Sunday, November 27, 2016

Love God or Fear God—which is it?

The Bible is scarcely consistent, even in some of its most basic dicta. There is of course a good reason for that, which is unfortunately lost on the most devout believers in revealed religion, who regard the Bible as originating in the mind of God. The Bible's texts are written at different times in various cultural locations by human authors, who quite naturally have different views. For example in one of its most basic pronouncements, as to how believers should relate to God, biblical texts have a range of responses.  The basic guidance is that believers should "fear the Lord." Paul, for example, condemned people, whom he regarded as being under the power of sin, because "There is no fear of God before their eyes" (Romans 3:18; Psalm 35:1 LXX). "The fear of the Lord" is the classic expression for being a pious servant of Yahweh in Israelite religion (Deuteronomy 6:2; Exodus 20:20; Job 28:28; Proverbs 1:7; 3:7; compare Acts 10:34-35; 1 Peter 2:17; Revelation 14:7), and appropriately enough pious non-Israelites, who worshipped in synagogues, were called "God Fearers" (Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16).
            Jesus tells a story (Luke 18:2-5) about a judge hearing a case in which the plaintiff is a widow lady who badgers the judge to rule in her favor. The judge, however, prides himself on his integrity as a judge who calls cases on their merits. He says of himself "though I neither fear God nor regard man" (18:4)—and the narrator actually introduces him that way, as a judge who doesn't fear God or show deference in his judgments (18:2). "Fearing God" would signal the traditional religious deference a pious person would render to God; "regarding man" would reflect deference one would pay to influential and powerful persons in the community. In neither assertion does love play a role.
            Nevertheless alongside this typical expression for piety in Israel (fear of the Lord) are found injunctions to love God (Deut 10:12; 6:2; 6:5). In Sirach these two responses (fearing and loving) are paralleled as two sides of the same emotion (Sirach 2:15-16). The two emotions strike me, however, as inconsistent responses, and the author of 1 John had a similar response: "there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love." (1 John 4:18; compare 4:13-17). A relationship based on fear would produce anxiety, which contains the seeds of uncertainty, doubt, and mistrust. It is hardly a wholesome relationship (Hebrews 12:18-21; Matthew 28:4; Mark 16:8).
            A relationship based on fear prompts obedience because of what the dominant controlling party can impose on the lesser party, such as the relationship between a slave and the slave's owner (Ephesians 6:5). Occasionally a modern translator will render the Greek word fear (φόβος; "phobos") as awe, which doesn't help, since awe communicates dread or terror (Mark 4:41; Romans 11:20). Sometimes awe as a translation does not do justice to the Greek text; for example in Mark 4:41 the Greek is "feared greatly."
            The lexicographers, who survey how words are used in the New Testament and by writers elsewhere in antiquity, tell us that the verbal forms of fear (φοβέω, "phobeo") carry the idea of "reverence" or "respect for." Nevertheless reverence, honor, deference, veneration, and the like still contain the idea of fearful obeisance and awe.  At least it is something very different from what I understand as love: "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Corinthians 13:6); "Love is patient and kind" (1 Corinthians 13:4). "Love does not insist on its own way" (1 Corinthians 13:5). "Faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13). Little of love seems reflected in the dominant way God is understood in Hebrew Bible.
            Perhaps the problem, however, is not God's character, about which we actually know very little. We only know what others have told us—and that includes the testimonies of the authors of the biblical texts.  The problem is the manifold ways that we humans view God. In a sense God is always subject to what we think about God. And we frequently must choose between contradictory views, as in this case: do we love God or fear God? How is it possible truly to love someone before whom you must always be terribly afraid?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sex and Death: Paul’s Arguments from Mythology

Aspects of Paul's theological argumentation, social ethics, and anthropology are based on a Mediterranean myth of the divine origin of the first man found in an earlier Babylonian account and a later Hebrew account; they seem to be related. The word "myth" (μῦθος, mythos) is basically translated as story or narrative, but the term can either be neutral or pejorative: In the letters that virtually no one disputes as Pauline, the word "myth" does not appear. It only appears in the New Testament in the Pastoral Letters (1, 2 Timothy, and Titus), which most critical scholars attribute to a Pauline disciple, and in 2 Peter.  In these four cases "myth" is used in a negative sense:
1 Timothy 4:7—"have nothing to do with godless and silly myths." (RSV)
2 Timothy 4:4—"and turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths." (RSV)
Titus 1:14—"instead of giving heed to Jewish myths or to commands of men who reject the truth." (RSV)
2 Peter 1:16—"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (RSV)
               These sentences clearly mark myth as misleading and untrue. Myth is not something that someone wanting to be "a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of good doctrine" would heed (1Timothy 4:6).
               Nevertheless, here are two instances of Paul drawing on the Mediterranean myth of an original man who was fashioned by God.
               In Romans 5:12-21 Paul asserts that all people are sinners because the sin of the first man (Genesis 3:1-13) passed into the entire human race, which is the reason that all people die (Romans 5:12; Genesis 2:17, 3:19)—although in the final analysis Paul blamed Eve for the wretched situation of the entire human race (2 Corinthians 11:3), as did one of Paul's later disciples (1 Timothy 2:13). The principle of passing Adam's sin into his descendants was set in Torah where God extended the sins of the fathers onto their descendants to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). Paul was clearly familiar with Torah (Romans 7:7 quoting Exodus 20:17; Romans 13:9 quoting Exodus 20:13-17), so it seems safe to assume that the principle of holding children culpable for the sins of their fathers was not lost on Paul. Hence, an act in mythical space and time before the beginning of historical time explains why people are sinners and why they die. Paul's ideas have no basis in fact or reason, but only in myth, so don't look for confirming evidence of sin in the human genome.
               In a second example (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) Paul again draws on the Mediterranean myth of the first man, arguing that an act of coitus with a prostitute establishes an essential physical relationship with her; they in fact become "one body" as a result of coitus. To support his rationale he again quotes scripture appealing to the myth of the first man and his consort (Genesis 2:23-24) of whom it is written "they two shall become one flesh." In other words, as it happened in mythical space and time between the first couple Adam and Eve, so it is in historical space and time between a man and a prostitute. Coitus is not simply a casual physical moment between men and women; it is a deed that effectively alters the physical composition of the male body/flesh, for the female prostitute is incorporated as part of the male body (Genesis 2:23), and the two are essentially one, so Paul argues.  Again, as in the first example, Paul's idea has no basis in fact or reason, but only in myth—so don't expect confirmation from a physical examination by your physician.
               It is important to note that Paul's argument is not based on "Scripture," which only informs him of the myth. His argument turns on what putatively "happened" in the case of the mythical man Adam. It was the "event" (so to speak) and not the later writing about it that is authoritative for Paul's argument. The mythical man, Adam, was fashioned by the divine creator as male/female and then s/he was divided into different genders –male and female (Genesis 2:18-23). Subsequently the "union" between a man and his mate restores the original state of the first man (Genesis 2:24)—the two become one flesh.
               Are the arguments of Paul invalidated because they are based on the "experiences" of a mythical man? It depends. Readers having a high view of Scripture will necessarily be compelled to accept his arguments that human beings are sinners and die because they are infected with the "germ" of Adam's sin. They will also be forced to accept his argument that coitus with a prostitute makes the male and the female essentially "one body" and would likely appeal to the "spiritual truth" of the statement to explain his argument.
               Readers guided by reason, however will not be impressed by Paul's argument about Adam's sin infecting the human race, since a "theological truth" is not necessarily historical data; and there may be excellent reasons for not engaging the services of a prostitute, but not because of the "experience" of the mythical man on whom Paul bases his argument.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University