Practices of PowerWe all know Paul the theologian, Paul the letter writer, and Paul the missionary. But do we know Paul the hymn redactor? Most scholars believe that found within Paul’s writings are early-Christian hymns and creeds that he inserted and possibly adjusted to serve his own end. As to which passages these are, well, of course that is debated! Common contenders include Philippians 2:6-11, Colossians 1:15-20, Romans 1:3-4, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, and 1 Timothy 3:16.

These so-called hymns or creeds are important to historians as they can reveal a much-coveted glance at the beliefs and doxologies of the earliest believers. Imagine if Philippians 2:6-11 were actually an early hymn sung regularly in gatherings!

Colossians 1:15-20

Many accept that Colossians 1:15-20 is an early hymn, but debates rage as to how the hymn should be structured and whether Paul added or adjusted any of the wording. I would like to share some insights from Robert Ewusie Moses in his Practices of Power. His contentions regarding the structure and redaction of Col 1:15-20 are unique, worthy of consideration, and influence one’s interpretation of Colossians as a whole. In his own words, “these redactions provide an important window into what the author is doing in the rest of the letter” (p164).

I will first display the structure that Moses proposes, and then summarize some of his insights. Moses structures the hymn “based on its content” (p165), rather than guessing a poetic form, and comes up with the following, which I have redacted (ha-ha), as it was originally displayed in Greek.

A. he is the image of the invisible God

B. the firstborn of all creation

C. for by him all things were created

a. in heaven

b. and on earth

b’. visible

a’. and invisible

b’. whether thrones or dominions

a’. or rulers or authorities

C’. all things were created through him and for him

B’. and he is before all things

C’. and in him all things hold together

[D. and he is the head of the body, the church]

B’. he is the beginning

the firstborn from the dead,

that in everything he might be preeminent

A’. for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell

and through him to reconcile to himself all things

[E. making peace by the blood of his cross]

b. whether on earth

a. or in heaven


  • The A lines express the relationship between God and Christ. Notice that matching both A lines explains “how Christ can be said to be the visible image of the invisible God: in Christ God in all his fullness was pleased to dwell” (p170-71).
  • The B lines express the priority of Christ.
  • The C lines express the sphere of Christ. That is, they use prepositions such as by Him, through Him, in Him, etc.
  • The D and E lines are Paul’s own additions to the hymn as the structure would not be disrupted if they were removed. Both of these lines draw attention to Paul’s intention for using the hymn in this letter.
  • Line D “introduces the theme of the church into a hymn that has so far had a cosmic referent and, thereby, disrupts the consistent cosmological orientation of the hymn” (p167). Therefore, it is an addition by “Paul”.
  • Line E “introduces the theme of the cross into a strophe whose main concern is the resurrection” (p167). Therefore, it is an addition.
  • By adding these lines, Paul “narrows the cosmic drama to the local arena” (p177). What is happening in heaven has implications for the church. We see the hymn expanded upon and applied to the church in Col 1:21-23.

My thoughts

I would love to see your thoughts via comments below, but here are a few of my own.

First, this is an intuitive structuring of the hymn; it seems natural and makes good sense. However, I am uncertain if identified themes should dictate structure, and then that structure be used to interpret the parallel themes (such as the A lines). This is circular.

Second, a structure that reveals that two lines (D and E) don’t fit may not prove that Paul added them; it just as likely hints that the structure is flawed.

Third, if true, the parallel between the A lines is insightful.

Fourth, Moses suggests that “thrones and dominions” should be considered visible and earthly, while “principalities and powers” are invisible and spiritual. The basis for this is the fact that they match in his structure. However, I’m not sure why he chose an abbaba structure. Why not abbaab? It is a good point, however, that it makes sense for Paul to list some visible and earthly objects and not only invisible. How would we determine which is which?

Fifth, I remain skeptical of Moses’ proposals of redaction. The idea is that the hymn was not originally about the church, but Paul adjusted it. Apparently this is because the references to the church seem arbitrary and unwelcome. However, if the second half of the hymn focused on Christ as the beginning of the new creation, then the reference to the church is no longer out of place but entirely natural and consistent with Pauline theology.

Lastly, of course this can become extremely speculative. I’m reminded of Ehrman’s circular argument in How Jesus Became God that Romans 1:3-4 must have originally been an adoptionistic creed because it would be if one removed the orthodox parts that Paul added to “fix” it. And how do we know which parts Paul added? Why, they are the parts that, if removed, would result in an adoptionistic creed of course! I would conclude that our interpretation must depend on the text we have in front of us, not what may lie behind the text. Otherwise, the tail begins to wag the dog.


Moses’ suggested structure is certainly viable and I will have to give it more thought. His book Practices of Power is equally thought-provoking and controversial.

Comments are very welcome!

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