I was sure that this should be understood as a blanket statement in opposition to all philosophy. As a Christian, it was in my best interest to not entertain even the slightest notion of philosophical pining so that I would never present an opportunity to be taken captive by such ridiculous teaching. Therefore, anything and everything that could be described as philosophy made me tense, agitated, and defensive.
I saw it as a great indignation against God’s edict to even be interested in philosophy, much less elect to study it! With a deep thinking, historical romanticist, societal humanist, and fundamental Biblicist as a fiancé, I was forced to think about my interpretation of Colossians 2:8 more thoroughly. At first, the conversations were oriented around me attempting to convince her of philosophy’s inherent evilness.
Then, the conversations were oriented around me boiling in a rage of my own ignorance as she would methodically provide example after example of philosophical propositions that aligned quite nicely with Scriptural teachings in an attempt to show me that where there is consistency between Scripture and secular teaching, there is evidence for divine truth existing outside of God’s special revelation.
This, she argued, is cause to believe that God, through the mechanism of man’s ability to reason, is able to reveal himself and portions of his truth outside of the biblical canon. Come to find out, my wife wasn’t the only one with this kind of intuitive reasoning. A 2nd century church father by the name of Justin Martyr, one of the most influential apologists of his time, made a similar argument in his seminal work First Apology. Specifically, in chapter XX, he argues,
"For while we say that all things have been produced and arranged into a world by God, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of Plato; and while we say that there will be a burning up of all, we shall seem to utter the doctrine of the Stoics: and while we affirm that the souls of the wicked, being endowed with sensation even after death, are punished, and that those of the good being delivered from punishment spend a blessed existence, we shall seem to say the same things as the poets and philosophers…"[i]
The next two chapters continue this argument pointing out that with each of the fundamental Christian doctrines there are similar truths, while limited and imperfect, reflected in much of the most celebrated Greek philosophy.
Whether or not you agree with my wife’s (and one of the most brilliant church father’s) line of reasoning is irrelevant to the very pointed fact that I needed to reassess how I understood Paul’s exhortation in Colossians 2:8. If there can be found even one statement within the collective works of the philosophers of Paul’s day and age that corresponds congruently with a teaching of Scripture, then Paul could not be making a blanket statement against all philosophy, especially as he describes such philosophy as “vain deceit”.
Furthermore, Paul himself had some familiarity with Greek philosophy so much so that he was able to recite the poetry of their own philosophers to them on Mars Hill to the advantage of explaining the nature and character of our God.[ii] So with only those two simple inconsistencies, I began to see that I needed to do my homework in regards to this verse if I was to have a healthy and biblically informed view of philosophy.
I don’t want to belabor this point too much, but I feel the need to set any reader at ease that might have the same disposition toward philosophy that I once did. In looking at Colossians 2:8, we see the one and only place in all of the New Testament that uses this word, philosophy. It’s a conjunction of two words, phileo and sophia. It literally means “love of wisdom”.[iii] But what kind of philosophy is Paul talking about? The Greek actually presents a definite article in front of the word “philosophy” which denotes that Paul is talking about one specific philosophy in particular.[iv]
Paul also describes the philosophy as empty deceit and says that it originates in human tradition and elemental spirits, both of which are in contrast to Christ. What we can certainly ascertain from the text is that this particular philosophy to which Paul is referring is deceptive and contrary to the true gospel of Christ and is based in human tradition and the elemental spirits of the world.
That provides us a number of distinctions about such a philosophy that would have the capability of causing Christians to veer away from the true gospel. Knowing that the philosophy is explicitly contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ instantly exonerates any and all philosophies that are neutral in areas concerning Christ. In order for the philosophy to match the one being admonished by Paul, it would have to explicitly teach contrary to the gospel. Now, this could be a number of different philosophies that were prevalent in 1st century Rome, but the point is that it cannot be all of philosophy.[v]
Much, if not most, of philosophy is theistically neutral. The philosophy in and of itself proposes no premise, assumes no presupposition, or necessitates no conclusion that is intrinsically contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Again, there were a number of 1st century philosophies present in the Roman culture that did explicitly teach contrary to Scripture. But the fact of the matter is that a universal rejection of all philosophy is in no way the intention of Paul’s warning.
Therefore, it is an inaccurate understanding of philosophy that leads Christians to equate it with heresy and false teaching. Yes, there are many philosophers who are not Christians, some of which aggressively oppose Christianity. However, this does not mean that the particular philosophy of which they are proponents is inherently antithetical to Christian proclamations.
We, as Christians in a world saturated with other worldviews and other philosophical influences, ought to hold ourselves to a higher responsibility. We ought to understand the viewpoints of the people we are trying to reach and be willing to engage with philosophy, not only to better understand others, but also to better understand ourselves.
[i] Schaff, Philip, and David Schley Schaff. History of the Christian Church. Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910. Print.
[ii] Acts 17:22-31
[iii] Vincent, Marvin Richardson. Word Studies in the New Testament. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887. Print.
[iv] Longman, Tremper, III, and David E. Garland, eds. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition). Vol. 12. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006. Print.
[v] Given the historical and cultural context of Colossae in the 1st century, the philosophy (if we understand the definite article to be indicating only one to which Paul was speaking) was more than likely either Platonism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Sophism, Cynicism, Cyrenaics, Docetism, or Gnosticism. Additionally, narrowing down the philosophy that seemed most aggressive against the gospel and the philosophy that was responded to directly by the apostle John, Gnosticism seems to be the most reasonable option.