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Letter L = 1 Corinthians: The Laundry List of Problems Letter (cont.)  


Moral Judgments and Love/Agapê

From his moral kit-bag Paul brings forth an “interesting” assortment of solutions to real or potential problems which have come to light in Corinth. His moral judgments range widely:

   • A straightforward condemnation of the incestuous man, 1 Corinthians 5:1-5;

. . . Along side the “pastoral Paul” we find here the “stern Paul,” consigning the incestuous man “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 5:5). This punishment is evidently the apostle’s way of implementing Leviticus 20:11-12, where incest is a capital crime, while he leaves an end-of-time hope of salvation. 




This disposition of the case seems to have established an unfortunate precedent in later times for handling inquisitorial proceedings of one sort or another.

   • A rambling discourse on marriage, 1 Corinthians 7;
   • A curious (to us) discourse on head coverings, hair styles, and the superior status of men, 1 Corinthians 11:3-15;
   • A sensitive and pastoral application of love/agapê to the difficult question (for the Corinthians) of eating food which previously has been offered to idols, 1 Corinthians 8.
Needless to say, the agapê principle, elaborated so eloquently in 1 Corinthians 13, is Paul’s lasting contribution to Christian moral thought. By the time Paul writes Romans, he is able to formulate the love commandment as the summation and fulfillment of the law (13:8-10; compare Galatians 5:13-14).
Among the various Greek words for love, we may differentiate agapê (selfless concern for others) from philia (friendship) and erôs (desire).

Theologizing about Christ

Besides 1 Corinthians 8:1-6, we may refer to other important Christological texts in the New Testament; these include, among Paul's later letters, Galatians 4:4-5; Philippians 2:6-11; 2 Corinthians 5:19; 8:9; various texts in Romans; and, in later writings,  Hebrews 1:1-4 and John 1:1-18. (1 Corinthians 15:24-28 might also be added to this list, even though it appears to imply a subordination of Christ to the Father.)

1 Corinthians 8:1-6   1Now concerning food sacrified to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” Knowledge puffs up, but love [agapê] builds up. . . .  4Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth--as in fact there are many gods and many lords--6yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Almost casually, again in connection with the problem of eating food offered to idols, Paul develops a landmark statement about the pre-existence of Christ. While parts of his response are moral and pastoral (8:7-13), parts are theological, i.e. the unity of God and the exalted status of Christ (8:4-6). Paul also provided a practical application of his doctrine of atonement, i.e. showing consideration for the fellow believer for whom Christ died (8:11).

In 8:4-6 we find initially a fairly standard denial of the existence of idols and the affirmation of God’s unity, modeled after Deuteronomy 6:4. If Paul had stopped there, matters theological would have been far simpler. But he goes on in 8:6 to describe Christ as the agent of creation, and hence as pre-existent and participating in one of the acknowledged functions and prerogatives of God. The Christ described here is no mere Galilean preacher or prophet. This text comes close to matching other New Testament passages which attribute an exalted divine status to Christ. 


“Christology” is the term usually applied to this enterprise of theologizing about Christ.


The Resurrection of the Believer and End-of-Time Events

1 Corinthians 15:23-24   23But each in his own order:  Christ the first fruits [of those who have died], then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power.

Paul in this chapter addresses a question which comes naturally to all, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” Now the idea of resurrection was a difficult notion for Greeks because of their belief in the immortality of the soul. In this life, human nature seems to be composed of a soul and a body; with the death of the body, so goes this view, the soul continues on in a disembodied state, not subject to death, and hence immortal.



By contrast, the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the body is rooted in the ancient Hebraic notion of human beings as a unity of spirit and flesh. Accordingly, the death of the body meant the death of the whole person, without remainder. In the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament of the church) human beings were regarded as mortal, and death was the end. But by the beginning of the second century B.C.E. some Jews were affirming life after death in the form of a resurrection of the physical body. This view came to be championed by the Pharisees, among whom Paul himself was once numbered. This idea of resurrection surely must have been puzzling to Greeks, who generally sought liberation from the body’s limitations and imperfections.



B.C.E., “Before the Common Era,” is a theologically neutral equivalent to B.C., “Before Christ;” just as C.E., “Common Era,” is a neutral equivalent to A.D., “the year of our Lord.”

The view offered by Paul was resurrection of the spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:35-44, 50   . . . 36What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. 37And as for what you sow, you do not sow the body that is to be, but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. 38But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. 39Not all flesh is alike, but there is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. 40There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is one thing, and that of the earthly is another. . . . 42So it is with the resurrection of the dead.  What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. . . . 44It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. . . . 

