Characteristics of False Teaching (Part 1)
The Apostle Paul is opposing and responding to the false teaching at the Colossae church. He describes and reveals characteristics, general to all erroneous types of doctrines. We noted earlier, the Colossae heresy involved a mixture of Jewish law, angelic worship, and strict asceticism, which is only known by one side of the conversation given by the apostle in the epistle (Colossians 2:16,17, 23).
The first characteristic is “persuasive words” (Colossians 2:4). Language is how we think. We use language or symbols to represent concepts, mental images, and abstractions. We can use words to manipulate people and misguide them. False teachers may employ specialized esoteric language or adapt language to sound intelligent or use rhetorical skills to emotionally persuade an audience.
Rhetoric was an ancient oratory and written skill very well-known and studied. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion." Aristotle dissected further that the practitioner must have personal credibility or ethos, the audience must be moved with emotion or pathos, and lastly, argumentation and logical formulas are utilized as logos (Aristotle, Rhetoric).
There is an instance when an orator Tertullus is hired to present a compelling case against the Apostle Paul. “Now after five days Ananias the high priest came down with the elders and a certain orator named Tertullus. These gave evidence to the governor against Paul” (Acts 24:1).
Learning the art of persuasion is not wrong in and of itself. It is when the truth is diminished and not pursued by persuasion that it becomes dangerous and duplicitous. False teachers can employ powerful techniques of influence which can coax and impact beliefs.
The Apostle Paul also warns that they could be cheated “through philosophy” (Colossians 2:8). The discipline of philosophy or human reason has been a building block to modern science and technology. The philosopher Thales of Miletus accurately predicted a solar eclipse in 585 B.C. The world has been radically changed by such ancient thinkers as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Democritus, Pythagoras, and Plotinus to modern names like Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Wittgenstein.
The Church Father Tertullian was very leery and suspicious of philosophy. The oft quoted passage,
What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Academy to do with the Church? What have heretics to do with Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon, who had himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic Christianity! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after receiving the gospel! When we believe, we desire no further belief. For this is our first article of faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides. (Holmes 2023)
Philosophy and the exercise of human reason through deduction and induction has been revolutionary in modern times. We know that the Apostle Paul utilized reason in His preaching. The book of Acts records numerous occasions of Paul appealing to rationality and argumentation (Acts 9:22, 17: 2-4, 19:8-10, 26:22-26). He also appealed to the poets of Athens in response to the stoics and epicureans (Acts 17: 22-34).
Human reason is ultimately from God and extremely helpful but has also been vitiated by the effects of our sin and recalcitrance. So, we must always depend on God’s word as the final authority because God’s wisdom transcends our finite and creaturely minds. The Scriptures reveal poignantly,
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent. “Where is the wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of this world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men (I Corinthians 1: 18-25).
The cross of Jesus is transcendent to human reason and science. God has chosen Christ’s vicarious and atoning death as His greatest self-disclosure and meaning for life. Our minds can only tremble at the thought of such paradoxes as the righteous God-man dying as a criminal in submission to the holy will of God. Or the juxtaposition of unconditional love and eternal justice found in the crucifixion. We also find in Christ, the intersection of God’s eternal and sovereign determination with humanity’s free will and choice. All these spiritual truths and many more exceed math formulas, scientific experimentation, or a modus ponens argument.