Christ and the Cosmos
In the Nicene Creed, the church confesses one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made. I want to pay special attention to this last, italicised clause, because, in the doctrine of Christ, it has faded into the background in the course of time. Reconciliation, which we might call the heart of Christology, received a strong personal emphasis after the Reformation of the sixteenth century, but in consequence the significance of Christ for the cosmoswas overshadowed, especially in the perception of the person in the pew.1
That was not yet the case in the first centuries of the Christian church. At that time reconciliation was still viewed very much in a wide perspective. 2Christ is the Logos (the eternal Word), through whom all things were made and came into existence. This Logos became man and, precisely because he is the Creator, he can also deliver creation by his death on the cross. It is indeed not a coincidence that the Nicene Creed says that through him all things were made!
In the 1940s, the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, again specifically raised the issue of the cosmic significance of Christ. In fact, Barth maintained that we have to understand creation from the perspective of Christ. Because God in his eternal counsel determined to reconcile the world to himself, he created the world ‘in Christ’.
Jesus of Nazareth was the Beweggrund [reason] for creation. 3God created the world with a view to Jesus Christ. The entire creation exists in the framework of God’s redemptive work in him. That is how Barth interprets Colossians 1:15-17, where Paul declares that ‘all things’ were created by Christ and hold together in him.
Under the influence of Barth’s theology, the cosmic significance of Christ became a ‘hot item’ in circle of the World Council of Churches. In consequence, the Assembly of New Delhi 1961 adopted an all-encompassing theology of ecumenicity, a theology ‘that will open the perspective on the cosmic breadth of God’s plan for redemption in Christ’.4The entire world is the object of God’s mercy. This idea also leads to a new perspective on mission and on the dialogue with the great religions of the world, for Christ is at work everywhere in the world!
The Reformed [state church] systematic theologian, H. Berkhof, played an important role in this development. He also views the appearance of Jesus Christ within a cosmic framework.5
At creation, God already had ‘the last Adam’ in view. Christ is the true human image of God. Ultimately, the entire creation will be renewed according to the image of this ‘Son of God’.
The above makes clear that reflection about the topic, ‘Christ and the cosmos’, is not superfluous. What is the meaning of what the church confesses in the Nicaenum? What does the New Testament say about this confession? Is it indeed about Jesus of Nazareth, or about him as the eternal Son? What is the context of the Scriptural texts that speak about the cosmic significance of Christ? These are the questions to which we want find answers.
Mediator of Creation?
In Reformed circles there have been theologians who tried to do justice to what the Nicaenum confesses by speaking about Christ not only as mediator of reconciliation, but also as mediator of creation. Paul proclaims to us that ‘by him’ all things were created and ‘in him’ all things hold together (cf. Col 1:16, 17). And is that not about him whom the apostle calls ‘the Son he loves’?
It was especially A. Kuyper who propagated the idea of the mediator of creation. It is an aspect of the broader framework of his well-known doctrine of ‘common grace’. Kuyper had to find an anchor for that doctrine and he found it in ‘the source of life’ that proceeds from the one Christ. A life source that calls what is created into being and preserves it (= ‘common grace’), but who also reacts to the interference caused by sin (= ‘particular grace’). In Christ, the development of both types of grace form a unity. He is the root of common grace, for he is ‘the firstborn of all creation’; and he is the root of particular grace, for he is ‘the firstborn from among the dead’.6
Christ is not only mediator of reconciliation, but also mediator of creation. Indeed, Kuyper maintains that in the order of God’s counsel Christ is first mediator of creation and after that, and on the basis of his first mediatorial office, he is mediator of reconciliation.7
For only in him, by whom we were created and are being preserved, can we be delivered. Kuyper therefore maintains that the Son is also the Anointed of the Father from eternity.
