Due to the wide range of its usage, the English word "religion" (from Lat. religio) is not easily defined. Most commonly, however, it refers to ways in which humans relate to the divine (a presence [or plurality of such] or force [sometimes construed as plural] behind, beyond, or pervading sensible reality that conditions but is not conditioned by that reality). All such "ways" include a system of beliefs about the divine and how it is related to the world. Most also involve an attitude of awe toward the divine, and a pattern of actions (rituals and an ethical code). By extension, "religion" is often used to refer to systems of belief and related practices that play an analogous role in people's lives (e.g., Buddhism, Confucianism, and even humanism). The word is, thus, an abstract term adaptable to a great variety of referents.
Neither the Hebrew nor the Aramaic languages of the Old Testament have a word with a corresponding semantic field. For that reason, one does not find "religion" or "religious" in most English versions of these Scriptures. English translators of the New Testament do use these words at times to render various forms of three Greek terms: deisidaimonia [deisidaimoNIVa], threskeia [qrhskeiva], and eusebeia [eujsevbeia]. Yet all three words also fail to fully capture the import of the more abstract English "religion."
Both Old and New Testaments speak pervasively about matters "religious." Every word in these writings is in one way or another focused on the Creator-creature relationship. Every line revolves around that thematic center of gravity: how the Creator relates to his creation, especially humanity, and how humanity does and/or ought to relate to the Creator. In fact, every line of Scripture seeks to evoke from the reader right ways of relating to the Creator. In that sense, "religion" is pervasively the theme of Scripture.
To be sure, the Bible speaks of all creatures, resounding to God: they do his bidding (angels, Psalm 103:20 ; Heb 1:14 ; storm winds, Psalm 104:4 ; 148:8 ) and they rejoice before him with songs of joy and praise ( Job 38:7 ; Psalm 89:12 ; 96:11-13 ; 98:7-9 ; Isa 44:23 ; 49:13 ; 55:12 ; see especially Psalm 103:22 ; 145:10 ; 148 ). But the concern of the biblical texts is to promote among humankind right beliefs about God, right attitudes toward God, and right conduct before the face of God. Biblically, religion has to do with human responses to the Creator.
That religion has a place in human life springs from two fundamental realities: (1) humans have been created in the image of God ( Gen 1:26-27 ; 9:6 ; Psalm 8:5 ; 1 Cor 11:7 ; Col 3:10 ; James 3:9 ), and so are both addressable by God and capable of responses appropriate to persons (beliefs, attitudes, and conduct that is consciously chosen); and (2) the Creator has disclosed himself to humankind and continues to address them. The whole visible world proclaims that its Creator has been and still is at work. It reflects his power, wisdom, righteousness, glory, and goodness ( Psalm 19:1-4 ; 29:3-9 ; 97:6 ; Isaiah 40:12-14 Isaiah 40:21-22 Isaiah 40:26 Isaiah 40:28 ; Acts 14:17 ; 17:24-29 ; Rom 1:19-20 ). What Psalm 104 makes its central theme is elsewhere many times assumed or hinted: that the secure order of creation, sustaining as it does a profusion of life, is the visible glory-robe of the invisible Creator (see esp. vv. 1-2). So the creation itself is theophanous and not just here and there in special "holy" places. The visible creation is itself the primal temple of God not built by human hands, where his "power and glory" are ever on display ( Psalm 29:3-9 ; 63:2 ).
Nor are the effects of the Creator's actions in and on the creation discernible only in what is commonly referred to as "nature." God is equally engaged in the arena of human affairs. So, for example, he knows both the external Acts of all human beings and the secrets of every human heart. And he deals with persons accordingly. He even intersects the flow of human affairs at their fountainhead, as the teachers of Yahwistic wisdom summed it up for ancient Israel: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps" ( Prov 16:9 ); "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases" ( Prov 21:1 ); "Many are the plans in a man's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails" ( Prov 19:21 ; cf. Isa 10:6-7 ).
The arenas of such divine intersection extend from individual lives to the rise and fall of empires. God appoints nations their place and establishes their boundaries ( Deut 32:8 ; Amos 9:7 ). He makes them great, and destroys them ( Job 12:23 ). He summons international armies to be "the weapons of his wrath" against an arrogant empire ( Isa 13:4-5 ; Jer. 50-51 Ezek 30:25 ). To serve his historical purposes, God calls Assyria "the rod of my anger , the club of my wrath" ( Isa 10:5 ), Nebuchadnezzar "my servant" ( Jer 25:9 ), and Cyrus "my shepherd" to "accomplish all that I plan" ( Isa 44:28 ).
Ancient peoples believed that the gods intersected human affairs, determining the outcome of battles and the fortunes of kingdoms. Hence, in the rise and fall of kingdoms and empires the peoples of ancient Israel's world assumed that they experienced the workings of the gods. In that environment, Yahweh's sovereign control over the fortunes of nations, kings, and peoples (especially their downfall) humbled human arrogance ( Gen 11:1-9 ; Psalm 9:20 ; Isa 31:3 ; Ezek 28:2 ), exposed the powerlessness of the gods that humans made to fill the void left by their "forgetting" the Creator ( Psalm 96:5 ; 115:4-7 ; 135:15-18 ; Isa 44:9-20 ; 46:1-7 ), and testified to the sole rule of Yahweh ( Exod 9:16 ; 14:17-18 ; Psalm 106:8 ; Ezekiel 25:11 Ezekiel 25:17 ; 26:6 ; 28:22-24 ; Ezekiel 29:6 Ezekiel 29:9 Ezekiel 29:21 ; Ezekiel 30:8 Ezekiel 30:19 Ezekiel 30:25-26 ; 32:15 ; 35:15 ). Paul pointed to this divine disclosure in history when he said to the Greek intelligentsia, "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. For in him we live and move and have our being" ( Acts 17:26-28 ).
