A Response to...

Lane Tipton’s Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 and
Hebrews 1:1-4: An Exercise in Biblico-Systematic Theology

Contributed by Patrick Navas [1]

(6/29/09)

 

In his Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4, Professor of Systematic Theology Lane Tipton[2] attempts to “exegete” the meaning of two New Testament texts in connection with the post-biblical doctrinal formulas of Nicea, Chalcedon, and the Westminster Confession of Faith[3] Tipton’s stated goal is, in fact, not only to correct contemporary theological positions that “deviate” from what he regards as “biblical teaching,” but also those that depart from, in Tipton’s words, “Reformed confessional orthodoxy."[4]


The first question that came to my own mind was, if Tipton wants to correct views on the Christian faith he believes to be in error, then why not focus on points that deviate from “biblical teaching” exclusively, where the original Christian teachings are not only found but fully expressed? Why the concern about “deviations” from “Reformed confessional orthodoxy,” something that neither Jesus nor his apostles could have made reference to? If our true goal is to conform our beliefs to the word of Christ and his apostles (not merely human traditions and doctrinal formulas), why can’t we—as Christ’s followers and as adherents of the apostolic tradition—just stick to the “creeds” and “confessions of faith” already present in the inspired scriptural accounts and concern ourselves with positions that deviate from these?


In any case, Tipton goes on to point out what is, in his mind, the ideal expression of “Biblico-systematic theology,” an “exegetical discipline” that he believes will harmonize with his “Reformed” doctrinal tradition, a tradition that must be ‘militantly defended.’ As Tipton states,

Biblico-systematic theology, at its best, is an exegetical discipline regulated by the sole authority of the inscripturated Word of God and militant in its defense of Reformed orthodoxy.[5]

 

 

The problem, in my view, is that Tipton seems to almost equate “the authority of the inscripturated Word of God” with his own “Reformed orthodoxy,” as if they were one and the same, or as if “the authority of the inscripturated Word of God” some how needed “Reformed orthodoxy” to clarify its teachings—when, as I will attempt to show below, “Reformed orthodoxy” unfortunately goes beyond the authoritative statements of Scripture and misrepresents what is revealed there in the process.

 

Let us now consider the actual words of Hebrews 1:1-4. I will present some straightforward observations regarding critical points in the text that Tipton seems to overlook, along with an ongoing commentary on Tipton’s Trinitarian “exegesis.” The opening verse in the book of

Hebrews states:

 

In the past God spoke to our forefathers at many times and in various ways through the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us through a Son…

 

In the opening verse the author announces that “God” has spoken in various ways in the past through “the prophets,” but, at the end of these days, has spoken to us through “a Son.” That is, the introductory verse itself—which sets the tone for everything that follows—plainly presents “God” and the “Son” as two distinct figures, just as “God” is a distinct figure from “the prophets” through whom He spoke in the past. Since “the prophets” were not “God” but the ones “through” (literally ‘in’) whom “God” once spoke, there is no reason at all to think that the “Son” is “God” but that he is, as the text states, the one “through/in” whom “God” has spoken in the last days.[6]


There is, in fact, no logical reason why the notion that Jesus is “God” would even come up into the consciousness of any reader at this point, especially those in the first century who had no knowledge of Trinitarian doctrine or of “Reformed confessional orthodoxy.”

 

…whom [God] appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the ages…

 

Here the “Son” is not identified as the “God” who spoke long ago but as the one whom this “God” has “appointed heir of all things,” in harmony with an ideal ‘Father-Son’ relationship. Likewise, the “Son” is not presented as the “eternal” possessor of “all things” because of his so-called “ontic status” as “the eternal, second person of the Trinity,” but as God’s “Son” who has been “appointed” by God to be “heir of all things.” In other words, the Son has what he has in this text (‘all things’), not by “nature” or “ontological right,” but by “inheritance” as the beloved Son of his Father.

 

The movement of the chiasm, then, is from preexistence understood economically in 2c (i.e., with regard to the economy of creation) to preexistence understood ontologically in 3a-b (i.e., with regard to the deity of the Son and his coequality with God the Father). The movement is quite natural. An immediate level of explanation regarding the Son’s role with respect to creation is his essential deity and coequality with the Father (i.e., the homoousios).[7]

 

The ‘Son’s role with respect to creation in Hebrews’ is, clearly, an intermediary one. That is, the Son is not depicted as the maker of the “ages” but the one ‘through/in’ whom “God” has made the ages. In this verse, the “Son” is not “God” himself, since “God” is the one who made the ages “through” him—a very basic, non-controversial point.

