Tag Archives: doctrine

really struggling to see a difference

A friend posted this link, which describes–albeit in brief form–the eschatological views of “Jehovah’s” Witnesses. Apart from item #4, I am at a loss for how these view differ from those found within Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism.

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gee, that was subtle

On the heels of their most recent convention, here in ATL, and thus ostensibly (re)energized for mission, the “Jehovah’s” Witnesses were out in full force this past Sunday.[1] By way of example, our little neighborhood, which is held together by a single half-mile-long road, was peppered with six or seven teams of JWs. Exuberant. Excessive. Overkill. Pick your term.

When I saw one team begin to mosey up the front walk, I bolted downstairs to meet them at the door. Not because I was bored, or genuinely excited to see them as I would an old friend, or wanted to hear their version of the gospel. My haste was rooted in the fact that Ashley just fell asleep and she truly needed a nap. A sudden ringing of the doorbell would not help that cause.

So I opened the door and was immediately met with a greeting that suggested the dude went to the Joel Osteen school of public speaking, only with more volume. As politely as I could, I interrupted and told him we just got our daughter down for a nap. He graciously lowered his voice, apologized, and proceeded to hand me two brochures–one on how to improve my health, and the other on a mix of apologetic-type issues. I took the brochures, said thanks, and we parted ways.

Curious, only because I like to see how the JWs approach certain things, I glanced at the table of contents in the apologetic-like brochure. My eyes quickly fell on the article entitled, “Who is the Antichrist?“. This might be either because I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading on Dispensationalism (don’t ask why) or because the other topics appeared rather dull. Either way, I knew I had to read the Antichrist bit. So I did. I must say: the contents of the article matched the exuberant, excessive, overkill, and–to add another term–hubris of their swarming our little neighborhood. While I laughed at some of it, there was one thing that caught me off guard.

The first few paragraphs were decent and generally not out of sync with the small handful of biblical texts on the Antichrist. They did well to point out the fact that John speaks of many antichrists in the world, and that an antichrist is one who denies Jesus as God’s Messiah and as having come in the flesh. But then two summary remarks in this first part gave me a good chuckle. In reverse order:

Clearly [in these passages], John understood the antichrist to be all who deliberately spread religious deceptions about Jesus Christ and Jesus’ teachings.

Fair and true enough. And

People or organizations making up the antichrist spread lies, deny that Jesus is the Christ, or Messiah, and try to distort the relationship between God and His Son, Jesus Christ. Those who make up the antichrist claim to be Christ or his[2] representatives, but since “they went out from us,” they deviated from true Bible teaching.

The theological and cognitive dissonance in these statements is astounding. And that’s what made me laugh. The very thing that the JWs characterize the antichrist doing is the very thing they themselves do! The christology of JWs, if I can label it that way, is not only extremely low but also out of step with biblical evidence. They deny the true nature of Jesus by making him a lesser god, or at least one like God but not identical with God. Thus, they distort the true relationship shared between Jesus and God. However, both of these are the result of a faulty hermeneutic the JWs use, only they don’t see it as faulty.

As with any sales pitch, there’s a “But wait, there’s more” type claim in the second part of the article. After having explained what the antichrist does, the article proceeds to identify who the antichrist is specifically–or at least the kinds of characteristics that make identification easy. They offer two key markers, again in reverse order:

  1. Antichrists are those who, through countless and needless varied translations of the Bible and the promotion of such translations, routinely “omit God’s personal name, Jehovah, from the text. . . . The result? They identity of the true God becomes even more shrouded in mystery.” While I don’t have the time to go into the specifics, what’s funny about this claim is not just its absurdity (and its reliance on a faulty premise) but the JWs’ failure to recognize the perpetuation of a different error. In other words: the JWs, in criticizing others for omitting God’s personal name, fail to see the fundamental error in their own insistence of including a “name” for God that’s not even a word.
  2. But the leading characteristic of the antichrist? Simple: “the churches [propagating] the doctrine of the Trinity, claiming that the Father and the Son are part of the same entity. The antichrist thus shrouds in mystery the identity of Jehovah God and Jesus Christ.” Once again, the theological and cognitive dissonance is amazing. And sad. But there’s something more, something rather disturbing. The effect of this claim is that every (orthodox) Christian church who affirms the age-old, firmly established doctrine of the Trinity, rooted in a clear and faithful reading of John 1.1-4, are the antichrist. In other words: non-JWs. The further implication is that such is the case because orthodox Christians are like those who, according to John (as cited by the article), “went out from us”–i.e. away from true biblical teaching. The “us” in this case would be the JWs. But historically, theologically, and ecclesiastically speaking, it is the JWs who broke from orthodoxy and formulated their own (distorted) beliefs based on their own (faulty) hermeneutical principles and practices.

