending on their level of spiritual attainment (1:28; 3:11).
It is apparent that in this teaching various religious mythologies and practices converged. Its speculation about a hierarchy of cosmic powers and its emphasis on a superior “wisdom” or “philosophy” is typical of many religious movements in the Helenistic world. To these particular movements, influenced by oriental religious speculation and mythology, many scholars have applied the term “Gnosticism.” Gnosticism as a system was specifically a 2nd-century Christian heresy, but Gnosticizing tendencies and motifs are identifiable long before. (pp. 856-57)
The New Bible Commentary: Revised adds this note of both caution and insight about the state of Christian belief at the time:
To obtain a clear picture of the occasion, it is therefore necessary to put together as far as possible the various threads, traceable in the Epistle, which had connection with the heresy. It is always more difficult to reconstruct the tenets of a heresy where our only data are those provided by the Christian answer to it. Care must be taken to avoid reading back too much into the positive approach which Paul gives. Some of the more leading features may be isolated without hesitation. In view of the great stress that Paul places on Christology in this Epistle, it is reasonable to suppose that the false teaching was defective in this respect. Any view of Christ which denied Him the pre-eminence in everything (cf. 1:18) would be inferior to Paul’s view of Him. Indeed it is a fair inference that the exalted view of Christ set out in the whole section 1:15-20 was called out by the opposite tendencies of false teachers. Gnosticism in the 2nd century supplies a parallel in which Christ had become so far deteriorated that He had become no more than the last of a long series of intermediaries connecting man with God. There is no evidence that such an advanced deterioration in Christology had occurred as early as this Epistle was written, nor is the evidence which exists sufficient to proved that this Epistle was a product of the 2nd century…
Another feature of the heresy is what Paul calls “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe.” (2:8)…The word “philosophy” is very general. Paul’s concentration on its emptiness suggests that he had little time for its precepts. It may well have been a mixture of ideas drawn from Greek sources. It is worth noting that such words as fullness (1:19; 2:9) and knowledge (2:3) were familiar terms in contemporary speculative thought, although Paul uses them in a thoroughly Christian way. Again these words were current in 2nd-century Gnosticism. The “fullness” was an abstract name for the absolute God who could have no direct contact with earth (known as the Emptiness or Kenoma). But these developed ideas are found at Colossae only in embryo, if at all…
It is clear from this brief survey that some kind of syncretistic [The attempt to fuse differing philosophical or religious beliefs into one.—MP] movement was on foot and was threatening to affect the Colossians. There are features which show parallels in Gnosticism and it may be surmised therefore that this was a kind of pre-Gnostic Gnosticizing tendency. (p. 1140)
If a single defining element could be used to characterize Gnosticism, it would likely be phrased along the lines of “privately revealed spiritual mysteries known to a select few.” One observes this tendency in all cults, in secret societies such as the Masons, and even in many churches. Our family was for a time intimately (and heartbreakingly) involved with a small group of seemingly dedicated “Christians” which could have been almost precisely represented by these words.
I find it intriguing to note how similar to this Paul’s expressions in Colossians sound. Paul uses the word “mystery” twenty times in his letters, half of them in Ephesians and Colossians. The word is only used seven other times in the entire New Testament. In Paul’s terminology, Christianity, and the person and work of Jesus Christ in particular, were most definitely mysteries. In addition, he speaks in Colossians about how the knowledge of that mystery has been “hidden,” and how it is “revealed” to the saints. He uses the same word for the hidden wisdom of Christ (knowledge—gnosis) upon which Gnosticism is based. One cannot help but notice, therefore, that Paul’s expressions sound…well, somewhat Gnostic themselves. I’m not exactly sure what to make of this, nor why no commentator I have consulted mentions it. Ephesians 3:3 (actually the whole chapter!) sounds especially Gnostic. Could it be that Paul was intentionally trying to sound a little more mystical than usual in order to “speak the language,” as it were, that was apparently being used against sound Christian doctrine—To the Jew I will become a Jew, to the Greek I will become a Greek, to the Gnostic I will become a Gnostic.
I will leave you to ponder and reflect on it as you read Colossians for yourselves.
Gnosticism, which did not become fully developed until the second century and became a serious danger to the church for many centuries, took many forms. Probably the most prevalent of these was the notion that Jesus Christ had never really existed in the flesh at all. By the time a hundred or more years had passed since Jesus’ lifetime, and all eyewitnesses of the events of the gospel had died, this was a natural progression for skepticism to take. The rejection of the reality of the incarnation has been active in many forms ever since and remains so in our own day. It is doubtful, as the above authors note, that in Colossians Paul was refuting full-blown Gnosticism. But it is certainly possible that the Colossians were encountering the incipient first seeds of what would grow into this major heresy. Therefore, it seems appropriate to take a closer look at just what Gnosticism was, why it played such a pivotal role in the Church’s development over the next few centuries, and why Colossians offers the definitive scriptural rebuttal to its false claims.
