Does this passage mean we should have nothing to do with philosophy?
As is often the case in this series, this verse is not necessarily all that difficult, but it is routinely abused and misused by many Christians. And since my last article on this website was on Christianity and philosophy (and it has had a rather underwhelming response thus far), it may be time to deal with this text.
Here I will seek to do two things: provide some sort of explanation as to what exactly Paul is seeking to warn against here, and look a bit more at the relationship between Christianity and philosophy. As to the verse in question, it reads as follows: “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”
The fuller context (verses 6-10) is this:
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.
As is so often the case, we are not always completely certain as to who Paul’s opponents were, or what exactly it was that they were teaching. And we must bear in mind that this is the only time we find the word “philosophy” in the Bible.
But we must nonetheless try to get a handle on what Paul is referring to here – we need to try to identify the opponents he is refuting in this letter. Paul refers to these false teachers as those who are undermining the work of Christ and are pushing man-made beliefs and practices – be they Jewish or pagan, or a combination of the two.
Whatever the exact false teaching they are promoting, Paul wants the Colossians to let it go and return to the finality of Christ and his work at Calvary. This is the “philosophy” he is rejecting here, not the ‘love of wisdom’ (which is what the word means) as a whole.
New Testament scholars seem unanimous on this. All of the dozen commentaries on Colossians that I pulled off my shelves concur on this point. Let me offer a few representative comments. G. K. Beale sets the stage here: “Commentators agree that Paul is not condemning all ‘philosophy’ but only that which does not base itself on and line up with this faithful teaching.”
Douglas Moo puts it this way: “It becomes quite clear that Paul has no intention of criticizing ‘philosophy’ as such, but only the kind of philosophy being propagated by the Colossian false teachers. Our use of the word ‘philosophy’ is narrower than was the case in Paul’s day, when it could be applied to virtually any system of thought.”
David Garland remarks: “Paul does not disparage critical thinking or the rational investigation of the truths and principles of being, knowledge, or conduct, as long as it conforms to Christ. Consequently, we put references to the Colossian ‘philosophy’ in quotation marks in an attempt to distinguish it from the discipline of philosophy.”
One last comment, this time from F. F. Bruce: “Paul does not condemn philosophy as such, but a philosophy of this kind – one which seduces believers from the simplicity of their faith in Christ.” Many more such quotes could be offered here. But you hopefully get the point: the love of wisdom is not under attack here by Paul, but a particular, specific false teaching.
Christianity and philosophy
As mentioned, I yesterday penned a piece on this issue: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2019/10/20/philosophy-a-guide-for-christians/
It is worth looking at it a bit further. Christians have long debated the value of secular philosophy. The early church fathers had differing views on this. Some were quite opposed to Christians getting involved with it. Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240) for example had come from a pagan background in which he had imbibed stoic philosophy, and when he became a Christian, he rejected all that. He famously said this:
What has Jerusalem to do with Athens, the Church with the Academy, the Christian with the heretic? Our principles come from the Porch of Solomon, who had himself taught the Lord is to be sought in simplicity of heart. I have no use for a Stoic or a Platonic or a dialectic Christianity. After Jesus Christ we have no need of speculation, after the Gospel no need of research.
Others, like Justin Martyr (c. 100 – c. 165), embraced much of what the philosophers had to offer, and felt that the basic principle believers should run with can be stated as follows: ‘all truth is God’s truth.’ Indeed, he called Christianity “the true philosophy.” He wrote:
I boast and strive with all my strength to be found a Christian. Not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not totally identical. The same applies to the Stoics, poets and historians. For each man spoke well, in proportion to the share that he has of the seminal Word, seeing what was related to it. Whatever things were rightly said by any man, belong to us Christians. For those writers were able to see reality darkly, through the seed of the Word implanted within them.
And Clement of Alexandria (c. 150 – c. 215), put it this way:
Since therefore, truth is one (for falsehood has ten thousand by-paths); just as the Bacchantes tore asunder the limbs of Pentheus, so the sects both of barbarian and Hellenic philosophy have done with truth, and each vaunts as the whole truth the portion which has fallen to its lot. But all, in my opinion, are illuminated by the dawn of Light. Let all, therefore, both Greeks and barbarians, who have aspired after the truth,—both those who possess not a little, and those who have any portion,—produce whatever they have of the word of truth.
But let me seek to define what it is that we are talking about here. And I must point out that philosophy is not just some dry, dusty and arcane field of study for eggheads only. It actually impacts all of us – or at least it should. As DeWeese and Moreland explain:
Philosophy is thinking critically about questions that matter. Conceived this way, philosophy is something everyone does. Everyone has beliefs about what is real, what is valuable and how we come to know such things. For most people, such fundamental beliefs are largely unexamined and perhaps even mutually inconsistent, but in forming such beliefs and acting on them, everyone is doing philosophy.
