More about the “peace that passeth understanding”

In a previous post I discussed this verse:

And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:7

I suggested that when Paul said the peace of God “surpasses all comprehension” (or “passeth understanding”, in KJV), he meant that it surpasses any peace we could attain by understanding.

The more I think about that, the more uneasy I am with it. The more natural interpretation is that there is more of the peace of God than we can understand.

So, suppose the phrase means that the amount of peace surpasses what we can comprehend. How can we understand the verse in that case?

How much peace?

At first glance, I don’t understand how there could be so much of something that I don’t understand how much there is. As a mathematician, I work a lot with the concept of infinity. I understand infinity. So even if God has infinite peace, I can still understand that he has infinite peace. How can God’s peace surpass infinity? How can it surpass understanding?

Maybe Paul means that God’s peace has no conceivable limit. Any limit I can think of, God’s peace exceeds (because infinite peace has no limit).

In fact, it occurs to me that perhaps Paul didn’t have the concept of infinity that we do. We’ve been influenced by the mathematics of infinity, which was developed just a couple of centuries ago. I don’t know if the cultures of Paul’s time even had our concept of infinity. For example, one of the Greek philosophers used the word apeiron, which may mean something like unbounded, but some translators think it means without definition instead. It seems there wasn’t a clear linguistic distinction between infinite and indefinite.

Even the New Testament phrase “forever and ever” doesn’t use a word for infinite: the literal rendering is “to the age of the ages”.

If Paul didn’t have the words or concepts for “infinite” he might have been trying to express what we mean by infinity by saying that the peace of God was without conceivable limits. The “beyond comprehension” may simply be a way of saying “infinite”.

(I can’t even say for sure that the peace of God is infinite. It seems philosophically right to assume that an infinite God would supply infinite peace, but there could be something technically incoherent about peace being infinite.)

A related possibility: maybe Paul means that even if we can understand how much there is of the peace of God in the abstract, we cannot really grasp the enormity of it. Thus the translation in the New American Standard: comprehension rather than mere understanding. We can know that there is an infinite amount of peace, but we cannot really comprehend it. I know what infinity is, but I can’t say I totally get it.

Maybe Paul means we don’t comprehend the peace of God in that we can’t grasp its full relevance for us. The peace of God is more than we can possibly know in experience. Even if the peace of God is supernatural as to its source, it manifests itself to us through our human emotions. (That means that the peace of God as we experience it is not infinite, because we aren’t capable of having infinite peace.)

In this case, Paul could mean that even what we can experience is beyond what we could ever have imagined ourselves experiencing, or he could mean that the actual peace of God, out there, available to us, is so abundant that no matter how much we need there is always enough. The peace of God that I feel is within my comprehension, but the peace of God that is available to me is beyond my comprehension.

Hyperbole?

Of course, another possibility is that the phrase is an example of hyperbole; that is, Paul is exaggerating to make a point. As a young man I rejected the idea that Scripture could have hyperbole in it, because it seemed to me that hyperbole was a kind of falsehood, and an inerrant Bible could not teach something false. But if hyperbole is a figure of speech then it is not intended to be taken literally and so when it is interpreted correctly, it doesn’t teach something false. When I realized that, I started keeping an eye out for legitimate examples of hyperbole in Scripture. I remember finding a fairly definite example in Song of Solomon somewhere (I forget which verse now). That settled it for me: the Bible can contain hyperbole.

The reason it took me a few years to figure that out, though, is because people around me kept taking verses that seemed to them unlikely to be true and calling them hyperbole to avoid having to take them seriously. That was bad interpretation. Good interpretation would ask whether the original writer / speaker meant it to be taken literally or not.

In that light, is Paul using hyperbole here? Does he mean us to understand that the peace of God is not really beyond comprehension, that there’s a just a lot of it? His statement here reminds me of the passage in Ephesians 3:20 where he says that God can do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think. Did he intend us not to take that one literally either? I can’t prove it, but it seems to me likely that Paul really meant what he said in these phrases. He was trying to make his claims as bold as possible because he meant them, not because he didn’t. He didn’t want his readers to water the phrases down. Doing so would be misinterpreting him.

So, personally, I doubt the verse is hyperbole. I’d be willing to change my mind if I learned that the phrase “surpasses all comprehension” was a common idiom in those days with a standard non-literal meaning.

Given all these possibilities, my current tentative interpretation is that Paul means that the peace of God is infinitely abundant so that there is always as much as we need, that this infinite abundance surpasses comprehension in the sense that we can conceive of no limit to it, and that our experience of that peace is finite because all our experiences are finite.

What do y’all think?

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