I find Bill Austin’s summary very helpful. He writes:
One of the most insidious dangers to early Christianity was the movement known as Gnosticism…The main tenets of Gnosticism came from the syncretism of oriental religions and Hellenic mysticism…The term Gnosticism derived from the Greek word gnosis (knowledge), and claimed a superior revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and destiny of mankind. Upon confronting Christianity, Gnostic teachings attempted to satisfy the longing of the pagan world for salvation by reconciling the religion of Christ with the culture and philosophy of Babylonia, Syria, Asia Minor, Persia, India, and the Judaism of Philo. Because they believed, as did the Christians, in salvation, a supreme deity, and heavenly beings, the Gnostics often became associated with the Christian churches. But, while maintaining the centrality of Christ in human history and a divine plan of salvation, the Gnostics claimed higher knowledge than was offered by the simple truths of the Gospels. The source of this special gnosis was held to be that of the apostles themselves (handed down by the secret tradition) or a direct revelation given to the founder of a particular sect. Although embracing a great variety of forms and philosophies, basic Gnosticism supported…
Docetism. The central doctrine of Christianity is the incarnation, which Gnosticism rejected, declaring that Christ could not possibly have a real human body. This docetic view was based on the ideas that the absolute cannot enter into real union with the finite, and that matter is evil and the spiritual world is ever in conflict with it. The word docetism comes from a Greek verb meaning “to seem.” The Gnostics taught that Christ was not really a man, but only “seemed” to live and suffer for mankind’s sins, simply joining himself for a brief time with the body of a good man called Jesus. This union was accomplished either at the birth or baptism of Jesus, and was dissolved shortly before the crucifixion so that Christ was not really crucified. Although Gnosticism clearly derived its Christology from pagan philosophy, the issue of docetism was to have a profound effect on the Christological councils in years to come…
Gnosticism held that men are essentially spiritual and that redemption is the freeing of the pure human spirit from the impure, evil, physical world. Through special revelation man becomes conscious of his origin, essence, and transcendent destiny…Throughout the centuries, those who have claimed special knowledge beyond the revelations of history, Scripture, and reason have reflected Gnostic tendencies and concepts. (Austin’s Topical History of Christianity, Bill Austin, Tyndale House, 1983, pp. 73-75)
43. How Doctrine Develops
One of the most intriguing things to me personally in all my study of Scripture and church history is the how, when, and why of the development of Christian doctrine. When did certain doctrines come to be formularized into accepted theology, and what forces and influences led to that formularization? More intriguing yet is the how, when, and why concerning which doctrines came to be considered “orthodox”—and by whom—and which were rejected as unorthodox, and by whom. For me it is one of the most compelling unanswered areas of exploration in our entire faith.
I have been searching for a book that examines this fascinating question, and that might trace the evolution of various doctrines in some detail in an objective way. I have yet to find one. The key is the word “objective.” Objectivity in Christian doctrine is not something I encounter very often other than in George MacDonald, his protégé C.S. Lewis, and my dear wife. As an aside, I must clarify that I do not include Judy in such esteemed company gratuitously. She truly is probably the most objective thinking individual, male or female, I have ever known, which no doubt explains why she has been such an asset in my writing all these years. She simply has no “agenda.” In that regard, she is far ahead of me. I do have an agenda, and to that extent realize that I am not completely objective. Objectivity is one of my highest goals as a Christian and as a communicator, especially in these Bible readings. If I do not bring objectivity to the discussion, how can readers trust what I offer with my words? Objectivity is the basis of trust. Otherwise, an author is only spouting his opinions, and what he has learned from others. But I recognize that my own points of view and perspectives are always present with me. My respect for Judy in this regard is so high because I see clearly that in the matter of pure objectivity, she is well ahead of me. Some of you may not know this, though probably most do…but it is for exactly this reason that I never send out or publish anything without submitting it to her evaluation. She may read what I have written and say nothing more than, “It’s fine,” which drives me crazy. Authors need more feedback than that! We are sensitive, delicate, fragile, tender, insecure, self-doubting individuals! Yet I know that when her objective sensibilities sense anything amiss, she lets me know. I trust her judgment implicitly. The basis for this trust is…objectivity. It is far too rare a commodity in the church. I wonder if it exists anywhere in the church. All discussions of doctrine, all the books on my shelves, all the contemporary authors I have investigated, engage in explaining and persuading to their doctrinal biases and beliefs. I wish there was enough (objective) information available to explore the matter of doctrinal development in detail. If there was, I might write such a book myself. But I begin to doubt whether the information to research it even exists. All the historical literature comes with a slant. The result of this through the centuries is that doctrinal orthodoxy is far more subjective, and not nearly so based in Scripture as its proponents would have us believe.
