Does Scripture forbid the study of philosophy? By Jack Kettler
“See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.” (Colossians 2:8 ESV)
Does the Colossians passage forbid Christians the use or study of philosophy? If not, what does Colossians 2:8 mean?
What is philosophy? The following article by Gordon H. Clark will be helpful.
Philosophy by Gordon H. Clark:
“PHILOSOPHY (φιλοσοφια, etymologically, love of wisdom). Traditionally the study of logic, the basic principles of science, metaphysics, ethics, and aesthetics. In a wider sense, the general principles of any subject can be called its philosophy. Approaching a misuse of the word, the philosophy or education means merely the policy of school administration; and a “philosophy of life” designates any individual’s preferences, no matter how poorly systematized. Inspired though it be, Ecclesiastes (q.v.) is an example of this popular meaning and has little to do with the subject matter of professional technical philosophy.
The reason for these shades of meaning is that philosophizing is generalizing, and no authority can fix the degree of generalizing necessary to merit the name.
The meaning of the word in Colossians 2:8 is hard to determine. It could possibly refer to Gnosticism or, perhaps, mean only ethics, for in the 1st cent., the Gr. Schools had sunk to their nadir and discussed little else.
The common element in all generalizations is a claim to knowledge. Therefore, the crucial question of philosophy is—How is knowledge possible? Attempts to justify knowledge are called epistemology.
Metaphysics, the theory of being (not the beings of plants or botany, not the being of animals or zoology, no even the being of inanimate matter, but of being without qualification—being as such), is sometimes said to be the basic subject; but even Thomism, which makes such a claim, stands or falls with its theory of learning. The answer to the question—What do you know?—provokes the further question—How do you know? Beyond this, no question can be asked. Therefore, epistemology is the basis of philosophy.
There are two very general types of epistemology. First is empiricism, whose thesis is that all knowledge is based on experience. The majority of empiricists equate experience with sensation, others all for non-sensory aesthetic or religious experience.
The second general type of epistemology has no good single name. Perhaps rationalism is as good as any. Its varieties unite on the principle that not all knowledge is based on experience. In one way or another, knowledge is gained from sources other than sensation, chiefly the mind itself. Thus some of these philosophers assert the existence of innate ideas. For example, it may be said that the law of contradictions or the idea of God is inborn. Kant taught that the mind has a priori forms. Sensation is essentially chaotic; it becomes intelligible only after the mind arranges it by these forms. Augustinians and Platonists rely on intellectual intuitions. Their strong point is that logic, ethics, and aesthetics cannot be derived from experience because experience at best tells us what is, whereas these subjects speak of what must or what ought to be. Furthermore, all experience is limited, but knowledge must include universal judgments.
At the present time, the most active schools of philosophy are Logical Positivism, a strongly scientific school; the philosophy of Analysis, largely confined to semantics; and existentialism, an utter chaos of radically individual decisions. The older schools are more or less in eclipse.
The Scripture does not discuss these subjects explicitly and technically. Various Christian philosophers believe that one can see philosophical principles presupposed by the text. The Thomists, for example, think that Romans 1:20 requires empiricism and justifies the cosmological argument. Calvinists have historically made the knowledge of God—not the knowledge of sensory objects—basic, and hold that Genesis 1:26 and Romans 2:15 presuppose innate ideas, or a priori forms.” G. H. CLARK (1)
What is the Colossian passage in Chapter 2 verse 8 saying? Matthew Poole is a reliable commentator. His comments will be valuable.
From Matthew Poole’s Commentary on Colossians 2:8:
“Beware: the apostle, after his exhortation, considering their danger from seducing spirits lying in wait to deceive by their sleight and craftiness, 1 Timothy 4:1,2, doth here reinforce and enlarge his caution he had before suggested, Colossians 2:4, to engage to a heedful avoidance of all seduction from Christ.
Lest any man spoil you; lest their souls should be made a prey, and they be carried for a spoil by those worst of robbers that beset Christ’s fold, 2 Corinthians 11:20 Galatians 6:13.
