What “Every Thought Captive” Means In Its Original Context

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.

The rest of the chapter elaborates on these same basic themes: Paul’s apostolic authority over against the hyperbolic and schismatic claims of the self-described “Super Apostles.” In short, the tearing down of arguments and strongholds and the figurative captivity to which Paul refers is about church discipline and putting false teachers within the congregation in their place.

This is how Calvin interpreted and this passage in Institutes 4.8.9:

What is this but to reject all inventions of the human mind (from whatever brain they have issued) in order that God’s pure Word may be taught and learned in the believers’ church? What is it but to remove the ordinances, or rather inventions of all men (whatever their rank), in order that the decrees of God alone may remain in force? These are those spiritual “weapons … with power from God to demolish strongholds”; by them God’s faithful soldiers “destroy stratagems and every height that rises up against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” [2 Cor. 10:4–5, Comm.]. Here, then, is the sovereign power with which the pastors of the church, by whatever name they be called, ought to be endowed. That is that they may dare boldly to do all things by God’s Word; may compel all worldly power, glory, wisdom, and exaltation to yield to and obey his majesty; supported by his power, may command all from the highest even to the last; may build up Christ’s household and cast down Satan’s; may feed the sheep and drive away the wolves; may instruct and exhort the teachable; may accuse, rebuke, and subdue the rebellious and stubborn: may bind and loose; finally, if need be, may launch thunderbolts and lightnings; but do all things in God’s Word.

In his commentary on Ephesians, S. M. Baugh also interprets these verses relative to ecclesiastical concerns:

Paul expresses the purpose of donning the divine panoply as their being enabled “to stand.” Normally one does not think of ancient soldiers, whether Greek hoplites or Roman legionaries, as standing, but as advancing in their fight. Certainly the great battles in antiquity were won when the victorious army overran or encircled their enemies. In part Paul’s image is based on his metaphor of the Christian warfare as a “wrestling match” (πάλη, palē, see v. 12 below), and the other part is that Christians are not engaged in a theocratic conquest of the world for geopolitical dominance, but in a spiritual fight for its existence:

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ. (2 Cor 10:3–5)

“Standing” and “holding ground,” then, occur throughout this passage as the goal of the church in its struggle (vv. 11–14), during which “the gates of hell” will not prevail against the holy temple and assembly of God’s people, which Christ is building (Matt 16:18). [S. M. Baugh, Ephesians: Evangelical Exegetical Commentary, ed. Wayne H. House, Hall W. Harris III, and Andrew W. Pitts, Evangelical Exegetical Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 542–43.]

Among neo-Kuyperian writers, however, the passage is regularly taken as a statement of a broader cultural program. We see this C. Van Til:

But if it is true that Protestant epistemology is more genuinely Christian than Scholastic epistemology, it follows that Protestant epistemology is also more truly theistic than Scholastic epistemology was. Hence to say that the Bible is the absolute authority for man is also to say that God is the absolute authority for man. It means that the solution for the problem of knowledge is once more left to, the person of the triune God. It is this that faith implies. Protestant faith claims to be “reasonable” because only on the presupposition of God’s speaking to man in Scripture can human “reason” function properly. To make every thought captive to the obedience of Christ speaking in Scripture is to reason analogically in the proper sense of the term. [Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology (The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company: Phillipsburg, NJ, 1969).]

The neo-Kuyperian appeal to 2 Corinthians 10:5 has become so basic to their approach the Mike Horton writes,

Radical Orthodoxy and neo-Kuyperianism offer remarkably similar critiques of secular culture and thought, namely, autonomous philosophy as atheistic and therefore nihilistic; the criticism of all forms of dualism (although Kuyperians typically target rather than celebrate Plato in this regard); and insistence upon seeing all human thinking and action in relation to God. Both display a determination to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5; NRSV). [Michael S. Horton, “Participation and Covenant” in James K. A. Smith and James H. Olthuis, ed., Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition: Covenant, Creation, and Participation (GR: Baker, 2005), 107.]

Mike adds a footnote which says, “For example, Kuyper appeals to an American historian “who acknowledged that Calvinism ‘has a theory of ontology, ethics, of social happiness, and of human liberty, all derived from God.’” Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1931), 15. Further, Kuyper typically associated dualism with Anabaptism (170).”

Douglas Vickers [When God Converts A Sinner: Confessional Perspectives on Justification and the Christian Life (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2008), 106] says essentially the same thing.

In contrast, one does not find Kuyper appealing to 2 Corinthians 10:5, at least one does not find it easily. I was able to search several of Abraham Kuyper’s works (but not all) that have been translated into English, including his Lectures on Calvinism and his Theological Encyclopedia and several secondary works about Kuyper and so far it does not apper that he himself used this verse this way. Indeed, so far I have not been able to find him quoting the verse.

The neo-Kuyperian appeal to 2 Corinthians 10:5 is well-established. For those who live within that sphere, if you will, that Paul was articulating a broad agenda for Christ and culture is something of a datum but this rough and ready survey would not seem to support such an appeal. Read in context, Paul’s intent seems ecclesistically focused. He was speaking of taking down spiritual strongholds and taking spiritual captives within the visible church. He was defending the legitimacy of his ministry against the charge that, since his ministry was not very outwardly impressive it was not valid or worth supporting. He was being bold with his opponents and warning them that he would be even bolder when he appeared before them in person. He was asserting his apostolic authority and prerogatives.

