Here we find St. Paul both exceptionally clear and exceptionally vague.
On the side of clarity, Paul makes a straight forward presentation of the basics of the Gospel’s atoning message. Verses 11-14 present the most rudimentary basics of our salvation: We are made part of God’s saved people not through a circumcision made with hands, but by the death and resurrection of our baptisms which unite us with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We were dead in our sins, Paul continues, but are made alive through the work of Christ that “cancel[s] the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (v14)
Interestingly, however, the Apostle to the Gentiles surrounds this basic and clear atonement message with a more vague set of counters to that message. Verse 8 warns the Colossians against “philosophy,” “empty deceit,” “human tradition,” and “elemental spirits.” On the other end of the passage in verse 15, Paul claims Christ’s atonement represents a disarming, shaming, and triumph over “rulers and authorities.”
The clear Christocentric alternative to these less-specific threats can leave us wondering what exactly Paul is trying to accomplish in this brief section. Here Chris Seitz is helpful. He identifies that whatever Paul is getting at, “this is [his frame of reference. This frame of reference is far more decisive in my view, than seeking to learn what the specifics of religious practice were in the Lycus Valley and then finding a way to determine with certainty what Paul might know of that and how he might know it.” (Christopher Seitz, Colossians (2014: Brazos Press, Grand Rapids), p 121. In Seitz’s view, Paul is calling us to focus on the centrality of Jesus Christ’s atoning ministry contrary to whatever else human beings posit in opposition.
There are numerous ways to preach Paul’s claims. One option is simply to develop Paul’s atonement theology with specific focus on leaving behind our past sins (both individual and communal) for the sake of living as God’s people in the world. Implicit in this argument is call toward the mission of the church and of God’s people.
Another way of preaching this text would be to take Paul’s engagement with human customs as the focus. In particular, the question of the role of human traditions, even those developed within the church, were a contentious question in early Anglicanism. In fact, Richard Hooker’s work on ecclesiastical laws were developed in response to this question. How should Anglicans regard the customs and practices within the church which had grown up over time, but which are not mandated in scripture? This text here in particular seemed to condemn any rituals and actions as detracting from the teaching of the gospel. However, Anglicans realized that the answer was not the rejection of all rituals devised by humans, but understanding them in their proper place and role. The rituals do not bring salvation, but can be useful for the teaching and building up of the church. Just as Paul wrote in Romans 14:23, Gentile Christians have been given freedom, but that freedom should be used for building up of the body. Although Anglicans could not agree (and still have not) on exactly which customs developed in the church should be required and which let go of, even the most bitter opponents in debate were usually able to agree on these key requirements. Brian Tierney summarizes the agreed upon points as: (1) The customs must not be morally offensive. (2) “All must be done “with order and comeliness” (3)”for edification” and (4) “for the glory of God.” (Brian Tierney, Liberty and Law : The Idea of Permissive Natural Law, 1100-1800. (2014: Catholic University of America Press, Washington), p169.)
The Rev. S. Thomas Kincaid, III is Vice Rector at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas