May 29, 2022
Why is this Christological formulation so important for the development of Christian theology?
St. Paul's Letter to the Colossians (the congregation at Colossae, east of Ephesus in Asia Minor) includes a very old Christological Hymn (1: 15-20), possibly the earliest liturgical Christology in Scripture. Only six verses long, this Christology contains the elements of a complete Theology, and, beyond that, a complete Cosmology:
"He (Christ) is the image of the invisible God,
the first-born of all creation,
for in him all things were created…
All things were created through him and for him.
He is before all things
and in him all things hold together…
He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead.
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell,
and through him to reconcile all things for him…"
Let's peel back the leaves of this artichoke:
What are the essential elements of Paul's Christology as reflected in Colossians?
Why is this Christological formulation so important for the development of Christian theology?
First, the elements:
He (Christ) is the (visible) image of the invisible God.
God is insensible, but Christ is the sensible image of God.
Christ is God sensible in space and in time.
(He is) the first born of all creation.
Creation (Genesis and/or Big Bang) is the moment of minimal entropy (maximal order).
Christ participates in the moment of creation, the moment of minimal entropy and maximal order.
Christ is maximal order (logos).
He is before all things.
First Christ, then the World (kosmos)!
Christ is universal and eternal; therefore, Christ is in the 'actual world' of every other 'actual entity.'
So, Christ can be said to be 'before all things,' albeit outside of time.
All things were created in him, through him, and for him.
Christ is the locus of whatever is (i.e., whatever is now, was once, or may come to be in the future).
Christ is the efficient cause (origin) of whatever is.
Christ is the final cause (destiny) of whatever is.
Therefore, Christ participates in whatever is, as its origin, as its locus, and finally, as its destiny (i.e., its 'Objective Immortality').
In him all things hold together
Because Christ is the origin, the locus, and the destiny of whatever is, whatever is, in so far as it is, participates in Christ and Christ in it.
Therefore, all events share at least one element in common, and that common element is Christ.
Likewise, all events participate in 'the Christ-event.'
Because all events share at least one element in common (Christ) and participate in at least one common entity (Christ), whatever is enjoys the Solidarity needed to constitute cosmos (kosmos).
As a participant in cosmos, whatever is participates in all other 'secular' events (i.e., not just the 'Christ event') and all other 'secular' events participate in it. (20th century British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called this the "Ontological Principle.")
This Ontological Principle accounts for the solidarity we experience in our world: "One for all and all for one!"
This same solidarity is reflected in the Torah, in the Great Commandment, in the Covenant, in the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ, at Pentecost, in the teachings of Jesus (e.g., the Lord's Prayer, the Beatitudes), as well as in The Three Musketeers.
He is the beginning, the first born from the dead.
Christ is the origin and destiny of everything that is, was or will be.
Death, be it the death of an individual or the death of the cosmos itself, is a moment of maximal entropy; i.e., minimal order.
Christ is the origin, locus, medium, and substance of order; he is its conservation, restoration, and optimization.
In him all the fulness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him.
Christ is not just the sensible image of an insensible God; Christ is God. ("In him all the fulness was pleased to dwell.")
From the point of minimal entropy (above), Christ is the genesis of everything that comes to be.
From the point of maximal entropy (also above), Christ is the locus and the medium, as well as the efficient cause (origin) and final cause (goal) of reconciliation.
Reconciliation is a negentropic process that transforms entropic conflicts into negentropic contrasts: all things were created…for him…and to reconcile all things for him.
Per Colossians, Christ is
the structure of the creative process: logos.
the medium of the creative process: all things were created through him.
the locus of the creative process: all things were created in him.
the substance of the creative process: in him, all things hold together.
the goal of the creative process: all things were created… through him to reconcile all things for him.
Otherwise, the universe could be a vast multiplicity of solitary events, a sea of ships passing in the night. There is no inherent reason why 'actual entities' should interact with one another, exhibit togetherness, or participate in reconciliation.
But through Christ, things do hold together, and because they hold together they do modify each other; and because they modify each other, they do come to be reconciled with each other… through Christ, in Christ and for Christ.
'Holding together' is not a passive process of mere grouping (multiplicity); it's a dynamic, interactive process (nexus), more like 'clumping' than grouping. The world is more like a biological cell than a mathematical set.
Unlike 'birds of a feather,' things merely grouped together do not necessarily 'flock' together, nor do they modify one another or reconcile with one another. Things in our world do!
Interactivity is the glue that holds things together, and interactivity begins when two entities, though distinct, share element(s) in common. Without elements in common, entities would lead solitary, solipsistic lives. It is only through sharing a common element that two entities can and do interact with one another.
It is the sharing of a common element (i.e., Christ) that gives entities an incentive to engage in mutual modification and a stake in their ultimate reconciliation. If A is an element of B and A is an element of C, then B and C are mutually interactive. Because they share elements in common, entities have the potential and the motivation to engage in a process of mutual modification and harmonization, ultimately leading to reconciliation. If A is an element of B and A is an element of C, A is still always A (identity). A does not derive its identity from B or from C. A is its own identity. Therefore, A-in-C cannot conflict with A-in-B.
Ultimate reconciliation, a world in which the 'lion lies down with the lamb,' is the stable state-of-affairs we know as "Peace" (aka Shalom, Salvation, Redemption, Parousia, etc.); i.e., the reconciliation of all things through, in, and for Christ.
