Taking every Thought Captive for Christ (2 Cor. 10.4-6)
By Sam Storms
We live in an age of angry atheism; not simply a casual and indifferent disregard for the existence of God but a militant opposition to all things religious. Most are by now aware (and sick of hearing about) such folk as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
What should be our response, if any? Do we simply ignore them, confident that in time they will fade away as have other skeptics in centuries past? Fade away they will, but I believe we should be more proactive in our efforts to expose the ill-founded and prejudicial nature of their arguments. That’s why I’m grateful for the work of such notable Christian apologists as Tim Keller (The Reason for God), Alister McGrath (The Dawkins Delusion), Ravi Zacharias (The End of Reason: A Response to the New Atheists), and Al Mohler, Jr. (Atheism Remix). What they and their books have achieved is akin to what Paul had in mind when he wrote the following:
“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, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete” (2 Corinthians 10:4-6).
What can our weapons do? They destroy “strongholds” or “fortresses” (NASB), vivid imagery indeed. Paul’s use of this word recalls the ancient practice of building a massively fortified tower inside the walls of a city where its citizens might retreat to make their final defense. But to what does Paul’s language actually refer? What are the literal “strongholds” that our divinely empowered weapons destroy? Verse 5 gives the answer.
First, they are “arguments” or “speculations” (NASB), by which Paul means the thoughts, plans, and intentions designed to justify one’s calloused disbelief in God (cf. 2 Cor. 2:11; 4:4; Rom. 1:21; l Cor. 3:20). He is saying that our weapons “destroy the way people think, demolish their sinful thought patterns, the mental structures by which they live their lives in rebellion against God” (Carson, 47).
Second, our weapons are effective in bring down “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, (or, “every pretension that sets itself up against the kingdom of God,” NIV). People will often appear humble in their appeal to intellectual doubt as a way of keeping God at arm’s length. Others “display a supercilious and condescending cynicism” or claim “an intellectual independence that loves to debate theology without ever bending the knee in adoring worship” (Carson, 48). But we have been graciously equipped by God with the necessary weaponry to overcome every arrogant claim, every haughty or prideful thought, every pompous act that forms a barrier to the knowledge of God. We are fully empowered to address every argument used to rationalize sin and to justify unbelief and to delay repentance.
Furthermore, our warfare is not merely aimed at dismantling and tearing down the sinful reasoning and rationalizations which are strongholds by which the mind fortifies itself against the gospel. It is actually effective in doing so! The gospel will always remain foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others, but to those “who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18), “to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks” (1 Cor. 1:24), the gospel of a crucified Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 24b).
The ultimate aim, of course, is to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (v. 5b). The picture is of “a military expedition into enemy territory, an expedition so effective that every plan of the enemy is thwarted, every scheme foiled, every counter-offensive beaten” (Carson, 50). Whatever ideas of the unbeliever hindered faith, whatever notions or plans were barriers to repentance, they are defeated, captured, and graciously transformed, to be brought under the authority of Christ and ultimately to acknowledge a new loyalty, a new allegiance.
Barnett suggests that, given the context, the “weaponry” Paul has in mind might refer to “his disciplinary ministry to them at the time of the second [painful] visit and through the ‘Severe Letter'” (464). On this view, the “destruction of fortresses” and the “pulling down” of speculations refer to his victory over the person who wronged him (cf. 2:6; 7:12) and those in the congregation who have undermined his apostolic authority. This interpretation, however, is generally regarded as too narrow and restricted to fully account for Paul’s language.
So what then are our weapons of warfare? What is it that Paul utilizes to bring about this triumphant result? Surely he would point to the same armaments he cited in Ephesians 6:13-18, such as truth and righteousness and unyielding proclamation of the gospel and faith and the glory of salvation and the Word of God and persistent prayer. These may not seem formidable, especially when one considers the political power and financial resources available to those who stand in opposition. But they are enough. And they are effective.
There are two additional issues that need to be addressed.
First, some have misinterpreted and misapplied this text as if it spoke of cosmic level spiritual warfare (i.e., territorial demons). “Strongholds” and every “lofty thing” (NASB) have been taken as referring to demonic spirits who have been assigned by Satan to specific territorial or geographic regions. We then, according to this view, are called to identify, engage, and, as it were, pull them down (ostensibly through prayer, fasting, proclamation, etc.). But the enemies in view are ideas and arguments and philosophies and excuses that are antithetical to the kingdom and glory of God. This isn’t to pass judgment on whether there are territorial spirits, but simply to point out that this isn’t what Paul had in mind when he penned this passage.
Yet, again, it is worth asking: Who is behind these thoughts? Who inspires and energizes such anti-Christian arguments and philosophies? What gives them the force that they appear to exert on the human soul? We mustn’t forget that it is “the prince of the power of the air” who is even now “at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2; cf. 4:17-19). We’ve already seen in 2 Corinthians 4:4 how “the god of this world [i.e., Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ”. How are they blinded if not by being deceived with philosophical and religious lies? Paul even said that Christ had called him “to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God” (Acts 26:18). In describing the condition of the latter days he spoke of “deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (l Tim. 4:1).
So, whereas there is no basis for finding any reference to so-called “territorial” spirits here in 2 Corinthians 10, there is certainly good reason to think that Paul’s warfare and divinely empowered weaponry applied to his (and our) conflict with principalities and powers, ruler and authorities, the cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil in heavenly places (Eph. 6:12) who so often confuse and harden and blind and enslave those who are resistant to the gospel.
Second, contextually Paul is talking about “strongholds” in the lives and minds of those in the Corinthian church who were resistant to his apostolic authority. But do ordinary Christians today have them too? Yes. Such intellectual, philosophical, and moral enemies to the knowledge of God don’t automatically and altogether disappear when we get saved.
I once heard someone define a stronghold as “a mindset impregnated with hopelessness that causes us to accept as unchangeable something we know is contrary to God’s will.” What he had in view are negative patterns of thought that cripple our ability to obey God and thus breed feelings of guilt and despair. They are often burned into our minds either through repetition over time (such as occurs in an abusive, incestuous relationship) or through a one-time traumatic experience, or even more commonly through the influence of false teaching and a skewed theology. In relation to this latter point, Clint Arnold believes that “the critical thrust of the passage is directed against christological heresy. . . . Therefore, in its original context, demolishing strongholds refers to changing wrong ideas about Christ in the minds of believers who have been influenced by demonically inspired teaching” (Three Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare, 54-55).
Whatever the case, no matter the opposition, the good news is that we have access to powerful and efficacious resources, adequate to prevail over all resistance and to defeat every enemy (cf. Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 4:20-24). We must dedicate ourselves to thinking and meditating on whatever is true and honorable and just and pure and lovely and commendable and excellent and worthy of praise, Phil.4:8, and entrust ourselves to the power of the Spirit who can overcome the influence of every negative and destructive thought.