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[1] I’m anticipating a similar effect in a month so, since they have yet another convention scheduled for mid-July.
[2] I didn’t mistype. The article deliberately refuses to capitalize the pronouns for Jesus vis-à-vis those used for God, and this is because of their particular (and peculiar) view of Jesus’ identity. Though, strangely and oddly enough, they have no qualms about capitalizing the term “Son” when speaking of Jesus.

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birds of a feather

At present I am reading through a commentary on 1-2 Thessalonians (by Mark Howell), sent to me by B&H Publishing for review.¹ In many respects, it’s clearly written, contains minimal footnotes so as not to distract the reader, and it’s not over-burdened with protracted exegetical discussions, thus making it a useful commentary for the majority of pastors and interested church members. However, it must be said, the treatments on the eschatological portions of the two letters quickly reveal that this commentary’s usefulness and appeal will be rather limited. By that I mean: if you’re a Dispensationalist (particularly of the non-Progressive type), then you’ll enjoy this commentary–especially the bits on 1Thess 4.13–5.11 and 2Thess 2.1-12. If, however, you’re outside the Dispy camp (and outside of the US, for that matter), then you’ll either be confused, frustrated, or completely unconvinced. As I’ve read through Howell’s treatment, these outcomes have been my experience. Here’s one example as to why.

In his discussion on 1Thess 4.13-18, Howell adheres to the usual Dispy line concerning the so-called rapture of the church (see 116-24). Specifically, he follows the rapture view as espoused by Classical and Revised/Modified Dispensationalism, which is: Christ returns–but never touches down on the earth (so it’s not the real second coming; that happens later)–raptures the church (i.e. true believers), they all head off to heaven for seven years while all hell breaks loose upon the world and the unlucky sods left behind. However, in his discussion on 2Thess 1.6-12 and 2.1-12, Howell appears to depart from the usual Dispy line when he speaks about those who will both experience/witness the revelation of the “man of lawlessness” and be present at the final (real) coming of Christ (see 198-206 and 216-32). Howell says it will be the church, the believers, the faithful, etc. In some cases, Howell makes certain we see that Paul is saying these things directly and specifically to the Thessalonian believers–i.e. the church. You know, the audience who was earlier promised a rapture at Christ’s (not-really-the-)second coming.

This is odd partly because most Dispys see the description of 2Thess 2.1-12 as that which occurs at the end of the tribulation period (i.e. seven years post-rapture) and thus involving only those not raptured (i.e. not the church), but also because Howell has already said the church will be raptured prior to the tribulation–à la 1Thess 4.13-18. But he’s also suggesting the church will be present on earth post-tribulation. How are we to account for this? Moreover, it should be noted, Howell does revert back to the usual Dispy line by seeing the “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7 as the Holy Spirit (see 228-29), which is occasionally taken as justification for situating the rapture of 1Thess 4.13-18 in 2Thess 2. I’m thinking of David Dean’s argument in particular, who makes a similar claim.² The (apparent) problem remains, however: how can there be believers, faithful followers of Jesus, or a “church” post-rapture when the Holy Spirit is out of the way³–since, theologically speaking, the Spirit is means by which one is sanctified before God–and the (true) church is already in heaven waiting for the seven years of hell-on-earth to end?