 

[The ‘Son’] is the radiance/reflection of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of his very being…

 

Here, in full harmony with the above observations, the Son is described as the “radiance” or “reflection” of another’s glory, namely, that of the “God” of the Hebrew forefathers. Indeed, the “Son” is the “exact representation (charakter)” of this God’s “very being (hupostaseos).”


Three points need to be kept in mind in light of Tipton’s foregoing ‘exegesis’: (1) The text does not identify the Son as ‘God’ but presents him as distinct from ‘God’ as God’s perfect representative—the “exact representation of [God’s] very being.” (2) It should really go without saying that, if someone is “the exact representation” “reproduction” of God’s “being,” then that someone is not “God” but “the exact representation/reproduction of God’s being.” (3) The text says nothing about the Son’s “coequality with God the Father,” nothing about his “essential deity,” and nothing about him as “homoousios” with the Father (meaning ‘of the same substance/being’).


Considering what was actually written in Hebrews, it is difficult to understand why the notion that the Son is ‘God,’ or that he is ‘of the same substance/being’ as the Father, even comes up, since 1:3 explicitly tells us that the Son is the “exact representation” of “[God’s] being,” not that he is (or that he is of) the same ‘being’ as Him. The “consubstantial/of the same being” concept can only enter the picture, of course, when one imports it from a source outside the text itself, particularly the doctrinal formula of Nicea (325CE).


To put it another way, according to the clear language of the text, the Son is an exact “representation” or “reproduction” of someone else’s being, namely, God’s being; yet, in Trinitarianism, God’s ‘being’ and the Son’s ‘being’ are the same ‘being’ (one ‘being’ shared by multiple ‘persons’). But the first-century text itself completely rules out the need to even bring up a fourth-century concept like “of the same being (homoousious),” since it already tells us that the Son is a “copy” or “representation” of God’s being, not an “eternal partaker” in it (in line with Trinitarian thought).[8]

 

“D and D [Heb. 1:3a and Heb. 1:3b]’, when properly understood, therefore express the glory and deity that belong to the eternal Son of God prior to and apart from any economic activity at all. In this sense, then, the revelatory and redemptive works of Jesus Christ—his eschatological significance in redemptive history—derives ultimately from his eternal ontic status as the Son of God.”[9]

 

Yet nothing in this text, or any other place in Scripture for that mater, tells us that Jesus ever possessed an “eternal ontic status” or “deity” as “the eternal Son of God.” In other words, Tipton’s argument never even gets off the ground, scripturally speaking. The theological premise Tipton appeals to does not even appear in the New Testament.

 

“The relative pronoun hos, followed by the present participle on, denotes timeless dimension to the Son’s status.”[11]

 

        The pronoun hos (who), followed by on (being), says nothing about the “timeless dimension of the Son’s status,” as if the author of Hebrews is articulating the Son’s status as an “eternal” person (without beginning). The meaning is simply that “he,” the Son, “exists as…” In other words, this is what he is, or what he is existing as—namely, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact representation of God’s being.

 

…sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

 

If the reference to the “all things” the Son sustains by his “powerful word” is to be understood as “the universe” (ESV) or ‘all created things,’[12] the Son clearly sustains these by his powerful word, not as “God” (Heb. 1:1), but as God’s “Son” who has inherited “all things” by God’s appointment (Heb. 1:3). It should be noted, likewise, that the Son is not identified as the “Majesty in heaven” himself, namely, as “God” (Heb. 1:1), but as one who has “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven,” an honor that has been conferred upon the Son by God, according to the Scriptures. That is to say, the Son enjoys the position he has at the “right hand of the majesty on high” (= ‘the right hand of God,’ Acts 2:33; Rom. 8:34) because God has “highly exalted him,” due to his obedient life and sacrificial death (Phil. 2:5-11).

 

So He has become as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

 

The next verse clearly reveals that the Son “has become superior” to the angels[13] since the name he has “inherited” is “superior” or “more excellent than theirs.” According to the clear teaching of the New Testament, the Son achieved his exalted status because of the name (and corresponding authority/power/honor/position) God has “given” to him—again, due to his “obedience” to God to the point of death, a death which resulted in “purification for sins” (Phil. 2:8; Heb. 1:3).

 

Hebrews 1:3a offers a virtual ascription of Isaiah 42:8 to the Son of God. The effulgence of the glory of the Lord God, which will not be shared with another, is essential to the identity of the eternal Son of God.[14]

 

Hebrews 1:3 does not offer “a virtual ascription of Isaiah 42:8 to the Son of God.” Hebrews 1:3 says that the Son is the “radiance” or “reflection” of “[God’s] glory.” Isaiah 42:8 records God as saying: “I am Jehovah; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols.” What “virtual ascription” is to be found when comparing these two texts?


