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.