Pleroma

PLEROMA plĭ rō’ mə (πλήρωμα, G4445, fulness). A word prominent in NT descriptions of Christ and the Church. RSV also “fulfilling,” “full number.”

Derivation and use in Greek

“Pleroma” is a verbal noun formed from plēroun, which means “to fill,” “to fulfill, complete.” It thus has the senses “fulness” and “fulfillment” with primarily the passive signification of “that which is filled (up).” Active senses of the noun also occur, however, so that it is incorrect to start in the NT with any fixed rule based on derivation: the context must determine the sense in each case.

Among later Gr. writers, Polybius, Philo, and Lucian all use pleroma to mean “ship,” from the notion of a crew or a cargo filling it up. In Aelius Aristides it also means “full number” (of a nation). The word also has philosophical and theological connotations as in Philo (“the fulfillment of hopes,” the soul as “the sum total of virtues”) and the Corpus Hermeticum (God as “the totality of good,” “the totality of life”).

In view of the Colossians passages below, evidence for the use of “pleroma” in Gnostic writings in the 1st and 2nd centuries is important. R. Bultmann says:

In Gnostic literature the term (in absolute usage) means the sphere of the Aeons, the upper pneumatic world to which the Gnostic is substantially related and into which he hopes to ascend after his death. Thus the concept “pleroma” changed from a merely formal conception of fulness to a material conception of divine essence (HDB rev. 777).

The use of the word seems to have been limited. Epiphanius, Irenaeus, and Hippolytus confirm that pleroma was a technical term among the Valentinian heretics for the upper world; it has not, however, been traced to other Gnostics.

Pleroma also occurs in the LXX, with the active sense: Psalm 24:1 “the earth is the Lord’s and its pleroma” (i.e. its totality), Ecclesiastes 4:6, “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil...” (lit. “the fullnesses of toil of two hands,” a Hebraism).

NT usage

It is convenient to distinguish between active and passive senses, and then consider the special passages in Colossians and Ephesians.

Active sense

“That which fills.”

This is a straightforward use: 1 Corinthians 10:26 is a direct quotation of Psalm 24:1 above (RSV “everything in it”), and four passages in the gospels correspond to the sense in Ecclesiastes. Mark 6:43 recorded “twelve baskets full of broken pieces” (lit. “the fulnesses of twelve baskets of...”); similarly Mark 8:20 records the seven basketsfull. In Mark 2:20, 21pleroma” refers to “patch” (that which fills up a hole): “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it...” (cf. Matt 9:16).

“That which fulfills, completes.”

This is illustrated by two passages in Romans 13:10 “Love is the fulfilling of the law.” As the verb in v. 8 confirms (“has fulfilled”) this means, the carrying into effect of the law. “(Paul) is not instituting a new, though simplified, legalism...rather he is pointing out the ethical expression of the true meaning of the law, which when rightly understood, itself points to the way of faith.” (C. K. Barrett, Epistle to the Romans, 251; cf. Matt 5:17, Rom 10:4; Christ is the “end” of the law, by fulfilling it on behalf of every believer.) Romans 11:12 has sometimes been interpreted in a parallel sense: “if their trespass means riches for the world...how much more will their full inclusion (pleroma) mean?” i.e. their fulfilling of the law and of the divine purpose.

Passive sense: “that which is filled up.”

Romans 11:12 is better understood if the contrasting word hēttēma (RSV “failure”) is taken into account. This means literally “diminution,” so that RSV “full inclusion” is the correct opposite, i.e., the Jews being made up to full strength again.

Two other Romans passages use pleroma in the sense of “totality”: 11:25, “until the full number of the Gentiles come in” (RSV) and 15:29 “I know that when I come to you I shall come in the fullness (pleroma) of the blessing of Christ,” i.e., the blessing in its entirety. The word occurs in the chronological sense of fulfillment (Gal 4:4): “But when the fulness (pleroma) of the time had come” (cf. Acts 21:26, “days...would be fulfilled”). Often, however, the chronological moves into the teleological sense: “According to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time...” (RSV Eph 1:9, 10). Christ fulfills the Father’s purpose for the ages in both His first and second Advents.

“Pleroma” occurs once in John’s gospel, and affords a natural transition to the theological contexts of Colossians and Ephesians below: 1:16 “from his fulness (pleroma) have we all received, grace upon grace.” The passive sense is here correct, as in v. 14 “filled with grace and truth.” From this “full complement” (of grace and truth) believers may draw. There is no Gnostic reference in this passage.

