“See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col 2.8; italics mine).
Is philosophical meandering wrong? At first glance it might appear that the apostle Paul is warning Christians to steer clear of philosophy in general. But on closer inspection I think you’ll see he’s saying something else.
A Reflective Tale…
A few years back I read a book entitled, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality by David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls. This was for a graduate level course on Christian Ethics. Besides having a huge axe to grind against the Calvinistic theological system, the two authors seemingly mocked the idea that philosophy as a whole needed to be governed by something outside itself. Instead they appear to treat biblical revelation and philosophical consideration as two separate but nearly equal, spheres of authority:
“Here we draw an important distinction. Whereas biblical authority trumps in the realm of theological norms, there are more basic philosophical processes at play that hold logical priority in the realm of basic epistemology.”[i]
In laymen’s terms. The authors seemingly believe the Bible holds the trump card when it comes to “spiritual matters” concerning God, etc., but philosophical processes play the necessary first step in determining knowledge related criteria in the real world. To show that I am not over exaggerating their intention, allow me to offer an example of their thought where they show that philosophy must serve as the necessary first step:
“The Bible is to be taken as authoritative in the realm of theological truth. But before we can rationally believe such a thing, as human being privy to general revelation and endowed with the ability to think we must weigh arguments and draw conclusions, that is, do philosophy.”
“When someone suggests that we ‘don’t need philosophy,’ either in this debate [over Calvinism vs. Arminianism] or more generally [i.e., on all other matters], their words reflect at best a huge misunderstanding…wrongly assum[ing] that we are even able to understand the Bible, let alone discern that it is ultimate revelation from God, without the capacity to think. Philosophy is, to put it most succinctly, clear thought.”[ii]
Thus, while we must give the Bible some nod of authority on our part, it is only to be done after we have—philosophically speaking—determined that this is in fact the actual case (again just to be clear this is the position of the authors, not my own). Which does what exactly? It gives the ultimate crown of authority not to the Word of God, but the word of man. For, according to such thinking, it is only after philosophical authority has recognized biblical authority that we dare attribute authority to Holy Scripture. And, who then logically has authority in this instance? God or man?
Referring to the passage (Col 2.8) quoted above (as well as a few others both biblical and non) these authors note:
“The Bible itself is sometimes thought to teach…skepticism about the value of philosophy… Any hint of even bringing philosophical analysis into the conversation is thought to be anathema, abandoning the authority of scripture [sic] to provide reliable revelation.”[iii]
I don’t think it is any stretch of the imagination to say that the authors so far quoted do not agree. It seems fairly clear that Scripture (Holy Bible) should stand on one tier and philosophy on the other, and where the two shall meet is determined by the philosophizer. But the ground of authority starts where? This is the question that Paul is answering in his letter to the Christians in Colossae.
In the opening of the letter, Paul is joyful for the believers that have faith in Christ Jesus (Col 1.4). He and those with him (e.g., Timothy; Col 1.1) “give thanks to God” (Col 1.3) unceasingly. The apostles desire is for these believers to “…be filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord [Jesus Christ], to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1.9b-10).
Paul acknowledges that what has taken place in their life is due to the Sovereign activity of God (His elective work):
“For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins…And although you were formerly aliens and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (Col 1.13-14, 21-22).
You see, in Paul’s mind Jesus is the Creator of “all things” (Col 1.16). Therefore, Christ has preeminence over all creation, which is the meaning of being firstborn (Col 1.15b), not in being created but in having supremacy over creation; including His Church (Col 1.18). For in Christ Jesus “…all things hold together” (Col 1.17), as “He is the image of the invisible God…” where the fullness of the Father indwells (Col 1.19). And it is His life alone that brought/bought reconciliation through the shedding of His blood (Col 1.20; cf. Heb 9.22).
Now when we reach the apostle’s discussion on philosophy, we should not find it difficult to follow his flow-of-thought. Having shared those truths in the first chapter of his epistle, we find him begin to build on them further. Paul is deeply concerned about their welfare as believers. He is earnest on their behalf
“…for all those who have not personally seen my face, that their hearts may be encouraged, having been knit together in love, and attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2.1b-3).
Three areas of concern…
Notice his topics of concern: 1) encouraged and knit together in love, 2) full assurance of understanding based on true knowledge, 3) found in Christ Jesus, the treasure trove of all wisdom and knowledge.
Speaking on the first, true believers are unified in Love, for this fulfills the entirety of the Law-Word of God. Not love as the world defines it, but love as that which is first found in God loving us, and then reciprocated (an outpouring of something God has put in us) to our neighbors. Love starts with God. Love is defined by God. And love cannot be true love unless this love has been instilled in the heart of the believer by God (a sovereign act; cf. 1Jn 4.10, 19).
Speaking on the second, Paul uses a concept that is somewhat foreign to much of the Evangelical world today—full assurance, which means certainty. A believer’s faith is founded upon the full assurance (i.e., certainty) of what God has done for them. True faith is one that knows God is real and is drawn to Him. You cannot draw to God as a volition of the will if you do not believe He is, and that He gives what He promises (Heb 11.6). Though we do not see Him, we are certain of who He is, and that He is ours and we are His and we have been created by Him (Heb 11.1, 3).
