One God, One Lord, One People: Incarnational Christology for a Church in a Pagan Environment – N.T. Wright
My aim in this paper is to examine a theme and context which is often marginalized but which, arguably, stands as close as any other to the heart of Paul’s theology. I refer to the question of meat offered to idols, discussed in 1 Corinthians 8-10. My argument is, I hope, fairly simple. It is that Paul, in this passage, offers the Corinthian church, surrounded as it was by paganism, a Christological center for its belief and action, which relates directly and in a challenging manner to the task of confronting paganism with the gospel. Though the question of meat offered to idols has often been thought to have little contemporary relevance, I hope to show that the passage is not only exegetically fascinating and theologically thought provoking, but possesses more potential relevance to the church and the world of the late twentieth century than might at first sight be imagined.
In mounting this argument I shall draw on two other studies. The initial focal point of the passage is 1 Corinthians 8: 6, which is one of Paul’s most remarkable Christological formulations. I have expounded the technicalities of the verse elsewhere, and here presuppose some of that detailed argumentation.1 Similarly, I have argued in a forthcoming work that the task of the contemporary church involves a serious addressing of the multi-faceted paganism that is rapidly replacing post-enlightenment Deism or atheism as the major feature of modern Western culture, and I likewise presuppose some of that discussion.2
II. THE CORINTHIAN SITUATION
Studies of Corinth have abounded recently, and for our purposes amount to the obvious and major conclusion: Corinth was a thoroughly pagan city, typical of many in the ancient world.3 This did not, of course, mean merely that most of the inhabitants went from time to time to worship at pagan shrines and temples. It meant that the world view of the entire town was dominated by pagan assumptions, that the visual appearance of the town was dominated by pagan symbolism, that the normal mind set of the average Corinthian was dominated by pagan ideas, pagan hopes, and pagan motivations, and that the normal life style was dominated by pagan practices. Although the modem Western world is, I believe, moving towards a rediscovery of paganism at quite an alarming rate, it still requires something of a mental effort to reconstruct the picture of a city such as Corinth.4
There was, of course, a sizeable Jewish population in the town, as was true pretty well all around the Mediterranean. How influential this community was we have no means of knowing. Nor is it clear to what extent the Jewish community in Corinth would have clung to some kind of Pharisaic orthodoxy in their belief and behavior, or to what extent they would have been open to new, perhaps Hellenistic, ideas. It is clear, though, that their twin beliefs, monotheism and election, cut clean across all the normal assumptions of paganism. It is in this clash between Judaism and paganism that we find the true background to Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians, not least in chapters 8-10.
Jewish monotheism in this period was not a speculative doctrine about the inner being of the one true god.5 It was the polemical belief that there was only one god, the creator of the whole world, and that all other gods were simply idols, human inventions with possible demonic associations. This belief is to be clearly distinguished from other ancient varieties of monotheism, notably Stoic pantheism. There is all the difference in the world between saying that there is one god because everything that exists is god, and saying that there is one god who made everything that exists. And this Jewish creational monotheism was linked closely with the belief that this one creator god had called Israel to be his special people. Israel’s central theology thus equipped her to face the ravages of pagan oppression in the period between the Babylonian exile and the first century, and indeed the events of this period served to strengthen her grip on the belief in her god as the one true god, who would eventually vindicate his name and his people against all other gods and their adherents.
The choices facing Jews in the pagan world were therefore quite stark. One option was to withdraw from contact with the world, to retreat into the ghetto. The problem with this was the strong Jewish belief in the goodness of creation: treating large areas of the world as off limits went against the grain (for instance) of the Psalms with their celebration of the created order. Retreat into dualism, though it often happened, could never represent a wholeheartedly Jewish solution. The other option was of course to assimilate. Jews from that day to this have faced this possibility, and we may presume that then as now some would lose their identity completely, while others would find various compromise solutions. But at the heart of the whole issue we will always find the theological and ethical questions which serve as shorthand for these large socio-cultural issues. Questions of monotheism versus polytheism, questions of the identity of the people of the one God, and questions of behavior with respect to food, drink and sex: these are not merely matters of an abstract theology or ethics, but relate to the entire world view, the entire way of being-in-the-world, of people in the ancient, and I believe the modern world.
