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Colossians 2:23 (HCSB)

Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value in curbing self-indulgence.

According to the passage, following the law or harshly disciplining the body seem to provide no escape for the sensual self: is the author saying that human will/effort is required at all? What has "value against self indulgence" according to the author of Colossians?

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  • Focused on text and original audience. Note that applying the text to modern religious practitioners is off topic here.
    – Dan
    Dec 12 '16 at 20:28
  • Nothing even close to "ascetic practices" appears in the Greek text
    – user33515
    May 27 '17 at 0:52
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To answer this question, lets first of all see what the author of Colossians is referring to as being "of no value"

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. - Colossians 2:8 (NASB), emphasis in bold mine.

And just preceding Colossians 2:23, which you quote in your question:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? - Colossians 2:20-22 (NASB), emphasis in bold mine.

The author is addressing man-made religious practices in context of asceticism.

Verse 16 requires special attention.

Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day — things which are a [mere] shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. - Colossians 2:16,17 (NASB), emphasis in bold mine.

The list of festival, new moon, and Sabbath day show that the verse is clearly in reference to judaic practices. Besides this we find the mention of meat and drink. All of this is called "a shadow of Christ". So what is he talking about here? Man-made traditions are never a shadow of Christ, hence those can be excluded as being the reference here. Food or drink can also not be reffering to the Kosher laws in Leviticus 11 since there are none applying to drink. The only reasonable explanation we are left with is food and drink offerings prescibed under Mosaic law. Here we have verses such as:

It shall be the prince’s part to provide the burnt offerings, the grain offerings and the drink offerings, at the feasts, on the new moons and on the sabbaths, at all the appointed feasts of the house of Israel; he shall provide the sin offering, the grain offering, the burnt offering and the peace offerings, to make atonement for the house of Israel.” - Ezekiel 45:17 (NASB)

and

and to offer all burnt offerings to the Lord, on the sabbaths, the new moons and the fixed festivals in the number set by the ordinance concerning them, continually before the Lord. - 1 Chronicles 23:31 (NASB)

See also 2 Chronicles 31:3. The matching terminology between above verses and Colossians 2:16,17 is obvious.

The author of Colossians is making reference to existing Judaic Scripture which has to be taken into consideration when concluding the meaning of this verse. This particular passage cannot be used to support an abolishment of the weekly Sabbath or mosaic dietary laws contrary to as some commentaries have it. Taking into consideration the overall context of the passage as well as the judaic scriptures references by the author, the reference in Colossians 2:16 are the meat and drink offerings on Sabbaths / new moons / fixed festivals, which he calls "a shadow of Christ" in prefigurement. Apart from that he is speaking agains man-made rules regarding the handling, tasting and touching of perishable things.

What the author considers of value can be seen in verse 8, where he writes "...according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ." The word "rather" here indicates that, whereas the man-made principles of the world are of no value, the principles of Christ, on the other hand, are of value. Compare vss. 10-17.

Regarding the question if "human will/effort is required at all," the passage is not speaking against discipline in general, but against man-made religious rules as described above opposing the principles of Christ. In fact, the verses following this passage are packed with instructions how we should exercise our will according to Christ:

... But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice ... put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility ... Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts ... giving thanks through Him to God the Father. - Excerpts from Colossians 3:5-17 (NASB)

And it continues with such instructions through most of the rest of the book. Notice the shift from outward religion which is condemned in chapter 2, to the exhortation in regard to the condition of the heart (3:12) and of acts of selflessness and love.

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You are reading this verse out of context, I believe.

Colossians 2:23 is not referring to those in particular who practice any form of asceticism, but rather those who are insisting on Judaic practices: Let no one therefore judge you in food, or in drink, or in part of a feast, or a new moon, or sabbath days (v.16).

Furthermore, the HCSB translation here is corrupt. That which has a reputation for wisdom are (1) ἐθελοθρησκία, (2) ταπεινοφροσύνη, and (3) αφειδια σωματος.

There is some support for translating ταπεινοφροσύνη as "humility" and αφειδια σωματος as "severe treatment of the body", but there is no way that I see to tease "ascetic practices" out of ἐθελοθρησκία, which might best be translated "self-devised worship". It is a word that appears no where else in the New Testament, nor in the Septuagint, nor, it would seem, anywhere in classical Greek. It appears to be a compound coined here from θέλω - "wish" or "want" - and θρῆσκος - "religious". The HCSB seems to be imputing a relationship between asceticism and ἐθελοθρησκία that really isn't supported by the text, perhaps with some theological point in mind.

Furthermore, there is no basis for inserting the word "promoting" here. Nothing like it appears in the Greek, which simply states ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ ...: "having wisdom in self-devised worship ..."

Humility and self-denial do, in fact, have "value against self indulgence", but only if undertaken with the proper motive. "For God hath given it honor," interprets John Chrysostom, "but they use it not with honor."1


1 Homily VII on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians

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The translations here seem to be very biased.

Here is the Greek:

Colossians 2:23

ἅτινά ἐστιν λόγον μὲν ἔχοντα σοφίας ἐν ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ καὶ ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ ἀφειδίᾳ σώματος οὐκ ἐν τιμῇ τινι πρὸς πλησμονὴν τῆς σαρκός.

I suggest the following translation, and that St. Paul is not saying any of these practices are bad. Only that other essential factors are missing. Namely, the more-than-superficial observance of regulations. This is quite clear if you read the whole chapter.

Here is my translation:

which [things] indeed show [a kind of] wisdom in [that they], in superstitious [ritual] and humbling oneself, and the bringing into submission of the body, do not [tend] towards flattering the wants of the flesh.

(I would like someone who knows Greek well to confirm whether this is accurate as a translation, as I believe it is significant)

The self-imposed punishment of the body in putting to death the deeds of the flesh is not being put down here. They are shown to be wise in that they have the right intentions (not flattering the wants of the flesh, or as St. Paul puts it, "put[ting] to death" the deeds of the flesh).

Rather these practices, at the expense of true faith and recognition that these should not be ends, but means through which one practices his faith— they being the realizationor materialization of the faith, the demonstrating and putting into practice of what you believe about how we must put to death the deeds of the flesh and bring our bodies into submission.

St. Paul himself says he punishes his body and brings it into submission (Colossians 1:24; 1 Corinthians 9:27). So we know he isn't shunning such ascetic practices. Only the kind of superstitious observance of 'oh no, did I touch a bowl that was used to cook unclean meat' rather than a rational fear of actually displeasing God, which the true Law of God was put in place to achieve, not being an end in itself—they ascribed a real uncleanness to the intrinsic being the of the unclean thing, rather than the realization that they had caused God to call something of his creation unclean because of their sin, and to learn from it and hate it.

It's the same with St. Pauls distinction between works, through which faith is shown and realized and matured, and faith. The faith which must underly works in order to please God. They are filthy rags on their own, as they stand. As things being unclean are meaningless unless they signify something higher or theological—spiritual. Such as transgressing a holy God's will.

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