The Preexistent Son’s Eschatological Significance

September 19, 2016

by Lane Tipton

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. The correlations of doctrines in these texts in the nature of the case demonstrate the reality of a biblico-systematic theology that derives directly from the biblical text.

Preexistence, Eschatology, and the Communicatio Idiomatum 

The preexistence of the Son of God in Hebrews 1:3 and Colossians 1:15 relates core concerns of Chalcedon to christocentric eschatology. The Son’s preexistence, particularly his homoousios with the Father and the 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.

In a complementary way, Paul’s Christology in Colossians 1:15–18 enables us to articulate the communicatio idiomatum 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); he is both the firstborn over all creation and the firstborn from among the dead (15 and 18b). How do these observations enable us to articulate the communicatio idiomatum? When we predicate something of Jesus’s person, such as creation (15b–16), we do so with special reference to the Son’s divine nature as the the eternal Son of God. And when we predicate of his person a new state into which he has 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.

The christological formulations in Hebrews 1:1–4 and Colossians 1:15–20 therefore express Chalcedonian Christology in distinctive ways, while focusing our understanding of the preexistent Son’s eschatological significance in redemptive history.

Preexistence and Hermeneutics 

The preexistence theology in Hebrews and Colossians also contains a wealth of material that proves hermeneutically suggestive. First, the most basic hermeneutical reference for understanding the person and work of Christ must lie in eternity, not in time. Whatever we predicate of the Son’s activity in creation, providence, or redemption is not intelligible apart from the basic identity as the eternal Son of God, coequal with the Father, yet hypostatically distinct from him. This implies that as important as history may be for understanding the person and work of Christ, history is not the ultimate hermeneutical horizon. If history were the most basic category when it comes to interpreting the person and work of Christ, then the homoousios and monogonese of the eternal Son would have no hermeneutical function.

Adam, as an image bearer created in covenant with God, was a creaturely replica of the eternal Son of God, who is himself the archetypal image of the invisible God.

Second, both the Hebrews and Colossians texts invite us to see the glory of the preexistent Son displayed in various ways prior to his incarnation, yielding rich hermeneutical insights. For instance, Paul clearly intends the language in Colossians 1:15–16 to supply a christological framework for interpreting Genesis 1, including Adam as the created image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26–28). Adam, as an image bearer created in covenant with God (Gen. 2:14–17; Luke 4:1–12; Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:45–49), was a creaturely replica of the eternal Son of God, who is himself the archetypal image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15a). By the very nature and function of his person as image of God, Adam manifested something of the glory of the eternal Son.

The preexistent Son as the archetypal pattern after which the historical Adam was created suggests that a properly christological hermeneutic does not begin with Genesis 3:15ff. A redemptive Christology—one that has to do with redemptive history—begins with Genesis 3:15, but the sort of Christocentricism suggested by Hebrews 1:1–3 and and Colossians 1:15ff. locates the significance of the Son of God as a basic prelapsarian reality, rooted in his personal preexistence.

Hebrews invites us to explore similar vistas, but with a slightly different focus. Rather than the emphasis lying on the relation of the eternal Son to prelapsarian Adam, Hebrews offers a christological frame of reference for understanding the typico-symbolic aspects of redemption and revelation in the Mosaic economy. Moses’s transformed countenance (Ex. 34:29ff., 2 Cor. 3:13–18), the priestly garments for glory and beauty (Ex. 28:40), the tabernacle and land as microcosmic replicas of heaven inhabited by a holy priest/people (Heb. 8:5; 9:24; 11:10–17)—all of these are phenomena that manifest realities in the Mosaic covenant that both reflect the glory of the eternal Son of God (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15–17) and anticipate the manifestation of his glory as the resurrected and exalted Son of God (Heb. 1:1–4; Col. 1:18f; 1 Cor. 15:45–49; Rev. 1:12–20).

Finally, we can discern that the functional identity of the Son and Spirit in the resurrection, and particularly ascension, of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 15:45 and 2 Cor. 3:18) finds its economic ground in the functional identity of the Son and Spirit in the prelapsarian context. Thinking along lines suggested in this essay, M. G. Kline observes the following,

[T]he eternal, firstborn Son furnished a pattern for man as a royal glory-image of the Father. It was in his creative action as the Son, present in the Glory-Spirit, making man in his own son-image, that the Logos revealed himself as the One in whom was the life that is the light of men. Not first as incarnate word breathing on men the Spirit and re-creating them in his heavenly image, but at the very beginning he was quickening Spirit, creating man after his image and glory. (Kline, Images of the Spirit, 24, emphasis added)

While Kline’s concerns lie with the development of the image of God theme, we can still observe something germane to our investigation. Given the parallels between the function of the Glory-Spirit as covenant witness in both creation and redemption, and given the comment above, Kline argues for a functional identity of the Logos-Son as the Glory-Spirit in Genesis 1:2. Kline also reasons that 2 Corinthians 4:4 (and by implication Col. 1:15) furnishes a distinctively christological interpretation of Genesis 1—a conclusion shared by Ridderbos. Christ’s functional identification with the Spirit in the redemptive economy finds its pre-redemptive analogue in the original creation of man in the image of the eternal Son of God.

This piece is adapted from Lane Tipton, “Christology in Colossians 1:15-20 and Hebrews 1:1-4: An Exercise in Biblico-Systematic Theology” in Resurrection and Eschatology: Theology in Service of the Church, eds. Lane G. Tipton and Jeffrey C. Waddington (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) 191–194. Used with permission of the publisher.

Lane Tipton

Dr. Tipton (PhD, Westminster) is professor of systematic theology at WTS.

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