(Col. 2:8) Is it wrong for Christians to study philosophy?

CLAIM: Paul writes, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception.” This is the only use of the term “philosophy” in the entire Bible, and here, philosophy is given negative connotations. Some fideistic interpreters argue that this implies that reason should not be pursued alongside faith. Does this mean that it is wrong for Christians to study philosophy?

RESPONSE: Not at all. In context, Paul isn’t against philosophy. A few verses earlier, Paul said that all “wisdom” (sophias) was found in Christ (Col. 2:3). If we love Jesus, then we love wisdom—for philosophy is the “love of wisdom.” Moreover, Paul elsewhere advocated the use of apologetics (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Phil. 1:7, 17), reason (Acts 17:2, 4, 17; 18:4, 19; 26:28), and philosophy (Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12).

Paul is addressing a specific Gnostic philosophy in Colossae. He uses the article before describing this philosophy which means that we could render this as “the philosophy and empty deceit.”[1] In other words, Paul is telling us to avoid this bad philosophy—not all philosophy. If your friend told you not to drink the spoiled milk, this would not be a command to refrain from all milk. Vaughn writes, “The use of a single article and a single preposition with the two nouns suggests that Paul intended his readers to understand the second term (‘empty deceit’) as explanatory of the first (‘philosophy’). That is to say, the so-called ‘philosophy’ of the Colossian heretics is more aptly and precisely described as an empty delusion.”[2]

This Gnostic teaching included asceticism, angel worship, and false visions (Col. 2:16-23). This philosophy was man-made and errant (v.22), and it came from the “traditions of men” (v.8), rather than from God. Paul even states that it comes from the “elemental principles of the world” (v.8), which likely refers to demonic spirits (see Gal. 4:3).

It may surprise some to read, but we actually need philosophy to do theology. Good theology uses tools like the law of non-contradiction (e.g. God’s word cannot contradict itself) or philosophical language to describe complex teachings (e.g. the Trinity is three persons and one essence). To further elaborate, we might compare philosophy to the rules of grammar. Without these rules, theology would be impossible. Do we believe that grammar is more authoritative than theology? Such a question is nonsensical. We need grammar to do theology—just as we need philosophy to do good theology.

Paul’s command in Colossians 2:8 actually supports the study of philosophy, rather than speaks against it. We might ask, “How can we guard ourselves from bad philosophy, if we do not study this subject?” If a bank manager told a teller, “Don’t accept any counterfeit money,” this would presuppose a thorough understanding of the difference between true and fake money. As C.S. Lewis explained this, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.”[3]

[1] Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 252.

[2] Curtis Vaughan, “Colossians,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Ephesians through Philemon, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 198.

[3] C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Orlando, FL: Macmillan, 1980,), 28.