Isaiah 42:8 is not even a text that presents an attribute of God that can be ascribed to another, like Jesus or anyone else. It is simply a statement made by God to the effect that “Jehovah” is his name and that he will not give his “glory” to another. And Isaiah 42:8 does not exactly speak of the “the effulgence of the glory of the Lord God,” but simply of the “glory” that God will not give to another, particularly glory in connection with “praise” to a lifeless “carved idol.”


It appears that Tipton tries to argue the point that, since God said that he would not share his “glory” with another (Isaiah 42:8), yet the Son ‘radiates’ the “glory” of God, that this should somehow lead us, theologically speaking, to believe that the Son must be “coequal/consubstantial” with the Father as a second member of the “Godhead.” Yet there is, in truth, no logical or scriptural necessity in drawing such a far-fetched, anachronistic theological conclusion.


That is to say, scripturally speaking, the Son does not have to be “God,” “eternal,” or “consubstantial with the Father,” in order for him to “radiate/reflect” the glory of God. In fact, in order for the Son to radiate or reflect the glory of God, he has to be someone other than “God” for the statement to even make sense. Even the glory that the Son is said to possess in other texts is the “glory” that was “given” to him by God, not a “glory” possessed by him as an alleged “eternal, second ‘person’ of the Trinity.” The fact that the Son has “glory” or that he ‘radiates’ the glory of God neither leads us into a Trinitarian doctrine of the Son, nor does it somehow contradict Isaiah 42:8. In other words, we do not have to conclude from the fact that ‘glory’ is ascribed to the Son in Scripture that this somehow makes him “God” or “coequal with the Father.”


In reference to his disciples, Jesus said to his Father, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one” (John 17:22). In this example, even the disciples are “given” the “glory” that God has “given” to the Son; and, according to Jesus, they can even participate in the unity or “oneness” characterized by the Father-Son relationship (‘that they [the disciples] may be one even as we [the Father and Son] are one). This, of course, does not make the disciples “coeternal with the Father” as members of a so-called “Godhead,” and neither does the “glory” possessed by the disciples make them part of a “Godhead” either, even though God explicitly declared that he would not share his glory with another (Isaiah 42:8).


God’s unwillingness to share his glory with others, in the context of Isaiah, clearly speaks to how God will not share glory with a rival or competing god, particularly a man-made “idol.” From a biblical perspective, however, God gladly confers ‘glory’ upon those who serve him and carry out his will/purpose, as in the case of his “beloved Son” and all of God’s faithful “children” (Compare Psalm 8:5; Luke 2:32; Acts 3:13[15]; Romans 8:17, 21, 30; 9:4; Hebrews 2:10; 1 Peter 5:1, 4, 10).


Hebrews 1:3 does not identify the Son as Jehovah (‘the God’ of the ‘fathers’), nor does it say or somehow imply that the Son is an “eternal” member of Jehovah’s “Godhead.” The text does clearly indicate that the Son “radiates” or “reflects” the glory of Jehovah (the ‘God’ who ‘spoke through the prophets,’ including the prophet Isaiah), something that is completely appropriate for God’s Son to do as “the exact representation of [God’s] very being.” By speaking for God and by performing God’s will perfectly (‘obedience’ to God ‘to the point of death’ Phil. 2:8), the Son not only perfectly ‘represents’ God but ‘radiates’ and ‘reflects’ the glory of God like no other.

 

…if we take them in a theological, Trinitarian sense, then the first phrase expresses the essential unity of the Godhead by reason of the identity of the Father and the Son; we cannot think of the Son without the Father; and the second phrase indicates the result, namely, the likeness of the Son to the Father. In theological language, then, the expression the effulgence of his glory assures us of the Son’s being homoousios with the Father, and the expression the very image of his substance assures the Son’s being the monogenese of the Father.[16]

 

In one sense, Tipton is right. If the statements in Hebrews 1:3 are taken in a latter, “theological, Trinitarian sense,” then any Reformed theologian could attempt to superimpose a concept of the Son’s alleged “essential unity” and “homoousios” with the Father onto the text. If, however, we take the statements as they stand, according to the language used, then the phrases express how the Son is one who ‘reflects’ the glory of God (someone the Son is distinct from) and how he is a perfect “reproduction” of God’s being, as is fitting for a true and ideal “Son” like Jesus to be. And, if we understand the unity between the Father and Son as it stands presented in Scripture, we will see that the unity or “oneness” Jesus enjoys with his Father is the same “oneness” that his disciples, according to Jesus, can participate in as well. Biblically speaking, Jesus’ “oneness” with God has nothing to do with an “ontological” or “metaphysical” unity with God as the “eternal Son of the Father,” but has everything to do with the Son’s agreement with, and loving obedience to, “the will of the one who sent” him (John 5:30; 6:39); as the Lord Jesus himself said concerning his Father: “And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him” (John 8:29).[17]

 

Colossians 1:15-20 is the second section of Scripture “exegeted” in Tipton’s study. Beginning in verse 15, Paul says of the “beloved Son” Jesus:

 

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

 

“Verse 15b, however, relates the eternal Son in his preincarnate mode of existence to the created order; he is ‘firstborn over all creation’ (prototokos pases ktiseos).