In addition to this subjectivity, and in the constant attempt by authors, preachers, teachers, and theologians to persuade, perhaps the greatest difficulty in trying to lay hold of the processes of how doctrines develop is the fact that shifts in Christian thought through the centuries occur for the most part invisibly. Historic circumstances and trends and pressures and factions come and go and are lost sight of, but often the doctrines that result remain behind and are then codified into orthodoxy. Future generations assume that they always existed, handed down by God himself, without realizing in what ways they originated through fallible men and women reacting (perhaps not always in the most Godly fashion) to pressures of their own times.
Of course the foundational difficulty in all this is the simple but inescapable fact that Jesus himself was entirely a-doctrinal, or un-doctrinal, or even anti-doctrinal. He refused to allow his teachings to be codified into rigid systematic formulas—which is what doctrines essentially are. It positively mystifies me that the church has felt so positively compelled (and how much of this is to be laid at Paul’s doorstep may be a difficult question for many to face; or the admission that in so doing Paul may not have been acting under the guidance of the Holy Spirit) to rigidly doctrinalize every jot and tittle of our faith when to do so goes directly against the example of Jesus. Why do we find it so necessary to stringently define orthodoxy at every point when Jesus never placed that necessity upon us? I simply do not understand it.
I often point to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 as the seminal scriptural example of Jesus’ absolute refusal to doctrinalize even something so basic as salvation. What could be more foundational to Christianity than salvation? For this reason no element of faith has been so doctrinalized in so many different ways.
Some years ago I began a book on the essence of what “being a Christian” truly meant. I opened with a discussion of the many historic definitions of salvation. If I remember correctly, there were eight or nine completely distinct ways that salvation has been defined. The most interesting aspect of the matter, however, is that none of them can be derived entirely from what Jesus specifically taught. When Nicodemus asked him what it meant to be “born again,” Jesus was elusive, cryptic, and offered no formula that bears the slightest connection to the eight or nine man-made doctrinal formulas. Not a word about baptism, not a word about repentance, only “belief,” which he does not define either. Jesus presses Nicodemus for no decision, does not urge him to go to church, doesn’t pray with him. We are so accustomed to Jesus’ words, we do not pause to reflect that they actually sound mystical, elusive, ethereal, eastern and oriental.
The development of the various doctrines of “salvation” is a little easier to trace than some other doctrines. We can observe changes through history that produced shifts in the way Christians thought about salvation—from mass national baptisms of early Catholicism, to personal conversion experiences of Protestant fundamentalism, to the accompanying signs and wonders of Pentecostalism. This constantly changing outlook of what comprises salvation is something I happen to know a little more about because of a development that has occurred during approximately the last fifty years and that I have been able to observe personally.
I grew up during the 1950s in a progressive but generally fundamentalist church whose pastor was my best friend’s father, a man I considered a friend and personal mentor all his life, a man who baptized me twice, at 12 in the church baptistry and at 52 in the Jordan River. There are few men in this life whom I have loved as dearly as I loved that man, now with the Lord. His name was Sam, affectionately known by the thousands like me who loved him as “Pastor Sam.”
Sam’s lifelong passion was evangelism. He never ended a service without an altar call. I will never forget the Sunday morning I scooted out of the aisle past my sisters and parents and “went forward” during the third verse of the final hymn of the worship service. Years later, after three very successful pastorates, Sam and his wife Lou went into full time evangelism and spent over three decades on the road conducting evangelistic crusades all through the western United States. The number of people Sam and Lou counseled and prayed with and in one way or another led into the Kingdom, or strengthened in their walk with God (and I am one of them) is surely in the multiple thousands.
My reason for telling about Sam is that evangelism was his life. If ever a man truly could be said to be an authority on the subject of “salvation,” Sam would be that man. He was my Billy Graham, and a dear, dear friend.
Another day I will never forget is a conversation we had about this very thing. Sam told me a positively astonishing thing. His words were to the effect of, “Back in the 1950’s the terminology was completely different. We urged people to make a public confession of faith by coming forward in response to an altar call. That public step of faith was all important as an indication either of repentance or rededication of one’s life to Jesus. Of course we prayed with them afterwards, encouraging them to repent and ask God to forgive their sins. We talked about placing their trust in Christ’s death on the cross for salvation. But never did we lead people to invite Jesus into their hearts. That was not a prayer we told people to pray. That wasn’t part of the terminology of salvation. I was an evangelical pastor, but I had never even heard of such a thing.”
I grew up listening to Sam give hundreds of altar calls. (As a young boy, I have to admit that most of the time I was more anxious to get it over with so I could hurry outside with my friend than to sing six additional verses of Just As I Am hoping that some sinner who had wandered into church would finally walk down the aisle.) And Sam was right—I never heard him mention praying to invite Jesus into your heart. It was always the invitation to make a public confession of faith or to rededicate one’s life to Christ. I heard him give those altar calls so many times I can recite the basic recipe word for word to this day. Those were the components of salvation at the time.
