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Colossians 2 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

The Error of Sophistry

Paul's quarrel is not with academic philosophy per se, nor is it with anyone who drafts persuasive and learned arguments to advance the gospel truth. Paul himself is well educated in these matters and often appeals to philosophical ideas and uses sophisticated arguments to explain the gospel more effectively (see Acts 17:16-34). Rather, Paul opposes those whose learning is used to advance falsehoods as gospel truth. He opposes any philosophy devoid of Christ that claims to teach about the spiritual order of God's creation and reign.

Notice that Paul shapes his initial statement of the problem as an inverted parallelism (ABB'A'), presumably for rhetorical effect. I will follow this same pattern in my exposition of this passage. The problem of sophistry is introduced in verse 4 (A) and repeated in verse 8 (A'), thereby bracketing its essential solution which is introduced in verse 5 (B) and repeated in verses 6-7 (B'). The effect of this parallelism is to relate problem and solution as two integral parts of a coherent polemic, making Paul's argument easy to follow.The Deception of Words (2:4)

As Paul introduces the content of the false teaching which he will argue against, he bids his readers remember what he has just said about his divine commission and Gentile mission (1:23--2:3). The opening phrase I tell you this reminds his readers that the commentary that follows comes from one who has been commissioned by God (1:25-26) to "teach and admonish" them (1:28--2:1). His autobiographical statement implies that his instruction (rather than that of the false teacher) should form the theology of Colossian Christianity.

Even in his opening thanksgiving, Paul's petition (1:9-10) hints that the problem facing his readers is that they have trusted outsiders for the "word of truth" about God's grace. Paul has in mind a particular kind of deception--the fast line and smooth talk. People are conned every day by appearances. We are easily deceived by those who seem nice and sincere, who look good or who provide us with appropriate references and credentials. The false teacher in Colosse is a con artist who uses Christian cliches and slogans to deceive immature believers.

The two words Paul selects to introduce the first error, deceive (paralogizomai) and fine-sounding arguments (pithanologia), share a common element, logos, or "word." Paul's first emphasis is what congregational leaders say and teach. Ironically, the second word is usually used in the positive sense to characterize compelling and convincing arguments. Here, however, especially when coupled with deceive, the word takes on a pejorative sense, characterizing arguments that seem persuasive but upon closer analysis are actually facile, lacking in both christological content and spiritual effect (see 2:8).

The validity of such judgments is measured by two criteria: (1) whether the content of the teaching fits with what the apostles teach about Christ, and (2) whether the resulting behavior fits with what the Spirit empowers believers to be and to do. The reports Paul has received about the Colossian situation (whether from Epaphras or some other source) have apparently convinced him that what is being taught there fails on both scores. He makes this clear in what follows.The Trustworthiness of the Messenger (2:5)

Paul has a personal stake in this controversy. He is well aware of his own tenuous status at Colosse: he has never visited this congregation and does not have firsthand knowledge of the falsehood he is addressing in this letter. His opponents may well counter, "What does Paul know about our situation, anyway? What gives him the right to speak so pointedly about it?"

Nevertheless, Paul promises that although absent from you in body he is present with you in spirit. This intriguing connection between his bodily absence and spiritual presence, which reflects his apostolic self-understanding, reflects his understanding of Christ, who while absent in body continues to be present with us through his Spirit. For this reason I am inclined to take Paul's statement of his spiritual presence quite literally rather than as a metaphor for his personal support. The spirit of his apostleship, not unlike the Spirit of the Risen Christ, is alive and active through available writings or remembered sermons and continues to minister to congregations where he is now bodily absent (see my comments on 4:7-9). It may be that Paul's discernment of the Colossian crisis is the result of intercessory prayer, when his spirit is illumined by Christ's Spirit (see Rom 8:26-27) quite independently of others' reports and letters. In this sense, prayer has enabled Paul to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

Maintaining an orderly and firm faith is necessary for the community's nurture (compare 1 Cor 14:33, 40). Some commentators suggest that these are characteristics of a battle scene and so of an embattled congregation. Yet Paul expresses delight in their already orderly and firm faith, probably because he is present with them in spirit; and while Paul's tone throughout this section is harsh toward his opponents, it remains gentle toward his readers.The Trustworthiness of His Message (2:6-7)

