On the Colossian Heresy
People sometimes get idyllic notions of what the early Church was like. It is imagined that the early Church was more Spirit-filled, more unified, free from many of the problems the Church has today.
It’s just part of that instinctive yearning people have for “the good old days.” I don’t know why people believe in this notion. It seems to be intuitive: sometime, way back when, people didn’t have the problems we have today.
But, a careful reading of the letters of the apostle Paul in our New Testament will quickly disprove this notion. The letters of Paul were often written to correct false teachings and false practices that had arisen in the churches to which he wrote. Much of the New Testament we owe to the problems in the early Church.
Some of the unique features of Paul’s letter to the Colossians can be explained by the fact that the apostle Paul is replying to a type of false teaching (or false teachings) that were circulating in the Colossian church. This concern comes to the surface, for example here:
Τοῦτο λέγω, ἵνα μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς παραλογίζηται ἐν πιθανολογίᾳ.
“I am saying this so that no one may deceive you with plausible arguments.” (NRSV)
It appears from various hints in the letter to the Colossians that Paul wrote it to correct some false ideas circulating among the members of that church.
So, at some point, anyone teaching about the letter to the Colossians has to address the issue of The Colossian Heresy. What was it? How much can we know (or guess) about it?
Any reconstruction of it is bound to be a bit speculative. We must build up from hints in the letter itself, and from whatever knowledge we can gain about the philosophical and religious ideas of the time. Actually, there may not have been one single “Colossian Heresy.” There may have been several different ideas that Paul was concerned about, but no coherent, connected teaching. Really, we may never know.
So, theories abound. The great J. B. Lightfoot believed that the Colossian Heresy was a form of Jewish Essene teaching. The great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce taught (in a similar vein) that the false teaching at Colossae was a form of Judaism influenced by Greek philosophy. Some people prefer to refer to the Colossian Heresy as Gnostic, or, more correctly, proto-Gnostic (or, we might say pre-Gnostic). Martin Dibelius argued that the Colossian Heresy was some form of ancient Mystery Religion. On the other hand, M. D. Hooker has argued that there really wasn’t a distinctive Colossian Heresy at all. All these positions have been argued by able scholars, and there is something to be said for many of the theories that have been advanced
I can’t help but think that knowing the true, exact nature of the Colossian Heresy is as impossible as it is unnecessary. What is needed is a theory that gives a good account of the distinctive themes and language of the letter. So, there is a practical test here: what helps to illuminate the letter is to be preferred.
Can we generalize about the false teaching that the apostle Paul seems to be opposing at Colossae? Certainly. There is no need for lack of absolute certainty about the nature of this heresy to give us pause.
(1.) We can identity: the philosophical aspects of this false teaching. The popular philosophical perspectives of the day were undermining the basic themes of the Gospel of Christ. Themes that were typical of the dualism of Greek culture were entering the church.
The false teachings at Colossae appear to be proto-Gnostic. Real Gnosticism didn’t come into full flower until the 2nd Century, but already the themes which would go together to make up Gnosticism are apparent here in Colossae — as they must have been in much of the ancient world.
Basically, here is the problem: in this dualistic point of view material things are evil and only spirit is good. Human beings are understood as spiritual beings (deep down inside) who are trapped in an evil material body, in an evil material world. Salvation is understood as escape from this material world and its influence. How is such an escape possible? By cultivating the spirit through spiritual knowledge: in visions and in mystical experiences and in the teachings of others who have experienced the deep things of the spirit.
This is why this type of teaching became known as Gnosticism. The word Gnostic comes from the Greek word for knowledge: γνῶσις (gnosis). So, while the problem was philosophical in a way (matter is evil, spirit is good) it is also spiritual (salvation was through spiritual knowledge, visionary experiences, secret wisdom).
(2.) We can also identify the spiritual aspects of this false teaching.
Gnostics tended to believe in a hierarchy of spiritual beings that were arrayed between us and the Highest God (pure spirit, pure good). These beings were at various levels of spirituality. Some were more material and less spiritual, and so forth. So spiritual knowledge could be gained by contact with the higher spiritual beings. It is likely that this is what Paul was talking about when he talks about the “worship of angels” that was going on in the Colossian Church.
We see how serious the apostle Paul felt this issue was in this passage:
Colossians 2:18, 19
μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς καταβραβευέτω θέλων ἐν ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ἃ ἑόρακεν ἐμβατεύων, εἰκῇ φυσιούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοὸς τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ, 19 καὶ οὐ κρατῶν τὴν κεφαλήν, ἐξ οὗ πᾶν τὸ σῶμα διὰ τῶν ἁφῶν καὶ συνδέσμων ἐπιχορηγούμενον καὶ συμβιβαζόμενον αὔξει τὴν αὔξησιν τοῦ θεοῦ.
“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, 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.” (NRSV).
The part of that I find chilling is this: “…and not holding fast to the head….” The NIV translation is even stronger: “He has lost connection with the Head….” The spiritual experiences and visions which were the basis of their spiritual pride, are also the very things that have cut them off from Christ. John Wesley comments: “He does not hold Christ, who does not trust in him alone. All the members [of the Church] are nourished by faith, and knit together by love and mutual sympathy.”
As soon as we set out on the road of spiritual pride, we step out of the road of grace. All valid spiritual experiences glorify Christ. All valid spiritual experiences mean more love to God and more love for others. But, experiences which become for us a badge of our own spirituality, get in the way of our witness, our service, and our true spirituality. Suddenly, the issue becomes us and not Christ.
And, anyway, nothing is so obnoxious as spiritual pride.
(3.) Beyond this, we can identify the legalistic aspects of this false teaching. It was a teaching that insisted on a strict adherence to certain rules and regulations and observances.
