The Image of the Invisible God–An Exegesis of Col. 1.15-17

by Max Andrews

I consider myself a philosopher and not a theologian or biblical scholar by any means.  I do have a bachelor’s degree in Religion–biblical studies so I do know how to exegete and perform proper hermeneutics.  With that said, here’s a philosopher’s exegesis of Colossians 1.15-17.

Colossians 1.15-17

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by Him all things were created, both in the heaves and on the earth,visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

Let’s look at εικων (eikon, a likeness, literally statue. A fig. representation—image, nominative singular feminine). This is where we get the word ‘icon.’ (The second Gr. text provided is Westcott/Hort with Diacritics 1853 and Codex Sinaiticus).

The passage has a lot of correlation with Docetism, an early church heresy. The Docetists would take a figurative translation of the word and take it as an illusion.  Jesus was not a statue [Greek Orthodoxy uses icons], just as we would take the figurative sense of the word. This was combated by Augustine [Hammer of the Docetists] and Ignatius.

Some ignorantly deny him [Jesus], or rather have been denied by him, being the advocates of death rather than of the truth. These persons neither have the prophets persuaded, nor the law of Moses, nor the gospel even to this day, nor the sufferings we have individually endured. For they think also the same thing regarding us. For what does anyone profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that he was [truly] possessed of a body? But he who does not acknowledge this, has in fact altogether denied him, … inasmuch as they are unbelievers. [Ignatius, The Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans Ch. 5]

ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

aoratou [root:  aoratos]:  not visible [a thing], adjective, genitive singular masculine (a modifying noun for God)

This word is what shatters Docetist hopes by making the figurative sense of the noun “image” and making it a thing with this noun.

ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος πάσης κτίσεως, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.

prototokos:  first-born (usually as a noun, literally or figuratively), adjective, nominative singular masculine

ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθητὰ πάντα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἄρχαι εἴτε ἐξουσίαι· τὰ πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται· For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

ektisthe [ktizo]:  to found (originally), to create, to make, verb, aorist passive indicative, third person (aorist tense is a simple, or summary, occurrence in the past.  The indicative mood suggest that it is done in a general way.)

ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθητὰ πάντα ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς τὰ ὁρατὰ καὶ τὰ ἀόρατα, εἴτε θρόνοι εἴτε κυριότητες εἴτε ἄρχαι εἴτε ἐξουσίαι· τὰ πάντα δι’ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται· For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him.

ezousiai [ktizo]:  to found (originally), to create, to make, verb, perfect passive indicative, third person singular (passive indicative suggest that the “created” was done in a general way, however, the perfect sense of the verb would suggest an act with present results.)

καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν πρὸ πάντων καὶ τὰ πάντα ἐν αὐτῷ συνέστηκεν, He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.

sunesteken [root:  sunistao]:  to set together, to exhibit or to [fig.] constitute, verb, perfect active indicative, third person singular (Perfect active is an action that involves a present state which has resulted from a past action, but with a continuing result.)

So, how should we understand the image of God in Jewish literature? Is the Logos or Wisdom literal or figurative?

The Lord by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding He established the heavens. [Prov. 3.19]

“The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His work, the first acts of old.  23Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth… 27When He established the heavens, I was there; when He drew a circle on the face of the deep… 29aWhen He marked the foundations of the earth; 30aThen I was beside Him, as a master workman.” [Prov. 8.22-23, 27, 29a, 30a]

The LXX translation of Prov. 8.22 was meant to read “the Lord created me.”  This was an key verse for the Arians that denied Christ’s deity to show that Jesus was created.  Arians used this as a proof text for the “Word” in Jn. 1.1 as a creature and not God.  So, how do we reconcile Prov. 8, Jn. 1, and Col. 1.15?  Prov. 8 presents a personified wisdom.  The Heb. qanah should be interpreted as “possessed.”  Prov. 8’s wisdom is a character of God that God possesses.  Wisdom is personified as a lady with whom one should pursue (in contrast to Lady Folly).  God has interwoven wisdom, by the Logos, into the foundations of creation.  They are completely different.  Wisdom was laid down at the beginning by the means of the Logos.

