Recently I wrote about how perhaps worldviews can be organized according to their eschatologies. Another paradigm sometimes used by theologians is that of the relationship between grace and nature. Herman Bavinck, a renowned Reformed theologian, argued that grace restores and fulfills nature, rather than perfecting, replacing or transcending. I want to use this paradigm to explore Colossians 1:15-20, a passage that has ranked high on my short list of favorites ever since a sermon two and a half years ago (listed here) by Rev. Walter Kim inspired me to read the poem over and over again, finding new parallels and sharing in the wonder expressed at the exalted Christ:
15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.
The poem splits neatly into two halves with a number of common themes; the first deals with the Son as Creator and the end of Creation (Nature), and the second makes Him the glorious Head of the New Creation (restored and fulfilled by Grace), as both Redeemer and King.
We start with the Son as the self-revelation of the Father. Here he is given the role assigned to Man in the garden, as the creature most like his Creator, the ruler of the earth, who would show forth his Maker’s glory, mixing His labor with God’s gift of the garden to turn the silent praises of nature into song, prayer, and offering back to the Giver. We may speculate that perhaps even in an unfallen paradise God would someday have sat on David’s throne as the fulfillment of Man for all to see; at the very least we know that direct rulership of the earth was given to David’s Lord as the Image of God, His deputy, and that this rule would further reveal God’s character ini nature and in history.
He is also the firstborn, indicating preeminence, a place of honor, rule, and inheritance. Creation was subject to Him as its King--even all thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities--and given to Him for His joy: all things were created for Him. His rule is one of order: each thing is made according to its kind, whether on heaven or on earth, visible or invisible, and the powers spoken of are given to keep the order, as the order of times and seasons that the rulers of the day and night are given to keep.
In Him all things hold together. This is true in one sense as the Son is the Logos, the reason and wisdom that binds together even the laws of physics (some commentators have drawn parallels to the pre-existent Wisdom through whom all things were made, as in Proverbs 8), as the generative principle behind all the order in which we see God revealed in His work. It also holds in a second sense insofar as He is also the end of all things, and therefore in Him all things find their fulfillment, in Him alone does the world make sense: later in the same book we read that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hid in Him (2:8).
Thus I count 6 distinct themes, in rough order of appearance: revelation, honor, inheritance and joy, authority, order, and purpose. We may also read these through the lens of the intra-Trinitarian relationships between Father and Son: Creation is the gift of the Father to the Son for His joy, yet as the Son delights in the earth, He shows forth the glories of His Father. He rules it as an obedient deputy, yet in His work finds Himself exalted above every name that is named. It is to Him that all things answer, yet even the Firstborn is the Image of His Father and will return the kingdom to that Father when all is accomplished, that God may be all in all.
Then, in the second half, we see these themes repeated, yet also magnified. Grace restores and even fulfills nature. Wisdom may have rejoiced in God’s creation (Proverbs 8:31), but the Son rejoices even more in His Bride, His new creation by water and the Word, the Church, of whom He is the head, the ruler and representative. Through the Resurrection He is made fully preeminent in all things, exalted on high, named the Son of God in Power (Romans 1:4), having been made perfect and complete through obedience and suffering (Heb 2:10). He endured the cross for the joy set before Him, and now His honor and inheritance are all the more marvellous.
That He might be preeminent in all things has, I think, two potential readings, both true: on the one hand, in the Resurrection, Christ claim the final frontier, becoming the firstborn even from the grave, as the last place where his rule did not seem to reach (for even where the light does not seem to touch, Simba, He will reign); on the other, now he is vividly declared the Son of God in Power, and perhaps somehow all things come to completion in His resurrection, and finally here the Son truly comes into His own. Schmemann would argue that all the original worship of man, all the praise given to God by offering back to Him His gifts, is consummated in this highest self-offering of God’s greatest gift: Himself. He is not the firstborn from the dead that in this last thing, but that in all things He may be be preeminent, truly becoming the fulfillment and center, to which nothing created can now avoid pointing.
For in Him all the fullness of God--the height of God’s self-revelation--rejoiced to dwell, and through Him--through Whom all things were first made--to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven. The Logos ordered the world in wisdom, from heaven to earth, and now the blood of the Cross binds the new creation back together in a peace that shall not be broken, reaching from earth back up to heaven. The descent returns in ascent, as Christ’s humiliation was answered by His exaltation. The order and beauty of the first creation are fulfilled and sanctified by the blood of the cross and made into the full and rich fellowship of peace.
Thus I again count 6 distinct themes, in rough order of appearance: authority, joy, honor, purpose, revelation,and order. We may again read these through the lens of the intra-Trinitarian relationships between Father and Son: The Church as the crown of the New Creation is the gift of the Father to the Son for His joy, and the Son delights in His Bride. He wins her in his humble obedience and suffering, thus making the invisible God visible, yet for His work He finds Himself exalted above every name that is named. It is to Him that all things answer, yet even the Firstborn ultimately points back to His Father and will return the kingdom to that Father when all is accomplished, when the last enemy has been destroyed and the Father has subjected all things to Him, that God may be all in all.
Grace restores and fulfills nature. Creation was always to be the theater of the glory of God, and through redemption it is brought again to its original beauty, and Christ has become once again, yet somehow moreso, preeminent in all things. The heavens declare the glories of God, but by the work of the one who came down from heaven to earth, His praises will abound all the more, and truly they shall never fail through all eternity.