When Paul warned the Colossians of philosophy (Col 2:8), did he forbid Christians from practising philosophy? That conclusion would complicate things for Christians since philosophy in Paul’s time included the right practice of running a city, judging legal cases, mathematics, as well as metaphysical questions like the essence of God.
So what does Paul mean here exactly? To answer that question, we must consider four things.
Consider all of Paul’s words
Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col 2:8). In this verse, Paul uses the aggressive words “to take captive” and “empty deceit” to highlight the particular notions that he aims to communicate. The philosophy that warns of takes captive and contains empty deceit. Hence, it aggressively draws people without truth.
And he continues. This kind of philosophy accords with two further realities: human tradition and elemental spirits of the world. Hence, the aggressive, deceitful philosophy has its source in elemental spirits.
Consider the surrounding verses
According to Paul, Christ has hidden himself all wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (Col 2:3). For this reason, we can resist “plausible arguments” (Col 2:4). Hence, we receive Christ and grow in him (Col 2:6–7). The danger here, then, is that we might get taken captive by plausible arguments in which wisdom derives from elemental spirits (Col 2:8). But we need to grow in wisdom through Christ.
And rightly so. In Christ, the fullness of deity dwells (Col 2:9) and we become filled in Christ (that is, in Christ in whom deity dwells!).
When we consider the surrounding context, it seems clear that Paul’s words target a specific notion. Paul discredits a kind of philosophy that that derives from elemental spirits. Christ grows us truly. At this stage, we should zoom out from the text and consider how words point to specific notions to help clarify further what Paul means by philosophy.
Consider how words point to notions
Words are signs that signify something else. A stop sign tells incoming cars: stop moving! The red colour with the four letters s.t.o.p. signifies that cars must stop when they approach the sign. The word stop in the context of a stop-sign means the notion: stop driving.
Depending on intent, context, or accident, the word stop can point to other notions too. For example, we may stop by the store on the way home, which means to go shopping. We may have a few stops to make en route to a cottage, which means seeing friends or doing chores.
Grasping the idea of words and notions (or how words point to ideas) helps us make sense of almost everything, including Scripture. Take this example. Jesus says, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father’” because we have one Father (Matt 23:9). Yet Paul claims that Abraham “is the father of us all” (Rom 4:16).
Actually, Jesus says more here. He also forbids calling someone a Rabbi since we have one teacher (Matt 23:8); nor should we call ourselves “instructors” (Matt 23:10) because we have one instructor who is Christ. Yet God gives teachers to the church as spiritual gifts! And we are called to instruct people in the ways of God.
So what’s happening here? Well, we may narrowly define the words father, teacher, and instructor to mean only one thing: namely, that we totally avoid using those words (what will we call our fathers—dads?). But this wrongly understands the relationship between Jesus’s words and the ideas that they point to.
The Lord here is making a point that God ultimately, primarily, and above all is our Father, Teacher, and Instructor. Any copy on earth derives from him. In a similar manner, Jesus tells the rich young ruler, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18). But Jesus is good. And so, in a relative way, are other people (like Moses or Abraham). Jesus here makes a point that God alone is the source, the primary goodness above all else. Compared to him, no one is good, not even one person.
So when Paul says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy,” we have to ask, “what does Paul mean to communicate here?” To answer that question, we need to consider Paul’s communicative intent as well the ideas contained in his words in general.
Consider the ideas
Philosophy means the love of learning. Lawmakers practice jurisprudence, a subset of philosophy, to distinguish legal rights from legal wrongs. Politicians study politics, a subset of philosophy, to discern how to manage a city, county, and country. Philosophy points to learning how to live well and think well.
In this sense, mathematics and logic fall under philosophy. They both attempt to make sense of immaterial properties that explain both immaterial and material things. Even science, despite modern moves to the contrary, forms a kind of practical philosophy that aims to describe and to categorize the world.
Today, most people, however, think of philosophy as reasoning. I do not mind that. It is the love of reasoning to discover the truth. It asks questions like, “How does time work” or “why does everything change or at least seem to”?
It can further provide categories for thought as in logic. The law of non-contradiction teaches us that we can be both one thing and another thing at the same time and in the same way. Causal explanations (formal, material, efficient, and final) give us all sorts of language to describe how something actually is. Eyes are designed to see. So they have a final cause (to see). They have an efficient cause since God created them. And so on.
With these sorts of definitions, Paul could be described as a philosopher! And yet we know that any good thing or purpose can be turned to sin.
Christ is our wisdom whom we love. He is the Word through whom the Father brought all things into being. So all the treasures of wisdom are in him, our Wisdom, because he encoded wisdom in creation by creating according to his wise nature.
So the pursuit of wisdom (philosophy) rightly pursues God and his creation. Yet apart from grace, this pursuit never reaches its goal. All good works apart from grace only represent partial goods or corrupted good actions because of sin. We do not desire to do good for the love of God, but the love of self (for example). Hence, the action itself mimics good but really falls into the category of missing the mark, of sin.
So Aristotle may rightly discuss courage, and we can learn much from him. But he cannot root courage in the triune God and fully understand what it means. So Aristotle’s courage may teach us how to reason about courage, how to define it, and how to relate it to other virtues; but only revelation can perfect that virtue.
Therefore, we should conclude that Paul forbids empty philosophy that has its root in elemental spirits. He does not forbid the pursuit of wisdom. In this sense, we should all be lovers of wisdom—philosophers. But we must know the dangers, the limits, and the need for gracious revelation to perfect our knowledge.
Apart from that, virtue always gets vitiated, goodness always corrupted. Grace perfects nature; not obliterates it. Grace brings nature to its goal. We become who we were created to be in the new creation.
So pursue philosophy in Christ. And Love (philo) Christ (sophia). That is the truest philosophy possible.