Previous: Unreasonable Philemon (1/2)
A modern reflection
Robert J. Gula, a professor of logic at the Groton School in Massachusetts listed in his book about verbal logical fallacies called “Nonsense” quite a few that Paul in fact uses here, starting with the “word choice”, “image words” or “(controlling) phraseology”.
First two could be described as intentional usage of specific words that create a positive image or describe a situation in a way that makes it sound better than it actually is (removes the sting from a possibly unpleasant condition). This is also called euphemism and a typical example would be to call old people – senior citizens or friends who are in autumn of their lives.
Acknowledging the fact that Onesimus stole a substantial amount of money from Philemon, calling him “useless” (11, NIV) is truly a good “word choice” strategy. As the word “useless” does not sufficiently embrace the fact that damage was induced, but it merely denotes that no positive outcome can be expected. Surely more objective words such as thief, thug or robber could have been used, or even going the opposite, negative, direction rascal or scoundrel could do the job.
Further Gula defines “controlling phraseology” as small suggestions that try to control a response before it is made. These could be short phrases like you do, don’t you, surely you, or even whole sentences as “You don’t really want to go out tonight, do you?” Such phrasing makes it even harder to say “Yes, I do want to go out.” Going back to scriptures we can see this method used abundantly in the verse 21.
“Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.”
However the prevalent logical fallacy Paul uses would be the appeal to love or appeal to friendship which is together called argumentum ad amicitiam. This occurs when no or only very little reasonable arguments are offered, but emphasize is put solely on a relationship e.g. wife telling to her husband: “if you truly loved me, you would buy me that pearl necklace”. Logically while husband can be deeply in love with his wife, he will not buy her the pearl necklace, for he is perfectly aware of the fact that if he did it, they would not be able to pay their rent for next month. And because he loves her he wants the best for her, which is in this case roof over her head.
Besides overall presence of this appeal in the epistle, we can see it also specifically in verse 17:
“So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
Philemon is requested here to treat a disloyal, dishonorable and deceitful slave in a completely same manner as he would treat his dear friend and co-worker in Christ Apostle Paul merely on the ground of their partnership without much further explanation attached to it. This does not seem like a good deal for him, furthermore it appears to be completely irrational!
Legalism vs. Grace
After this somewhat lengthily examination I believe the contrast of legalism and grace needs to be taken into the picture, to adequately explain what Paul is truly doing here. As shown before, his request is plainly absurd, at least from the legalistic perspective.
However, Christ did not come on Earth to secure legalism, but to establish grace for sinners. The reason why rational cogitations based on logic and adamant justice will never support grace, is that grace goes beyond them. Grace is in fact illogical and until one wants to hold tight to legalistic perspective he can never understand what grace is, as Jesus demonstrated it. Mr. Gula himself in conclusion expressed that after all there is nothing intrinsically wrong with emotional appeals, for sometimes they merely reflect a deep feeling or belief. If our belief in God is genuine it should be reflected in our behavior and talk as well.
Today we are more and more concerned with justice, than ever before. The American trend to immediately sue anyone or anything that could possibly induce damage to our well-being is slowly stretching all over western world, leaving only very little space for forgiveness, mercy and grace. Paul in the same time to the same city writes:
“13 Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. 14 And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”
(Col 3:13–14, NIV)
Letter to Philemon invites us to start walking on an seemingly irrational path, which will surely be often misunderstood by the secular world (1.Cor. 4:10), yet God’s perspective tells us that it is perfectly reasonable, as together with love it creates unity among people. Since our churches and their members are not at all immune to this cultural influence change, it is crucial for us to remind ourselves repeatedly what God has done for us and that he just asks us to follow His example. As it was with Pharisees, we have just the same tendency to descend to legalistic attitude, which Jesus addressed so sharply in Matthew 23.
Soteriology, one of the Major’s in Bible is a grace based doctrine and Christians should likewise ascribe weight to it in their individual lives as it is a powerful tool that transforms lives and repairs what was once broken.
Since in this paper I have put emphasize on God’s grace, I believe there are certainly other perspectives that could be examined regarding this letter; however these affairs need to be gone over by some other studies. Finishing with a short quote from the “prince of paradox”, I would like to leave an open end for everyone to contemplate over its meaning and use.
“Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of ‘touching’ a man’s heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it.”
– G.K. Chesterton