III. THE HEART OF PAUL’S RESPONSE: CHRISTOLOGY
With this, we turn to the substantive issue that faced Paul. Should Christians in Corinth eat meat that had been offered to idols? We should be clear how far-reaching the question actually was. Though there is some debate about details, it seems likely that almost all the meat available in a city like Corinth would have been offered at some shrine or other; and idol-temples served not only as butcher’s shops but also as restaurants.6 To avoid idol meat altogether might, then, mean de facto vegetarianism (an option forced on some in any case by economic circumstances). For a Jew, facing this question would pose quite sharply the options we just noted. One major Jewish position regarded pagan worship as idolatry, and insisted that genuine monotheists must not flirt with it. Another major Jewish tradition said that idols were non existent and irrelevant, and that the one creator god claimed as his own all that idols have usurped. This second way may well have been helped by the kind of speculative Jewish gnosis according to which one’s relationship to the one true god elevated one above the problems of the pagan world.7 The first way could lead to dualism, the second to assimilation. Paul carves out a way which avoids both.
He refuses to discuss the question in terms merely of a practical agenda. He goes (much more readily than some of his commentators) to the substantive issue that lies behind it all, that is, monotheism and idolatry. He does not work with the categories of a post-Reformation agenda, asking whether the “law” is a good thing or a bad thing, debating earnestly about whether “ethics” and “morality” somehow compromise the gospel of free grace. And, despite some recent writers who have suggested that he is simply shooting from the hip, offering haphazard and inconsistent solutions to problems as they come up, I suggest that his solution is actually clear, theologically grounded, and strikingly relevant.8 He offers the church a redefinition of monotheism and election, both achieved by means of his central Christology; and he shows how this redefinition of fundamental Jewish theology enables the church not merely to survive and maintain its identity vis-a-vis paganism but to take on paganism and, in a sense, beat it at its own game. He offers, in short, an incarnational theology for a church in a pagan environment.
This helps to explain the beginning of the argument (8:1-3). Paul responds to the claim to gnosis by insisting on the primacy of Jewish style allegiance to the one true god, as expressed in the central Jewish prayer, the Shema (“‘Hear, 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God.”);
Concerning idol meat, we know that “we all have gnosis.” Gnosis puffs you up, but love builds you up. Anyone who claims to “know” something does not yet have the necessary “knowledge”; but anyone who “loves God” is known by God. (vv. 1-3)
Paul is about to quote the Shema explicitly, in v. 4, but he clearly has it in mind already. The question at stake in the discussion of idol meat is, who are the people of God? The Jewish answer is: who says the Shema? Paul begins by affirming this answer, before introducing a striking new dimension:
Concerning meat offered to idols, then, we know that “there is no idol in the world,” and that “there is no god but one” (v. 4).
Monotheism is what matters. But this credal statement by itself hardly addresses the situation on the street in Corinth, so he continues:
Well, though, there may be many so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth- just as there are many “gods” and many “lords”-. .. (v. 5).
The pagan pantheon is not irrelevant. It must be confronted. One cannot retreat from paganism, just as one must not assimilate. One must instead worship the true God, the one whom paganism parodies. This, I shall suggest, is in fact the heart of the whole argument. And for Paul this true God is revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.
In what is surely one of the most striking Christological formulations ever written in any century, Paul takes an argument which is about monotheism, and takes the Jewish formula which is the most basic expression of Jewish monotheism, and places Jesus at the heart of it. Instead of
Hear, 0 Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One
But for us:
the father, from whom are all things and we to him
and one Lord
Jesus the Messiah,
through whom are all things and through whom are we. (8:6)
This is all the more striking when we put the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 6:4 beside the Greek of Paul’s formula:
akoue Israel, kyrios ho theos hemon eis estiv
What Paul seems to have done is as follows. He has expanded the formula, in a way quite unprecedented in any other texts known to us, so as to include a gloss on theos and another on Kurios:9
eis theos ho pater
ex ou ta pavta kai eis autov
kai eis kurios Iesous Christos
di ou ta pavta kai hemeis di autou
Paul, in other words, has glossed “God” with “the Father,” and “Lord” with “Jesus Christ,” adding in each case an explanatory phrase: “God” is the Father, “from whom are all things and we to him,” and the “Lord” is Jesus the Messiah, “through whom are all things and we through him.” There can be no mistake: Paul has placed Jesus within an explicit statement, drawn from the Old Testament’s best known monotheistic text, of the doctrine that Israel’s God is the one and only God, the creator of the world. The Shema was already, at this stage of Judaism, in widespread use as the Jewish daily prayer.10 Paul has redefined it Christologically, producing what we can only call a sort of Christological monotheism.
