Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Christian and Philosophy

Βλέπετε μή τις ὑμᾶς ἔσται συλαγωγῶν διὰ τῆς φιλοσοφίας καὶ κενῆς ἀπάτης κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου καὶ οὐ κατὰ Χριστόν· Be on guard that no one will take you captive through philosophy and foolish deception according to the tradition of men, according to the rudimentary principles of the world and not according to Christ.

A handful of manuscripts transpose ὑμᾶς ἔσται. Other than that, there are no textual critical issues to treat.

The Greek word φιλοσοφίας is a hapax legonomenon appearing only here in the New Testament. It is interesting that of all the available philosophical material and teachings during his day, Paul never once called upon philosophy in service of the gospel. That does not mean I take Paul here to be condemning philosophy in general. Rather, I only wish to humble philosophy and those philosophers that seem to think the discipline indispensable to Christian ministry and especially Christian apologetics. Apparently, the authors of the New Testament did not find much value in philosophy for the purposes of preaching the gospel, instructing the saints, making disciples, and defending the faith.

Βλέπετε in this context clearly means that the Colossian believers are to watch so that no one takes them captive. Jesus used this form in Matthew 24:4 when he warned His disciples about deception. Paul used it in Eph. 5:15 when he commanded the Ephesian believers to “be careful” how they conduct themselves in daily life. Paul used this term to warn the Philippian believes to “beware” of the dogs and the circumcision and evil workers. The verb is an imperative, which enhances the serious nature of the apostle’s direction. The command in this instance is in the present tense, which calls for the continual process of always watching out for anyone that might introduce false teachings with persuasive rhetoric.

συλαγωγῶν, the verb sylalageō is rare, found only here in biblical Greek, and means “kidnap” or better “carry off as booty.”[1] The idea is that these false teachers or false teachings had the same effect of carrying off booty, wherein in this case, the booty was the mind, heart, and soul of the believer.

Contrary to contemporary trends in the Christian Church, false theologies and false philosophies not only can be, they are in fact legitimate perils for the human soul. I fully recognize that to the majority of uncritical, postmodern Christians, this assessment is simply alarmist and a gross exaggeration from an old-fashioned dogmatist. But to the apostle Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the warning was in his day and is in our day, enormously relevant. It vividly expresses the danger that the readers may be “carried off as plunder” by an alien and fundamentally anti-Christian form of teaching.[2] 
I am reminded of Jesus’ warning to Peter that Satan wanted to sift him as wheat and of Peter’s warning to his audience that Satan prowls around like a roaming lion seeking to devour us.

διὰ τῆς φιλοσοφίας καὶ κενῆς ἀπάτης. This construction can be translated “by means of philosophy and empty deception.” The TSKS construction indicates that the characteristics of this particular philosophy was that it was the sort of teaching that was summed up as being foolish, or stupid deception. The construction then, with the article subject and the conjunction indicates that the author intended to keep the two concepts of philosophy and foolish deception attached to one another. The article is (naturally) omitted with the second of two phrases in apposition with the second of two phrases in apposition connected by καὶ.[3] The kind of philosophy that Paul has in mind is not philosophy itself. It is the philosophy that is constructed upon false teachings by false teachers. It is human philosophy built upon human autonomous human reason. It is foolish and deceptive because it is not according to truth. It rests not upon the principles of Christ, but the principles of men.

κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων. This prepositional phrase is translated “according to the tradition of men.” What is clear is that the description is pejorative: the “philosophy” is the product of mere human speculation and does not put its adherents in touch with divine truth.[4] One is reminded of Jesus’ scathing rebuke of the religious leaders of His environment, for they continually nullified the Word of God because of their human tradition. The idea is that authority has shifted from God to man. Rather than relying on God’s self-authenticating revelation for knowledge and understanding of truth, men rely on their own rational abilities and from autonomous human reason, they construct traditions based principally on human conjecture and philosophical speculation. In the end, finite human speculation is lauded as intellectually superior to and far more plausible than the assertions of Christian theism, which are based on the self-authenticating divine revelation of the ontological Triune God.

κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου, according to the principles (spirits) of the world. This is admittedly a difficult text to interpret. The prevailing view, however, is that stoicheia here means elementary principles or basic principles of the world as opposed to spirits. This word was generally not used to denote spirits until after NT times. The argument is complex and beyond the scope of this blog. Suffice it to say, we have good evidence for landing on “principles” as oppose to spirits. Louw-Nida defines it as basic principles which underlie the nature of something—‘basic principles, elementary concepts.[5]

These are, or this is a philosophy that rests upon the basic or elementary principles of men. The word appears 7 times in the GNT. Peter uses it to refer to the elements of the physical earth. Elsewhere, it refers to basic elements or principles of a system of belief. This points to the fact that the fundamental principles of worldly thought are antithetical to the basic principles and concepts of Christian theism. The philosophical system of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are by nature, antithetical to the Philosophy of Christ. For example, when worldly philosophers establish parameters for justification of knowledge, those parameters are not going to rest upon Christian principles. In fact, they will be quite the contrary. The principles of worldly philosophy will be obviously hostile to the principles of Christian theism. Indeed, the deficiency witnessed in popular apologetic methods today is due to the wholesale failure on their part to recognize the basic antithetical components of worldly philosophy and their failure to take the appropriate steps to challenge it from the outset of the discussion.

καὶ οὐ κατὰ Χριστόν, and not according to Christ. There is nothing wrong with philosophy per se. However, the problem with philosophy is that it is not philosophy until someone opens their mouth or uses their mind. And the minute we begin to think, the problems of philosophy surround us. Philosophy is a web of beliefs based on basic presuppositions. A distinctly Christian philosophy holds that God created all that is, that He is the source of all knowledge, and that human morality is indelibly connected to His moral nature and attributes. The implications of such a philosophy are sweeping. This places man in the position of being entirely dependent on God in all things. The consequences are that man cannot discover any truth about reality, he cannot know anything whatever apart from God. Moreover, whatever he calls right and wrong must find its source in the moral nature of a holy God. The promise of the serpent echos still today in the ears of unregenerate men and regenerate men alike. «You can be like God.» Men, from nearly the beginning of his existence has wanted to know and to be like God. He has wanted to know and to live independently from God. Every version of the non-Christian worldview, in one way or another, is nothing more than the vain and futile attempt of men trying to live out the promise of the serpent and be just like God. These philosophies in Colosae were no different.

[1] Ben Witherington III, The Letters to Philemon, the Colossians, and the Ephesians : a Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Captivity Epistles (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 154.
[2] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 185.
[3] BDF, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1961), 145.
[4] Douglas J. Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and to Philemon, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2008), 187.
[5] Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 587.

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