And it certainly has a direct bearing on Christian thought and experience. As Craig and Moreland state:
The term philosophy means love of wisdom, and philosophy is an attempt to think rationally and critically about life’s most important questions. . . . From a Christian perspective, philosophy can be an aid to apologetics, polemics and systematic theology. Further, work in philosophy can be a central expression of the image of God and can be a spiritual discipline. Finally, philosophy can help to extend biblical teaching to areas not explicitly mentioned in Scripture, it can enhance the self-image of the believing community, and it can aid in the task of integrating theology with other disciplines in forming a Christian worldview.
Two things already mentioned need to be repeated and emphasised here: philosophy is simply the love of wisdom, and all truth is God’s truth. Thus if a non-Christian seeks wisdom and truth, he may well find some. And if he does, Christians should have no problems running with it. As to the latter, see more on this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/09/10/all-truth-is-gods-truth-living-in-a-fallen-world/
Christian philosophy professor Arthur Holmes (1924 – 2011), who taught at Wheaton College in Chicago for over four decades (and who I studied under and befriended), wrote an entire book on this back in 1977. In it he wrote:
The early church claimed that all truth is God’s truth wherever it is found. . . . To say that all truth is God’s truth, moreover, does not mean that all truth is either contained in the Bible or deductible from what we find there. Historic Christianity has believed in the truthfulness of Scripture, yet not as an exhaustive revelation of everything men can know or want to know as true, but rather as a sufficient rule for faith and conduct. Human knowledge in mathematics and science has arisen from other sources than Biblical teachings. Historical and philosophical knowledge overlap here and there with Biblical knowledge: but there is no Biblical history of modern Europe nor any Biblical theory of sense perception, to cite two obvious examples. . . . All truth, no matter where it be found or by whom it be discovered is still God’s truth.
Catholic philosophy professor Peter Kreeft (b. 1937), offers this by way of an introduction to philosophy:
A sage is a lover of wisdom. A saint is a lover of God and man. Being a sage is the second best thing we could possibly be, next to being a saint. “Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom” or “friendship” (philia) with wisdom (sophia). That is the essence of philosophy, that is its correct definition, that is what its inventor designed it to be….
[Philosophy] loves truth. It loves a certain kind of truth called “wisdom”. Wisdom is more than knowledge. Knowing all the facts in a library does not make you wise. Wisdom is a knowledge not just of facts but of values, of what is humanly important; and it is a knowledge that is lived, that is learned by experience and lived out in experience. Knowledge, like religion, is common. Wisdom, like saintliness, is rare.
And one last quick word on the importance of seeking after wisdom by the great medieval philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274): “Of all human pursuits, the pursuit of wisdom is the more perfect, the more sublime, the more useful, and the more agreeable.” One simply has to read the book of Proverbs to see how vital this is.
James Packer put it this way in Knowing God, “In Scripture wisdom is a moral as well as an intellectual quality, more than mere intelligence or knowledge, just as it is more than mere cleverness or cunning. For us to be truly wise, in the Bible sense, our intelligence and cleverness must be harnessed to a right end. Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it.”
As I said in my earlier piece, many of the great Western philosophers have also been great Christian theologians. As philosophy professor Thomas Morris puts it, “Most of the great philosophers in Western civilization have been people who believed in God. And a number of the most influential proponents of a religious world view throughout history have been recognized as great philosophers.”
So there is no need for Christians to have some sort of built-in fear or rejection of philosophy. Yes it must be approached critically – but that is true of everything in life. If you need car repairs, you do some investigation first and ensure that you get a reliable and dependable car mechanic.
In the area of truth claims we are to do the same. We must test all truth claims, assessing their validity, coherence, and how they stack up with reality. Of course we are not left alone in this endeavour, as the God of all truth has revealed himself to us, and given us his reliable and trustworthy Word.
With this in mind, Christians need not fear the truth when it is found on the lips of non-believers. If a resolute atheist states that 2+2=4, he is speaking the truth, and we can agree with it. If pagan philosophers like Aristotle or Plato speak truth in various areas, we can agree with it. Sure, if they speak lies or errors, we reject those or seek to correct them.
The infallible Word of God stands above and judges all human thoughts, pronouncements and claims. That is true even of Christian claims: none of us believers have all the truth. Just as non-Christians can at times utter the truth, at times Christians can utter falsehoods.
So everything must be brought under God and his revealed Word, and seen and assessed in that light. A Christian should have no problems with a non-Christian who speaks truth – indeed, such truth should be welcomed. But all that anyone says and does must always fall under the truth of divine revelation.