Happy Friday, everyone. We’re back to talk about education. Specifically, how do we pursue education in this world without getting taken captive by the thinking of this world? It’s a question we get often from students navigating higher learning and wanting to do so with discernment, both in non-Christian and in Christian schools. James, one listener, asks it this way: “Hello, Pastor John! I’m a Christian studying philosophy at a secular university. What steps can I take to do as Colossians 2:8 says and avoid being taken ‘captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ’?”
And the question comes from Michael, as well: “Hello, Pastor John! I am about to begin my senior year as a philosophy major, and I am currently working on an Honors Thesis on Christian Compatibilism. As I have felt God lead me to study philosophy, and take great delight in what I study, I also recognize that Colossians 2:8 challenges the study of this discipline as a whole. While I esteem the word of God above all else, I also believe that the study of philosophy can be used for the church. The question that I would like to ask is, In your view, what is the role of Christian philosophy, and where should one take care in the pursuit of this discipline? Is it okay to explore possibilities, and things that Scripture does not directly deal with, as long as one does not speak with authority on these issues?” Pastor John, what would you say?
Well, thanks for the question. I was a literature major in college, but I did have a philosophy minor. So, I had enough of a taste to be able to resonate positively — because of my experience at a Christian school — with what they’re saying.
The word philosophy occurs one time in the Bible — namely, in Colossians 2:8, where it says, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental [principles] of the world, and not according to Christ.” So, let’s think about this verse for just a moment, and then we’ll step back and think about the larger task of philosophy.
Lovers of Wisdom
The word philosophy, both in English and in Greek, literally means “love [philos] of wisdom [sophia].” It means thinking about the great issues of life: What is ultimate reality? How can you know it? What’s right and wrong? What’s the good life? In and of itself, therefore, one would, I think, be inclined to say, Who could find fault with that — loving wisdom? Well, of course we should love wisdom and pursue it with all our might.
In fact, this book of Colossians is filled with positive references to wisdom:
- Paul prays “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom” (Colossians 1:9).
- Paul says that he teaches “everyone with all wisdom” (Colossians 1:28).
- “In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom” (Colossians 2:3).
- Paul tells us to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom” (Colossians 3:16).
- “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5).
“Treasure Christ’s fullness as the ground and goal and access to all true wisdom.”
My goodness. It seems to me that in view of all that — just in Colossians, I mean, not to mention all the other places in the Bible — it would be a sin not to love wisdom, not to be a philosopher in that sense: a wisdom lover. So, if you just take the word philosophy, “love of wisdom,” by itself it would surely be a good thing.
But Colossians 2:8 says it’s not a good thing. Why not? Paul says four things about philosophy in Colossians 2:8, and let’s look at them to see what the problem is here.
First, he says it is “empty deceit.” Deceit means that it pretends to offer a fullness but is in fact empty. It pretends to be full of what would make the good life and bring us lasting satisfaction and finally get us to eternal happiness — and none of it is real. It proves to be totally empty and leaves us miserable in the end. That’s the first thing he says about this so-called “philosophy” that he’s worried about in Colossae: “empty deceit.”
Second, it is “according to human tradition”. In other words, it has no true warrant from God. It’s coming out of human heads rather than from God’s mind. It’s mere human thinking, not dependent on God’s thinking. Of course — and this is the really interesting part about philosophy — aspects of human thinking can parallel or overlap with God’s revelation of his own thinking in Scripture and in the world.
But what Paul means is that this teaching doesn’t carry in it any built-in submission to God’s thinking. Therefore, it is fundamentally flawed — not because it may not have some overlap with truth, but because, at its root, it doesn’t care about conforming to God’s truth. And therefore, even in those places where it may parallel some divine truth, it has the aroma of error because it doesn’t love that truth as coming from God and conforming to God and glorifying God. That’s the second thing he says: “human tradition.”
Third, Paul says this so-called philosophy is “according to the elemental principles of the world.” Now, later in the chapter, Paul explains what he means by “elemental principles.” He says in Colossians 2:20–23,
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations [these are, I think, the names of the elemental principles] — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” . . . according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
“This ascetic rule-keeping, this philosophy, was feeding the sin of pride rather than subduing the power of sin.”
Virtually every philosophy points to a way to live that it considers wise or profitable — the path to greatest meaning, greatest satisfaction. And in the case of this philosophy threatening the church in Colossae, the way to live in this philosophy was summed up in certain ascetic elements and rules — “elemental principles,” they call them — so that through severity to the body one might find a pathway to illumination and to the good life and the approval of angels. And it was backfiring because this ascetic rule-keeping, this philosophy, was feeding the sin of pride rather than subduing the power of sin.
Not According to Christ
And the fourth thing he says about this philosophy is that it is “not according to Christ,” which is the fundamental issue for him. He says in Colossians 2:19, “not holding fast to the Head, from whom” everything is coming.
So, let’s step back now and ask, How can the study of philosophy — the history of the love of wisdom as humans have tried to see it — how can this study be made truly profitable rather than a snare like it was at Colossae? And I think the central answer in the book of Colossians is this: If you want to measure all philosophy rightly, and thus profit from what God has revealed — by special revelation in his word and general revelation from the writings of the influential thinkers in history — then
- know Jesus Christ as he is pervasively and profoundly revealed in Scripture,
- treasure his fullness as the ground and goal and access to all true wisdom, and
- live in a way that shows in your life how this wisdom defeats pride and sin and exalts Christ.
I say it that way, with those three criteria of good philosophy — knowing Christ as supreme, treasuring Christ as supreme, showing Christ as supreme in your life — because of these texts in Colossians:
- “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15–16). In other words, he is the ground and the goal of everything, all true philosophy.
- Be “rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Colossians 2:7). All true life flows from him as root and foundation.
- Do your thinking “according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8). Let all thought, all affection, all action accord with Christ and all that can be known about Christ.
- “[Hold] fast to [Christ as] the Head” — that is, hold fast to him as the all-supplying one (Colossians 2:19). His redemption makes all knowledge and all the enjoyment of all that is good possible for forgiven sinners.
- “In [him] are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).
All the Treasures of Wisdom
Whatever is valuable in any truth found anywhere is the way it points to Christ. Let me say that again, because that’s a little complex. Whatever is valuable in any truth found anywhere, whatever that value is, is this: it’s the way that truth points to Christ and helps us know him and treasure him and show him. That’s the truth. That’s what’s found in him.
There are very few scholars in the world who are willing and able to pursue wisdom — that is, do philosophy — in this Christ-saturated, Christ-treasuring, Christ-showing, Christ-exalting way. But if you can, if God gives you the grace to do that, do it.