The Deficiency of Philosophy
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. (2:8a)
Paul is concerned that those who have been transferred from Satan’s domain to Christ’s kingdom not become enslaved again. He voiced a similar concern in Galatians 5:1: “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” He calls the Colossians to constant watchfulness because danger is near, as the present tense imperative form of blepō (see to it) indicates. The church constantly faces the danger of false teachers. Jesus says in Matthew 7:15, “Beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” In Matthew 16:6 he warns, “Watch out and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”
The apostles also warned the church against false teachers. Paul cautioned the Ephesian elders that “after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert” (Acts 20:29–31). To the Philippians he wrote, “Beware of the dogs, beware of the evil workers, beware of the false circumcision” (Phil. 3:2). Peter also warns of the danger of false teachers. He writes in 2 Peter 3:17, “You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard lest, being carried away by the error of unprincipled men, you fall from your own steadfastness.”
Paul specifically warns them to be careful that no one takes you captive. Takes you captive is from sulagōgeō, a rare word used only here in the New Testament and not at all found in extrabiblical Greek until long after Paul’s time. Sulagōgeō is a compound word, made up of sulē, “booty,” and agō, “to carry off.” It literally means “to kidnap,” or “to carry off as booty, or spoil of war.” The same concept is found in 2 Timothy 3:6, where Paul warns of “those who enter into house-holds and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses.” To Paul, it was unthinkable that those who had been ransomed and redeemed should be vulnerable by ignorance and thus in the spiritual war become prisoners of some spiritual predator with false doctrine.
Surely it grieves the heart of any pastor to learn of spiritual children who by immaturity are susceptible to the danger of false teaching and fall prey to a cult. Yet many have been duped into thinking they have found some truth, which in reality is a lie that has made them a captive to false teaching. One of the primary duties of church leaders is to guard the flock against wolves and perverse men (Acts 20:28–32) who assault flock members in an effort to kidnap them.
Paul describes the means the false teachers would use to kidnap the Colossians as philosophy and empty deception. Philosophia (philosophy) appears only here in the New Testament. As already noted, it means “to love wisdom.” It is used here in a much broader sense than the academic discipline, since “philosophy is not reducible to the Judeo-Gnostic speculations about which Paul warned the Colossian Christians” (Mark M. Hanna, Crucial Questions in Apologetics [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981], p. 11). Historian Adolf Schlatter noted that “everything that had to do with theories about God and the world and the meaning of human life was called ‘philosophy’ at that time, not only in pagan schools, but also in the Jewish schools of the Greek cities” (The Church in the New Testament Period [reprint, London: SPCK, 1955], pp. 150–54).
The first-century Jewish historian Josephus wrote, “There are three philosophical sects among the Jews. The followers of the first of whom are the Pharisees, of the second the Sadducees, and the third sect who pretends to be a severer discipline are called Essenes” (Jewish Wars 2.8.2). Thus, the term philosophy was broad enough to encompass religious sects. The use of the definite article with philosophia shows that Paul was referring here to the specific beliefs of the Colossian errorists. Most likely they used it to refer to the transcendent, higher knowledge they supposedly had attained through mystical experience.
Paul goes on to describe this philosophy as empty deception. Lightfoot wrote, “The absence of both preposition and article in the second clause shows that kenēs apatēs [empty deception] describes and qualifies philosophia” (St. Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon [1879; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1959], p. 178). He translated the phrase, “Through his philosophy which is an empty deceit” (p. 178). Although the false teachers at Colossae considered their view the epitome of wisdom, Paul dismisses it as empty deception.
Apatēs (deception) means “a deceit, fraud, or trick.” The philosophy of the Colossian false teachers was not what it appeared to be. It sounded good and seduced the minds of those deceived by it, but it was a vapid illusion. There is no value in such speculative human philosophy, no matter how deeply and profoundly religious it sounds.
