Luther’s View of the Fear of God

I share these notes from Albrecht Peters’ Ten Commandments. I have always been troubled by the standard, and it seems to me fascicle, distinction between fearing God in awe and in terror. Luther you will see below speaks of servile and filial fear and at times does make sharp distinctions. But in my opinion, he too saw that it wasn’t always an easy distinction to make. I would add it isn’t always a helpful one either.

Peters says: “The servants fear God the Lord only because of something that is extrinsic to Him, namely, on account of the temporal or even the eternal punishment threatened by Him. The servants also do not properly love God; they seek from Him the promised earthly or even the eternal reward. The true children, on the other hand love and fear God the Father only for His own sake”(138).

He cites a Luther quote in support of this, but it isn in our English works: “Luther distinguishes between the ‘holy, filial, free, intrinsic fear’ on the one hand and the ‘impure, servile, forced, extrinsic fear,’ on the other hand. The former he also calls simply ‘fear,’ while the later he calls ‘horror.’ Fear is a fruit of love, but horror is the seedbed of hatred.’” (138, fn. 283)

On page 139 Peters continues the discussion: “Coming from himself, based on his own reason and power, no one can change the servile fear into filial love. God’s Spirit Himself must come from on high and has to drive out the lowly servile fear by means of the trust in God enabled by Him….The servant’s fear is not changed into the son’s fear but is overcome by it; the servant’s love is not changed into the love of the children of God, but the pure trust of the child of God overcomes the old Adam’s hypocritical appearance of trust.” For support Peters cites Luther in footnote 284 again from a source only in German. “’For beginning love and great servile fear coexist, but fear decreases while love increases.’”

This footnote goes on to say: “This is anticipated by Augustine, to whom Peter Lombard refers,…’Fear prepares a place for love, as it were. But when love begins to dwell, the fear that prepared the place is thrown out. For when the one grows, the other decreases; and to the extent love becomes internal, fear is thrown out.’”

Here’s the real gem for me, and I believe it supports my introductory points: “Luther’s interpretation is not easily translated into the schematic of the threefold use of the Law. The antagonism between Law and Gospel recedes” (And this is dangerous, PRH).  Then footnote 286 quotes Luther, “’For how fear of punishment and the fear of God differ is more easily said in syllables and letters than known in reality and affection. All unbelievers fear punishment and hell. God will be with those who are His so that they fear God and punishment simultaneously. There can be no fear of God in this life without fear of punishment, as there can also be no spirit without flesh, though the fear of punishment is useless without the fear of God’” (139).

Peter’s sums up Luther’s distinction this way: There are two kinds of fear timor filialis and timor servilis. These are opposed to each other. Servile fear is “indissolubly connected to secret hatred.”  The one caught in this fear flees his parents fearing the punishment more than angering the parents. Filial fear battles hatred and comes near in love. It fears saddening the parents more than it does their punishment (211). This time the footnote does refer to an English collection of Luther’s writings. It’s AE 44: 15-114. I fear this is not an adequate way to cite an English reference. More about this anon.



About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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