IV. CHRISTOLOGY, THEREFORE LOVE
It would be easy, though mistaken, to get so excited about Paul’s astonishing Christological innovation that one would miss the point of this Christology within the over-all argument. We have already seen that he is reasserting Jewish style monotheism over against the pagan polytheism of Corinth. But what practical difference does this redefinition make, when it comes to the question of idol meat?
The question, as we saw, was first and foremost an issue of the definition of the community of the people of god. Living as we do in a period of atomized individualism, it is necessary for us to think our way back into the first century, where individual behavior was seen for what more recent sociologists of knowledge have been insisting it really is: one function of communal life.11 Paul addresses the issue at this level, applying his reformulated monotheism to the question. What does it mean to be the true people of this one god?
It means, clearly, that love and concern for other members of the community is to be placed ahead of all attempts at personal self-realization. In 8:7-13 he spells this out in terms precisely of the Christ who has become part of the definition of the one god, the Christ who is identical with the Jesus who died on the cross:
Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. “Food will not bring us close to God.” We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall (vv. 7-13).
The gnosis of which some members of the community are proud, namely, their knowledge of the one true God, must, if it really is the true God they are worshipping, bring them immediately to the realization that this true God, in the person of the Messiah, died to rescue both them and the rest from precisely those evils of which paganism is clearly symptomatic. Though the word agape itself does not occur in this passage, that is what it is all about: the love of the true God for his people, and the consequent love that this people must show, not only for him in private religion, but also for him in the persons of the rest of the family. The corporate sense of Christos is clearly visible under V.12: sinning against a member of the family is sinning against the Messiah, in whom this family is summed up.12 And the whole effect is to put into practice the Shema itself: there is one God, one Lord, and his people are defined as those who love him, and who love their neighbors as themselves. The allowance for the weak is not a mere ad hoc concession. It arises from the heart of Christian theology itself. Hence I Corinthians 13 can be seen as a climax of the whole letter, a full dress exposition of what is needed when facing the pagan world.
V. CHRISTOLOGY, THEREFORE ABANDONMENT OF RIGHTS
It is at this point that 1 Corinthians 9 makes its proper impact. The sudden change of topic, from a discussion of idol meat to a discussion of Paul’s apostleship and its outworking, has inevitably led some scholars to question the integrity of the passage. This has been further compounded by the fact that the advice in chapter 10 on the subject of idol meat does not seem the same as that in chapter 8. But if we follow the line we have begun, we will discover that beneath these apparent discrepancies there is a coherence born of the theology which Paul is in fact expounding, and which usually goes unnoticed.
The reason why Paul suddenly launches into a discussion of his apostleship may have something to do with a defence against those who are marginalizing him and looking to some other leader(s) instead (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:1-23). But if this is so it is strictly a subplot to the main theme of the passage. Paul’s basic intention is to offer himself as the example of how to approach such issues, where one has a right to do something but deliberately makes no use of that right for the sake of the gospel. He sums this up in 11.1: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” Here again the redefined monotheism of 1 Corinthians 8:6 works its way out into actual practice.