But then in the 1960s and 1970s came the charismatic movement and Bill Bright’s Four Spiritual Laws and Billy Graham’s widening fame and influence, then the Jesus Movement…and the terminology of salvation began to shift within an exploding evangelical movement. I don’t know who first used the exact phrase, but during this time “inviting Jesus into your heart” became the new formula by which to define salvation. Sam adopted it too. By the time he left his last pulpit and became a full-time evangelist, this “prayer of personal invitation” had become the cornerstone of his altar calls. I used it myself. Many times I witnessed to non-Christians and young people according to the exact progression and formula of the Four Laws, and “led to the Lord,” as the accompanying phraseology had it, any number of people by taking them step-by-step through the prayer which articulated in some manner, “Jesus, I invite you to come live in my heart.”
I go into this in some detail not to evaluate the relative merits of any particular salvationary method. God can and does use many means to instill truth and the reality of his own Being into human hearts. Some of the people with whom I prayed such prayers have remained lifelong friends and have grown into strong brothers and sisters in the Lord, as I remained with Sam. God is not constrained or limited by our understanding, our words, formulas, or methods. His Spirit takes hold of people in infinitely diverse ways. It is wonderful by what means he brings healing, reconciliation, growth, repentance, change, maturity, wisdom, humility, Christlikeness, and eternal life to the world, though we still scarcely really understand all that God’s salvation truly entails.
My reason for making such a point of this is to illustrate by this one example how our understanding and perspective of doctrine changes. In this case, because it is a change that has happened relatively quickly and before our eyes, we can see the change in our own lifetime. But it is not usually so. In most cases, doctrinal perspectives, and the orthodoxies that go with them, occur slowly and invisibly. Even in this instance, young people of today, who are not aware how different the terminology of salvation was in the 1950s, are completely unaware of this invisible shift. Remarkably, within the brief span of 30 or 40 years, a new perspective has been so codified into orthodoxy that most young people growing up in today’s evangelicalism assume that “inviting Jesus into your heart” is and has always been the universal standard for salvation. Many are taught that if one has not gone through that specific process, he or she is not a true born again Christian at all. One wonders about all those believers who lived prior to the advent of the Four Spiritual Laws. What do they think of them? It is a little like the old adage, “If the King James was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.” I have the feeling that many young people today, schooled in the formulas and phrases of modernism, assume that the born again orthodoxy of the “personal invitation” originated in new Testament times rather than in the 1960s.
Historically most doctrines shift invisibly. After the sudden shakeup of the Reformation, Protestant doctrine went in hundreds of new and subtle directions with sects and movements and groups springing up and breaking off and moving in so many ways that they are impossible to trace. Every church and denomination that has existed during the last five hundred years came into existence because of some shift in doctrine they felt important that they considered was being neglected by everyone else. We are all—Protestants and Catholics and Eastern Orthodox and Evangelicals and everyone else—products of this long, slow, continually shifting perspective of what comprises “true” Christian doctrine.
44. Evolution of the Nicene Creed
I think I am on safe ground to say that probably no doctrine churchwide is more sacrosanct than the Trinity, no topic more heatedly debated, no doctrine subject to more charges of heresy, no “right” and “wrong” belief the cause of more division and judgment and church and personal splits. The Trinity, like varying perspectives on salvation, is a doctrine whose development can be traced through church history. Those interested who have not read it previously can find a detailed presentation of this development in the article, “The Trinity” in Leben 3.
the great schism
The Great Schism of 1054 which resulted in the final separation between the Latin and Greek wings of the church, and thus between what we now know as Catholicism of the west and Orthodoxy of the east, was a split (though obviously with many causes more political than spiritual) whose foundation was a difference of perspective on what was considered orthodox belief on the Trinity. Though practically the split had been in effect for centuries prior to this time, in that year the Pope’s messenger went to Constantinople to officially lay the ban of excommunication on the eastern branch of “the church.” The Patriarch of Constantinople responded by excommunicating all churches in the west who declared submission to the Pope of Rome.
And that was that. Never more the twain would meet. Division officially became the face Christianity presented to the world. Unity, never a reality, was now openly and permanently cast aside for everyone to see, all pretext gone. Any hope for the fulfillment of the Lord’s prayer in John 17 in the living church he called his body was undone.
It is probably the greatest, most well known, most historically significant, and longest lasting division within all Christendom, still not healed after a thousand years. Yet it is a split of such utter insignificance as to be reducible to a single word which stubborn men were unable to reconcile in the Nicene Creed.
You who have not studied the thing may find that incredible. I find it incredible! But it is true. The split over the doctrine of the Trinity really was based on just one word.
It was a Latin word: filioque. It means “and the Son.”
The original form of the Nicene Creed of 325 read:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ the word [Logos] of God, God from God, light from light, life from life, the only-begotten Son, first-born of all creatures, begotten of the Father before all ages, by whom all things were made; who, for our salvation was made flesh and dwelt among men; and who suffered and rose again on the third day, and ascended to the Father and shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. We believe also in one Holy Spirit.