Commentator Herbert Carson sounds an appropriate warning:
With Paul it would no doubt be true to say that philosophy, in the simple sense of a love of knowledge and a desire for the truth, would be quite compatible with his position. But to philosophy in the developed sense with its emphasis on the primacy of human reason he would obviously be utterly opposed.… Hence, while the Christian may see a certain negative value in speculative philosophy, he will constantly be on his guard lest he come to study revelation, not as a believer, but as a humanist. This does not mean that he should come with a blind unreasoning faith. But it does mean that, instead of bringing philosophical presuppositions which will colour his study of Scripture and so prejudice his interpretation, he comes as one conscious of the finiteness of his intellect, and aware that his mind also is affected by his sinful nature. Thus he is willing to be taught by the Holy Spirit, and acknowledges that it is the Word of God rather than his own reason which is the final arbiter of truth. (The Epistles of Paul to the Colossians and Philemon [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976], p. 62)
Paul then gives two sources for such vain speculation. The tradition of men is the first. Tradition is paradosis, that which is given from one to another. Just because people have believed something and handed it down through the years does not make it true. Tradition usually serves merely to perpetuate error.
A study of the history of philosophy serves to illustrate that point. Most philosophers have built on the work of previous philosophers, either to refine their system, or to refute it. Francis Schaeffer remarked, “One man would draw a circle and say, ‘You can live within this circle.’ The next man would cross it out and would draw a different circle. The next man would come along and, crossing out the previous circle, draw his own—ad infinitum” (The God Who Is There [Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 1973], p. 17).
First-century Judaism is another example of the effects of tradition. The Jewish leaders and teachers had encrusted the Word of God with so many customs, rituals, and teachings that they were no longer able to distinguish it from the traditions of men. Mark 7 records an exchange between the scribes and Pharisees and Jesus on this subject. In verse 5, they asked Jesus, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?” Jesus replied in verses 8–9, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.… You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.”
The Gentiles also had traditions. Peter used the same Greek word in a different form when he wrote to Gentiles in 1 Peter 1:18: “Knowing that you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited [received by tradition] from your forefathers.” In our own day, a common argument for evolution is the false assertion that it is “what scientists have always believed.” In all the above examples, tradition was nothing more than ignorance and falsehood handed down from generation to generation. It was the tradition of men, not the tradition of God (2 Thess. 3:6), which is the only source of truth.
A second source for this false philosophy is the elementary principles of the world. It is difficult to reconstruct the exact meaning of that phrase. Stoicheia (elementary principles) refers primarily to the letters of the alphabet. It literally means “things in a row.” Hence, Paul might be describing the false belief system of the Colossian errorists as rudimentary, too simplistic for mature spiritual adults. To accept their teaching would be to descend, to regress from the mature teaching of Scripture to the infantile teachings of an immature religion, based not on advanced thinking and wisdom but on silly and childish thoughts. To abandon biblical truth for empty philosophy is like returning to kindergarten after earning a doctorate. Paul writes:
The word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.” Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:18–21)
This same phrase is also found in Galatians 4:3: “So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world.” There again, the element of immaturity is evident. Whether first-century Judaism, as in Galatians, or the false teaching threatening the Colossians, human religion is not advanced, erudite, higher, transcendent and lofty in its profundity. Rather, it is banal, elemental, and rudimentary. It does not convey any new and profound truths. And, fatally, at its core is an effort to achieve salvation by works.
There is a second possible, though less likely, meaning for stoicheia. It could refer to elemental spirits—either supposed emanations from God, or the spirit beings that the people of the ancient world associated with the stars and planets. Astrology is not new. Many of the great men of the ancient world, such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, believed in it implicitly. People who believed in astrology were caught in the grip of a rigid determinism. The influence of the stars and planets controlled their destiny, unless they had the secret knowledge necessary to escape that control. It was precisely such knowledge that the false teachers may have claimed. Paul would then be warning the Colossians, some of whom had no doubt believed in astrology before their salvation, to avoid such false teaching. In either case, what these heretics offered was not an advance in spiritual knowledge, but a retreat to spiritual infancy and demonic doctrine (cf. 1 Tim. 4:1).
