New Testament Words and Verses
Colossians 1 and Rhetorical Overkill
For years I eagerly pored over every page of Scripture, studying the original languages, memorizing (though in English), writing notes and generally trying to absorb all the theological riches of Scripture. I did so because I was absolutely convinced that these words pointed to a new and different reality, one which I could be privileged to share with the requisite faith and diligence.
Then, in mid-career, I pursued other ventures, from teaching history to studying, practicing and then teaching law and to learning many new languages, but I have decided in the last few months to “renew” my acquaintance with Scripture. I realized I could pick up where I left off but I also realized that just as old friends, separated for decades and then rejoined, are different people and relate differently to each other, so I discovered that my “take” on Scripture was much different than it was in the eagerness of my youthful days.
I especially became aware of what you might call the rhetorical nature of the arguments put forward to support the concepts asserted. That is, I began to look increasingly at Scripture as presenting rhetorical strategies intended to persuade, and thus I began to “distance” myself from the issue of whether or not there was a “truth” to which the words pointed. I became much more interested in the way that people constructed their thoughts. Thus, I began to focus on the words used, and the way that the words used actually communicated knowledge or, as I suspected, confused us. When this realization was combined with the awareness that we really know little, if anything, of the “world” which created the Scriptures, then I began to be much more tentative about my conclusions in reading the Scripture. I now no longer look for “truth,” other than the truths of human life or human motivation.
Turning to Colossians
Thus, when I re-joined Paul on a journey into Colossians, I didn’t attack it with the same type of gusto that matched my memorization focus of 1971 or 1972. But what was especially interesting to me were two things: our relative ignorance about the groups that Paul told us to avoid in Col. 2, and how the Apostle’s rhetorical strategy obscured, rather than illumined, what he was saying. My essay on “Colossians 2 and the Opponents of Paul” picks upon the former while the rest of this essay explores the latter. Especially important to me are three things about Paul’s rhetorical strategy in Col. 1: his language of knowledge as it relates to faith; his description of Christ; and his loading up on language relating to rootedness, growing and power. Paul uses all of these methods to try to convince his hearers that they need look no further than the congregation at Colossae and what it offers in Christian faith. That is the key to life.
On Knowledge and Christ
First, then, on the language of knowledge. The six verses from 1:3-8 are a run-on sentence in Greek. So eager is Paul to stuff the essence of the Gospel in just a few words that he seemingly can’t help himself. Words pile upon words, and the adverb καθώς (“as” or “just as”), appearing twice in v 6 and once in v 7, keeps the sentence running on. But what is interesting is Paul’s appeal to knowledge. The Colossians had heard and “knew” (v 6) the grace of God. They also “had learned” (v 7) of this from Epaphras. When Paul then shifts over to a prayer for the Colossians, he prays that they might have knowledge (v 9) of the divine will “in all wisdom and spiritual understanding” (v 9). He never mentions the content of this knowledge, and we would probably be wrong if we thought that he was just pointing to a deeper doctrinal awareness of faith. Something more seems to be implied by the repeated appeal to “knowledge” or “understanding,” but Paul doesn’t tell us what that is.
Second, on Christ. The Christ hymn in 1:15-20 is frequently indented and put in poetic form in many translations. It is one of the most powerful affirmations of what would become a “high Christology” in the early church. What makes this hymn “work” for Paul is his skillful use of prepositions as well as his emphasis on the idea of “fulness” to capture the essence of Christ. In a word, all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell in Christ (1:19-20). The rhetorical appeal of “fulness” to a congregation Paul hasn’t visited is that it subtly tells the recipients that they really ought to look no further than Christ for life’s deepest meaning. If fulness is in Christ, where else can or should one go? Nowhere.
But often overlooked is the function of prepositions in 1:15-20. They are so omnipresent in these verses! A few examples are “in him” (v 16) and “through him” (v 16) and “into him” (v 16). He is ‘before all things” (v 17) and “in him” (v 17) everything holds together. He is the firstborn “in all” (v 18); “in him” the fulness was pleased to dwell. “Through him” (v 20) all things were to be reconciled “into him” (v 20). “Through the blood” he makes peace. Paul is so preposition-happy in these verses that I wondered for a split second if I tried to insert a half-dozen more whether Paul would say, “Yep, that’s Christ, too!” If I said, “under”—why not Christ? Or “above”? Sure. Or “between”? No doubt. How about “atop?” Surely Paul could find a use for it. “With” ought to be simple. So great is the fulness of Christ that one can imagine Paul figuratively saying, ‘Give me a preposition, and I will give you the world!’
On Power and Rootedness
We ought not to leave the issue of rhetorical overkill without looking at the concept of power, and the notion of rootedness, in Colossians 1. First, rootedness. Note how Paul describes the life of faith for the Colossians. We have to jump over to 2:7 for a second to get the following:
7 ἐρριζωμένοι καὶ ἐποικοδομούμενοι ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ βεβαιούμενοι τῇ πίστει.
The Colossians are: “rooted and built up in him and firmly fixed/confirmed in faith.” The triad of multi-syllabic Greek verbs acts as a verbal “weight” to tie a person to the “ground” of faith—Christ. Then, those who are rooted are also καρποφορούμενον καὶ αὐξανόμενον, or “bearing fruit and growing” (1:6; note— 6 syllables and 5 syllables). They are doing the same thing, καρποφοροῦντες καὶ αὐξανόμενοι, a few verses later (1:10). Images therefore of deep roots, firm foundations, strong building, healthy growing, abundant yielding of fruit—all of these help to give the reader the sense that the solidity of faith is unassailable.
Then, to add to this is the language of power. Col. 1:11 uses rhetorical overkill to describe the growth and fruit-bearing capacity of faith:
11 ἐν πάσῃ δυνάμει δυναμούμενοι κατὰ τὸ κράτος τῆς δόξης αὐτοῦ. . .
“in all power being empowered according to the strength of his glory. . .
What this might mean is anyone’s guess, but what made me stop is the triple-use of “power” words. Certainly Paul wants them to get the message that there is nothing so powerful in the world as the message of the Gospel. Finally, after returning to the knowledge theme in 1:28, he closes the chapter with a “power flourish”:
29 εἰς ὃ καὶ κοπιῶ ἀγωνιζόμενος κατὰ τὴν ἐνέργειαν αὐτοῦ τὴν ἐνεργουμένην ἐν ἐμοὶ ἐν δυνάμει.
“Into this/for this I exert tremendous energy, competing diligently according to the energetic power of his energizing me in power.”
Of course I have given a bit too literal a translation of this verse, but I wanted to emphasize the “energy” and “power” direction of Paul.
Most of Colossians 1 is meant to try to convince the reader that there is nothing more powerful or full in the world than Christ, and that the knowledge Christ imparts and the energetic work of Paul in bringing that message to people is really an attempt to communicate the very fulness of this new world to the hearer. That is his strategy, and it was that energy that, in part, contributed to Christianity’s amazing spread. You have to believe it with your whole heart, and to believe also that the greatest power in the universe is right there, available to you. Even though I characterized his rhetorical strategy as “overkill,” I think it worked and still works with people.
Colossians 2 and Paul's Opponents
Back to NT Page