john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Without fear and trembling


    Exodus 17.1-7, Philippians 2.1-13, Matthew 21.23-32

    'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,' writes Paul to the Philippians. And we are immediately in trouble.

    In trouble, not with the idea of working out our own salvation. That, we can appreciate, that we can apply ourselves to, with some enthusiasm and some creativity. How can I let the saving power of God more deeply into my life to influence me for the better today? What steps might I take today to be free from that which harms me and which helps me to be a blessing to others? We can rise to the challenge of working out our own salvation, and do so in gentleness and joy.

    But: 'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling: that's the troubling part. Does a loving God really want his followers to approach life in a heightened state of anxiety?

    This passage has troubled English people for a very long time, certainly since the King James Version of the bible reinterpreted the original in its own striking and sometimes sinister terms. J.B. Phillips, the translator of The New Testament in Modern English, wrote that,
    I had for some time been worried about the expression 'fear and trembling'. It did not seem likely to me that Paul in writing to the Philippians could have meant literally that they were to work out their salvation in a condition of anxiety and nervousness. We all know that fear destroys love and spoils relationships, and a great deal of the New Testament is taken up with getting rid of the old ideas of fear and substituting the new ideas of love and trust. I realized that the Greek word translated 'fear' can equally well mean 'reverence' or 'awe' or even 'respect,' but I was bothered about the 'trembling.'
    Surely the same Spirit who inspired Paul to write to Timothy that 'God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power and of love and of a sound mind' could not also have meant us to live our entire lives in a state of nervous terror. I came to the conclusion, a little reluctantly, that the expression 'in fear and trembling' had become a bit of a cliche, even as it has in some circles today.

    As J.B Phillips went on translating he found that this must be the case.
    For when Paul wrote to the Corinthians and reported that Titus had been encouraged and refreshed by their reception of him, he then went on to say that the Corinthian Christians received him with 'fear and trembling'! (2 Cor. 7:15) Now this makes nonsense, [Philips says] unless it is a purely conventional [way of speaking], [an expression] implying proper respect. For, little as we know of Titus, we cannot imagine any real Christian minister being encouraged and refreshed by a display of nervous anxiety.
    So with these considerations in mind J.B. Phillips translated the verse as follows: 'Work out the salvation that God has given you with a proper awe and responsibility'. Now that's the sort of translation we can work with. Similarly, The New Testament: An American Translation uses 'reverence and awe', as does Charles Williams in his New Testament. Weymouth's New Testament in Modern Speech has 'labour earnestly.'

    Where the King James Bible and the Geneva Bible taught us to 'fear the Lord,' more accurate translations in contemporary English are now telling us that we should be 'revering the Lord.' (Compare the NIV and KJV at Deut. 8:6). And in the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, over a thousand years older than the traditional source, a verse which in the traditional source read 'fear the Lord' was found to actually read 'LOVE the Lord.'

    So part of working out our salvation should involve reading the old Bible translations alongside the new, more scholarly, versions, and letting the truth emerge. Isaiah the prophet spoke for God when he wrote: '...this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and THEIR FEAR TOWARD ME IS TAUGHT BY THE PRECEPT OF MEN.' (Isaiah 29:13) [1] Working out our salvation might involve unlearning the fear towards God which men have previuosly taught us.

    'Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,' writes Paul to the Philippians. We are not in trouble any more, because modern scholarship helps us to understand that what he means is 'Work out your own salvation with reverence and faithful responsibility, with the right measure of awe, and love'.

    Work out your own salvation, perhaps, in the same way that a devoted son works out his lifestyle with a measure of due reverence and love for his good father, learning to live well by imitating him. This is closer to what Paul seems to want to tell us in this passage. And he holds up Jesus, and his relationship with his Father, as the model which will help and inspire us all:
    Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
    who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
    but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient ...
    Therefore God also highly exalted him ...
    So here is Jesus, having a human desire, human will, human intelligence, just as we do, whose human self, whose nature, whose character, is being "suggested" (or called, or loved) into being by devoting himself to the will and the ways of the Father, exactly as the character of a normal physical human son is formed.

    Jesus is utterly dependent on the Other who called him into being (John 5:19ff), and yet is utterly one with his Father. Jesus is imitating his Father: "I do everything which I see my Father do", but there is no sense in which Jesus tries to forge his own identity over against that of his Father, there is no grasping in Jesus as his desire to imitate his Father helps him to form himself.
    ...though he was in the form of God,
    [he] did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
    but emptied himself...
    ...he humbled himself
    and became obedient ...
    The purely gratuitous self-giving of the Father is completely imitated in the life-story of the Son. [2] This passage contains all we need to know about the attitude we should have in order to go about working out our own salvation: an attitude based on a deep love and devotion to the Father, in which we put our own needy, greedy desires aside and give ourselves to share the desires of the Father, for ourselves and for the world. So now,
    Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, ... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
    And as a good son emerges into maturity through his imitation of his good father, through his desire to follow and to please him, so may we emerge into a maturity of faith and devotion by similarly working on our imitation of Christ and his complete self-giving love for the Father.


    [1] J.B Phillips pasages and analysis from Gary Amirault
    [2] James Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong, p. 55, quoted in Girardian Lectionary