And now, at last we are ready to speak directly about the Incarnation, the active, imminent participation of Christ in the creative process.
Speed bump: nowhere in the text of Colossians' hymn is there a single explicit reference to Incarnation… but that's because Incarnation is the subject of the entire hymn. It is because of Incarnation that all things share a common element; in fact, that common element is the Incarnation (i.e., the 'Christ event') itself.
Incarnation (universal and eternal) lies in the unique actual world of every actual entity. The same is true of Parousia, the ultimate reconciliation of all things through, in, and for Christ, i.e., his 'Second Coming,' the 'Kingdom of Heaven.'
A group of entities, sharing one or more elements in common but in conflict with one another, does not constitute a stable state-of-affairs. It requires a great deal of 'energy' to maintain it. It is much more natural (i.e., energy conserving) for such entities to engage spontaneously in the process of mutual modification (harmonization) in pursuit of reconciliation.
So, things hold together! It is not the case, after all, that "things fall apart, the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world." (W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming) Yet Yeats is not wrong! He accurately describes our world as it would be, absent the 'Christ-event.'
Spoiler Alert: the world that Yeats describes in The Second Coming is unreal; it cannot be! Its Neant is its Etre, which is a contradiction.
According to the doctrine of Incarnation, Christ, the first-born of creation and of the dead, the locus, aim, and apex of the creative process, enters that process directly as one of its quantum elements; i.e., as a single historical event.
So, the whole becomes a part, a part of the whole, and yet that part is the whole. Christ (the part) participates in every event, and every event, in turn, participates in Christ (the whole).
Therefore, as Paul says in his First Letter to Corinthians, God will be all in all! But beyond that, it turns out that every event is all in all, at least potentially.
Every 'novel event' includes the Christ-event as one of its quantum elements, but the Christ-event includes all other events; so the part includes the whole of which it is a part. That whole includes the 'novel event' itself, the part, and every such novel event as one of its elements.
A is a quantum element of X but X is a quantum element of A! Reality is massively non-linear. The topology of reality is much more complex than we may have naively supposed. You cannot get to the truth about the world by thinking linearly.
(Side bar: it is difficult to imagine how someone who does not grasp this can understand the fundamental message of Judeo-Christianity.)
Incarnation turns Being inside out, and Incarnation is Being turned inside out. In the real world, 'being' and 'doing' are one. Doing is a state of being (Genesis: Day One) and being is a state of doing (Genesis: Day Seven).
Does this non-linear topology provide us with the necessary and sufficient conditions for the existence of a cosmos?
We know that there is a cosmos because we participate in that cosmos. Cogito, ergo est.
The defining features of our cosmos are Novelty, Intensity, and Solidarity. Everything in our world works together toward these goals. Events occur in the context of cosmos, and cosmos occurs as a function of the events occurring within it.
Every entity shares common elements with every other entity. Therefore, through the agency of Incarnation, every entity is, potentially at least, in a relationship with every other entity. Solidarity!
The model of Christian cosmology found in Colossians undermines naïve, linear theologies that separate past (creation), present (Incarnation), and future (salvation). According to Colossians, the Christ-event superimposes all three temporal moments in the eternal moment. Likewise, the Colossians model undermines naïve notions of a logical hierarchy (whole/part, set/subset) by simultaneously affirming and inverting those categories and by insisting that every relationship be reciprocal.
In discussing the structure of reality, we necessarily use ordinary language, and ordinary language (at least today, in our culture) is steeped in the notions of temporal succession and logical hierarchy. Our language plays tricks on us. We mistakenly regard its features as features of reality. Big mistake! We already know (Genesis 11) that the languages we speak today are not the common natural language we are said to have spoken before Babel. Our language maps our territory, but imperfectly!
It is important to realize that when we speak of reality using temporal or hierarchical terms, we are speaking metaphorically. Incarnation firmly and finally refutes any claim that temporality or hierarchy could be substructural.
Scientists, philosophers and even theologians build models to account for their experiences of the world. The first test of any such model is whether it succeeds in accounting for the phenomena it seeks to explain: Does it work?
If a theory does indeed account for the phenomena in question, we say that it is "sufficient," i.e., it is sufficient to explain those phenomena. Sufficiency is the first test of any model. If it isn't sufficient, we may say, "Forget about it!"
But the Holy Grail of model builders is not 'sufficiency' but 'necessity.' A model is necessary if it is the only model that can account for the phenomena in question. So, what can we say about the model we encounter in Colossians? Is it sufficient? Can it account for Novelty, Intensity, Solidarity? Can it pass the 'easy test?'
According to Colossians, all things were created in, through, and for Christ - Novelty; in him all things hold together – Solidarity - and through him all things are reconciled – Intensity.
So, yes, Colossians passes the easy test, the test of sufficiency; but what about the 'hard test', the test of necessity? Is it the case that only the Colossians model can account for Novelty, Intensity, and Solidarity in our world? Of course, I can create a model, using different words and different sentence structures, that is still sufficient to account for Novelty, Intensity, and Solidarity, but would that new model be unique, or would it be Colossians dressed a la mode du jour?
Put it another way, can I (or you, or anyone) come up with a model still sufficient to account for our target phenomena, one that cannot be mapped onto the Colossians' model? If the answer is, "No," then the Colossians' model is necessary as well as sufficient, and the author of Colossians (Paul) may be said to have found the modelers' Holy Grail.
Image: Greek icon of the Second Coming, c. 1700
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.