 

Verse 15 does not speak of an “eternal Son.” Neither does verse 15 say that the Son is “the firstborn over all creation,” but “the firstborn of all creation.” “Firstborn over all creation” is an erroneous rendering not supported by the original Greek. The correct translation is the one found in most literal Bible versions—“the firstborn of all creation.” The phrase must include the “of” because it is a necessary element, part of the word pases, the genitive form of the word “all.” The word ktiseos is likewise a genitive form of the Greek word for “creature” or “creation.”[18]

 

The word prototokos denotes superiority in rank or dignity, illustrated by its usage in LXX Psalm 89:27, ‘I will appoint him my firstborn [prototkov in the accusative, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.[19]

 

Lexically, the term prototokos simply means “firstborn (one born first),” and is often used to mean precisely that in Scripture.[20] It is true that the term is used at times in Scripture figuratively to denote ‘superiority in rank’ or ‘dignity,’ but that is not what the term actually means, by definition.


If we interpret “firstborn” in Colossians 1:15, however, to denote “superior in rank” or “most exalted,” then Colossians 1:15 would essentially mean that Christ is “the most exalted of all creation,” doing nothing to support the concept of an “eternal Son of God.” So, the problem, for “Reformed Confessional Orthodoxy,” is, if Tipton is correct about the implication of the term “firstborn,” Christ is still “of,” or a part of, “all creation”; only he is “the most exalted” of it all, no matter what “creation” is in view.

 

Therefore, the distinction between the Son of God as the image of the invisible God and the firstborn over all creation becomes clear. The image of God language clarifies the Son’s consubstantial relation to the Father (cf. 1:19 and 2:9), and the firstborn language clarifies the Son’s fundamental relation to creation. While there is a meaningful way to distinguish what comes into view in 15a and 15b, namely, relationship to God and world respectively, both phrases denote the personal preexistence of the eternal Son of God.

 

Again, the Son is not described as the firstborn “over” all creation but as the firstborn “of” all creation.  And the “image of God” language clarifies that Jesus is exactly that; he is the “image or “visible representation”[21] of the “invisible God,” not the “invisible God” himself—just as, in Hebrews 1:3, Jesus is identified as the “exact representation” or “express image”[22] of the “God” of the forefathers, not as “God” (Heb. 1:1). Scripturally, the “image of the invisible God” language cannot clarify the Son’s “consubstantial relation to the Father” because the Son is never said to have a “consubstantial” relation to the Father, but another kind of relationship. As pointed out, the Son is not “of the same substance/being” as the Father (‘consubstantial’) but a “perfect copy/exact representation” of the “substance/being” of the Father, according to Hebrews 1:3.  


Contrary to what Tipton implies by referencing the two texts, neither Colossians 1:19 nor 2:9 present the Son as “consubstantial” with the Father. This kind of language does not appear in these texts and the concepts represented by this language are not there either. The language of Colossians 1:19 actually implies that the “godship (theotetos)” possessed by the Son in Colossians 2:9 is possessed by the Son because of God’s decision[23] to endow him with such, not because he is an “eternal” possessor of such in a so-called “consubstantial” relationship with the Father.

 

“Just as the eternal Son of God is before all things (17a), so also, as the ascended Son, Christ is preeminent in everything (v. 18c). Just as the eternal Son originates all things (v. 16), so also as resurrected he is ‘the beginning’ (hos estin arche, 18b).”[24]

 

The Son is not described as “eternal/without beginning” in this text or in any other. He is “before all things (Gk. pro panton),” evidently, because “all things” were made “in” and “through him (di autou).” Logically, the Son had to be “before” the “all things” in order for him to be the one “in” and “through” whom they were created. But the Son does not have to be “before” all things because he is “eternal/without beginning.” He can be described as “before all things” because, out of “all creation” (whatever ‘creation’ is in view), he is “firstborn” (Col. 1:15).


The expression “before all things (Gk. pro panton),” however, does not necessarily have to mean “before” in the sense of “before (in time).” Contextually speaking, the statement can very well mean that the Son is “before all things” in the sense articulated in verse 18, namely, that “[the Son] might have first place [or ‘preeminence’] in everything.” The Greek pro can bear the sense of “before (in time)” or ‘superior’ in ‘rank’ or ‘importance.’ In fact the identical expression is used this way in 1 Peter 4:8, where the apostle wrote, “above all things (Gk. pro panton) have fervent love for one another” (NKJV)—meaning that “love” among Christians should be ‘pre-eminent’ or the ‘most important,’ above all other virtues.[25] In the same way, the statement that the Son is “before all things (Gk. pro panton)” could simply mean that the Son is above, or that he has ‘first place’ in, all things, a meaning that would fit the context perfectly.


