Colossians Conundra, Jesus as God of the OT, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception

Some items from church this morning, followed by a book write-up. I will also include elements of the past two Sundays at church in this post.

A. The Sunday school class is continuing its way through Colossians. Here are three conundra, if you will:

—-The church when Colossians was being written was new and was thus experiencing growing pains, making it especially vulnerable to confusion and cultural trends. As a result, the Colossian church was absorbing Gnostic and Greco-Roman ideas that detracted from the Gospel. Judaism, by contrast, had by this time arrived at a securer self-understanding. It had already wrestled with Hellenism over a century before, and its centers were in Jerusalem and Galilee. With the early Christians, however, Christianity was so new, and outsiders could come to the church claiming to be from the apostles when they actually were not. How would the Colossian church know?

On the other hand, last week, in speaking about Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:6 that the Colossians had received Christ as Lord, the pastor said that this was more than making a decision for Christ or accepting Jesus into their hearts. It was receiving and being trained in a body of Christian doctrine, much like Lutherans are educated in the faith when undergoing confirmation. This seems to imply that the church had already arrived at a firm sense of what it believed.

I suppose this conundrum is not impossible to resolve. The apostles may have arrived at a firm sense of what they believed and attempted to pass that down to others, but Christianity was still new to those who received it, and they may have lacked the means to deal with the religions and philosophy of their day in light of their newfound faith. The Christian creed also may have been a bare-bones summary in need of development, so its adherents perhaps supplemented it with other ideas without recognizing that those other ideas compromised and detracted from the Gospel.

—-Colossians 2:16-17 states: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ” (KJV).

The pastor, like a lot of Christians, interprets this to mean that Paul was exhorting the Colossians to resist the Judaizers, those who held that Christians needed to observe Jewish rituals of the Torah to be righteous before and to find acceptance by God. The Old Testament rituals had their place in God’s plan, as they guided Israel and foreshadowed Christ. But, now that Christ has come, Christ has replaced them, so people need not observe them.

Where the pastor struggled was that Judaism was not particularly strong in Colossae, so how could the Colossian Christians have been dealing with Judaizers? He landed on suggesting that at least Colossae had some Jewish presence, which was challenging the faith of the Colossian Christians.

—-Colossians 3:1-2 states: “If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (KJV).

Here, Paul exhorts the Colossian Christians to seek what is above, not what is on earth. The pastor’s struggle here was that Paul had just spent lines seeking to refute Gnosticism, which had an otherworldly focus that marginalized the material world. Is Paul contradicting himself and telling Christians to repudiate the material in favor of the heavenly?

The pastor’s solution was to interpret the “things that are above” as things upward. Paul in Philippians 3:10-14 describes Paul’s upward journey, his high calling. This entails the Christian battling his old, ruined, sinful self and being raised daily in Christ. God brings us upward to him on this progressive journey. The part in Colossians 3:1 about Christ sitting on God’s right hand refers, not to pie in the sky, but to Christ as ruler holding creation in his hands. Colossians 3:1, therefore, is not opposed to the material creation but affirms Christ as ruler of the material creation.

There are valuable insights here. Personally, I find little problem with Paul telling Christians to seek what is in heaven. Paul probably differed with the Gnostics on how to do this: Gnostics believed in saying the right password and going through intermediary deities to arrive at the pure God, whereas Paul held that one only needed to know Christ to arrive at God; moreover, Paul is not opposed to the material creation, for he maintains in Colossians 1 that Christ created it. Still, Paul wanted Christians to look to God above rather than to be sidetracked by the temptations, corruptions, and persecutions in the world around them.

B. A few weeks ago, in talking about Colossians 1, the pastor said that everything we know about God is on account of his Son, Jesus, for Christ is the image of the invisible God, the way that we know the invisible. Even knowing the Holy Spirit occurs through the Son. But even the theophanies in the Old Testament were actually Christophanies: Christ was the one who appeared to the Old Testament figures as God. The “angel of the LORD” in the Old Testament, the spokesperson for God, was the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ.

I was raised in the belief that Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament. This belief, within Armstrongism, served to dispel the notion that Jesus was nicer than the Old Testament God: that the Old Testament God was a God of wrath and violence who commanded people to obey a bunch of rules, whereas Jesus showed love and grace. When God in the Old Testament commanded the Israelites to slaughter every Canaanite man, woman, and child, therefore, that was Jesus making the command.

John’s Gospel may very well maintain that the Word who became Jesus Christ was the God of the Old Testament. Through the Word was all things made, according to John 1. John 5:37 affirms that no one has seen the Father or heard his voice. How, then, do we account for the times in the Old Testament when people did see God or hear his voice? That must have been God the Son whom they saw and heard. John 12:41 appears to go this route in interpreting the theophany in Isaiah 6 as Isaiah witnessing Christ’s glory. Whereas the Son was revealing himself in the Old Testament, he was revealing the Father in the New.

