I can understand why the idea of the “cosmic Christ” has come back into vogue. It is a corrective to the hyper-individualism of much modern theology—and indeed of much popular culture. It stretches Christian spirituality to encompass an eco-mysticism that is not merely pantheistic. Its association with a somewhat heterodox strand of Catholic spirituality, going back through the Franciscan Richard Rohr, and the Dominican Matthew Fox, to the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, has a strong appeal to jaded evangelicals. It can now draw on the stunning and vast beauty of the images of deep space provided by the Hubble telescope, and to that extent, at least, it may help to reconnect the religious and the scientific imaginations. Lastly, it is a way of speaking about incarnation apart from the traditional preoccupation with sin, shame, death, and the ethical problems of a bloody atonement theory.
I get all that. My problem, as so often, is that it is just another way of not dealing with the central thesis of the New Testament, which is neither individualistic nor cosmic but political, as best we can name it—that is, the proposition that Israel’s crucified Messiah would one day rule over the nations of the Greek-Roman world.
I think that this oversight can be demonstrated from the text at the heart of the doctrine—the hymn-like celebration of Christ as “firstborn of all creation,” through whom all things were created and hold together, in Colossians 1:15-20.
…giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light; who delivered us from the authority of darkness and removed us into the kingdom of the Son of his love, in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of the sins, who is an image of the invisible God, firstborn of all creation, because in him all things were created in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or lordships or rules or authorities; all things through him and for him have been created; and he is before all things, and all things in him hold together; and he is the head of the body of the church, who is beginning, firstborn from the dead, in order that he might be in all things pre-eminent, because in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to him(self), making peace through the blood of his cross, whether things on the earth or things in the heavens. (My translation)
The kingdom of his Son
Interpretation of this passage has been skewed, in the first place, by the tendency to detach it from the argument of the letter and treat it as a self-contained piece of hymnody. If we read it in context, the cosmic Christ hypothesis becomes much more difficult to sustain.
The good news concerning the sonship of Jesus (cf. Rom. 1:1-4) is bearing fruit “in the whole world (kosmoi).” A number of Gentiles in Colossae have come to believe that Jesus will judge their world and rule over the nations of the oikoumenē, and Paul says that he has been praying that they will grow in their understanding of how to please their new Lord (Col. 1:9-10). Even discipleship is political!
God has delivered them from the authority of the darkness that oppresses the pagan world (cf. Eph. 4:18; 5:8, 11; 6:12) and “removed” (metestēsen) them to the kingdom of “the Son of his love” (Col. 1:13). This is the language of imperial relocation: Tiglath-Pileser, Josephus says, “made the inhabitants prisoners, and transplanted (metestēsen) them into his own kingdom” (Jos. Ant. 9:235). Same idea.
The phrase “the Son of his love” (tou huiou tou agapēs) recalls the Gospel story. Jesus is the “beloved (agapētos) Son,” who was anointed and empowered by the Spirit of God at his baptism (Mk. 1:11) and sent to the vineyard of Israel to do the work of a servant-prophet (Mk. 12:1-11). What distinguished him from the servant-prophets who preceded him was not the place of origin but his status, and in particular the fact that, at some point in the future, he would come into an inheritance, which the wicked tenants (that is, the corrupt leadership of Israel) thought they could get their hands on.
In this beloved Son they have “the redemption, the forgiveness of the sins” (cf. Eph. 1:7). Paul, the Jewish apostle, is thinking of the suffering and death of Jesus in the past for the sins of his people (ie. the sins that would soon bring wrath upon Israel), but “redemption” (apolytrōsis) has a future aspect too: redemption will come at the parousia, when Jesus will be revealed both to apostate Israel and to the nations, and the suffering of his followers will be brought to an end (cf. Lk. 21:28; Rom. 8:23; Eph. 1:14).
