Thursday, August 14, 2008

Colossians 2:8

8See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

In v8, Paul directly attacks the false teaching that was likely prominent in Colosse. He says, “See to it that no one takes you captive.” This language brings to mind the sheepfold of God. The Colossians are in the fold, and the false teachers, unable to destroy the flock, will strive to plunder even one sheep at a time by confusing the sheep. It is Jesus’ firm grasp of His sheep as the Good Shepherd (John 10), through sound doctrine – hearing His voice – that prevents the sheep from being taken captive. Paul says that the false teachers are guilty of using “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” to try to deceive the sheep, the elect of God, if that were possible (Matthew 24:24). And how appropriate that we come to this passage today, the day after what appears to be the end of a two-week battle with a group of atheists. By the grace of God, I obeyed Paul's teaching here. Their philosophy, which is what atheism really is, was hollow and deceptive. It certainly depends on human tradition and the basics principles of this world. Let's examine this verse more closely:

First, philosophy here, according to Calvin, “means everything that men contrive of themselves when wishing to be wise through means of their own understanding.” It is “nothing else than a persuasive speech, which insinuates itself into the minds of men by elegant and plausible arguments.” And it “will be nothing else than a corruption of spiritual doctrine, if it is mixed up with Christ.” Paul condemns this kind of philosophy, which is hardly philosophy at all – Paul calls it hollow deception or vain deceit – because it “depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.” Paul declares tradition, and specifically philosophy based on tradition, since it is manmade, to be less valuable than Christ and His word, which are divine. Vincent Cheung says, “It is ‘hollow’ in that it is devoid of truth, wisdom, and reason, but it tries to convince people that it possesses these qualities by using methods and arguments that are ‘deceptive.’ In other words, this philosophy can appear wise to foolish people, such as non-Christians, or to Christians who at the moment fail to maintain their focus on the sound doctrines referred to in v6-7.”

The question is often asked, “What does Paul mean by ‘the basic principles of this world’?” Calvin suggests that Paul is speaking of either cultural ceremonies, since he is about to bring up circumcision, or things that are of no use for the kingdom of God (Galatians 4:3), like mere amusing entertainment, such as television for us. Ligon Duncan says, “It may be that Paul is referring to ethical principles of behavior which are not grounded in the Word of God. Or Paul may be thinking of a particular teaching that says there are demonic spiritual beings who control elementary principles in the universe like the stars and such. And those stars then control our lives. It would not be unlike astrology, where there are people who believe that the position of the planets and the stars actually control human destiny.”

Vincent Cheung says, “The two major interpretations understand Paul to be referring to either ‘elements’ or ‘rudiments.’ The former could refer to the earthly elements of ancient science (as in earth, water, fire, and air), or it could even refer to ‘elemental spirits of the universe’ (RSV), including pagan deities that supposedly exercise power over peoples and nations. ‘Rudiments,’ on the other hand, would refer to the first principles of a philosophy, that is, the basic principles, teachings, and assumptions of a system of thought. Several considerations, including the context, favor the latter interpretation, so that the meaning should be ‘rudiments,’ as in basic principles or teachings. Paul refers to the rudiments of ‘the world,’ which in a context that chides the traditions of men, should be taken in the ethical sense. The content of the rest of the passage is consistent with this understanding. In particular, v20 calls attention again to ‘the basic principles of this world’ and cites ‘its rules’ as ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ He says that these are ‘human commands and teachings…regulations.’ For this reason Calvin thinks the basic principles refer to ‘ceremonies.’ But it is more precise to say that Paul is referring to the teachings about these ceremonies. In any case, even if some insist that Paul has in mind elements or elemental spirits, it makes no pivotal difference in interpretation and application, since the meaning still reduces to a set of intellectual principles. This is because he is talking about a ‘philosophy,’ so that even if the reference directly concerns elements or spirits, he is in fact referring to the intellectual principles and assumptions associated with them.”

Cheung continues, “These principles are false, Paul explains, because they are based on men’s ideas and not based on Christ. This point is significant because it universalizes the application of the statement. The false philosophy is hollow and deceptive not just because it is based on some particular human inventions. If this is as far as Paul goes, then this verse might leave room for other human inventions to be correct, or at least they would have to be individually considered. But Paul says that the philosophy is false because it is not based on Christ, the Christ that the Colossians received and were taught (v6-7). In other words, any philosophy that is not based on the Christian faith as delivered by the apostles is a false philosophy. A hollow and deceptive philosophy consists of the traditions and principles of men – things that they invented or deduced from their speculations and superstitions. These false principles pervade all non-Christian religions and philosophies. The natural sciences, including modern cosmology, physics, biology, and so on, are not exempted from this charge. Man-made philosophies are not only hollow, but also deceptive, and many Christians have been deceived into thinking that science is rational and authoritative. This is what it claims, and this is what it wants us to believe, but it cannot withstand even the most basic logical scrutiny in its assumptions, methods, and conclusions. They are after all the traditions and principles of men, nothing more. On the other hand, true philosophy consists of Christian traditions and principles, things that God has revealed to us through the Scripture.”

Whatever these principles, by clinging to them, we would be in no small way proclaiming that Christ is insufficient, so Paul will now address that, as he has previously. V9-15 correspond to the positive instructions given in v6-7; and v16-23 correspond to Paul’s negative charge given in v8. None of this teaching is new to Paul – even within this letter. He frequently shows the sign of any good teacher – repetition.

No comments: