Being a philosophy major, I’m highly interested in… philosophy! There’s a certain verse in the Bible that troubles some people and makes them weary of philosophy if interpreted wrongly, so I thought I’d write an essay on it in a format that I based on one of my pastors seminary papers. Enjoy.
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosphy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. Colossians 2:8 (ESV)
Literary-Historical Context– Jesus had ascended back into Heaven, commanding the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). Since then the apostles had been evangelizing and spreading the good news of the Gospel throughout the region, setting up churches and eventually preaching the Gospel to the Gentiles. Paul, a Pharisee who was violently opposed to The Way, encountered Christ in a vision and became one of His most loyal apostles, traveling to cities all over the known world and preaching the Gospel to the pagan gentiles. He was eventually arrested and imprisoned in Rome where he remained until his death, probably martyred during Nero’s persecution. The church in Colossae was probably started during Paul’s two year ministry in Ephesus. A native of Colossae named Epaphras may have heard Paul’s message in Ephesus and, after giving his life to Christ, returned to Colossae to start a church. Over time there was a dangerous teaching that was harming the church. Epaphras, in response to these teachings that devalue Christ, goes to Rome and shared the news of the dangerous teachings threatening the church. This results in Paul writing this letter (epistle) to the Colossians as a response to the teachings found in the city; they are hollow and deceitful philosophies and only in Christ should they be rooted in.
Placement and Function- Verse 2:8 is set after Paul espouses the supremacy and divinity of Christ. Be “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (2:7). He builds them up by proclaiming not only that Christ is sufficient, but is the source of true knowledge and wisdom. The biggest question the ancient philosophers were asking at the time is what holds all things together. What gives the universe unity in all of this diversity? Paul says that Christ is “before all things, and in him all things hold together,” (1:17). The Colossians were once “alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds,” (1:21) but Christ has reconciled them so that He can present them “holy and blameless and above reproach,” (1:22). However, he follows that with “if indeed you continue in the faith,” (1:23 emphasis mine). Outside forces were threatening to pluck them out of God’s grace, so Paul warns them not to be deluded by “plausible arguments,” (2:4). So after exalting Christ and warning the Colossians, Paul tells the Colossians not to be taken captive by these philosophies and empty deceits, because they are “according to human tradition” and “the elemental spirits of the world” rather than according to Christ, where true knowledge and wisdom lie (2:8). Why? He stresses again, using repetition to make his point, the deity of Christ, his authority, and the salvation he brought to them. Philosophy isn’t intrinsically evil, afterall, “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps. 24:1, 1 Cor. 10:26), but it needs to be redeemed just like everything else in creation. Philosophy that does not lead to or find its source in Christ is empty and deceitful.