Colossians 2:16, 17
Μὴ οὖν τις ὑμᾶς κρινέτω ἐν βρώσει καὶ ἐν πόσει ἢ ἐν μέρει ἑορτῆς ἢ νεομηνίας ἢ σαββάτων· ἅ ἐστιν σκιὰ τῶν μελλόντων, τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ.
“Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (NRSV)
And, even more to the point, notice this:
Εἰ ἀπεθάνετε σὺν Χριστῷ ἀπὸ τῶν στοιχείων τοῦ κόσμου, τί ὡς ζῶντες ἐν κόσμῳ δογματίζεσθε; μὴ ἅψῃ μηδὲ γεύσῃ μηδὲ θίγῃς, ἅ ἐστιν πάντα εἰς φθορὰν τῇ ἀποχρήσει, κατὰ τὰ ἐντάλματα καὶ διδασκαλίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων, ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ [καὶ] ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος, οὐκ ἐν τιμῇ τινι πρὸς πλησμονὴν τῆς σαρκός.
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’? All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.” (NRSV)
Thus, the Colossian heresy seems to have an element of Jewish legalism in it: it insisted on the keeping of certain traditional Jewish rules and regulations and special festivals and observances. But, the philosophical error at Colossae is also likely to have contributed to this as well. You see, if you believe that the material world is irredeemably evil and that only spirit is good, you can arrive at what is sometimes called asceticism: ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος “severe treatment of the body….” Asceticism is the belief that physical suffering promotes spirituality. Because the body (being material) is irredeemably evil, whatever it desires is therefore evil. So, in this view, denying the material body and causing it suffering could promote spirituality.
Christian faith cannot be reduced to being a matter of keeping rules and regulations. Christian faith is not compatible with the view that the material world (God’s creation!) is evil. Christian faith is not compatible with the view that the human body is evil.
Paul dares to say that these stringent rules and regulations and observances actually have no spiritual value! Rather than promoting the spiritual life, they become one more basis for spiritual pride.
(4.) And, then, we can also identify certain astrological elements of this false teaching. We gather this from the apostle Paul’s references to what he calls στοιχεῖα τοῦ κόσμου “the elemental spirits of the universe” (in verses 2:8 and 2:20.) This appears to be a reference to some form of astrology: the belief that our lives are controlled by the movement of the stars and other heavenly bodies seen in the sky.
This viewpoint tends to be fatalistic: it’s all in the stars. But, the study of astrology also may offer a source of knowledge for overcoming enslavement to the stars. And, who knows, maybe the stars were also identified with certain angels or intermediary heavenly beings standing between us and God, I do know people who believe in the angel numbers and how it helps them overcome difficult times in life, one of my friends recently explained to me the Angel Number 444 Meaning, which is all about positivity!
So, the Colossian Heresy appears to be a stew of ideas: Greek, philosophical, Jewish, legalistic, and astrological. Yes, it was particular to it’s time and place. But, such things continue, again and again, to appear in the Church of Jesus Christ.
F.F. Bruce wrote:
Some people today, as then, love to make a parade of exceptional piety. They claim to have found the way to a higher plane of spiritual experience, as though they had been initiated into sacred mysteries which give them an almost infinite advantage over the uninitiated. Others are all too prone to be impressed by such people. But Paul warns them against being misled by such lofty claims. Those who make them, for all their lofty pretensions, for all their boasting of the special insight which they have received into divine reality, are simply inflated by unspiritual pride and are out of touch with Him who is the true Head and Fount of life and knowledge.
If people practice various forms of abstinence and find their spiritual health improved thereby, that is their own responsibility. But if they make their abstinence a matter of boasting, and if they try to impose it on others, they are wrong. As for those who draw public attention to their abstinence so as to gain some measure of veneration, they must learn that there is no necessary connection between such impressive asceticism and the true humility of Christ. By contrast with the spiritual service which the gospel enjoins in conformity with the will of God, which is ‘good and acceptable and perfect’ (Rom. 12:2), this would-be religion is a ‘self-made cult,’ as Deissmann rendered it, or a ‘faked religion,’ as H. N. Bate put it.
And what was the problem with this false teaching? It caused people who called themselves Christian to loose connection with Christ (2:19).
And, the Gnostic Christ was not the real, human Jesus Christ. Since the body was believed to be evil, they thought Christ didn’t have a human nature. To be the revealer of God, he had to be wholly spiritual. This was an unreal Christ, not the Jesus of Nazareth that the disciples knew and with whom they travelled.
It was, thus a subtle attack on the adequacy of Jesus Christ. The focus was taken off Christ, off the life of faith and love and hope. It became the pursuit of knowledge, of spiritual and visionary experiences, of stringent legalism.
ἅ ἐστιν σκιὰ τῶν μελλόντων, τὸ δὲ σῶμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ.
“These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” (NRSV)
Let Christ be the test of your beliefs, your doctrine, your philosophy of life, your life of faith. The question is always: how does this line up with the truth we know in Jesus Christ.
For those wishing to read a little further, I found these articles — that I read a long time ago — quite interesting. I mention them because they are both available online in PDF form. The F. F. Bruce article from which that quote (above) is taken may be found here: The Colossian Heresy by F. F. Bruce. I also found this article interesting: Heresies in the Colossian Church by H. Wayne House. Searching the Internet will turn up several more articles on this — but they are (of course) of varying worth.
This is incredible, I think. “Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.” (Ecclesiastes 7:10 NRSV) I used to have an idealized view of the early Church — that is, before I read the entire New Testament and then dabbled in Church history. Wow — what a fool I had been.
It is interesting, isn’t it, that even the book of Ecclesiastes documents the human tendency to falsely idealize the “good old days.”