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History Of The Christian Church Volume I by Philip Schaff

Section 94. The Epistle to the Colossians.

The Churches in Phrygia.

The cities of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis are mentioned together as seats of Christian churches in the closing chapter of Colossians, and the Epistle may be considered as being addressed to all, for the apostle directs that it be read also in the churches of the Laodiceans (Col.4:13-16). They were situated within a few miles of each other in the valley of the Lycus (a tributary of the Maeander) in Phrygia on the borders of Lydia, and belonged, under the Roman rule, to the proconsular province of Asia Minor.

Laodicea was the most important of the three, and enjoyed metropolitan rank; she was destroyed by a disastrous earthquake a.d.61 or 65, but rebuilt from her own resources without the customary aid from Rome. The church of Laodicea is the last of the seven churches addressed in the Apocalypse (Rev.3:14-22), and is described as rich and proud and lukewarm. It harbored in the middle of the fourth century (after 344) a council which passed an important act on the canon, forbidding the public reading of any but |the canonical books of the New and Old Testaments| (the list of these books is a later addition), a prohibition which was confirmed and adopted by later councils in the East and the West.

Hierapolis was a famous watering-place, surrounded by beautiful scenery, and the birthplace of the lame slave Epictetus, who, with Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, ranks among the first heathen moralists, and so closely resembles the lofty maxims of the New Testament that some writers have assumed, though without historic foundation, a passing acquaintance between him and Paul or his pupil Epaphras of Colossae. The church of Hierapolis figures in the post-apostolic age as the bishopric of Papias (a friend of Polycarp) and Apollinaris.

Colossae, once likewise famous, was at the time of Paul the smallest of the three neighboring cities, and has almost disappeared from the earth; while magnificent ruins of temples, theatres, baths, aqueducts, gymnasia, and sepulchres still testify to the former wealth and prosperity of Laodicea and Hierapolis. The church of Colossae was the least important of the churches to which Paul addressed an Epistle, and it is scarcely mentioned in post-apostolic times; but it gave rise to a heresy which shook the church in the second century, and this Epistle furnished the best remedy against it.

There was a large Jewish population in Phrygia, since Antiochus the Great had despotically transplanted two thousand Jewish families from Babylonia and Mesopotamia to that region. It thus became, in connection with the sensuous and mystic tendency of the Phrygian character, a nursery of religious syncretism and various forms of fanaticism.

Paul and the Colossians.

Paul passed twice through Phrygia, on his second and third missionary tours, but probably not through the valley of the Lycus. Luke does not say that he established churches there, and Paul himself seems to include the Colossians and Laodiceans among those who had not seen his face in the flesh. He names Epaphras, of Colossae, his |dear fellow-servant| and |fellow-prisoner,| as the teacher and faithful minister of the Christians in that place. But during his long residence in Ephesus (a.d.54-57) and from his imprisonment he exercised a general supervision over all the churches in Asia. After his death they passed under the care of John, and in the second century they figure prominently in the Gnostic, Paschal, Chiliastic, and Montanistic controversies.

Paul heard of the condition of the church at Colossae through Epaphras, his pupil, and Onesimus, a runaway slave. He sent through Tychicus (Col.4:7) a letter to the church, which was also intended for the Laodiceans (4:16); at the same time he sent through Onesimus a private letter of commendation to his master, Philemon, a member of the church of Colossae. He also directed the Colossians to procure and read |the letter from Laodicea,| which is most probably the evangelical Epistle to the Ephesians which was likewise transmitted through Tychicus. He had special reasons for writing to the Colossians and to Philemon, and a general reason for writing to all the churches in the region of Ephesus; and he took advantage of the mission of Tychicus to secure both ends. In this way the three Epistles are closely connected in time and aim. They would mutually explain and confirm one another.

The Colossian Heresy.

The special reason which prompted Paul to write to the Colossians was the rise of a new heresy among them which soon afterward swelled into a mighty and dangerous movement in the ancient church, as rationalism has done in modern times. It differed from the Judaizing heresy which he opposed in Galatians and Corinthians, as Essenism differed from Phariseeism, or as legalism differs from mysticism. The Colossian heresy was an Essenic and ascetic type of Gnosticism; it derived its ritualistic and practical elements from Judaism, its speculative elements from heathenism; it retained circumcision, the observance of Sabbaths and new moons, and the distinction of meats and drinks; but it mixed with it elements of oriental mysticism and theosophy, the heathen notion of an evil principle, the worship of subordinate spirits, and an ascetic struggle for emancipation from the dominion of matter. It taught an antagonism between God and matter and interposed between them a series of angelic mediators as objects of worship. It thus contained the essential features of Gnosticism, but in its incipient and rudimental form, or a Christian Essenism in its transition to Gnosticism. In its ascetic tendency it resembles that of the weak brethren in the Roman congregation (Rom.14:5, 6, 21). Cerinthus, in the age of John, represents a more developed stage and forms the link between the Colossian heresy and the post-apostolic Gnosticism.