Several things are immediately clear. The influence of Colossians is unmistakable. Also clear is that this is not a Trinitarian document. The “one God” is the Father. The Son is the “first-born” who comes “from” the Father. He is of the same nature as the Father (“God from God”) but is not the same as God. Nor, with equal clarity, is anything stated about the Holy Spirit’s being an equal member of a threefold Godhead. Whatever the original Nicene Creed may have intended about the Father and Son, it certainly does not endorse a three-in-one doctrine. The final sentence seems tacked on. The Holy Spirit is obviously of lesser importance than the Father and the son.
Perhaps because of these limitations, a new draft was proposed. The changes are noted in bold.
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in one Lord, Jesus Christ the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance [ousias] of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance [homoousion] with the Father, through whom all things came to be, those things that are in heaven and those things that are on earth, who for us men and our salvation came down and was made flesh, and was made man, suffered, rose the third day, ascended into the heavens, and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
You will notice three things. One, along with the additions, a number of words and phrases were omitted. I considered noting these with strikeouts, but realized the thing would be too cumbersome. Anyone wanting to pursue such details will be well enough able to locate them. Two, the stature of the Son has clearly been elevated, if not to full equality or “sameness” with the Father, to the same “substance” as the Father. But three, the Holy Spirit has been omitted! So while enhancing the role of the Son, any idea of the Trinity has disappeared altogether.
The councils that had been called to resolve the dispute within the church were not able to do so. Both principle players in the controversy, Arius and Emperor Constantine, died within a dozen years and the storm died down for a time. Another major council was held in 381, which produced yet another draft of the creed. Successive drafts continued to be proposed, eventually blending those from Nicæa with a creed from Jerusalem into what eventually became the “Nicene Creed” that came into general use. Again, only the major changes are noted in bold.
I believe in one God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds. God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who, for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The changes (again in bold) are obvious. The Holy Spirit has been elevated to the level of “Lord” and is to be worshipped equally with the Father and Son.
The doctrine of the Trinity was established and secure.
Yet one more change in the creed was to come, however. In 589, a council for the western branch of the church (by this time east and west had split but were not formally severed) added a single word to the creed—filioque.
The controversial phrase about the Holy Spirit was changed to read, as it still does in the west:
And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord, the Giver of Life; who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified…
It was a change that the east refused to accept. It became an increasingly bitter bone of contention until, 400 years later, the final and permanent split came at last.
About the Great Schism, David Christie-Murray comments:
Schism is not heresy. It is, however, its first cousin…
Different dates are given for the Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople, leading to the division of the imperial Church into the two communions of Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, 1054 being the year that is widely accepted as the date of the final breach. The reasons were political rather than doctrinal…Although patriarchs and popes thundered anathemas and excommunications at each other, and accusations of heresy accompanied their broadsides, rivalry, ambition and extravagant claims were the ever-recurring motifs in the quarrels of the centuries. There were differences in eastern and western teachings about Purgatory, but these were not significant; and even the dissension over the filioque clause…would have been no bar to the unity of Catholic and Orthodox or their reunion after the schism, had the will to Christian love been in their leaders. (A History of Heresy, Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 97)
As a result, division, not unity, has remained the prevailing face of Christianity ever since. Protestantism and the many schismatic tangents of reformed theology came along five and six hundred years later to add their own devious and judgmental contributions to this evil anti-Christ legacy.
45. Son of God!
I am not sure I find the Trinity in Paul’s epistles to the Colossians or the Philippians. I don’t find anything to contradict it, but neither do I find a specific ratification or endorsement of the Trinity. I don’t say the Trinity isn’t here in germinal form. I simply think it is a question about which we must keep open minds, and not read backwards into Paul’s words doctrines that men derived out of them 300 years later. Though Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction is one of the finest and most objective studies on the New Testament, even Guthrie is susceptible to this ex post facto reading of Paul when he says of Col. 1:15-19, “these statements could not fail to exalt Him to an equality with God.” (p. 551)
Believing “wrongly” (so called) about the Trinity is what I call a “false heresy” that causes such debate in the church but upon which there is room for much difference of opinion. Paul frequently makes a distinction between “God” and Jesus or the “Son.” A strong case, I believe, could be made for alternate perspectives than the Trinity out of Paul’s words. I believe that Arius based his beliefs on Scripture too, even though he was condemned and excommunicated as a hereic for his conclusions. Therefore, I see the difficulty in attempting to define the inner-Godhead relationships too rigidly. I would never condemn one who took a different point of view from the Trinitarian on the basis of reasoned and prayerful analysis of Scripture. Even Paul was groping to come to grips with who and what Jesus was. Colossians, in my view, along with Philippians, represent his most brilliant and insightful attempts, and both letters serve as forerunning documents to the equally brilliant statement in the Nicene Creed. That said, however, we always note in the writings of Paul a clear distinction between God and the “Son.” Paul intricately relates them, but he does not equate them.
