“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” That’s a popular postmortem for a plan that has gone horribly wrong. In fact, well-intentioned ideas are behind almost every financial shipwreck, abandoned project, and foreign policy failure that happens in this world. And yet the quest for better ideas and fool-proof philosophies continues unabated — even making incursions into the church.
Our English word “philosophy” is a transliteration of the Greek word philosophia, which literally means “the love of human wisdom.” In its broad sense it is man’s attempt to explain the nature of the universe, including the phenomena of existence, thought, ethics, behavior, aesthetics, and so on.
In Paul’s time “everything that had to do with theories about God and the world and the meaning of human life was called ‘philosophy’ … not only in the pagan schools but also in the Jewish schools of the Greek cities.” The first-century Jewish historian Josephus adds that there were three philosophies among the Jews: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.
Paul strongly condemned any philosophical theory about God that professed to show the cause of the world’s existence and to offer moral direction apart from divine revelation. In Colossians 2:8–10 he says:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority.
The phrase “takes you captive” (Colossians 2:8) comes from the Greek word sulagōgeō, which referred to carrying off captives or other spoils of war. In that sense it conveyed the idea of a kidnapping. It pictures the way the Christ-plus-philosophy heresy was abducting the Colossians from truth into the slavery of error. Thus the apostle portrayed philosophy as a predator that seeks to enslave undiscerning Christians in “vain deceit” (Colossians 2:8, KJV).
“Vain” speaks of something empty, devoid of truth, futile, fruitless, and without effect. Philosophy claims to be true but is utterly deceitful, like a fisherman who captures his unwitting prey by concealing a deadly hook within a tasty morsel of food. The fish thinks it’s getting a meal, but becomes one instead. Similarly, those who embrace a human philosophy about God or man might think they’re getting truth, but instead they get empty deception, which can lead to eternal damnation.
Philosophy is useless because it’s grounded in “the tradition of men” and “the elementary principles of the world” (Colossians 2:8) rather than in Christ. “The tradition of men” refers to human speculations passed on from generation to generation. Most philosophers stack their teachings on the pile of their predecessors’ teachings. One will develop a thought so far, then another develops it further, and on it goes. It’s a series of variations within the flow of human tradition that only perpetuates error and compounds ignorance.
The phrase “elementary principles of the world” literally means “things in a column” or “things in a row” (such as 1, 2, 3, or A, B, C). It refers to the kind of instruction one would give a child. Paul was saying that though it purports to be sophisticated, human philosophy is actually rudimentary — childish and unrefined. To abandon biblical revelation for philosophy is like returning to kindergarten after graduating from a university. Even the finest of human philosophy can offer nothing to augment the truth of Christ. It hinders and retards true wisdom and produces only infantile foolishness, error, and deceit.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18–21 Paul says:
The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.
Human wisdom cannot enhance God’s revelation. In fact, it inevitably resists and contradicts divine truth. Even the best of human wisdom is mere foolishness in comparison with God’s infinite wisdom.
Christians needn’t look to human wisdom anyway. They possess the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). His great, perfect, incomprehensible wisdom is revealed to us in God’s Word and through His Spirit. That should stir our hearts to declare with the psalmist:
O how I love Your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies,
For they are ever mine.
I have more insight than all my teachers,
For Your testimonies are my meditation.
I understand more than the aged,
Because I have observed Your precepts.
I have restrained my feet from every evil way,
That I may keep Your word.
I have not turned aside from Your ordinances,
For You Yourself have taught me.
How sweet are Your words to my taste!
Yes, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
From Your precepts I get understanding;
Therefore I hate every false way. (Psalm 119:97–104)
Why be held captive to philosophy when you can ascend to God’s perfect truth?
In Colossians 2:9–10 Paul draws a significant parallel: “In [Christ] all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete.” “Fullness” and “complete” in that passage are translations of the same Greek word (plērōma). Just as Christ is utterly divine, so we are utterly sufficient in Him. Human wisdom adds nothing to what is already revealed in Christ.
Our sufficiency in Christ is grounded on complete salvation and complete forgiveness, which Paul describes in Colossians 2:11–14. He says we have passed from spiritual death to spiritual life through forgiveness of our transgressions (Colossians 2:13). In Colossians 2:14 he draws a vivid picture of that forgiveness, saying Christ has “canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.” When someone was crucified, a list of his crimes was often nailed to the cross directly above his head. His death was payment for those crimes. The crimes that nailed Jesus to the cross were not His but ours. Because He bore our penalty, God erased the certificate of debt against us.
To complete salvation and complete forgiveness, Paul adds a third thought: complete victory (Colossians 2:15). In His death and resurrection Christ triumphed over demonic forces, thereby giving us victory over the evil one himself.
In Christ we have complete salvation, complete forgiveness, and complete victory — comprehensive resources for every issue of life. That’s true sufficiency! What can philosophy add to that?
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