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The Colossian Hymn–Colossians 1.15-20

Paul aimed to drive home the point of the sufficiency of Christ by quoting what appears to be a preformed tradition—either a hymn or a poem—that commemorates the person and finished work of Christ.  It is likely that either Paul or one of his associates was the author of this piece, although we cannot rule out composition outside the Pauline circle.  The hymn is based broadly on the Jewish wisdom tradition where divine wisdom (a) reflects the divine glory, (b) serves as the agent of creation and (c) the agent of redemption (Wisd 7:22-28; cf. Proverbs 8).   As early theologians like Paul mulled over the significance of Christ, they found wisdom an ever-ready concept through which to filter the activity of Jesus.  Wisdom language and texts provided them a wealth of symbols and images to construe their newly found faith in a variety of ways and contexts.  There is much to commend Michael Gorman’s judgment: Colossians is an “extended commentary on Paul’s claim that Christ is the wisdom and power of God (1 Cor 1:18-25).”[1]Jesus the sage

 

The hymn can be divided into two parts: (1) the Son as Creator of all things (1:15-17) and (2) the Son as Head of the Church and Reconciler of all things (1:18-20).  We have used the christological title “Son” in our description of the hymn because of its presence in 1:13.  There are in fact no christological titles in the surviving text of the hymn.  Unlike the Philippian hymn that ends with the triumphant acclamation, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” there is no overriding christological claim in the Colossian hymn.  What you do have is a well-constructed series of christological reflections patterned loosely on Jesus’ work as God’s wisdom.

 

The first stanza of the hymn declares the Son to be the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (1:15).  The phrase “image of God” resonates with the tonality of the Genesis narrative where a similar phrase refers to the creation of “the Adam” in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27; cf. 1 Cor 11:7).  But Adam’s twin he is not because he is also the agent of creation, the one through whom, in whom and for whom all things are made (1:16).  The emphasis on God’s invisibility stands in contrast to the Son’s incarnation and especially the reconciling blood of the cross (1:19-20).  Some have taken the phrase “firstborn of all creation” to mean that the Son is a created being.  This can hardly be the case, however, when in the next line He is heralded as the creative agent behind “all things in the heavens and upon the earth” (1:16).  The “first” is therefore not in reference to time but to status as v. 17 makes clear (“He is before all things”).   By “all things” the hymn explicitly cites heavenly and earthly entities, visible and invisible realities, along with an entire assortment of angels, principalities and powers.  These are the spiritual powers feared and placated in the folk religion around Colossae.  Whether or not they recognize it, these powers along with the rest of creation exist subservient to the Son who holds all things together (1:17).

 

The second stanza celebrates the headship of the Son over the church and the (eventual) reconciliation of all things—perhaps even the competing powers—by the cross.  Paul wrote: “And He is the head of the body (of) the church” (1:18).  The hymn is apparently combining two important Pauline emphases: (a) the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-29 and Rom 12:3-8) and (b) the headship of Christ (1 Cor 11:2; cf. Col ???).   Paul and his co-workers were innovative theologians, evocative in their use of symbols and metaphors.  The image of the church as Christ’s body provided them with a variety of ways to configure the relationship.  Here the focus is on Christology not Ecclesiology so its construal emphasizes the headship and first-place-ness of Christ over against His people.  As the “firstborn from the dead” (1:18), the Son (cf. 1 Cor 15:20) leads the way from death to life.  He is the beginning of the new creation: in Him the resurrection from the dead has begun.  But there is more to affirm: the hymn continues “for in Him all the fullness [of God] was pleased to dwell” (1:19).   We have in this line a clear statement of what theologians refer to as “the incarnation,” namely, the man Jesus was the fleshy place of God’s indwelling.  This “indwelling” of God was not measured and cautious but total and daring.  In God’s good pleasure the totality of the divine nature and attributes filled the Son.  This made Him uniquely qualified to serve as the agent of reconciliation (1:20).  The working assumption of Paul is that humanity and the rest of creation had fallen out of God’s favor despite our glorious beginnings.  Furthermore, nothing below was able to establish peace, but God’s Son has come into the world and established peace through His blood on the cross.  For Paul, Christ on the cross was the locus of reconciliation.  And this reconciliation is not partial; it is universal with beneficiaries in heaven and on earth (1:20)

