The Letter to the Colossians declares that Christ is the “image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15). St. Thomas Aquinas explains that an image is something which comes from a source. An image imitates its source and remains related to its source. Thomas points out that while an egg comes from a chicken it does not have a real likeness. Jesus is called the Son because He has comes forth from the Father, He has the likeness of the Father, He imitates the Father, and He has the same nature as the Father.
Thomas states: “The nature of God is His existence and His act of understanding.” God’s existence is His nature: He is and He knows! Thomas offers us a way to imagine how the Son comes forth from the Father by using an example, which he admits only “faintly” throws light on the Son’s coming forth from the Father:
We have a mental word when we actually conceive[in the mind] the form of the thing of which we have knowledge; and then we signify this mental word by an external word. And this mental word we have conceived is a certain likeness, in our mind, of the thing, and it is like it in species. And so the Word of God is called the image of God.
When we have a word or an idea in our mind, we might say that we conceive that word or idea. In fact, we use the word “conception” for both the conception of a child and an idea in our minds. When we speak our word or idea, the word or idea comes forth from us but it is still with us. Our words and ideas reflect us.
Thomas suggests that this gives us some way to imagine the eternal generation of the Word of the Father, who remains one with the Father. The Word of the Father comes forth from the Father yet is still one with the Father. He repeats that this is only a “faint” way to understand the eternal generation of the Word.
When Colossians declares that Jesus is the “image of the invisible God,” we might get the impression that the Father is invisible and the Son is some sort of a visible expression of God but distinct from God Himself, as when Jesus took a human nature in the Incarnation.
However, Thomas explains: “The Son is not only the image of the invisible God, but He Himself is invisible like the Father: He is the image of the invisible God.”
When Colossians declares that Jesus is the “firstborn of all creation” (Col 1:15), it might suggest that Jesus Himself was created. However, as Thomas notes the Son’s coming forth from the Father is described by a different expression, “generation” or “being begotten.” While all other things are “created,” the Son comes forth from the very being of the Father, as children come forth from their parents.
Colossians affirms “in Him [the Son], all things were created” (Col 1:16). Thomas points out that God’s knowing Himself is not separate from His knowing us: “He knows all things in His own essence, as in the first efficient cause.” In other words, in knowing Himself, God knows that He is the cause of all things. But God knows through His Word:
The Son, however, is the intellectual concept or representation of God insofar as He knows Himself, and as a consequence, every creature. Therefore, inasmuch as the Son is begotten, He is seen as a word representing every creature, and He is the principle of every creature. For if He were not begotten in that way, the Word of the Father would be the first-born of the Father only, and not of creatures: “I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, the first-born before every creature” (Sir 24:3).
All things were created in the Son, because, as Thomas remarks, “The Son is the first-born because He was generated as the principle of creatures.” “Principle” indicates that the Son is the source of other things.
Thomas identifies three ways that Colossians sees the Son. The Son is the principle of created things, in their creation, as well as their distinction one from another. All things are preserved in existence in Him because “in Him all things hold together” (Col 1:17).
According to Plato, there were distinct forms or ideas pre-existed, which were the different models of all things in existence. Thomas disagrees: “Instead of all these [models] we have one, that is, the Son, the Word of God.” Thomas comments that an artist or an architect starts with an idea within him or her according to which he or she creates:
This is the way God is said to make all things in His wisdom, because the wisdom of God is related to His created works just as the art of the builder is to the house he has made. Now this form and wisdom is the Word; and thus in Him all things were created, as in an exemplar: “He spoke and they were made” (Gen 1), because He created all things to come into existence in His eternal Word.
St. Thomas takes the occasion to point out the erroneous beliefs of the Manichaeans who thought that our earthly bodies were created by an evil god because they were corruptible, unlike heavenly bodies. Thomas asserts: “This was an error, because both types of bodies were created in the same [Word]. And so he says, ‘in heaven and on earth. ‘… In the beginning,’ that is, in the Son, ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ (Gen 1:1).”
Thomas finds two reasons why Colossians compares the Church to a body. The first is that “it has distinct members.” Ephesians says, “And his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Eph 4:11). However, the distinct gifts are aimed towards mutual service, as Thomas adds, “the members of the Church serve each other in ways that are different.” The First Letter to the Corinthians states, ““The members may have the same care for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25) and the Letter to the Galatians also affirms “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
Secondly, as a body has a soul so does the Church:
Again, just as a body is one because its soul is one, so the Church is one because the Spirit is one: “There is one body and one Spirit” (Eph 4:4); “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).
How is Christ the “Head” of the Body, which is the Church? Thomas points out that the Church exists in two states: “the state of grace in the present time, and the state of glory in the future.” Christ is the head in both states: “He is the first in grace and the first in glory.”
Christ is first in grace: “He is not only first in grace insofar as He is a man, but all men are justified by faith in Christ: ‘By one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Rom 5:19). So he says, He is the beginning, that is, the beginning or source of justification and grace in the entire Church.”
Christ is also the first in glory: “Christ is the first of all; and thus He is the first-born from the dead, that is, the first-born of those who are born by the resurrection.” Christ had the fullness of grace: “For some saints had particular graces, but Christ had all graces; and so he says, that in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell.”
Thomas tries to draw out the ramifications of this passage of Colossians for us. We came into being through the Son. In other words, our existence is not by chance. We are created through the Son. Our creation is “through Him and for Him.” We come into being through Christ and we exist for Christ. In Christ is the idea of each of us by which God brings us into existence.
In addition to our individual existence through Christ, we are united with all others who live in Christ, as one body, in which we serve each other. Christ is the head of this body. From Him come all the graces that we need that come to us through the humanity of Christ. Eventually the glory of eternal life comes to us through Him.
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.