By repeating the main point of the previous verse, Paul adds to its meaning and importance. The expression received Christ Jesus as Lord probably does not refer to a conversion decision. In fact, I doubt that Paul would think of conversion, much less salvation, as conditioned upon a personal declaration of Jesus' lordship. Rather, the word received (paralambano) suggests the passing of a sacred tradition from one group of believers to the next. Given Paul's earlier references to Epaphras (1:6-7) and to his own mission (1:23--2:3), this phrase probably refers to the spiritual heritage of his Colossian readers, who received their theological understanding, confessed in 1:13-23, from Paul's Gentile mission and particularly from Epaphras. This is their tradition, their sacred heritage, the religious roots that continue to mark out the boundaries of their life together in Christ. Significantly, Paul makes this point in the indicative mood--that is, what they have received from Epaphras indicates the fact of their conversion to Christianity.

In contrast, the next phrase, continue to live in him, is stated in the imperative mood, asserting the behavior that logically and necessarily must result from the theological conviction that Jesus Christ is the Lord of all things. Among aboriginal people in Australia, males go on a "walk-about" as part of their rite of passage into manhood: they travel alone across their land to become familiar with it and thus a part of it. The Greek word for live (peripateo) literally means to "walk about." According to Paul, our trust in the received gospel of God's grace through Christ results in a "walk about" in him; we become familiar with him and a part of him. The apostle often sets indicative statements about God's salvation next to imperative statements about our response to God in order to show their close, even logical relationship. To embrace the truth about God's Christ is to live in him.

Our passage into Christ transforms the way we live. The four participles that follow in verse 7 express four characteristics of the Christian's "walk about." Each is stated in the passive voice because each is given by God's grace rather than acquired by human effort. The first two, rooted and built, are metaphors of growth, envisaging the dynamic character of Christian nurture, while the second two, strengthened . . . and overflowing, are metaphors of worship, envisaging the spiritual results of devotion to God. The two couplets are naturally related, since the nurture of Christ's community is facilitated by corporate acts of worship, when it is taught the faith it has received and offers its thanksgiving to God.The Deceiving Philosophy (2:8)

Having reminded the Colossians of the importance of his apostolic "spirit" (2:5) and of the christological traditions they have received from him (2:6-7), Paul returns to restate the problem of sophistry in a more urgent way (see 2:4). He begins with the warning "Take heed!" or, as the NIV puts it, See to it. The peril of sophistry is that believers can be taken captive by an eloquent teacher who advances a sophisticated philosophy that is nevertheless hollow and deceptive in spiritual effect: the human traditions on which it is based compete against the christological traditions of the gospel. The philosophy in view draws upon the principles of this world and is therefore contrary to the apostolic "spirit" of Paul within the community, which reminds his readers of the Christ-centeredness of God's salvation.

The verb take captive (sylagogeo) is found only here in the New Testament and suggests an illegal kidnapping. The word sounds very much like synagogue, and Wright suggests that Paul intentionally chose this rare word as a "contemptuous pun" to warn believers not to be taken in by a philosophy with roots in the esoterica of Colossian Judaism (1987:100). In addition, Paul may use this verb to recall the conversion motif of 1:13, where he spoke of salvation as God's rescue operation. The peril of the Colossian error is thereby highlighted: believers, who are rescued by God's saving grace from darkness and brought into the light, are now threatened by an enemy that seeks to recapture them and enslave them once again to the darkness of false teaching. In fact, the word darkness is used elsewhere as a metaphor of false teaching that closes the mind to the gospel truth (see Jn 1:5).

To be taken captive by a philosophy need not mean to accept a form of truth (that is, "philosophy") that is inherently flawed. Rabbis, for example, spoke of biblical teaching as "philosophy," because philosophy helped them organize biblical teaching into coherent and meaningful systems of truth. Paul himself has nothing against "love of wisdom," which is what philosophy literally means (compare 1 Cor 1:30). In this letter's opening thanksgiving, Paul agreed with other ancient philosophers in contending that "the word of truth" will produce good fruit (1:5-6). Yet now he uses the word more precisely to denote a system of integrated ideas that is promoted as gospel truth but whose result is hollow and deceptive--that is, spiritually useless.

