Joseph W.H. Lough
Colossians 2:8 in case you haven’t guessed is the famous verse that reads: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
From the first, this verse has generated more heat than light since it would appear to authorize anyone and everyone who wants to brand his or her opponent a “philosopher,” a lover of false wisdom. None perhaps is more famous than Tertullian’s exposition on Col. 2:8:
Fuerat Athenis et istam sapientiam humanam affectatricem et interpolatricem ueritatis de congressibus nouerat, ipsam quoque in suas haereses multipartitam uarietate sectarum inuicem repugnantium.  Quid ergo Athenis et Hierosolymis? quid academiae et ecclesiae? quid haereticis et christianis?  Nostra institutio de porticu Solomonis est qui et ipse tradiderat Dominum in simplicitate cordis esse quaerendum.  Viderint qui Stoicum et Platonicum et dialecticum christianismum protulerunt.  Nobis curiositate opus non est post Christum Iesum nec inquisitione post euangelium.  Cum credimus, nihil desideramus ultra credere. Hoc enim prius credimus non esse quod ultra credere debeamus (De praescr. 7).
[The Apostle had been at Athens, and in his argumentative encounters there had become acquainted with that human wisdom which affects and corrupts the Truth, itself also being many times divided into its own heresies by the variety of its mutually antagonistic sects. What then hath Athens in common with Jerusalem ? What hath the Academy in common with the Church ? What have heretics in common with Christians? Our principles are from the "Porch" of Solomon, who himself handed down that the Lord must be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with those who bring forward a Stoic or Platonic or dialectic Christianity. We have no need of speculative inquiry after we have known Christ Jesus; nor of search for the Truth after we have received the Gospel. When we become believers, we have no desire to believe anything besides; for the first article of our belief is that there is nothing besides which we ought to believe.]
Beyond the obvious problem with such counsel – i.e., that we are elsewhere counseled to love Wisdom – there is the deeper problem of knowing which or what wisdom we are to love and which or what we are to beware since through it we are liable to be cheated. Nor is there really any help here in pointing to the “elemental spirits of the universe” or, perhaps better “the laws of nature” [stoicheia tou kosmou], hence the “first principles” embraced within Stoicism. As we negotiate the world from day to day we all rely upon a rough map about how it works. And were we to abandon this rough map of first principles we would quickly find ourselves in a serious bind.
Yes, we do draw our principles from Solomon’s “porch,” which, to Tertullian, implied simplicity. But everything that is simple is not divine.
Which is why we need to attend more carefully to the practical, communal, social dimension of the Epistle’s counsel. The Epistle is not inviting us to throw out our philosophy books. Nor is he inviting us to stop thinking. Rather is he inviting us to reflect on the kinds of practices and relationships with one another through which we might cultivate our relationship with God.
We are all aware of spiritual guides and plans – they line the bookshelves of our bookstores – that recommend this or that diet, this or that daily or monthly or annual set of techniques; spiritual enlightenment guaranteed or your money back, no questions asked.
2:16 Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.
2:17 These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.
2:18 Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking,
Contrast these dietary and contemplative restrictions with the practical advice of the Epistle:
2:19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.
We are related to one another. And the private, ascetic path to God – follow these steps, embrace this philosophy, do this, don’t do that, eat this, don’t eat that – is does not build up the body, but divides it.
The author of the Epistle rather than counseling us to avoid philosophy is instead counseling us to follow practices that build up the body, that attend to it, that nurture it. But these are precisely the kinds of practices that we cannot perform alone, by ourselves, inwardly, privately. Rather are these the kinds of practices that cannot be performed without one another.
We might therefore do well to ask whether the philosophy we embrace is a philosophy that requires mutual service and ministry or whether, to the contrary, it could just as well and easily be performed by ourselves, privately. Does it require our, inevitably messy engagement with one another? Or could I just as easily or even more easily fulfill my love of wisdom by myself? Or, finally, is it a philosophy that demands a strict observance of rituals that aim less at genuine practical service than at ritual exclusion?
More to the point: does our commitment to ritual purity – perhaps liturgical purity – actually constitute a philosophy of exclusion?