The Christological passages of the New Testament are some of the most beautiful. You can almost hear the love in the voice of the writer. Not only do they inform us of Christian metaphysics, they also inspire us to deeper devotion to our Lord.
This morning, I’ve been meditating on Colossians 1:15-20, with a special emphasis on Christ as both efficient and final cause of creation. This is especially demonstrated in verse 16. In the LEB this passage reads:
“…because all things in the heavens and on the earth were created by him, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers, all things were created through him and for him…” (emphasis added).
It is this last phrase that can make some wonder, but which also answers a very important question.
The universe was made by him, through him and for him. “Made by him,” is pretty easy to understand. “Made for him” can be misunderstood. Unless we understand different causes, this can appear contradictory. If something is made “for me” it is usually made by somebody else to give to me. If it is made “by me” then I am the one making it. However, this would be to misunderstand what is being said here.
Dana and Mantey (A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p.201) gives a beautiful explanation of the different tenses used in the two parts of the passage:
“The fundamental difference between the perfect and aorist is vividly illustrated in Col. 1:16. We have the first statement, ἐν αὐτῷ ἐκτίσθη τὰ πάντα, all things were created by him, which simply notes the fact that Christ was the active agent of creation, while the last clause, τὰ πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ καὶ εἰς αὐτὸν ἔκτισται, all things through him and unto him have been created, views the universe as a ‘Christ-created universe.’”
This is a beautiful and powerful description of the passage. Dana and Mantey (ibid.) go on to argue that the author of the text knew the difference and intended it. I love the conclusion they come to: the universe is a “Christ-created universe.” However, they are only interested at that point in the tenses and the nuance coming from these. They are not concerning themselves with other details of the passage—a passage rich with Christological meaning for the believer.
Look at the passage as two parts (as Dana & Mantey did):
Verse 16a: “all things in heaven and earth were created by him…”
Verse 16b: “all things were created by him and for him…”
Besides emphasizing a different tense, each clause of the passage emphasizes a different cause of the universe. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it shows two different creators. Instead I am speaking about two of the four causes of any change described by Aristotle. Don’t get me wrong, again! I’m not saying the author is writing Aristotelian philosophy. Aristotle laid out four causes of any change that are a simple way to look at change in the material universe. These four causes are material cause, formal cause, efficient cause and final cause. These four can be explained with four questions. The answer to each is a different cause (http://www.willamette.edu/~sbasu/poli212/AristotleonCause.htm):
- Out of what has the thing come? The answer to this is the material cause.
- What is the thing? The answer to this is the formal cause.
- By means of what is it? The answer to this is the efficient cause.
- For the sake of what is it? The answer to this is the final cause.
So let’s answer these questions. The first two will simply be answered with standard Christian doctrinal views, while the last two are actually addressed in Colossians 1:16.
- What is the universe made of? The universe was made ex nihilo (from nothing).
- What is the universe? It is the material creation of divinity (get as complex as you like).
- By means of what (or whom) is it? According to Colossians 1:16a, this is Christ.
- For the sake of what (or whom) is it? According to Colossians 1:16b, this too is Christ.
Paul is emphasizing Christ, in Colossians 1:16, as both the efficient and final cause of the universe.
We find it easy to see Christ as the efficient cause of creation (the creator), especially when we read John 1, and relate to the rest of scripture through Christ as the Word (logos) of God. However, have you ever found yourself wondering why God created the universe? Have you ever wondered why God would go from no universe to (BOOM!) universe! People try all the time with different lame reasons, each with their own problems:
- “God is so loving he had to create the universe.” So God was deficient before creating?
- “God chose to create the universe.” So God changed? There was a moment when he hadn’t chosen to create and then another moment when he had chosen to create the universe?
- “It was in God’s nature to create the universe.” So it was not possible that God would not have created the universe? Then wouldn’t there have been a universe as long as there has been God?
While each response is simplistic (and each assumes God as temporal, which many disagree with), it is because simplistic arguments fall to simplistic counterarguments.
Colossians 1:16b gives us the reason (the purpose for, the goal of) creation—Christ.
Christ is both the agent of creation and the reason for the creation of the universe. So, who created the universe? Christ! Why was the universe created? Christ! That is really all we need to know. Also, since the reason is God’s own, it can only be known by His revelation. He has revealed it as being Christ! Notice it doesn’t say: “for his purpose…”, “for his use…” etc. It simply says “for him.” The universe was created by and for Christ!