In Philippians we will find Paul continuing the evolution of his theology of Christ’s Sonship, taking it to an even loftier level by adding what he envisions as the eternal conclusion and triumph of that Sonship.
One thing is abundantly clear from the discussions of both these doctrinal developments—doctrine is fluid and changing because knowledge, insight, wisdom, and revelation are constantly increasing. Thus, what is called “orthodoxy” is not so set and established and unassailable as many assume. Being unorthodox on some doctrinal position or another (in other words, being of a minority opinion at some given historical moment) may not necessarily be such a bad thing. Because as history shows, doctrinal orthodoxy changes. Some widely held doctrinal beliefs are eventually found to be in error.
Unorthodoxy is not equivalent to heresy.
tangled sentences and fitness—uncovering paul’s meaning
In conjunction with this year’s readings, something I am doing for the first time is reading as much of the New Testament as possible in a Greek/English interlinear edition. I do not read the Greek itself, because I do not know Greek. I read the word-by-word English translation of each Greek word given underneath them (hence, the term “interlinear”), and then compare it with the actual English “translation” of the whole, as we read it in a normal Bible (the RSV in the interlinear I am using), which is rendered in the margin and is obviously much more readable. Most of the time the marginal translation corresponds fairly closely to the interlinear. But on those occasions where translators have taken liberties with what certain Greek words actually mean, I want to know it.
Such a method may not be of benefit to others, but for me it helps to reflect the words of Scripture through a unique prism. Though it requires a little extra work, it is both interesting and enlightening. The exercise shows all the more clearly how ungifted Paul was as a lucid and straightforward communicator of theological ideas, at least in his written word. (Or the spoken word communicated to an assistant trying to write it down as Paul spoke it.) I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’s comment on the writings of St. Paul: “I cannot be the only reader who has wondered why God, having given him so many gifts, withheld from him (what would to us seem so necessary for the first Christian theologian) that of lucidity and orderly exposition.” (Reflection on the Psalms, ch. 11 )
Paul’s theological sentences are long, rambling, and contorted and may go in a half dozen different directions at once. Over and over I am reminded of William Barclay’s image of Paul striding feverishly back and forth dictating rapidly to a scribe trying to get his words down in a way that made sense. Just last night I read over again his unbelievably rambling and disjointed and self-contradictory discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7-9. One is left more confused than ever, thinking that in Paul’s opinion the only valid reason for marriage is sexual weakness. There is no mention of love, companionship, friendship. And the book of Romans I find almost impossible to follow with any coherence. I literally cannot read two or three sentences in a row (except for a few soaring and brilliant passages here and there) without shaking my head in confusion, then having to go back and try again. Sometimes I despair of having any idea what Paul is talking about.
Paul was a brilliant thinker, but not always a gifted communicator in written form. How different he sounds, however, when dealing with practicalities. Then he becomes concise, orderly, and brilliantly lucid! We find this other side of his communication technique in his lists of exhortive directives, which often, though not always, come at the end of a book. Examples include: 1 Cor. 16:13-14, 2 Cor. 13: 11, Philippians 4:4-8, 1 Thess. 5:13-22, Romans 12:9-18, Gal. 5:22-23, and 1 Cor. 13:4-7.
An example of his convoluted method of trying to get his theology into writing is found in Colossians 1. Obviously the different word order of the Greek contributes its own share to the confusion. But a lengthy sentence such as this gives us some idea what both translators and we who try to make sense of Paul’s ideas are up against. I quote (almost) word by word from the Greek:
“We give thanks to God Father of the Lord of us Jesus Christ always concerning you praying, having heard the faith of you in Christ Jesus and the love which you have toward all the saints because of the hope being laid up for you in the heavens, which you previously heard in the word of the truth of the gospel coming to you, as also in all the world it is bearing fruit and growing as also in you, from the day on which you heard and fully knew the grace of God in truth; as you learned from Epaphras the beloved fellow-servant of us, who is on behalf of you a faithful minister of Christ, the one also having shown to us the love of you in spirit.”
In a sentence like this of over 125 words, it is not only the Greek construction that can be blamed for creating confusion. This is Paul’s method. He is a “stream of consciousness” thinker, and that process does not always translate very well into the written word. That’s why authors re-write and edit and work their material over and over (at least I do; sometimes my first drafts are a disorganized jumble too!) Things don’t always come out with clarity the first time. I have the feeling, however, that Paul’s letters are examples of what I call first-draft-final-draft writing, which I would set in stark contrast to the gospels. The works of all four gospel writers read to me as carefully constructed documents of great skill.
The exercise of wading through the word-for-word rendition of the Greek can occasionally yield insights that remain veiled if not altogether invisible in the translations that come to us. (More will be said about this in an upcoming supplement.)
