Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Relational View of Grace and Behavior in Colossians Part 4 (conclusion)

Relational Harmony in Colossians

Bearing in mind our earlier quote from Grenz[1], we may surmise that the relational worldview/lens presupposes the following :

  • the triune God is the eternal fellowship of the Trinitarian members
  • God’s purpose for creation is that the world participate in “community.”
  • that God directs his program to the bringing about of community in the highest sense of the word—a redeemed people, living within a renewed creation, enjoying the presence of their God

Looking at Colossians as a whole through a relational lens, we can assume that what Paul proposes is intended to move the Colossian church into the future that God dreams for the world. We can also assume that what Paul critiques and condemns are elements that stand in opposition to God’s future.

Paul very clearly identifies one of these elements in 2:15…

And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.[2]

But, what are these “powers and authorities” and how do they oppose God’s future? According to this reference, Christ is already triumphant over them, yet they still seem to loom menacingly. The first mention of these “powers” in Colossians comes a bit earlier in the letter. In 1:15-20, Paul mentions them in the form of a hymn…

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.[3]

In establishing the supremacy of Christ, Paul points out that he is indeed “over” these “powers” and “authorities”. Oddly though, they apparently were created by him and he somehow holds them together. Stranger still, according to this passage, he is also reconciling them to himself. But, again we must ask, “What are they?” Walter Wink saves us from a dualistic wild goose chase by suggesting:

In the biblical view, the Powers are at one and the same time visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, spiritual and institutional (Col. 1:15-20). Powers such as a lumberyard or a city government posses an outer, physical manifestation (buildings, personnel, trucks, fax machines) and an inner spirituality, corporate culture, or collective personality. The Powers are simultaneously an outer, visible structure and an inner, spiritual reality. Perhaps we are not accustomed to thinking of the Pentagon, or the Chrysler Corporation, or the Mafia as having a spirituality, but they do. The New Testament uses the language of power at one point to the outer aspect, at another to the inner aspect, and yet again to both together. What people in the world of the Bible experienced as and called “principalities and powers” was in fact the actual spirituality at the center of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of their day.[4]

These “powers” are not merely physical entities, but neither are they merely spiritual entities. They are forces that move in opposition to the harmony and community God desires, and they are indeed powerful. But, as we have already noted, Paul says they have already been defeated on the cross and that they are being reconciled to God. If the problem is already taken care of, why does Paul even mention it to this group of believers, and why in this particular context? Wink provides a plausible explanation:

This is the goal: not only to become free from the Powers, but to free the Powers. Jesus came not just to reconcile people to God despite the Powers, but to reconcile the Powers themselves to God (Col. 1:20). We seek not only to break the idolatrous spells cast over people by the Powers, but to break the ability of the Powers to cast idolatrous spells. [5]

God’s agenda for his people is not one of escape. It is one of reconciliation, not only of themselves to God, but of all things to God and to each other through God. The people of God are to become agents of reconciliation in a fragmented world, bringing all things back into God’s harmony…even the powers and principalities that oppose it. Imagine the power of this idea to a small group of believers in a culture that was dominated by the ideology and military might of the Roman Empire!

It is exactly an ideology that Paul turns to next. In verse 8 he begins to call out a particular philosophy as an opponent of the Gospel. Speculations run rampant as to what the philosophy Paul is referring to actually was. The New Interpreter’s Bible cautions:

The very number and variety of proposed solutions to the identity of the philosophy should caution against any overly confident claims to reconstruct it. Although the writer’s prescription for curing the ailment he believed to be a threat to the well-being of his readers comes across reasonably clearly, the ailment itself defies any really accurate diagnosis. The writer had no reason for defining more exactly the teaching involved. He expects his readers to know perfectly well what he was talking about, and so he merely touches on some of its features, using some of its catchwords and slogans.[6]

The exact nature of the “philosophy” in question seems beyond our reach. Fortunately, the exact nature is irrelevant to our intent. We seek to identify what casts this philosophy as an opponent of God’s agenda and thereby a tool of the “powers”.