Paul’s argument, therefore, is that the Gentile believers in Colossae have now also been qualified by God to share in the future inheritance, alongside Jewish believers who have “the redemption” of Israel, the forgiveness of “the sins” of Israel in Jesus (Col. 1:12).
So this is all about the hope that Jewish and Gentile believers have in a future fulfilment or realisation of the “rule” or “kingdom” of Jesus. That’s why Paul prays that they will be strengthened “for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col. 1:11). It would be a long and painful struggle of life and witness before the rule or kingdom of Israel’s Messiah over the nations was brought about.
Firstborn of all creation
Paul then has more to say about this Son who would eventually rule over the nations (cf. Rom. 15:12). The relative clause that connects verses 14 and 15 makes the continuity of thought clear: “…the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have the redemption, the forgiveness of the sins,” who is an image of the invisible god, a firstborn of all creation….”
So here we have what we might call a “cosmic” theme—Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation,” or perhaps “of every creature.” But the matter we have to consider is the relation of the “creation” statements in Colossians 1:15-17 to the kingdom narrative that has dominated the argument to this point.
The first point to make is that “firstborn of all creation” belongs naturally to the kingdom argument. The background in Jewish thought can be delineated quite easily.
1. Moses is instructed to tell Pharaoh, “My firstborn (prōtotokos) son is Israel” (Exod. 4:22 LXX). Israel/Ephraim is God’s “firstborn” (prōtotokos) because in the past God found them in the wilderness; therefore, in the future he will bring them back from Babylon (Jer. 38:9 LXX = 31:9 MT). To be “firstborn” was to be “head of nations” (Jer. 38:7 LXX)—not the first nation to come into existence, nor even a people having authority over other nations, but a people pre-eminent among the nations in God’s eyes.
Writing after the war against Rome, the author of 4 Ezra asks why God’s people, “whom you have called your firstborn (primogenitum), only begotten,” have been given into the hands of their enemies. “If the world has indeed been created for us, why do we not possess our world as an inheritance?” (4 Ezra 6:58-59). The relevance is apparent: Israel as God’s “firstborn” should inherit the world (cf. Rom. 4:13).
2. In the Wisdom literature it is said that God will “admonish a righteous man as a son of his love (huion agapēseōs), and his discipline is as that of a firstborn (prōtotokou)” (Ps. Sol. 13:9). This can be applied either to the righteous within Israel, as here, or to the people as a whole, among the nations:
Your judgments are over the whole earth with pity, and your love is upon the offspring of Abraham, the sons of Israel. Your discipline is upon us as on a firstborn (prōtotokon), an only son, to turn back the obedient soul from ignorant stupidity. (Ps. Sol. 18:3–4)
A similar idea is found in Hebrews, where it is said of Jesus that he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).
3. David will call on YHWH, saying, “My Father you are, my God and supporter of my deliverance!”; therefore, God will make him “a firstborn (prōtotokon), high among the kings of the earth” (Ps. 88:27-28 LXX = 89:26-27 MT). The king who calls on God as Father will embody the firstborn status, the pre-eminence, of the people.
If Paul had this background in mind, which seems entirely plausible, the phrase “firstborn of all creation” presents Jesus, in effect, as the beloved Son, who is obedient Israel, who is disciplined through suffering, who calls out “Abba! Father!” when he is in need of deliverance, and who has been made pre-eminent among all creatures as the king who will inherit the world even though Rome will destroy Jerusalem.
The “all things” that are not “all things”
Beyond this, I don’t have a fully settled understanding of how verses 15-20 work, but I think some more or less fixed points can be established.
Most importantly, what is created is not the world and the living creatures in it but specifically political realities or entities: “whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities” (Col. 1:16). This creation or new creation is quite narrowly conceived.