Howell appears to account for this by dropping in the random claim: “Since the Holy Spirit is God, His removal from the scene does not indicate His complete absence. Rather, it points to a deliberate lessening of His suppression of evil” (229). From this, I get the impression that Howell is (implicitly) following a line of reasoning similar to what Gleason Archer uses for his “mid-tribulation rapture” reading (as found in Gundry, ed., Three Views on the Rapture [1996], 115-45). Specifically, Archer declares:

It is argued by most advocates of the pre-seventieth-week Rapture theory that the reference in 2 Thessalonians 2:6-7 to the restraining power of the Holy Spirit as being removed from the world empire of the Beast points to a total removal of the church as well. That is to say, the Holy Spirit resides within the church as the spiritual temple of the Lord (1 Peter 2:5), a status that pertains to each individual believer as well (1 Cor 6:19). If therefore the Holy Spirit is removed from the earthly scene, it necessarily follows that the church will be removed likewise. But a more careful examination of the text and of related passages make it clear that this was not the meaning intended by the biblical author. In the first place, 2 Thessalonians 2:7-8 does not say that the Holy Spirit will be removed from the world scene during the seventieth week. What it does say is that His restraining influence will be removed.

–Archer, 126-27

Archer makes sure that this distinction (i.e. removal of restraint and not presence) explains how those “left behind” are able to accept the gospel during the tribulation period (see 127). And it might be this distinction that allows Howell to speak of faithful believers on earth post-rapture but pre-Millennial reign (i.e. the real second coming of Christ). While there are a multitude of issues with Archer’s argument and the possibility of Howell following/relying on it, let me point out the most problematic.

  1. The arguments of Howell and Archer are predicated on the assumption (one that is never proven) that “restrain” is the appropriate translation of the Greek; the failure to acknowledge–let alone interact with–the more likely translation, “prevail” is unfortunate and unfair. (See here for a brief treatment on this issue).
  2. Contrary to both Howell and Archer, it is never (nor can it be) proven that the Holy Spirit is the (so-called) “restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6-7; the claim that it is is nothing but conjecture.
  3. On a careful examination of the text, one thing is abundantly clear: Paul, in 2Thess 2.6-7, never names the Holy Spirit and never says anything about a “restraining influence” (contra Archer)–that is purely an interpretative translational gloss that borders on eisegesis. All Paul says is: καὶ νῦν τὸ κατέχον οἴδατε εἰς τὸ ἀποκαλυφθῆναι αὐτὸν ἐν τῷ ἑαυτοῦ καιρῷ. τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας· μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται (emphasis added). Even if we accept “restrainer” as the subject, the focus of the final clause is on the removal of him as an entity (or person) and not some abstraction associated with them.
  4. But most glaring, and this applies to both Archer and Howell: from a careful examination of the claims made, it becomes quite clear that the arguments presented are not given in service (let alone obedience) to the text; they are expressions of advocacy for a particular (and rather idiosyncratic) theological position. In other words: they are letting (or allowing) their theology to influence–if not determine–their exegesis. And that’s never a good thing.

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¹ I’ll post the review on this blog, once I finish–hopefully in the next few weeks.
² See “Does 2 Thessalonians 2.1-3 Exclude the Pretribulation Rapture?,” Bibliotheca Sacra 168.670 (2011): 196-216.
³ This is all the more problematic when we take into consideration the notion of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, where the possibility of receiving forgiveness (e.g. salvation) has a definitive end-point–either the person’s life or the end of the age.

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a confused Walvoord?

As expected, in his little commentary on 1-2Thessalonians, John Walvoord expends considerable time (comparatively speaking) unfolding a rather minor detail in 1Thess 4–a detail that even Paul himself tucks away in the paraenesis. As expected, though not explicitly stated, the reasons for committing such time are a loyalty to and a defense of the Dispensational system of interpretation. As expected, in unfolding the details of the passage a number of questionable hermeneutical moves are made (e.g. reading the passage through the lens of [at least] two unsupported/unproven presuppositions), yet such moves are necessary in order to sustain the system. And as expected, the end result of Walvoord’s efforts is something that would cause people like Darby, Scofield, and Chafer to stand up a cheer.

But what was totally unexpected (at least for me) was a comment made in a paragraph that was doing the expected:

The Thessalonian passage [i.e. 4.13-18] continues with another tremendous revelation. “The dead in Christ shall first first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them [i.e. the raised dead] in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” This Scripture does not reveal where we are to go with the Lord, but, as has been already indicated, John 14 tells us plainly that when Christ comes for us He will take us to the Father’s house in heaven. When we meet the Lord in the air, we shall assemble in the atmospheric heaven and from there go to the third heaven, which is the immediate presence of the Father. This is indicated in the last part of the preceding chapter where Paul speaks of our being in the presence of God Father, unblamable in holiness.”

