ignoring context to sustain an existing interpretation

On two separate occasions now, I’ve heard and read persons appealing to 1 Cor 3.10-15 in ways that make me a bit unsettled–or at the very least, a little worried. In both cases, the ultimate focus of the discussion was the same: the (eternal) status of believers before God. However, the specific emphases of the two persons were distinct, and one’s appeal to the text was more explicit than the other.

In the first instance, I heard a pastor[1] use and teach through 1 Cor 3.10-15 to support 1) the conjoined ideas of “the judgment seat of Christ”–not to be confused with the “great white throne of judgment”, which is (supposedly) separate–and “the judgment of believers” on the basis of (good, faithful) works, and 2) the heavenly “rewards and responsibilities” that come as a result of that works-focused judgment.[2] In fact, this pastor confidently asserted that this text is one of roughly two dozen passages that speak directly to the judgment of believers before/at the (so-called) millennial reign of Christ. What is vitally important to note is that the pastor made it abundantly clear that the notion of rewards is separate from one’s salvation-status before God. Specifically, an eternally secured “saved” status is assumed for all believers and the kinds or levels of reward do not affect that status.

In the second instance, I read a scholar[1] who used 1 Cor 3.10-15–specifically 3.15–as support for reading Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life”. (This scholar appeals to the Corinthian text because he sees it speaking to the very idea of [loss of] rewards). Specifically, this scholar reads Heb 6.1-8 as addressing the issue of believers regressing to and being content with the elementary “doctrines of the faith” and their subsequent neglect of “the more complicated doctrines at hand”–i.e. those that presumably foster progress in the Christian life.

With regard to the first instance, the gist of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does appear to support 1) the idea of heavenly rewards on the basis of faithfulness post-belief in the gospel, and 2) the assurance that one’s status before God is secured regardless of the degree of faithfulness. Paul’s argument does seem to suggest that those who build (i.e. live their lives) on the foundation already laid (i.e. belief in Christ) in complete faithfulness and obedience (i.e. using the best materials) will receive a better reward at “the end” than those who build with weak or shoddy materials (i.e. live their lives with minimal faithfulness and reluctant obedience). And it does seem that Paul emphasizes the fact that the second builder is not the recipient of condemnation; only his crappy work is punished. Thus, the builder’s status before God remains intact while his efforts are less fortunate.

I could accept this type of reading and interpretation and the theological/doctrinal teaching that follows from it–i.e. the one advocated by the pastor–only if I read 1 Cor 3.10-15 as a stand-alone passage, divorced from its surrounding context. I know that might sound harsh but after spending nearly four years with 1 Corinthians,[3] specifically 1 Cor 1-4, I cannot read the metaphor of 1 Cor 3.10-15 as referring to rewards given to believers before/at the millennial reign of Christ on the basis of faithful works. Paul’s specific argument in 1 Cor 1-4 does not advocate or even deal with that idea. I would be willing to bet that if Paul were alive and someone said, “This is how I read your argument” he would say, “Excuse me?”

Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15, as read within the surrounding context of 1 Cor 1-4, is primarily (if not exclusively) about the way or manner in which the gospel of Christ crucified is proclaimed and subsequently judged–both by the Corinthians and by God. Specifically, Paul asserts (cf. 2.1-4) that his original proclamation of the gospel lacked rhetorical flare (and even without the need for such flare), a lack that the Corinthians–relying on worldly wisdom–now judge as evidence of a worthless and substantively foolish message. In their minds, Paul built a house with hay, wood, and straw. By contrast and implication, Apollos[4] continued the message of the cross but (presumably) did so with his usual rhetorical eloquence (cf. Acts 18.24)–a method that the Corinthians, again relying on worldly wisdom, now judge as evidence of a meaningful and substantively wise message. In their minds, Apollos built with gold, silver, and precious stones.