I noticed a single word in the next (even longer!) sentence of Paul’s whose translation in the margin I felt was suspect. That sentence reads, in the Greek word-for-word:
“Therefore also we, from the day on which we heard, do not cease on behalf of you praying and asking that you may be filled with the full knowledge of the will of him in all wisdom and understanding spiritual, to walk worthily of the Lord to all pleasing, in every work good bearing fruit and growing in the full knowledge of God, with all power being empowered according to the might of the glory of him to all endurance and long-suffering, with joy giving thanks to the Father, having made you fit for the part of the lot of the saints in the light; who delivered us out of the authority of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the Son of the love of him, in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of our sins; who is an image of the God invisible, firstborn of all creation, because in him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or lordships or rulers or authorities; all things through him and for him have been created; and he is before all things and all things in him consisted, and he is the head of the body, of the church, who is the beginning, firstborn from the dead, in order that he may be in all things holding the first place, because in him was well pleased all the fullness to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to him, making peace through the blood of the cross of him, through him whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens.”
A 275 word sentence! George MacDonald had nothing on Paul! In translating it, the RSV turns it into seven sentences. Paul’s theological progression is still dense, but breaking it up certainly helps.
The word I noticed in this reading was that the Father has made us “fit” for the part of the lot of the saints. The translation in the margin, however, in the Revised Standard Version (usually, in my opinion, extremely reliable), read, “giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints.” The italics are mine to emphasize the changes that have been made.
To my mind, though subtle, the difference between the two is enormous. Being made fit implies training, it implies a process, a progression of growth. I read in that phrase, as Paul articulated it, a muscular vigorous faith that is growing in strength (with the Father’s help yet with us having to participate in the hard work of that lifelong training process) that it might occupy “the part of the lot of the saints.” That “lot” is a maturity made strong by the serious, vigorous training of obedience.
It is in hopes of uncovering such subtleties that I use an interlinear New Testament and endure some of Paul’s long and tangled sentences. Translations come to us with interpretive bias that may not always be perfectly accurate. If I can dig my way down to the bedrock of Paul’s ideas, of what he meant and was attempting to say, I know that I will often be rewarded with the true gold of deeper understanding than what our orthodoxies of erroneously passive doctrinal correctness would have us believe.
In this particular case, the translation removes all trace of training, strength, and spiritual maturity. With a wave of the hand we are simply “qualified” to be given an “inheritance,” whether we are fit for it or not. Ponder prayerfully the difference between being actively made fit and being passively qualified. Ponder the difference between growing strong in order to occupy the lot of the saints, and simply being handed an inheritance. It is invisible subtleties like this that have crept into Christendom (even through the translations of the Bibles we read!) all around us, removing in a thousand ways the scriptural imperative of accountability, of hard work, of duty, of obedience, of sustained daily choices, and that have as a result turned Christianity into a passive life based on doctrinal orthodoxy where God does all the work for us and, if we believe correctly, will “qualify us” to be given our “inheritance” whether we have held up our end by obedience or not.
The doctrine of “positionality” has become an undergirding foundation of certain aspects of Protestant theology as a means to explain how everything is done for us. Because we have been “crucified with Christ,” because Jesus “paid the price,” the complete work of salvation and justification is fully accomplished. “Positionally” we are “dead to sin” already, even though we remain in this life. Grace is a “free gift” and “works are dead.” There is nothing more to be done. Christ has “done it all” for us. It is a doctrine derived from Paul but which I do not think Paul intended. It is all the subtleties of this doctrine that led, I can only assume, the translators to change “made fit” to “qualified.”
The parable of the prodigal, however, reveals the utter bankruptcy of this doctrine. The prodigal son was “qualified” to receive an inheritance too. He was unwise, immature, grasping, selfish, and ungrateful—a complete wastrel. But he was qualified by virtue of his “position.” So he asked for his inheritance prematurely and was given the outer shadow of that inheritance (the money) by a loving father even though the father knew it was not for his son’s best to receive it in such a way. But everything had not yet been done. The son had to be “made fit” to receive his true inheritance, which came later. It was an inheritance he had to grow capable of appreciating through suffering, through being made fit to receive it—the inheritance of oneness with his father, authenticated by his own humility of sonship and his father’s loving and forgiving embrace.
The NIV repeats this erroneous “qualified” translation almost word for word. Only Weymouth and the New English Bible get it right and preserve the fit.
This delusion of passive growth is a doctrine of long standing. It derives especially from a 16th and 17th century reformist outlook, whose Westminster Shorter Catechism terms sanctification “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”
Every verb construction is passive. We don’t have to do any renewing, we don’t have to die to sin, we are renewed and are enabled. It’s all done for us. We are acted upon by this mysterious outside force called “sanctification.”
J.I. Packer, guru of contemporary reformed theology, adds: “The concept is…of a divinely wrought character change freeing us from sinful habits and forming in us Christlike affections, dispositions, and virtues. Sanctification is an ongoing transformation…and it engenders real righteousness within the frame of relational holiness. Relational sanctification, the state of being permanently set apart for God, flows from the cross, where God through Christ purchased and claimed us for himself.” (Concise Theology, p. 169) It’s all God’s doing. We just stand back passively…and let the Holy Spirit change us. It happens automatically.
