The question raised in our reading is whether Paul understands Jesus as God. Was Paul in some sense a Trinitarian? Fredricksen thinks this cannot be demonstrated from Paul’s writing in the context of first century Jewish theology and pagan practice. N. T. Wright is one of a number of scholars who are convinced that Paul was in fact at least an incipient Trinitarian. They point to 1 Corinthians 8:6 as one of the anchors for this understanding. I find these arguments convincing.
Wright walks us through the arguments regarding a high Christology for Paul in his popular book on Paul, especially in chapter 5, “Rethinking God.”
“Jewish monotheism, then, always ranged itself over against paganism,” Wright asserts, “seeing the pagan world as embodying and expressing the failure of human beings to live as they were made to live, to reflect the image of their maker” (page 89). Wright notes that here in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is helping the new Christians discern what it looks like to reflect that Divine image in a pagan society and to do so as “Jewish-style monotheists” (page 94).
It should be clear that Paul has moved beyond the happy pagan accommodations that Fredriksen describes as necessary for divine peaceful coexistence. In our reading he declares that there is no God but one, and the other gods are not really gods at all. This one God “worshipped and acknowledged supremely in the daily prayer, the Shema…” (page 94) which Paul quotes here. And Jesus the Messiah is the true and final content of God’s self-revelation.
If Jesus is this true and final content of God’s self-revelation, then those who follow Jesus must live their lives on the basis of love. So, Paul contrasts love with mere knowledge, something the Corinthians value highly. In fact, Wright says, Paul goes on “in the rest of the chapter, to insist that self-sacrificial love for one’s neighbor is the primary consideration when working out how to live within a pagan environment” (page 94). We will explore in detail what that looks like in the next section of the comments.
If gods are in the blood, as Fredriksen asserts, and if they are intimately connected to places, then residents and citizens of a place owe worship and devotion to those gods. Without that devotion, the local gods might not bless their kin group with safety, security, and abundance. If a person avoided or resisted the local public rites, that person might put the well-being of the whole land at risk. In fact, no one really cared what you might think about that local god. But you needed to do your public duty in offering sacrifice and eating the meat.
Paul responds to one of the questions he received from the Corinthian congregation—whether or not they could eat the meat produced by public sacrifices in the Greco-Roman cults. In a situation where good meat was hard to find, the sacrificial leftovers were a ready source of quality protein. Eating the sacrificial leftovers was also a simple way to participate in public and civic life and demonstrate that one was a good citizen of the political culture.
In verse one, Paul seems to quote what he has heard from some of the Corinthian Christians – that the Holy Spirit has gifted all of them with some measure of knowledge. Perhaps they are asserting that this knowledge allows the knowledgeable to make decisions that the less informed (perhaps ones they called the “weak”) are not equipped to make. We know that this is a live issue not only in the Corinthian congregation but perhaps in the Roman churches as well (see Romans 14).
Paul turns their claim around. Claims of superior knowledge make one arrogant, not wise. Our knowing must be informed by loving. Otherwise, it is an inadequate source of real knowledge. What is most important, first of all, is not what we know. What is most important, rather, is who knows us. Our love for God (and neighbor) opens us to real knowledge. We will hear the climax of this discussion in chapter thirteen with Paul’s great hymn to love.
With that preface, Paul moves to the details of the discussion. He quotes from Deuteronomy 4 and 6 to assure his listeners that idols have no objective existence. Rather, “there is no God but one” (quoting the Shema). People regard many things and people and entities as divine, sacred, and worthy of worship. But saying a thing doesn’t make it so. If Christians know anything, we that that “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” (verse 6).
Paul quoted the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4, and then he expands it in a remarkable way in verse six of our text. In this verse, Paul gives the words for “Lord” and “God” in the text two different referents, as N. T. Wright points out (page 571). The identity of Jesus Christ with the God of Israel is not a later theological invention but is rather assumed, as it is here, in the earliest Christian theology, hymns and prayers.
N. T. Wright tackles this section of 1 Corinthians in The Resurrection of the Son of God. He suggests that chapters eight through ten are taken up with the issue of idolatry and Christian practice. That may seem odd, since chapter nine is focused on Paul’s “freedom” as an apostle. But, Wright says, on the basis of the Christian story, “you must learn how to regulate your apparent rights and freedoms with the overarching responsibilities that are yours because of what you are in the Messiah” (page 292).
Paul concludes in chapter ten that the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof (quoting Psalm 24). Paul refuses, Wright asserts, to lapse into the dualism which is a characteristic of much of the paganism of his time. The earth (including meat) is not bad in and of itself but is rather part of God’s good creation. And Christians know that other gods don’t really exist at all. But that doesn’t license Christians to blithely eat the sacrificial leftovers.