There is no question in Scripture whether Christ is Lord over all things. There is indeed not one square inch that does not belong to him. There is no question whether Christians are in a spiritual battle with the powers of darkness (1 Tim 1:18; Eph 6:10–14; Rom 13:11–13) against which we employ every spiritual weapon at our disposal: prayer, the gospel, and faith. The question is whether it is proper to invoke Paul’s phrase “every thought captive” as a program for cultural engagement. Did Paul have in mind, as he wrote 2 Corinthians 10:5, the transformation of Greco-Roman culture? If so it is not obvious. He did have in mind the unity and purity of the visible church as she was threatened with schisms based around celebrities, Judaizing, and self-aggrandizement.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “Read in context, Paul’s intent seems ecclesistically focused [surprise!]. He was speaking of taking down spiritual strongholds and taking spiritual captives within the visible church. He was defending the legitimacy of his ministry against the charge that, since his ministry was not very outwardly impressive it was not valid or worth supporting. He was being bold with his opponents and warning them that he would be even bolder when he appeared before them in person. He was asserting his apostolic authority and prerogatives.”

    Sums it up. Thanks, Scott. This is helpful and frankly makes sense considering the epistle as a whole.

  2. As I’ve been preaching in 2Cor, and am presently dealing with this final section, we are seeing Paul’s self-defense of his ministry extended to a defense of the ministry (church office) as a whole. The ministry must be marked by “the meekness and gentleness of Christ,” to be sure, first and foremost and always. But then, after just a brief mention of those “soft” qualities, we learn that the ministry must be marked by the willingness to fight for things that matter, worthy things. Not using the arm of the flesh, neither the raw intellect; but the weapons of the Spirit.

    • Bruce,

      That’s just right. Paul was not a push-over but nor was he a bully. Ministry was not about Paul but, to borrow a phrase, about Christ, his gospel, and his church.

  3. This post reminded me of some thoughts I have been kicking around since I read Kuyper’s “Lectures on Calvinism” a couple years ago. It seems to me (based on my limited knowledge of the sources) that this idea that Calvinism is a sort of totalizing worldview is a new development in the 19th century (Had anyone written theology as an “Encyclopedia” before Kuyper?). I wonder if we should appeal to the influence of Hegel (or at least the sort of philosophy whose best representative is Hegel) to account for it?

    Hegel conceives of philosophy as a totalizing system which unifies all thought in complete logical consistency. Philosophy swallows up the other disciplines in a way which strikes me as quite distinct from conceptions of philosophy as foundational which came before. And so there is a “Hegelian” view of everything, which is probably why Hegel wrote on every conceivable topic. Of course, these tendencies pre-existed Hegel. The writing of encyclopedias is as old as the Enlightenment, and Kant invented the term “worldview” (Weltanschauung). But it seems to me that Hegel really brings these elements into the foreground.

    It also seems like Christian worldview thinking, in its demand for ideological purity, bears comparison with other totalizing ideological descendants of Hegelianism like Marxism and some varieties of feminism. So there is a Christian view of everything in the same way that there is a Marxist view of everything and a feminist view of everything. Those within the ranks who disagree with the details of one’s system are not just wrong, but are labelled as ideologically impure; their failure to work out the details correctly must be because they are under the sway of a foreign principle, because they are not really consistently committed to Christianity/Marxism/feminism.

    Anyway, when I see Kuyper describe Calvin as if he was a genius who heralded a new theory of everything, this seems totally anachronistic (and the idea that Calvinism has a distinct “theory of ontology” seems laughable). “Genius” itself is a distinctively Enlightenment concept. That is where my own knowledge is a little spotty, though – I think it would be an interesting research project to compare how Kuyper views Calvin to, say, how Turretin talks about him. But anyway, Kuyper seems like a child of his times here. Nothing would be more Hegelian than to view history as a prelude to one’s own thought, and to find one’s own ideas implicitly hidden in the past, waiting for one to come along and logically explicate them.

    • Jamie,

      You are not alone in seeing Kuyper in his 19th-century context. You’re right that the very idea of an Encyclopedia (although I don’t know that Kuyper meant by it what the Enlightenment writers meant by it) is an Enlightenment inspired idea. It’s helpful, however, to distinguish Kuyper from the various sorts of neo-Kuyperians who followed him. Kuyper was almost certainly influenced, at least indirectly, by Hegel but he was also a very close student of Calvin and the Reformed tradition. Unlike many of the neo-Kuyperians, he read the tradition and was deeply influenced by it. His successors, especially as we get into the 1950s and following tended to be quite dismissive of the tradition as “scholasticism.”

      Those of us who have been reading the older, pre-19th-century, writers and trying to make use of the older distinctions (e.g., law/gospel, sacred/secular) do find ourselves in tension with some neo-Kuyperian assumptions.

      There is still much to gain from Kuyper, even as we try to read him in his own context and de-mythologize him. Bratt’s biography of Kuyper is very good, by the way.

  4. Thanks Scott, for this post and for the helpful insights into Kuyper’s thought and that of his successors as well. Rachel Miller’s article on The Aquila Report, Oct. 3, 2016, on “The Idol of City Ministry” offers a critique of the prioritizing of urban ministry popular in some Reformed circles today that strikes me as relevant to this discussion. There’s always a danger of sliding away from the theology of the cross towards the theology of glory!

  5. I think your last paragraph is spot on. Perhaps one can relate the cultural mandate with 2 Corinthians 10:5, but I don’t think the implication is immediate.

  6. Very helpful, thanks. I have found the same thing about I Cor. 10:31, “So whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” A general principle, to be sure, but the immediate context is Christian freedom in regards to whether to eat meat previously used in pagan ceremonies, not as some sort of cultural transformationalist mandate. Yet, it is often wrested from its original context to try to prove just that.

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