8. Beware lest any one plunder you. He again instructs them as to the poison, which the antidote presented by him should be made use of to counteract. For although this, as we have stated, is a common remedy against all the impostures of the devil, it had, nevertheless, at that time a peculiar advantage among the Colossians, to which it required to be applied. Beware, says he, lest any one plunder you. He makes use of a very appropriate term, for he alludes to plunderers, who, when they cannot carry off the flock by violence, drive away some of the cattle fraudulently. Thus he makes Christ’s Church a sheep-fold, and the pure doctrine of the gospel the enclosures of the fold. He intimates, accordingly, that we who are the sheep of Christ repose in safety when we hold the unity of the faith, while, on the other hand, he likens the false apostles to plunderers that carry us away from the folds. Would you then be reckoned as belonging to Christ’s flock? Would you remain in his folds? Do not deviate a nail’s-breadth from purity of doctrine. For unquestionably Christ will act the part of the good Shepherd by protecting us if we but hear his voice, and reject those of strangers. In short, the tenth chapter of John is the exposition of the passage before us.
Through philosophy. As many have mistakingly imagined that philosophy is here condemned by Paul, we must point out what he means by this term. Now, in my opinion, he means everything that men contrive of themselves when wishing to be wise through means of their own understanding, and that not without a specious pretext of reason, so as to have a plausible appearance. For there is no difficulty in rejecting those contrivances of men which have nothing to set them off, but in rejecting those that captivate men’s minds by a false conceit of wisdom. Or should any one prefer to have it expressed in one word, philosophy is nothing else than a persuasive speech, which insinuates itself into the minds of men by elegant and plausible arguments. Of such a nature, I acknowledge, will all the subtleties of philosophers be, if they are inclined to add anything of their own to the pure word of God. Hence philosophy will be nothing else than a corruption of spiritual doctrine, if it is mixed up with Christ. Let us, however, bear in mind, that under the term philosophy Paul has merely condemned all spurious doctrines which come forth from man’s head, whatever appearance of reason they may have. What immediately follows, as to vain deceit, I explain thus, “Beware of philosophy, which is nothing else than vain deceit,” so that this is added by way of apposition.
According to the tradition of men. He points out more precisely what kind of philosophy he reproves, and at the same time convicts it of vanity on a twofold account—because it is not according to Christ, but according to the inclinations of men; and because it consists in the elements of the world. Observe, however, that he places Christ in opposition to the elements of the world, equally as to the tradition of men, by which he intimates, that whatever is hatched in man’s brain is not in accordance with Christ, who has been appointed us by the Father as our sole Teacher, that he might retain us in the simplicity of his gospel. Now, that is corrupted by even a small portion of the leaven of human traditions. He intimates also, that all doctrines are foreign to Christ that make the worship of God, which we know to be spiritual, according to Christ’s rule, to consist in the elements of the world, and also such as fetter the minds of men by such trifles and frivolities, while Christ calls us directly to himself.
But what is meant by the phrase—elements of the world? There can be no doubt that it means ceremonies. For he immediately afterwards adduces one instance by way of example—circumcision. The reason why he calls them by such a name is usually explained in two ways. Some think that it is a metaphor, so that the elements are the rudiments of children, which do not lead forward to mature doctrine. Others take it in its proper signification, as denoting things that are outward and are liable to corruption, which avail nothing for the kingdom of God. The former exposition I rather approve of, as also in Gal. 4:3.
8 At the outset, Paul commands the congregation to be watchful. The apostle employs the imperatival form of blepō (lit., “to see”; GK 1063) here (and elsewhere) to warn his audience to be alert and on the lookout for people who and precepts which are to be avoided (cf. Ro 16:17; Php 3:2). In this verse Paul is keen to caution the Colossians against anyone who would seek to “take [them] captive.” (“No one” translates the indefinite pronoun tis; contra Harris, 92, it is unlikely that Paul has “the foremost advocate or a vocal proponent of the erroneous philosophy” in view here [cf. Bruce, 97; Dunn, 146; Garland, 141 n. 9].) The present participle sylagōgōn is built on the verb sylagōgeō (GK 5194). This rare word, which occurs only here in the NT, likely means “to carry off as booty or plunder” (NIV, “take captive”). Wright, 100, suggests that sylagōgeō is a contemptuous wordplay on synagogue. While a clever idea, this interpretation strikes me as overly subtle and as being dependent on Wright’s conception of the “philosophy” as Judaism. At the time when Paul was writing, the Colossians had not (yet) been pillaged and carried off into spiritual captivity; however, the apostle is concerned that this could happen. The space he devotes to this issue (i.e., 2:8–23) signals the depth of his concern.