 

At one time the Colossians had been alienated from God because of evil.  “But now” God had reconciled them “through the body of His flesh” (1:21) so they could one day stand before Him holy and blameless.  The focus on the accomplished work of reconciliation was important for Paul because of how the Colossians were looking to other ascetic and spiritual strategies to “complete” their salvation.  The apostle wanted them to recognize that Christ was the agent of creation, the author of their reconciliation and the only true power in the universe.  What they needed to do now was to continue in that faith firmly established and not shift their focus to other, lesser powers.

 

[1] Gorman, 471.

Early Christian Hymns

The first generation of Christ followers gathered regularly in house churches for instruction, encouragement and worship.  A central part of these gatherings was the chanting and singing of hymns.  Explicit reference to the use of hymns in the Christian church is found in Paul’s admonition to sing psalms (psalmoi), hymns (humnoi)  and spirituals songs (ōdē) with gratitudeto God (Col 3:16; cf. Eph 5:19-20).  These three terms likely refer to the practice of using the biblical Psalter along with distinctly Christian compositions.  The worship of God with hymns had its immediate background in Jewish synagogue practices.  Psalms, particularly messianic psalms, were used by early believers to express uniquely Christian perspectives on God’s recent actions in the world. Likewise, Eph 1:3-14 is constructed on a Jewish hymn-pattern known as the berakah (“blessed is . . . “). While the pattern is clearly Jewish, the author used it in a way that is explicitly Christian.  Gentile believers too would have also been accustomed to hymn-singing in the ethos of Greco-Roman religion. 

Scholars have detected hymns and hymn fragments throughout the Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation utilizing various criteria including introductory phrases (e.g., “therefore it says,” Eph 5:14), poetic parallelism, special uses of relative pronouns and participles, the presence of unusual vocabulary and rhyming features, and disruptions to the context.  Although not all scholars agree, there is a general consensus that the following passages represent early Christian hymns: Rom 11:33-36, Phil 2:6-11, Col 1:15-20, 1 Tim 3:16, 1 Pet 2:21-24, Heb 1:3-4, Rev 4:8-11 and 19:1-4.  These hymns may have been preformed traditions quoted or alluded to by a writer or spontaneous compositions understood to be Spirit-inspired.  Some hymns are so clear and self-contained that later generations of Christians name them (e.g., the Magnificat = Luke 1:46-55; the Benedictus = Luke 1:68-79).  The New Testament contains both hymns to Christ and to God the Father demonstrating a binitarian shape to early Christian devotion.  Furthermore, the content of early Christian hymns is directed to soteriological themes such as creation, incarnation, and redemption.  For early Christ believers hymnic praise was essentially a response to God’s saving actions in Christ.

Though not all agree, many scholars think that the earliest extant Christian hymn is the hymn to Christ found in Phil 2:6-11.  The hymn consists of two parts.  The first narrates the descent and humiliation of the pre-existent Jesus to become a man and to suffer a merciless death on the cross.  The second describes the ascent and exaltation of the crucified Jesus by God to receive the adoration of every creature and confession “Jesus Christ is Lord.”  This hymn functioned to recall the essential story and therefore had a didactic purpose.  Paul utilized it further to make Jesus the lordly example of humility and service (cf. 1 Peter 2:21-24).

By its nature poetic or hymnic language appears to affect those who use it in significant ways. Whether it was chanted or accompanied with musical instruments, hymns were easier to memorize and recall than other forms of instruction.  Therefore, it seems that early Christians used NT hymns for several purposes: (1) to instruct, (2) to express praise and thanks to God, (3) to confess faith, (4) to form communal identity, and (5) to provide an example for proper behavior.

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