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!