–J. Walvoord, The Thessalonian Epistles (1967), 44-45–emphasis added

For a text that doesn’t specifically reveal anything about the destination of where resurrected and “raptured” saints go, Walvoord seems fairly confident (if not definitive) about the text’s intended reference. But that aside (and the logical and theological flaws within his argument), Walvoord’s assertion that the saints go with Christ “to the third heaven” and that this place “is the immediate presence of the Father” was a bit out of the blue and admittedly strange.

Is Walvoord thinking in terms of some ancient views, where the “third heaven” is the highest level in a layered created universe and thus the place of the God and the angelic hosts–separated and undefiled? If so, all I can say is: Seriously? You’re going to advocate a cosmology that, when applied to the biblical text today, winds up sounding like a revived Gnosticism? Or is Walvoord thinking in terms of Second-Temple (and later) Jewish notions of heaven as tiered? If so, it worth mentioning that three is only one of several supposed layers. Moreover, while three is fairly common (cf. T.Levi 2.7-10), so is seven (cf. Apoc.Abr. 19.1-9; T.Levi 3.1-4). And there are certainly other suggested options beyond three and seven. In fact, they number as many as 365. So, Walvoord, which cosmology are you following and why? Are you using “three” because it’s the most convenient for your argument, or because Paul uses it?

Thus: is Walvoord thinking of the only time Paul uses the phrase, “the third heaven” (2Cor 12.2), which he then relabels as “Paradise” (2Cor 12.4),¹ which can then be linked with Jesus’ promise to where the thief on the cross will be after death (cf. Lk 23.39-43)–since both texts use the same term? Thus, “Paradise” is “the third heaven”, or at least a part of it, which is attested in other Jewish sources (cf. Adam and Eve, 40.1; 2En 8.1-6). This would seem to make the best sense, at least for Walvoord’s argument, for the promise given by Jesus to the thief reflects the promised hope articulated in Walvoord’s description–i.e. the third heaven as “the immediate presence of the Father.”² If this is the view Walvoord has in mind, we have a few problems:

  1. Descriptions about “the third heaven” are somewhat varied with respect to its nature. Sometimes it is the place of God’s throne room; sometimes it is the Garden of Eden redux, where the righteous saints reside; sometimes it is a type of angelic barracks, where warriors angels wait to do battle at the final judgment; sometimes it is the abode of an evil dragon, who brings havoc upon the earth and feasts on wicked people; and sometimes it is the location of Hell.
  2. While “Paradise” is sometimes synonymous with “the third heaven”–as the very presence of God–sometimes it’s not. In fact, as Margaret Thrall points out, 2Enoch indicates a distinction between “Paradise” and God’s primary abode–i.e. 2En 8.3 shows God walking in “Paradise” (=the Garden redux), but 2En 20-22 show God’s primary abode as in the seventh heaven (cf. Thrall, 2 Corinthians, 2.789). Thus, on this reading, “Paradise”/”the third heaven” is not the immediate presence of the Father; it is only the place he frequents from time to time.
  3. Moreover, “Paradise” is not only portrayed as a heavenly locale (T.Abr. 20.14; 3Bar 4.6) but also described as on earth in the eschaton. This would seem to create problems for Walvoord’s view and his specific claim that once “raptured” off this earth and whisked away to heaven (thank you very much, neo-Gnosticism), that heavenly abode in Paradise/third heaven is where we/believers “shall…ever be with the Lord.” Unless, of course, he means to say: eternal existence in the presence of the Father is unhindered, even when Paradise is brought to earth. If that was his point, he should have made it more clear.
  4. The idea of the (now) heavenly Paradise being populated by the righteous dead (cf. 3Bar 10.5; 2Esd 3.5-11; 2En 9.1; T.Levi 18.10-11) would also seem to create problems for Walvoord–especially his Dispenationalism. According to these (extra-biblical) sources, the righteous dead are essentially Jewish; but according to Dispensationalism, the (secret) rapture and (partial) resurrection only includes saints of the church–i.e. Christians (=non-Jewish folk). Thus, in the Dispensational system, Paradise is populated by Christians while the earth (for seven years) is populated by pagans and Jews–both of whom are about to receive an intense divine butt-kicking.
  5. On a slightly different note, but equally problematic, there is the decision to use extra-biblical Jewish sources to substantiate an idea that is otherwise ambiguous in what Walvoord would certainly see as the only and truly inspired revelation of God–i.e. the (Protestant) canonical Bible. I say “ambiguous” because “Paradise” is only mentioned three times in the entire NT (i.e. Lk 23.43; 2Cor 12.4; Rev 2.7), and not one of these references–let alone all three of them together–is able to offer the picture Walvoord desires.

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¹ Or should we follow Ambrosiaster, who saw the two references in 2Cor 12 as two separate “raptures” and thus two different places?
² I’ll overlook (=ignore) the rather odd Trinitarian view that results from joining these two promises. Prima facie, it looks like Modalism.

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relying on a bad/faulty premise

If you want to have a go at Dispensationalism, then you need to be prepared to account for a number of eschatological topics and their (assumed necessary) relationship with each other. (You also need to be ready to deal with questions of interpretative approach, but that’s a different ballgame). For example, if you start an eschatological discussion with a Dispy, you are bound to be asked about (at the very least): Daniel’s 70 weeks, the focus of Matthew 24-25, the (so-called) “rapture”, the (so-called) “millennium”, the (so-called) “great tribulation” and when it occurs, the “great white throne of judgment”, the (supposed) battle of Armageddon… you get the idea.

In some ways, it can be overwhelming and even exhausting to get through this type of discussion simply because of the tangled web of ideas and theology that Dispensationalism has weaved. Thus, instead of going at the thing whole-hog and dismantling Dispensationalism in toto (quite frankly: you’d have an easier time convincing a Jehovah’s Witness that “Jehovah” is not even a word), it’s better to examine the individual parts and discern their respective validity. The one I want to focus on in this post is the so-called, “Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6. Here is a more or less standard (Dispensational) approach to this issue:

Our identification of the Restrainer must ultimately be determined by the question, What person is able to hold back the efforts of Satan?  To effectively counteract and restrain the personal activities of Satan demands a person, and one that is more than human.  Only a supernatural person can truly frustrate the supernatural workings of Satan.  This would at once rule out human agencies as well as all evil supernatural agents.

–D. Edmond Hiebert, The Thessalonian Epistles: A Commentary (1971), 313

The stuff that follows Hiebert’s question is understandable and, in the main, a reasonable conclusion. And a number of scholars (mostly Dispensational) contend that only the work/power/person of the Holy Spirit fits the needed criteria to restrain Satan.[1] However, there are serious theological problems with seeing the (so-called) “restrainer” as the Holy Spirit, but I will have to side-step that conversation for now. I will simply echo John Chrysostom who said: “if [Paul] meant to say the Spirit, he would not have spoken obscurely, but plainly” (NPNF 1.13: 388).[2]

My issue is that there is a more fundamental problem with Hiebert’s argument. Despite the understandableness and even the reasonableness of Hiebert’s observations, all of it ultimately relies on a bad or faulty premise–namely: 2Thess 2.6 is in fact talking about “the Restrainer”, and this (supernatural) person can be identified. To put it more bluntly: the legitimacy of his question and the proposed conclusion are dependent upon the validity of the presupposition that drives his question and conclusion. Without the presupposition, his argument falls flat at best or becomes meaningless at worst.

I am working on a longer treatment of this discussion, so if you want the details: please be patient. Until then, I will summarize things by saying: 1) the identity of “the Restrainer” in 2Thess 2.6 is not as clear-cut or obvious as Hiebert (and his fellow Dispys) believe, and 2) the rendering “the Restrainer” is not the only option for how one can translate the Greek verb, κατεχω (especially in the light of grammar and syntax). With regard to the first point, a number of suggestions have been made throughout the history of interpretation; the Holy Spirit is only one of those. In other words, we cannot (as Hiebert and his Dispy friends have done) conclusively assert unambiguously or unequivocally that Paul is talking about the Holy Spirit in 2Thess 2.6.