We also come across the concept, ‘mediator of creation’, in the work of H. Bavinck. However, Bavinck does not use the term on which to base a doctrine of God’s preserving and developing grace, as Kuyper did. Bavinck’s purpose in using the term is rather to give expression to the connection between creation and recreation. Like Kuyper, he refers to Colossians 1:15-17 and other Scriptural texts. And then he writes: ‘In all these passages [of Scripture] Christ has both soteriological (that which concerns our salvation)and cosmological significance. He is not only the mediator of recreation but also of creation’. 8
Bavinck uses the term ‘mediator of creation’ to demarcate the specific place of God’s Son in the work of creation, and to do justice to the confession in the Nicene Creed that through him all things were made.
Although we can appreciate that Kuyper and Bavinck identified the cosmic significance of Christ, K Schilder rightly criticized references to Christ as mediator of creation.9Scripture does not teach this usage. The term suggests that there is someone who stands between God and creation, because he is too holy to concern himself with the cosmos. But even more important is the fact that in Scripture Christ is always the mediator of reconciliation. He became necessary when sin caused a breach in the relationship between God and his world. The word ‘reconciliation’ typifies Christ’s role as mediator (cf. Eph 2:16). This is very clear from 1 Tim 2:5-6: ‘For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men...’
Schilder also points out that if you call Christ mediator of creation because of the clause, ‘through whom all things were made’, you must use the same name for the Holy Spirit. For the Spirit was also involved in the work of creation (cf. Gen 1:2).
Thus, the conclusion must be that while Christ certainly has cosmic significance, we may not epitomize this significance in the term ‘mediator of creation’.
We saw that Kuyper and Bavinck relied on Colossians 1:15-17 in support of the term mediator of creation. It cannot be denied that Christ is mentioned in this text because of his involvement in the origin and continued existence of ‘all things’. Thus one can rightly rely on these texts to support the cosmic significance of Christ.
But it is important to note the framework in which Paul mentions this significance. The apostle proclaims the gospel (cf. v. 23). He is discussing the message of our deliverance. And it is in that context that he speaks about the position of honour that Christ holds with respect to ‘all things’. The passage is about ‘the Son he loves’ in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (vv. 13, 14). So it is about Christ. But we may not restrict that reference to the Christ who ‘has come in the flesh’. This passage of Paul’s contains an amazing depth. As he writes about the historical Christ, Paul harks back to the position of honour that Christ already enjoyed at creation as God’s Son. Precisely because, and owing to the fact that at creation he, as God’s Son, was already the image of God, the firstborn over all creation, and by him all things were created, he is the head of the body and the firstborn from the dead (v. 18).
When we speak about the cosmic significance of Christ, we may not forget in what context Paul speaks about it. Quite clearly, it is not a separate theme. The apostle speaks about that significance in order to proclaim the glory of our Saviour. He, in whom we have redemption, is none other than he ‘by’ whom all things were created and ‘through’ whom all things exist.10
But this should not discourage us from paying attention to what the apostle writes about Christ and all things!
In the first place, it is striking that Paul calls him ‘the firstborn over all creation’. This denotes the position of precedence that Christ occupies. Elsewhere in the New Testament (except in Luke 2:7), the word ‘firstborn’ denotes an exalted position (cf. Rom 8:29; Rev 1:5). Paul proclaims that Christ stands above creation and exercises the right of the firstborn over it.
The apostle also calls him ‘the image of the invisible God’. That means: in him God’s glory becomes evident, it is observable in him. Christ does not just become the image of God when he appears on earth (cf. John 14:9: ‘Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father’); he is that already as God’s Son at creation. The historical Christ displays the Father because, and by reason of the fact that, as God’s Son, he was already the image of the invisible God at creation.
The apostle elaborates on the highly exalted and fundamental position of Christ toward all created things when he writes: ‘all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together’.
Instead of ‘by him’ a better translation is ‘in him’ (cf. the phrase ‘in him’ in v. 17 and the phrase ‘in whom’ in v. 14). It is especially the communion with Christ that Paul wants to express. God’s work in creation was achieved in communion with his Son. He was fully involved in it. Hence, all things are also ‘for him’: God’s Son was not part of creation, but precedes all things.
