“The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 7 (Col 3:15-17, Part 1)

EarlychurchWe continue to consider Ferguson’s arguments in chapter 22 of his The Early Church and Today, vol. 1 and vol. 2, edited by Leonard Allen and Robyn Burwell. This chapter is titled “Church Music in Ephesians and Colossians.”

Ferguson begins with an exegesis of Colossians 3:15-17.

(Col 3:15-17 ESV)  15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.  16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.  17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Word and Spirit

Ferguson writes,

Being filled with the Spirit, therefore, is the equivalent of the indwelling word of Christ in Colossians 3: 16. The two ideas belong together, and it is not necessary to interpret one as really being the other.

(Kindle Locations 5086-5087). I agree with the part that says “it is not necessary to interpret one as really being the other.” Amen. But he just did that when he said “Being filled with the Spirit, therefore, is the equivalent of the indwelling word of Christ.” You can’t have it both ways!

However, Ferguson later clarifies his views —

The songs Christians sing spring from being filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5: 18) and so are spiritual in nature (Col. 3: 16; Eph. 5: 19). As derived from the Spirit and his indwelling, songs are to express the spiritual nature of human beings, created with the capacity for rational, spiritual worship (Rom. 12: 1). Christian enthusiasm comes not from artificial stimulation but from the presence of the Holy Spirit, who through the word of Christ makes us realize the greatness of God and the greatness of our salvation in Christ.

(Kindle Locations 5203-5207). Amen. (Except I disagree with the use of “rational” as a limitation on the Holy Spirit’s role. The Spirit is just as concerned with our emotions as our rationality. After all, we are to love God with all our hearts, souls, and beings.)

Imperatival participles

Take a closer look at Col 3:16 —

(Col 3:16 ESV) Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.

The sentence is structured as an imperative, that is, a command or something urged. The subject is implied: “you.” The verb is “let … dwell.” The readers are urged to let the “word of Christ” dwell in them.

This clause — subject and verb — is followed by a series of participles: “teaching,” “admonishing,” and “singing.” Grammatically, these are obviously not commands. The question is just how we should interpret them.

Of course, the fact that “singing” is not a command is a bit of  a problem for those whose hermeneutic is built on “command, example, or necessary inference” as the essential means of knowing what we must do to please God. After all, if God doesn’t command us to sing, then we have no opportunity to find a silence that might prohibit an “addition” to the “command.”

Ferguson concludes,

These participles have the force of imperatives. Participles can be used as imperatives. Here the sentence begins with an imperative, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you,” which sets the tone for the following construction. Compare verse 13, where “bear with one another . . . and forgive each other” are actually participles that get their imperative meaning from the main verb, “clothe yourselves,” in verse 12.

(Kindle Locations 5045-5048).

The NET Bible translators explain with respect to Col 3:13,

The two participles “bearing” (ἀνεχόμενοι, anechomenoi) and “forgiving” (χαριζόμενοι) express the means by which the action of the finite verb “clothe yourselves” is to be carried out.

And obviously so, which is why the vast majority translations translate as participles, not commands.

Just so, in Col 3:16, Paul is not commanding us to sing, teach, or admonish. Rather, he is explaining the natural consequence of letting the word of Christ dwell in us richly. If we let the word so dwell, then we’ll teach and admonish with wisdom and we’ll sing with gratitude in our hearts toward God.

The point isn’t “Thou shalt sing,” but “If you’ll let the word dwell richly within you, then your singing will be with gratitude from the heart. That is, no longer will you just sing, now you’ll sing from the heart.

Thus, Paul assumes that we’ll sing. The question is whether the singing reveals a heart filled with gratitude or whether we’re just going through the motions.

Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that most of the major translations decline to translate the participles as imperatives (ESV, NIV, NET Bible, KJV, NKJV, NASB, New Century, and Holman translate “singing” as a participle; NRSV as an imperative: “sing”).

I’m hardly an expert on Greek, but the experts I have access to agree that it’s doubtful that we should read the participles in v. 16 as commands or imperatives. Wallace, in Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics, p. 652, says that translating the participles as imperatives “should be seriously questioned.” And F. F. Bruce in the New International Commentary comes to the same conclusion.