Contrary to Tipton’s assumption, verse 16 does not say that the Son is eternal or that he “originates all things,” as if Scripture presented the Son as the ultimate source or power behind the creation he is associated with. Verse 16 says literally, “in him were created all things” and that “all things were created through him and for him.”[26]

 

…estin immediately following the relative pronoun hos can be taken as a timeless/atemporal present, which would mean that the Son is eternally the image of the invisible God and would imply his eternal generation…the prelapsarian activity of the eternal Son with reference to creation, lending support to taking estin as a “timeless/atemporal” present.…the timeless estin in 15a/17/a. The implication is that while the preexistent Son remains forever the one who is before all things as the eternal image of God and firstborn over all creation, he nonetheless comes to possess preeminence in all things by virtue of his exaltation in redemptive history.”[27]

 

This is one of the more surprising and bizarre arguments in Tipton’s article. In this case, because the verb estin itself represents a state of existing (without reference to beginning or end), Tipton wants to make the verb “is/estin” carry the connotation of “eternally existing” in reference to Christ as the image of God. That is, for Tipton, Paul is not just saying that Christ “is the image of the invisible God,” but that he “is [eternally existing as] the image of the invisible God,” in line with the requirements of Trinitarian theology. This is a linguistic fallacy of a very odd but commonly Trinitarian sort.


The verb estin is equivalent to the English verb “is” and implies “eternal existence” no more than the English verb it is equivalent to. In the very same letter, Paul says of Epaphras: “He is [estin] a faithful minister of Christ…” (Col. 1:7). Does the occurrence of the quite ordinary verb estin (‘is’) imply that Epaprhas is somehow “[eternally] a faithful minister of Christ (without beginning)”? Of course not; and neither does the declaration that “he [the Son] is [estin] the image of the invisible God” somehow imply his “eternal/timeless” existence as such. The statement ‘he is the image of the invisible God’ tells us how long the Son has been the image of God no more and no less than the statement “Barack Obama is the president,” or “Paul is an apostle,” or “Jesus is the Messiah,” or “Tipton is a systematic theologian,” tells us. No theological implication can be derived from the simple English or Greek verb “is.” “Is” is simply the verb needed to identify someone as something at present. But this is a common occurrence in Trinitarian apologetics—namely, that of trying to draw profound theological implications out of ordinary, every-day Greek verbs and expressions that do not contain them.


Put simply, Colossians 1:15 does not say that the Son is the “eternal image of God” or that he is the “firstborn over all creation.” None of these nuances are found in the text, but superimposed onto the text by Tipton and other Trinitarians in order to harmonize Scripture with post-biblical doctrinal formulas.

 

Significant theological and hermeneutical implications follow from Hebrews 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-20, which together allow us to promote Chalcedonian Christology (and ward off erroneous Christological constructions) and expand the vistas of Reformed biblico-systematic theology with its special interest in redemptive history.[28]

 

Why would Christians want to promote “Chalcedonian Christology” when we have the far wiser option of simply pointing to or reiterating the “Christology” (doctrine of Christ) already articulated by Christ himself and the writers of Scripture? Jesus is the “reflection” or “radiance” of God’s “glory,” the “exact representation” of his very “being,” “the first born of all creation” and “the image of the invisible God”—genuine scriptural “creeds” that really do speak for themselves.

 

The preexistence of the Son of God in Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:15 relates core concerns of Chalcedon to christocentic eschatology. The Son’s preexistence, particularly his homoousios with the Father and monogonese from the Father (Heb. 1:3), supplies the deepest Christological rationale for the realized eschatology in the book of Hebrews. In this connection we can discern from these texts the deepest possible relationship between Chalcedonian orthodoxy and biblical theology.”[29]

 

The homoousious concept is absent from Scripture; yet Tipton refers to it casually as if it were a scriptural doctrine. The “relationship” between “Chalcedonian orthodoxy” and “biblical theology” Tipton hopes to establish automatically shows that they are not one and the same thing. The concepts found in “Chalcedonian orthodoxy” are products of post-biblical theology and interpretation, not doctrines clearly taught by Jesus or his apostles in Scripture.

