Q. What is the meaning of the scripture, He put off the powers and principalities, and so on (Col 2:15)? And how indeed had he “put them on” at all when he was begotten without sin?
R. The divine Logos assumed our human nature without altering his divinity, and became perfect man in every way like us save without sin (cf Heb 4:15). He appeared like the first man Adam in the manner both of his creaturely origin and his birth. The first man received his existence from God and came into being at the very origin of his existence, and was free from corruption and sin—or God did not create either of these. When, however, he sinned by breaking God’s commandment, he was condemned to birth based on sexual passion and sin. Sin henceforth constrained his true natural origin within the liability to passions that had accompanied the first sin, as though placing it under a law. Accordingly, there is no human being who is sinless, since everyone is naturally subject to the law of sexual procreation that was introduced after man’s true creaturely origin in consequence of his sin.
Since, therefore, sin came about on account of the transgression, and the liability to passions connected with sexual procreation entered human nature on account of sin. and since, through sin, the original transgression continued unabatedly to flourish right along with this passibility of childbirth, there was no hope of liberation, for human nature was deliberately” and indissolubly bound by the chain of evil. The more human nature sought to preserve itself through sexual procreation, the more tightly it bound itself to the law of sin. reactivating the transgression connected with the liability to passions. Because of its physical condition, human nature suffered the increase of sin within this very liability to passions, and it retained the energies of all opposing forces, principalities, and powers–energies which, in view of the universal sin operative in human passibility, used the unnatural passions to hide under the guise of natural passions. Wherefore every wicked power is at work, amid human nature’s liability to passions, driving the deliberative will with the natural passions into the corruption of unnatural passions.
Thus, in his love of humanity, the Only-Begotten Son and Logos of God became perfect man, with a view to redeeming human nature from this helplessness in evil.
Taking on the original condition of Adam as he was in the very beginning, he was sinless but not incorruptible, and he assumed, from the procreative process introduced into human nature as a consequence of sin, only the liability to passions, not the sin itself. Since, then, through the liability to passions that resulted from Adam’s sin, the evil powers, as I already said, have hidden their activities clandestinely under the law of human nature in its current circumstance, it merely follows that these wicked powers-seeing in God our Savior the same natural liability to passions as in Adam, since he was in the flesh, and thinking that he was necessarily and circumstantially a mere man, that the Lord himself had to submit to the law of nature, that he acted by deliberation rather than true volition-assailed him. These evil powers hoped to use natural passibility to induce even the Lord himself to fantasize unnatural passion and to do what suited them. They tried to do this to him who, in his first experience of temptation by pleasure, subjected himself to being deluded by these evil powers’ deceits, only to put off those powers by limiting them from human nature, remaining unapproachable and untouchable for them. Clearly he won the victory over them for our sake. not for his own; and it was for us that he became a man and, in his goodness, inaugurated a complete restoration. For he himself did not need the experience, since he is God and Sovereign and by nature free from all passion. He submitted to it so that, by experiencing our temptations, he might provoke the evil power and thwart its attack, putting to death the very power that expected to seduce him just as it had Adam in the beginning.
This, then, is how, in his initial experience of temptation, he put off the principalities and powers, removing them from human nature and healing the liability to hedonistic passions, and in himself canceled the bond (Colossians 2:14) of Adam’s deliberate acquiescence in those hedonistic passions. For it is by this bond that man’s will inclines toward wicked pleasure against his own best interest, and that man declares, in the very silence of his works, his enslavement, being unable, in his fear of death, to free himself from his slavery to pleasure.
Then, after having overcome and frustrated the forces of evil, the principalities and powers, through his first experience of being tempted with pleasure, the Lord allowed them to attack him a second time and to provoke him, through pain and toil, with the further experience of temptation so that, by completely depleting them, within himself, of the deadly poison of their wickedness, he might utterly consume it, as though in a [refiner’s] fire. For he put off the principalities and powers at the moment of his death on the cross, when he remained impervious to his sufferings and, what is more, manifested the (natural human) fear of death, thereby driving from our nature the passion associated with pain. Man’s will, out of cowardice, tends away from suffering, and man, against his own will, remains utterly dominated by the fear of death, and, in his desire to live, clings to his slavery to pleasure.
So the Lord put off the principalities and powers at the time of his first experience of temptation in the desert, thereby healing the whole of human nature of the passion connected with pleasure. Yet he despoiled them again at the time of his death, in that he likewise eliminated from our human nature the passion connected with pain. In his love of humanity, he accomplished this restoration for us as though he were himself liable; and what is more, in his goodness, he reckoned to us the glory of what he had restored. So too, since he assumed our nature’s liability to passions, albeit without sin (cf. Heb 4:10), thereby inciting every evil power and destructive force to go into action, he despoiled them at the moment of his death, right when they came after him to search him out. He triumphed over them and made a spectacle of them in his cross, at the departure of his soul, when the evil powers could find nothing at all [culpable] in the passibility proper to his human nature. For they certainly expected to find something utterly human in him, in view of his natural carnal liability to passions. It seems that in his proper power and, as it were, by a certain “first fruits” of his holy and humanly begotten flesh, he completely freed our human nature from the evil which had insinuated itself therein through the liability to passions. For he subjugated—to this very same natural passibility—the evil tyranny which had once ruled within it (within that passibility, I mean).
It would be possible to interpret this text differently, in a more mystical and sublime sense. As you know, however, we must not commit the ineffable truths of the divine teachings of Scripture to writing. Let us rest content with what has been said, which should assuage our curiosity about this text. With God’s help, and as long as it will be found worthy in your eyes, we shall still inquire, with a zeal to learn, into the apostolic thinking on this.
—Saint Maximos the Confessor