by Michael R. Burgos Jr.
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Col 2:9, ESV)
ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ κατοικεῖ πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα τῆς θεότητος σωματικῶς (Col 2:9, NA28)
The above verse occurs within a passage in which the apostle Paul communicates his care for those churches who have not had the opportunity to meet with him face to face (2:1). Paul is eager to see these churches reach spiritual maturity, and the “knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3). Wisdom and knowledge says Paul, are hidden only in Christ. Other so-called sources of hidden wisdom are excluded—as all the wealth (πᾶν πλοῦτος) of wisdom and knowledge is in Christ.
Paul’s rationale for this language is divulged by the warning that follows. He wrote, “I say this in order that (Τοῦτο λέγω ἵνα) no one may delude you with plausible arguments” (2:4). The implication from Paul’s warning is that there were people within the vicinity of the Colossian church who promoted persuasive sounding arguments which offered claims of wisdom and knowledge. That Paul is trading in the currency of key proto-gnostic verbiage is likely, but not entirely certain. While the proto-gnostic interpretation is theoretical since it relies upon the utilization of certain terms by second century gnostic writers (e.g., γνῶσις, πλήρωμα),1 Paul’s language is so extraordinarily similar that the theory is likely to be true.
Paul, though imprisoned, is eager to encourage this church, and is himself encouraged by their steadfastness (v. 5). In verse 6 he exhorts the Colossians saying, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught abounding in thanksgiving” (vv. 6-7). Thereafter, Paul issues a second warning that is not unlike v. 4. He wrote, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world and not according to Christ” (v. 8). The phrase “elemental spirits of the world is also utilized in v. 20, and in Galatians 4:3 and 4:9. Within this pericope, the phrase is said only to take one captive (συλαγωγῶν), a hapax which refers to something or someone being taken as booty.2 However, judging from its Pauline uses, I believe Paul has appropriated the phrase, which has substantial pagan and also Jewish mystical baggage, to refer to an understanding of law keeping (whether Jewish or pagan) that was essentially an outward visible display which was both simplistic (hence, elemental), and carnal (hence, spirits of the world).3
Paul instructs the Colossians to keep watch (βλέπετε) in v. 8 “because (ὅτι) in him dwells all the fullness of deity bodily.” The emphatic pronoun refers back to the antecedent, namely Christ, and the term “deity” (θεότητος) is defined as “the state of being God, divine character/nature, deity, divinity.”4 Here Paul does not merely say that the pleroma of God indwells Jesus. That is in fact, the teaching of Colossians 1:19 which states, “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Rather Paul is here teaching that all that comprises deity is dwelling bodily. The emphatic pronoun stresses the exclusivity of Christ as does the phrase “whole fullness”—there is no one else who in whom deity dwells bodily. That is, whereas God once dwelled in a temple,5 he now dwells bodily.
With the above in mind, how do ‘biblical' unitarians understand Colossians 2:9? At biblicalunitarian.com there are a several arguments which attempt to mitigate the natural reading of the text.6 I've addressed each below:
The word “Deity” or “Godhead” is a translation of the Greek word theotes. In A Greek English Lexicon, by Liddell and Scott, the classic lexicon of the ancient Greek language, it is translated as “divinity, divine nature.”7
The preface of the Liddell-Scott Greek-English Lexicon states that it pertains to the period of Greek “from Homer downwards, to the close of Classical Attic Greek.” Liddell-Scott is not a lexicon for the koine period (i.e., the period in which the New Testament was written), unlike Louw-Nida or the comprehensive BDAG. I don't necessarily have a problem with the Liddell-Scott definition, so as long as one understands “divinity” in terms of “the state of being God,” as noted in BDAG. The point however, is that this writer is so unfamiliar with appropriate exegetical practicum, that he choose a lexicon that pertains to the wrong era.
The Greek word occurs only once in the Bible, so to try to build a case for it meaning “God” or “Godhead” (which is an unclear term in itself) is very suspect indeed. Standard rules for interpreting Scripture would dictate that the way Paul used theotes in Colossians would be the same way the Colossians were used to hearing it in their culture. There is no reason to believe that Paul wrote to the Colossian case expecting them to redefine the term.8
First, the term is defined as “the state of being God” (i.e., deity). The KJV’s translation of Godhead is completely misunderstood by the author of biblicalunitarian.com. Bowman and Komoszewski have noted that “The suffix –head in [King James] English, however, usually meant status, state, or nature, and in modern English has been largely displaced by –hood.”9 Hence, if we were to understand “Godhead” as “Godhood,” as our modern English would require, the term is actually not “suspect” at all. Moreover, even if one were to grant the meaning of the relevant term as defined in Liddell-Scott as the meaning of the term within the context of the epistle, it would still require that Jesus is all deity embodied.
