Monday, 5 July 2010

Don't study philosophy?

Today we are again looking at a Bible passage sometimes accused of teaching anti-intellectual ideas. This time it's Colossians 2:8 which reads,

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

Well meaning Christians have at times interpreted this as an instruction to stay away from philosophy. That would certainly be bad news for me who's spent the last three years studying it! But is that what this passage is really getting at? I sincerely doubt it.

For one, philosophy is not inherently anti-Christian. You can have philosophies which are consistent with a Biblical worldview, and philosophies which aren't. The Christian community should be developing Biblical philosophies for understanding the world. Does then, Colossians 2:8 prohibit studying unchristian or 'wordly' philosophies? No. The author, the apostle Paul, instructs the Christians at Colossians to see to it that they aren't taken captive by said philosophies.

Intellectually oppressive?

But surely Paul can't just instruct people not to believe certain things; what if a Christian came to think by genuinely valid arguments that an alternate philosophy is true? That is a good question, but is outside of Paul's concern in this passage. He is not talking about how to handle genuine intellectual issues and doubts, he is writing a warning about the risk of being seduced into a philosophy for the wrong reasons. Note how he is talking about philosophy which "depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ." In other words he is talking about philosophies which take it for granted that Christianity isn't true and base their thinking on things the non-Christian world assumes are true or valuable.

Christianity was very contrary to the ingrained way of thinking about God and the things that are honourable back in the first century when the religion began and grew. Early believers suffered social persecution and were under immense pressure to change their views to those more culturally acceptable. Paul is warning and reminding the Christians in Colossians that the philosophies that the world around them espouses are "hollow" and ignorant of the true riches to be found in Christ.

There is much for a modern Christian to take from Colossians 2:8, but there certainly isn't a prohibition against studying philosophy! I also recommend this article for a further look at what this passage really teaches about how Christians ought to view philosophy.

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