The contrast between the fallacious deceit of human traditions and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge lies in the fact that in Christ there dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. This verse is the only verse which might seem to indicate that Paul is directly attacking Gnosticism. In the schemes of Basilides and Valentinus, all the fullness of the Godhead, or plērōma, was indeed contained in Christ, but not bodily. Thus the divine person did not die on the cross. However, this verse does not require a Gnostic reference, for the same is true of Docetism also; and from another point of view the Jews also rejected the proposition.
Aside from any reference to Gnosticism, the general question remains as to the force of the word bodily. The word fulness indicates the contents; for example, “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” The fulness of the Godhead is the totality of perfections, attributes, or qualities of deity. These include self-existence, sovereignty, omnipotence, and the like. The question now is, how do these exist in Christ bodily?
The question is sharpened by the word Godhead. Commentators regularly contrast the word in this verse (theotēs) with a similar but different word (theiotēs) in Romans 1:20, where the King James uses the same translation: “Godhead.” The latter refers to divine qualities and can be diluted to the level of such qualities as they appear in exceptionally qualified men. Or, as in Romans, the word can refer to some divine attributes while excluding others. But theotēs refers strictly to the full divine nature as such – to deity itself.
C. F. D. Moule acknowledges this distinction, but when the word bodily is added, he writes,
“Commentators…group themselves…round five interpretations: (i) “as an organized body,” i.e., the totality of the Godhead is “not distributed through a hierarchy of beings” …but gathered into one “organism” in Christ…; (ii) expressing itself through the Body [of Christ, that is, the church]; (iii) “actually” – in concrete reality, not in mere seeming…; (iv) “in essence” so the Greek Fathers and Calvin; (v) “assuming a bodily form,” “becoming incarnate.” Of these, (iv) seems highly improbable, if intelligible at all.”
Putting it a little more strongly than does Moule, the present writer notes that the first of these five requires either a Gnostic reference or a reference to Philo. Ronald Nash thinks that the phraseology of the Epistle to the Hebrews betrays a knowledge of Philo. This is chronologically possible, since Philo died around A.D. 40 or 50. But as for Colossians, Moule remarks that it depends on a single adverb, “a slender peg on which to hang so mighty a thought.” The second interpretation is so far-fetched that we shall waste no time on it.
The third and fifth together, as Moule says, “seem on the whole to present the fewest difficulties.” This is certainly so: The fulness of the Godhead was actually and really there, not there in mere appearance only. And there is the incarnate Christ. But however true this is, it is vague and incomplete.
To complete (iii) and (v), number (iv) must be added. Moule dismissed it as hardly intelligible. But the Greek fathers and Calvin are not usually unintelligible. The three views are compatible and complementary. The fourth means that the essence, that is, the definition, the reality of God, dwelt in the body of Jesus. Of course Jesus’ body as such was not omniscient, for bodies know nothing; nor was it omnipresent, for bodies are locally restricted. But the ego, the person, whose body and instrument it was, satisfied the complete definition of deity.
Another possible interpretation, or implication, one that Moule does not mention, is the Lutheran doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum. This means that the characteristics of the divine nature are also common to the human nature.
But a communicatio idiomatum ought to work both ways. If the divine attributes are common to the physical body, the characteristics of time, space, form, and tactual qualities should be held in common by the divine essence. But this implication, that God has physical and temporal form, is hard to swallow. Perhaps the communicatio relates only to mental, not physical, characteristics. In this case the thinking of the Father would be temporal, and he also would be ignorant of the date of Christ’s return. At any rate, the Lutheran interest is not in Jesus’ mind or soul. The communicatio refers to Jesus’ body. And for this reason the word bodily in the verse under consideration serves Lutheran purposes. The reason is that their doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum is essential to their sacramental theory of consubstantiation. Christ’s body is ubiquitous, and therefore that body is in, with, and under the bread wherever communion is celebrated. Calvinists object that, first, this violates the law of contradiction; and, second, its sacramentarianism is as un-Biblical as Romish transubstantiation.
So much for that. But before leaving this verse, the word Godhead needs further comment. To what was said a few paragraphs back, a remark should be made relative to the doctrine of the Trinity. American Christians in their pews – Bible-believing Christians – are apt to think of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and then stop thinking. If they are not consciously tritheists, neither do they clearly envisage the unity of the Godhead. Some who think a little more and have just a smattering of philosophic terms consider the Father as the unity, and the Son and Spirit as the diversity. Thus they attempt to solve “the One-and-the-Many problem” which Parmenides discovered and removed by denying plurality, which Democritus hardly considered at all, which embarrassed Plato, in which Plotinus failed horribly, and in which also William James turned Parmenides upside down by denying unity. The contemporary theologians may go further and constructively propose that unity and plurality are “equally ultimate” in the Godhead. They are not apt to have a very clear idea of what “equally ultimate” means.
The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity certainly teaches that the Father and the Son are equal in power and glory, and, as equally eternal, they may be called equally ultimate. But the Father is not to be equated with unity and the Son with plurality. The three persons are the plurality and the Godhead is the unity. The Godhead is not one of the persons as distinct from another, but rather the common reality shared by the three. Such is our partial answer to the objection of Islam, and also to some confused American theologians. But whether the group of common qualities, the Godhead, is more ultimate than any one of the three persons who share these attributes, and whether “ultimate” means “generic,” for certainly there is no chronological precedence in this argument, are questions more properly discussed in a systematic theology than in an exegesis of Colossians.
Gordon H. Clark, Colossians, in Commentaries on Paul’s Epistles, “The Works of Gordon Haddon Clark Vol. 12” (Unicoi, TN: The Trinity Foundation, 1979, 2005), 202-203. Commenting on Col. 2.9