Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

The Reconciliation of Angels?

Colossians 1.18-20 raises some interpretive difficulties:

18 καὶ αὐτός ἐστιν ἡ κεφαλὴ τοῦ σώματος τῆς ἐκκλησίας· ὅς ἐστιν ἀρχή, πρωτότοκος ἐκ τῶν νεκρῶν, ἵνα γένηται ἐν πᾶσιν αὐτὸς πρωτεύων, 19 ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ εὐδόκησεν πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα κατοικῆσαι 20 καὶ δι’ αὐτοῦ ἀποκαταλλάξαι τὰ πάντα εἰς αὐτόν, εἰρηνοποιήσας διὰ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ σταυροῦ αὐτοῦ, [δι’ αὐτοῦ] εἴτε τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἴτε τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς·

And he himself is the head of the body, the church–[he] who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, in order that he himself might become the one having preeminence in all things, since in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through him to reconcile all things to him, [the one] having made peace through the blood of his cross–[through him,] whether things on earth or things in the heavenlies.

Though there are a number of issues in these verses (is πᾶν τὸ πλήρωμα (“all the fullness”) the subject of εὐδόκησεν (“he/it was well pleased”), or do we supply one? do all the pronouns refer to the same person?), I’d like to focus on one in particular: is the phrase εἴτε τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς εἴτε τὰ ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς (“whether things on earth or in the heavenlies”) dependent on ἀποκαταλλάξαι (“to reconcile”) or εἰρηνοποιήσας (“having made peace”)?

If it is the former,1 we have to try to understand what it might mean for “things in the heavenlies”–e.g., angels–to be reconciled to God, when they were not at enmity with God to begin with, because they had not sinned.

This is not an easy question. Calvin takes the phrase as dependent on ἀποκαταλλάξαι (“to reconcile”), and thus makes an argument that angels, too, stood in need of “reconciliation”–not because they had fallen, but because they had the potential to fall and therefore needed the grace of Christ to make them steadfast forever. They receive from Christ “a fixed standing in righteousness, so as to have no longer any fear of fall or revolt.” Christ, then, according to Calvin, serves as a kind of “Mediator” for angels, not to appease the wrath of God (as he does for men), but to establish a “well grounded peace.” For Calvin in this passage, Christ himself is the only point of access to God for any creature of any kind.

Both upon earth and in heaven. If you are inclined to understand this as referring merely to rational creatures, it will mean, men and angels. There were, it is true, no absurdity in extending it to all without exception; but that I may not be under the necessity of philosophizing with too much subtlety, I prefer to understand it as referring to angels and men; and as to the latter, there is no difficulty as to their having need of a peace maker in the sight of God. As to angels, however, there is a question not easy of solution. For what occasion is there for reconciliation, where there is no discord or hatred? Many, influenced by this consideration, have explained the passage before us in this manner — that angels have been brought into agreement with men, and that by this means heavenly creatures have been restored to favor with earthly creatures. Another meaning, however, is conveyed by Paul’s words, that God hath reconciled to himself. That explanation, therefore, is forced.

It remains, that we see what is the reconciliation of angels and men. I say that men have been reconciled to God, because they were previously alienated from him by sin, and because they would have had him as a Judge to their ruin, had not the grace of the Mediator interposed for appeasing his anger. Hence the nature of the peace making between God and men was this, that enmities have been abolished through Christ, and thus God becomes a Father instead of a Judge.

Between God and angels the state of matters is very different, for there was there no revolt, no sin, and consequently no separation. It was, however, necessary that angels, also, should be made to be at peace with God, for, being creatures, they were not beyond the risk of falling, had they not been confirmed by the grace of Christ. This, however, is of no small importance for the perpetuity of peace with God, to have a fixed standing in righteousness, so as to have no longer any fear of fall or revolt. Farther, in that very obedience which they render to God, there is not such absolute perfection as to give satisfaction to God in every respect, and without the need of pardon. And this beyond all doubt is what is meant by that statement in Job 4:18, He will find iniquity in his angels. For if it is explained as referring to the devil, what mighty thing were it? But the Spirit declares there, that the greatest purity is vile, if it is brought into comparison with the righteousness of God. We must, therefore, conclude, that there is not on the part of angels so much of righteousness as would suffice for their being fully joined with God. They have, therefore, need of a peace maker, through whose grace they may wholly cleave to God. Hence it is with propriety that Paul declares, that the grace of Christ does not reside among mankind alone, and on the other hand makes it common also to angels. Nor is there any injustice done to angels, in sending them to a Mediator, that they may, through his kindness, have a well grounded peace with God.

Should any one, on the pretext of the universality of the expression, move a question in reference to devils, whether Christ be their peace maker also? I answer, No, not even of wicked men: though I confess that there is a difference, inasmuch as the benefit of redemption is offered to the latter, but not to the former. This, however, has nothing to do with Paul’s words, which include nothing else than this, that it is through Christ alone, that, all creatures, who have any connection at all with God, cleave to him.

Calvin was not alone in this view. In his commentary on Colossians, T.K. Abbot, who quotes much of the passage in Calvin above, remarks that John Davenant, too, “says that Christ has reconciled angels ‘analogically, by taking away from them the possibility of falling.'” In the next post, we’ll take a look at a different view, dependent upon construing the grammar differently, and I will also take this opportunity to offer a PSA: grammar matters, folks. The way one puts syntax together can have profound ramifications for theological construction further downstream.2

  1. The possibility of its being the latter will be treated in a later post.
  2. Of course, it’s also possible that a theological commitment can predispose one to construe the grammar of an ambiguous passage in one way rather than in another, according to the analogy of faith; or that a parallel passage can do so as well, according to the analogy of Scripture.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.