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God's 'Whatevers': A meditation on Philippians 4:8

Monday, 7 November 2016  | Mick Pope

A number of years ago, I was showing off some photos I’d taken on holiday in the Daintree. As a friend was admiring them, he suggested I could put some verses on them and make a calendar. While I’m a huge fan of the doxological creation theology of the Psalms, my first thought was: ‘Why should I have to add some verses to make my photos “more Christian”? Don’t they stand on their own?’ This same person only ever read textbooks relevant to their profession, theology books for their course and surfing magazines. Not meaning to judge, but in the richness of life and culture, are we forever to be stuck in a Christian cultural ghetto, with at best a pragmatic regard for the world? Or can we do better?

While I am wary of one-verse theologies, Philippians 4:8 is relevant here:

Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. (NASB)

Does ‘whatever’ really mean ‘whatever’? Or do we read ‘whatever’ in the same way some Christians read ‘world’ in John 3:16 to only mean ‘the elect’? Two things will help us in this. Firstly, what do we know of Paul and how he straddled two worlds? Secondly, what is the context of this verse in the letter? Then, we’ll look at each of the words and their classical usage. Having a context for them as well as their etymology will allow us to think more carefully about the ‘whatever’.

Before we get all huffy about ‘Christian culture’, we need to remember that, for Paul, no such thing existed. Jesus was a Jew, and Paul was a Jew with a Greco-Roman education. Paul had a program of making the news of the Jewish Messiah accessible for Gentiles. This included finishing the work Jesus began in declaring all foods clean (Mark 7) by opening up the faith to all regardless of food laws (with limits) or circumcision; external marks counted for nought. Philippi was a Roman colony, meaning that its citizens had the rights of Roman citizens, identified with Roman culture and did all of the things that Romans were meant to do. There were Jews in Philippi, as evidenced by the God fearing-woman Lydia (Acts 16), a Gentile attracted to Jewish monotheism. However, it’s likely the church consisted mostly of Gentiles.

Paul was versed in Greco-Roman culture; he was familiar with Greek poets and could use them to reinforce his arguments in evangelism (Acts 17). He could use Greek sport as an illustration of the Christian life, without accepting the surrounding pagan elements (see 1 Corinthians 9:26). In his letter to the Colossians, Paul critiques legalism, as we would call it (over-attachment to the Old Covenant), and anything that smacks of a dualistic or gnostic separation from the world (which includes asceticism).

On the flip side, while Paul acknowledges the value of the inheritance of Judaism (in Romans), he also regards it all as crap compared to knowing Christ (Philippians 3). He is everywhere critical of the idolatrous elements of culture (Acts 17) and reminds the Philippians that the enemies of the cross have their minds on ‘earthly things’ (verse 19), whereas ours is a resurrection future as citizens of heaven (verse 20). So are heaven and earth juxtaposed such that the ‘whatever’ of Philippians 4:8 cannot include elements of our present culture?

I’m not so sure. Firstly, such a view places a premium on a doctrine of ‘Original Sin’, and ignores the original goodness of humans placed as the image of God in God’s good creation. Secondly, it makes heaven versus earth into some kind of dualistic Shibboleth, whereas Jesus’ prayed ‘your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven’ to bring the two together. Jesus’ kingdom is not from (the Greek means ‘out of’, not ‘of’) this world, but it is for this world. Likewise, resurrection is about transformation, not negation. All of this adds up to suggest that the world, as the object of God’s love (John 3:16), still is worthy of God’s love, not in the sense of earning it but of still reflecting part of what he intended it for. Thirdly, behind Paul’s exaltation of the humility of Christ is the lack of humility in Roman culture, where acts of public good were really often acts of self-promotion. In the upside down kingdom of God, where acts of humility are raised above acts of hubris, appreciation of those things in life that are beautiful is made possible.

So, given this possibility, let’s look at the words Paul uses and see what their broader usage brings to the table. Each of the first six words is preceded by the word hosa, which is translated as ‘whatever’. It could also be read as ‘everything that is’ or ‘all that’; in other words it is meant to be expansive, and not limited.

