Dear Timothy, 

We were discussing in these letters some practical aspects of the minister’s calling in relation to his congregation, especially as Paul comments on these things in I Timothy 4. I want to continue this discussion in this letter, for Paul has more things to say which are profitable to us. 

In this letter I want especially to discuss with you some of the implications of I Timothy 4:7, 8: “But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself rather unto godliness. For bodily exercise profiteth little: but godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” 

It is rather interesting that Paul contrasts our calling with respect to exercising unto godliness with refusing profane and old wives’ fables. He apparently means that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to exercise unto godliness unless we make a special point of refusing these fables of which he speaks. 

We ought first of all therefore to ask ourselves the question: to what does he refer by this rather graphic expression? Searching for an answer to this, we are reminded of something similar which he wrote in chapter 1, verse 4: “Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do.” The word which is translated “fables” could just as well be translated “myths.” But the apostle does not refer particularly to the myths of Greek and Roman mythology, but to the myths which were current in Jewish thought. This is clear from the fact that he links these myths with genealogies. The Jews loved genealogies and even based their salvation on them. But along with their genealogies, especially as these extended back into the Old Testament, the Jews wove endless myths around the central characters and related all these myths to the Word of salvation as it had come from God. The inventing, embellishing, and narrating of these myths were not, therefore, harmless exercises in story-telling, but were considered, in themselves, to be pious activities, conductive to godliness and salvation. 

In vs. 7, Paul characterizes these same myths as “profane and old wives’ fables.” They are profane because they fire the opposite of the holy narratives concerning the saints found in the Scripture records; and they are of about as much value as the endless and tedious cackling of old crones. They are, in a certain sense, exercises. They exercise the imagination, the mind, by clever subtleties and endless variations, the thinking faculties as all sorts of questions are invented and answers sought for them. The Jews considered this a pious and spiritually healthy exercise besides. But, says Paul, disdain to have anything to do with this sort of a thing. 

I suppose that if one would attempt to put this into some kind of current language, the words of the apostle here should be construed as a warning against becoming enmeshed in questions about the text of the Scriptures which are, in their nature, unanswerable and which have nothing to do with the Word of God in the text. This sort of a thing can easily happen—especially in some of the societies. I will invent an example, but it is, in my experience, rather like some discussions which sometimes take place in society meetings. Suppose that a society would be discussing the passage in Genesis 5:21-25 where Scripture tells us of Enoch who was translated without seeing death. We would be doing what Paul here warns against if we would permit ourselves to be led into a discussion of all the myths which have been woven around the life of Enoch; if we would speculate on questions concerning whom he married, where he lived, what happened to his family after God took him to heaven, whether he was taken in the sight of his friends or the wicked, etc. God has not revealed any of these things to us, and if we nevertheless persist in speculating about them, we might exercise our imaginations and we might even kid ourselves into thinking that we are treating God’s Word with a pious interest in spiritual things which are conducive to our spiritual life; but we are occupied with profane and old wives’ fables for all that. And there is nothing profitable in that sort of exercise. All it does is lead to endless questionings and not “a godly edifying which is in faith.” 

I think that this same thing may be said of much of the work which is done by higher critics of the Bible who reject the infallible inspiration of the Scriptures and who attempt to explain the words of Scripture by a literary and an historical analysis of the passage. They take, e.g., the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand as recorded in John. Now their basic presupposition is, of course, that John is not the author of this gospel, but that the gospel was written very late in the second century. They furthermore assume, although they do not say this in so many words, that miracles just can’t happen because miracles are contrary to our scientific view of the world. But they have to explain how in the world this sort of a thing ever got written. And so they talk about the fact that the Church, in evaluating the teachings of Jesus, noticed that Jesus talked quite often about the lofty principles of sharing what we have with those who are less fortunate than we are. And because the early Church was convinced that Jesus was a marvelous teacher, they say that Jesus illustrated the need for us to share of our bounties by persuading a small boy who had five loaves and two fishes to share what he had with someone else. Others, seeing this wonderful example began to do the same. And so there was plenty of food to feed this huge multitude. But, because the early Church wanted to drive the lesson home as strongly as possible and because the early Church had a very exalted view of Jesus, they cast this story about sharing in the form of a miracle. 

Now the higher critics of the Bible do this with the whole of the Bible. They show a remarkable facility to exercise their imaginations and come up with the most startling and original explanations for the simple stories of Scripture. And they even think that this is an exercise which leads to godliness. But they are accomplishing little more than the gossipy cackling of some toothless crones. 

The higher critics have to be answered, I suppose. And to answer them one has to know something about what they are doing. But it is a great weariness t6 the spirit to get involved in all this sort of thing. Avoid it, Timothy. Such exercise is of no profit. And if you have to answer them, don’t let yourself get involved in their reasonings; come with the Word of God only. 

Nevertheless, there is a proper exercise for the Christian minister. That is an exercise unto godliness. Twice in the passage Paul mentions that. “Exercise thyself rather unto godliness.” “But godliness is profitable unto all things. . . .” 

And quite strikingly, this is further contrasted with the comparatively little value which is to be found in the exercise of the body. 

I do not want to write extensively about the latter. There are only a few remarks which I think ought to be made in this connection. The first remark is that there is, to my mind, no question about it that Paul means here exactly the exercise of the body. Some, have doubted this and made Paul speak here of various ascetic practices which are so popular among Roman Catholics—especially of the bygone years. They are wrong. Bodily exercise is exactly what the apostle has in mind. 

In the second place, this text is often used as the chief basis for a whole Christian physical education program. It is not that. It cannot be that. And a Christian physical education program which is built on this text is on flimsy ground. The argument is that Paul gives some significance here to bodily exercise when he talks about it having “little” profit. But as this little bit of profit is discussed and developed into an entire program, the “little” becomes “much,” and even “most.” Now, I am not against a Christian physical education program of the right sort. In fact, I have my own personal devil to fight in this respect, for I like sports more than I ought. But the point that needs to be made is that the apostle is talking here about exercising unto godliness, and the great profit to be derived from this. And in that connection, he makes the observation, rather in passing, that exercising unto godliness is far preferable to bodily exercise because the latter profits only a little. 

We could talk about that “little” of course. A minister has a great responsibility in the Church of Christ. He must “take care of himself’ so that he can better 6e able to fulfill his responsibilities. Part of his care of himself is his care of the body. And implied in this is the truth that our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit—as Paul writes elsewhere. And Christ has redeemed the body as well as the soul. So this “little” profit is then that if we take care of our bodies—also with proper exercise—we will the better be able to exercise ourselves unto godliness. The little profit is because the profit of bodily exercise is strictly subordinate to exercise unto godliness. 

And this is the point at which we must be so careful. It is so easy to make bodily exercise an end in itself. This is exactly what is done in our day. It is done by all professional athletes. It is done when mere pleasure becomes an end in itself. We ski or horseback ride or play ball or whatever for the sheer pleasure of it as an end in itself. This is wrong. This may never be. A minister too must keep himself healthy in body. But we are not Greeks and Romans who gloried in the body and extolled the perfect specimen of manhood for its own sake. We are of Christ. And bodily exercise is important only insofar as it helps us in the exercises which lead to godliness. 

We shall have to talk about this important part of the apostle’s teaching in our next letter, the Lord willing. 


H. Hanko