But, is philosophy itself the issue here? Is Paul implying that all philosophy is inherently human and flawed? N.T. Wright offers this helpful bit of insight:

The means by which young Christians might be snatched away is characterized as through hollow and deceptive philosophy. NIV well expresses the fact that Paul is not opposed to (what we would call) ‘philosophy’ in general: literally the word simply means ‘love of wisdom’. But this ‘love of wisdom’, like the fa├žade of a grand house which remains standing when the insides have been demolished promises much and gives nothing.[7]

So, philosophy itself is not the issue. At times it can even be quite helpful. This issue here appears to be the idolatrous nature of this philosophy. Peter Rollins explains:

Here Paul warns us to beware of human abstractions, which can so easily draw us into a conceptual prison. Indeed, it is precisely this idolatry that is denied by John when he writes that ‘you have never heard his voice nor seen his form [eidos]’’ and denied by Paul when he writes that Christians ‘walk by faith and not by sight [eidos]’. It is clear that John and Paul are not asserting that no encounter with God is possible, but rather that any encounter with the divine cannot be reduced to an idolatrous understanding.[8]

This philosophy makes a conceptual idol of itself. It reduces God to a formula and the formula then necessarily becomes God. “Follow these observable rules and God has to take you,” it seductively offers. It was as attractive then as it is today. It renders Christianity as an individualistic enterprise and God as an abstract object simply to be appeased by rule keeping. The rules become the object of worship, and a judicial cataract forms over our eyes. Community becomes only important in so far as it keeps us following the rules and is commanded. This very quickly slides us, by necessity into dualism. Paul is apparently making a stand, at least in part, against the Gnostic or pre-Gnostic dualism inherent in this philosoply. Connecting 2:8 to it’s explaination in 2:16-23, Michael Wittmer observes:

…the Gnostic lifestyle appears to be eminently pious. What could be more spiritual than suppressing physical appetites in order to meditate on heavenly things? But Paul refuses to be fooled by appearances. He observes that these Gnostic rules and regulations have never helped anyone become more righteous. Only Jesus Christ, not self-imposed duties can restrain our evil lusts.[9]

Paul immediately seems to attack this (pre)Gnostic spirit/body dualism in 2:9 as he goes to great length to reinforce the physicality of Christ and remind them of his physical resurrection from the dead. Paul then juxtaposes this against the “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” rules of the dualistic philosophy thereby exposing it’s incompatibility with the Gospel. Wittmer rightly reminds us as he continues his thought:

Because Jesus Christ is the Creator of the physical world, his followers must celebrate, not condemn Creation.[10]

Then, as we enter chapter 3, we hit the first speed bump. Why, after devoting so much energy to arguing against a physical/spiritual dualism, does Paul begin the next paragraph with the following seemingly antithetical statement?

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your1 life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.[11]

To our eyes, he seems to be advocating what he was previously debating. The relational lens we’ve been trying on begins to cloud with a judicial and dualistic fog as we read the next few verses. The judicial spectacles we laid to the side begin to look very attractive again as we hear Paul say:

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.[12]

We have been so conditioned by our modern, dualistic, judicial readings that we simply begin to think (with some relief), “Oh finally! Here’s our list of rules.” We must have misread chapter 2, we think to ourselves. We toss those novelty “relational” spectacles in the trash and nullify the part of the text that Paul seems to use to prevent exactly this kind of reading. But, need this be the case? What other light can chapter 3 be read in? Let’s give those relational lenses one more try and see if they can work here.

In their excellent book, Colossians Remixed, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat pick up this question and run with it:

Here is the classic paradox in Paul’s thought. Christ has already defeated the powers, but his reconciling rule has not yet been fully established in history. The purpose of this section of the letter to the Colossians is to help them navigate life in the dynamics of that “already and not yet.” Indeed, this already/not-yet that characterizes the unfinished story of Jesus also characterizes the unfinished story of his followers. They have already been raised with Christ, they have already died to the empire, but their life is hidden with Christ and has not yet been revealed.[13]

This is precisely the tension inherent in the life of one who is “in Christ.” We are to live out the reality of the kingdom of God in the midst of a world where God’s Kingdom is not yet fully realized. This tension is mirrored in our own lives. God, by his Grace declares that we are holy (though we are clearly not), and asks us to live into that reality, or, as Rob Bell puts it:

In these passages we are told who we are, now. The issue then isn’t my beating myself up over all the things I am not doing or the things I’m doing poorly; the issue is my learning who this person is who God keeps insisting I already am…This is an issue of identity. It is letting what God says about us shape what we believe about ourselves.[14]

This “already/not-yet” is the context of Grace. With this understanding in place, Walsh and Keesmaat dive into our actual question about Paul’s seemingly dualistic language of “seeking things above”:

Perhaps it means something like “Set your hearts on and allow your imagination to be liberated to comprehend Christ’s legitimate rule.” Maybe it also means something like “Allow your vision of life, your worldview, your most basic life orientation, to be directed by Christ’s heavenly rule at the right hand of God.” To use the language of the Gospels, perhaps it means “Strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matt 6:33). Thus the passage sets us off on a direction that can lead us to it’s only conclusion. What begins with seeking things above ends with “and whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Col. 3:17). Seeking that which is above is a matter not of becoming heavenly minded but allowing the liberating rule of Christ to transform every dimension of your life.[15]

