See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (ESV quoted)Paul has just finished talking about the supremacy of Christ (1:15-20) and Paul's sharing in His sufferings (1:24-2:1), for the encouragement of the Colossians (2:1-7) so that they would not be deluded with "plausible arguments" (2:4), but would "reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God's mystery, which is Christ" (2:2). After 2:8, which acts as a sort of fulcrum to Paul's discourse, he begins expounding on the work of Christ in the flesh and the believers' identification with His death and resurrection. Even though this verse mostly consists of a list of warnings, it's worth putting some thought into what exactly Paul is talking about. He warns about four things, which I think are expanding on the "plausible arguments" he mentions earlier:
- Empty deception.
- Human tradition.
- Elemental spirits (or elementary principles) of the world.
Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions,puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.Here we see some examples of the kind of "human" wisdom Paul is warning the Colossians against. By "philosophy" Paul seems to be referring to things like legalism, asceticism, and mysticism--in short, doomed, manmade ways of trying to gain access to God when He has made the only way through Christ. These philosophies continue to hold sway today both inside and outside the church. The meaning of "elemental spirits" (or elementary principles) is still somewhat mysterious. David Guzik in his commentary offers the theory that Paul might simply mean the so-called "retribution principle" or "karma"; you get what you deserve, good things for good people and bad things for bad people, so be good in order to gain favor with your god. It's the basis of much of life, but is flatly contradictory to the gospel.
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.
So Paul is, on the one hand, warning the Colossians against replacing the grace of Christ with the hopeless treadmill of legalism and trying to earn their way to God's favor and, on the other, replacing the concrete realities of Christianity with subjective, feel-good, new-age mysticism. Both of these philosophies are empty, human in origin, and antithetical to Paul's message.
With that relatively firm foundation of understanding established, I'll turn next to the reason I'm expounding on Colossians 2:8: an online discussion I read yesterday in which it was used as a rebuke to the "Satanic philosophy" of evolution. (No link because I'm not trying to humiliate the poster) Aside from the way he was demonizing people who supported the theory of evolution as much as the theory itself, there are several things that trouble me about linking it with the hollow philosophy Paul was warning against, which speak to the popular conception today that Christians are in some kind of a "war" against science.
First is the conservative Christian tendency to conflate the descriptive scientific theory of evolution and the normative philosophy of social Darwinism. A moral system that gives the strong free rein to triumph over the weak can be evaluated in light of God's desire for human relations and its ultimate effects. An attempt to explain how life on earth came to be the way that it is, is no more good or evil than an attempt to establish that the earth orbits the sun. You would think Christians (Protestants especially) would have learned from Galileo not to use religion to quash scientific inquiry, but apparently not. Christians, especially conservative Christians, often have trouble distinguishing the science of evolution from an anti-God, humanistic worldview when the two are not so inextricably bound together.
Besides this association between science and morality, many Christians deny evolution because "it says God didn't create the world in seven days, six thousand years ago, and that's a damned lie!" It is in this spirit that evolution is written off as the "empty philosophy" Paul warns against. Of course the usual, most-publicized conflict pitting one particular interpretation of Genesis 1 against scientific consensus is unlikely to give anytime soon, even though numerous other nonliteral interpretations of the creation story, ranging from the day-age theory to the literary-framework theory, affirm (in some sense) the truth of scripture while avoiding blatant incompatibilities with evolution. Combined with the fact that the means by which ancient cultures defined a "day" (the sun and moon) weren't created until "day" four, the strictly literal interpretation becomes untenable. Only when the young-earth view is portrayed as equivalent to the truth of scripture is there any inevitable conflict between science and religion.
But there is a more fundamental problem that I'm honestly surprised isn't the one dominating the church debate over evolution. An "elementary principle" of evolution is the idea of natural selection or "survival of the fittest": fitter, better-adapted species are better able to survive and reproduce, while less-fit species can't make it and die out. Die out. Die. The Bible teaches that death is an alien force, the consequence of sin (Romans 6:23), an enemy to God to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15:26), alien to God's creation and originating in Adam's act of sin (Romans 5:12). The image God gives John of the perfect, restored Earth is one with no more death (Revelation 21:4); since God originally made the earth "good" and perfect, without mistakes, it follows that death was also originally absent from creation. In light of this, it is inconceivable that natural selection, and death with it, could have held sway over the world before the time of man, because this would mean that God created death, thus casting His Son's coming to defeat death in a much different light. Death is not "a natural part of life" or "the way it's supposed to be".
Now we arrive at a much deeper incompatibility between Christianity (as we know it) and evolution. Young-earth creationism is dispensable to Christianity; the "bad-ness" of death is not, as far as I can see. Unlike the YEC/evolution debate, which involves a necessary contradiction about the age of the earth among other things, there are possible ways to resolve this problem (such as an earlier, undocumented "fall" of Satan and his angels which corrupted creation), but none have enough scriptural support to be believed with conviction. In light of this, I'm currently agnostic about exactly how the biblical and scientific data on the origins of life fit together--and that's okay with me.
The agnostic response, however, is very uncommon from Christians who find their faith somehow in conflict the the external world. A more common response goes something like this: faith, the Bible says, is believing without seeing. It means trusting the "better word" of Christ above every "empty claim" upon the earth. So when our faith comes in conflict with the observable facts of this world, faith, if it is real and salvific, has to win. Therefore you should cling to your understanding on faith of the issue (usually a plain-faced, literal interpretation) and deny whatever it is in the world that is trying to contradict it, be it evolution, gay-rights advocates, or those doctors who don't think God will heal your cancer.
The problem with this response is that we aren't exactly pitting the "better word" of what God has said against the "empty claims" of the world, but our understanding of what God has said against the world. Just as scientific data needs to be interpreted before any meaningful claims can be made from it, so too the biblical data needs to be interpreted. When we confuse our faith in an infallible object with the object of faith itself, we lose the ability to admit we might be mistaken in (parts of) our faith. Faith, which is meant to draw us up out of ourselves and begin real conversation, is instead used to suppress conversation and affirm our previously held conceptions. The equation by well-meaning Christians of any compromise in their interpretation with a compromise in their faith is the root of hordes of unnecessary arguments and obstacles to faith. In the name of "holding on to what we believe", Christians become unwilling or unable to admit when we are wrong.
The process I just described is, I think, one of the biggest hindrances to the Christian church's witness, particularly in the last hundred or so years. It's a tragedy. Scientific inquiry, meant to heighten God's glory by appreciation of His handiwork, is instead treated as an enemy. Truth-seekers who might otherwise come to saving faith fail the litmus test of positions on science, culture, or doctrine, things only tangentially related to the gospel, and experience needless rejection from the church. Christians tragically become better-known for their intolerance and "backwardness" than for any of the things Jesus taught us to be. Situations like this call for a bit of doubt--not the refusal to come to any conclusions, but to be humble, loving, and open to conversation and relationship as we do so.