UNDERSTANDING THE CHRIST-CENTERED EPISTEMOLOGY OF COLOSSIANS
“How do I know?” is usually called the epistemological question. Epistemology is the study of, “the nature and scope of knowledge, its presuppositions and basis, and the general reliability of claims to knowledge.”1
What Paul says
Paul’s basic response to, “How do I know?” is that when we know Christ, we can know things (Col. 1:6; Col. 2:6–16). In Christ, “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3). Only through Him can we have knowledge because man’s epistemological powers are so, “sinfully corrupted and can be remedied only through God’s own redemption in Christ… Redemptive renewal in the human heart and mind offers the only basis for seeing the world as a whole, as it really is.”2
It is important to realize that Paul was encouraging the Colossians to be filled with a specific knowledge. His desire was that the people would be, “filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;… increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9). There is no room for pre-Gnostic wisdom or even any human syncretism. This is the knowledge of the divine will that cannot be found anywhere else than in His Word.
Having a Christo-centric philosophy is not just experiencing Christ. It is also understanding how content-filled the knowledge of Christ should be. “For by Him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible… All things were created by Him, and for Him: and He is before all things, and by Him all things (including knowledge) consist” (Col. 1:16–17).
This does not mean people today need to or will know all things. And yet, the paradox is that Paul desires that they might reach, “all riches of the full assurance of understanding” (Col. 2:2). At the same time, even Paul acknowledges the mystery of “God, and of the Father, and of Christ; in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2–3).
How can the Colossians know these things if they are a mystery and are hidden? By realizing that hidden does not mean concealed; rather, it refers to being deposited or stored up in Christ.3 In other words, even though this knowledge was a mystery, God chooses to “make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Therefore, they are to set their minds on the things that are above (Col. 3:1–2).
Part of knowing properly is then avoiding false knowledge, knowledge that is not according to Christ. People must not be deluded with seemingly plausible arguments (Col. 2:4). “Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ” (Col. 2:8). This care will not be achieved through visions, or by avoiding reason, or believing human teachings, but by holding to Christ (Col. 2:18–22). He is the source of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
What Paul is responding to
Paul is intentional about stretching the Colossians’ understanding of knowledge, including what and how one can know. Ultimately, Paul is teaching that human traditions and constructs cannot impart real knowledge. The word for tradition that Paul uses in Col. 2:8 suggests antiquity and dignity, but also an autonomous authoritative character that supposedly brought about true knowledge.4 Whereas traditional thinking supposed that reasoning from first principles was the proper way to attain knowledge of God and His world, “for Paul this knowledge could only be received as revelation from God, mediated through the Spirit, and proclaimed in preaching (1 Cor. 1:17–18; 1 Cor. 2:6–16). ‘Wisdom’ cannot be obtained from below.”5
The implication for Christian philosophy
So how should Christocentric thinkers think about knowledge? Keep Christ central. This immediately highlights the antithetical nature of true wisdom. The world believes wisdom can come from understanding sense experience, but the foundation of Christian knowledge is not sensation—it is revelation.
Our initial answer to, “How do I know?” should be, “Because God has spoken.”6 Or as someone else has written, “God is the ultimate source of all knowledge, and His knowledge provides the ultimate standard of all truth.”7 For believers today, this excludes any skepticism about the ability to know. It means that knowledge is less about certainty of rational explanation than it is about certainty of truth.
D. W. Hamlyn, “History of Epistemology,” in Paul Edwards, ed., The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 3:8–9. ↩
Vern S. Poythress, “New Testament Worldview,” in W. Andrew Hoffecker, ed., Revolutions in Worldview: Understanding the Flow of Western Thought (Phillipsburg, Pa.: P&R, 2007), 85. ↩
Peter T. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 95. ↩
Peter T. O’Brien, “Letter to the Colossians,” in Hawthorne, Martin, and Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 148. ↩
Paige, “Philosophy,” 716. ↩
Oliphint, Role of Philosophy, 14. ↩
Holmes, Christianity and Philosophy, 17. ↩
This article was originally published in the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, July/August 2016. Posted here with permission.