Fearing God
September 4, 2010 — 12:37

Author: Andrew Moon  Category: Christian Theology Religion and Life Virtue  Comments: 11

The Bible refers to the “fear of God” as a good thing.
In Deuteronomy, the Israelites are commanded, “Fear the LORD your God and serve him… “(10:20)
David prays “Teach me your ways, O LORD, and I will walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear your name” (Ps. 86:11).
In Proverbs, it says, “Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised” (31:30).
Jesus warns, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him” (Luke 12:5).
Multiple questions arise.
1) Textual questions: Are the above Biblical writers talking about the same sort of mental state? Whether they are talking about the same thing or not, what do they mean? Is what they are talking about close in meaning to what we mean in ordinary English if were to say that a person ought to fear another person?
2) Textual-to-Normativity Question: Given that we can accurately grasp what the above writers are referring to, what sort of normativity is being ascribed? Is it prudential or moral (or both or something else)? Given that we grasp which sort of normativity is being ascribed, are the statements true? Why?
3) A-Specific-Normativity Question: This question makes specific what was described in (2). Suppose that they are making moral statements and suppose that by “fear” they mean “being afraid of”. Is it indeed true that it’s a morally good state off affairs to be afraid of God?
Against a positive answer to the question in (3), Russ Shafer-Landau criticizes,

Fear of God has been a traditional way to get people to do their duty. But when it is effective, it undermines moral character, rather than supports it. People who deserve our praise and admiration are those who do their duty for its own sake. They do what is right because it is right, rather than from ulterior, self-interested motives. This is an attitude of direct respect for morality (The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2010, p. 60).

One might draw from Shafer-Landau’s reflections the conclusion that fearing God may actually be a bad state of affairs because it undermines moral character, and it undermines moral character because it moves people to do right actions for wrong reasons.
Beyond Shafer-Landau’s criticism, it is puzzling why fearing God is a good state to be in. A child who feels perfectly safe in the love of his parents does not fear them. A wife who feels secure in the love of her husband will not fear him. These are both analogies for how God (or Jesus) is supposed to be with us (or the church).
(We could even ask whether fear of a person is compatible with being fully secure in that person’s love. Hence, it may turn out that two supposedly good moral qualities are incompatible.)

  • Mike Almeida

    Interesting post! The stuff from Shafer-Landau is just warmed over Kant, as far as I can tell. I’m supposing that he does not share Kantian views on the nature of autonomy, so it would be good to have an argument for the neo-Kantian view on the moral worth of actions. But on your main point, I’ve not thought much more than that ‘fear’ in this context is just ‘reverence and awe’. Something that displays a proper appreciation of the nature of God. But maybe that’s a superficial view.

    September 4, 2010 — 17:09
  • Clayton Littlejohn

    “I’ve not thought much more than that ‘fear’ in this context is just ‘reverence and awe’.”
    That’s what I had always heard in church growing up. It sounds strange to say, “I fear God and Glenn Beck, but one of them to a much greater degree”. (Truth be told, I’m much more afraid of Glenn Beck, but reverence and awe goes the other direction.)

    September 4, 2010 — 18:20
  • Gary Huber

    I think that the “fear” being talked about is the same as the healthy respect shown by a child for his parents. When I was a child, I certainly did “fear” disappointing my parents or getting in trouble, even though I knew that they loved me. So if one just remembers that God is a father, then the “fear” is perfectly understandable.

    September 4, 2010 — 20:01
  • [F]earing God may actually be a bad state of affairs because it undermines moral character, and it undermines moral character because it moves people to do right actions for wrong reasons.
    I’m deeply sympathetic to this basic line of thought–especially when I encounter students who give crude Pascalian reasons for believing in God, or who openly wonder why atheists who don’t fear hellfire aren’t going wild with immoral actions, it makes me suspect that religion often works to corrupt people’s characters.
    But I’m also sympathetic to Mill’s point in Utilitarianism (chapter 3) about external and internal sanctions. As a parent, you often have to start by modifying behavior via external sanctions, such as fear of punishment.** If you end there, you’ve failed as a parent. But the hope is that, once this foundation of (more or less) correct behavior is set, your child can grow to internalize these external sanctions, and wishes to do the right thing for its own sake (not merely to get rewards and avoid punishment). How this could and should be extended to fear of God, I’m not sure.
    **Yes, yes, you also try to explain why what they’re doing is wrong, so your prohibitions (“Don’t poke your brother with that stick!…”) don’t seem arbitrary, with merely a threat to give it normative oomph (“…or no Gummi worms for you!”). Alas, such explanations don’t always work with toddlers, or even with older people, absent external sanctions.

