“From a Historical to a Cosmical Significance”- James Denney on the Grand Vision of Ephesians and Colossians

In The Death of Christ (1902), James Denney examined everything the New Testament says about the theological significance of that death.

Working through the letters of Paul, he was struck by the new perspective that appears in Colossians and Ephesians.

As far as these two letters speak of the death of Christ, Denney saw in them an “extension of its virtue into regions where we cannot speak of it from experience.”

When we come to the epistles of the Imprisonment a new range seems to be given to Christ’s death, and to the work of reconciliation which is accomplished in it. This holds, at least, of the Epistles to the Colossians and Ephesians; so far as Philippians is concerned, we find ourselves in the same circle of ideas as in Galatians and Romans. The close parallel, indeed, of Philippians 3 9f. with the exposition of the apostolic gospel in these earlier letters is a striking proof of the tenacity and consistency of St. Paul’s thought.

But in Colossians we are confronted with a new situation. ‘The world’ which is the object of reconciliation is no longer as in 2 Corinthians 5: 19, or Romans 3 19, the world of sinful men; it is a world on a grander scale. ‘God has been pleased through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross, through Him, whether they be things on earth or things in heaven’ (Colossians 1: 20).

The reconciliation of sinful men is represented as though it were only a part of this vaster work. ‘And you, ’ it is added, ‘who were once estranged, and enemies in mind by wicked works, He has now reconciled in the body of His flesh through death’ (5: 21f.).

The same ideas are found in the Epistle to the Ephesians (1: 7ff.). Here we start with the historical Christ, ‘in whom we have our redemption through His blood, even the forgiveness of our trespasses’; but when the mystery of Christ’s work is revealed to the Christian intelligence, it is seen to have as its end ‘the gathering together in one of all things in Him, both things in (or above) the heavens and things on the earth’ (5: 10).

This enlargement of the scope of Christ’s death, or, if we prefer to call it so, this extension of its virtue into regions where we cannot speak of it from experience, has sometimes had a disconcerting effect, and the bearings of it are not quite clear.

Although he found its bearings unclear, Denney seemed to see this new scope as a development in Paul’s thought, rather than something that was part of Paul’s vision from the beginning.

Denny is certainly right when he says, below, that Christ has become “a person so great that St. Paul is obliged to reconstruct His whole world around Him.” The question is: When did this reconstruction happen?

The enlarged scope of the work of reconciliation is part of that expansion, so to speak, of Christ’s person from a historical to a cosmical significance which is characteristic of these epistles as a whole.

Christ is no longer a second Adam, the head of a new humanity, as in the earlier letters (Romans 5: 12ff. and 1 Corinthians 15: 45ff.); He is the center of the universe. He is a person so great that St. Paul is obliged to reconstruct His whole world around Him. He is the primary source of all creation, its principle of unity, its goal (Colossians 1: 15ff.).

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