This entire series is my 30-paged bachelor thesis I submitted to the theology department at Concordia University-Ann Arbor—a higher Lutheran education university—as part of the requirement to graduate from the Pre-Seminary programme. It has been reformatted to fit this blog.
What value is fear today? According to Scripture, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight” (Proverbs 9:10). To fear and know God rightly is a prerequisite for true wisdom. Fear and knowledge go together. Yet what does it mean for the human being to fear God? Appealing to the fact that “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), some exclude fear from everything, including love. From this point of view, “fear is a negative disposition” and has “an innate incompatibility with love” (Castelo, 148); therefore, a person cannot experience God’s love if they fear Him. This reaction to fear is widespread in American culture. According to theologian Daniel Castelo, we live “within a ‘culture of fear’ in which the media and market forces not only espouse the virtue of eliminating fear but also use fear as a tool to elicit attention and create desire” (Castelo, 148). Sociologists confirm Castelo’s observation by describing America as a “risk society,” which describes “cultures increasingly preoccupied with threats to safety, both real and perceived” (Hanus, March 2017). Almost ironically, our culture desires to remove fear from everything, but “media outlets, politicians, and businesses all have learned to capitalize on this distinctly modern sense of dread, and thus profit from finding ways to cultivate it” (Hanus, March 2017). For example, while Democrats desire to eliminate fear among the existence of illegal immigrants in our country, the left-leaning media will spin a story in a way that instills fear of President Trump’s initiative to deport illegal immigrants. In the same way, the media on the right—and President Trump himself—have used fear to convince Republicans that they should fear immigrants. These fearful tactics utilised by the media and politicians has caused fear to permeate American society, and thus Americans live in fear, even American Christians who strive to live a life that trusts in God.
While we as Americans strive to remove fear from life, as Lutherans we conversely learn in catechism class that fear and love go together from Luther’s Small Catechism. In the first commandment, Luther explains we should “fear, love, and trust in God above all things” (Kolb, 352). In the commandments that follow, he writes “we should fear and love God,” omitting trust in commandments two through ten. In Luther’s understanding, fear and love are both necessary dispositions toward God. We fear God because He is sovereign, and we love God because He has brought us into relationship with Himself. Furthermore, Luther also wrote, “Only the comfort of the Gospel can bring the terror [of God’s wrath] to an end” because “it delivers what God promises, forgiveness of sins, and thereby creates faith” (Wengert, “Fear and Love,” 25). For Luther, fear and love go together because our love of God brought about by the Gospel brings our fear (i.e. terror) of God’s wrath to an end. From the American point of view, a person cannot both fear and love someone. While Christians do understand fear can be terror, proper fear of God is not this type of fear as terror. Thus, there is a disjunction between the American cultural understanding of fear and the Christian understanding of fear. While one certainly experiences fear of God’s wrath, Christians understand proper fear of God in the context of His love, even as a fear of reverence. The American understanding of fear is viewed in the context of adversarial relationships, whereas the Christian understanding of fearing God is in the context of His love for us.
Although Americans view fear as the opposite of love, I argue with Luther that fear and love come together in the status of the person as a child of God: namely, filial fear. The Christian’s condition of justification in Christ our Lord enables the Christian to exercise filial fear, which is the fear that reorients the Christian to love God in the act of repentance as it is undergirded by trust (faith) in God. Thus, the Christian can experience God’s love while also fearing Him. This may seem like a purely academic discussion, but it has important ramifications for the Christian life. After all, one result of the filial fear of the Lord is to to sate the Christian conscience burdened by the shame, guilt, and even dangers of sin (filial fear will be defined throughout my paper). While guilt is necessary for repentance, God’s desire is that we trust in His promise of covering our guilt in Christ, for repentance—broadly speaking—includes trust in His promise (see FC SD V on Law and Gospel for further understanding of repentance).
Christian fear is centred in Jesus Christ, and Christ reorients the Christian’s fear. Fear and love only cohere as it is understood in one’s filial relationship to God in Christ. Apart from Christ, people cannot consider fear as good. To show this, I will argue how fear and love come together in filial fear as the child of God is moved to love God as a result of trusting in God’s promise, which is faith. This will be shown in discussing first the three types of fear humans exercise depending on one’s condition, which will focus our attention on filial fear. Having shown the importance of the condition of a person’s heart for our understanding of fear, I will explore the Biblical point of view that shows fear and love are not polar opposites but complementary. Next, I will discuss how Christ, as the Lord whom we fear, enacts our justification as the condition that enables filial fear. Finally, I will show the relevance of fear for the Christian life through a discussion of the threefold use of the law and the relationship of fear to wisdom. Throughout this paper I will show how Christian fear is centred in Jesus Christ, who reorients our fear in the context of our filial relationship to God in Christ.