This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, August 2007

The following is an 800 word essay answering the question: Why did Paul write to the church at Colossae and what was the nature of the "Colossian heresy"?

The Epistle to the Colossians is a magnificent piece of literature that expounds some of the crucial tenets of Christianity. Using highly developed Christology, Paul appears to argue against a number of false teachings and philosophies that were present within the church of Colossae[1]. There is significant debate as to the exact nature of these false teachings[2], which are collectively referred to as the Colossian heresy.

The opening phrase of the epistle discloses that the apostles Paul and Timothy are the authors (Colossians 1:1). Some scholars have questioned Pauline authorship, arguing that the letter is of a different grammatical style to Paul's other writings. Others suggest that its theology, especially its Christology, ecclesiology and eschatology are inconsistent with the letters to the Romans, Galatians and Corinthians. These arguments, however, are mediocre at best, ignoring the epistle's declaration of Paul as author, underrating Paul's intellectual ability and overlooking the unanimous agreement of Pauline authorship by the early church[3]. Consequently, conservative scholars generally consider that the apostle Paul wrote the letter whilst imprisoned in Rome, having never visited the church in Colossae[4].

The letter itself does not overtly reveal the author's reason for composing it. In the epistle, Paul makes specific statements that seem to be confronting particular deceptive teachings that have infiltrated the Colossian church[5]. Apart from a few prominent theologians who disagree with this reading of the epistle[6], scholars agree that the main reason Paul wrote the letter was to challenge this Colossian heresy, which he considered was "a deadly danger to the incipient church"[7].

The nature of the Colossian heresy can only be inferred from the contents of the epistle[8]. There are no records of the precise features of the heresy, and Paul does not describe it in his letter. By examining Paul's specific counter-arguments in Colossians 2:8-23, many theologians have attempted to piece together the heresy's characteristics, but general consensus has not been reached. On the one hand, it may be that a mystical and ascetic form of Judaism was creeping into the Christian community of Colossae[9]. Alternatively, the heresy may have involved a syncretism of Christian ideas with an early form of Gnosticism[10].

Parts of epistle suggest that the heresy of Colossae was connected to an infiltration of pagan Gnostic ideas into the church. Proponents of this view propose that Paul's assertion that in Christ, the "fullness of God lives in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9) is a rebuttal of the Gnostic concept of the evil nature of matter[11]. The "elementary principles" (στοιχεια) (Colossians 2:8,20) have been translated as "powerful spiritual intelligences" by some, and this is consistent with Gnostic ideas of spiritual beings that bring enlightenment through knowledge[12]. F.F. Bruce has suggested that it was believed that these spiritual beings could be placated by extreme asceticism[13] (Colossians 2:21). The opinion that the heresy was an early form of Gnosticism, however, is not universally accepted, and it seems less likely given the letter's discussion of circumcision and Sabbath laws (Colossians 2:11-16).

In recent years, opinion has been turning towards the alternative view that the Colossian heresy was false teaching of a mystical and legalistic Jewish nature[14]. Joseph Lightfoot noted the similarities of the Colossian false teachings to the ascetic and mystical views of the Essenic sect of Judaism[15]. Lightfoot considered the Colossian heresy to be a form of Gnostic Judaism because it was characterized by an intellectual exclusiveness. Study of the literature found at Qumran has supported this theory, although the absence of discussion of ceremonial washing in Colossians speaks against this view[16]. Scholars, such as J. Dunn, however, still see the heresy entirely in Jewish terms, suggesting that all of Paul's counter-arguments can be understood as objecting to teachings of Jewish covenantal distinctiveness and privilege[17]. In this peculiar form of Judaism, it appears that a special emphasis was placed on angels, not only as the messengers of the Law, but also as enforces of the law who mediate between God and people[18]. Careful observance of the Law and zealous asceticism was believed to appease these angelic beings[19].

Regardless of the finer details of the heresy, the end result appears to be that the Colossians were under threat from a teaching that undermined the centrality of Christ[20]. A works-based model of salvation outside of Christ's complete grace, with mediators other than Christ, was being proclaimed[21]. Paul realized that these were deceptive and hollow philosophies that, if they took hold of the church, would undermine the gospel that had brought life to the Colossian believers[22] (Colossians 2:6-10). He reminded the people that they had been fully forgiven already through Christ's death and that this new circumcision by Christ had cancelled the requirements and regulations of the Law (Colossians 2:11-14). Additionally, he appealed to Colossians to realize that strict regulations lack value in restraining sensual indulgence (Colossians 2:23). Furthermore, Paul warned the church against the worship of angels and the pursuit of foolish ideas (Colossians 2:18).

The counter-arguments against the false teaching in Colossae rest on Christ as the central pillar of faith. It was this issue of the unique centrality of Christ that Paul understood to be the key issue at stake in the Colossian heresy.


  1. J McRay, Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, Editor: WA Elwell, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1050
  2. PT O’Brien, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, Editors: GF Hawthorne, RP Martin, DG Reid, (Downer Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 148
  3. FF Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1991), 409
  4. McRay, Evangelical Commentary, 1049
  5. McRay, Evangelical Commentary, 1050
  6. RC Lucas, The Message of Colossians and Philemon, (Leicester: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 20
  7. RP Martin, Colossians: The Church's Lord and the Christian's Liberty, (Exetor: The PaterNoster Press, 1972), 20
  8. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 412
  9. O’Brien, Dictionary of Paul, 148
  10. JDG Dunn, The Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grad Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1996), 26
  11. McRay, Evangelical Commentary, 1050
  12. Martin, Colossians, 14
  13. Martin, Colossians, 14
  14. Dunn, Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon, 29
  15. Lucas, Message of Colossians and Philemon, 20
  16. ruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 416
  17. Dunn, Epistle to the Colossians and to Philemon, 33
  18. O’Brien, Dictionary of Paul, 148
  19. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 414
  20. McRay, Evangelical Commentary, 1050
  21. O’Brien, Dictionary of Paul, 148
  22. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 408

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