Since the first of the year, I’ve been stuck in first Corinthians (1co). I can’t explain precisely why I haven’t moved on, but I know that I am not yet done. Looking back, I really sunk into the text while visiting family in New Mexico during Christmas. I had just finished Fear and Trembling
for a second time, and was struck by Paul’s discourse on the gospel beginning in chapters one and two. (I’ve since come to call this discourse the “fear and trembling passages.”) Beyond that, I agree with Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson that 1co represents the closest thing we have to a work of Pauline ecclesiology, and so it would be nearly impossible to exhaust.
Having now swallowed the text whole and having gained a firm grasp of the framework of the letter, I have recently begun to work back through it, verse by verse, reflecting on the text and making notes for each chapter.
The first thoughts I want to share on 1co concern these very “fear and trembling” passages. Chapter 1 begins typically enough. Paul addresses the letter as usual, and gets right to the point. Beginning in verse eleven, he informs them that Chloe’s people have reported that there are factions among them. He says that there should be no divisions among them, but that they should be united in the same mind and purpose. This is actually a very famous passage, but I believe it is rarely if ever used correctly. What the reader wants to do, and in fact what I myself am tempted to do, is look around at all of our present factions—the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Charismatics, and so on—and say, “Oh no! Christ has been split up.” There is undoubtedly a place for ecumenicalism in the NT, but I don’t think that’s what Paul is saying here. To get at what Paul is saying, we must look forward to verse seventeen.
In verse seventeen Paul begins a rather astonishing discourse on the sensibility of the gospel. This seems like a rather odd departure from his discussion of divisions within the church, unless one is paying close attention to the subtext. Growing up, I always read it in this way: Paul’s got two things to say, so he squeezes them together, but first finds a common point (ah! Baptism) to make things flow better. Thus, it would read something like this:
Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I am thankful that I did not baptize many of you. Plus, that’s not really in my job description anyway. I am called to preach the gospel—and while we’re talking about preaching the gospel, let me tell you something else about the gospel that has been on my heart. It cannot be preached with words of human wisdom without emptying the cross of its power.
This interpretation, however, fails to adequately account for the urgency with which Paul condemns such divisions and never quite fits the chapter together. What I see instead is Paul posturing for authority in the community. The divisions were not simply a matter of some preferring one theological strain over another, or one exegesis over another; they were expressly a matter of some preferring Apollos’ and Peter’s teachings
above Paul’s. Thus, the following discourse is not only an extended treatment of the gospel, but also Paul recommending himself to the Corinthians as a teacher, above others the Corinthians may have turned to in his absence. I think that it is even fair to say that Paul is recommending himself above Apollos in particular. (The Peter and Jesus parties don’t come up again, so my sense is that they either weren’t very large, weren’t very important, or Paul simply brought them up to deflect attention from a direct confrontation with Apollos.)
Recall that Luke describes Apollos as an Alexandrian Jew who was an “eloquent man, well-versed in the Scriptures.” I believe that the Corinthians were quite impressed with him as well and were forsaking Paul’s teachings for Apollos’. Paul’s discourse then becomes about something much different. It becomes about what teaching, or teacher, is sufficient for the church. While Paul spends not a few words casting aspersions on the sufficiency of Apollos’ teachings and even suggests that his own teachings weren’t very impressive only because the Corinthians were at the time mere infants in Christ, his argument climaxes and his answer comes finally in ch. 4 when he says “do not go beyond what is written” so that “you will not take pride in one man over against another.”
When I began reading Corinthians in this way, I was always surprised by the ending. I was surprised by Paul’s humility. After three and a half chapters of passive-aggressively taking a swipe at Apollos’ style of teaching, Paul comes to the end, and says, Brothers, neither of us are anything more than instruments of the Lord. Prefer one of us over the other if you want, but we are only men. The only truly reliable teacher is the Scriptures.
Though Paul goes on to claim the right of fatherly authority over the Corinthians in v. 15, I can never get past the earnestness of vs. 6-13. It is truly received in fear and great trembling.
Something else I find interesting, though merely conjecture at this point, is whether Apollos, whose understanding of baptism Acts describes as rather deficient, is the source of the Corinthians’ unorthodox practice of vicarious baptism, which I commented on here