In the messianic Psalm 88 (89) Christ cries out to God the Father, “Thou art My Father: My God, and the support of My salvation” (v.27). Then God the Father says, “And I will make Him My firstborn, high above the kings of the earth” (v.28). While the second divine Person, the Word, proceeds eternally from the Father as His Son, He can never be said to be “made” nor “firstborn” in His divinity. The eternal Word is uncreated God with the eternal Father and the eternal Spirit. As the eternal Son He is called “only begotten” (only-born), not the first begotten (firstborn). If the Word is spoken of as the Firstborn it is solely in reference to the Word made flesh. The appellation “firstborn” when applied to Christ describes the Word as Incarnate. This is the teaching of the Councils and the Church Fathers.
St. Paul in his Epistle to the Colossians speaks of Christ as Firstborn on two levels: essere [being] and agire [action]. Essere always precedes agire. Or put conversely, action presupposes being. On the ontological level (essere) Christ is “the Firstborn of every creature” (1:15); on the tropological or moral level (agire) Christ is “the Firstborn from the dead” (1:18). In both cases it is His Sacred Humanity that is Firstborn.
Firstborn of every creature
When Christ is spoken of as Firstborn on the ontological level it is de facto a reference to His eternal predestination as the God-Man and thus a consistent affirmation of His absolute primacy. Here are some examples from Scripture:
- Ps. 88:28 – “And I will make Him My firstborn, high above the kings of the earth.”
- Col. 1:15 – “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.”
- Rm. 8:29 – “For those whom He has foreknown He has also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, that He should be the firstborn among many brethren.”
- Apoc. 3:14 – “Thus says the Amen, the faithful and true witness, who is the beginning of the creation of God.”
Allow me to cite a section from my short treatise A Primer on the Absolute Primacy of Christ:
The next part of verse 15 reads that He is “the firstborn of every creature.” (Col. 1:15). If, as we have maintained, Jesus Christ is the firstborn of every creature (as opposed to the Uncreated Word), then the Franciscan thesis is immensely enriched.
In support of this position, we recall the Hebrew notion of the ‘firstborn’ (cf. Ex. 13:2,12-13). Of the flock, the firstborn male was to be redeemed or sacrificed; of the family, the firstborn son was to be redeemed. This Hebrew notion of the firstborn would not make sense if Paul were referring to the Divine, Uncreated Word as such. Moreover, the firstborn of a flock of sheep was itself a sheep; the firstborn male in the human family was a man like his brothers. In other words, the expression “firstborn of every creature” presumes that He Himself has a created nature just as “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29) presumes that He has a human nature.
Finally, if the reference were to the Divine Person of the Word as Uncreated and Eternal quite apart from the Incarnation, then why the specific reference to the second Divine Person as opposed to the Father or the Holy Spirit? Why would there be a specific reference to the Uncreated Word instead of the Godhead? As we have noted, it is more consistent in this passage to see the subject of this Canticle as the Incarnate Word; it is inconsistent and even illogical to say that Paul suddenly changes the subject from Christ to the Uncreated Word.
This being the case, it is Jesus Christ who is “the firstborn of every creature.” In the purpose of God’s will, Christ has primacy over everything created. By this metaphor of the ‘firstborn’ the Apostle shows all creation as a family with Jesus Christ as the firstborn in the family of God’s creation. He shares their nature by assuming the created, human nature from the Blessed Virgin Mary—firstborn of every creature. Chronologically, as we know, our Divine Lord is not the first creature born into the world; but in the plan of God, He is. Once again, what is first or ‘firstborn’ in the intention is last in execution, as we have frequently noted. Christ’s primacy is, therefore, a primacy of excellence and priority in the intentions of God.
Here is my explanation of this back in 2007:
So on the level of essere (being) Christ is the Firstborn of all creation in His foreseen hypostatic union. But what does St. Paul mean in referring to Him as the firstborn of the dead?
Firstborn from the Dead
Christ IS King – by the very fact of who He IS. Being true God and true Man He is the King of kings and Lord of Lords (cf. 1 Tm 6:15; Apoc 1:5, 17:14, 19:11-16). This is not merited. This is not earned. This is a pure gift of love of God to the Sacred Humanity of Christ. The union of the created, human nature of Christ with the divine nature in the Person of the Word makes Him the absolute Lord and King of all creation. And since we have been predestined to be God’s children in Christ before the creation of the world (cf. Eph 1:3-10) it follows that His Humanity was predestined first (otherwise how could we be predestined in Him before creation?).
But St. Paul and St. John both speak of Christ also as the Firstborn of the dead:
- Col 1:18 – “Again, He is the head of His body, the Church; He, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the first place.”
- Apoc 1:4-5 – “John to the seven churches that are in Asia: grace be to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is coming, and from the seven spirits who are before His throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth.”
Death enters the world of men through sin. Therefore Christ, in order to conquer sin, dies and rises from the dead. Because of Christ’s death and Resurrection those who die in Him will rise to new life in Him. His Resurrection is a ‘birth’ after passing through the ‘birth canal’ of death. He is the first to rise from the dead to eternal life, the “firstborn from the dead.” But this birth is merited. Christ merits His Resurrection and merits our Redemption through His life, passion and death. It is because of Christ’s life on earth, because of His actions (agire) that He becomes the Firstborn from the tomb.
From a Franciscan perspective, then, Christ was always absolutely, unconditionally predestined to be the Firstborn of all creation irregardless of man’s fall from grace and need for Redemption; however, because of Adam’s sin Christ also suffered death to atone for our sins and rose from the dead and became the Firstborn from the dead.
We thank and praise God for eternal life in Christ Jesus! If Adam had not sinned our life would still have been life in Christ, the Firstborn of many brethren; but because of sin He also becomes our Redemption, a propitiation for our sins, the Firstborn of the dead: “In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that He has first loved us, and sent His Son a propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:10). Had we not sinned in Adam He would not have had to become “a propitiation for our sins” but would have come nonetheless sent by the Father’s love.
Essere (being) precedes agire (action); and conversely agire presupposes essere. Applied to Christ as Firstborn of all creation and Firstborn of the dead this means that He is King first in His being the Incarnate Word and then in His work as Redeemer. Put conversely, Christ’s becoming Redeemer King presupposes that He is the Incarnate King. Christ is Firstborn of all creation absolutely on the ontological level; Christ is Firstborn of the dead relatively because, after Adam’s fall, He chose to merit our Redemption by dying on the Cross and rising from the tomb.
Vivat Christus Rex!