confusion about “confusion” (2)

In the first part of this discussion, I noted the various ways in which 1Cor 14.33 is interpreted and/or applied. Throughout the discussion, I stressed the point that all of the interpretations and/or applications given rely on a particular definition of “confusion”–i.e. the presence of obscurity or lack of knowledge. In other words, “confusion” relates to one’s cognitive faculties (or some type of breakdown therein).

To show my cards: I think the definition and reliance are incorrect–or at least incomplete. However, this represents only one side of the dilemma, which I will address by recognizing an alternate reading not only for 1Cor 14.33 (one that makes better sense of Paul’s terminology) but also “confusion.” The other side of the dilemma, as I mentioned at the end of the first post, deals with Paul’s specific claim and its meaning in the light of the surrounding context. (We might need a third installment to wrap this up).

For the sake of clarity (and to avoid confusion!), let’s look again at Paul’s statement in 1Cor 14.33: οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης. Initially, we recognized two possible translations of this passage: 1) “God is not a God of confusion”, and 2) “God is not the author of confusion”. If we know anything about Bible translations, it should be obvious that my previous sampling hardly represents all possible renderings. So let’s consider a few more.

A fair number of English translations read: “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (CEB, DARBY, GWHCSB, PHILLIPSLEB, NIV, NIrV, NIVUK, NIV84, NLT, NRSV, TNIV). One translation (overly) sharpens the reading: “because God does not want us to be in disorder but in harmony and peace” (GNT cf WE), while another softens the blow: “God wants everything done peacefully and in order” (CEV). Moreover, “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” is the preferred reading in the German (HOF, LUTH, NGU, SCH51, SCH2000) and French (BDS, LSG, NEG79, SG21).

Here we find that by simply translating ἀκαταστασία as “disorder” rather than “confusion”, the passage has a different feel. Instead of dealing with a state of (personal) obfuscation, we see Paul addressing a general state of unrest in the community. In fact, on this reading, the idea of “disorder” sits in better balance with “peace”, for the two are natural antonyms; “confusion” and “peace” do not seem to relate so evenly (or appropriately). This is especially the case if “confusion” is related primarily to cognitive faculties.

So if the terms are so different in meaning, why do some translations have “confusion” for ἀκαταστασία while others have “disorder”? One possible solution is that the translations supporting “confusion” use the term in accordance with its (much) older definition. In Middle English, “confuse” carried the sense of to “rout” or “disrupt” that which was already ordered (or peaceful). Only later did the term become descriptive of mental faculties.

Thus, because of this semantic shift, other translations opted for “disorder” in an effort to retain the meaning of the text. It is therefore possible (and likely) that those who read “confusion” in 1Cor 14.33 as a state of (personal) obfuscation are simply unaware of the older definition. Doesn’t this create confusion in how 1Cor 14.33 is understood? Yep. As Blaise Pascal opined: “Words differently arranged have different meanings, and meanings differently arranged have different effects” (Pensées, 1.23). So what do we do?

First, we need to set aside English (German, and French) translations for the moment and pay exclusive attention to Paul’s terminology. In other words, forget the translations and focus on the Greek. I have already mentioned it in passing, but the word causing the problem is, ἀκαταστασία, which is a rather unique term. It appears roughly 15 times in the whole of ancient Greek literature outside of the Bible and only 5 times in the NT. (Its cognate, ἀκατάστατος doesn’t fare much better: 14 times in Greek literature and 2 in the NT. The verb, ἀκαταστατέω is even worse: 5 in Greek literature and 0 in the NT).

Only in a small number of instances does ἀκαταστασία refer to mental faculties (see Diogenes Laertius, Vit. 7.110; Polybius, Hist. 7.4.6; Epictetus, Disc. 3.19.3). But even then the focus is not on levels or degrees of knowledge; rather, it emphases an instability of mind–caused either by disease, madness, or something evil. And in one case, Claudius Ptolemy uses ἀκαταστασία to describe physical convulsions brought on by madness or (epileptic) seizures (see Tetra. 3.14.170). While there is a slight shift in focus, moving from the mind to the body, the force of the term remains unchanged–i.e. that which was originally stable (or peaceful) has entered into a state of instability or chaos.³

In the majority of cases, ἀκαταστασία describes the state of a body (or group) of people, and that state is one of unrest or instability–caused either by political means or military conflicts (see Dionysius Halicarnassus, Rom.Ant. 6.31 [cf. 6.74]; Polybius, Hist. 1.70.1 [cf. 14.9.6]; Eusebius, H.E. 5.16.18; Basil of Caesarea, Epist. 70). Given the context, this appears to be the way Jesus uses the term in Lk 21.9. For what it’s worth: the state of unrest of instability tends to be generated in response to decisions made by those in power. Based on all of this, and at the risk of exaggeration, we could say ἀκαταστασία refers to a state of socio-political dissension or even anarchy.

Since ἀκαταστασία is the specific term Paul uses in 1Cor 14.33, and given its particular semantic range; two basic questions emerge: 1) is ἀκαταστασία an appropriate description of the situation in chapter 14, which deals with the exercise of “tongues” and “prophecy” in worship, and 2) what is Paul ultimately doing when he declares, οὐ γάρ ἐστιν ἀκαταστασίας ὁ θεὸς ἀλλὰ εἰρήνης? That’s the subject of the final post.

¹ This translation balances the claim by adding, “. . . but a God of peace” (emphasis added). Cf. NGU; NIrV, which (strangely) also breaks up the single claim into two.
² NB: Phillips replaces “peace” with “harmony”, and I think he has good reason for doing so.
³ On another occasion, Claudius Ptolemy employs ἀκαταστασία to describe the torrent of winds that precede a storm (see Claudius Ptolemy, Tetra. 2.13.102).


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