Colossians 2:8-10 gives another general definition of Gnosticism, as well as how to combat it. Paul is writing about a philosophy like Stoicism, not a specific religion, such as Judaism. This is important to recognize, since in verse 16, Paul mentions the Sabbath and holy days, and it is commonly assumed that Paul condemns their observance. Yet, he does not - he warns against a philosophy that disparaged the feasting and joyous observance of the Sabbath and holy days. This is why Paul tells the Colossians to "let no one judge you" with regard to eating, drinking, or observing the weekly and annual Sabbaths - rather than what is commonly read into Colossians 2:16: "There is no reason to keep the Sabbath or holy days." Christians in Colossae were being pressured by the ascetic society around them, which would have looked down on their feasting.
This is confirmed in the rest of Colossians 2, which deals primarily with asceticism (see especially Colossians 2:21-23). Some branches of Gnosticism adhered to asceticism as a way to free the eternal spirit by living regimented, plain, and insular lives. (Conversely, some Gnostics went to the other extreme - practicing hedonism - believing that what they did with their bodies did not make any difference since only spirit mattered.)
Paul says that this philosophy and its associated doctrines were plausible, but they were not based on solid arguments. He calls them "vain deceit" (KJV) or "empty deceit" (NKJV). They may sound good, depending upon one's inclination, but they endanger church members. The apostle writes that they would be "spoiled" (KJV), which does not necessarily mean being "corrupted," but rather of being "plundered," hence the NKJV's use of "cheated." This empty philosophy would rob or cheat them of their faith, their hope, their understanding of God, their relationship with God, their vision, and the purpose that God is working out. Once introduced, it would begin to steal away all of their true, spiritual riches.
Paul also provides two possible sources of this unsteady philosophy: "the traditions of men" and the "rudiments of the world." Examining the "rudiments of the world" first will help to explain the traditions of men. Other translations call them the "elements of the world," the "basic principles of the world," or "the powers of the world." In using this term, Paul is referring to the demonic powers that make this world, this cosmos, what it is. The source of this philosophy of salvation through special knowledge is Satan and the demons.
This explains why, when we read the histories of various religions and their branches, the same patterns arise time and again. Man does not have it within himself to pass along accurately and dependably ideas that go back to the very beginning. With an incessant drumming, the powers of the world keep prompting men and women in the same vain deceits that directly contradict the truth about God and His purpose for mankind.
Humans certainly play a role in handing down these traditions. Sunday school teachers and theologians perpetuate the Gnostic myths of the immortality of the soul, of eternal consciousness, of progressive revelation, of each person having a spark of goodness within that just needs to be fanned into a flame, and of each soul or spirit existing before in heaven and returning there upon death. Men pass these traditions on to other men, but the powers of the spirit world keep these messengers on their track and blinded to the truth.
The last phrase in Colossians 2:8 - "not according to Christ" - is a simple one, but it encapsulates what this is all about. Not a single branch of Gnosticism had the truth about Jesus Christ. That knowledge can be found only in God's Word.
David C. Grabbe
Whatever Happened to Gnosticism? Part Two: Defining Gnosticism
James Moffatt renders this verse as, "Beware of anyone getting hold of you by means of a theosophy [a branch of philosophy] which is specious make believe, on the lines of human tradition."
This verse is the only place where the biblical writers use the word "philosophy." The word has survived the years with its meaning unchanged: the love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means. It is translated from the Greek philosophia, which can be broken into its individual parts: philos (fond or friendly) and sophos (clever or wise).
Strong's Concordance writes that Paul was speaking of sophistry, that is, plausible but misleading argumentation or fallacious reasoning. Our word "sophisticate" derives from sophos. To sophisticate someone causes him to become less natural or simple; he becomes corrupted or perverted. A sophisticated person has acquired worldly knowledge and lacks natural simplicity.
Philosophy, the love and pursuit of wisdom by intellectual means, is not wisdom from God but wisdom as defined by man. It is man's attempt to be wise. God says, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom" (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10). Since man cannot see God, he concludes, "There is no God." Because man's philosophy does not consider God, its very foundation is faulty.
Beware of Philosophy
The problem in Colosse was a philosophy. It is essential to remember this because Judaism, which is the most commonly accused culprit, was and is to this day not a philosophy but a religion. Paul lays the foundation in chapter 1 by admonishing the Colossians to remember what they heard in the beginning of their conversion.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Covenants, Grace, and Law (Part 21)
In verse 8, the word translated as "basic principles of the world" refers to elementary things. Compared to Christ, in terms of being, every other being is lesser because he or she is created. In terms of teaching, every other instruction is elementary, basic, even demonic. In terms of salvation, no other is able to save human beings.
In verses 9-10, Paul again emphasizes Christ's primacy and superiority, including the facts that He is divine and over demons in authority. He adds in verses 11-15 that, for Christians, Jesus has already defeated the principalities and powers, along with their purposes, through their conversion.
As Colossians 1:16 states, Christ's rank extends back to the very beginning, as the One used to create all things. Thus, He is the God (John 1:1) referred to in nearly every place in the Old Testament where God is mentioned. This is especially important to grasp.
John 14:10 aids us in understanding His operations as a man: "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me? The words that I speak to you I do not speak on My own authority; but the Father who dwells in Me does the works." Matthew 26:52-53 clarifies this through an example: "But Jesus said to him, 'Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?'"
While He was human, His power as a God-Being was suspended as part of His emptying Himself to become a man (Philippians 2:5-8). He thus operated on the same level as all other men, except for the innate power He possessed due to His divine nature, enabling Him to live by faith sinlessly. Better than all other men, He understood the purpose God is working out, and He believed it. Notice to whom He said He could turn in time of need.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Power Belongs to God (Part Two)
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Colossians 2:8: