Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians Part VI: Beware of Philosophy -- By: S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 119:476 (Oct 1962)
Article: Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians Part VI: Beware of Philosophy
Author: S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

Studies in the Epistle to the Colossians
Part VI:
Beware of Philosophy

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr.

To Shakespeare’s question, “Hast any philosophy in thee, Shepherd?” many a Christian would reply firmly, even indignantly, in the negative. Would not Paul’s statement in the second chapter of Colossians lend support, too? His words are, “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” (2:8). And who has not heard the definition, “Philosophers are people who talk about something they don’t understand and make you think it’s your fault!” Or, the more dignified one, “Philosophy is man’s attempt to befuddle himself scientifically!”

Much depends upon our semantics at this point. If by philosophy we mean the search for clarity and understanding regarding the whole of reality, then the Christian must in a sense philosophize.1 He must think clearly, and he must strive for a self-consistent view of life. In his quest, however, he must always submit to the guidance, limitation, and criticism of the light of divine revelation. On the other hand, if by philosophy we mean human speculation regarding man’s basic questions without due respect for the revelation of God, then the Christian, no doubt, will accord this philosophy a greatly diminished relevance to his life and calling.2

The philosophy to which Paul refers in Colossians 2:8 was, we have seen in preceding studies, most likely a form of gnostic Judaism, inadequately influenced by the revelation of God in Christ. To its “enticing words” (2:4) of intellectual

exclusivism the Colossians were in danger of falling prey. It is for this reason that Paul utters his disapproval of philosophy. I seriously question the view that Paul, as Tertullian after him, is to be understood as condemning all study of philosophy. Great sections of Paul’s own writings would be difficult to comprehend if we possessed no knowledge of contemporary philosophies (cf. 1 Cor 15:1–58). No, the apostle does not condemn philosophy in toto, nor should any Christian, but he does say to that which is not in harmony with divine revelation, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, I, 5).

Paul’s answer to the heretical Colossian philosophy is an explana...

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