In the last post (“Religion?“), I tried to spotlight a line of demarcation between religion on the one hand and Christianity on the other. I do believe there can be such a thing as true religion—i.e., a practice of religion that in some sense really is Christ-ian. Here, I think not only of the aphoristic wordings of James 1:26-27, but of all those souls, far more devoted than I, who go about doing all sorts of good because of their devotion to Jesus.
On the other hand, I do try to pay attention to the definition of terms (see here and here for other examples) whenever anything is discussed, and I want to be clear on what I am (and am not) seeking to denigrate in these posts on “religion.” So, toward a clearer definition—in terms of scripture—we find in one reputable English version (ESV) that the word “religion” or “religious” appears seven times:
- Acts 17:22
- Acts 25:19
- Acts 26:5
- Col 2:23
- James 1:26/27 (3x)
But an English word’s presence only tells us so much. I mean, who cares what the English says unless it can be shown to be a reliable translation of the original language? (And the ESV is certainly one of the more reliable translations available today. I’m just making a general point here.) We must either know something about the original or trust that the translators are handling the language correlation well. Here, on a level that barely scratches the surface, I’ll refer to the original language….
The Greek term θρησκεία | threskeia and cognates serve as antecedents for the Acts 26, Col 2, and James instances. In other words, the Greek antecedent is different in Acts 17 and 25. A good hunt would eventually involve appeal to reputable lexicons to determine the range of meaning of that word in all period literature. For purposes here, we’ll keep the definition at a “gloss” level: it means, roughly, “religious observance.”
That is one level of investigation, but let’s dig down into another layer. What about any other passages that began with the same Greek word but do not show up as “religion” in English? There is only one additional instance of threskeia not translated as “religion” by the ESV: Col 2:18, where “worship” is the English rendering. (I think the choice of “worship” here can throw off even the most pure-spirited bloodhound on the trail of angel, religion, or worship “creatures”!)
The results of such searches may be different in other English versions. For instance, the HCSB chooses a word other than “religion” in both of the Colossians 2 verses. The NASB opts out of one of them. The KJV actually skips both of them but chooses to give “religion” in two additional verses (Gal 1) in which the Greek original is different. Consideration of all of these translations may serve either to clarify or to blur. An illuminating sidelight here is that the KJV’s choice of “Jewish religion” for Ἰουδαϊσμός | judaismos in Galatians 1:13 and 1:14 is fairly close to current English usage, at least as I hear it. In other words, the “Judaism” or “Jewish religion” referred to here might be a direct ancestor of some observant-but-less-than-centered manifestations of Christian religion today.
In Colossians 2:23, Paul might have been intentionally distinguishing between whatever had been genuine in Jewish religion and something false. He might even have coined a term, because this compound word is found nowhere else in scripture:
The Abridged Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (a/k/a “Little Kittel”) has this to say about Col 2:23:
The word ethelothreskeia . . . seems to denote, not an affected piety, but a piety that does not keep to its true reality, to Christ, but is self-ordered.
Surely there is a distinction to be made between genuine religion and self-made (or other un-admirable types of) religion. If I were a better person, I’d aim for stronger association with the former. For now, I’ll have to be content with distancing myself from the latter.