μηδεὶς ὑμᾶς καταβραβευέτω θέλων ἐν ταπεινοφροσύνῃ καὶ θρησκείᾳ τῶν ἀγγέλων, ἃ μὴ ἑώρακεν ἐμβατεύων, εἰκῆ φυσιούμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ νοὸς τῆς σαρκὸς αὐτοῦ… (Ecclesiastical Greek text)
Let no one who delights in humility and the worship of angels pass judgement on you. [Such a] person goes on at great lengths about [things] he has [not] seen, [being] puffed up with empty notions by his fleshly mind… (New English Translation, emended)
That day I had been reading the passage in Greek, as I’ve done on alternate days since I was in high school. The inkling of a possible and quite concrete pastoral application of this text to a situation with which I was then dealing lead me to survey how this passage, and the phrase θέλων ἐν ταπεινοφροσύνῃ (thelōn en tapeinophrosynē) in particular, was rendered in a few English translations.
Both the New International Version and the Today’s New International Version read “anyone who delights in false humility,” which is rather close to the NET rendering quoted above; the New King James Version joins chorus in describing such people as “taking delight in false humility.” But the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard Bible, and the New Revised Standard Version take the passage in a different (and somewhat disquieting) direction by turning “false humility” into “self-abasement.” Now, that is quite an understandable rendering, and one attractive in some ways, but I had the distinct impression that behind the word choice here lay an anti-ascetical agenda. Of course, I’m prone to detect conspiracies where there are none (with the exception of the Vatican-CIA connection, which most certainly exists and indeed runs the world), so I decided to file that thought and consult two other translations. Imagine my surprise when I found that the English Standard Version reads “insisting on asceticism,” whereas the Holman Christian Standard Bible reads “insisting on ascetic practices”! What was perhaps implicit in the RSV/NASB/NRSV, then, has been made fully explicit in the ESV/HCSB: that somehow, any kind of emphasis on the regular undertaking of the physical disciplines of the spiritual life (i.e., asceticism) is one of two reasons why the people being described in Colossians 2:18 are “puffed up with empty notions by [their] fleshly mind.” The other is flagrant idolatry (“the worship of angels”), which is presumably every bit as bad.
Now, I understand full well that behind Protestant anti-asceticism (and by extension, Evangelical gnosticism) lie the ghastly and not infrequently gory excesses of the Medieval and Counter-Reformation West. (Cf. the Revised English Bible‘s use of “self-mortification” in our passage, which conjures up images of self-flagellation, stigmata and cilices.) But, as a most sensible Latin proverb often ascribed to St Augustine saith, abusus non tollit usus: that is, that the abuse of something does not abrogate its rightful use. Latin Christendom, having lost sight of the ascetic ideal of the New Testament in both faith and practice, offered in its stead a hideously deformed substitute, to which the Reformers (and their stepchildren)1 reacted, in turn, by excising asceticism right out of Christianity. Needless to say, neither excess is tolerable—and all the more so when they filter down to Biblical translation like this!
(Incidentally, all of this reminds me of the well-known NIV/TNIV practice to translate παράδοσις [paradosis] as “teaching” when its meaning is positive [cf. IΙ Thessalonians 2:15] and “tradition” when its meaning is negative [cf. St Mark 7:8-10]. Ah, traduttore, traditore!)
1Here I’m borrowing the title of Leonard Verduin’s fascinating study, The Reformers and their Stepchildren (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans, 1964).