What “Every Thought Captive” Means In Its Original Context

Did Paul have in mind, as he wrote 2 Corinthians 10:5, the transformation of Greco-Roman culture? If so it is not obvious.

The arguments to be destroyed are those of the Judaizers (as in ch. 3) and especially those of the self-exalting, self-described “Super Apostles,” who were teaching a theology of glory (we may be sure that everything they did was said be “huge!” and “magnificent!” and “fantastic!”) whereas Paul was a theologian of the cross. He freely confessed his weakness and frailty. His power lay not in his personal qualities and strengths. Whatever power he had was Christ’s and the “foolishness of the gospel.”

 

One of the first slogans I learned as a young Reformed theologian was to be Reformed was to “take every thought captive.” I learned that this slogan signaled the determination by those from whom I was learning theology to bring every aspect of life, every “square inch” (another related phrase often used in conjunction with the first) under the Lordship of Christ. Indeed, on the flyleaf of The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959) Henry R. Van Til  quotes 2 Corinthians 10:5 among other passages as programmatic. Scripture says: “We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (NASB95). The impression with which I was left, for a number of years, is that when Paul wrote these words he was articulating a global program for the way he and all Christians ought to relate the Christian faith to every aspect of life.

What I have found, however, is that this use of 2 Corinthians 10:5 has not always accounted for its original context. I had a similar experience with 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (NASB95). As a young evangelical I learned this verse abstracted from its context (via my trusty packet of Bible memory cards) and was taught to regard it as a global program for Christian sanctification. So, when I preached through 1 and 2 Corinthians several years later, it was something of a surprise to see these passages in their original context.

It is not that the global, generic usage of these passages is altogether wrong but it always a good thing to return ad fontes and to reconnect familiar verses to their original context and to understand them in that light. 2 Corinthians is part of a stream of correspondence between Paul and the Corinthian congregation. Further, there were probably 4 letters altogether, of which 2 were preserved. One of Paul’s major purposes in 2 Corinthians was to defend of the integrity of his ministry to the Corinthians (e.g., 2 Cor 1:12–24). He was also following up some disciplinary matters. In 2:2 he remarks that he had determined not visit them again for disciplinary purposes. We may infer from chapter 3 that he had to defend his new covenant ministry over against the allegations made by the self-described “super apostles” (2 Cor 11:5; 12:11) and the validity of his ministry even though he is but a jar of clay (chapters 4–5). In chapters 6–7 he returns to the defense of his ministry (again, in light of the allegations made against Paul by the self-described “Super Apostles”). In chapters 8–9 he addresses the gift from the Macedonian congregation to encourage the Corinthians to participate in the support of the mission.

In 10:1 Paul describes himself to the Corinthians as “meek” (NASB) toward them when he is face to face but bold when away. It seems almost certain that to catch the sense we should put that part of v. 1 in quotation marks. He was quoting what his opponents were saying about him. He replies (v. 2) by asking that, when he is present with them next that he need not be bold with those “who regard us as if we walked according to the flesh” (NASB95). We are bodily (“in the flesh,” which he uses generically here to refer to being embodied human beings rather than in the ethical or eschatological sense) but (v. 3) “we do not war according to the flesh…” (NASB95). As he explains in v. 4, the weapons of our [spiritual] warfare are not “of the flesh,” in the ethical sense of worldly or common. Rather, the weapons of spiritual warfare are “divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses” (NASB95). Verse divisions vary here but it is in this context that we come to the clauses in question: “Destroying arguments and every height exalting itself against the knowledge of God and taking captive every thought unto the obedience of Christ (λογισμοὺς καθαιροῦντες καὶ πᾶν ὕψωμα ἐπαιρόμενον κατὰ τῆς γνώσεως τοῦ θεοῦ, καὶ αἰχμαλωτίζοντες πᾶν νόημα εἰς τὴν ὑπακοὴν τοῦ Χριστοῦ). The arguments to be destroyed are those of the Judaizers (as in ch. 3) and especially those of the self-exalting, self-described “Super Apostles,” who were teaching a theology of glory (we may be sure that everything they did was said be “huge!” and “magnificent!” and “fantastic!”) whereas Paul was a theologian of the cross. He freely confessed his weakness and frailty. His power lay not in his personal qualities and strengths. Whatever power he had was Christ’s and the “foolishness of the gospel” (1 Cor 1:25–26; 2 Cor 11:1). The essentially disciplinary intent of vv. 4b–5 is made clear in v. 6: “and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.”

The following passage elaborates on these themes:

You are looking at things as they are outwardly. If anyone is confident in himself that he is Christ’s, let him consider this again within himself, that just as he is Christ’s, so also are we. For even if I boast somewhat further about our authority, which the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you, I will not be put to shame, for I do not wish to seem as if I would terrify you by my letters. For they say, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his personal presence is unimpressive and his speech contemptible.” Let such a person consider this, that what we are in word by letters when absent, such persons we are also in deed when present (2 Cor 10:7–11; NASB95).

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