confusion about “confusion” (1)

Near the end of his letter to the problem-laden Corinthian church, Paul declares: οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης (1Cor 14.33), which some English translations render as: “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (ASV, ERVESV, ESVUK, MOUNCENASB, NCV, RSV). The King James tradition intensifies the situation by adding, “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace” (KJV, KJ21, NKJV–emphasis added). The difference is subtle, yet profound.

This passage has been used in various ways, but each use relies on a particular assumption: “confusion” means either the presence of obscurity or a lack of understanding (and the two tend to feed each other). Usually the focus falls on the Bible itself, specifically its reliability or truthfulness. One writer sees not only the existence of multiple translations as the cause for the confusion, but also the presence of (supposed) contradictions throughout the Bible, which create further confusion, as proof that the Bible is man’s idea and not God’s, since God is not a God of confusion.

Similarly, one vlogger reads 1Cor 14.33 as a clear-cut contradiction of Gen 11.1-7. In other words, God is described in 1Cor 14.33 as “not the author of confusion” (clearly relying on the KJV), while in Gen 11.1-7 God is portrayed as the one who confuses (or confounds) the people by jacking with their language.³ Therefore, since “A” and “non-A” cannot be true of the same thing at the same time, we as readers are left confused (or confounded) by how the Bible describes God; and since the Bible creates this confusion and yet God is not the author of confusion, the Bible cannot be of God.

Other times the passage is used in connection with particular theological concepts or doctrines.  For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses appeal to 1Cor 14.33 in their (attempted) refutation of the Trinity. Their argument here is twofold. On the one hand, God (or as they painfully and regrettably insist, “Jehovah”) would not reveal himself to believers in ways beyond their comprehension; and what (according to JWs) is more incomprehensible than a single God being three persons? On the other hand, God would not leave it to scholars/theologians alone as the ones who are able to wrestle with the mysteries of divinity; God has made himself clearly and easily known to all.

This type of argument, however, is not limited to groups like JWs; I have heard it on many occasions from well-meaning and devout church-goers. Specifically, when discussing the (exciting) complexity of biblical interpretation or even differences in theological views, someone will inevitably say to me: “But the Bible says that ‘God is not a God of confusion’; thus, the Bible should be clear, and things should not be this difficult.” While I have no major problems with either the basic principle about God or the stated ideal, I do have concerns with the passage being applied to situations like these.

And finally in some instances, the passage is used to support distinct life applications for believers. Most often the passage is related to personal and/or spiritual struggles within the Christian life. For example, one individual expresses her anxiety cause by the tension between her knowledge that God is not a God of confusion and her inability to escape that which is preventing spiritual peace. Similarly, Joyce Meyer rambles on about “confusion” being the lack of peace we feel in our lives because of the uncertainty in our knowledge of what God is doing or planning to do. (There’s 4 minutes I’ll never get back). And on the somewhat extreme side of things, this site defines “confusion” as not only the work of Satan but also that which hinders us from having (or experiencing) true peace in Christ as defined in the Bible.

What are we to do with this? Doesn’t this multitude of interpretations simply perpetuate the confusion? Yep. So which one of these interpretations/applications of 1Cor 14.33 is correct? In one sense, none of them. I say that because each one operates on an assumed definition of “confusion” and each one seems to ignore the immediate and surrounding context of Paul’s argument. And ignoring the original meaning of the text leads to misinterpretations and misapplications of that text to current situations. Therefore, I think the more appropriate question to ask is: which one reflects Paul’s statement and meaning? To answer this question, we need to consider a few additional details. And that is the substance of the next post.

¹ This translation has apparently been around since 2006. Either I’m way behind in things, or this particular translation did not become very popular.
² This translation emerged in 2011, and looks to be quite useful.
³ Here is a fair response to this apparent contradiction, which is nothing new. However, I think the response overlooks a vital point, one that has to do with the specific (and distinct) terminology used in both passages.

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