Paul is fearful that the Colossians might be taken captive by what he calls “the philosophy.” In Paul’s day, the word philosophia (GK 5814), which appears only here in the NT, was used broadly to depict all sorts of speculations, inclinations, and movements (see Lohse, 94–95, for details). To be sure, Paul is not denouncing philosophy in general; he is condemning a particular “philosophy” (note the presence of the definite article) that he regards as “hollow and deceptive.” (Interestingly, Paul describes the activity of the lawless one as “every sort of evil that deceives” [2 Th 2:10].)
The apostle then offers two reasons why he regards this “philosophy” as “hollow and deceptive.” First of all, Paul propounds, it is predicated on “human tradition.” In Paul’s perception, the “philosophy” was manufactured by humans, not given by God (cf. 2:6). Moreover, Paul maintains that the error the Colossians are to avoid is “according to the stoicheia of the world.” The term stoicheia (GK 5122), which appears only seven times in the NT (here and in 2:20; also Gal 4:3, 9; Heb 5:12; 2 Pe 3:10, 12), means, literally, “elements.” The precise relation between these elements and the world is a controverted (and complex) issue. Are we to construe these rudiments as “elementary” (NASB) or “basic” (NIV) principles of the world? If so, the operative idea would be that the “philosophy” was based on religious requirements and regulations such as those referred to in 2:16 (cf. 2:20–22; Heb 5:12). Or, do these stoicheia refer to “elemental spirits of the universe” (NRSV)? If so, the “philosophy” would be in concert with celestial powers, arguably malevolent in nature (cf. 1:13, 16; 2:10, 18, 20). (The construal of stoicheia as “elemental substances of the universe” [i.e., earth, water, air, and fire] would not be wholly unrelated to the second interpretive option, for in Paul’s day these elements that were thought to comprise the cosmos could be personified and divinized [cf. 2 Pe 3:10, 12].)
Although these two lines of interpretation differ in particulars and are typically regarded by scholars as mutually exclusive, it is worth noting that Paul linked both Jewish and “pagan” religious practices to spiritual slavery (see Gal 4:1–11, esp. vv. 3, 9; cf. 4:21–31). Moreover, Paul would have viewed religious rituals that were out of synch with Christ and out of step with the Spirit as worldly, fleshly, and earthly (see 2:11, 20, 23; 3:5; cf. Gal 5:16–25). Additionally, Paul considered people who were separated from God in Christ to be, irrespective of religion and its accoutrements, under the thralldom of a kingdom (1:13; cf. Eph 6:12) ruled by the god of this world and his minions (2 Co 4:4; cf. Ro 8:38; 16:20; Gal 1:4). Therefore, whether ta stoicheia tou kosmou is taken as “the elementary principles of the world” or as “the elemental spirits of the universe” (the view toward which I am inclined), the interpretive implications are similar. Paul considered the “philosophy” to be grounded in principles that were in concert with powers diametrically opposed to the Colossians’ new life in Christ. Were the Colossians to adopt the “philosophy’s” precepts and practices, they would return to the sphere of captivity where sinister powers and principalities hold sway. To embrace the “philosophy,” then, would not signal spiritual maturity and progress; rather, it would mark spiritual immaturity and regress (cf. Bruce, 100). In short, Paul contended that “the philosophy,” whatever its precise nature, was not “according to Christ” (NASB). Given that the Colossians had received Christ Jesus as Lord and were called to live in him, this short yet significant statement alone (i.e., “not according to Christ,” ou kata Christon) should have dissuaded them, or at least cautioned them, from a hasty and wholehearted adoption of the “philosophy.”
2:8 / Earlier, the readers were cautioned about some of the methods employed by the false teachers (2:4). Now, in a stern warning (see to it), he exposes this heresy even further. First, its effect is to enslave its victims. The word sylagōgeō describes the action of one kidnapping or plundering and then making off with the catch as a prize. It is an appropriate way of portraying the malicious and seductive nature of the heresy.
