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To this point in the main body of his letter, Paul has reminded his readers of the essential ingredients of the gospel (1:12-23) they first heard from Epaphras (1:6-7), and has defended his authority to admonish and teach his readers in its light (1:24—2:3). Having laid this foundation, the apostle is now ready to attend to the situation that has occasioned his correspondence—the false teaching that threatens the faith of the Colossian believers.
Paul's response to false teaching typically contains two parts. First, he identifies the theological errors present in a particular congregation and draws out their negative implications for faith and life. For Paul, the problem with bad ideas is that they result in distorted notions of Christ and what it means to follow him. Second, he argues against these errors in light of the foundational convictions of his gospel ministry, usually introduced at the outset of a letter. This, then, is the fabric of Paul's letter-writing: to clarify a problem along with its spiritual and moral consequences and to articulate the proper response to it in light of the readers' own understanding of the "word of truth."
Following this pattern, Colossians contains two sharp discussions. The first discussion is theological (2:4-23): Paul challenges the legitimacy of the theological convictions that underlie the competing understanding of Christian faith in Colosse. The second discussion is mainly ethical (3:1—4:1): Paul draws upon moral tradition (paraenesis) to describe the character of Christian life that is now imperiled by the false teaching.
The polemical and theological discussion is divided into two subsections, each presenting an argument against a principal ingredient of the false teaching. In 2:4-8, the apostle introduces the first problem that threatens the readers' faith. I call it sophistry: the use of an elegant vocabulary in fine-sounding arguments to deceive an unsuspecting audience (2:4). According to Paul, certain Christian teachers at Colosse promote a philosophy of religion that consists of human traditions and centers on the basic principles of this world (2:8). Paul responds to this theological error in 2:9-15 by restating two central claims about Christ on which this congregation's faith has been properly constructed: (1) Christ is the fullness of the Deity . . . in bodily form (2:9; compare 1:19), and (2) he is the head over every power and authority (2:10; compare 1:18, 20). On this christological tradition (rather than human traditions) the community can participate with Christ in God's forgiveness of their sins (2:11-15).
In our day, as in the ancient world, people often measure the value of what others say by how well they say it. Even within the church we put great stress on a person's academic credentials, as if a Ph.D. granted one a corner on heavenly wisdom. The result is that we learn to value elegant systems of church dogma that are held together by sophisticated and learned arguments. In the life of many congregations, faith has become so intellectualized that its relational, experiential dimension has been bleached out. Certainly it is important to think through carefully what one believes and why. Yet many of my students come to university with strongly held convictions about Christ but without the experience of a vital relationship with him. Knowing what to believe has replaced knowing whom to believe.
In the pastorate and in academia, I have often found that when faith consists only of ideas, without practical experience of their truthfulness and usefulness, it is easily shattered when it comes up against competing ideas. Biblical faith is very concrete, rooted in the teachings and work of a person, Jesus of Nazareth, and embodied in personal and social relationships. Thus, when one's understanding of Christian faith centers on a collection of elegant, even powerful ideas at the expense of an experience of God's love, it quickly becomes an idolatry: the idea of God replaces a life-transforming relationship with the Lord.
So in 1 Corinthians Paul warns his readers that the reign of God is not a matter of eloquent, educated talk but of Spirit-empowered walk (1 Cor 4:18-21). To know Christ as the "wisdom of God" (1 Cor 1:30) and to acquire "Christ's mind" from the Spirit (1 Cor 2:14, 16) rather than the "philosophy of this age" (1 Cor 1:20) is the measure of true Christianity. Paul is not against education; rather, he opposes a Christianity that elevates academic ideas about God above our spiritual relationship with God in Christ.
The second subsection of Paul's theological polemic begins in 2:16-19 with his clarification of a related theological error. I call it ascetic piety: the denial of physical comforts as the mark of true devotion to the Lord. Apparently, there is at least one important parishioner in the Colossian congregation who has assumed the role of a "spiritual umpire" (see 2:18), making judgments about what constitutes authentic Christianity. This person's code of conduct is based on what people eat and drink and whether they observe the holy days of the Jewish calendar (2:16, 21). Paul claims these regulations, like the human tradition that informs the deceptive philosophy (2:8), are nothing more than "human commands and teachings," and their effectiveness is based on an "appearance of wisdom" rather than the truth of the gospel (2:22-23).
According to Paul, wisdom, whether true or false, is measured by its results. Wisdom is true if it produces a community that worships and bears witness to God in its shared life. Thus, in 2:20-23, Paul's verdict on self-righteous asceticism is negative: when measured by the "reality" of Christ's death (2:17, 20), this form of Christian spirituality "lacks any value" whatever (2:23). Paul's Christianity is practical; decisions believers make about their spiritual well-being must be aimed toward getting into the proper place ("in Christ"), where God's grace empowers growth and worship (see 2:7). Relying on carefully thought-out ideas or rules of abstinence rather than on what God has already accomplished for us in Christ is at least imprudent, because it imperils the present results of Christ's work in us.