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
Missouri State University