My son, who works with computers, uses a slogan--"garbage in, garbage out"--to label ineffective programs. If you do not feed information to a computer in the proper format or language, then even the most powerful computer will be unable to run your program and find your solution. In the same way, even though a philosophy consists of fine-sounding arguments, if its content is garbage it will not produce workable solutions to the daily struggles of faith and life. According to biblical Christianity, true religion is measured by what it produces as much as by what it teaches (see Jas 1:26-27; 2:14-26).

In the case of the Colossian congregation, the troublesome philosopher is advancing a system of wisdom based upon human tradition--a phrase that Paul will use again in 2:22 to describe the ascetic morality that is also being promoted among the Colossians. Now, whether it is the source of a religious philosophy or a moral code, a sacred tradition is not a bad thing. As a Pharisee, Paul had been steeped in oral and written religious memories from his youth. As Christ's apostle, he continues to speak of those traditions as a witness to Jesus Christ in order to mature faith in him (2:6; compare 1 Cor 11:23; 15:3). The problem lies rather with a particular kind of tradition which is not sufficiently christological in content. Paul contends that if a congregation's religious heritage does not depend on Christ, its source must be human imagination rather than divine revelation. The yield of such a tradition is finally spiritually useless.

The phrase basic principles of this world is more difficult to interpret; the meaning of basic principles (stoicheia) remains unclear. In context, the word is Paul's rubric for the content of the hollow and deceptive philosophy. Luther thought that stoicheia was a Pauline pejorative for Jewish law, since Torah-observance was equated in his own experience with works righteousness, and works righteousness with human rather than heavenly merit. More recently, Banstra has come to understand Paul's use of stoicheia in the context of Jewish Wisdom. In this light, the false philosophy teaches that this world is ordered by impersonal forces (such as natural laws); thus, to be reconciled with God means to live according to these forces (Banstra 1964). The codes of conduct, even the spirituality, that might result from such a natural philosophy would have seemed excessively secular for Paul. With this in mind, Reicke argues that the meaning of stoicheia is best discerned in the context of Hellenistic Judaism, where it is used of angelic mediators of divine revelation, whether in writing Scripture or through religious experiences such as visions or oracular speech (Reicke 1951:259-76). If Reicke is correct, Paul's reference to stoicheia would indicate that his Colossian opponents say their sophistry is validated by angelic sources.

With most commentators, however, I prefer to understand the basic principles of this world as referring to earth's four basic elements (earth, water, air and fire) and so to translate stoicheia as "elements" rather than "principles." The erroneous philosophy at Colosse may well have taken shape within the larger milieu of religious thought in the Hellenistic world. The Greeks commonly divided all things into an invisible spirit world, generally considered good and sacred, and a visible material world, generally considered frivolous and profane. A version of Christianity shaped within this religious environment would tend to understand devotion to Christ as a negative response to earth's elements--that is, as an ascetic lifestyle, which demands strict injunctions against the earth's elements (see 2:21).

Paul probably uses this phrase, then, as a vague reference to this feature of dualistic religion, which denies the material world as "worldly" and spiritually counterproductive (compare 2:18, 20). In fact, ascetic conduct is an external index for measuring a person's spiritual status. Within the community, the result is an ethos of legalism and judgmentalism in which spiritual vitality is diminished by the terror of breaking a strict moral standard.

This same tendency toward moral asceticism continues to influence conservative Protestant Christianity as well as many modern religious movements, where spirituality is excessively inward, the private reserve of one's feelings and intellect, and has little positive to do with one's public life (see introduction, under "Paul's Message for Today"). For Paul, Christ's lordship over all things material and spiritual (1:15-20) produces a worldview in which our spiritual devotion is integrated with our material obligations. There is no division between "spirit" and "body."

Whenever Christ's lordship over all things pertaining to life and faith is diminished, the result is stunted spiritual growth that can even imperil one's salvation (see 1:23). In fact, the practical results of a religious philosophy like that found at Colosse are a moral asceticism (2:20-23) that actually rejects God's creation as bad, and a visionary mysticism that replaces life in Christ with visionary experiences of angel worship (2:18). Such a spirituality makes the experience of God's liberating grace a real impossibility.

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