If it were not for 11:1, this conclusion might be resisted. Nowhere in 1 Corinthians 9 does Paul say explicitly that in abandoning his rights he is following the example of the Messiah.13 But here a parallel passage comes to our aid. In Philippians 2:1-11, we find first (vv. 1-4) a clear exhortation to do exactly what Paul says in our present passage that he is doing himself, namely, to give up one’s rights for one another’s sake; and that passage is at once buttressed by Philippians 2:5-11, in which Paul describes Jesus the Messiah as the one who did precisely that. Moreover, Philippians 2:5-11 is one of the other two passages in Paul (the third one is Colossians 1:15-20) in which Paul takes explicit Jewish monotheistic texts and themes and puts Jesus at the middle of them.14 The incarnational Christology of Philippians 2:5-11 thus undergirds explicitly the appeal that Christians should give up their own rights for one anothers’ sake. What we have in 1 Corinthians 8 and 9, I suggest, is the same theme spelt out in one particular way. To the question, should we exercise our God-given liberty and, scorning idols as nonexistent irrelevancies, go ahead and eat meat that has been offered to them? Paul makes three replies:
1) First get your monotheism straight; it is true that there is only one God, but this God is now made known in and through Jesus the Messiah, and in loving this God you may find that there are other more pressing duties than showing your contempt for idols by eating their food without caring.
2) Then recognize that among these more urgent need needs is to care for those who are struggling in the faith, and that this may mean happily forgoing your demonstration of monotheism in terms of eating idol meat in favor of a demonstration of this redefined monotheism in terms of abstaining from idol meat.
3) then recognize that in this abstention, too, you are demonstrating that you are the people of this one true God, since in Jesus this God gave up his rights to come and rescue you too.
The cross, therefore, stands clearly underneath this argument. For Paul, the crucifixion of Jesus does not simply have to do with the attaining of individual salvation. It means the remaking of the community of the people of god in a particular fashion, namely, as the community that is given such security in the love of the true god that it is able to forgo all human privileges and rights to which it might otherwise lay claim. What is more, Paul saw clearly that the cross, in achieving this, offers the most fundamental challenge to paganism at every level. This is, I believe, the real subtext of our present passage. Instead of asking “how far can we go?” in apparent assimilation to paganism, Paul shows a different agenda altogether. The monotheism which has been redefined so as to have Jesus, and hence the cross, at its heart, is the monotheism which not only provides a way for its adherents to live within a pagan world with integrity, but which also issues to that pagan world a decisive and devastating challenge (compare 1 Corinthians 2:6-8). Instead of merely pursuing a path of private spirituality within the world, the church is to pursue a path of mission to the world. And the victory which is to be won by that mission is the victory of the cross.
Paganism, at its heart, powerfully reinforced the boundaries of nation, family and tribe, of geography and gender, that crisscrossed the ancient world. It is a striking fact that, apart from within Judaism, we have little or no evidence in the ancient world of what we today call “charity”; there was no sense of obligation to the poor, except to the poor among one’s own kin or among those who might be of political usefulness. Though the word “charity” has of course become cold and hard, we might pause to imagine a world from which the very notion had been removed. It would be colder and harder yet. And that is the world that Paul was challenging with the gospel of Jesus. The church is summoned, as the very stuff of its life, not as an added extra when private spirituality has been sorted out, to incarnate that love, that charity, just as the God it professes to worship had done. And in that process the church must watch out for the signs that underneath a professed adherence to monotheism there is not a self-centeredness that must itself be challenged by the cross: “I punish my body and enslave it;” writes Paul, “so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” 1 Corinthians 9:27. A spirituality that does not contain at least the possibility of such an attitude stands under the warning that, though professing Christianity, it may in fact have embraced some form of paganism.15 Insisting on one’s rights, even insisting on one’s rights as a Christian, is a sign that something else other than the true God is being worshipped. The Christology of 1 Corinthians 8:6 thus undergirds the exposition of paradoxical apostleship in 1 Corinthians 9, and prepares the way for the return to the main topic in 1 Corinthians 10.
VI. CHRISTOLOGY AND THE TRUE FEEDING
Rather than simply sketch out a position which helps Christians to get round the problem of idol meat, Paul now goes boldly on to the attack. He puts at the center of the picture the true Christian eating and drinking, of which pagan feasting is a mere parody. This is, in fact, his regular critique of paganism. Avoiding pagan life styles by avoiding the raw material in which they deal is dualism; assimilating to those life styles is to abandon allegiance to the one God. The genuine alternative to both ways is to embrace the gospel as the reality of which paganism is the distorted copy. And this means seeing pagan feasting in the light of the eucharist.
