On Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling


Fear and Trembling

An earlier post used the title, Working Out Your Salvation with Fear and Trembling as that motif seems to capture the fundamentalist spirit. But it also raised a reader question on the subject. By the time I finished a reply, it was too late to make another post. So that reply is today’s post. The tone is somewhat different, but this is offered affectionately none the less.


Fear gets plenty of traction in evangelicalism and fundamentalism. We put the fear of the Lord [or at least fear of their fathers] into our children.

We don’t hear good old fashioned hell-fire and brimstone preaching as much now, but we know that we need to hear good old fashioned hell-fire and brimstone sermons. We need ‘remember Lot’s wife’ sermons. We need ground opening up and earthquakes swallowing people sermons. We need sermons like 500 pound stones sitting on the rafters, that make us feel the flames of hell licking the soles of our feet, and smell the stench of sulfur in our nostrils. OK maybe that’s the roast burning at home…

It’s in the Bible!

…work out your salvation with fear and trembling [Phil 2:12].

Because Phi 2:12 says what it says, some IFBs have the idea that ‘fear and trembling’ theology is well vindicated. In fact, ‘fear and trembling’ is an idiom. It is a figure of speech. We know this because the expression ‘fear and trembling’ is used several times in both the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT, and the NT. In question is the meaning of the words ‘phobos’ [from which we get ‘phobia’ or ‘fear’], and tromos [trembling].

In Dt 2:25, YH says that Israel’s enemies will dread [tromos] with fear. In Dt 20:3, Israel is told, ‘do NOT fear or tremble.’ Eliphaz’ speech references dread and trembling [Job 4:14]. Ps 2:11 is interesting – worship YHWH with fear and rejoice with trembling. Clearly, that is no call to cravenness in worship. Moreover, Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel also use phobos/tromos in combination. Verdict? This is an idiom.

The NT uses the expression ‘fear and trembling’ in Mk 5:33; 1Co 2:3; 2Co 7:15; Ep 6:5, and Phil 2:12. In Mk 5:33, [the woman with the bleeding ulcer] MAY [quite literally] have trembled in fear. But we can hardly say that God’s affection for us is granted in exchange for our fear and trembling [as 2Co 7:15 says, cf. Ps 2:11].

Again, there is no question that ‘fear and trembling’ is an ‘idiom.’ And that takes nothing from the language or authority of the text. What it does do is call for a little care in what meaning we invest IN those two words in each case. So context matters wherever this idiom occurs.

But What’s in a Word?

In Philippians 2:12, both ‘phobos’ and ‘tromos’ are translated correctly. However other readings are equally plausible and may be more appropriate in context of Philippians 2:12.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines phobos under two categories:

‘fear, dread, terror [followed by various examples].’
‘reverence, respect [for authority, rank, dignity].’

Friberg’s Greek Lexicon does the same. It handles ‘phobos’ …

‘in a negative sense fear, dread, alarm.’
‘in a positive sense respect, reverence, awe, … respect for those in authority’ (Ep 6.5).

‘Tromos’ [trembling] is not so clear cut, although the hint of distinction is there. For example, Friberg says:

‘trembling, shaking, as an outward sign of fear or of being seized with great awe.’

Thayer says that tromos is…

‘used to describe the anxiety of one who distrusts his ability completely to meet all requirements, but religiously does his utmost to fulfil his duty.’

Fear and Trembling in Phi 2:12

In context of Phi 2:12, Paul writes of Christ’s humiliation [a theological term to describe his incarnation, suffering and death] and of his exaltation [a theological term to describe his resurrection, ascension, session to God’s throne, and eventual return]. In effect…

So – remember what he did … remember who he is … and have a care people … as he humbled himself, you be ready to humble YOUR selves, you esteem others of more import than yourself, you look out for their interests as well as your own. Remember that he who became a servant to suffer and die on a cross is also the one who is elevated to highest honor and glory …

That ‘reverence of person’ and respect for Jesus’ rank and dignity well suit ‘phobos’ [fear] in context of Phi 2:12. The willingness of the Son to come down, to serve, to suffer and to die fits a response of ‘great awe’ as a rendering of ‘tromos’ even if minus the ‘outward sign’ of shaking.

Despite Eph 6:5, owners didn’t expect slaves to cower before them. Even if Paul says, ‘with fear and trembling,’ he adds immediately ‘in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ.’ That is the ‘heart’ of the matter.

Do we REALLY Need Multiple Meanings?

In 1Pe 3:2, the ‘respectful’ behavior expected of wives toward husbands is ‘phobos.’ Presumably, wives are not expected to cower before their men. Although one or two IFB ‘pastors’ might convince us that they DO think that way, this would be an horrid way to conceive either marriage or our relationship with God. So we really do need to honor the fact that words have multiple meaning, and to determine what fits each context best.

What’s Wrong with ‘Fear?’

Such a conception of God violates several Biblical norms. The spirit of fear is contrary to the spirit of adoption [Ro 8:15]. We do not have the spirit of timidity but of power, love and discipline [2Ti 1:7]. We have been freed from the fear of death [He 2:15]. There is no fear in love and the one who fears is not perfected in love [1Jo 4:8]. We are told do ‘not fear’ scores of times in references that run from Genesis to Revelation.

Exactly Who Is God Anyway?

Behind all this is the question of whether God is a vengeful, hateful tyrant who loves to drop the house on us if a toe goes out of line, or whether God is a loving, heavenly Father who sends his Spirit continually and strives tirelessly with people in all times and places.

