Saturday, December 6, 2008

What Is the “Present Crisis” or “Impending Distress” at Corinth?

What Is the “Present Crisis” or “Impending Distress” at Corinth?

In 1 Corinthians 7:25 Paul begins a discussion of events and circumstances at Corinth affected by the “Present Crisis” or “Impending Distress” at Corinth?

Introducing this section of his discussion, Paul again ­disclaims (v.25b - see v.12) any specific command of the Lord applicable in this particular situation, but again also he gives his own opinion, here adding, “as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy”. Together with his authority to make these suggestions we notice his tentativeness, his “I think” (v.26), “I would spare you that” (v.28), “I want you to be free from anxieties” (v.32), “I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you” (v.35). His whole attitude in this section is conditioned by one factor which he mentions three times: “in view of the present distress” (v.26), “the appointed time has grown very short” (v.29), “For the present form of this world is passing away” (v.31).

The word describing the situation to which Paul is referring can be translated as either “impending” or “present”: the Greek term refers to something that is just at the point of ­happening, like a wave overhanging and just about to break. Garland presents a case for taking it here as something that has become present amongst them.

Exactly what Paul is referring to we cannot say with certainty. A common interpretation is that Paul was expecting the promised Second Advent of Christ at any time, so that this teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 is an “interimsethik”, an ethic for a temporary situation, because the end of the age was approaching. Support for this view is drawn from 1 Cor­inthians 15:51, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed”, which can be taken to indicate that he expected that some of his readers would be alive at the parousia, the Appearing of Christ.

Now, it is clear, from the prominence of the theme in his writings and the explicit teaching that he gives concerning it, that the expectation of the Second Advent was very real to Paul. The question is whether it was this expectation which he meant when he said, “the appointed time has grown very short”. He is certainly giving, in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, instructions (or should we say, suggestions) which are conditioned by his belief in some “present crisis” or “impending distress” - is this referring to the parousia? Is Paul’s ethical teaching in 1 Corinthians conditioned by this expectation? How does that affect us today, as we still await the parousia?

Against such a view is Paul’s attitude in the two Thessalonian epistles, which were written earlier. In the First Epistle he expounds the theme of the Second Advent with explicit detail, and great enthusiasm (4:13-5:11). But there are no exhortations there in 1 Thessalonians in the ethical area such as we find in 1 Corinthians 7. However, the Thessalonians took him to mean that the Second Advent was imminent, and, in fact, just about to burst upon them. Paul therefore sends a short and hasty second letter in which he explicitly states that that day is not yet upon them nor indeed will come until some other events have first taken place (2 Thessalonians 2:1-12). Therefore those who have ceased their work to live in idleness (apparently influenced by the nearness of the end of all things) are to do their work normally and live their lives normally, and not to be supported by the charity of others (2 Thessalonians 2:15; 3:6-14).

If Paul writes thus in the Thessalonian epistles, how can we reconcile this with his completely different approach in 1 Corinthians 7? The answer may be, “Because when he wrote 1 Corinthians the parousia was that much the closer; hence more extreme measures were called for.” If this be so, then it would be reasonable to see Paul’s eschatological conviction showing itself again in 2 Corinthians, and also in Romans, both epistles written shortly after the time of 1 Corinthians, when the parousia must have been even nearer still. But although ethical issues are raised in these epistles (particularly in Romans) there are no short-term, hold-fast-to-the-status-quo instructions like those in 1 Corinthians 7. We do indeed find in Romans 13:11-12a,

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand.

But Paul draws from this exactly the same kind of ethical injunction to purity as does the apostle John some years later: and neither is in any way parallel to 1 Corinthians 7:

Romans 13:12b-14:
So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

1 John 2:28; 3:2, 3:
And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence, and not shrink from him in shame at his coming. ... We know that when he appears, we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself, as he is pure.

Romans is more explicit in regard to what constitutes “pure behavior”, and 1 John is more general; but the theme is the same. And there is nothing in either that could be said to be an “interimsethik” in the sense of an ethic which had application to the special circumstances before the eschatos, the end, and not otherwise.

I find this interpretation of Paul’s comments to be totally unconvincing. It involves believing that Paul got things wrong, and had to change his mind on the subject when the parousia didn’t arrive as expected. Some interpreters believe this: for example Stanley 127 holds

the impending calamities ... to be the precursors of the end of the world, ... and this brings us to a point on which we are forewarned by Christ Himself, that even Apostles might be in error, for of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no not the angels in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.

This entire line of interpretation runs contrary to what we actually find in Paul’s writings. And if 1 Corinthians 15:51 suggests that some will still be alive at the time of the parousia, it also equally suggests that some will not. It seems to be symbolic of this whole argument. The evidence can be made to point in whatever way one wants.

The evidence for this crisis or distress is limited to the period of 1 Corin­thians, and it is not mentioned by Paul in such terms in any other letter. (The “sudden destruction” of 1 Thessalonians 5:3 and the vengeance and punishment of 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 are specifically shown to be for the non-Christians and not the Christians.)

Instead, the “present crisis” or “impending distress” may well have been a situation of persecution or affliction. Or quite possibly (see Rosner 162f., Garland) it was a time of famine.

Therefore we see that Paul is here speaking in relation to a particular situation - probably such a period of trouble and ­persecution or other problems which was at that time hanging over their heads.

Whatever it was, it had apparently passed even by the time of 2 Corinthians - there he is busy organizing the ­collection for the saints (2 Corinthian 9:1ff.; this collection was already in hand in 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; but why plan such an extensive program, and - verses 3-9 - itinerary, if the end of all things was momentarily about to come?).

Moreover, in 2 Corinthians 6:14 he is prepared to exclude the marriage of unbelievers with believers, and by his selectiveness apparently to approve the marriage of believers together. Thus 1 Cor­inthians 7:27 seems no longer to apply.

So we cannot take the “present crisis” or “impending ­distress” of 1 Corin­thians 7:26 to be the parousia. (For why would Paul call the parousia a “present crisis” or “distress”? The expectation of the parousia is a source of comfort - 1 Thessalonians 4:18.)

All this evidence shows that “the present distress” (whatever it was) does not refer to the parousia.

(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)



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Don said...

Dr. Powers, Thank you for these insights. They have helped clarify 1 Cor. 7 for me. I am a strong believer in the authority of Scripture, but was having trouble appreciating this passage. Your explanation was what I needed.

(I found this post through a google search of "1 Cor 7 'present crisis'.")


Daniel McLain Hixon said...

According to IVP's "New Bible Commentary" there is archeological evidence suggesting that there may have been a famine or food shortage in Corinth at the time Paul was writing. This certainly would explain what sort of troubles a man might have were he to choose that moment to marry and start a family. It also reframes much of the chapter as addressing a temporary crisis that should not be understood as a timeless ethic for all Christians (unless, perhaps, they are in similar situations).