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Colossians 1:15-20


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COLOSSIANS 1:15-20

PREEXISTENCE OR PREEMINENCE?


by William M. Wachtel

William WachtelIn standard Evangelical commentary, two texts from Paul's writings are constantly used to teach the personal preexistence of Christ:  Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20.  These texts are considered to be bulwarks of trinitarian theology, expressing in some sense Christ's status as deity.  At the time of the Nicene Council, both Arians and Athanasians were fond of using them to prove that Christ existed as a personal being before his birth or "incarnation."  The difference, of course, was that the Arians thought he had a beginning and was the first creature whom God made; while the Athanasians thought he had no beginning and was himself "co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial" with the Father.  The result of such terms was the claim, still insisted on by trinitarians today, that Jesus must be seen to be God just as the Father is seen to be God. 

This writer questions seriously, however, whether any such ideas were in Paul's mind or in God's inspiration through the Spirit upon Paul's writing of Scripture.  In Philippians 2:5, for instance, Paul declares he is holding forth the historical example of the man Christ Jesus (as in 1 Tim. 2:5), not some prehistoric example into which can be read ideas of personal preexistence.  Can the same be said to be true of Colossians 1:15-20?  Let us take a careful look at the text and its implications.

Christ, the Image of God

Verse 15 tells us that God's "beloved Son" (v.13 NASB) is the "image" of the unseen God.  An image, of course, is a visual representation, the copy of an original.  The very fact of using a word such as "image" suggests necessarily that there is a difference in identity between the copy and the original.  When one looks in the mirror, he sees an "image" of himself.  He does not consider himself to be the person who is "behind the glass" but the person who is "in front of the glass."  The only reason to labor this point is that many foolish things have been said about the word "image" in this and other verses, seeking to prove that Christ, "the image of God" (2 Cor. 4:4), is God himself! *(1)   The word "image" establishes, by its very meaning, that Christ is not God.  The image is not the same as the original, and in this case the original is God.

When Jesus told his disciples, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9), he was not claiming to be the Father (a claim that would prove too much, if  trinitarianism were correct), but rather that he is like the Father.  The writer of Hebrews (1:3) says that he is the "express image" (KJV)--"exact representation" (NIV, NASB)--of God's being, or God's nature.  Again, our two words "exact representation" and the single  Greek word charakter *(2), from which those two words are translated, imply that a copy is being set forth, based on an original.  The writer of Hebrews is telling us that God has spoken to us by a Son who is just like God.  But to say this Son is "just like" God is to recognize that he is not, in fact, himself God, i.e., the One to whom he is now being "likened."  The writer goes on to say that this person who is like God, after purging our sins by his death, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, a further differentiation between the Man who is "just like" God, and the Being who is God, himself! *(3)

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