The firstborn of creation refers to consecration and inheritance (Ex. 13; Num. 3; Deut. 21).

The act of creation is ex nihilo (from nothing).  It’s depicted in the absolute sense of the Hebrew word בָּרָ֣א [bara] in Gen. 1.1. Bara, though it may be used synonymously with asah or yasar (make and form),, the verb “create” is in fact without analogy.  It refers to the special action of God and to the special revelation which binds these two parties together. [Walter Bruggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox 1982), 254.] Gershard von Rad states that bara is “retained exclusively to designate the divine creative activity” [Genesis, 47].

God causally sustains the universe.

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power.  [Heb. 1.3]

Thomas Aquinas thought on sustaining creation was that God’s causal relationship to existence is immediate. For Thomas creation is the immediate bestowal of being and as such belongs only to God, the universal principle of being; therefore, creation is ex nihilo in that God’s causing a creature to exist is immediate. Thomists can claim an infinite universe because it is still created ex nihilo in the metaphysical sense.  The cause that is first is not in a temporal sense, but in the sense of rank and source. Thomas’ causal relationship is like gears in a clock or machine, not like dominoes.  This idea of creation is known as creatio continuans (continual creation).

A problem with this is occasionalism: If something is created at a time t only if t is the first moment of the thing’s existence, then creatio coninuans implies that at each instant God creates a brand new individual, numerically distinct from its chronological predecessor. Thus, no persisting individuals exist, so that personal agency and identity over time are impossible.

Properly speaking…it is only true to say that a creature is created at the first moment (of its existence) and only after that moment is it conserved, for only then does its being have this order to itself as something that was, as it were, there before.  Because of these different conceptual relationships implied by the words “create” and “conserve” it follows that one does not apply to a thing when the other does.” (John Duns Scotus, God and Creatures, trans. E. Alluntis and A. Wolter (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1975), 276.)

How ought we interpret Col. 1.17?  Holding all things together [as God’s causal relation] should be interpreted as conservation.  Creation involves bring something into being. If God creates some entity e (thing or an event) at a time t (whether an instant or finite interval), then e comes into being at t.

E1:  e comes into being at t iff (a) e exists at t, (b) t is the first time at which e exists, and (c) e’s existing at t is a tensed fact

Accordingly,

E2:  God creates e at t iff God brings it about that e comes into being at t.

In conservation God acts on an existing subject to preserve its existence.  This is a denial of secondary causation (i.e. Islam, Islam denies that atoms were created in new states of being by God at every successive instant leaving God as the sole cause of change.).  God maintains the existence of the things He has created. In creation God does not act on a subject, but constitutes the subject by His action. Creation’s definition is certainly captured in E2.  It follows that creation is not a type of change, since there is no enduring subject that persists from one state to another. 

So what?

If we say that God is essentially characterized by His self-giving love, creation becomes necessary.  This view is false.  God is not a monad, but in the tri-unity of His own being, God enjoys the full and unchanging love relationships among the persons of the Trinity. Creation is unnecessary for God and is a sheer gift, bestowed for the sake of creatures, that we might experience the joy of fulfillment of knowing God.  He invites us, as it were, into the intratrinitarian love relationship as His adopted children.  Thus creation, as well as salvation, is sola gratia.

“God is the only Person for whom self-exaltation is an act of love. ‘He exalts Himself to show mercy to you.’” (Is. 3.18)

Our purpose in life is for Jesus Christ [Col. 1.16]. The text is a demonstration of God’s supreme sovereignty. All things were created for Him and by Him. He didn’t have to create anything. Jesus is literally [by essence and power] with us moment by moment holding all things together.


Leave a Reply