So, according to the Bible, humankind is addressed by God through every component, process, and event in so-called nature and through every event, big and small, that makes up human history. Human beings live and move and have their being within the arena of God's creation. And through God's pervasive engagement with his creation as he sustains and governs it, they are always and everywhere confronted with the display of his power and glory. Wherever humans turn and by whatever means they experience the creation, the Creator calls to them for recognition and response. From this perspective, all human life is inherently "religious."
In two other ways "religion" (humankind's ways of relating to the divine) encompasses the whole of human life. First, humans are created in God's image to be his stewards of the creation as vocation, not avocation ( Gen 1:26-27 ; 2:15 ; Psalm 8:6-8 ). In whatever ways they act on the creation they do so as faithful or unfaithful stewards of God's handiwork. Second, humans live and prosper in all they undertake only by God's gifts and blessings ( Gen 1:28-29 ; 9:1-3 ; Deut 7:13 ; Psalm 34:8-10 ; 127 ; Hosea 2:8-9 ). Thus in everything humans have to do with God.
But a breach has brought alienation between the Creator and humankind. Humanity has claimed autonomy as the implication of human freedom to make moral choices ( Gen 3:5-6 ) and self-sufficiency as the implication of humankind's power to "rule" and "subdue" God's earthly creatures ( Gen 4:19-24 ; 11:3-4 ). As Job said of the "wicked": "They say to God, Leave us alone! We have no desire to know your ways. Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What would we gain by praying to him?'" ( 21:14-15 ). They lean on their own understanding ( Prov 3:5 ), being wise in their own eyes ( Prov 3:7 ; Proverbs 26:5 Proverbs 26:12 ; Isa 5:21 ). In a very real sense, as Habakkuk ( 1:11 ) wrote of the Babylonians, they have become people whose own strength is their god.
Still, this alienation from the Creator has left a void at the center and there are obviously powers in the world not subject to human control that impinge on human existence and radically relativize humanity's self-sufficiency. So people have conceived of many gods, composed mythologies expressing what is believed about them, and devised ways to worship and appeal to them. Religion has broken up into many religions. Yet these have all been responses to the inescapable manifestations of the Creator's glory in the creation and the pervasive experience of humanity's existence being conditioned by a power or powers other than its own ( Rom 1:21-23 ).
This radical breach and its massive consequences have occasioned a second work of God, a work that rivals the first in its disclosure of the Creator's glory. Not willing to let the alienation stand or to yield his glory to other gods ( Isa 42:8 ; 48:11 ), the Creator has undertaken to effect reconciliation. It is with this mission of God to his world that the Bible is centrally concerned. It bears witness to God's "mighty Acts" of redemption in the history of Israel, and to the culmination of those Acts in the earthly ministry and heavenly reign of Jesus Christ. By this invasion of the alienated world with its many gods ( 2 Kings 17:29-33 ; Jer 2:28 ; 1 Cor 8:5 ), the Creator calls all peoples of the world to turn from the sham gods they have made and return to him. Only as people rightly relate to him, "the true God" ( Jer 10:10 ; cf. 1 John 5:20 ), can their religion be "true."
What, then, constitutes the religion that God accepts as pure and faultless?
First, it believes the testimony of the spirit of God contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments that arose in conjunction with God's saving Acts in Israel's history and culminated in Jesus Christ.
Second, it is filled with reverent awe before the majesty of the One who discloses himself in creation, history, and redemption. It bows in humble repentance before the Holy One for the alienation that turned to other gods and corrupted the "heart" from which springs every belief, attitude, and action. It receives in faith the grace of God offered in Jesus Christ. And in gratitude it dedicates the whole of self to the service of the Creator-Redeemer.
Third, certain activities or life expressions fall within its sphere: worship, prayer, and praise, both private and communal, and proclamation telling the story of what the one true God has done ( Isaiah 43:10 Isaiah 43:12 ; 44:8 ; Matt 28:18-20 ; Acts 1:8 ). But to Israel God gave directives for more than cultic worship. All of Israel's life was to be brought into accordance with the will of the Creator, whose concern about his whole creation remained undiminished. And because no listing of do's and don'ts could be adequate in themselves, an all-encompassing commandment had to be appended: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength [power and resources] [and] love your neighbor as yourself" ( Mark 12:29-31 ; and parallels cf. Leviticus 19:18 Leviticus 19:34 ; Deut 6:4-5 ; John 13:34 ; Rom 13:9 ; Gal 5:14 ; James 2:8 ).
In biblical perspective, no human activity is any less "religious" (how humans relate to God) than worship, prayer, and praise. For that reason the apostle Paul instructed the church at Corinth, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" ( 1 Cor 10:31 ). And for that reason James wrote, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" ( 1:27 ).
John H. Stek
Bibliography. R. A. Clouse, The Myth of Religious Neutrality: An Essay on the Hidden Role of Religious Belief in Theories; R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy; J. Wach, The Comparative Study of Religion.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Religion'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".