Is Philosophy inherently evil? — Mondays with Mounce 216
Colossians 2:8 is often misunderstood to say that all philosophy is bad and Christians should not engage in the discipline. It is a little thing in translation, but one word can carry a lot of meaning. The Greek is a tad difficult, so let me start with a slightly more wooden translation.
“See to it that no one takes you captive by means of philosophy (διὰ τῆς φιλοσοφίας) and empty deceit (καὶ κενῆς ἀπάτης), according to the tradition of men (κατὰ τὴν παράδοσιν τῶν ἀνθρώπων), according to the elemental spirits of the world (κατὰ τὰ στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου), and not according to Christ (καὶ οὐ κατὰ Χριστόν).“
There are two main questions. The first is what does Paul mean by φιλοσοφία, brought into English as a transliteration, “philosophy”? If you know the culture of the day, you know that Paul is not objecting to Plato or to disciplined thought. Paul is dealing either with the smooth talking sophists who consider it a victory if they win the debate (truth is irrelevant; sound familiar in today’s culture?), or people passing falsehood off as truth.
In 2:23 Paul comments on “ rules, which … are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Therefore, you might be tempted to see “philosophy” and “ empty deceit” as the two means by which the false teachers are taking them captive. The NTL reads, “empty philosophies and high-sounding nonsense.”
The problem is in the details. Check the Greek carefully. διὰ τῆς φιλοσοφίας καὶ κενῆς ἀπάτης. Notice that here is only one preposition; and while φιλοσοφίας is articular, ἀπάτης is anarthrous. What does that mean?
If φιλοσοφίας and ἀπάτης were two different things, we would expect both the preposition and the article to be repeated. But as Paul phrases it, both words are pulled together into a singular concept by διὰ τῆς.
This explains the seemingly awkward translation of the NIV, which does see φιλοσοφίας and ἀπάτης as representing the same reality, with καί being epexegetical. “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.”
The NET agrees with the NIV interpretation, “through an empty, deceitful philosophy.” Frankly, I would prefer to see the “which” as “that”; to me, “which” sounds like the condemnation is on philosophy, all of which is human-based. “That” would make it clear that the type of philosophy being discussed is the philosophy that is based on human traditions. (The distinction, by the way, is valid for American English but not British English.)
Moral of the story? Daniel Wallace is right to place such a huge emphasis on the article in his grammar. There is a lot in that little word.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous works including the recent Basics of Biblical Greek Video Lectures and the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek. He is the general editor of Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.
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