1 Cor 14.33

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.

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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).

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.

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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.