In short, it’s hardly as certain as Ferguson suggests that “singing” here is a command. And while I’m sure Paul would like for Christians to sing, the context seems clear enough that his point isn’t to issue a command but to explain the benefits of letting the word dwell richly in our hearts. Paul is persuading, not issuing an edict. (More to come, when we consider the context in the next post.)

The “word of Christ”

The “word of Christ” is a phrase found only here in the New Testament. Ferguson explains,

The “word of Christ” is the message that centers in Christ. It is not clear whether the genitive is subjective (Christ as the source of the word) or objective (Christ as the content of the word). Both ideas may be involved (cf. 2: 6–7). Parallel expressions are “the word of the truth, the gospel” (1: 5– 6); the “word of God” (1: 25; Acts 12: 24); and “word of the Lord” (1 Thess. 1: 8; 2 Thess. 3: 1; Acts 8: 25).

(Kindle Locations 5041-5044). I couldn’t agree more. In particular, it seems that Paul is referring to the gospel.

Many readers  (not Ferguson) would assume that “word” means “Bible,” especially “New Testament,” but much of the New Testament had not yet been written when Paul wrote Colossians.

Throughout the Bible, “word of God” does not mean so much “the Bible” as “God’s message,” often the message that he sent someone, such as a prophet, to deliver. The message Paul was sent to deliver is the gospel  — and the parallel with Col 1:5-6 suggested by Ferguson is strong.


Ferguson concludes,

Melody is useful in deepening the impression of the words, making them memorable, and adding to their emotional impact, but the melody should not detract from the message and direct attention to itself and away from the words. The melody is subordinate to and supports the words, not the other way around. The singing of rounds is particularly subject to this criticism , for they are destructive of communication and instruction to one another. Would we permit four men in the congregation to read simultaneously four different passages of scripture? …

Of course, instrumental sounds cannot do the things described in these verses. But neither do nonverbal sounds made by the voice or other parts of the body— only words that are rational, intelligible, and spiritual.

(Kindle Locations 5223-5232). I was more than a little surprised to see Ferguson challenge the use of rounds as an a cappella musical form. I suppose he is heavily influenced by the early church fathers’ insistence on unison song. But rounds are bad? Because the singers sing different words and can’t be understood?

The disproof (or “counter-example” as the mathematicians say) follows:

I remember well the first time I heard this. I still get goose bumps.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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5 Responses to “The Early Church and Today,” by Everett Ferguson, Part 7 (Col 3:15-17, Part 1)

  1. Price says:

    Excellent. Helpful

  2. laymond says:

    I really doubt that the original writers we giving great thought to whether or not it would be “Grammatically correct” when translated into American English.

  3. Laymond, that is precisely the reason that accurate translation from one language into another is not something to be left to novices. Just think of the fiasco with Hilary and her infamous “reset button” she gave to the Russians.

  4. laymond says:

    Jerry, I don’t have a clue as to what you are talking about- “reset-button”

  5. What is clear is Ferguson’s general perspective of seeking rules from any scripture, to the point of trying to force imperative language where there is none. In this perspective, the scripture is a full set of rules for faith and practice, so we must read everything in that scripture as rule, for that is its intent. All we have to do it to leach the intended rules out of all that language which does not sound like rules. Scrape off the narrative, the culture, and the context. Wash out irony and idiom. Replace neutral or inclusive language with exclusive language. Convert unique anecdote to divine command. Deconstruct the canon, then reconstruct it by concatenating passages with similar words, using existing concepts to determine which passages to include and which to exclude in said concatenations. Create new topical context to replace original narrative context.

    I am not laying blame for this haplessly human system on Ferguson, for it well predates him. His application of it here just reminds me as to what this brother is working from. Astonishing errors such as conflating rational and spiritual, or misinterpreting “word of Christ” (not as what Jesus says, but rather whatever wesay about Jesus) become more understandable, if no more excusable, when we consider the basis upon which such errors are erected.

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