The Refutation.

Paul refutes this false philosophy calmly and respectfully by the true doctrine of the Person of Christ, as the one Mediator between God and men, in whom dwells all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And he meets the false asceticism based upon the dualistic principle with the doctrine of the purification of the heart by faith and love as the effectual cure of all moral evil.

The Gnostic and the Pauline Pleroma.

|Pleroma| or |fulness| is an important term in Colossians and Ephesians. Paul uses it in common with the Gnostics, and this has been made an argument for the post-apostolic origin of the two Epistles. He did, of course, not borrow it from the Gnostics; for he employs it repeatedly in his other Epistles with slight variations. It must have had a fixed theological meaning, as it is not explained. It cannot be traced to Philo, who, however, uses |Logos| in a somewhat similar sense for the plenitude of Divine powers.

Paul speaks of |the pleroma of the earth,| i.e., all that fills the earth or is contained in it (1 Cor.10:26, 28, in a quotation from Ps.24:1); |the pleroma,| i.e., the fulfilment or accomplishment, |of the law,| which is love (Rom.13:10 ); |the pleroma,| i.e., the fulness or abundance, |of the blessing of Christ| ( Rom.15:29) |the pleroma,| or full measure, |of the time| ( Gal.4:4; comp. Eph.1:10; Mark 1:15; Luke 21:24); |the pleroma of the Gentiles,| meaning their full number, or whole body, but not necessarily all individuals (Rom.11:25); |the pleroma of the Godhead,| i.e., the fulness or plenitude of all Divine attributes and energies (Col.1:19; 2:9); |the pleroma of Christ,| which is the church as the body of Christ (Eph.1:23; comp.3:19; 4:13).

In the Gnostic systems, especially that of Valentinus, |pleroma| signifies the intellectual and spiritual world, including all Divine powers or aeons, in opposition to the |kenoma,| i.e., the void, the emptiness, the material world. The distinction was based on the dualistic principle of an eternal antagonism between spirit and matter, which led the more earnest Gnostics to an extravagant asceticism, the frivolous ones to wild antinomianism. They included in the pleroma a succession of emanations from the Divine abyss, which form the links between the infinite and the finite; and they lowered the dignity of Christ by making him simply the highest of those intermediate aeons. The burden of the Gnostic speculation was always the question: Whence is the world? and whence is evil? It sought the solution in a dualism between mind and matter, the pleroma and the kenoma; but this is no solution at all.

In opposition to this error, Paul teaches, on a thoroughly monotheistic basis, that Christ is |the image of the invisible God| (eikon tou theou tou aoratou Col.1:15; comp.2 Cor.4:4 -- an expression often used by Philo as a description of the Logos, and of the personified Wisdom, in Wisd.7:26); that he is the preëxistent and incarnate pleroma or plenitude of Divine powers and attributes; that in him the whole fulness of the Godhead, that is, of the Divine nature itself, dwells bodily-wise or corporeally (somatikos), as the soul dwells in the human body; and that he is the one universal and all-sufficient Mediator, through whom the whole universe of things visible and invisible, were made, in whom all things hold together (or cohere, sunesteken) , and through whom the Father is pleased to reconcile all things to himself.

The Christology of Colossians approaches very closely to the Christology of John; for he represents Christ as the incarnate |Logos| or Revealer of God, who dwelt among us |full (pleres) of grace and truth,| and out of whose Divine |fulness| (ek tou pleromatos autou) we all have received grace for grace (John 1:1, 14, 16). Paul and John fully agree in teaching the eternal preëxistence of Christ, and his agency in the creation and preservation of the world (Col.1:15-17; John 1:3). According to Paul, He is |the first-born or first-begotten| of all creation (prototokos pases ktiseos,Col.1:15, distinct from protoktistos,first-created), i.e., prior and superior to the whole created world, or eternal; according to John He is |the only-begotten Son| of the Father. (ho monogenes huios John 1:14, 18; comp.3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9), before and above all created children of God. The former term denotes Christ's unique relation to the world, the latter his unique relation to the Father.

The Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Colossians will be discussed in the next section in connection with the Epistle to the Ephesians.

Theme: Christ all in all. The true gnosis and the false gnosis. True and false asceticism.

Leading Thoughts: Christ is the image of the invisible God, the first-begotten of all creation (Col.1:15). -- In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3). -- In him dwelleth all the fulness (to pleroma) of the Godhead bodily (2:9). -- If ye were raised together with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated on the right hand of God (3:1). -- When Christ, who is our life, shall be manifested, then shall ye also with him be manifested in glory (3:4). -- Christ is all, and in all (3:11). -- Above all things put on love, which is the bond of perfectness (3:14). -- Whatsoever ye do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus (3:17).

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