The distinction between heaven and earth, things invisible and things visible, is also significant. The creator God is invisible (cf. Rom. 1:20-23) and belongs to the sphere of heaven, but an “image” is visible and in principle belongs to the sphere of the earthly, perhaps in the way that a statue constitutes the “presence” of a remote and “unseen” ruler:
When people could not honor them in their presence because they lived far off, they imagined their appearance from afar and made a visible image (eikona) of the king whom they honored, that through diligence they might flatter the absent one as though present. (Wis. 14:17)
The Son who suffered and died on earth, disarming the “rulers and authorities” by his death on a Roman cross, has been seated at the right hand of God in heaven (Col. 3:1), so the visible and triumphant “image” is now located in the invisible sphere of heaven, with God.
In this we have the reconciliation of the specific set of “all things” that matters in this passage: visible rule on earth and invisible rule in heaven have been reconciled in king Jesus. The hostile, anti-YHWHistic rulers on earth (Herod, Pilate, Caesar) have been defeated (cf. Col. 2:15), and their power, authority and glory have been given to the Son of Man, who was rejected, who suffered, and who has been seated at the right hand of God to rule in the midst of his enemies until the last enemy has been destroyed (cf. Mk. 14:62).
As such, Jesus is “firstborn (prōtotokos) from the dead,” the beginning and head of the community of resurrected saints who will rule with him once this new state of affairs has been publicly and politically recognised in the real world.
That “all things” were created in Jesus looks like wisdom language and must have some reference to the original creation of the world. But the focus is so consistently on political transformation that I think verses 16-17 must be assimilated to this perspective. We may get an idea of the force of Paul’s fusion of kingdom and wisdom language from the proposal of Paulus Fabius Maximus: the birthday of the “most divine” Augustus was a date that
we could probably without fear of contradiction equate with the beginning of alI things, if not in terms of nature, certainly in terms of utility, seeing that he restored stability, when everything was collapsing and falling into disarray, and gave a new look to the entire world that would have been most happy to accept its own ruin had not the good and common fortune of all been born: Caesar.[fn]OGIS 458.5-9; and see B.W. Winter, Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses (2015), 34.[/fn]
The cosmic wisdom of God
There has to be a moment when a person becomes a messiah or “Christ.” Jesus was anointed at his baptism as a Son/servant of the God of Israel. He was “made” or confirmed as Israel’s messiah and Lord by his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. In that regard, he came to have an authority above “all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Eph. 1:21).
He is the cosmic Christ, therefore, in this very specific sense: because he was obedient to the Father, he has attained a position of rule above all other powers in the cosmos, whether earthly or heavenly, visible or invisible. This is still essentially an argument about kingdom.
Within the historical purview of the New Testament churches, this meant two practical things. On the one hand, no opposition that the churches would encounter—from the authorities in Jerusalem, from Gentile magistrates and kings, or even from Satan—could ultimately defeat them (cf. Rom. 8:31-39). On the other, they could be certain that this supreme authority of Israel’s uniquely qualified Messiah would eventually be acknowledged by the political-religious systems that now opposed them.
The really quite revolutionary manner of YHWH’s annexation of the ancient world (cf. Phil. 2:6-11) could also be described, in Jewish terms, as an unprecedented embodiment or “incarnation” of the Wisdom of God by which all things were created. So we may speak of the “cosmic Wisdom” of the creator God. But the movement of Paul’s argument is forwards, not backwards. The incursion of cosmic Wisdom has created a new world, a new oikoumenē, in which kingdom on earth and kingdom in heaven are reconciled, through the death of Jesus and in the person of Jesus, who is an image of the invisible God. It was only a matter of time before this new political-religious order would be manifested in the world.
The Bible provides us with a fully fledged language for embracing the wonder and mystery of creation. The cosmos is an expression of the creative wisdom of the living God, and it seems to me that there is adequate scope in that narrative to address both the enormity of the universe and the fragility of the natural world. The incarnation of that wisdom in Jesus, however, defined the beginning of a new political order that can only be understood historically.
At a later stage the historical argument could reasonably be compressed into the tight metaphysical proportions of classical Trinitarianism. But we are again in need of a sense of history, and I think it is time to recover the narrative-historical perspective.