Readers, beginning perhaps with the Corinthians, have been mystified by the reference to a spiritual body: what could Paul have meant? Is the term not an oxymoron? A number of comments are in order regarding a difficult concept.

bulletIn insisting upon bodily existence, Paul was refusing to give up his Hebrew heritage, which viewed the human person as a personal unity (in this existence, a unity of spirit and flesh).
bulletThe metaphor of the seed’s dying and coming to life is surely an eloquent testimony to the continuity between personal life now and in the life to come. Disembodied, impersonal existence has no basis in New Testament teaching. [We shall not try to settle here the question of whether Paul was willing to abandon body terminology, in the later text, 2 Corinthians 5:6-9.]
bulletPaul’s use of body in the phrase “spiritual body” may imply that he was using it in a special way, to mean something like the instrument for the expression of personality. In our present existence that instrument is flesh and blood; in the resurrection it will be immaterial, in a mode suitable for the age to come, an end-of-time body.
bulletIn denying a physical body in the resurrection, Paul was parting company decisively with the Pharisees; in affirming “bodily” existence at the resurrection, he was parting company with Greek thinkers whose view of the immortality of the soul seemed to provide no basis for personal existence after death.
bulletPaul’s choice of terminology was not based upon some ingenious theoretical formulation, from whatever source. Rather, it originated in his having known, or rather to have been known by (Galatians 4:9), one who revealed himself to Paul in a spiritual body, i.e. Jesus Christ. His was experimental theologizing, in the sense of being based upon his own vivid experience of having seen the risen Christ. In the resurrection appearance that came to him he had “seen” a spiritual body.
bulletThis subtle and profound teaching about a spiritual body was easily misunderstood, or ignored. The church in generations to come would be willing on the one hand to formulate in the [so-called] Apostles’ Creed an affirmation of the resurrection of the flesh, and on the other hand to teach (in some quarters) the immortality of the soul—not realizing perhaps that the one was Pharisaic, and the other, of non-biblical (or pagan) origin.





















How Paul’s Views Changed:

We bring to a close our discussion of the resurrection of the believer and end-of-time events in 1 Corinthians with two observations about how Paul’s views of these matters had changed since he had written 1 Thessalonians. With the passage of some months or years, he was still thinking these questions through.

1. On End-of-Time Delay

If one of the major problems facing early Christians was the continuing delay of the end-of-time events so earnestly expected and proclaimed as imminent, the passage of time would seem to have required some adjustments in their thinking. We are in the fortunate position of being able to trace something of these adjustments in Paul’s teachings.

     Stage 1. Paul’s earliest preaching in Thessalonica (and elsewhere), “The end-of-time will be very soon: tonight, this week, this month!” Problem: after his departure, some in the congregation have died; will they be deprived of the end-of-time blessings?
     Stage 2. Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians: At the end-of-time, the dead will be raised first and thus enjoy a special place with Christ. Most (including Paul) will still be alive when the end-of-time comes. Problem: more time passes, more people have died, and the end-of-time seems more remote.

     Stage 3. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 15:51, “. . . we will not all die . . . ,” suggesting that some will still be alive, i.e. permitting the notion that the larger part will have died. Problem: still more people have died, and risks to his own life have increased.

     Stage 4. Paul’s teaching in Philippians and 2 Corinthians 1-9: an alternative entrance into eternity, not by the end of the age but by death, and resurrection!

2. On the Transformation of Believers

The second observation can be stated more briefly. Having now thought through his teaching on the spiritual body, Paul in 1 Corinthians introduces the notion of the transformation of believers in  the end-of-time: “. . . We will all be changed” (15:51). I suppose he means that, whether they are still alive at the end of the age, or die and are resurrected, they will be transformed, transformed of course into a spiritual body. This idea would make its appearance again in Philippians 3:21, written some months after 1 Corinthians.

1 Thessalonians 4:15  
“. . . We who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.”   


Concluding Remarks to the Corinthians

Finally, after assorted greetings and an admonition to “greet one another with a holy kiss,” and before the letter is dispatched to Corinth, across the Aegean Sea from Ephesus, Paul takes the pen from his amanuensis and in his own hand writes out a personal message, highlighting love (for the Lord, and Paul’s love for them) and the end-of-time hope.

1 Corinthians 16:21-24   21I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. 22Let anyone be accursed who has no love [philia] for the Lord. Our Lord, come! 23The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you. 24My love [agapê] be with all of you in Christ Jesus.


Revised March 11, 2003

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