Even after creation, he continues to have fundamental significance. For in him all things hold together’. Literally, the apostle writes: all things come together in him. They exist in him and find their connection in him. Creation is not a chaos, but a cosmos, because in Christ it has its basis and union. In him and through him there is a wonderful coherence!
In 1 Corinthians 8:6 Paul summarizes concisely what he proclaims to us in Colossians 1, when he speaks of ‘one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live’. This demonstrates again that ‘Christ and the cosmos’ is not a separate theme for Paul. He speaks about the significance of Christ with respect to all things in order to proclaim to us that Christ is a mighty Lord for us. What we are as Christians is through him. He can be everything for us because and by reason of the fact that by him all things exist; all created things exist thanks to him.
Other Scriptural References
What we discovered about ‘Christ and the cosmos’ is not a speciality of Paul’s. The New Testament testifies about Christ’s significance for creation also in other places.
In John 1:3 we read: ‘Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’. With his proclamation about ‘the Word’, the evangelist wants to illuminate who Jesus Christ is. While Matthew begins Jesus’ genealogy with Abraham (Matt. 1:1), and Luke with Adam (Luke 4:38), John begins it even earlier. He begins with the Word who was with God and was God. This divine Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). And it is this Son whom John identifies in a unique way as ‘the Word’.
Here too it is apparent that ‘Christ and the cosmos’ is not a separate topic. John writes about the involvement of the Word in creation in order to preach the glory of Jesus Christ. He is nothing less than the Word through whom all things came into existence! The evangelist emphasizes this point: all things were made through him. Nothing in creation came into existence except by the action of the Word: ‘the world was made through him’ (v. 10). The existence of the world is unthinkable without the activity of the Word.
We find an identical point of view in what Hebrews 1 says about Christ. In the first few chapters, the author wants to proclaim the exalted position of him as high priest (cf. Heb 3:1). In order to ensure that we appreciate this exalted position, the author harks back as far as John does. Our high priest is the Son, ‘through whom he (God) made the universe’ (Heb 1:2) and who sustains ‘all things by his powerful word’ (Heb 1:3). Christ’s exalted position is apparent not only from the fact that through him, as Son, the world was created, but also from the fact that he still always maintains all things by his powerful word.
Precisely because and by reason of the fact that this is how he is as God’s Son, did he provide purification for sins (Heb 1:3). Thus, when the author speaks about Christ and ‘all things’, he does so in the framework of what Jesus as high priest did for us (Heb 2:17 and continues to do for us (Heb 8:1-2)!
The last Scripture passage that demands our attention is Revelation 3:14. Christ introduces himself in this passage as ‘the ruler of God’s creation’ [NIV 1984; ‘the beginning of God’s creation’ ESV]. This denotation does not mean that he is God’s first creature. It does not legitimize the Arian heresy of the fourth century. That heresy is incompatible with the pre-eminent divine names by which Christ adorns himself in this passage. Nor is it compatible with what the New Testament says elsewhere about his position with respect to ‘all things’. ‘Beginning’ must therefore denote something like origin, or source. It is Christ who, as the Son, called creation into being and therefore has full authority over it. He is ‘the Amen’ who guarantees the trustworthiness of God’s Word and who, as Lord of creation, has the power to fulfill it.
And so, here too, we discover how Christ’s involvement in the work of creation is mentioned to underline his exalted position and power as our Redeemer!
A discussion of the concept ‘Christ and the cosmos’ is incomplete if it does not also discuss what the New Testament says about the significance of Christ for recreation. The redemptive work of the Lord Jesus has an unmistakably wide perspective. Not only are God’s children saved: there is also a future for creation. In Colossians 1:20 Paul teaches us how important Christ’s redemptive work is for the cosmos when he writes that it pleased God ‘through him (Christ) to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood’.
