Chrysostom on Colossians 2:14-15: “He Tore It Asunder”

ChrysostomI was doing a little digging in Colossians 2 and I came across a magnificent little passage on the work of Christ by John Chrysostom. The crucial passage is 2:13-15, which reads:

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities[b] and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.[c]

Chrysostom is amazed at the condensed glory of Paul’s description of Christ’s work here. “Nowhere has he spoken in so lofty a strain” about the forgiveness worked through the cross to blot out our sins and set us free from bondage to the Devil.

Chrysostom then sets himself to explaining Paul’s meaning:

Seest thou how great His earnestness that the bond should be done away? To wit, we all were under sin and punishment. He Himself, through suffering punishment, did away with both the sin and the punishment, and He was punished on the Cross. To the Cross then He affixed it; as having power, He tore it asunder. What bond? He means either that which they said to Moses, namely, “All that God hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:3), or, if not that, this, that we owe to God obedience; or if not this, he means that the devil held possession of it, the bond which God made for Adam, saying, “In the day thou eatest of the tree, thou shalt die.” (Gen. 2:17.) This bond then the devil held in his possession. And Christ did not give it to us, but Himself tore it in two, the action of one who remits joyfully.

“Having put off from himself the principalities and the powers.” He means the diabolical powers; because human nature had arrayed itself in these, or because they had, as it were, a hold, when He became Man He put away from Himself that hold. What is the meaning of “He made a show of them”? And well said he so; never yet was the devil in so shameful a plight. For whilst expecting to have Him, he lost even those he had; and when That Body was nailed to the Cross, the dead arose. There death received his wound, having met his death-stroke from a dead body. And as an athlete, when he thinks he has hit his adversary, himself is caught in a fatal grasp; so truly doth Christ also show, that to die with confidence is the devil’s shame.

-Homily VI on Colossians

There’s a lot going on here, but I simply want to take a moment to point out a few things I never tire in pointing out on this blog.

The first is that here we find another example of a Church Father explaining Christ’s atoning death in a way that fits within the family of satisfaction or penal atonement “theories.” He very clearly states that Christ was punished on the cross. But he was not punished for his own sins, but rather to do away with our sins and punishment. Somehow Christ’s death for sin and punishment, which itself is a punishment, eliminates our sin and punishment. His death was a matter of remitting the sin, indeed, doing more–“He tore it asunder.”

It’s important not to get confused here. It’s true, he does speak about the bond which bound us to punishment, which showed our guilt, as possibly being held by the devil. Here you can see shades of “ransom” theory that folks talk about. All the same, Chrysostom is clear that the bond or IOU was one that came from God himself either in the Mosaic covenant, or the general obedience humanity owes God, or the one written in the original covenant which Adam broke in the Garden and thereby became liable to death. Satan is only ever the holder, or accuser of the saints, on the basis of a deserved debt of sin that originates in God’s good commands.

Second, note the way that this all dovetails with Christ’s victory over the devil and the principalities and powers. There is no thought in his mind about pitting Christ’s death as a punishment for sin with his conquest and shaming of the devil. Christ dies for us, rises to new life, and sets us free. And there are several dimensions to this victory. By his death, the debt to sin is release. By this, he broke their hold on humanity. And he arose again from the dead and made a show of the devil, showing the world that not only had he not capture or defeated Christ, but he had lost what he had previously held–namely, us.

The reason he can do this is because he is reading the verses. He doesn’t come to the text with preconceived notions about pure atonement theory types (Penal Substitution or Christus Victor or Moral), and so forth, in order to figure out which one the text teaches. Instead, he sees Paul putting together several things at once and assumes they can work together without much of a fuss.

Third, I’ll just note that Chrysostom died in 407 AD. This is close to 630 years before Anselm was born, and over 1100 years before Calvin was born. We should not be anachronistic and impute to Chrysostom every jot and tittle of later Medieval and Reformation articulations of penalty accounts. This is not something cooked up by Anselm and Calvin and foisted on the West. Instead, it is very clear that this basic way of thinking about what Christ did on the cross has its roots planted firmly in the soil of the Fathers, both West, and in this case, East.

Finally, it’s appropriate to meditate on all of this during Holy Week. But not only in a technical, academic fashion. Let your heart sit with the glory of Christ’s passion, his suffering, his death for your forgiveness. Let it wait, wonder, and hope at his coming resurrection. And let it exult and rejoice in that mighty victory over the Devil, by our conquering King and Lord.

Soli Deo Gloria