    September 4, 2010 — 21:18
  • I think Tim O’Keefe has it right, and we have to see this in the context of a patriarchal culture, where the authority of the father in the family is the main source of social order. The father who beats his child is teaching the child what is wrong. As both grow older, the child may develop greater physical strength than the father, perhaps it would be possible for the son to defeat the father in a fight. An old father might not be a physical match even for an adult daughter. But a good child (of a good father) still fears the father’s judgement. The thought that a certain action would displease the father is a sufficient reason for not performing the action.
    Consider Matthew 10:28
    Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
    The point is that no fate, even death, is at all fearful when compared to the wrath of God. Charles Kingsley, describing an honest Scot, said that ‘He fears God and not the priest’, meaning that such a person respects God’s judgement, and that alone. In other words, fear of God should exclude any other kind of fear.

    September 4, 2010 — 22:57
  • Robert Gressis

    I take “fear of God” to amount, more or less, to what Michael Almeida said. Basically, I think that if we really loved God, we’d take what he asks us to do seriously, and we’d feel great regret when we didn’t–just like we should feel about anyone we love who loves us. Only the thing is, God loves us more than anyone loves us, so disappointing him should make us feel even worse than it makes us feel when we don’t live up to our other loved ones’ expectations.
    This, I think, is Kant’s view too. In his 1793 lecture notes on The Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes “it is indeed impossible that in the sight of God, as the law of the highest morality, we can do more than is incumbent, since in regard to Him, everything is required” (27:665), whereas in the 1797 The Metaphysics of Morals itself, he writes, “True humility follows unavoidably from our sincere and exact comparison of ourselves with the moral law (its holiness and strictness)” (6:436).
    [Admittedly, in these passages Kant doesn’t talk about the love of God, for insofar as love is a sensible feeling (i.e., love as, in Kant’s terminology, “benevolence”) Kant doesn’t think God has it. However, he would grant that God is perfectly loving when you understand “love” to have to do with what Kant calls “beneficence”–trying to make others happy insofar as it is permissible to do so.]

    September 5, 2010 — 11:47
  • Andrew Moon

    Hey all,
    Thanks for the helpful comments (and thanks for the encouragement, Mike)! I want to make sure we’re distinguishing between the textual question and the specific-normativity question. Regarding the first, I have also heard “fear of God” explained as mere respect or reverence. But I wonder why the translators didn’t just say that? Why say “fear” when respect or reverence would do? Also, take note of Luke 12:5, but let’s start at verse 4. “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. I tell you, fear him.” Verse 4 actually uses the words ‘be afraid of’. It seems that Jesus is talking about more than mere respect or reverence but fear.
    Regarding the specific-normativity question, I found what Tim O’Keefe said in response to Shafer-Landau to be sensible. Just as parents need to use fear of punishment to develop the moral character of children, so God might do with us. (Tim didn’t extend the analogy, but I am.) So, perhaps fear of God is only of instrumental value in that it could lead us to mature moral characters. Shafer-Landau is wrong about the effects of acting out of fear of God. Of course, both sides involve empirical claims that are testable.
    (So, the first question is hermeneutical and the second question comes down to an empirical, psychological question; both are to some extent outside of the realm of philosophy.)

    September 5, 2010 — 15:01
  • When I was learning Hebrew, at least one of the textbooks said that “fearer of X”, where X is a deity, meant “worshiper of X”.
    It’s worth noting that Lev. 19:3 says we are to “fear” our parents, while Joshua 4:14 talks of the people “fearing” Joshua as they had done Moses. Reverence seems a fine translation.

    September 6, 2010 — 9:40
  • On the issue of translation, I don’t know about Hebrew, but for the Greek (Matt 10:28 and Luke 12:405) I’d definitely go for ‘fear’ rather than revere. Fear is an element of reverence, but fear need not imply reverence – you might be tempted to fear the person who can take your life, but you would hardly revere them. Certainly, those who ‘fear’ a god are those who worship that God, but I’d guess that it is significant that fear is picked out as integral to that relationship.

    September 6, 2010 — 12:23
  • Jarrett

    I have a question that deals with the passages: Matt 10:28 and Luke 12:5. I heard one Catholic thinker, Peter Kreeft (a man I’ve been enjoying listening to lately), in his book ‘Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church’ write, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him [Satan] who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Mt 10:28)
    You’ll notice Kreeft says the one we should fear, in this case, is Satan. I know some posters in this thread are Catholic and am curious about the Catholic Church’s teaching on these verses.

    September 9, 2010 — 2:34
  • Jeremy Pierce

    Aside from the likelihood that fearing God isn’t simply being scared to death of God and thus doing what you have no heart to do otherwise, I think there might actually be a moral place for the latter. Children need to learn morality, and one way they do it initially is by consequences. Michael Stocker likes to say that utilitarianism is for children, by which he means not that it’s a childish theory (or at least not just that!) but that it reflects an important stage in moral development. Sometimes we move beyond that with some things but not with others and still need external motivation to do the right thing until we can come along. Even the simplistic, naive version of Shafer-Landau’s fear of God has a place in filling that spot.

    September 10, 2010 — 16:47