The verb ‘reconcile’, used in conjunction with the noun ‘peace’ has the meaning of pacify, i.e., to bring into the right relationship. For sin also had cosmic consequence: because of us the ground was cursed (Gen 3:17) and creation was subjected in bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Sin has thoroughly disrupted all relationships. It released powers that operate in God’s world in a hostile way and that took away the original harmony.
Thus, Paul proclaims that there will come an end to this disruption. The redemptive work of Christ has a long reach: all things will be reconciled to God. The entire creation will share in the peace that God established by Jesus’ death on the cross. What Christ earned on the cross has universal significance. It leads to kingdom of peace in which all creation shares (cf. Isa 11:5ff). God does not allow ‘all things’ to be lost, but he will make ‘all things’ new (Rev 21:1).
We discover the significance of Christ’s redemptive work also in what Paul says in Ephesians 1:10. It is God’s counsel of salvation ‘to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ’. The Greek verb that Paul uses is not derived from the Greek noun kefalè (head), but from the Greek noun kefalaion, which means summary, or sum total. The text is about an again (ana!), a bringing together anew, a reunification. What the apostle proclaims reminds us about we discovered earlier: all things come together in Christ and find their coherence in him (Col 1:17). It will become as it was in the beginning!
The effect of sin is that what existed in the beginning was lost. ‘All things’ no longer stand in their original relationship and no longer know of their previous harmony. But Paul now proclaims to us that it is God’s plan of salvation to put an end to this degeneracy. The former harmony will be restored. In Christ, all things will again receive their place and the way in which they connect to each other. The circumstances described in Colossians 1:17 will return. The peace about which the angels sang in the fields of Bethlehem, will become the peace of ‘all things’. It will encompass the whole cosmos.
The theme ‘Christ and the cosmos’ also requires us to pay attention to what Lord’s Day 19 of the Heidelberg Catechism says about the reign of Christ. For there the church confesses: ‘Christ ascended into heaven to manifest himself there as Head of his church, through whom the Father governs all things’.
We learnt about Christ’s significance as God’s Son for the creation and existence of all things. Next we saw how through him and in him all things will be reconciled to and made right with God. Now we shall speak about Christ’s reign between his ascension and recreation. Since his ascension, his reign occupies a special place with respect to the cosmos and everything that happens in it. It is he through whom the Father now reigns all things.
The Heidelberg Catechism does not get rid of the Father’s reign. It does not recant what it confessed in Lord’s Day 10 about God’s hand whereby he upholds all things. What is new since the ascension is that the Father exercises the governance of the world through Christ.11The hand of God who reigns is now the hand of him who became Lord of lords and King of kings (Rev 17:14), received all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18), and under whose feet God placed ‘all things’ (Eph 1:22).
We learnt from Colossians 1 that he already had authority over all things as the eternal Son. On the basis of his obedience, even to death on the cross (cf. Phil 2:8-9), he now receives this authority as Mediator. This authority is directed to the subjection (1 Cor 15:28) of the already disarmed powers (Col 2:15), the gathering of his church (John 10:16), the reconciliation of all things to God (Col 1:20), and the restoration of all things (Eph 1:10).
Christ is given authority over all things so that the work of redemption will reach its great goal: the reconciliation of ‘all things’ to God, the restoration of ‘all things’, and the peace that will encompass the whole cosmos! In the book of Revelation we read how he governs all things on the way to this goal. It proclaims to us the power of the Lamb (Rev 5) who brings judgments over a world full of enmity, and who, at the same time, gathers and protects his people. There is tremendous comfort in Lord’s Day 19! He, who is busy with the world, is our faithful Saviour. It is his hand that governs all things. And his governance is accompanied by the glorious promise: ‘And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matt 28:20).
Head of the Church
There is yet another aspect of our topic that we must address. For Paul makes a clear connection between Christ’s position with respect to ‘all things’ and his position as head of his church. The apostle proclaims that God ‘appointed him to be head over everything for the church’ (Eph 1:22) and that he, by whom all things were created and in whom all things exist, is ‘the head of the body, the church’ (Col 1:15-17). The Lord of the church is none other than the Lord of the cosmos!