‘Whatever is true’ refers to whatever is true in the sense of being fact, such as the Samarian woman’s statement about her number of husbands (John 4:18) or Paul’s statement about Cretans (Titus 1:13). Now Paul is not baptising trivial facts (bad luck, players of Trivial Pursuit), but truth itself. This of course can be theological truth, but no doubt, too, truths about the state of the world around us, including scientific statements. This would suggest that the anti-science posture of some Christians is unhelpful, can be detrimental to our witness and means we miss out on much to wonder over.

‘Honourable’ can refer to things worthy, above reproach or holy. Now, if we were to limit its meaning to ‘holy’ alone, one could claim high moral ground and suggest it could only refer to things in Christ. But if we take the word in its broader usage, we find in the world today many things worthy of our attention - worthy causes dealing with poverty, disadvantage, injustice, etc. - regardless of whether or not the organisation or people involved are Christian. We also admire the example of others whose character sets a high standard, all questions of salvation aside.

‘Whatever is right’ (or ‘just’) is everything that ultimately points to God, the author of all justice. Likewise, it is in Christ that the unjust are made just, while God remains just. We know that God requires us to be just (Micah 6:8), and insofar as people do just things, they mirror, or image, God. Anytime people do what is right, fair or equitable, in business, law or even refereeing in sport, we can applaud. Furthermore, we need good Christian lawyers, judges and police. This should put to death the suspicion some Christians have about ‘social justice’. Apart from the fact that justice only makes sense in society, and hence must be social, justice is at the heart of God. Paul commends whatever is just, precisely because of this.

Purity was an obsession for second temple Judaism. Jesus critiques the external purity laws when they are not matched by internal purity. Issues of cleanness and uncleannesss are matters of the heart, not external observance (Mark 7). Peter commends wives to a life of reverence and purity (1 Peter 3:2). James also describes the wisdom from above as pure (James 3:17). Ultimately, in order to sort the good from the bad, the praiseworthy from the not, and to remain unstained by the worldly while appreciating the echoes of God within it, we need to seek to be pure.

‘Whatever is lovely’ (or ‘pleasing’) can mean something that causes pleasure or delight, or is agreeable or lovely. There are many things that fall into this category. We can be far too ascetic and not enough aesthetic. A beautiful sunset, a wonderful work of art, good food, good (married) sex; all these things can bring pleasure, and since God is the author of all good things, we are to take delight in them. Pleasure is not an end in itself (see Ecclesiastes), but it is not to be ignored out of misguided piety. This of course is where ideas of purity and honour come into play. Are there times when nudity may be considered good art and clearly delineated from pornography? Certainly we need good Christian artists who can make good art, ‘Christian art’ or otherwise - not trite or kitsch, but powerful and moving.

‘Whatever is of good repute’ (worthy of praise or commendable) is classically understood to refer to things that are said out of cautious reserve, i.e. carefully chosen words. Here, it captures the sense that there are things that are worthy of our comment in a positive light. Against the background of Roman boast culture and its opposite in Christ-like humility, we are reminded that we can still be positive about the things people say and do. I’ve known of Christian schools that don’t hand out awards in light of Philippians 2, but Philippians 4 shows this up as nonsense. Awards can build up and not puff up. Let’s be quick to be positive in a tall poppy culture.

Finally, anything that is ‘excellent’ or ‘upright’ (the Stoics used the word in a moral sense and it’s usually understood that Paul does the same here) or ‘worthy of praise’ (a different word in the Greek than before), Paul encourages us to think about. We are to ponder, let our minds dwell on or even meditate on these things. Here, mind and heart come together to dissect, reason through and understand the best aspects of the world. To summarily reject works of art, good causes, the results of science, political thinkers, philosophers, etc. simply because they are not Christian is to ignore Paul’s call to think about the best the world has to offer. The world is God’s good creation, humans are God’s image and God’s will is to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We need to be on the lookout for signposts that point to God, not because they are the final word, but because, when the final Word returns, all of these things worthy of our attention now will be perfected, and the world will be filled with such things.

Mick Pope is an aspiring ecotheologian and the Reviews Editor of Zadok Perspectives. He heads up the Ethos Environment think tank and is the author, together with Claire Dawson, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (Melbourne, UNOH, 2014).

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