Over the past half decade, my study focus in the Bible has been in the field of biblical theology, as opposed to systematic theology. In the latter, we ask a specific question about doctrine, like “What is the trinity?” or “What is baptism?” and then search all 66 books of the Bible for relevant passages. The goal of systematic theology is to say “this is what the Bible says about X.”
Biblical theology, on the other hand, asks “How do all the different, little parts of the Bible fit together into a whole?” This question (like with systematic) presupposes the divine, inerrant nature of Scripture, and as such you won’t be taught biblical theology outside of a Bible-believing church or seminary. When we do biblical theology, we are seeking to trace the common theme and unifying principal of Scripture from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22.
Well, I love biblical theology, but as I run my fingers along the whole vessel of unified Scripture, I always get splinters in 1 Corinthians. Other books and chapters of Scripture are very difficult to reconcile with the whole, but in my opinion, 1 Corinthians is in a class of its own. It seems Paul comes out with insights unique to this letter – and hard to reconcile with the whole of Scripture. This is a fearful thing for an inerrantist. (We can be honest with each other, right?)
I recently took a poll on Twitter to see if anyone else agreed with me – and although some did, the majority fell into my Revelation trap:
Of course many Christians see Revelation as the tough one – a book of riddles and puzzles. I pitted these two against one another because my theory was that most Christians do not know their Old Testament very well – and that translates into confusion about Revelation. If we know our Old Testament, and if we read Revelation keeping in mind the second-century church would have gotten direct application and comfort from Revelation, then it unravels into semi-easy, understandable interpretation.
Yet 1 Cor is a belly flop of a letter. Paul is not addressing any one issue (like in Galatians or Colossians), and he isn’t writing a splendid overview of biblical theology and gospel (like Romans and Ephesians), and he isn’t giving apostolic guidance to a stable brother in Christ (like 1-2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon), but rather he’s attempting to corral a group of borderline wackos who had asked him a basket of difficult questions.
1 Cor begins well enough – in fact, I understand and enjoy everything pretty well up to chapter 7. From there on, Paul loses me, no matter how many commentaries I consult for guidance. Check out some of these gems of biblical enigma:
Because of the angels, Paul? Really? That’s all you’ve got for me? And what do you mean about the believing spouse “sanctifying” the unbelieving spouse? And please, Paul, tell us why you had to say all that stuff about speaking in tongues – I wish you could have seen all the fallout we’re suffering because of it. Couldn’t you have clarified that all that stuff expired with the closing of the canon?
And why, brother Paul, oh why did you have to say “I, not the Lord, say…”? That one is an apologetics nightmare, my dear father and apostle.
But are these questions just mine? How about you all – does anyone out there find 1 Cor equally confusing? In case you’re still feeling strong, looking down on this poor Adam as a confused, well-meaning saint, I deliver my final blow in 1 Cor 15:29
“Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”
If you know what on earth he was talking about, I’m all yours, teacher. What’s my point in all this? I’ll be straight with you: I’m a teacher of God’s Word, I play a strong supporting role in my local church, and I teach multiple Bible studies in home meetings. When I write a post like this, it’s because I want to be vulnerable and open with my family in Christ. I want to have the credibility of admitting that this is not an easy book (the Bible as a whole), and there are some questions I cannot answer. I struggle in my faith just like anyone else, and even have days of heavy doubts at times.
I’m confessing publicly that I’m made of flesh and blood, and no matter how much confidence I have in teaching the Bible, it is still my master, and God is still its final interpreter. No man or church can be the master of this divine library, we are forever its pupils and in submission to its wisdom.
And maybe, just maybe, I’m writing this blog post to celebrate a book like 1 Corinthians. Maybe it gives me a bit of comfort to know that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25 ESV). You see that? He put it right in the hardest book in the Bible – “Not everything here will appeal to your human wisdom and understanding. Not everything in My book will be fully comprehensible. That’s OK – you know the center and foundation of Scripture (Jesus and His gospel) – you can let some of it be over your head.” (No, God did not say that to me. I’m imagining that would be something like what He would say to me about 1 Cor.).
I will always try to understand 1 Cor better, but I will be content in my personal faith and in my apologetic endeavors if these things remain an enigma to me.
What about you?
Thanks for reading,