Paul’s (implied) counterargument that in terms of proclaiming the gospel of Christ crucified–i.e. the foundation for one’s faith–the manner of delivery is ultimately of little to no consequence in the eyes and/or judgment of God. Part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15 is that if Apollos proclaimed the gospel with rhetorical giftedness, then bravo to him. Well done. And if Paul originally proclaimed the gospel without needing to rely on rhetorical skill or conventions, then so what? Christ was proclaimed! (cf. Phil 1.12-18). Judgments about the method or means are inconsequential and ultimately superficial in relation to judgments about the substance or content of what is proclaimed. The problem, and the other part of the emphasis in 1 Cor 3.10-15, was that the Corinthians were casting judgments about the substance of the message on the basis of the method in which it was delivered. Thus, Paul’s message was deemed foolish only because it lacked eloquence. Paul’s point is that while it may be the case that he lacked eloquence, the foundation he laid remains (3.10) and he himself is unscathed in judgment (3.15; hence 1 Cor 4.3).

With regard to the second instance (i.e. the Heb 6.1-8 passage), I have to be somewhat brief–primarily because this post is getting away from me but also because it dips into a discussion that requires its own post. Suffice it to say that the scholar’s reading of Heb 6.1-8 as referring to a believer’s “loss of rewards at the judgment seat of Christ” due to his/her hardheartedness, which inhibits faithful “progress in the Christian life” is also based on overlooking (or dare I say, ignoring?) the surrounding context. Such a reading the text overlooks a key point about the argument: nowhere in Heb 6.1-8 is the discussion of rewards on the basis of faithful/good works mentioned. The focus of the argument in Heb 6.1-8 deals with the consequences of a believer’s rejection of the salvation they originally accepted (cf. 2.1-4; 3.7-4.13; 5.11-6.20; 10.19-39; 12.12-13.19).

However, in what appears to be an attempt to sustain a particular interpretation of Heb 6.1-8–an interpretation that sidesteps the obvious reading of the text so as to maintain a pre-existing theological position–1 Cor 3.10-15 is brought in as supporting the idea of a loss of rewards but the eternal security of the believer despite the loss. The problem with this should be obvious: that type of appeal only works if 1) the idea of eternal security of believers is accepted unequivocally, and 2) the argument of 1 Cor 3.10-15 does in fact refer to rewards as distinct from one’s salvation status. You already know my thoughts about the second point. I’ll withhold my thoughts on the first point for now.

My aim for this post was not to debate the idea of eschatological rewards for believers or even the question of one’s eternal secured vs. conditioned status before God, specifically in the Hebrews passage. Rather, my point was to say that I do not see 1 Cor 3.10-15 as directly (if at all) speaking to either rewards or status in the way the above pastor and scholar interpret it.[5] Specifically, to ignore the surrounding context (i.e. 1 Cor 1-4) and thus read Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as primarily about–or to assume that his argument advocates–one or both of these points is to misread or even misconstrue Paul and to impose on his argument a pre-existing set of theological/doctrinal presuppositions that are essentially foreign–or at least unrelated–to the substance of the text.

___________________________________
[1] This individual will remain unnamed because of my respect for him.
[2] For the record, I do not think the NT is clear or definitive enough about the notion of “rewards” in heaven based on a believer’s faithful works while on earth to form a theological or doctrinal position. Specifically, I see the bulk of the passages brought to bear on this idea as being interpreted in such a way that they validate an existing conclusion rather than forming the basis for a conclusion.
[3] Cf. my PhD thesis, when it gets published.
[4] In contrast to some recent commentators (e.g. R. Collins), I see Paul’s remarks in 1 Cor 3.10-15 as relating primarily to his work and that of Apollos. Thus, while I do think the implications of Paul’s argument can be extended to Christians in general, I see it as only that–i.e. an extension.
[5] At best, we could say the ideas of rewards and/or status are tangential to the wider argument.

5 comments

  1. I am sorry but it has something to do with our rewards in heaven. That we will be judged accordingly. Our works (good or bad) will be judged accordingly and we will be able to know our rewards in heaven. We do not know yet what it is that is why there is Judgment Day so to know

    1. The text (1 Cor 3.10-15) does support such a view, but only if read in isolation from the rest of Paul’s argument–and even then, it’s only by implication or (more possibly) by inference. In short, Paul’s argument is not directly about rewards in heaven based on spiritual faithfulness. If such a teaching is to be advocated, it’s going to have to find better support than this text.

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