Speaking on the third, Paul teaches that such knowledge is hidden in and revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus is the seat of all knowledge and wisdom. This statement alludes to various wisdom passages in the Old Testament:
“For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright…” (Prov 2.6-7a; 1.7; 9.10)
And the lynch pin is this. Paul is teaching these things to these Christians for one unifying reason:
“I say this so that no one will delude you with a persuasive argument” (Col 2.4; emphasis added).
He says what? That in Christ comes the full assurance of faith, the bounds of all love, the grounds of true knowledge and understanding for all wisdom is seated in Him. All wisdom? All wisdom. What’s the love of wisdom called? Philosophy.
Should a Christian love wisdom? Depends upon the source doesn’t it? Obviously, Paul wants these Christians in Colossae to love wisdom if all knowledge and wisdom is seated in Christ. But Paul’s concern is also cautious. He wants these Christians to come to know all knowledge and wisdom, but at the same time he wants them to avoid falling into the trap of delusion (or deception) that comes by the way of persuasive arguments.
All persuasive arguments? Is the apostle telling Christians to avoid all persuasive arguments? No, for we find that he in the book of Acts uses persuasive arguments to explain and prove Christ Jesus (e.g., Acts 17.1-4). So, what is his concern?
He wants these Christians to walk in Christ just as they received Him (Col 2.7). And he warns them to not
“…be taken captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col 2.8; italics mine).
What he’s saying about Philosophy…
Philosophy is not bad, but the source from which it springs forth determines its worth. The Christian is to be governed by a philosophy that is according to Christ, not according to what men think. If we were to look at all the issues that spring forth within the Christian communities in these 1st century writings, what we would notice is that error always seeped in when man’s philosophy superseded or supplanted God’s.
In the letter to the Colossians Paul identifies a few problem areas that are driven from false philosophy. For example, “worshiping angels” (Col 2.18); “circumcision” (Col 2.11); “food and drink,” “festivals” or “Sabbaths” (Col 2.16). To these they were strongly warned not to submit to things that have the appearance of wisdom but are really of no value (Col 2.20-23). Christians are to “let the word of Christ richly dwell within you…[to] do all in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3.16, 17).
However, we mustn’t assume that these offer stringent limits on what can or cannot be done by the believer. The question over what sort of philosophy we adhere to, submit to, and reason from is a question of its origin. If it originates in the heart of man, regardless of how well it is articulated, how well it is received, or how appealing it may be to our carnal minds, we need to reject it. We need not live by it. We need not allow it to govern our thoughts or actions. We are made in God’s image to reflect Him, and so any philosophy that does not find itself drawn from Jesus Christ is nothing more than “empty deception” driven by man’s wishful thinking.
Sadly, much of Christian thought nowadays suffers from philosophizing outside the bounds of Christ, apart from His Word. This is not new. Obviously, as the text before us reveals it was something that the apostles had to wrestle with in the early Church.
Back to my earlier reflections…
As for the authors that I cited earlier. I did this for a couple of reasons. The first is related to their failure to note that what Scripture and other divines of the past warned against they arrogantly trudged forth. The second is found in their reason for doing so, they are ultimately governed by a manmade philosophy that they find personally appealing, and this is evidenced by something they noted in the fourth chapter of their work.
In an effort to show the handicap that Calvinism supposedly has when confronted with Arminianism argument for God’s morality in light of a consideration regarding the doctrine of unconditional election, they make the following statement:
“In this chapter we intend to offer a philosophical case against the Calvinistic conception of God’s unconditional election…our primary aim is to show that Calvinistic construal is philosophically weak…If our argument is successful, we will thereby provide Calvinists excellent prima facie reason to go back to the Bible….”[iv]
Sounds as if they are going to put it to the Calvinists, demonstrating their philosophical prowess at the same time devastating the Reformed doctrines ineptitude. In short, they are going to drive us back to the Bible with our tails evidently between our legs. Here’s how they plan on doing it:
“We think of our argument as unapologetically appealing to general revelation, which means that we reject the claim that philosophy can or should be ignored in the process of figuring out the answer to such questions.”
And so, Baggett and Walls true to form, in an effort to teach us nasty Calvinists to think better, do so with only one direct appeal to a single verse taken out of context (cf. 1Cor 10.13, p. 69) failing to understand our own teaching—derived from the Bible—regarding man’s enslavement to sin and inability to will towards that which would please God. Now you can have your own thoughts on the Calvinist vs. Arminian (or even traditionalist debate). That is not the point I am making. My point is that in an effort to refute a biblical teaching that we hold, they appeal to a philosophy governed not from Scriptural precepts, but personal whims.
The End of the Matter…
Our philosophy will either be according to one of two standards in terms of authority: Man’s word or God’s. the Bible plainly warns against the former, while encouraging the latter. I will leave it to the reader to think on which philosophy truly governs all aspects of their life.
[i] David Baggett and Jerry L. Walls, Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011),67, Kindle Edition.
[ii] Ibid., 68.
[iii] Ibid., 67.
[iv] Ibid., 66.
All Scripture unless otherwise noted is of the New American Standard Update (NASB).