1

Jesus is called the firstborn multiple times.

In Colossians 1:15-20 (ESV):

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

In Hebrews 1:6 (ESV):

6 And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God's angels worship him.”

And in Romans 8:29 (ESV):

29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.

As we can see, the concept of firstborn is used to describe Jesus multiple times and in different contexts, so it wouldn't surprise me if the word has a wide semantic range. However, for the purposes of this question, I want to focus on the specific meaning in the context of Colossians 1:15: "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation".

What is an overview of how different Christian denominations interpret Colossians 1:15? What is meant by Jesus being the firstborn of all creation, according to different branches of Christianity? Is this a controversial passage? Do most Christians agree on the meaning?

6
  • The text itself seems self-explanatory: He is [...] the firstborn of all creation, for by him all things were created.
    – Lucian
    Jun 1 at 11:46
  • The text itself is self-explanatory: when read correctly - the firstborn of all creation, for IN him all things were created.
    – steveowen
    Jun 1 at 11:53
  • @user47952: The idea is expressed once more, at the end of the verse, with an actual by (dia), which the quoted version renders as through.
    – Lucian
    Jun 1 at 12:47
  • Your problem remains in the rest of the passage when it speaks of things IN and ON. This cannot be a Genesis creation no matter how you spin it.
    – steveowen
    Jun 1 at 12:57
  • 4
    The term Prototokos is explained by reference to the term tokos used twice by the Holy Spirit's inspiration in scripture. (It means 'usury' which is the return on an investment. Thus Prototokos is the first return on an investment.) Failure to recognise this simple fact has led to traditional mis-representation of the word. An overview will be merely an overview of misinterpretations. What is needed in the Church is forward-looking progress. Not backward-looking history lessons.
    – Nigel J
    Jun 1 at 16:13
4

There’s no need to detail different denominational interpretations of Colossians 1:15 as there are only two religious schools of thought on this verse. (1) Those who interpret it as meaning Christ has the pre-eminence / priority over all that is created (being their Creator) and, (2) Those who interpret it as meaning Christ was the first thing God created, then God had Jesus create everything else. (A sub-group might be those who say that Jesus only came into created existence at the time Mary gave birth to him, denying his pre-human existence, but that’s just a variation on the same basic theme, so I’m not going to distinguish them here – no offence to such ones!)

(1) is held by all Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant groups who maintain the uncreated, eternal status of Christ, while (2) is held by all who believe Jesus to have been created and who, therefore, must have had a starting point in time.

An overview of the basic arguments of interpretation could be put like this:

In Colossians 1:15 the Greek word Prototokos is used with reference to Jesus Christ. This noun (#4416) refers to a parent's firstborn child. As an extension of this literal meaning, it can also refer to a person who holds a special status as pre-eminent. Those in group (1) hold to that latter meaning – Christ being the first ‘return’ on God’s ‘investment’, as it were, the guarantee of later ‘returns’ in terms of those Jesus saves, while those in group (2) hold to the first, literal meaning.

However, there is another Greek word - Protoktistos - which means 'first created'. Nowhere in the Bible is that word even used, let alone applied to Jesus Christ! Given that the Bible nowhere says Jesus is 'first created', those in group (2) need to explain that fact, but I am not aware of them having done so. There seems to be silence on their part regarding this particular Greek word, but I cannot speak for them. I may be wrong and they have their own explanation. I’m only pointing out an important point that those in group (1) are aware of, and which informs their stance regarding Colossians 1:15.

There is another point that has a significant bearing on what it means for Christ to be said to be ‘first born of all creation’, given that those who say he was the first-created know that that did not imply an actual (literal) birth, for that, in turn, would require a mother to give birth. Fathers do not give birth. So, if those in group (2) say that the Father created Jesus, the Son, as the first created thing, and that Jesus then created everything else, they have to explain why they use the word 'born' when they don't mean 'born'. They mean 'first created'. Yet nowhere in the entire Bible does it say that Jesus was ever created. Those in group (1) encounter no such difficulty due to taking the non-literal meaning of Prototokos, pre-eminent priority as the first ‘return’ on God’s ‘investment’, making him supreme over all that is created.

Now, this is a rather simplistic overview of the two main, opposing, interpretations of Colossians 1:15, but it’s not designed to prove either the stance of group (1) or of group (2). It just flags up some points of difference, to compare one group with the other. But the entire debate hinges on whether the Son is eternal, uncreated, the only-begotten of the Father, or whether the Father caused a Son to start to exist from a certain point in time, who was his first-created one.

4
  • What about Biblical Unitarians (and any other groups that deny Jesus' pre-mortal existence)? If Jesus didn't pre-exist, he cannot be eternal (option 1) but he couldn't have been the first created being either (option 2). Therefore, Biblical Unitarians and similar groups must fall into a different third category, right? Jun 5 at 14:17
  • 1
    @Spirit Realm Investigator Yes, all Unitarians deny the pre-human existence of the one who became Jesus, as do others, and I acknowledged all such in my answer where I said they are a sub-group within (2): “a variation on the same basic theme, so I’m not going to distinguish them here – no offense to such ones!” Unitarians could provide their answer to your Q if they felt their reasons differed significantly from group (2).
    – Anne
    Jun 6 at 12:38
  • The bit about protoktistos being a more precise way of saying first created had Paul intended to say first created is a red herring.no evidence exists that protoktistos was used in Greek writing until 150 or more years later when Clement used protoktistos and prototokos interchangeably. there is no evidence that protoktistos as a word was conceived until long after Paul was dead.
    – Kris
    Jun 7 at 2:53
  • @Kris In the Septuagint prototokos appears 130 times. Half the time it means the first-born, the rest it means preeminence. In the N.T. the Son of God is never spoken of as being created. The red herring is avoidance of that staggering fact, for the Holy Spirit would have inspired the writers to use the word ‘created’ if that did apply to the Son of God. There was a Greek word for ‘created’ and another for ‘first’. Just because Clement popularised protoktistos would never prevent alternatives being used in the NT, had they applied. But they are inapplicable to the Son of God.
    – Anne
    Jun 8 at 8:13
-1

I am not knowledgeable enough to attempt "an overview of how different Christian denominations interpret Colossians 1:15". I will only examine the verse from an exegetical perspective. [italics added]

The Greek term πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) could refer either to first in order of time, such as a first born child, or it could refer to one who is preeminent in rank. M. J. Harris, Colossians and Philemon (EGGNT), 43, expresses the meaning of the word well: “The ‘firstborn’ was either the eldest child in a family or a person of preeminent rank. The use of this term to describe the Davidic king in Ps 88:28 LXX (=Ps 89:27 EVV), ‘I will also appoint him my firstborn (πρωτότοκον), the most exalted of the kings of the earth,’ indicates that it can denote supremacy in rank as well as priority in time. But whether the πρωτό- element in the word denotes time, rank, or both, the significance of the -τοκος element as indicating birth or origin (from τίκτω, give birth to) has been virtually lost except in ref. to lit. birth.” In Col 1:15 the emphasis is on the priority of Jesus’ rank as over and above creation (cf. 1:16 and the “for” clause referring to Jesus as Creator). [footnote 2tn appended to Colossians 1:15 NET]

The above comment on the key-word πρωτότοκος (prōtotokos) seems to me to answer the question, avoiding all theological flights of fancy.


Edited to add, June 1, 15:55 CET

I found this quotation from Jerome:

"The first-born according to the human form which he assumed, not in time but in honour: like Exodus iv. 22, 'Israel is my Son, my firstborn.'"

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.