Sunday, September 21, 2008

I Corinthians: Traditional and Modern Interpreters

NEW COMMENTARY ON I CORINTHIANS: Traditional versus Modern views

Should we take a traditionalist approach in interpreting First Corinthians?

Well, yes and no. In a word: frequently.

In my new commentary, I am not intentionally seeking to adopt a traditionalist line in my approach to the Epistle, but rather to study it carefully on its own terms to understand what Paul means by what he says. But then, in comparing the outcome of my own examination of the text with that of others, I have found that frequently I have come to the same understanding of Paul’s meaning as that of early church commentators. Of course there are many sections of the Epistle in which they did not seem especially interested or which they pass over lightly, saying no more than can be seen from a surface reading of the text, whereas current issues in our present century would cause us to examine more closely the meaning and application of Paul’s teaching. On the other hand, on numbers of matters of contemporary relevance they do show views which are significant.

One of these in particular is the meaning of “tongues” in chapters 12 to 14, where this term is taken by early church fathers as referring to human languages as in Acts 2 - this is also the view of Calvin, Wesley, Hodge, and numbers of other commentators. I have come to the same conclusion: what Paul says in this section of the Epistle makes a great deal more sense and is self-consistent when seen in this way.

But there are other times when I would dissent from the views of the early commentators. This is especially so in relation to their views on sex and marriage and attendant issues ranging from virginity to divorce (chapters 6 and 7). As will be seen in the discussion of these chapters, there was in the early church a widespread negative attitude towards sex (which was frequently regarded as a necessary evil for the purpose of procreation, and not to be enjoyed), and marriage (which was considered much inferior to virginity and which prevented one from being fully devoted to the Lord). In my book Marriage and Divorce - the New Testament Teaching I have traced in some detail how and when this negative view of sex and marriage came to enter the church, and how its origins are Manicheanism and Platonism and not from Paul; in my discussion (below) of chapters 6 and 7 of the Epistle I present the case for seeing that the early church commentators missed Paul’s meaning in relation to these issues.

One basic issue where I totally concur with their approach is in regard to the inspiration and authority of Paul’s teaching in this Epistle. We may need to wrestle with the text and argue about its meaning, but once we have arrived at our understanding of what Paul is teaching, it is to be believed and acted upon. It is the Word of the Lord, given to us through Paul. In this Epistle it comes through very clearly that Paul had a high view of his authority, together with that of his fellow apostles. He claimed that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, down to their very words (2:12-13). He differentiated carefully between what he could quote from the Lord’s teaching and what he was saying upon his own authority (7:10, 12, 25) - but that authority was directly from the Lord through the Spirit (7:40; 11:23; 14:37) and is not to be lightly regarded.

A second issue that is related to this: the early church commentators saw Paul’s teaching in this Epistle as being part of the inspired mosaic of God’s revelation, and they brought to bear upon a given passage the other related teachings of Scripture (from elsewhere in Paul’s writings or from anywhere else in Old Testament or New) which threw light on, or could add to, what 1 Corinthians taught.

Kovacs (in 1 Corinthians Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, pages xiv-xvi) tells us that:

“early Christian commentators believed that the Bible spoke with a single (though nuanced) voice, and they took apparent inconsistencies between biblical authors as an invitation to probe below the surface of the inspired words, that is, to penetrate the spiritual reality about which the text spoke ... When they listened to the Scripture read in divine worship or pondered its words in prayer, the early Christians heard the Word of God spoken to their communities and to their lives. [In his commentaries Origen of Alexandria] is interpreting Scripture by Scripture, an axiom accepted by all early Christian writers. ‘The entire Scripture is one book and was spoken by the one Holy Spirit,’ wrote Cyril of Alexandria, another prolific biblical commentator.”

With these two basic attitudes I am in full agreement. Paul is quite clear in his claim to inspiration and authority. We cannot reject or qualify that claim and still accept his teaching (or some of it, being selective about what we take and what we reject). Unless we are going to entirely reject the historic Christian faith, we much assent fully to the authority with which Paul writes. And if we are going to accept his teaching, how important it then is to understand correctly his meaning. This is a task and a delight to which we now set our mind and our hand.



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