With regard to the second point,[3] in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, κατεχω does mean “restrain” (or “hold back”), but only when it is accompanied by an object. At this point, Hiebert and his Dispy buddies seem to be vindicated because nearly every English translation of the passage mentions a “him” as the recipient (i.e. the object) of the Restrainer’s efforts. However, this vindication is valid only if we rely on English translations. Things change when we look to the original Greek text. In the Greek of 2Thess 2.6, there is no object associated with κατεχω. And in terms of Greek grammar and syntax, when this happens κατεχω means “prevail” (or “rule”). And just in case Hiebert et al think I’m being overly pedantic or liberally inventive, this intransitive use of κατεχω is not without support in Greek literature.[4]

Now, those holding to a “Restrainer” interpretation might come back at me and say: “Ah, well, you see, you’re forgetting one of the cardinal rules of interpretation, which is to allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. In every other instance of κατεχω in the NT, it means ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back.’ Thus, when we use ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in 2Thess 2.6, we’re simply following Scriptural precedent.” To which I would respond: “Fine, but you not only become guilty of committing the ‘illegitimate totality transfer’ fallacy[5]; you also fail to recognize that the other instances where κατεχω appears in the NT, it has an object associated with it. Thus, the translation ‘restrain’ or ‘hold back’ in those cases is appropriate. But 2Thess 2.6 is completely unlike those other instances for one simple reason: it has no object.”

I would think Paul, being a fairly educated man, would be aware of the transitive and intransitive uses in Greek and the differences in meaning they convey. Moreover, the intransitive use of κατεχω (and the switch from neuter in 2.6 to masculine in 2.7) does better justice to Paul’s argument in 2Thess 2.3-10. In other words: the “mystery of lawlessness” (neuter) is what now prevails, as  illustrated in 2.3-4, but which is currently unseen for what it truly is; and the “man of lawlessness” (masculine) is the one in charge of what prevails, and the one who will be revealed/exposed and defeated at the end, as noted in 2.8-10. This reading also prevents really wild and wicked views about the Holy Spirit and his role in salvation–views that I cannot, in good conscience (let alone academic integrity) support or even entertain.

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[1] See e.g. L.S. Chafer, “Dispensationalism,” (1936): 428; E.S. English, Re-Thinking the Rapture (1970), 70-71; R. Gundry, The Church and the Tribulation (1973), 125-28; J. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit (1977), 115; R.L. Thomas, “1, 2 Thessalonians,” (1978), 325; M. Rosenthal, Pre-Wrath Rapture of the Church (1990), 257-61; C.E. Powell, “The Identity of the ‘Restrainer’,” (1997): 327. Cf. also C. Ryrie, First and Second Thessalonians (2001), 114-16.
[2] R.L. Thomas tries to wiggle out of this by claiming (without any support whatsoever): “It appears that to katechon (“what is holding back”) was well known at Thessalonica as a title for the Holy Spirit on whom the readers had come to depend in their personal attempts to combat lawlessness” (“1, 2 Thessalonians” [1978], 325).
[3] Here I am relying on the arguments of C. Wannamaker, The Epistles to the Thessalonians (1990), 250-54 and J. Weatherly, 1 & 2 Thessalonians (1996), 258-62.
[4] See e.g. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 1.10, 3.89; Andocides, Speeches, 1.130; Aristotle, Politics, 1307b; idem, Meteorology, 345a; Lysias, Speeches, 3.42; Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 434; cf. Homeric Hymns, 2.126; Herodotus, Histories, 7.188; Polybius, Histories, 1.25.7; Plutarch, Lives: Theaseus, 21; Sophocles, Philoctetes, 221; Euripides, Heracleidae, 83; idem, Helen, 1206; idem, Cyclops: Odysseus, 223; Antiphon, Speeches, 5.21.
[5] See J. Barr, The Semantics of Biblical Language (1961).

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an earnest question

for all of my Reformed friends–no matter the type or level of your Reformedness:

is 1 Cor 2.6-16 (esp. 14-15/16) a key or central text for defending the inspiration and/or “illumination” of Scripture?  if yes, how and why?

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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.

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[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.

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