I don’t find this lack of personal accountability in the teachings of Jesus. When Peter misspoke, Jesus didn’t put his hand tenderly on his shoulder and say, “That’s all right, Pete. The Holy Spirit will engender real righteousness with a frame of relational holiness within you after a while. Just wait a few years and you will experience a divinely wrought character change that will free you from your sinful habits.”
We all know better. He spun around and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”
Then he added: If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me…If anyone wants to be first, he must be last of all and servant of all…When he finished the parable of the good Samaritan, he didn’t look at his listeners and say, “Now study this principle and memorize this story, and over time a divinely wrought character change will engender righteousness within you.”
He said, “Go and do the same.”
The Christian life is susceptible to the teaching of superficial inheritances too. “Heaven” and being given “eternal life” as a “free gift” have all been developed as part of a false doctrinal nomenclature of passivity. Christians are taught that they will be handed an “inheritance” (heaven) just as freely as the prodigal was handed financial portion of his father’s assets. Both, misunderstood, are but the outer shadows of deeper realities. Heaven in this passive theology is the equivalent to the money the prodigal received. But neither the prodigal’s money nor the believer’s “getting into heaven” are the true inheritance.
The true “eternal life” God has planned for his people is an inheritance of oneness with our Father, authenticated by a humility of childship and the Father’s loving embrace. And like the prodigal, we must be made fit to receive it. That’s what Jesus came to accomplish. That is the true work of the cross—making a people fit to become sons and daughters.
This has been a lengthy tangent over the single word fit. But it is these sorts of subtle intrusions into the scriptural text, teaching Christians wrongly about what the Christian life really entails that have resulted in such spiritual flabbiness in the church, producing a generation of worshipping, happy, prosperous, politically active and culturally powerful Christians completely and wholly incapable of obeying Paul’s unambiguous command, Resist the devil and he will flee from you.
If any of you are interested in obtaining an interlinear New Testament, most Christian bookstores carry them. They are also available new and used online in several translations. We can give you more information if you like.
In another couple of weeks, following Philippians, there will be offered two lengthy optional supplements about this problem of Bible translations. Beware, however…they will involve some upper division theological stuff and may be disconcerting to the doctrinally timid! For those who occasionally find themselves nervous about some of the theological side roads I take from time to time, it might be an appropriate time to do some catch-up reading and skip the supplements!
colossians—blending theology and practice
For abundant reasons—as is clear from the length of this Introduction!—Colossians is interesting and unique in what we have covered in the New Testament thus far. In this letter, Paul is almost prophetically looking ahead to problems that will later infiltrate the church. The issues of both Gnosticism and the Trinity are raised a century or two ahead of their time. Much of his prior effort (Galatians, Romans, etc.) is backward looking, dealing almost exclusively with Jewish questions, the Law, the Old Testament, circumcision, etc., attempting to explain Christianity in light of what has come before. Colossians looks ahead to an era when no more eyewitnesses will be left, when believers of a new century will have to know beyond doubt who Jesus was, where he stood in relation to God, where we who profess to be his followers stand in relation to him, and how (whether by fitness or qualification) we enter fully into life with him.
I realize some of these sections have been lengthy. I sincerely hope, however, with this background about Gnosticism, the development of doctrine, the debate over the Trinity that has so consumed the church through the centuries, and the accuracy of translations, that you will find yourself reading Colossians and the other three books of this group with heightened insight.
The question I find most intriguing of all is whether the doctrine of the Trinity originates in the writings of Paul? Obviously it is based on his writings. But did Paul himself actually believe in what we now call “the Trinity”—that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are truly equal and one and of the same origin?
That is a question I will leave with you as you explore these most potent of Paul’s writings.
After all these weighty matters, one of the things I love most about Colossians is what comes next. Having scaled such heights of intellectual and theoretic spirituality (“he is the image of the invisible God…in him all things were created…in him all the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily”), Paul comes crashing back to earth (as he often does in his letters, which makes them so powerfully alive) with precise, definite, practical, succinct commands of instruction for living life as a Christian:
“Put aside all anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech…do not lie…put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience…forgive each other…Wives, be subject to your husbands…husbands, love your wives…children, be obedient to your parents…fathers, do not exasperate your children…do your work heartily…masters, grant your slaves justice and fairness…speak with grace.”
Paul is such a master at harmonizing doctrine and practice, theology with practicality. It is these powerfully concise instructions about life that, in my opinion, validate Paul’s standing and stature far more even than his theology. He grasps the essence of what it means to be a disciple—how to live.
Then he ends, as mentioned before, with greetings and personal instructions that identify his present situation and companions, including Mark, Luke, and Epaphras. (Were all of them under arrest? If not, why then Epaphras?)
Paul also mentions Onesimus and Archippus, who provide the segue way to Philemon, which Paul probably wrote at the same time intending both letters to be taken back to Colossae together.