In the fourth chapter of the first letter to Timothy, we find Paul stating that “every creation of God is good” (4:4a). With such words, the Apostle reaches back to the opening words of the Scriptural narrative, affirming the words that close out the first chapter of Genesis, which are “God saw all that He had made---and it was very good!” (1:31a) We may think that such a statement is hardly revolutionary, but in the Greco-Roman world, it was. Now, before ascertaining the counter-cultural character of this particular statement, which we can hear alongside the declaration of God’s creation being very good, we do recognize that this is not an assertion made in isolation. Paul has written “Now the Spirit explicitly says that in the later times some will depart from the faith and occupy themselves with deceiving spirits and demonic teachings, influenced by the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared. They will prohibit marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creation of God is good and no food is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving. For it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer” (4:1-5).
What Paul has in mind as these things are written, and the issues to which he addresses himself by these words, are not relevant to this study. Even though the statement about every creation of God being good does not stand alone, and asks to be heard in context, it is also possible to hear Paul operating on multiple levels of communication. Though he may be directly addressing a known issue within the church community, it is not preposterous to suggest that Timothy, along with those that will hear this letter, will pick up on statements that may be directed to wider cultural forces that could have a deleterious effect on the church of Christ.
The Hebrew mindset, which affirmed God’s good creation, and, by and large, looked forward to God’s redemption of His people and His creation---expecting that which defaced His good creation (death) to be defeated and removed and anticipating a resurrection of the righteous dead into a restored world that will once again be pronounced as very good (a hope that was rightly carried over into Christianity)---stood in opposition to two major, highly influential, and, when it comes to the Greco-Roman world, nearly universally adhered to religious/philosophical “schools” of the day, which were that of “Stoicism” and Epicureanism.” Regardless of which god(s) one worshiped in that day, be it the Caesar or any other deity, one’s religious tendencies could be colored by one of the two philosophical bents. Naturally, those who worshiped Jesus as Lord and God, could fall into the same patterns. Undoubtedly, as we shall see, this is something against which Paul wanted to be on guard.
Plato, with his teaching about “forms,” in which (though this is much simplified) all earthly things were merely imperfect forms of that which existed in the heavenly realms, greatly influenced both the stoic and the epicurean approaches to life. Essentially, the influential Platonic philosophy reduced all of life to the physical, which was bad, and to the spiritual, which was good. Regardless of one’s particular philosophy, this would largely be the basis for one’s religious approach to life. With this as a very shallow foundation, we can proceed to learn about these ideologies.
According to stoicism, one’s life was to be spent gaining mastery over one’s passions and responses, cultivating the attitude of indifference, and aligning oneself with the cosmic force that was ultimately determinative of the events of one’s life, which could be observed in the harmonious operations of nature. In conflict with the Hebrew position that humans were created in God’s image, and a celebration of the God-like attributions of humanity, stoicism sought to suppress human emotions. This would lead to the attainment of virtue, which was observed as a detachment from all worldly concerns. At death then, in accordance with the negative view of the physical world and its concerns, it was believed that the body would separate from the soul, existing momentarily in independence before being absorbed into the universal divine force that was known as “logos.” Accordingly, the supreme god was not personal in any sense at all, and was to be identified in the orderliness of creation, much like a painter is identified by his paintings. Stoic belief, though based upon the presupposition that the natural world is inferior, can be identified as a monotheistic pantheism, which looks at everything within the natural order as being part of the one god. Though this deification of nature appears to contradict the idea that the physical world is inferior, once we understand that the natural world is overlaid with the spiritual, therefore superseding the natural/physical component, it serves to demonstrate the consistency of the belief structure. This, of course, stands in opposition to the Hebrew and subsequently Jesus-as-Messiah-based Hebrew (Christian) view of God and the world.