I am not aware that 1 Corinthians 10 is normally read in this light, but I suggest that it ought to be. The whole chapter is about religious meals, how they function, and what they imply. Paul begins with the Jewish meals, the “spiritual” feeding in the wilderness (vv.1-13), and moves on to the Christian eucharist (vv. 14-17), in order then to draw out his final, nuanced, response to the problem at hand (vv. 18 – 11:1). In doing this he is, I suggest, following a pattern of argument similar to that which we observed in the foundational passage, 1 Corinthians 8:1-6.
First, he claims the Jewish ground. Just as in chapter 8 he began with the Shema, so in chapter 10 he begins with Passover. Monotheism in chapter 8 is thus balanced by the wilderness feedings in chapter 10 (“our ancestors… all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink” (vv. 1-3).) Faced with paganism, Paul always begins his thought as a loyal Jew. In both cases, the overtones of Passover are not far away. The Shema recalls the god who brought Israel out of Egypt. The desert feedings result from the same great act of liberation. Passover and Exodus likewise come together in the Christian antitype, the eucharist.
Second, he shows that this approach by itself did not save the Jews from assimilation to pagan practices. In the earlier passage, this comes by implication: the Jewish Hellenistic gnosis of which some are so proud will lead them, if they are not careful, into assimilation. In the present passage, in explicit detail, he shows that the earlier feeding of the Jews did not prevent idolatry (v.7), immorality (v.8), treating the Lord as a pagan deity (V.9),16 and grumbling that their god had not behaved properly towards them (v.10). So, while claiming the Jewish heritage not only for himself but for his erstwhile pagan converts (“our ancestors,” v.1), he sees that one must go further. Judaism by itself is not enough.
Third, he goes on to assert the Christian truth which is, in his view, the fulfillment of the Jewish truth, and which thus claims the high ground that paganism had been trying to occupy. In 1 Corinthians 8, this move consists in his redefinition of the Jewish Shema so that it becomes the answer to pagan polytheism. The religion of “gods many and lords many” is replaced by the one God, the one Lord. In 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, this Christology opens up to reveal, in a nutshell, the meaning of the Christian eucharist, containing as it does echoes of older Jewish liturgies,17 and offering the decisive alternative to all pagan ritual meals:
The cup of blessing which we bless
is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ?
The bread which we break
is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body
for we all partake of the one bread.18
The redefinition of monotheism by means of Jesus has given birth to a redefinition of the one people of the true god; and this one people is revealed precisely in their sharing of the meal by which they constitute themselves as such. If there is one God, and one Lord, then those who celebrate and worship this one God and Lord become one people, transcending differences of race, gender, class and geography. This celebration resembles pagan feasts simply in the way that the sun is like a lightbulb: the former is the reality of which the latter is a copy invented by humans.
To modern Protestant or rationalist eyes, Paul’s description of this celebration could look as though it was sailing close to the wind of assimilation, that is, assimilation to paganism. Just as critics of Paul’s incarnational Christology have accused him of selling his Jewish birthright for a mess of pagan or gnostic polytheism,19 so critics of his eucharistic theology are bound to accuse him of making the eucharist just like a form of paganism. But at this point Protestantism, rationalism and Judaism, if they make this accusation, are standing on dangerously dualistic ground. From Paul’s point of view it is paganism that apes the true sacramental worship, not the other way round. The function of this eucharistic passage within the present argument is to say: in the central Christian mystery you become one family through sharing in the blood and body of Christ, so how can you then share in the cup, or the table, of antigods, of nongods, or of demons? Verse 16 is explicitly applied in verse 21:
You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
The argument of chapter 10 as a whole, then, pivots on the eucharistic passages just as chapter 8 pivoted on the Christological reformulation. Those who take the redefined monotheism seriously are bound to follow it through by their love for one another. This Christology, and this love, find their ritual expression in the eucharist; and those who take this redefined community meal seriously are bound to follow it through into a life of holiness, in which attendance at idol temples is abjured.
