The Vocation of Letter Writing: Christopher Seitz’s Commentary on Colossians

colossiansIn his commentary on Colossians, Christopher Seitz, an Old Testament scholar by trade, makes use of a wide array of ancient and modern Christian interpreters to give an irenic, theologically rich, and textually sensitive reading of Paul’s letter. Seitz’s book is part of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible series, which takes as its premise the idea that “the Nicene tradition, in all its diversity and controversy, provides the proper basis for the interpretation of the Bible as Christian scripture” and that “dogma clarifies rather than obscures” (p.11).

One of the more unique facets of Seitz’s commentary is his canonical approach. He seeks to interpret Colossians in light of both the larger Pauline corpus of which it is a part, as well as the rest of the Old and New Testaments. He acknowledges from the outset that “canonical readings” have come under fire in the past for being “either a genre mistake or a piety masking illegitimate (‘unhistorical’ in our present parlance) interpretation” (p.50). Consequently, Seitz takes time to respond to these criticisms by giving a more in-depth description of what he thinks the term entails:

Minimally… [it] should mean something basically proper like paying attention to the text’s final form in its totality and also not preempting the historical character of the text’s coming-to-be… The point here is that a canonical reading tries to pay attention to what is not said by a text and to conclude that this lack of plain deliverance is significant. Proper proportion must be weighted in such an approach. The text is honored for what it chooses to communicate in the form it chooses to say that, and historical judgments are kept in proportion to this reality. (p.51)

On a related note, Seitz explains that when one looks at the history of Christian interpretation as a whole, the production of commentaries on single books of the Bible is a relatively recent phenomenon, though of course there are some notable exceptions (p.21). This modern emphasis on the individuality of each of Paul’s letters has had some positive consequences, including greater attention being given to matters like authorship, date, setting, and so on. One of the downsides though, is that these developments have also sometimes lead to “a focus on such matters arguably in disproportion to their significance for their interpretation” (p.22). He sees this especially playing out in the intense emphasis given by many modern treatments of Colossians on the “Colossian heresy” as the main reason for Paul’s writing of the letter, given the actual tone of the letter itself.

So why did Paul write Colossians? Seitz notes that Douglas Moo, in his 2008 commentary, asserts that Paul wrote the letter at Epaphras’s request, primarily in order to stamp out a harmful variant of the true gospel taking root among the Colossian community (p.63). Moo is not alone in this line of interpretation. However, Seitz is not convinced by it; he maintains that dealing with false teachings was a secondary goal of the letter for Paul (unlike in Galatians). Paul’s knowledge of the Colossian community comes through the mouth of Epaphras, which leads Seitz to ask, “What did he [Epaphras] make known? That they were under threat by false teaching? Not according to these opening words. ‘He made known to us your love in the Spirit’ (1:8)” (p.63). Elsewhere, Seitz expands on why he thinks Paul composed the epistle:

Colossians is written to a church Paul has never visited. It discusses a set of problems Paul has heard about secondhand. It does not begin with this concern but instead on a more personal note. It is a letter that can be read by another one close by with profit… The occasion for writing, in light of these several factors, cannot be the specifics of a problem Paul is concerned about and solely that. In this letter Paul is speaking about himself and about the way he is coming to understand his apostolic office, in light of the changed and probably unforeseen circumstances… Paul’s ministry is one of mature theological clarification before it is one of problem address. (pp.32-33)

This leads to what I found to be one of the more moving parts of the commentary: Seitz’s conception of Paul’s actual primary purpose for writing Colossians. In his eyes, Paul’s main reason is reflected in how the Apostle describes Epaphras’s ministry of toil and prayer. Paul explains that Epaphras did these things “so that you may stand mature and fully assured in Christ (4:12)” (p.76). Paul was striving, through both prayer and letter-writing, towards this same goal. From this starting point of concern for the ongoing spiritual maturity of the Colossian believers, Seitzs explains that “Paul and Epaphras (and Timothy and others) share a vocation on behalf of a church whose maturity is their concern, even as they are not present, and indeed precisely because they are not” (p.76). Paul’s confinement led him to reach a new understanding of his apostolic vocation. Seitz writes that:

Having seen eliminated a particular kind of first-person singular role of missionary travel, teaching, arguing from scripture, and proclamation, Paul’s apostleship has broken forth into a new mode of partnership for Christ that has its own intention in God’s mysterious purpose… Colossians is the letter that makes this transition clearer than others we possess. (p.76)

In light of this, it makes sense that the warnings given in chapter 2 regarding the “Colossian heresy” are of a more general nature. Seitz thinks that they probably don’t correspond to a single religious system actually present on the ground in Colossae vying for the loyalty of the Colossian believers (p.119). Paul is advocating that the Colossians “put on Christ” and not be led astray by any alternative teaching, regardless of its exact origin or specific details. So what is the heart of Paul’s message to the Colossians? I think one could do worse than look at Seitz summary near the end of his section of commentary on Ch. 2:8-23, “We have died in Christ… Our identity is hidden in Christ himself, who is raising us and asking that we put on his own new clothing” (p.143).

In the larger world of scholarship, the idea that orthodox Christian doctrine can be an interpretative aid rather than obstacle can be a controversial claim. Many modern historical-critical interpreters have sometimes viewed the history of Christian tradition as a “moldering scrim of antique prejudice,” a distorting lens that must be pushed aside in order to uncover the “original” meaning of the text.  (pp.10-11). However, postmodern thinkers like Derrida (among others) have persuasively shown that the use of interpretative frameworks is unavoidable and that complete interpretative objectivity will forever remain an elusive goal. In light of this, it seems interesting to me to see what theological fruits can be found by using the Nicene tradition (a very diverse thing) as an interpretative starting point. Seitz commentary on Colossians, like the series as a whole, shows this to be a worthwhile project.

*Disclosure: I received this book free from Brazos Press for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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