Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Relational View of Grace and Behavior in Colossians Part 3

Judicial Paradox in Colossians

One of the starkest examples of the paradox created by reading scripture through a judicial lens is found in the apparent dissonance between chapters 2 and 3 of Colossians. Early on in Col. 2:8, Paul begins to build his case:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. [1]

Paul follows this statement with an explanation of the deity of Christ and likens baptism to circumcision in that it removes the “sinful nature”. Then, he presses his case further in vs. 13-15, by stating:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.[2]

Having established his case Theologically, Paul exhorts the Colossian church not to be taken in by a few apparently syncretistic practices. To finish up the chapter, with great authority, Paul seems to drive the last nail in the coffin of works based righteousness/salvation in vs.20-23:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!?” These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.[3]

Reading through the judicial lens, the dissonance begins almost immediately in Ch. 3. Paul moves immediately to telling his readers that because of all of this, we should set our hearts/minds on “things above” rather than earthly things, which would appear to give a nod in favor of the gnostic-style dualism he appeared to be arguing against in chapter 2. Mild dissonance quickly turns into full blown theological whiplash when we get to vs. 5-11:

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.[4]

Doesn’t this sound like works-based righteousness? If this is a judicial document, hasn’t Paul flip-flopped? Did Paul just contradict himself? By engaging in a bit of mental gymnastics, the dissonance can be diminished, but (in my opinion) it comes at great cost. For example, one might say “chapter 2 is about externals and chapter 3 is about internals.” Others may suggest, “In chapter 2, Paul is arguing against philosophy itself, which is human and therefore inherently flawed and against particular Jewish and Gentile traditions. On the other hand,” our hypothetical friends continue, “Chapter 3 is talking about the laws of God rather than the laws of man, and Paul’s critique from Chapter 2 does not apply. It is not a critique of a judicial understanding per se, just of man’s judicial constructs in these matters.” Viewing Scripture through our judicial lens, demands that we find a way to mute or neuter part of this text in order to disarm the apparent contradiction. A respectable example of this point of view comes from David E. Garland:

Since Christians have been released from the rulers’ and powers’ slavery, why would they even consider giving these powers new life by submitting to their irksome and irrelevant taboos? Baptism into Christ means death to their dominion, though this reality does not mean that we are now free of all rules. In the context, the rules cited are those that belong to this unspiritual world and would cut one off from Christ. The Colossians still live in the world, but the do not need to live as if the powers had any control over them, and they do not need to give any regard to their rules.[5] (*emphasis mine)

This view enables Garland to avoid dissonance when he reaches chapter 3. He seems to recognize how some people might get tripped up, but uses his previously stated wisdom to avoid the trap. He continues:

The restrictions listed earlier, “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (2:21), were a futile attempt to protect one’s members from sin’s domination; but such efforts failed to get at the problem’s root, the inner cravings and obsessions. It did not even scratch the surface of the problem.”[6]

This approach does indeed sound quite reasonable. The problem is that Garland appears to slide into a form of dualism to preserve the integrity of his judicial lens.

I have no desire make a “straw man” of the judicial lens or to critique brilliant theologians like Garland. Rather, I have briefly mentioned the judicial lens and pointed towards what I consider unnecessary and possibly unhealthy dissonance. From this point on, we will explore this passage through a relational lens and let it stand on its own merit.

[1] Today's New International Version Copyright © 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society®, Zondervan

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid

[5] Garland, David E…NIV Application Commentary: Colossians/Philemon, The. Grand Rapids, Zondervan 1998 pg.183

[6] Ibid. pg. 203


Kenny Payne said...


Is your uneasyness with a "judicial lens" (I am also uncomfortable with that lens!) an admission that the "original sin" paradigm might be creating more problems than it solves? I recently read an interesting book called "Original Blessing" that I think you should explore. I cannot say that I find the entire argument compelling, but it does create some alternate readings that excited me.

Keith Brenton said...

Adam, I haven't been blogging for a while, so I have this huge reserve of paragraph breaks. I want you to have them and use them in good faith. No, really; I insist.

This series is too good for me to keep getting lost while reading it or just giving up on it.

Seriously, dude, I've got trifocals. Help me out, here.

(Oh, dang, I just used up three paragraph breaks.)

Adam said...

LOL! Sorry man, I was just cutting and pasting from MS Word and it apparently lost formatting in the process. I'll clean it up next week when I post the rest of it.
(send me an email address and I'll just email you the completed document in Word).