Christians sometimes look at philosophy with skepticism. Given some of the modern philosophies and recent history, that skepticism makes sense. The Apostle Paul after all does warn against falling prey to “philosophy and empty deceit” (Col 2:8).
Traditionally, however, philosophy (often) aimed to describe the world. It overlapped with medicine, physics, and ethics. It was a more totalizing thing, something that described how someone lived their entire life. In Paul’s day, that would have been the general way philosophy was understood. And in Antioch where Paul lived, philosophers would preach in the open spaces to persuade people to certain ways of life.
So one does not have to reach too far to understand what Paul means in Colossians 2:8. He does not want Christians to dedicate themselves to a way of life according to the tradition of men (κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπω) but rather to a way of life according to Christ (κατὰ Χριστόν). Paul did not here mean to dismiss mathematics, medicine, ethics, astronomy, and much more besides, which were all topics of ancient philosophy. He meant to warn people against a totalizing acceptance of philosophy (a way of living) that did not accord with Christ.
Here is an illustration that may help clarify the point. Today, children learn letters, grammar, and writing in school. Each of these disciplines are created arts to help us learn about the world. We learn how letters spell words; how words are formed and connect to point to ideas (grammar and syntax); and how words placed side-by-side can communicate ideas (writing). We need to use these arts to communicate ideas.
Philosophically, at least classically conceived, then would stand alongside these liberal arts to further describe reality. This is why medicine, math, astronomy, ethics, and the rest often went under the name philosophy. Philosophy was not until recent years a specific ideological school of thought that aimed to contribute or deconstruct. Obviously, schools of philosophy had their traditions. But the ancient world had a much more porous understanding of philosophy than we do, as we squish into a particular university setting.
Today, we tend to trust medical doctors and surgeons because they both can describe reality (your arm is broken) and skillfully work within reality (put on a cast on our arm). We trust physicists, astronomers, and others to make true observations about the world. Sometimes, interestingly, physicists act like ancient philosophers in that they aim to describe the real mechanics of the universe on the basis of observation even if they cannot see certain elements of reality (quantum physics).
As might now become more clear, what I described above could have fit into ancient philosophy. What may be surprising is that ancient philosophy did what we call theology too, at least in some respects. Many thinkers wondered about how the world worked and surmised that some divine being must be behind it. The way that many religions describe divinity often correlates to what the Bible says of God. It seems to prove what Paul says in Romans 1:20: “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Yet this merely leaves people “without excuse” since they exchange what is clear in creation for idols.
Added to this, while everyone can know God’s invisible attributes (creator, simple, all-powerful), no one can know who God is apart from Revelation. In Christ, God has made himself known to the world. As creatures in God’s creation, we proclaim the invisible God by proclaiming God-made-visible, Jesus Christ.
All that to say, philosophy is not bad. It is (often) the study of what is real. Bad people use philosophy just as bad doctors use medicine or bad drivers use cars. And as Paul warns, we should not fall prey to philosophy that accords with human tradition, but we should follow a philosophy (way of life) that accords with Christ.
For this reason, at least broadly speaking, many of the earliest Christians understood themselves to be philosophers. Paul himself imitated the philosophers of his day in Greek cities by reasoning in the marketplace and proclaiming God publicly (e.g,. Acts 17:17). So it is not a bad way to think about it.
Perhaps if we re-embraced the designation philosopher, we would find ourselves able to articulate our total way of life under the law of Christ better. Whatever the case, philosophy is a way of life that aims to live according to what is true. (I know that I am being overly basic here since there is much diversity even in the ancient world). It is not bad. It just is what it is.
And as Paul tells us, we need to be wary of embracing any philosophy that is full of empty conceit according to the tradition of man; we must embrace a philosophy that accords with Christ.