The implication seems to be that rather than advocating the dualism he was refuting as recently as the previous verse, Paul is invoking the ideology of the Kingdom of God. The Colossians are trying to live out the reality of the Kingdom of God in the midst of a world that is still controlled by the Powers. When seen through this lens, Paul’s discourse progresses seamlessly from chapter 2 to chapter 3. Rather than giving the Colossians a different list of rules in chapter 3, Paul is explaining to them the praxis of their new reality. He seems to be saying, “This is what it looks like for people to live in God’s Kingdom, in the community he dreams of.” It’s not a matter of legalistic rule keeping, or whether the list of rules is lengthy or truncated. It’s a matter of relational fidelity to God and the community of God in midst of this “already/not-yet” world. Wittmer rightly points out that:

…despite our first impression, Paul is not advising the Colossian church to meditate on ethereal, “spiritual” realities. Instead, he is strongly urging them to stay involved in this planet, modeling such godly lives that they bring at least a corner of Christ’s heavenly kingdom to earth[16]

Finally, we hit our other speed bump in our relational reading. After listing the things we are supposed to “put do death”, Paul says that because of these things, the “wrath of God” is coming. Again, from our perspective this certainly seems to cast the passage in a judicial light. Andrew Perriman, however, offers this helpful insight

The warning about “wrath” must be taken very realistically. This is not a post mortem or mythical judgment. It constitutes and event or state of affairs that would come upon a nation or upon the world, to be experienced in a very concrete and distressing manner. To speak of the “wrath of God” is to identify the divine purpose behind natural or military disasters or political oppression; the punishment of wrongdoing by governing authorities is a characteristic means by which the “wrath of God” is executed…[17]

This is not to say that there will be no future judgment, however I do not believe that judgment is what Paul is referring to here. Paul seems to be referring to an imminent historical crisis (possibly an earthquake?). Biblically, judgment seems to be based not on rule-keeping or doctrinal correctness, but on relational and covenantal fidelity to God and the community of God.

In conclusion, looking at the text from a relational perspective, Paul seems to attack a philosophy of rule-keeping because of it’s inherent idolatry, it’s deceptive dualism and because it is an agent of the Powers that seek to undermine God’s future of ultimate harmony. Grace, then is not a shortening of the “rule list” or even the forgiveness for violations of a legal code, but rather the transcendence of the judicial construct all together. Those who are “in Christ” are in a covenant of relational fidelity with God and are thereby drafted as agents of reconciliation in the world. This fidelity exhibits itself in a way of life that seeks to live out the harmony of God’s Kingdom in the midst of a world where it is not yet fully realized. We live this way of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience and forgiveness in the face of the Powers…in the face of empires…and in the face of disaster. By faith, we commit ourselves to this already/not-yet reality of God because we, like Paul, believe that in the end there is love, perfect unity and the very peace of Christ without end.

[1] Grenz, Stanley J…Theology For The Community of God. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000

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

[3] Ibid

[4] Wink, Walter…Powers That Be, The. New York: Galilee Trade, 1999 pg. 24

[5] Ibid, pg. 199

[6] Lincoln, Andrew T…The Letter to the Colossians. New Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. 11. Nashville: Abingdon, 2000

[7] Wright, N. T…The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon. An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

[8] Rollins, Peter…How (not) To Speak Of God. Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2006 pg. 16

[9] Wittmer, Michael E…Heaven is a Place on Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, pg. 56-57

[10] Ibid

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

[12] Ibid

[13] Keesmaat, Sylvia C and Walsh, Brian J…Colossians Remixed, Subverting the Empire. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2004 pg. 155

[14] Bell, Rob…Velvet Elvis: Repainting The Christian Faith. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005

[15] Keesmaat, Sylvia C and Walsh, Brian J…Colossians Remixed, Subverting the Empire. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press. 2004 pg. 155

[16] Wittmer, Michael E…Heaven is a Place on Earth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004, pg. 64

[17] Perriman, Andrew…The Coming of the Son of Man. Waynesboro: Paternoster Press, 2005 pg. 118


Ken Haynes said...

Good series of Posts Adam......

Come hang out with us if you come down this way through the holidays

Matt said...

Just found your blog and find it interesting. It is funny how when you first see a blog you read #4 before 1,2,3...I will have to have a look at 1,2,3 when I have a minute. Take care

Anonymous said...

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Best Wishes.