Second, it is hollow and deceptive philosophy (rsv: “philosophy and empty deceit”; gnb: “worthless deceit of human wisdom”). This is the only time that the word philosophia occurs in the nt, so it must have been a special feature of this heresy. Paul is not objecting to the study of philosophy (lit., “one who loves wisdom”), because in the Hellenistic world religious communities offered their teaching as philosophy. His concern is with those who have turned the pursuit of wisdom into a “philosophistry” characterized by empty and deceitful practices. This teaching is hollow because it does not contain the truth; it is deceptive because it captivates people and prevents them from seeing the truth.
Third, these teachings are human and not divine in origin. The teaching according to Christ is Paul’s reference to the word of truth, the gospel, which came to the Colossians directly through Epaphras (1:5–7) and indirectly through Paul as God’s appointed servant (1:23, 25). The false teachers cannot make such a claim, because their doctrines come from human sources and from the basic principles of this world (stoicheia tou kosmou, lit., “elements of the universe”). Most English translations add the word “spirits” or principles to the phrase and come out with “elemental spirits of the universe” (rsv), “elementary principles of the world” (nasb), or “ruling spirits of the universe” (gnb). In Heb. 5:12, the neb translates the phrase as “the ABC of God’s oracles.”
As the additional notes will show, there is a wide variety of scholarly opinion as to the meaning of these concepts in the nt (Col. 2:8, 20; Gal. 4:3). The term stoicheion indicates something basic or rudimentary, such as the fundamental principles of learning (the ABCs), or the elements from which the world was created (earth, air, fire, and water). These principles may have been elevated to the level of spirits or angels in the Hellenistic world.
Stoicheion also designates the heavenly bodies that in some cases were personified and worshiped. The control that these elemental spirits had over human beings (fate) could only be broken by correct knowledge (gnōsis) and/or ritual, usually in the form of magic or ascetic practices (cf. 2:20–23). But these stoicheia could also be the source of wisdom or knowledge and in this way provided the substance of the false message that Paul deals with in the subsequent verses (2:16–19) and exposes as being contrary to the gospel of Christ.
2:8. Believers face the very real threat of being captivated by false teaching and lured away from an unswerving devotion to the absolute supremacy of Christ. Paul’s warning now becomes direct: See to it that no one takes you captive. Captive means “to carry away” or “kidnap.” Here it refers to someone being carried away from the truth into the slavery of error.
Philosophy threatened to carry the Colossians away from the truth. This is not a blanket indictment against all philosophy. The reference here is to the particular philosophy, as seen in Paul’s description that follows, being promoted by the false teachers. This philosophy is hollow and deceptive, literally, an empty deception which stands in stark contrast to the fullness in Christ (1:19; 2:9). The hollow and deceptive philosophy of the false teachers promises much but delivers nothing.
Paul provided the Colossians with the two origins of this philosophy, neither of which is Christ. First, Paul says this empty deception is based on human tradition. William Barclay says, “It was a product of the human mind; and not a message of the Word of God” (Barclay, 164).
The second source of this empty deception was the basic principles of this world. The Greek phrase (stoicheia tou kosmou) means “component parts of a series.” It sometimes refers to elementary teaching like the ABCs. Sometimes, and most likely here, it refers to elemental powers or cosmic spirits. Paul mentioned spirit beings previously (1:16), telling us that Christ created the spirits which the false teachers venerated. Paul will mention them again (2:10, 15), telling us that Christ defeated the spirit beings. Paul’s warning is clear. Don’t allow yourselves to be kidnapped by an empty deception based on human ideas and defeated spirit beings. Referring to the false teachers and their philosophy, Eugene Peterson translates this phrase, “They spread their lies through the empty traditions of human beings and the empty superstitions of spirit beings” (Peterson, 501).
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1992). Colossians (pp. 98–102). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, J. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (pp. 180–182). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
 Still, T. D. (2006). Colossians. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon (Revised Edition) (Vol. 12, pp. 311–312). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Patzia, A. G. (2011). Ephesians, Colossians, Philemon (pp. 51–52). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Anders, M. (1999). Galatians-Colossians (Vol. 8, pp. 304–305). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.