Responding to Col. 2:8 & 1 Cor. 1:19-20
Updated: Jul 2, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
Catholics believe that philosophy and theology can work together hand-in-hand. Philosophy can sometimes assimilate into a Catholic theological understanding of God’s revelation. For example, philosophy says that everything in this universe has movement, yet such movement necessitates that there be an unmoved mover to put everything into motion. Theology synthesizes this truth with divine revelation and says that the unmoved mover is the God of Israel. He created the universe (Gen. 1:1), so philosophy and theology can work together in harmony sometimes. Such harmony does not always occur, for sometimes philosophy contradicts divine revelation. Yet when they do not contradict, they are harmonized, as St. Thomas Aquinas did in his Summa Theologica. Yet Protestant Fundamentalists will frequently object to an integration between philosophy and theology. They will cite Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and Colossians. The Corinthains quote says,
“For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart’” (1 Cor. 1:19).
This verse appears to say that God does not like philosophy/wisdom. God wants to “destroy” such wisdom. Is theology supposed to be opposed to philosophy? Upon closer inspection, this is not likely. For in 1 Cor. 1:19, Paul is quoting from Isaiah 29:14, which is about destroying human wisdom that attempts to make itself superior to God’s wisdom. Philosophers who do that are prideful. Their knowledge is only natural, whereas God’s wisdom is super-natural. Is. 29:14, then, is primarily against prideful philosophy, not philosophy per se. The philosopher could be humble, recognizing which of his beliefs could be reconciled with/elevated by faith and which could not be reconciled with faith. He would discard those beliefs that are contradictory to faith. Such a humble philosopher would therefore recognize the vast inferiority of human philosophy to God’s divinely revealed truths. God might like such a philosopher and his teachings. So, upon closer inspection, 1 Cor. 1:19 only comments on prideful philosophers and does not condemn all of philosophy. Humble philosophers are still a possibility.
The next verse in 1 Cor. 1 is also quoted by Fundamentalists, “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 (1 Cor. 1:20)?” If God has made foolish the wisdom of the world, then philosophy in general is simply foolish, right? Although Fundamentalists think so, this is not the case. First, some context is in order.
Paul preached to many philosophically minded Greeks about Jesus, but such Greeks refused the Gospel (Acts 17:15-18:1). They assumed that God’s beloved Son, if He had one, never would have been crucified as a criminal by the Romans. For Paul to believe that was foolish in their eyes (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). Jesus obviously was an imposter - His death proved it. If He were authentically great, then He would have died a glorious death, or have never died at all. Yet Paul contradicts these claims in 1 Cor., saying that the philosophers are truly the foolish ones. As impossible as it might have sounded to the Greeks, the glorious Jesus could still be great after death. For it all depends on the meaning of His death. Paul says that Jesus was the lamb slain for the sins of the world (1 Cor. 5:7). His death turned out to be the greatest thing in the history of history! This flips certain ideas within philosophy on its head. Not only that, but Jesus resurrected from the dead on the third day (1 Cor. 15:4). So, Paul says, the philosophers are wrong.
As the context shows, Paul is not throwing philosophy away. He does not propound a wholesale rejection of philosophy, but rather select ideas within philosophy. To give an analogy, I can call a friend who drives recklessly foolish without suggesting that everything he does is foolish. Maybe he is quite smart with managing his investments, his job, and his family. In the same way, Paul is only pointing out that this particular area within philosophy does not synthesize with Christianity. The philosophers are foolish in their views on Jesus’s death. That’s it. The Fundamentalist interpretation does not take the context into consideration fully. Not only that, but Fundamentalists create further problems by assuming that all philosophy is foolish based on this passage. For consistency would demand that Paul also thinks that all Jewish experts (the “scribe”) and public speakers (the “debater”) are foolish. For he says, “Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” Not even Fundamentalists would go that far! So, the Fundamentalist interpretation is false.
Now that 1 Corinthians has been answered, let’s move on to the Colossians quote. In Colossians 2:8, Paul says,
“See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.”
Paul seems to say that philosophy is a danger to be avoided. It is a trap that philosophers lay out for an unsuspecting passerby to fall into. Now, if Paul is referring to philosophy in this verse, it still does not mean that all philosophy is bad. Rather, it could just refer to certain bad philosophies that are in contradiction to Christianity. However, Paul probably is not even referring to philosophy in Col. 2:8. Most likely, the phrase “philosophy” refers to the Jewish way of life, for the term “was also used by Hellenistic Jewish writers such as Josephus and Philo” to refer to that (Hahn and Mitch, ICSB, p. 367). So, Paul is warning the Colossian Christians about Jews who might try to make them Jewish. Such Jewish zealots are the danger, not philosophy. So there is nothing in this verse which contradicts the notion of unifying faith and reason.
St. Paul has nothing against philosophy per se. Rather, he has a problem with prideful philosophers and false philosophies. Philosopher’s who think that their ideas are superior to the cross of Jesus Christ are to be avoided. Such a teaching does not touch on the possibility of a humble philosopher that subordinates his ideas to Christ. Such is what Catholics like St. Thomas Aquinas have done. It also was seen that Paul does not address philosophy in Colossians 2, but rather the zealous Jews attempting to convert Paul’s converts. Fundamentalists have missed this important point.