 

In a complementary way, Paul’s Christology in Colossians 1:15-18 enables us to articulate the communicatio idiomatum [‘sharing of attributes’] in categories derived from the interface between the preexistence and postexistence of the Son of God. For instance, the Son of God is both the one by whom all things were created (16), as well as the beginning of the new creation as resurrected (18a);

 

The “communicatio idiomatum” concept is, likewise, a theological invention, nowhere to be found in Scripture. Colossians 1:16 does not say that the Son was the one “by” whom all things were created but the one “in” and “through” whom all things were created. This is not merely a “distinction without a difference” or a trivial quarrelling over words. As N.T. Wright pointed out in the conservative Tyndale Commentaries: “All that God made, he made by means of him. Paul actually says ‘in him,’ and, though the word en can mean ‘by’ as well as ‘in,’ it is better to retain the literal translation than to paraphrase as NIV has done. Not only is there an intended parallel with verse 19, which would otherwise be lost: the passive ‘were created’ indicates, in a typically Jewish fashion, the activity of God the Father, working in the Son. To say ‘by’, here and at the end of verse 16, could imply, not that Christ is the Father’s agent, but that he was alone responsible for creation.”[30]

 

…he is both the firstborn over all creation and the firstborn from among the dead (15b and 18b). How do these observations enable us to articulate the communicatio idiomatum? When we predicate something of Jesus’ person, such as creation (15b-16), we do so with special reference to the Son’s divine nature as the eternal Son of God. And when we predicate of his person a new state into which he entered as resurrected (18), we do so with special reference to his transformed human nature as Second Adam (cf. 1 Cor. 15:44bff.). This is a distinctively redemptive-historical way of expressing Chalcedonian Christology that relates the implications of the unipersonality and dual natures of the Son of God to the eschatological outcome of his resurrection.[31]

 

There is, put simply, no doctrine of the “communicatio idiomatum” present in any of these scriptural statements, and no doctrine of Christ’s “dual natures.” Surprisingly, although profound theological concepts like these are given so much priority by systematic theologians like Tipton, none of them can be supported by one clear scriptural statement.

In the concluding section of his article, Tipton is critical toward “systematic theologians” who disagree with his theological tradition. Although Tipton rightly recognizes that the “perennial problem” confronting systematic theologians is their “tendency toward abstraction and philosophical speculation,” and how often their proposals arise from “speculative and essentially unbiblical categories,” the point is made, ironically, as if Tipton himself “exegetes” the texts in question in either biblical language, categories, or terms (as opposed to ‘philosophical’ and ‘speculative’ ones), when he clearly does not. But Tipton claims:

 

Biblical truth offers not merely a path of exploration that allows us to expand the vistas of biblico-systematic theology, but a fortress to be defended against the onslaught of heterodox hermeneutical and theological proposals that owe much more to Athens than Jerusalem.[32]

 

These are, by far, some of the most remarkable of Tipton’s statements, in terms of their outstandingly self-contradictory nature. It is well established and often admitted by the most conservative New Testament scholars, that the classical creedal terms/concepts necessary to articulate the Trinitarian doctrine of God were derived from non-biblical, Greek, philosophical thought-forms and categories—from “Athens” not “Jerusalem.” How Tipton can direct criticism toward those who promote unbiblical ‘speculations’ and ‘abstractions,’ at the close of a twenty-five-page-article in which Tipton engages in this very practice (in defense of a tradition widely-recognized for abstract and speculative thought), is difficult to comprehend.


Consider, first, the kind of language and theological concepts/categories used and already presumed to be true, yet which were entirely foreign and unknown to the biblical prophets, the Messiah, the apostles, and entirely alien to the Scriptures discussed in Tipton’s study (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-4).


Remarkably, in this twenty-five page article, Jesus Christ is formally defined and presumed by Tipton to be the “eternal Son of God” a total of thirty-five times.[33] This is in noticeable contrast to the language of the scriptural accounts where, although Jesus is formally marked out as the “Son of God” in numerous instances (even spoken of as one who has the kind of life that was ‘granted’[34] to him by his Father), he is never described as, or qualified with the words, “eternal Son of God”—a description simply alien to the biblical writings. Nor are there Scriptures in existence that teach or articulate the notion that the Son of God is “eternal” (without a beginning of existence), or the post-New Testament doctrine of an “eternal generation.” Most of Tipton’s “exegesis” of Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4, in fact, flows from the unfounded and scripturally-unarticulated assumption that Jesus is an “eternal second person” of a “triune God”—a concept that simply never appears in Scripture, a concept nowhere discussed by Jesus or his apostles, and a concept nowhere to be found in the first chapters of Hebrews or Colossians.


Strangely, in spite of his pointed criticism, Tipton—throughout the entirety of his preceding argument—advances scores of ‘abstract,’ philosophically-loaded theological terms, concepts, and ‘speculations,’ all infused with unfounded theological assumptions nowhere to be found or even discussed in Scripture.


