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

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

  1. If you want a Chrysostom quotation that is more supportive of the penal substitution narrative, see Homilies on Second Corinthians, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, ser. I, vol.12, Homily XI, sect. 6, p. 335.

    But I have the same problem with your analysis here that I do with your post on Caesarius of Arles. You seem pretty trigger happy in finding the word “penalty” and “punishment” used in reference to Jesus’ death in ancient texts, and then saying “Hey, look! Penal substitution!”

    Penal substitution is a specific narrative that has at least two main criteria (1) Jesus dies justly, or deservedly, to fulfill the demands of retributive justice. If the author is saying that Jesus is suffering the punishment of death unjustly (as Augustine consistently says), it is not penal substitution. If the author is describing Jesus as fulfilling humanity’s debt of obedience (as opposed to debt of punishment), then it is not penal substitution. (2) There is a displacement action, in which the punishment falls on Jesus so it does not fall on humanity. But if Jesus suffers the punishment along with humanity, that is not penal substitution.

    And Anselm’s account does not fit within penal substitution either. They key distinction is that Anselm says an offender must make satisfaction OR be punished. He does not say that an offender makes satisfaction BY being punished, which is what penal substitution is. Imagine you need to pay a million dollars or go to prison. Anselm would say someone can set you free from prison by paying that million dollars. Anselm would not say that someone can set you free by going to prison instead of you, which is what penal substitution contends.

    My concern is that we have clarity and specificity towards our thinking on the atonement. The atonement, among other things, defines how we should forgive one another and seek forgiveness from others, and these are issues in which people really want specificity.

    If you want to defend penal substitution from historical sources, that’s fine and helpful. But applying a stricter definition of penal substitution will bring more clarity to the discussion. I feel your current analysis just muddies the waters.

    • Hey man, a couple of quick points:
      1. I noted that we’re in a certain family of understandings. I take Anselmic satisfaction and PSA to be related as they are both aimed at answering a debt to either God’s honor, God’s justice, etc. And yes, I’m well aware of the difference between the forms of satisfaction usually posed in the discussions. What I’m cutting off in this discussion is the sort of broader claim that nothing like satisfaction or penalty accounts is present in the Fathers and that they were all interested in ransom, or medical, or Christus Victor accounts, etc. The discussion “muddies” the waters only if you don’t understand the discussion I’m trying to have.

      2. Your specific claim about PSA requiring Jesus not to be suffering unjustly is, well, odd. No PSA advocate I know would argue that Jesus was justly punished by human authorities even if he was handed over to answer the claims of divine justice. This is probably because most of the classic framers of PSA and satisfaction account could distinguish between two levels of causality and intentionality. Pilate and Rome were unjust in executing him as he is innocent of all sins. And yet that’s precisely why his self-offering is valuable and able to answer the demands of divine justice. PSA actually depends on Jesus being innocent.

      3. Chrysostom explicitly says here that he is punished. And he connects it to the demands for obedience, but the logic seems to be that if you disobey, you merit punishment. Christ having obeyed, did not merit punishment for himself and was so able to discharge the debt of punishment for others.

      4. If you want more clarity on this point, though, I think you’d be interestedin in Joshua McNall’s recent work “The Mosaic of Atonement.” He has an excellent section talking about PSA, noting 3 or 4 component elements that can be put together in, well, 3 or 4 slightly varied packages. Part of the problem with anachronism is that it can go a couple of different ways. You can construe it such that PSA is only 1 of these and so the other 3 types you can find out there are “not PSA” even though their logic is very close. And you can do this to game the system and argue it is some total novelty instead of recognizing that it is, again, part of a broader family with a series of shared claims, problems to be addressed, etc. I prefer this latter approach.

      • Thanks for your extended response, and I hope you had a blessed Easter.

        1. My problem with that “family of theories” approach is that it (a) draws false distinctions between compatible ideas, and (b) equates ideas that are different. For example, I think you would agree that Jesus’ death frees us from the devil by paying off our debt, so why put “conflict with the devil” in one family and “paying off a debt” in another family? It’s a false distinction. On the other hand, whether Jesus suffers the punishment of death justly or unjustly is a very important distinction between contradictory ideas, so why put both those ideas in the same family?

        2. Of course PSA advocates acknowledge aspects in which Jesus’ death is unjust, but when it comes to the important question of “Why does Jesus’ death save?” answers to that question have very important differences that it is important not to ignore. PSA advocates are going to dig in their heels on Jesus “becoming sin,” our guilt being transferred to him,” and his death satisfying the retributive justice of God. That’s different than the idea that justice is satisfied in the resurrection as the reversal and restitution of Jesus’ unjust death on the cross, in which there is no sense that Jesus ever became guilty of our sin by transferrence.

        3. Again, the issue is whether or not Jesus suffers the punishment of death justly or unjustly. Stephen the martyr and Herod both suffer the punishment of death in the book of Acts, but one person suffers it unjustly as an innocent party, and the other suffers justly as a guilty party. Luke obviously wants us to see Jesus’ death like Stephen’s, but PSA wants us to see Jesus’ death like Herod’s albeit in our place.

        And also, you are still confusing “meriting punishment” with “debt of punishment.” “Debt of punishment” makes no sense because punishment does not pay a debt—if my child’s murderer gets the electric chair, that does nothing to bring my dead child back. If someone goes to prison because they owe me a million dollars, their going to prison does nothing to get me my million dollars. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death, but it does not say that owe God a death. I would urge that we just stick to the Biblical metaphor of death/punishment as wages.

        4. Thanks for the book recommendation. I’m not arguing PSA is a novelty. Using the specific criteria I outlined, I could show the existence of PSA in historical sources going back to at least the 4th century. I still think PSA is wrong because it is unbiblical, just like many other ideas that have continued throughout church history. But my concern for specificity relates to application. What is forgiveness? Is it displaced punishment, as penal substitution claims? When I forgive someone who has wronged me, is it an act of withholding punishment because my right of retribution has been satisfied by the blood of Jesus, as someone like Mark Driscoll or John Piper says? Or is forgiveness an act of restoration, in which I am offering to restore what has been broken, because Jesus has restored what is broken in me? I would also argue that punishment is not opposed to forgiveness as in PSA, but punishment can be a necessary part of forgiveness.

  2. Another problem I want to mention here is that you say Chrysostom’s presentation of the conflict with the devil has shades of the ransom theory. Again, this claim lacks important nuance. You cant just immediately associate conflict with the devil with ransom theory. There are very important differences in the ways theologians have described how Jesus gives his life as a ransom (Mark 10:45), and how his death “rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is the devil (Heb 2:14-15).”

    There is the idea of ransom in which Jesus pays a debt owed to the devil to set humanity free. This idea has been widely criticized, notably by Anselm, and I also agree it is unbiblical. Jesus pays to God humanity’s debt of obedience.

    But the ransom to the devil idea is very distinct from the idea that the devil unjustly kills the innocent Jesus, and so loses his right of death over humanity (a model put forth by Augustine and Chrysostom and many others). This, I believe, is the correct understanding of atonement and justice as presented in the Bible. Jesus dies under the unjust judgment of humanity and the devil, and is raised by the just judgment of God (1 Peter 2:18-25).

    It is good to show how historical accounts bring together ideas that we have pitted against each other today, but in doing so we don’t want to go the other direction in falsely associating ideas that are distinct from one another, or falsely ascribing ideas to authors that don’t support them.

  3. Reading K. Barth’s “in my place” and practicing it in experiencing the hand of evil in my life seems more effectual in assuaging the cries for vengeance within me than He “died for my sins.”
    I love Chrysostom.

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