Fundamentalism has little choice but to depict God as a cosmic grouch. Every time people are illuminated by the Spirit and drawn into the stream of grace that flows from the throne in Glory, another potential supporter is lost to Fundamentalism.

If we want to make a case for ‘fear and trembling,’ we should base it on Galatians 2. If Peter can be carried off by works-based theology, we must recognize that we are all apt to wander into aberrant thinking however much we deny it and may pay lip service to grace.

Glory to Christ!

7 thoughts on “On Fear and Trembling”

  1. This is very helpful.

    The Message translates it as “reverent and sensitive before God.” I think that sounds much more gentle. I have always been taught to mistrust The Message though, so while I love to read it, I can’t help but feel the need to be cautious and a little skeptical of its translation.

    May I ask where or how you learned these things? I am a bit in awe of your ability to see a differect interpretation; it’s both refreshing and a little scary. I want to learn how to read these verses with new eyes. I’m not really able to do this, and I believe the Spirit is supposed to help us with this, but I have found that I have horrible instincts when it comes to knowing what He’s trying to say to me. I don’t hear Him very well, and instead only hear myself, thinking it’s Him. How does one learn this?

    1. Dear First time caller:

      Basically, I did what you saw.

      After finding your post, I did a quick word study. I made a list of verses [from the OT translated into Greek, and Gr. NT] that use both the ‘fear’ and ‘trembling’ words. I checked a few lexicons [Greek-English dictionaries] for meanings. As in English, Hebrew/Greek words often have multiple meanings. I returned to my list of texts, substituted each definition for both words. Then it’s a question of ‘which “definition” makes most sense in that context.’ My conclusions were based on that. The work was my own, although I had some help.

      I’ve had some good teachers over the years. I have decided long ago that I never wanted to stop studying. So here I am.

      I debated myself all weekend with how to craft a reply. I considered a CS Lewis’ ‘Screwtape Letters’ format, but from the heavenly perspective. Lewis himself toyed with that idea after publishing his famous letters to ‘Wormwood’ but opted against it. And I am no CS Lewis. Rather than making this unduly burdensome, I’m opting for the personal reply but allowing it to stand in place of a post. It’s lazy and lame, perhaps; but then what resonates with one often does with others also. I hope that’s OK with you.

      Blessings!

      1. Rather than making this unduly burdensome, I’m opting for the personal reply but allowing it to stand in place of a post. It’s lazy and lame, perhaps; but then what resonates with one often does with others also. I hope that’s OK with you.

        No, not lazy or lame. Please don’t think that. Nothing has to be “ok” with me. 🙂 You owe me nothing, and I have no expectations.

        Thank you for giving me a place to start. I’ve been reading Mere Christianity, also by C. S. Lewis. Maybe I’ll read some of his other works as well. 🙂

      2. Sorry to revert back to an old post, but I had a question related to this comment.

        You’ve given excellent instructions on how to do a word study. I feel like there’s a word that is just waiting for me to explore it, and I’m trying to think and “listen” to discover what word that would be. I’m specifically looking to study something that will help me to throw out concepts that repel me from God or from understanding His true nature, similar to what you were able to do with “fear and trembling.”

        You put a link to a website in the comment above. The software from this website is quite expensive, and probably has more tools than I would begin to know how to use. Are there other resources available online, reasonably priced, that would serve a similar purpose?

        1. Dear First Time Caller:

          Many gems in the word await our exploration! As for your observations about the program I referenced, I’ve used it for some two decades [bought MANY versions], and I’m still learning about it.

          I expected to find more than I did, but I will refer you to SwordSearcher and eSword. Of course there is also BibleGateway, which is an online Bible which you can search free of charge. You’re limited in what you can do with it, but it may help while you check out the software packages I mentioned.

          Often, people are a lifetime throwing off the doubts, self-flagellation and other spiritual afflictions arising from IFB exposure. A vital, basic component to that recovery is recognizing the fundamentalist caricature for the twisted image that it is. Perspective matters. Acquiring a sense of discretion, wisdom and reserve matters. The ability to separate the healthy and unhealthy matters. An ability to know and weigh other interpretations of our undoubted Christian faith matters. Knowing ourselves — what/why something draws/repels me to/from God — matters. Solid roots in a non-sectarian [IFB] churchly tradition matters. An attachment to others with past experience in the IFB matters.

          God’s nearness, goodness, graciousness, mercy and other themes may be helpful. A study of the themes of restoration/renewal may be helpful. Studying God as our Father may be very helpful, although not for many because their relationship with their earthly father was so marred.

          I think that IFB recovery isn’t about a ‘fix’ or ‘sure’ so much as learning to recognize/deal with symptoms as they occur. In that respect, IFBism is less like a disease than a spiritual syndrome. When the doubts/self-loathing/etc. occur, recognize this as a spiritual attack and respond with what works for you. That’s why I listed a number of things that ‘matter.’ While under satanic attack, brother Martin Luther threw an inkwell at the apparition that appeared before him, rebuked Satan and thundered, ‘I AM BAPTIZED!’ OK so you not Martin Luther… Perhaps a ‘rebuke’ will work for you. Or sharing with a friend. Or something else. But whatever helps you, go there.

          Blessings!

  2. Very well written and logical. How does an adopted child fear and tremble in the presence of his adoptive parents?, he doesn’t, he leaps into their arms and kisses their neck. Adoption is the epitome of love. Salvation is a beautiful story of love and adoption.

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