The ‘head of the church’ holds a superior position, not only by virtue of sitting at God’s right hand (as Mediator) (Eph 1:20), but also (reaching further back!), by virtue of his position in creation (as the Son) (Col 1:15-17). Paul clearly uses two arguments to define this superior position.
God gave Christ as head to the church in his capacity as ‘head of all that exists’ (as Son and as Mediator). He is her mighty Lord, who rules over and cares for her, and from whom she can also receive what is necessary for her existence and growth. Paul summarizes this last point concisely when he writes that church is ‘the fullness of him who fills everything in every way’ (Eph 1:23).
There are different opinions about how this passage should be interpreted. 12Literally, the apostle writes that the church is the plèroma (the fullness) of him who fulfills all things in all. What does plèroma mean here and what does Paul mean by ‘fills’? There is no clear answer to this question. Taking all things into account, I believe that the apostle is saying that the church is full of Christ’s salutary power. He who ascended his throne ‘to fill the whole universe’ [NIV 1984; ‘fill all things’ ESV], is able also to fill his church with his gifts and powers. In the church we may speak of a great fullness [‘deep conviction’ NIV 1984; ‘full conviction’ ESV], because she has such a glorious head!
After discussing all this material, it is possible to conclude this chapter with a few concluding remarks.
- ‘Christ and the cosmos’ appears not to form a separate theme in the New Testament. When Scripture speaks about Christ’s significance for the creation and existence of ‘all things’, it does so to proclaim to us how glorious our Redeemer is: none other than the Son by whom all things were created. When we take this view, it becomes clear that it was not the intention of the writers to inform us about the relationship between the Father and the Son at creation and in the preservation of all things. 13Those who draw wide-ranging conclusions on the basis of the relevant texts about the specific work of God the Father and God the Son in creation and preservation ask too much from them and do not do justice to their meaning.
- When considering what the New Testament says about Christ and ‘all things’, you must keep in mind that the name ‘Christ’ in many instances refers to what he did and does as the eternal Son. In the context, Paul does speak about him who became flesh, but at the same time he harks far back to him who, as God’s Son was involved in the creation and preservation of ‘all things’.
- When paying attention to what the New Testament says about Christ and the cosmos, you must also draw a distinction between what is said about him as the eternal Son and what is proclaimed about him as the Mediator. There is a close connection between the one and the other. Precisely because and by reason of the fact that Christ as Son was fully engaged in the creation of the cosmos, he is also able to redeem the cosmos! The clause, ‘by him all things were created’, is indissolubly connected to the promise that through him all things will be restored. The Creator of all things is also the Redeemer of all things. The relevant Scripture passages teach us to connect creation and redemption.
They find their unity in the exalted Person of our Mediator.
- The cosmic significance of Christ must be addressed in the doctrine of Christ (Christology) to teach us the glory of our Deliverer and the reach of his redemptive work. It must be addressed in the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) to convince us that in him the church has a mighty Head.
- What is said about the reconciliation of ‘all things’ (Col 1:20) and about the restoration of ‘all things’ (Eph 1:10) in Christ, keeps us from having a too limited expectation of the future. God does not just save his children; he also saves the world. Reconciliation has a universal reach. It concerns the restoration of ‘all things’ (Acts 3:21). This universal restoration is anchored in the sacrifice of him of whom the church confesses in the Nicaenum: ‘through whom all things were made’ and who is both the beginning of God’s creation (Rev 3:14 ESV) and its Redeemer!
Points for Discussion
- What do you think of the term ‘mediator of creation’?
- Continue the discussion about Christ who is our Deliverer, and his involvement in the work of creation.
- Discuss the idea that not only human beings, but also the whole world must be reconciled.
- Did this article give you new insights? If so, what are they?