HOW DOES PAUL’S ARGUMENT IN COLOSSIANS RELATE TO PHILOSOPHY?
Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. (Col. 2:8)
Every time one verse or passage becomes the center of a large discussion, it is imperative to ask about the relationship of that passage to the wider context. In other words, was Paul’s primary concern with philosophy? If his primary concern was not the philosophical questions, what relevance does the warning about philosophy have in his overall purpose in writing to the Colossians?
The short answer is that Paul’s overall argument in Colossians is not the philosophical one, but is the supremacy, centrality, and sufficiency of Christ especially in relation to the believer (Col. 1:18; Col. 2:9; Col. 3:11). E. C. Caldwell expressed this key theme as the “perfect sufficiency of Christ for every human need.”1 Earlier, Nicholas Byfield described Colossians as, “an excellent epitome of the doctrine expressed in the rest of the books of the Old and New Testament.”2 Related to that key theme, William Hendricksen describes Paul’s theme of the all-sufficient Christ as the object of believers’ faith, and as the source of believers’ lives.3
While not Paul’s overall argument in Colossians, the centrality of Christ and the believers’ union with Christ are connected to the philosophical question. If philosophy is simply another way of seeking to answer man’s ultimate questions, then Christ, who is the source of all wisdom and knowledge, will answer those questions. It is only through union with Christ that believers can know and understand this, and have it impact all of their life. Therefore, Christ must become supreme over the false philosophies in a Christian’s life.4
In relation to the content of this article, Paul is exhorting the Colossians to not be deceived by the philosophies of the day that have vain deceit as their source and subject matter.5 He does not want them to fall into the danger of proud, heady thinking that relies on speculation rather than knowledge, nor the dangers of legalistic asceticism or boundless sensuality.6 “They cannot synchronize their own beliefs and traditions with Christ; they cannot listen to Satan’s vain philosophies and maintain the purity of the gospel.”7
Rather than any syncretism, Paul wants the Colossians to experience the treasure that is in Christ. True treasures of spiritual wisdom can only be found in Christ, and to be deceived concerning spiritual wisdom will only produce problematic Christian living.8 While the Colossians were struggling with looking elsewhere for their spiritual treasures, it is the universal sin to displace Christ, and therefore Paul’s admonition anticipates the tendencies of all times and all people.9 Still today, in spite of (or because of) all scientific advance, this treasure of Christ as the treasure of wisdom and the answer to the traditional philosophical questions, is necessary for all people.10
There may be those who believe that binding philosophy to Christ is over-reaching and is something that ought not to be done. A Christo-centric philosophy? No way! But Christ and philosophy do go together. Yes, Christ is over all things, including the love of wisdom. While this may seem untraditional, the full scope of Christ’s supremacy needs to be grappled with. The skeptic may wonder: “Are we to assert that all things whatsoever are to be determined by Him; all nature, all history, all revelation, all redemption, have as their ultimate purpose His honor and His exaltation? Are we to say that the universe is to be reconstructed with Him as its center, the principle of its unity, and its goal?”11 We are. It is after the warning of vain and human philosophies (Col. 2:8) that Paul states, “In (Christ) dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power” (Col. 2:9–10).
Therefore, even philosophy must be understood with Christ as its center, its unity, and its goal. While Paul did not explicitly build answers in response to the philosophical questions, it is the intent of future articles in this column to try to derive answers from Paul’s writing to the Colossians.
- Eugene C. Caldwell, “The Fulness of Christ,” in Princeton Theological Review 16, no. 4 (1918): 558. ↩
- Nicholas Byfield, An Exposition upon the Epistle to the Colossians (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1869), 1. ↩
- William Hendriksen, Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1964), 40. ↩
- Caldwell, “Fulness of Christ,” 567. ↩
- S. Lewis Johnson, Jr., “Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians VI. Beware of Philosophy” in Bibliotheca Sacra 119, no. 461 (Fall 1962): 307–8. ↩
- W. H. Griffith Thomas, Christ Pre-Eminent: Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians (Chicago: Bible Institute Colportage, 1923), 8. ↩
- John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians, trans. John Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 133. ↩
- Johnson, “Beware of Philosophy,” 304. ↩
- W. R. Nicholson, Popular Studies in Colossians: Oneness with Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1951), 19–20. ↩
- Johnson, “Beware of Philosophy,” 304. ↩
- Caldwell, “Fulness of Christ,” 563. ↩
This article was originally published in the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, May/June 2016. Posted here with permission.