(8) Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ.
(9) But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage?
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Colossians 2:8 reads, ". . . according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world . . .." A corresponding phrase in Galatians 4:9 reads, ". . . the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage . . .." Many in this world claim that these phrases describe the law of God. However, their claim is not true at all.
Can we imagine an apostle of God calling the Old Testament "weak and beggarly"? It is ridiculous even to think that. Instead, the apostle Paul is appealing to his readers with all of his heart to recognize and turn away from something so wrong that it could only have come from the mind of Satan.
Daniel 2 contains a vision of a great statue, an idol Nebuchadnezzar dreamed about. It had a head of gold, the shoulders and upper body of silver, the belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. We understand that, as a whole, it represents the system the Bible calls "Babylon," which has spread worldwide. These great empires—seen in the various body parts and metals—have spread Babylonish thinking, organization, social systems, economics, education, and religions all over the earth. The golden head, Nebuchadnezzar himself, symbolized Babylon (Daniel 2:37—38). The head contains the brain, where thinking takes place. That body part dominates and directs the rest of the body.
In this vision, God is revealing that Babylonish thinking and systems spread from Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon to Medo-Persia, to Greece, to Rome, to medieval Europe, and eventually into modern nations. It is everywhere. Each culture has put its own identifiable stamp on it, so that, say, the Japanese culture, while Babylonish at its roots, has traits that make it distinctive from Chinese, Indian, Russian, European, or American culture. Their Babylonish roots provide enough similarity among them to understand and interact with one another, but they all have cultural peculiarities that make them different. It is a simple picture, but it explains a truth missing from this world's thinking.
At the very least, Daniel 2 indicates that the overarching philosophies that dominate life on Earth have mainly come and spread from Babylon. However, Paul's phrases in Colossians 2:8 and Galatians 4:9 show that a taproot goes even deeper than Babylon.
In William Barclay's commentary, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, pages 136-137, he explains the Greek word stoicheia, which has been translated as "the basic principles of the world" in Colossians 2:8 and "the weak and beggarly elements" in Galatians 4:9. He writes that the word has two basic meanings:
(a) It means literally things which are set out in a row. It is, for instance, the word for a line of soldiers. But one of its most common meanings is the letters of the alphabet, no doubt because they form a series which can be set out in a row. Because stoicheia can mean the letters of the alphabet, it can also very commonly mean elementary instruction in any subject. We still speak of learning the A B C of a subject, when we mean taking the first steps in it. It is possible that this is the meaning here. . . .
(b) Stoicheia has a second meaning. It means the elemental spirits of the world, and especially the spirits of the stars and planets. There are still people who take astrology seriously. They wear signs-of-the-zodiac charms and read newspaper columns which tell what is forecast for them in the stars. But it is almost impossible for us to realize how dominated the ancient world was by the idea of the inﬂuence of the elemental spirits and the stars. Astrology was then, as it has been said, the queen of the sciences. (Authors' emphases throughout.)
The Interpreter's Bible, volume 11, pages 191-193, commenting on Colossians 2, similarly reads:
Paul now comes to the cardinal error of this "philosophy": it teaches men to propitiate the elemental spirits of the universe instead of giving their allegiance to Christ. The word [stoicheia] has a very wide range of meaning . . .. The word may be taken (a) in the sense of "the elementary things," the "A B C's" . . .. [Or it] (b) indicates that Paul is here speaking of the stoicheia as rivals of Christ, objects of human allegiance who are set in the place that belongs to him alone. . . . The doctrine which Paul combats, then, appears to involve (a) an exposition of the nature of the physical world and man's place within it in terms of astrological determinism; and (b) instruction in the cult practices (asceticism, taboos, angel worship) which will propitiate these astral spirits and enable the devotee to attain fullness of life.
The apostle Paul is warning God's people that human reason aided by demonic inspiration—elemental spirits—is the source of the philosophies that undergird our societies. If one is searching for truth about life and its purpose, that philosophy is not the place to look for it. The fullness of truth is to be found in Jesus Christ.
As Interpreter's says, the particular philosophy in view in Colossians 2 is that things are astrologically determined. What is the result of believing this? If a person's nature and destiny are determined by the elements that comprise the physical world, then human personality and direction in life are not spiritually free and self-determining. A person simply does not have free-moral agency.
This philosophy is still alive today. Are people not still reading astrological charts? Are not New Age religions preaching that the harmonics of crystals divine the course of life? Is science not repeatedly telling us that moral choices do not determine character and personality but particular combinations of genes and hormones? This idea is still alive today. Nothing has changed!
If a person uses astrological determinism, both the senses of guilt and forgiveness vanish. Why? Because, under this philosophy, the individual is not responsible for his actions. One can say, "The stars made me do it," or even, "Satan made me do it." Human nature is very quick to grab onto this deception—or self-deception. They can blame every problem or sin on their hormones or their genes or the constellations or circumstances beyond their control. Satan wants to lead people in this very direction. He wants them to feel comfortable with their lives.
We can now see the fundamental difference between philosophy and the true religion. With philosophy, the final arbiter is human reasoning. With the true religion, the final arbiter is God's revelation.
— John W. Ritenbaugh