A note at this point may be in order about Paul’s exact view of idols. He has already agreed with the “strong” in Corinth that idols have no existence as such (8:4), and he is clear in the present passage that he is not retracting this earlier point (10:19). But this does not rule out the possibility that malign nonhuman entities not only may exist, but may gain power through pagan ritual and then exercise that power over humans, even over Christians. Paul (or one of his earliest interpreters) dearly believed that Christians take part in an ongoing battle to implement the victory of Jesus over the powers of darkness (Ephesians 6:10-20; Colossians 2:15). To worship in an idol’s temple would therefore be to flirt with, or give the appearance of flirting with, the very powers that continue to enslave and distort human existence. These powers ought, instead, to be challenged by the gospel of liberation and healing. Such powers are not to be thought of as rivals to the one God, one Lord. That is the message both of 1 Corinthians 8.4-6 and Colossians 1:15-20. To forget this is to court dualism indeed. But this does not mean that Christians must not take the powers very seriously. Instead of asking as the Corinthians’ question implicitly asks, to what extent one is allowed to fraternize with them, one ought to be asking how their remaining power over humans can be broken.
Paul’s answer to this question comes in the radical application of the cross to all human and Christian life. Victory over the powers comes, not from human wisdom, from success in human terms, but from the forswearing of all kinds of human power and authority, privilege and status. When Christians in Corinth and elsewhere give up their rights, they are not merely retreating from human possibility out of generous concern for one another. They are striking a blow against the paganism which offers humans a spurious self-worth, an inflated self-identity.20 They are offering a direct challenge to paganism, based not on their own new-found religious self-assurance but on the revelation of the one god, one lord which they have discovered in the cross. They are doing what (I suggest) all Christian confrontation of paganism must do. Instead of either assimilating or retreating into a dualistic ghetto, the church must seek to build shrines for the true god on ground at present occupied by paganism. Only so can the dehumanizing and distorting power of paganism be broken, and replaced with the healing and restoring love of the creator and redeemer god.
Paul’s answer to the Corinthians’ problem can therefore be set out as follows:
1) What is at stake in the issue of idol meat is the question of monotheism and election, over against paganisim.
2) Embracing Jewish-style monotheism is the true challenge to paganism, and this monotheism finds its fulfillment in Jesus.
3) Creational monotheism means that all meat is in principle edible by Christians.
4) The Christological redefinition of monotheism means, however, that for the sake of those with weak consciences one may be under obligation to forgo this right.
5) The redefined monotheism is expressed in the redefined celebratory meal, which is the true alternative to pagan celebrations.
6) This meal must issue in holiness and wholeness.
7) Therefore, though eating meat bought in the market is in principle all right, eating in an idol’s temple is not.
Paul has addressed a complex situation with a clear theology. Paganism is to be challenged with a redefined doctrine, and practice, of monotheism and election.
VII. CONCLUSION: CHRISTOLOGY IN PRACTICE
It should have become clear by now that the reconstruction of Pauline Christology, and the detailed exegesis by which that task is to be accomplished, is very far from being a matter merely of antiquarian interest. Nor is it simply a matter of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of some abstract dogmatic scheme. It has to do with the very practical matter of living out the gospel within a pagan society. And that, I suggest, is increasingly the concern of the church in the modern Western world. Those of us who cut our exegetical teeth on Galatians and Romans, dealing as they do with questions at issue between Christianity and Judaism, may now find ourselves invited to get to grips with those parts of the Pauline correspondence where the battle with paganism is more specifically joined. We must hammer out the whole Pauline world view, not just a few abstract theological issues, in terms of Paul’s central redefinitions of Jewish monotheism and election by means of Christ and the Spirit. And we must remember as we do so that the point of monotheism and election in the first place was that it was the creator’s answer to paganism. All of this results, I think, in four closely related agendas.
First, the church must recapture the sense of celebration within the eucharist. At the risk of being thought (by dualists) to be sailing close to the wind of paganism, we must celebrate in bread and wine the true God of whom any corn-king or Bacchus is simply a parody. We must participate in the Messiah by feeding at his table and drinking his cup, aware that in doing so we are drawing upon his own risen life to sustain us in our own struggle against the powers of paganism. (Is it significant that the countries in which rationalistic Protestantism has made most advance have been those where overt paganism has given way, until recently, to Deism?) In the eucharist we not only remember a past event. We worship, and participate in the life of, the living god and lord revealed in the gospel.