Colossians

“Pleroma” occurs twice in this epistle in Christological contexts, and an important issue in exegesis is whether or not Paul uses a technical, i.e. Gnostic, signification.

The second passage (2:9), “For in him the whole fulness (pleroma) of deity dwells bodily,” yields a plain sense, that of a high doctrine of the Incarnation. In Christ, Paul is saying, the totality of the godhead has become embodied in human form, and believers have therefore “come to fulness of life in him” (v. 10; here the cognate verb is used). At 1:19, after describing the present preeminence of Christ (vv. 17, 18) Paul again refers to the Incarnation (“in him all the fulness [pleroma] of God was pleased to dwell”) by which Christ entered on the reconciling mission completed by His cross (v. 20).

Was Paul repudiating Gnostic views taught at Colossae, which regarded Christ as only one of the beings in the “sphere of the Aeons” who are intermediaries between God and the world (cf. 2:8 “the elemental spirits of the universe” RSV)? It is not possible to exclude this interpretation, but since Colossians was written so long before the earliest known Gnostic (i.e. Valentinian) uses of the word, it is at present difficult to prove it. At all events, Paul in the two whole passages (1:15-20 and 2:8, 9) warns the Christians against the adulteration of their faith with the “philosophy and empty deceit” of human traditions, and insists on the uniqueness of Christ and the fullness of His deity.

Ephesians

One uncomplicated use of pleroma (1:10) already has been mentioned. The words, “that you may be filled with all the fulness (pleroma) of God” (Eph 3:19) is comparable to Colossians 2:10. “The thought appears to be that there is a completeness, a maturity of character, ordained by God...both for Christians individually and for the Church corporately” (Moule, op. cit. 827). In particular, the love of Christ (Eph 3:19) is that by which the fullness of God’s being can be apprehended.

The context here is partly the Church, and two other passages deal with the theme, prominent in Ephesians, of the relation between Christ and the Church. At 1:22, 23 Paul rises to the height of his prayer with the vision of Christ:

he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fulness of him who fills all in all.

Scholars have explained this expression variously, sometimes as affected by their theological assumptions; it is therefore important to read the passage with close attention to the rest of Ephesians. The possible versions are (1) “the church (is)...the fulfillment of (that which fills up) him who all in all is being fulfilled,” i.e. the church in a sense completes Christ. (2) “the church (is)...the fulness of (that which is filled up by) him who all in all is being fulfilled” (cf. NEB): the sense is similar. (3) “the church (is) a. the fulfillment (active); b. the fullness (passive) of him who fills all in all” (cf. RSV). (4) “the head...who is the fulness of him who fills all in all” i.e. Christ is the full expression of God the Father—no reference to the Church. (5) “the head...who is the fulness of that which is being filled up,” i.e. Christ is the fullness either of the Church, or of everything—the universe.

Of these interpretations, (3) b. and (4) seem most satisfactory. (3) b. is in accord with other teaching in Ephesians (1:10; 3:19; 4:10, 15, 16) and does not magnify the Church in a way foreign to the NT as a whole. Interpretation (4) is less likely syntactically (“which is his body” must be taken as a parenthesis) but does agree with the high Christology of this epistle, and of Colossians.

Finally, 4:13...“to the measure of the stature of the fulness (pleroma) of Christ.” The context is the unity of the Church in faith and in the knowledge of Christ, with the goal as (lit.) “a perfect man” i.e. “mature manhood” (RSV) of which the following expression gives the standard, namely Christ in all His fullness. There is primarily an individual reference here, but in the background is the corporate aspect of the Church as filled with Christ’s pleroma.

Bibliography

T. K. Abbott, Ephesians and Colossians, ICC (1847); J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (1897), excursus; W. Bauer, Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (1952) 1221-1225; IDB III. 826-828; R. Bultman, “Gnosis,” JTS (1952), 23ff.; W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich, Greek-English Lexicon of the NT and other early Christian literature (1957), ad loc; C. F. D. Moule, Epistles to Colossians and Philemon (CGT, 1957), Append. iv; E. K. Simpson and F. F. Bruce, Ephesians and Colossians, Lond. Comm. NT (1957).

See also

  • Fullness