Paul’s “long pastoral experience tells him that not all consciences become re-educated at the same pace,” Wright notes, “and that it is far better to live with apparent anomaly than to force someone to act against their own conscience” (page 293). Verses seven through thirteen make precisely this argument, and it is repeated in 10:23-11:1. “But take care,” Paul warns in verse 9, “that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
Paul monitors and modulates his apostolic freedom, as he reports in chapter nine, for precisely this reason. Paul “has certain writes which he has chosen not to use,” Wright continues, “at least not in Corinth, so that the progress of the gospel may not be hindered” (page 293).
This is a consistent theme in Paul’s letters. For example, in Galatians 5, freedom is not to be taken as a license for lawlessness. In the Letter to Philemon, Paul says he could order Philemon to take a particular action, but he won’t do that. Moderating our freedom in the gospel for the sake of that gospel is, according to Paul, a basic principle of following Jesus.
While we may struggle with this particular practical issue, how Christians relate to public symbols and civic cults has perhaps never been so pressing an issue for us American Christians as it is right now. Monuments to the Confederacy and Confederate battle flags are points of physical conflict.
The presence of American flags in Christian sanctuaries has been a subject for heated debate for generations. A number of German-American Lutheran congregations named or renamed themselves as “American” congregations in order to escape political suspicion during and after each of the World Wars.
Bibles are held by public figures as talismans of legitimacy. The United States constitution is described as a sacred and holy document. We’ve idol trouble – with a capital I and a capital T. Therefore, Paul’s analysis is as fresh as the morning headlines.
Robert P. Jones documents the intimate connection between Christian churches, especially in the southern United States but not exclusively, and monuments to the Confederacy and white supremacy. These monuments are often referred to as sacred or holy. Defacing or removing these monuments is often described as desecration or sacrilege. These are all terms that one might attach to the veneration of the image of a god – that is, in Christian terms, the worship of idols.
The veneration of idols for the sake of appearing (or actually being) publicly pious was demonstrated by the congregational responses to the construction of Monument Row in Richmond, Virginia. Robert P. Jones describes this phenomenon in White Too Long. “By 1930, Richmond’s white aristocracy had also uprooted seven of its prominent churches, replanting them in the shadows of the Confederate monuments,” Jones notes. “When west Richmond construction crews weren’t erecting Confederate monuments, they were relocating white Christian churches” (page 111).
That relocation included a Lutheran church which remains in that same space now. The purpose of these monuments was clear. “Monument Avenue, with its blend of monuments to Confederate leaders, leading churches of the major white Christian denominations, and imposing homes,” Jones asserts, “was carefully designed to serve both as a living civic tribute to the Confederacy for Richmond’s white elite and as a Lost Cause pilgrimage site for whites across the South” (page 111). Jones notes that this quasi-religious function has not been altered.
“A century later, it remains a leafy, upper-class, mostly white neighborhood dotted with tall-steepled churches and massive granite and bronze tributes to the Confederacy. As an official National Historic Landmark district, it still serves as a tourist magnet. And it continues to make its cultural statement. As historian Charles Reagan Wilson noted: ‘Richmond was the Mecca of the Lost Cause, and Monument Boulevard was the sacred road to it.’” (page 112).
Paul’s principle will not allow us to blithely pretend that proximity to such monuments is now an innocent accident of history. Our concern is for the tender consciences of those who see that proximity must be the limit to expressions of our “freedom.” Of course, we must first attend to our own self-delusion in our white congregations, if we think that somehow we are above all that white supremacist stuff now.
“Do you have the kind of heart that expects from [God] nothing but good, especially in distress and want,” Luther asks us in the Large Catechism, “and renounces and forsakes all that is not God?” If so, Luther asserts, “Then you have the one true God” (paragraph 28). If our hearts cling to anything else, he warns, “Then you have an idol, another god” (paragraph 29).
References and Resources
Fredricksen, Paula. Youtube lectures at Yale Divinity School – Christian Identity, Paul’s Letters, and “Thinking with Jews.”
“GODS and the ONE GOD” — https://youtu.be/dTSR4bNlNT0
“GODS in the BLOOD” — https://youtu.be/qlO5vfOHq6U
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.
Tappert, Theodore G. (translator and editor). Luther: Letters of Spiritual Counsel. Philadelphia, Pa.: Westminster Press, 1960.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Paul: In Fresh Perspective. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2005.