New Testament Words and Verses
Following Rules: The Role of δογματίζω in Colossians 2:20
One of the important issues the early Christians had to address was how the powerful presence of the living Christ among them affected their understanding not only of the Law of Moses but of various pagan ethical systems or ethical systems that other Christians might want to place on them. That is, did the presence of the living Christ abrogate or cancel all commitments to legal or ethical codes? Did it require stricter adherence to them? If stricter adherence, which codes? And, of course, who says?
The short epistle of Paul to the Colossians takes on this issue in the most verbally mature and dynamic way of any book in the New Testament. The linguistic efflorescence especially in Colossians 2 presents several NT hapax legomena but always in the service of moving to the central question of what kind of ethical system this new commitment to Christ requires. For example, early in his argument in chapter 2, the Apostle uses the rare word συλαγωγέω (2:8), “to carry off as spoil or prey” to describe the subtle efforts of philosophers or others to deceive or confuse new believers. The word only appears a handful of times in the whole corpus of Greek literature, but easily can be understood because of the common words συλον and ἄγω which form it.
But despite the eloquence of this chapter, it is playing for higher stakes than mere eloquence. It has a theory of the role of the law or ethical systems in the Christian life. In a word, the theory is that the new believer’s life is so caught up with or hidden in Christ that all human systems of ethics or rules are unimportant—and our word of the day δογματίζω takes us to that issue.
δογματίζω (“to submit to decrees”) also is a New Testament hapax, and it appears in Col 2:20,
Εἰ ἀπεθάνετε σὺν Χριστῷ ἀπὸ τῶν στοιχείων τοῦ κόσμου, τί ὡς ζῶντες ἐν κόσμῳ δογματίζεσθε;
“If you have died with Christ, moving away from the elemental spirits/powers of the world, why do you submit to decrees as you live in the world?”
Unlike συλαγωγέω, however, δογματίζω and its root concept δόγμα are quite prevalent in Greek literature. The root idea, δόγμα, is itself derived from the verb for “seeming” or “thinking” (δοκεω), and so a δόγμα is the product of thought, what we would call a “dogma”. But in almost all instances by the first century it was taken up in governmental speech to define a “decree” or “ordinance” that was officially proclaimed by a duly installed ruler. Luke 2:1 captures that meaning when a “decree” (δόγμα) went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world be enrolled.
The verbal form picks up on that meaning and can be rendered “to establish” or, in this case, “to submit to ordinances.” Its meaning as uttering a decree or ordinance is captured in the LXX in Esther 3:9. Because it is in the present middle/passive in Col 2:20 it is best rendered here as “submit to decrees.”
But this word isn’t used just as a linguistic exercise. The Apostle is making an argument. Since believers have died in Christ (and the construction in the first half of v 20 is unusual in that one has literally “died with Christ from the elemental powers/elements of the world”), they ought not to submit to a series of further decrees. Then, verse 21 lists a sample of those decrees: “do not touch, do not taste, do not handle with violence” (I am reading the verb θιγγάνω here in the way it is best translated in Heb. 11:28). That is, in the community with which Paul is dealing, one has people who represent the essence of the Gospel as including rules. These rules, as Paul goes on to say, put extreme restrictions on the body.
On the one hand one might see the virtue in this kind of ethical system. After all, hadn’t Paul taught earlier that the body is the “temple” of the Holy Spirit? If that is the case, couldn’t an argument be made that this “temple” ought to be cared for and watched over with the same kind of vigilance that the priests oversaw the Temple in Jerusalem? Sacred space requires strict rules to protect the sanctity of the place.
But Paul will not go that direction. At least in this book he stresses that the new life in Christ frees one from at least three kinds of legal rules: the Mosaic law, the “rules” of philosophers and their systems of ethics, and the perhaps well-meaning attempts of other Christian leaders to load up on the rules such as were listed in 2:21.
Paul will have none of it, and δογματίζω is the word that captures his disapproval of all of these ethical systems. They are simply laying down of decrees to which one must submit. Whatever else the Gospel of Christ might mean, it doesn’t subject the new believer to rules. That, then, is the meaning of δογματίζω.
Colossians 1 and Rhetorical Overkill
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