Second, we must work out this celebration in terms of a practical holiness. Holiness has all too often been thought of in dualistic terms, as abstention from things which are so tainted with misuse as to be thought evil in and of themselves. In reaction to this, the cult of modern Western self-fulfillment has pursued a path of personal wholeness, in which self-denial plays little or no part. What we need to do, and can do with the Christology and sacramental theology of 1 Corinthians behind us, is to embrace, articulate and exemplify a life path which embodies both. No idolatry; no immorality; and no dualism, either (10:7,8, 23-7). “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.”
Third, we must comprehend, and work out in terms of Christian life and church structures, the bracing agenda of 1 Corinthians 9. What might it mean for Christians zealously to seek not to stand on their rights? The question is so enormous, and in our culture so novel, that it is difficult to answer. But one result would certainly follow. Such action would constitute a powerful challenge to the paganism which is gaining ground in our culture, as it prevailed at Corinth. It would be far more effective than “marches for Jesus” or fulminating sermons, both of which can easily become a cloak for insecurity and pride, which feed on one another within a church that has not fully grasped its own central Christology.
Finally, we must recapture the sense of excitement that ought properly to accompany serious Christological work. Those of us who grew up leaming how to distinguish homoousios from homoiousios in Patristic debate may have come to feel that such tasks, however important both in their time and as an abstract exercise in thinking clearly and Christianly, are not strictly relevant to contemporary attempts to bring the gospel to the world. But we cannot retreat from the challenge that faces us in our own day, a challenge to grasp and articulate a Christologically redefined monotheism over against the paganism, the polytheism, and also the resurgent dualism within our own culture and church life. Paul discovered that the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus contained “the power of God, and the wisdom of God” (I Corinthians 1:24). We in our generation would do well to rediscover it too.
1. See Wright 1991, ch. 6. I am also presupposing the work of commentators such as Conzelmann 1975 (1969), Fee 1987, Barrett 1971 and Bruce 1971, and studies such as Willis 1985. [Editor’s note: See bibliography at the end of the article for titles of these works.] return
2. Wright 1992. return
3. See Theissen 1982; Meeks 1983; Murphy-O’Connor 1983; and e.g. the introduction to Fee’s commentary 1987,1-4. return
4. On paganism see particularly Lane Fox 1986. return
5. In discussing the beliefs of pagans, Jews and Christians in the first century, it seems to me highly misleading to use the modern idiom of capitalizing the word “god,” as though the word were univocal. return
6. See Erhardt 1964, 279; Lane Fox 1986, 70. But cf. too Tomson 1990,189. return
7. So Horsley 1978,1980; see my discussion and critique in Wright 1991, ch. 6. return
8. E.g. Sanders 1983,1991. return
9. See Wright 1986, 208; Hurtado 1988,97 f return
10. Cf. mBer. 1 ff, etc. return
11. See e.g. Berger and Luckman 1966; Berger 1969; Wilson 1982; and the discussion in Thiselton 1992, ch. 16 section 2. return
12. See Wright l991, chs. 2 and 3. Compare l Cor. 1:13; 12:12. return
13. Verse 21 is a possible exception, where he speaks of being “under the law of Christ,” but this by itself is too cryptic to be used as clear evidence. return
14. See Wright 1991, chs. 4 and 5. return
15. I think not least of the work of Matthew Fox, eg. 1983. return
16. Ignoring for the moment the nest of problems, textual and otherwise, in this verse. return
17. On the “cup of blessing” as a Jewish formulation see Strack-Billerbeck 3. 419, 4. 627-36; see too Fee 467 f return
18. I reserve judgment on whether this passage is or contains a pre-Pauline eucharistic formulation. What matters here is its function within the total argument of the chapter. return
19. See particularly Maccoby 1986,1991. return
20. The phrase “puffed up,” from the root phusioo is a feature of 1 Corinthians: cf 4:6,18,19; 5;2; 8:1; 13:4. return
21. These conclusions are reinforced by the sequence of thought in chs. 5-7. There, as here, Paul sets his face against pagan practices, and also against the kind of asceticism that rejectss the proper use of creation, and reaffirms the Jewish view (in this case, the goodness of marriage) within a Christian framework.