Friday, May 11, 2012

Edward Taylor against the heretics

I'm trying to read a poem a day by Edward Taylor, the New England Puritan. I don't always get what he's trying to say as the language is sometimes quite obscure. What's 'inckt' supposed to mean? And I thought that a mall is a shopping centre, but Taylor envisages a 'mall of steel' splitting heretics' brains away. The mind boggles. 

However, this morning's poem was full of interest. It is a meditation on Colossians 1:15, entitled, 'The First Born of Every Creature'. The text is often cited by Arians, Socinians and Jehovah's Witnesses to prove that as the 'firstborn over all creation', Christ was not the eternal Son of God. Edward Taylor is having none of it. In his poem he asserts the full deity of Christ and threatens heretics with a grisly fate.

First Born of e'ry Being: hence a Son
      Begot o'th'First: Gods onely Son begot.
Hence Deity all ore. Gods nature run
      Into a Filiall Mould: Eternal knot.
      A Father then, and a Son: persons distinct.
      Though them Sabellians contrar'ly inckt.

This mall of Steel falls hard upon thy foes
      Of truth, who make the Holy Trinity
Into One Person: Arians too and those
      Socinians calld, who do Christs Deity
      Bark out against, But Will they, nill they, they
      Shall finde this Mall to split their brains away.


As Taylor recognises, using Colossians 1:15 to deny the full deity of Christ is to misinterpret the text. That Jesus is the “firstborn of creation” does not mean the Son was the first creature that God made. Arians and their theological heirs and successors deny the eternal pre-existence of Jesus, saying that there was a time when the Son was not. Over and against Arian error the church confessed that the Son was “begotten not created” at the Council of Nicea in 325AD. Arians have badly misunderstood what Paul is saying here. They make him contradict what he says later on in the passage. If the Son was created, then how does Colossians 1:16 make sense, let alone Colossians 1:17?

So, the apostle was no Arian. For Paul Jesus was very much included in the divine identity, Romans 9:5. But what does he mean when he calls Jesus the “firstborn over all creation”. In the immediately previous verses Paul has described salvation as a new exodus, Colossians 1:12-14. And the exodus event also provides the key to Paul’s meaning here. In Exodus 4:22 God describes Israel as 'my son, my firstborn'. Firstborn sons had special inheritance rights. Pharaoh was to let Israel go so that God's firstborn could claim his inheritance,  Exodus 4:23, 6:8 The firstborn in Egypt were killed at Passover, but the Passover lamb was substituted for the firstborn children of Israel. They were redeemed by blood, Exodus 12:12-13. Israel's firstborn therefore belonged to the Lord, Exodus 13:2 & 15. The firstborn had a special prominence and importance, Psalm 89:27. To conclude, in Old Testament revelation the 'firstborn' were associated with a cluster of ideas: preeminence, ownership, inheritance and redemption.

So, when Paul describes Jesus as the 'firstborn over all creation' he is not suggesting that Jesus was the first thing God made. As Taylor said, the Son is fully God, 'Deity all ore'. Paul's point is that as the 'firstborn' Jesus belongs to God. He is God's “own Son” Romans 8:32, “the Son of his love” Colossians 1:13, John 3:16. Also as the firstborn son, Jesus has the right of inheritance, Romans 8:17. But although God spared the firstborn children of Israel by substituting the Passover lamb, he did not spare his own Son, Colossians Colossians 1:14, 1 Corinthians 5:7. As the 'firstborn over all creation', Christ is creation's 'kinsman redeemer' who liberates the world from the tyrannical grip of sin. This is a thought that Paul will take up at greater length in Colossians 1:20.

There is more to redemption than personal salvation. Christ's work has cosmic dimensions, Romans 8:21. This is how big our Jesus is. He has acted to redeem creation from all the terrible effects of the fall. This is the Jesus we must preach. This is the Jesus we worship. He is the 'firstborn over all creation'. He’s got the whole world in his nail pierced hands.

Taylor concludes his poem with a prayer,

Make mee thy Babe, and him my Elder Brother
     A Right Lord grant me in his Birth Right high.
His Grace, my Treasure make above all other:
      His Life my Sampler: My Life his joy.
      I'le hang my love then on his heart, and sing
      New Psalms of Davids Harpe to thee and him.

(The Poems of Edward Taylor, University of North Carolina Press, 1989, p. 84-85) 

1 comment:

Leslie Wolf said...

I was visited by a few Jehovah's Witnesses last winter. They asked if I had read the Bible. I replied that I had. They asked if they could read the Bible with me. I told them that they could, but that I wanted to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity with them first. I asked if they denied the Trinity. They said they did. I asked them what they made of the many, many passages in the NT that teach the two natures of Christ, not to mention the Trinity. They asked for some passages. I mention a few from John's gospel and a few from Paul's letters, including Philippians 2:6. They said that they didn't know what to say about those passages and left. I was dumbfounded that these JWs could reject the Trinity and not even have an opinion on what to do with passages like these. Incredible! Anyway, I felt bad later that I didn't invite them in and make a greater effort to reason with them from the Scriptures. Anyway, thanks for posting this.

For the record, I think that Paul teaches the divinity of Christ in many passages, and that he may even be doing this in 1 Colossians 15. I am a PhD student in philosophy, and I have spent a lot of time on Plato. I am not familiar with scholarly discusses of Plato's influence (or lack of influence) on Paul, but from a Platonic or neo-Platonic perspective, 1 Colossians 15 strongly implies Jesus is an earthly manifestation - or incarnation - of God. Of course, orthodox Christianity does not view the relationship between the Father and the Son in anything like the way that Plato envisaged the relationship between forms and the particulars that participate in them, and I don't think that Paul views the relationship between the Father and the Son in that way either. Nonetheless, I think that Paul likely had Plato's theory of forms in mind when he wrote Colossians 1:15, and that he intended his readers to notice the association and draw the inference that is so natural to students of Plato: Jesus is an earthly manifestation - an incarnation - of God. (If Paul is actually quoting an early Christian hymn in Colossians 1:15, as many scholars maintain, then I think that the same point would suggestion can be made for the authors of that hymn. Also, to be clear, Plato seems to have thought of forms in different ways in different dialogues; I mostly have the 'Phaedo' in mind here.)