The church at Colosse apparently had come under the influence of the early stages of Gnosticism. Gnostics taught that certain individuals were privy to mystical sources of knowledge beyond the Scriptures. If one wanted to move on to maturity, according to the Gnostics, he had to tap into this extra-biblical knowledge through the methods that they taught. The Colossians, under this influence, were leaving behind the apostolic instruction concerning the Christian life (vv. 1-7) and were being deluded into adding at least five things to God’s Word.
Colossians 2:8-15 warns of the danger of being taken captive through philosophy and empty deception. “Philosophy” means the “love of wisdom” and the book of Proverbs tells us that the love of wisdom is a worthy pursuit (Proverbs 4:6). God does not oppose wisdom; He is against the wrong kind of wisdom. Paul warns of a pseudo-wisdom that can be identified by three characteristics:
• It is according to the traditions of men. That is, wisdom that comes from the mind of men, not the mind of God.
• It is according to the elementary principles of the world. This is likely a reference to the attempt to gain esoteric knowledge through mystical means, something the Gnostics loved (see v. 18).
• It is not according to Christ. True wisdom is found in Christ “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (v. 3). The Colossians were searching in the wrong place for wisdom. What they were looking for was found in Christ, through the Word, not in the philosophies of men.
Everyone thinks he knows what legalism is and no one, including the Pharisees, ever thinks he is legalistic. Colossians 2:16-17 describes legalism as majoring on the minors. It is living for the shadows instead of the substance. It is the belief that keeping certain rules and rituals wins favor with God. These rules and rituals almost always are things that do not emerge directly from the Word. Therefore, the danger lies in the fact that we have added our own ideas to God’s in order to mature ingodliness. We, in essence, declare that God’s Word is insufficient to instruct us on how to live life; we must therefore assist Him.
Asceticism is based on a misunderstanding of our bodies. It is the idea that God will be impressed and we will become more holy if we deprive our bodies of even those things that are good. The major flaw, as Paul says, is that it is a “self-made religion” and thus once again an addition to God’s revelation (Colossians 2:20-23).
Pragmatism is not specifically mentioned in Colossians 2 but nevertheless permeates the whole passage. Pragmatism is the error of determining truth by what appears to work. If some method or concept seems successful, if people feel better, if they respond to the gospel or go to church more often, then it must be of God. Instead of the Word of God determining how we live and what we do, pragmatism steps in and rules.
Paul describes the dangers of mysticism in Colossians 2:18,19. The Gnostics taught that a few elite had received thegift of direct revelation through the Holy Spirit. These moments of inspiration took place through visions, dreams, and encounters with angels (Pagels 49, 139-142, 163-166). This divided the church into two classes, the haves and the have nots (the truly spiritual and the unspiritual).
The heart of modern day mystics’ problems is found in these verses: they are basing their theology on experiences rather than on the foundation of Jesus Christ as found in His Word. The end result is that such people are “defrauded.” They are missing out on true biblical living because of their beliefs.
As happened at Colosse, many in the conservative/fundamental ranks are subtly adjusting their view of the Scriptures. These individuals would defend to the death their belief in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Word, but have softened in the area of sufficiency.
When I speak of the sufficiency of the Bible, I mean that it alone is adequate to train us in godliness. Only the Word reveals God’s truth for living. On the negative side, this naturally implies that nothing needs to be added to the Scriptures for us to know truth and live godly lives. Therefore, when anything, whether it is man’s wisdom, personal experience, pragmatism, tradition, or direct revelation, is touted as a means of accomplishing these things, then biblical sufficiency has been denied. By this definition we find the conservative Christian landscape literally covered with those who claim to believe in the authority of Scripture, yet in practice deny it by their extrabiblical sources of obtaining truth and guidance.
But is biblical sufficiency biblical? Does the Word claim to be adequate? In reply, we are reminded of 2 Peter 1:3, “Seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him.” How is life and godliness obtained? It is accomplished through the true knowledge of Christ, which is found only in the Word. 2 Timothy3:16,17 reminds us that the Scriptures are inspired by God and are profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness. Why? In order that we might be adequately equipped for every good work. We have to wonder, if the Scriptures are adequate to equip us for EVERY good work and if they are able to lead us to EVERYTHING pertaining to life and godliness, what else is needed? Why search beyond the Scriptures for the things that God says the Scriptures alone supply?
In our support of the doctrine of biblical sufficiency we can do more than proof-text. The whole thrust of Scripture implies that the Word alone is sufficient to teach us how to live life and find guidance. As a matter of fact, the burden of proof that something beyond the Scriptures (visions, man’s wisdom, tradition, etc.) is needed lies with those who doubt sufficiency. Note the view of God’s Word as found in Psalm 19. We are told that it is:
• perfect and will restore the soul (v. 7)
• sure, making wise the simple (v. 7)
• right, rejoicing the heart (v.8)
• pure, enlightening the eyes (v. 8)
• clean, enduring forever (v .9)
• true and righteous altogether (v. 9)
• more desirable than gold (v. 10)
• sweeter than honey (v. 10)
There is no hint here that the Word is inadequate to equip us for whatever life throws our way. As the Psalmist praises the Scriptures he implies that there is no need for help from any outside source. This is the picture that we get throughout the entire Bible. Human wisdom, observations and experience add nothing to the Scriptures.
Mysticism, either in its classical or softer form, is one of the most subtle forces that undermine sufficiency in the evangelical church today. John MacArthur’s definition of the often-accepted Evangelical form of mysticism is helpful, “Mysticism looks to truth internally, weighing feeling, intuition, and other internal sensations more heavily than objective, observable, external data …. Its source of truth is spontaneous feeling rather than objective fact, or sound biblical interpretation” (MacArthur 32).
Many of us dismiss the faulty view of revelation held by Charismatics as unbiblical, but turn around and adopt a similar understanding for our own lives and ministries. I believe this to not only be inconsistent with, but an unavoidable denial of, biblical authority and sufficiency.
Pagels, Elaine. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
MacArthur, John. Our Sufficiency in Christ. Dallas: Word Publishing, 1991.
Gary Gilley is Senior Pasotr of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois. He has served in various was as a member of IFCA international for many years. He writes regularly at at svchapel.org.