The Battle Against Gnosticism

“The Battle Against Gnosticism”
A reflection on Colossians 1:15-20
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)
©️2022 by Gloria M. Chang

Greek words in this couplet:

pneuma: spirit
soma: body, flesh
pleroma: fullness, completion

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

Colossians 1:15-20

Gnostic Heresies

God and matter do not touch, taught the Gnostics. Infiltrated with dualistic ideas from Greek philosophy, the church at Colossae floundered in a sea of syncretism. 

In the Gnostic worldview, spirit is good and matter is evil. Since God cannot contact matter, they reasoned, the world must be produced by inferior emanations (aeons) descending from the source. 

Who, then, is Jesus Christ? Some argued that he descended from the “sphere of the aeons” as an intermediate being. His claim to be fully God and fully man confounded the Gnostics, resulting in numerous heresies in the early church. 

Image of the Invisible God

Paul declares that Christ is the eikon (icon, image) of the invisible God—his visible manifestation in history. In the letter to the Hebrews, Christ is the charaktér (image, stamp, imprint) of God the Father (Hebrews 1:3). Shattering the foundations of Gnosticism, the Incarnate Son of God unites divinity and humanity, spirit and flesh, in his person. 

The Prologue of John’s Gospel proclaims the preexistence and divinity of Christ with these majestic words:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God. 
He was in the beginning with God.

John 1:1-2

From the sublime heights of the Godhead, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14, RSV). The Son of God enfleshed is the living icon of the Father: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Firstborn of All Creation

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul declares the transcendent Logos (Word) the “firstborn (prototokos) of all creation.” Referring not to time but to eternity, the “prototokos” is the preeminent and preexistent archetype of Adam and the cosmos. 

The “firstborn of all creation” is also the “firstborn from the dead,” for the God-man has vanquished death (1 Corinthians 15:54). Lifted up from the earth, Christ draws everyone to himself (John 12:32).

Far from being an “aeon,” the Lord Jesus Christ rules “the visible and the invisible, thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.” Angels worship him. “Through him and for him,” all things were created.

All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.

John 1:3

Holding all things together in himself, Christ consummates the universe as its preexistent blueprint.

Blood of the Cross

As head of the Body, the Church, Christ restores the beauty of the eikon in redeemed Adam by the blood of his cross. Fully God and fully man, the new Adam reconciles “all things” in himself, healing the divisions in the human family.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end. 

Ephesians 2:13-16 (RSV)

The Pleroma of Christ

For in him all the fullness (pleroma) was pleased to dwell… Colossians 1:19

The New Testament interprets the pleroma as the fullness of deity in bodily form (Colossians 2:9) and the fullness of grace (John 1:14). Throughout his earthly sojourn, Jesus remained in consubstantial communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit. From conception to death, and from resurrection to ascension, divine grace filled Christ to overflowing. Peter, James, and John fell prostrate in his Light at the Transfiguration.

The Gnostics eventually twisted the concept of pleroma to mean the fullness of spiritual perfection untouched by evil matter. In the Gnostic Gospels, the pleroma descended upon Christ at his baptism and departed from him at the crucifixion. Paul’s letter to the Colossians repudiates their heresy:

See to it that no one captivate you with an empty, seductive philosophy according to human tradition, according to the elemental powers of the world and not according to Christ.

Colossians 2:8

The pleroma of deity and grace belongs to Christ, and all who are in Christ are “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4, RSV).

From his fullness (pleroma) we have all received, grace in place of grace…

John 1:16

Gnosticism Defeated

For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

1 Corinthians 1:25 

Revealed truth exceeds all human philosophies. While the God of the Gnostics devalues the material world, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ deifies it.

The only-begotten Son of God—the image (eikon) of the invisible God—fully assumed our humanity. In the Most Holy Eucharist, the Church receives the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. Partaking of the pleroma of Christ, we are “being transformed into the same image (eikon) from glory to glory, as from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Jesus Christ assumed pneuma and soma;
In the Son of God dwells the pleroma.

2 Replies to “The Battle Against Gnosticism”

  1. Dear GMC, Your reflection reminds me of the Cosmic Christ: In his early embryonic journey, Jesus Christ assumed the creation he would renew; Jesus assumed all that he would redeem. Thank you, GMC, for your reflection! May we all be one in Christ!

    1. “What has not been assumed has not been healed.”
      -St. Gregory of Nazianzus

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Pope Benedict XVI has a Wednesday audience speaking about St. Gregory’s contribution. We are blessed with Scripture and the Fathers.

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