That is, for Tipton, Jesus is not simply the scriptural “Christ, the Son of the living God,”[35] but the theological “eternal Son of God” in light of his alleged “pretemporal existence as the second person of the ontological Trinity.”[36] Though never mentioned in Scripture, additional reference is made by Tipton to the “opera Dei ad extra or economic aspect of the Trinity,”[37] the “essential deity of the eternal Son of God,”[38] the Son’s “eternal ontic status,”[39] his “essential deity and coequality with the Father,” his “eternal status as homoousios(‘of the same substance/being’)” as God the Father,[40] the “prelapsarian activity of the eternal Son,” his so-called “eternal generation[41] and “consubstantial relation to the Father,” and the corresponding “eternal relationship of the Father to the Son.”


Further reference is made to “the uncreated Son,”[42] the doctrine of the “communicatio idiomatum,” the “dual natures of the Son of God,”[43]the eternal Son of God, coequal with the Father” who is nevertheless “hypostatically distinct from him,”[44] the Son’s alleged status as the “eternal, firstborn Son (Meredith G. Kline)”[45] and as “the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God,”[46] and other non-biblical expressions like “the third person of the ontological Trinity,”[47]the second and third persons of the Trinity,”[48] and “the classical distinction between the ontological and economic aspects of the Trinity”—all, of course, doctrines, distinctions, concepts, and complex theological nuances nowhere articulated in Scripture.[49]


As one example of what is widely recognized, Professor of Systematic Theology Shirley C. Guthrie (from the same religious tradition as Tipton) freely acknowledged: “The Bible does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity. Neither the word ‘trinity’ itself nor such language as ‘one-in-three,’ ‘three-in-one,’ one ‘essence’ (or ‘substance’), and three ‘persons’ is biblical language.” Guthrie’s observation is correct. He is also correct in noting further that the “language of the doctrine [Tipton’s ‘homoousios,’ for example], is the language of the ancient church, taken not from the Bible but from classical Greek philosophy.[50]


This is a true and eye-opening admission by a reputable scholar within Tipton’s very own theological tradition. Yet this kind of non-biblical terminology and these kinds of concepts (some having there origins in ‘Greek philosophy’) appear all throughout Tipton’s article on Hebrews 1:1-4 and Colossians 1:15-20, to an excessive degree.


Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4 do nothing to support “Nicene,” “Chalcedonian” or “Reformed” confessional orthodoxy. They only confirm that Jesus is what he is described as elsewhere in Scripture, namely, as the scripturally foretold “Christ”and “Son of the living God,” not as a mysterious and metaphysical “God the Son” and “second person” of a so-called “Trinity.” Together, these Scriptures speak in harmonious accord in their exaltation of the “beloved Son” of God as the “reflection” of the “invisible” God’s “glory,” as God’s “image,” and as “the exact representation of his very being.”

 


[1] Lane Tipton’s article was submitted to me by Jeff Downs (director of the Counter Cult Apologetics Journal) who asked that I offer feedback from my non-Trinitarian perspective.

[2] Lane Tipton Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary

[3] The Council of Nicea in 325CE defined Jesus as homoousios, meaning, that Jesus is “of one substance/being” with the Father—fully equal with the Father in terms of his “deity.” The creed formally established in 451CE at Chalcedon defined Jesus as one “person” with “two natures,” that of God and man, known theologically as the “hypostatic union” of Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646CE) is a formalized statement of doctrine in the “Calvinist” theological tradition that fully embraces the formulas of Nicea and Chalcedon.

[4] Tipton, page 178.

[5] Tipton, p. 201

[6] I am already aware, of course, that Trinitarians allow for a distinction between “God” and the “Son.” But this is so only as long as the term “God” is understood in the post-biblical sense of “the Father (the first ‘person’ of the Trinity).” The problem is that Scripture itself nowhere explains that the term “God” bears such a meaning when distinguished from the “Son.” There is, in fact, no good reason to believe that any author or reader of Scripture in the first century would have understood “God” as meaning anything other than “God” and God’s “Son” as a distinct figure from him. It is true that Hebrews 1:1 is a reference to “the Father.” But, according to Scripture, the Father (who is ‘greater than all’) is the “one God/the only true God” (1 Cor. 8:4-6; John 17:3), not the “first person” of a so-called “Trinity.”

[7] Tipton, page 182

[8] Tipton is entirely correct when he points out: “Charakter denotes exact representation of something (Louw-Nida), and can also be used with reference to something impressed on a coin or stamp to demonstrate authenticity (Liddell-Scott). What is in view is a precise, essential reproduction in every respect (Thayer)… And it is of the hupostaseos of God that the son is a precise reproduction. Thus, in addition to being the agent of creation (2c), the bearer of the radiance of the divine glory (3a), the Son is also an exact representation of God’s nature or being (3b). The Son of God possesses the radiance of God’s glory specifically as the charakter of God’s nature” (page 182).