It makes no sense to talk about the “fullness” of something that is indivisible. God is indivisible. We never read about “the fullness of God the Father” Because, by definition, God is always full of His own nature. Therefore, the verse is not talking about Christ being God, but about God in some way providing Christ with fullness.10
The above comments divulge the defective interpretive methodology of the author. The writer begins by presupposing that the term “fullness,” if referring to the state of being God, somehow means that God is divisible-- and this with no consideration of the argument that Paul has made. The term translated “fullness” (πλήρωμα) is directly related to the porto-gnosticism that Paul is arguing against. Within Christian Gnosticism, “especially Valentinians, πλήρωμα is a terminus technicus particularly for the totality of the thirty aeons,”11 which is a major theological component of Gnostic religion. Hence, Paul has used a Gnostic technical term that refers to the array of divine emanations to assert that the fullness of deity is actually Christ, and this in bodily form. So too, πλήρωμα results in making θεότητος a genitive of content,12 a construction that is intended to communicate what the Son is (i.e., the fullness of Godhood in human flesh).
The fact that Christ has “all the fullness” of God does not make him God. Ephesians 3:19 says that Christians should be filled with “all the fullness of God,” and no one believes that would make each Christian God.13
There is a great deal of difference between Paul telling the Christians to “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God,” and Paul using the terminology of proto-Gnosticism so as to communicate that Jesus is the fullness of deity dwelling bodily. If what the apostle was communicating was akin to what he was communicating to Christians in Ephesians 3:19, then the argument being made at Colossians 2:9 would be incoherent. Paul told his audience, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit…because (ὅτι) in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” Thus, if Paul’s intention was to teach that Christ possessed the indwelling fullness of the Holy Spirit just as the redemed, his argument would be nonsensical. The entire point of the argument is that Christ is the one in whom are all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (v. 2), and that one ought not abandon what one was taught (v. 6), being taken captive by deceit (v. 8), since Christ is perfect Godhood dwelling human flesh. In other words, it is as if Paul has said, ‘don't look to these false teachers with their pleroma of deities and their claims of secret knowledge. Rather, hold fast to Christ, because he is the wisdom of God and all deity dwelling in bodily form.’
If Christ were God, it would make no sense to say that the fullness of God dwelt in him, because, being God, he would always have the fullness of God. The fact that Christ could have the fullness of God dwell in him actually shows that he was not God.14
This objection is predicated upon two errors. First, the orthodox claim is not merely that Christ is God, but that he is God existing in authentic humanity. Therefore, to say that Christ has the fullness of deity within the context of Paul’s aforementioned argument makes complete sense. Second, the unitarian writer has shifted from quoting the actual language of Colossians 2:9 (i.e., the whole fullness of deity dwelling bodily) to “the fullness of God.” This shift demonstrates that the writer does not understand the argument Paul has made, or the terminology that he has employed. The phrase “fullness of God dwelt in him” is not the same as saying that he is the whole fullness of deity dwelling bodily. Interestingly, the ‘biblical’ unitarian writer, aside from quoting Colossians 2:9 once, never mentions and hence never interprets the word “bodily” in his entire article.
The context is a key to the proper interpretation of the verse. The Colossians had lost their focus on Christ (see Col. 1:15-20). Colossians 2:8 shows that the people were in danger of turning to “hollow and deceptive philosophy” rather than being focused on Christ. What could philosophy and traditions offer that Christ could not? The next verse is a reminder that there is no better place to turn for answers for truth than to Christ, in whom all the fullness of God dwells.15
One would think that the context of the passage would include the overall argument being made by the author. Here again the unitarian writer trades the “whole fullness of deity dwelling bodily” for the “fullness of God” indwelling Jesus—these are two very different assertions, that are completely distinct. The text is not merely asserting that God dwells in Jesus, as the ‘biblical unitarian’ writer has assumed. Rather, the text is asserting that Christ is all of deity in bodily form.
1 See Wilson, R. McL., The International Critical Commentary: Colossians and Philemon, (New York: T &T Clark, 2005), 43-44.
2 Louw-Nida, 37.10.
3 Contra Dunn who argues that the “elemental spirits” refers to “heavenly beings…gods as popularly understood.” The NT never suggests the prior enslavement of Christians to gods, but rather to sin and the law (John 8:34-35 [cf. Gal 4:3ff]; Rom 6:18-22; Titus 3:3; Heb 2:15; 2 Pet 2:19). See Dunn, James D. G., The New International Greek Testament Commentary: The Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 149-150.
4 BDAG, 452. See also Louw-Nida 12:13.
5 1 Kings 8:12-13.
9 Bowman, Robert M., Komoszewski, J. Ed, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ, (Grand Rapids: Kregal Publications, 2007), 76.
11 TDNT, Vol. 6, 300.
12 See Wallace, Daniel B., Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 93-94, and Köstenberger, Andreas J., Merkle, Benjamin L., and Plummer, Robert L., Going Deeper with New Testament Greek: An Intermediate Study of the Grammar and Syntax of the New Testament, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 94-95.