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History Of The Christian Church Volume I by Philip Schaff

Section 96. Colossians and Ephesians Compared and Vindicated.


The Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians were written about the same time and transmitted through the same messenger, Tychicus. They are as closely related to each other as the Epistles to the Galatians and to the Romans. They handle the same theme, Christ and his church; as Galatians and Romans discuss the same doctrines of salvation by free grace and justification by faith.

But Colossians, like Galatians, arose from a specific emergency, and is brief, terse, polemical; while Ephesians, like Romans, is expanded, calm, irenical. Colossians is directed against the incipient Gnostic (paganizing) heresy, as Galatians is directed against the Judaizing heresy. The former is anti-Essenic and anti-ascetic, the latter is anti-Pharisaic and anti-legalistic; the one deals with a speculative expansion and fantastic evaporation, the latter, with a bigoted contraction, of Christianity; yet both these tendencies, like all extremes, have points of contact and admit of strange amalgamations; and in fact the Colossian and Galatian errorists united in their ceremonial observance of circumcision and the Sabbath. Ephesians, like Romans, is an independent exposition of the positive truth, of which the heresy opposed in the other Epistles is a perversion or caricature.

Again, Colossians and Ephesians differ from each other in the modification and application of their common theme: Colossians is christological and represents Christ as the true pleroma or plenitude of the Godhead, the totality of divine attributes and powers; Ephesians is ecclesiological and exhibits the ideal church as the body of Christ, as the reflected pleroma of Christ, |the fulness of Him who filleth all in all.| Christology naturally precedes ecclesiology in the order of the system, as Christ precedes the church; and Colossians preceded Ephesians most probably, also in the order of composition, as the outline precedes the full picture; but they were not far apart, and arose from the same train of meditation.

This relationship of resemblance and contrast can be satisfactorily explained only on the assumption of the same authorship, the same time of composition, and the same group of churches endangered by the same heretical modes of thought. With Paul as the author of both everything is clear; without that assumption everything is dark and uncertain. |Non est cuiusvis hominis,| says Erasmus, |Paulinum pectus effingere; tonat, fulgurat, meras flammas loquitur Paulus.|


The genuineness of the two cognate Epistles has recently been doubted and denied, but the negative critics are by no means agreed; some surrender Ephesians but retain Colossians, others reverse the case; while Baur, always bolder and more consistent than his predecessors, rejects both.

They must stand or fall together. But they will stand. They represent, indeed, an advanced state of christological and ecclesiological knowledge in the apostolic age, but they have their roots in the older Epistles of Paul, and are brimful of his spirit. They were called forth by a new phase of error, and brought out new statements of truth with new words and phrases adapted to the case. They contain nothing that Paul could not have written consistently with his older Epistles, and there is no known pupil of Paul who could have forged such highly intellectual and spiritual letters in his name and equalled, if not out-Pauled Paul. The external testimonies are unanimous in favor of the Pauline authorship, and go as far back as Justin Martyr, Polycarp, Ignatius, and the heretical Marcion (about 140), who included both Epistles in his mutilated canon.

The difficulties which have been urged against their Pauline origin, especially of Ephesians, are as follows:

1. The striking resemblance of the two Epistles, and the apparent repetitiousness and dependence of Ephesians on Colossians, which seem to be unworthy of such an original thinker as Paul. But this resemblance, which is more striking in the practical than in the doctrinal part, is not the resemblance between an author and an imitator, but of two compositions of the same author, written about the same time on two closely connected topics; and it is accompanied by an equally marked variety in thought and language.

2. The absence of personal and local references in Ephesians. This is, as already remarked, sufficiently explained by the encyclical character of that Epistle.

3. A number of peculiar words not found elsewhere in the Pauline Epistles. But they are admirably adapted to the new ideas, and must be expected from a mind so rich as Paul's. Every Epistle contains some hapaxlegomena. The only thing which is somewhat startling is that an apostle should speak of |holy apostles and prophets| (Eph.3:5), but the term |holy| (hagioi) is applied in the New Testament to all Christians, as being consecrated to God (hagiasmenoi, John 17:17), and not in the later ecclesiastical sense of a spiritual nobility. It implies no contradiction to Eph.3:8, where the author calls himself |the least of all saints| (comp.1 Cor.15:9, |I am the least of the apostles|).

4. The only argument of any weight is the alleged post-Pauline rise of the Gnostic heresy, which is undoubtedly opposed in Colossians (not in Ephesians, at least not directly). But why should this heresy not have arisen in the apostolic age as well as the Judaizing heresy which sprung up before a.d.50, and followed Paul everywhere? The tares spring up almost simultaneously with the wheat. Error is the shadow of truth. Simon Magus, the contemporary of Peter, and the Gnostic Cerinthus, the contemporary, of John, are certainly historic persons. Paul speaks (1 Cor.8:1) of a |gnosis which puffeth up,| and warned the Ephesian elders, as early as 58, of the rising of disturbing errorists from their own midst; and the Apocalypse, which the Tübingen critics assign to the year 68, certainly opposes the antinomian type of Gnosticism, the error of the Nicolaitans (Rev.2:6, 15, 20), which the early Fathers derived from one of the first seven deacons of Jerusalem. All the elements of Gnosticism -- Ebionism, Platonism, Philoism, syncretism, asceticism, antinomianism -- were extant before Christ, and it needed only a spark of Christian truth to set the inflammable material on fire. The universal sentiment of the Fathers, as far as we can trace it up to Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and Polycarp found the origin of Gnosticism in the apostolic age, and called Simon Magus its father or grandfather.

Against their testimony, the isolated passage of Hegesippus, so often quoted by the negative critics, has not the weight of a feather. This credulous, inaccurate, and narrow-minded Jewish Christian writer said, according to Eusebius, that the church enjoyed profound peace, and was |a pure and uncorrupted virgin,| governed by brothers and relations of Jesus, until the age of Trajan, when, after the death of the apostles, |the knowledge falsely so called| (pseudonumos gnosis,comp.1 Tim.6:20), openly raised its head. But he speaks of the church in Palestine, not in Asia Minor; and he was certainly mistaken in this dream of an age of absolute purity and peace. The Tübingen school itself maintains the very opposite view. Every Epistle, as well as the Acts, bears testimony to the profound agitations, parties, and evils of the church, including Jerusalem, where the first great theological controversy was fought out by the apostles themselves. But Hegesippus corrects himself, and makes a distinction between the secret working and the open and shameless manifestation of heresy. The former began, he intimates, in the apostolic age; the latter showed itself afterward. Gnosticism, like modern Rationalism, had a growth of a hundred years before it came to full maturity. A post-apostolic writer would have dealt very differently with the fully developed systems of Basilides, Valentinus, and Marcion. And yet the two short Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians strike at the roots of this error, and teach the positive truth with an originality, vigor, and depth that makes them more valuable, even as a refutation, than the five books of Irenaeus against Gnosticism, and the ten books of the Philosophumena of Hippolytus; and this patent fact is the best proof of their apostolic origin.

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