Philosophy is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the study of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life… a discipline comprising as its core logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology” (Merriam-Webster). Some have taken a negative outlook on philosophy. It has been noted that even some secular universities are dumping their classic philosophy programs (see the show “Why are Secular Universities Closing Philosophical Programs?” on Redeeming Truth Radio found at http://www.blogtalkradio.com/pastorbrianchilton/2014/05/12/why-are-secular-universities-closing-philosophical-programs-w-j-andrew-payne). However, one’s claim that “philosophy is meaningless” is in itself a philosophical claim. But what about Christians? Some Christians have criticized the use of philosophy due to Paul’s statement against philosophy in Colossians 2:8. Yet, Christianity teaches is knowledgeable, is based on truth, defines the nature and meaning of life, holds great logic, teaches aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology. Paul himself gives lessons in most of the previously mentioned systems. So, does Paul refute himself? Or is there a problem with the way many interpret Colossians 2:8? So, the question must be asked: does Paul really criticize the use of philosophy? In this article, Paul’s statement in Colossians 2:8 will be exegetically examined and in its proper context and the article will answer whether Paul really condemns philosophy after all.
Paul writes, “Don’t let anyone capture you with empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense that come from human thinking and from the spiritual powers of this world, rather than from Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Already from the text, philosophy in and of itself is not the problem. To understand the teaching, one must examine the entire context. Paul was dealing with some problems in the church of Colossae.
Problem: Lack of Focus on Truth
Back in Colossians 1:28-29, Paul writes that his goal in the letter was to “tell others about Christ, warning everyone with all the wisdom God has given us” (Colossians 1:28). Paul was himself presenting a philosophy to the people of Colossae. Paul was proclaiming the truth of Christ and the truth (or philosophy) that comes pertaining to the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is why, Paul writes, that he “work(s) and struggle(s) so hard, depending on Christ’s mighty power that works within me” (Colossians 1:29). Therefore, Paul points the Colossians back to the historical Jesus of history and reminds them of His reality and the truth that is based upon Christ.
Problem: False Teachers
Paul’s main issue was to strengthen believers so that they would know the truth and, therefore, would not be taken by falsehood. Paul was using apologetics to show them the truth. Paul reminded them of what they knew to be true and warned them against individuals who would try to “deceive” them by using “well-crafted arguments” (Colossians 2:4). Here is the point: Paul was warning the Christians of Colossae not to be fooled and taken away by clever arguments and falsehoods. But in order to do so, they must “continue to follow him” (Colossians 2:6) and must “Let your roots grow down into him, and let you lives be built on him. Then your faith will grow strong in the truth you were taught, and you will overflow with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:6-7). Again, they must be grounded in what is real. They must be grounded in reality. Therefore, they must be grounded in truth.
Putting it All Together
When one understands the problem of false teachers and that many Christians were being led away by falsehood, one can clearly find that Paul does NOT condemn philosophy. Paul condemns bad philosophy. There are several principles that can be extracted from this passage of Scripture, but we’ll focus on just three.
First, it is necessary for the Christian to be grounded in the truth of God. This is why this writer is such an advocate for apologetics. Paul was using historical apologetics to a degree to demonstrate why the Colossian Christians had become Christians…followers of Christ…from the beginning. If Christ cannot be defended and shown to be worthy of praise and if His resurrection cannot be shown to be based upon a real, historical event; then, as Paul said, “all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless” (1 Corinthians 15:14). But if Christ has been risen, then “He is the first of a great harvest of all who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:20). That means that there really is a heaven, there really is a hell, there really is a resurrection, and there really is a time when Christ will return.
Second, it is necessary for the Christian to demonstrate the falsehoods of untruthful claims. Again, Paul uses a form of philosophical apologetics to demonstrate that empty arguments and bad philosophy does not represent the truth. If one places his or her faith in any system that leads one away from the truth, that person will slowly erode into a system of erroneous trust and hedonistic living. That is not to say that one may not have elements of truth, but holding elements of truth does not necessitate that one holds full truth. A little bit of error can lead down a pathway of huge problems.
Lastly, it is necessary to build a theological/philosophical construct on the Bible more than particular theologian/philosopher. For instance, some hold to hyper-Calvinism. Hyper-Calvinists do not represent true Calvinism. In fact, they are more Calvinistic than John Calvin himself. Hyper-Calvinists believe that God is responsible for every human action and therefore they do not take credit for their good or bad behavior. Hyper-Calvinism leads one to a life of irresponsibility. Why? Because, the person believes that God is responsible for every action and therefore is responsible for their bad decision-making. The person will not hold responsibility for his/her actions and will become much like Adam who blamed God for Adam’s own sin. Likewise, there are hyper-Arminians. Hyper-Arminians may be more in line with Pelagians than necessarily Arminius. Nonetheless, hyper-Arminians hold that a person is completely responsible for his/her choice to find God and trust God. The problem is; God is out of the picture in such a paradigm. When one holds to hyper-Arminianism, the person lessens God’s involvement and completely trusts in human decision-making. This may lead one down a path of complete human trust in his/her own decision-making and will not involve God in their plans. Likewise, such a one will not be likely to find their place in God’s sovereign plan and may not seek to depend upon the sovereign will of God. Obviously, these two examples do not represent the normal Calvinism or the normal Arminian, but you can see the point.
In the end, Paul’s teaching can be summed up in this statement: Philosophy is not bad, only bad philosophy is bad.
All Scripture, unless otherwise noted, comes from the New Living Translation, 3rd ed. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003.