Friday, March 5, 2021

Piety, Aeneas, and Cornelius

Aeneas' Flight from Troy by Federico Barocci
Once a week I teach an ancient history class for a local homeschool co-op, and one of the books we are reading is the Aeneid by Virgil. The main theme of this epic poem is that of pietas, a trait demonstrated by its Trojan protagonist, Aeneas. This Latin word refers to reverence and dutifulness and is the word from which we get the English word "piety." Aeneas demonstrates it by his devotion to the gods and his father by showing reverence to them and embracing the duty they gave him of founding the city of Rome for his people and descendants. The force that is opposed to pietas in the Aeneid is not only impiety, but furor (the Latin word for passion, frenzy, or rage). In the Aeneid, this frenzy and passion is personified by Juno who stirs up storms, the lust of Dido, the Trojan wives who seek to burn the ships, and the hostile forces and civil tumult in Italy, all of this to turn aside pious Aeneas from the path of duty.

The English word "piety" has the same basic meaning as pietas: reverence and devotion to God and others to whom you owe reverence like parents, resulting in fidelity to one's obligations (see here and here). But today, as C.R. Wiley points out in his lecture "Make Men Pious Again," the word "piety" may come with connotations far removed from the world of the Aeneid. Perhaps "piety" sounds overly formal and sanctimonious. On the other hand, perhaps it sounds like something otherworldly, something that restricts the faith to the private world of feelings. Historically, though, piety has been both something that is rooted in the heart and something with consequences for all of life. Furthermore, this concept is found in the Bible. 

The Greek equivalent to pietas is εὐσέβεια (eusebeia). Instead of being translated piety, it is usually translated "godliness," but like pietas it refers to reverence, devotion, and dutifulness before God. Here is where its various forms are used:

εὐσεβής - (adj.) godly, devout, pious: Acts 10:2, 7, 2 Peter 2:9.
εὐσέβεια - (noun) godliness, reverence, piety: Acts 3:12, 1 Tim. 2:2, 3:16, 4:7-8, 6:3, 5-6, 11, 2 Tim. 3:5, Titus 1:1, 2 Peter 1:3, 6-7, 3:11.
εὐσεβέω - (verb) I show godliness, pay homage, am religious: Acts 17:23, 1 Tim. 5:4.
εὐσεβῶς - (adv.) godly, devoutly, piously: 2 Tim. 3:12, Titus 2:12.
θεοσέβεια - (noun) reverence for God, godliness: 1 Tim. 2:10, θεοσεβής in Jn. 9:31.

As in the Aeneid, the Bible describes εὐσέβεια in opposition to impiety and evil passions. The passions of the flesh "wage war against the soul" (1 Peter 2:11) much as they waged war against Aeneas to turn him aside from his duty and destroy him. But this deliverance from frenzy comes through Christ, who is "the grace of God" who "has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness [impiety] and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly [pious] lives in the present age…" (Titus 2:12).

It is interesting that Luke, a Gentile, recounts the healing of a lame man named Aeneas (Acts 9:32-35) just before introducing a godly Roman centurion (Acts 10) in a book that ends with the gospel of the kingdom coming to Rome (Acts 28). Perhaps there was a symbolic meaning in Luke's inclusion of Aeneas' healing - that pagan Rome and its piety was helplessly disabled, in need of Christ the Savior. In any case, in Acts 10 we come to a good example of a pious man who served the true God. Cornelius, the Roman centurion from Italy, is described by Luke the same way Aeneas is described by Virgil: "a devout [εὐσεβής] man" (Acts 10:2). So consider some ways that Cornelius' piety was demonstrated:
  • He feared God (10:2). In particular, he feared the one true God. God deserves honor and respect, but impiety treats God lightly and causally. This fear is an attitude of reverence and awe which is expressed by paying homage to God and serving him according to his word. The Bible teaches us much concerning the fear of God (e.g. Prov. 1:7, Jer. 6:20-24, Mal. 1:6, Heb. 12:28-29). A pious man fears God. 
  • He feared God with all his household (10:2). This likely means he practiced it with them in family worship, cultivated it through instruction and by example, and applied it in their way of life. This influence extended to the soldier who attended him, who is also described as “devout” (10:7). While Cornelius practiced private prayer, he did not keep his religion to himself, but brought his household along with him. A pious man leads his household in piety and promotes piety within it.
  • He gave alms generously to the people (10:2). Alms were gifts to the needy and were given in the synagogue and on the street (Matt. 6:2). For example, the lame beggar at the temple asked for alms (Acts 3:2), Paul brought alms to the Jewish Christians from the Gentile Christians (Acts 24:17), and Tabitha was known for her alms, such as making clothes for the widows (Acts 9:36). In the church, the deacons were appointed for the regular distribution of alms. A pious man is generous and merciful (see also Ps. 112:5, 9). 
  • He prayed continually to God (10:2-3). Not that he prayed every minute of the day, but consistently throughout the day (such as at "the ninth hour"). His alms and prayers were like sacrifices to God (10:4, see also Heb. 13:15-16). As Aeneas demonstrated his piety by offering sacrifices to the gods, so the Christian offers these spiritual sacrifices to the one true God through Christ. A pious man is mindful of the worship of God, reverently offering these sacrifices. 
  • He was a just man (“upright,” 10:22). Piety itself is an aspect of justice - God deserves our reverence and devotion - and it moves a person to justly fulfill the rest of his obligations to God and man. It motivates us to fulfill our callings in life, knowing that by doing so we serve the Lord (Col. 3:23-24). Thus, piety can be used to refer to the way of life that results from true doctrine (1 Tim. 4:7-8, 6:3). In 1 Timothy 5:4-8, Paul notes that εὐσέβεια is shown in fulfilling family obligations such as honoring parents and supporting them in old age ("filial piety"). So a pious man is just, fulfilling his duties to God and man.
  • He sought Peter to hear his message from God and invited his household and friends to hear it (10:7-8, 24). This eagerness to hear God's word and to bring others along is described in Isaiah 2:3 and Zechariah 8:21-23. A pious man seeks to hear God’s word, to bring his family to church, and to invites his friends and relations to join him. 
  • He received the gospel (10:44-48, 11:17-18). Not only did he seek God's word, but he also received it - something which the pious should do throughout their lives. I believe Cornelius was already regenerate, believing in God's old covenant promises, but here he and his household received the gospel of Christ's finished work and were brought into new covenant blessings, being filled with the Spirit and baptized into the visible church of Christ. Likewise, a pious man repents of his sin, believes the gospel, and is baptized with his household. 

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