[9] Tipton, page 181.

[10] Tipton, page 182.

[11] This view may be supported by the statement in Hebrews 2:10, which appears to be a clear reference to the entire created order (‘all things’) brought into existence by God. “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering…”

[12] If the translation “You made him [the ‘son of man’] lower than the angels for a little while” is correct (Hebrews 2:9, NET), it doesn’t tell us that Jesus was “God” before he was made lower than them.

[13] Tipton, page 182.

[14] That is why Peter could say to his fellow Israelites: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servantJesus.” This text clearly shows that God willingly glorifies (gives ‘glory’ to) those who serve him, as in the case of his Son Jesus, whom Peter—in his proclamation of the Christian message—portrays as God’s “servant,” not as “God” himself.

[15] Tipton, page 184.
[16] As in the well-known statement by Jesus in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” John Calvin acknowledged: “The ancients made a wrong use of this passage to prove that Christ is (homoousios) of the same essence with the Father. For Christ does not argue about the unity of substance, but about the agreement which he has with the Father, so that whatever is done by Christ will be confirmed by the power of his Father.”—Calvin’s Commentaries (Delaware: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), p. 780.
[17] The “genitive” is the grammatical case conveying possession, ownership, origin, or derivation. Greek does not have a preposition “of”; it is part of the genitival form of a word/phrase as in huios tou theou (‘Son of God’) The sense of “of” is in the phrase tou theou (genitival form of ho theos) and must be rendered “Son of God,” not “Son over God.”
[18] Tipton, page 188.
[19] Genesis 4:4; 19:31; 25:13; Exodus 11:15; 13:15; 22:29; Numbers 8:16-18; Psalm 135:8; Hebrews 11:28
[20] Weymouth, New Testament in Modern Speech
[21] King James Version
[22] Dr. Robert L. Reymond rightly pointed out: “Paul uses the phrase [‘all the fullness’] in 2:9 with even greater clarity of meaning [than 1:19] and the phrase almost certainly means the same thing in both contexts. In Colossians 1:19, Paul wrote: ‘In him [God] willed all the fullness to dwell.’ Here in 2:9 Paul says virtually the same thing, but he specifies the nature of the ‘fullness’ and the manner in which the ‘fullness’ dwells in Jesus.” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p. 252). Regarding Colossians 1:19, the Translator’s Handbook observes: “The Greek may mean: God decided to have his fullness dwell in Christ, or God’s fullness decided to dwell in Christ, depending on whether the neuter phrase pan to pleroma [‘all the fullness’] is construed as an accusative, the object of the verb, or as nominative, the subject of the verb…It seems better to take ‘all the fullness’ as object, and God as the (unexpressed) subject of the sentence: ‘it was God’s choice/decision/pleasure (for the verb eudokeo compare 1 Cor 1.21, Gal 1.15; compare the noun eudokia in Eph 1.5, 9; Phil 2.13) to have all the fullness dwell in him.’…‘It was God’s will and plan. For it was by God’s own decision may be expressed more simply as ‘For God himself decided.”
[23] Tipton, page 189.
[24] This was pointed out to me by Greg Deuble (Correspondence: Monday, 22 June, 2009). See They Never Told Me This in Church, pages 227-232.
[25] Commenting on Colossians 1:16 and Christ’s role in the creation of “the all things (ta panta),” A.T. Robertson correctly pointed out: “[‘through him,’ di auto] As the intermediate and sustaining agent. He had already used en auto (in him) as the sphere of activity.”
[26] Tipton, pages 197, 190.
[27]Tipton, page 191.
[28] Tipton, page 191.
[29] The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and to Philemon, An Introduction and Commentary, N. T. Wright (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 71
[30] Tipton, page. 192
[31] Tipton, page 201.
[32] According to my count, including quotations and footnotes.
[33] John 5:26
[34] Matt. 16:13-17
[35] Page 177
[36] Page 179
[37] Page 180
[38] Page 181
[39] Tipton, page 184.
[40] Tipton, page 187.
[41] Tipton, page188.
[43] Tipton, page 192.
[44] Tipton, page 193.
[45] Tipton, page 194.
[46] Westminster Confession, page 195, ftnt.
[47] Tipton, page 196.
[48] Tipton, page 197.
[49] Tipton, page 198.
[50] Christian Doctrine (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1968),pp. 92, 93 (emphasis added). Of course after Guthrie claims: “But the church did not simply invent this doctrine. It used the language and concepts available to it to interpret what the Bible itself says about God and his dealings with men in the world.”