Through philosophy; either through the abuse of true philosophy in bringing the mystery of Christ under the tribunal of shallow reason, or rather through erroneous, though curious, speculations of some philosophers, as Plato, Pythagoras, Hesiod, &c. then in vogue, which the Gnostics afterwards (who, thinking themselves enriched with the notions of other heretics, would be thought the only knowing persons) dressed up Christ with, not like himself. Their philosophy being a falsely so called science or knowledge, 1 Timothy 6:20, whatever show of wisdom it might seem to carry along with it, Colossians 2:23, it was not really profitable; but a
vain deceit, or seduction, as several take the next clause appositively, and the conjunction expositively; yet, if we consider what follows, we may understand another general imposture, viz. superstition, seeing vain deceit, after the tradition of men, is so like that superstition our Saviour doth rebuke in the Pharisees, Matthew 15:9, several branches of which the apostle doth afterward in this chapter dispute against, Colossians 2:16-23: superstition might well be called deceit, from the cheat it puts upon men and the notation of the Greek word, which imports a withdrawing men from the way. Christ, and from his way of worship prescribed in his word; and vain it is as well as a deceit, since it is empty and unprofitable, not accompanied with God’s blessing, nor conducing to the pleasing of him, but the provoking of him, Psalm 106:29,43. Being led by no other rule than the tradition of men, which is the same with the precepts of men, Mark 7:8, which God likes not, Isaiah 8:20 28:13 John 20:31 Acts 26:22 2 Timothy 3:15, 16; he would not give place to human traditions in his house, nor to
the rudiments of the world, ( in allusion to grammar, wherein the letters are the elements or rudiments of all literature), i.e. the ceremonies of the Mosaical law, containing a kind of elementary instruction, for that seems to be the apostle’s meaning, comparing this verse with Colossians 2:20 and Colossians 2:21, and other places, Galatians 3:24, these being but corporeal, carnal, and sensible ordinances, suitable to a worldly sanctuary. Hebrews 9:1,10, not to be imposed in that spiritual one which Christ hath set up, John 4:23, 24 Ga 5:2. Whatsoever philosophical colours or Pharisaical paint they might appear in, they are not after Christ: we say a false picture of a man is not after the man, being not taken from or resembling his person, but clean another; such descriptions of him, as were not taken from the life and truth that was in him. And therefore he who is Head of his church, and likes not to be misshaped or misrepresented, will not accept of homage from those of his own house, in a livery that he hath not given order for, Leviticus 10:1 Jeremiah 7:31 2 Corinthians 5:9, how specious soever it may be in the wisdom of this world and the princes thereof, 1 Corinthians 2:6,7.” (2)
Paul is not condemning philosophy per se. He is condemning false philosophical speculation, in the same manner, he would condemn false doctrine. False philosophical ideas are just as dangerous as false doctrine if believed. As Poole noted, “The abuse of true philosophy in bringing the mystery of Christ under the tribunal of shallow reason…”
Apologetics would be a hopeless enterprise for Christians if it took Colossians 2:8 as a blanket condemnation of philosophy in general. Believers are called to refute false doctrine and false philosophical ideas.
The example of the apostle Paul at Athens is instructive and a model to be used. Paul engaged the Athenian philosophers.
“Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was stirred in him, when he saw the city wholly given to idolatry. Therefore disputed he in the synagogue with the Jews, and with the devout persons, and in the market daily with them that met with him. Then certain philosophers of the Epicureans, and of the Stoicks, encountered him. And some said, What will this babbler say? Other some, He seemeth to be a setter forth of strange gods: because he preached unto them Jesus, and the resurrection. And they took him, and brought him unto Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new doctrine, whereof thou speakest, is? For thou bringest certain strange things to our ears, we would know therefore what these things mean. (For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.) Then Paul stood in the midst of Mars’ hill, and said, ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked: and others said, We will hear thee again of this matter. So Paul departed from among them. Howbeit certain men clave unto him, and believed: among which was Dionysius the Areopagite, and a woman named Damaris, and others with them.” (Acts 17:16-34 KJV)
As seen, Paul reasons with the philosophers at the Areopagus on Mars Hill. He even quotes pagan philosophers, showing he had familiarity with their ideas and could contend with them using their terminology. How can Paul’s Athenian model be applied today? For example, a Biblical application of this is called Scripturalism.
The Philosophy of Scripturalism by Dr. John W. Robbins:
If I were to summarize Clark’s philosophy of Scripturalism, I would say something like this:
1. Epistemology: Propositional Revelation
2. Soteriology: Faith Alone
3. Metaphysics: Theism
4. Ethics: Divine Law
5. Politics: Constitutional Republic
Translating those ideas into more familiar language, we might say:
1. Epistemology: The Bible tells me so.
2. Soteriology: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.
3. Metaphysics: In him we live and move and have our being.
4. Ethics: We ought to obey God rather than men.
5. Politics: Proclaim liberty throughout the land. (3)
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Epistemologists study the nature of knowledge, epistemic justification, the rationality of belief, and various related issues. Wikipedia
Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that examines the fundamental nature of reality, including the relationship between mind and matter, between substance and attribute, and between potentiality and actuality. Wikipedia
As seen from Robbins, philosophical categories can be aligned easily with Biblical categories and addressed accordingly. In addition, the Bible provides answers to epistemological and metaphysical questions.
In Colossians, Paul is speaking against vain philosophy, which he calls “empty deceit” in chapter 2 verse 8. Similarly, the Scriptures are not opposed to pure religion, but against vain or worthless religion, see James 1:26-27. In Acts 17:16-34, Paul’s speech at Athens is philosophical and does not contradict his warning to the Colossians about vain philosophy.
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. Merrill C. Tenney, Ed., Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan Publishing House, 1975), p.776.
2. Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Colossians, Vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 715.
3. Collated by H.R. Diaz II, In Defense of Scripturalism, Miscellaneous Essays, (Special entry, An Introduction to Gordon H. Clark by Dr. John W. Robbins), p. 4.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. 1 Corinthians 15:29 Revisited: A Scriptural based interpretation
For more study:
Three Types of Religious Philosophy Gordon H. Clark (Review by John Robbins – The Trinity Foundation, 1989) http://www.onthewing.org/user/Phi_Three%20types%20of%20relig%20philos%20-%20Clark.pdf
In Defense of Scripturalism https://involutedgenealogies.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/in-defense-of-scripturalism-miscellaneous-essays.pdf
Calvinist and Reformed philosophers https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Calvinist_and_Reformed_philosophers