But is this the view throughout the New Testament? At times, the implication is that the Father, the God of the Old Testament with whom Jews were familiar, was the one who sent Jesus Christ. I think of Hebrews 1:1-2a: “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son” (KJV). Is this saying that God the Father was the one who spoke in the Old Testament?

Of course, there is a way to get around this: to say that, when the Son speaks in the Old Testament, that is, in effect, the Father speaking, for the two are one. Why, then, would the Gospel of John make a big deal about Jesus revealing the Father, if the Father had revealed himself all along before that time? Perhaps its point is that Jesus incarnate is a clearer manifestation of the Father, or to marvel that the revelation of the Father walked on the earth, among people, for a period of time.

C. Matthew J. Thomas. Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second Century Reception. IVP Academic, 2020. Go here to purchase the book.

Matthew J. Thomas has a D.Phil from Oxford and teaches biblical theology at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and also at Regent College.

When Paul criticizes seeking to be saved by obeying the law, what exactly is Paul criticizing?

According to the old perspective, exemplified by Luther, Calvin, and Bultmann, Paul was saying that humans cannot become righteous before God through their good works. People cannot rely on the law because, being corrupt sinners, they fail to meet its high demands. Reliance on the law also generates self-righteousness and self-idolatry. People need God’s grace, forgiveness, and free acceptance in order to have a right standing before God.

According to the new perspective, the “works of the law” refer to Jewish rituals, such as the Sabbath, food laws, and circumcision. Paul was saying that people are saved by Christ, not these laws. While Christians enter God’s community through grace and God’s forgiveness, they must observe God’s moral law (love of God and neighbor) to receive ultimate salvation (the resurrection of the righteous).

As Thomas shows, there is a diversity of emphases within the new perspective, but Thomas addresses the question of whether second century Christian thinkers agreed more with the old perspective or the new perspective as they are conveyed above. His conclusion, after looking at texts, is that they agreed with the new perspective’s understanding of the “works of the law.” Not only do the church fathers stress Jewish rituals when discussing the “works of the law” while maintaining that Paul still upholds the Christian obligation to observe God’s moral law (love), but Luther, Calvin, and Bultmann themselves acknowledge that their own understanding of the “works of the law” is lacking in the church fathers. Thomas appears to imply that patristic understandings of the “works of the law” may very well clue us in as to what Paul originally meant, for would people so close to Paul’s time utterly miss Paul’s point?

The book gets rather sidetracked, at times, with scholarly minutae, but scholars may deem such minutae to be relevant and essential to Thomas’s thesis. Thomas’s conclusion is lucid and effective in summarizing the issues.

In assessing this issue, a question that I have is: “Does it have to be either/or”? I think so, but I will explain why after explaining where I believe there can be overlap between the old and new perspectives.

Both the old and the new perspectives can affirm that the law cannot give people a right standing before God. Both deny that people, in their carnal state, can satisfy God’s moral demands. That is why the church fathers believed that God’s transformation of people through Christ was necessary: the law may have restrained the Jews in the Old Testament, but it did not cure them of sin, which was why Christ had to come. In light of this, both perspectives can affirm, with Paul, that attempts to be justified through the law leads to unwarranted boasting (Romans 4:2; Ephesians 2:9). Carnal human beings cannot boast that they have attained right standing before God through obedience of the law—-whether ceremonial or moral (see Romans 7-8)—-for, apart from God’s grace in Christ, they cannot obey God.

Where the old and new perspectives may differ is in their understanding of grace. The way some old perspectivist preachers talk, obedience is optional when it comes to ultimate salvation, for God saves people by grace: he accepts them as righteous, even though they are actually sinners. They are like “snow-covered dung.” The church fathers, by contrast, may have seen grace more as God empowering Christians to live a practically righteous life.

What I say in the above paragraph is simplistic, for there are plenty of Reformed Christians who would say that good works, in some way, shape, or form, are necessary for final salvation. But, in critiquing the old perspective, Thomas (and others) seems to portray the old perspective in terms of a “free grace,” antinomian approach to salvation.

Another relevant issue is that some of the church fathers whom Thomas profiles saw the Old Testament system as one of bondage, the implication being that the system that Christ inaugurated is not. But how was the Old Testament system one of bondage, whereas the New Testament system is not? My antinomian desires like to say: “Because the Old Testament required people to earn their salvation, whereas, in the New Testament, they do not have to do anything to possess it; just accept God’s free gift.” The fathers, however, appear to have had a different answer: because the Holy Spirit enables people to keep the law under the New Testament system, so the obedience is not bondage. Here, at least from a spiritual standpoint, I have issues. If obedience flows so automatically from the Christian, why is being good so difficult for Christians?

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.