1 Corinthians 1 – 4: Paul’s Hermeneutics

real_men_practice_good_biblical_hermeneutics_tshirt“Hermeneutics” is the discipline — more art than science — of interpreting the scriptures. And there are all sorts of theories and supposed rules for how to do this.

But I think the best teachers of how to do hermeneutics are the New Testament writers and personalities, especially Jesus and Paul. And so 1 Corinthians gives us the opportunity to consider not only what Paul taught but how he came to his conclusions.

We like to imagine that, as an inspired apostle (which he was!), he only needed to reach into his bag of God-given doctrines and pull out the right conclusions. But rarely does Paul just announce that such-and-such is the rule. Normally, just as my Algebra I teacher insisted that I do, he shows his work. He tells us how he gets to his conclusion.

And I figure that he does this to teach us how to follow in his footsteps. Inevitably, problems and questions will arise not squarely addressed by the Scriptures. In such a case, we must understand how to reach our own conclusions just as Paul and Jesus did.

So how does Paul reason in chapters 1 through 4 of 1 Corinthians?

(1 Cor 1:10–13 ESV) 10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

When confronted with the sin of division, Paul did not bash the church with doctrine. He immediately turns to the gospel. They were saved by the gospel and must live by the gospel.

“Is Christ divided?” is not mere rhetoric. It’s an appeal to one of the most elemental truths of the gospel. By the gospel we are added into Christ — all of us — and Christ is not divided. The unity of the church — the essential unity (that is, unity is of the essence because) — we have all been joined into a single person, a single body (as he’ll explain in chapter 12), and therefore just one church.

“Is Christ divided?” therefore rebukes not only Corinth but the modern church — and the Churches of Christ especially — because we all believe that we can serve the gospel by dividing Christ. Such thinking is not just bad doctrine; it’s anti-gospel.

And this also tells us that “unity” is about much more than agreeing on key doctrine. God did not give his Son to die on the cross so we’d all give the same answers on a multiple-choice doctrine test. We are supposed to be unified as a family or a single human body is unified — with common values, a common mission, and a common fellowship.

That the early church had “all things in common” (Acts 2:44; 4:32) is not just about mutual financial support. It’s really about being a single community that shares passions, works together toward a common goal, and such.

Where people ignore the common life of the Christian family (the technical term often used is ‘fellowship’, which is more than friendship but not less), they become isolated, and often find it difficult to sustain a living faith. Where people no longer share regularly in ‘the breaking of bread’ (the early Christian term for the simple meal that took them back to the Upper Room ‘in remembrance of Jesus’), they are failing to raise the flag which says ‘Jesus’ death and resurrection are the centre of everything’ (see 1 Corinthians 11:26). And whenever people do all these things but neglect prayer, they are quite simply forgetting that Christians are supposed to be heaven-and-earth people. Prayer makes no sense whatever—unless heaven and earth are designed to be joined together, and we can share in that already.

Those of us who grew up in Christian families, with ‘going to church’ as a habit of life from our earliest days, may sometimes think of all this as quite humdrum and ordinary. In some churches, of course, it does feel that way. But imagine a world without this astonishing teaching! Imagine a society where there was no ‘common life’ built around a shared belief in Jesus! Imagine a world without ‘the bread-breaking’, or a world without prayer! Life would be bleak indeed—as it often is for many people, not least those who embrace a relentlessly secularist lifestyle, shutting the door on any of these possibilities. And if you lived in such a world, and then suddenly found yourself swept up in this pattern of teaching, fellowship, bread-breaking and prayer, you would know that new dimensions had opened up before you, and new vistas of how the world might be had suddenly become visible. You would be awestruck. That, says Luke, is how it was at the beginning (verse 43).


Tom Wright, Acts for Everyone.

“Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” rebukes personality cults based on human leaders because Jesus the Christ is Jesus the King. And there is no room for us to serve anyone else.

Again, we knew this when we were baptized! We confessed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” or “Jesus is Lord.” And there is no other King and no other Lord.

It does not require an M.Div. to see the wickedness of division. Your baptismal confession ought to be enough to make the point.

(1 Cor 1:18–19 ESV) 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Paul begins with a series of Old Testament quotations regarding the superiority of God’s wisdom to human wisdom. Paul is not reaching into the Tanakh (the Jews’ word for their scriptures) as a sort of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. He’s not decorating his authority with clever phrasing from the Prophets. Rather, Paul himself sees the Prophets as having authority. He quotes them because they speak for God!

Again, Paul is going back to first principles: the nature of God tells us what to think about efforts to import Greek (or any other) philosophy into the church.

(1 Cor 2:1–5 ESV) 1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

Again, Paul goes back to first principles, in this case the Spirit and its transformative power. One of the great errors of 20th Century Church of Christ teaching is its rejection of the present work of the Spirit, making irrelevant a huge portion of the New Testament.

But Paul assumes his readers, as foolish and immature as they are, at least get the Spirit right. And because of that, he reminds the Corinthians that they didn’t come to faith by human rhetorical skill but by the hand of God, through the Spirit.

(1 Cor 3:16–17 ESV) 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Again, Paul assumes we understand that we are indwelt by the Spirit, but in this case, “we” means the congregation as a community, not the individual.

Paul assumes that his readers are familiar with “God’s temple” — a clear allusion the temple in Jerusalem — and so see the comparison is more than mere metaphor. The church isn’t like a temple; it is a temple!

How do we know that? Well, if Peter’s gospel sermon in Acts 2 was typical of gospel preaching, the receipt of the Spirit was taught to the Corinthians before they were baptized. They knew that they’d individually receive the “indwelling.”

And to those familiar with the Exodus, “indwelling” should be an obvious tip off that this is like God’s dwelling among his people as a column of smoke and fire, resting in the Tabernacle’s Holy of Holies.

In short, Paul was no dispensationalist. Rather than preaching the repeal of the Law and the Prophets, he saw them fulfilled in Jesus and the story of the Exodus recurring through Jesus (as he’ll explain in more detail later). And just as God wanted a relationship with Israel in which he dwelt among them, God still wants to dwell among his people — except better. He now dwells within them!

This is part of the story of the gospel, preached in Old Testament terms — which I have no doubt was part of First Century preaching (Acts 7:45-48). And to Paul, the Spirit was not advanced material for the experts. It was part of a common body of knowledge all Christians should have.

And that fact allows him to explain how dividing a church is just as wrong as taking grappling hooks and pulling down Solomon’s Temple. And therefore, God’s curse will be on persons who dare commit such sacrilege.

You see, it’s not a mere metaphor, because the penalty for division is based on the penalty for violating the Temple. To get a feel for the Tanakh’s warnings about defiling the Tabernacle and the Temple —

(Lev 15:31 ESV) ”Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.”

Compare —

(Ezek 15 11-12 ESV) 11 Therefore, as I live, declares the Lord God, surely, because you have defiled my sanctuary with all your detestable things and with all your abominations, therefore I will withdraw. My eye will not spare, and I will have no pity. 12 A third part of you shall die of pestilence and be consumed with famine in your midst; a third part shall fall by the sword all around you; and a third part I will scatter to all the winds and will unsheathe the sword after them.

This is where Paul is coming from. To him, the Tanakh is the “Scriptures.” He looks for God’s will in the Old Testament, but viewed from the lens of Jesus and the cross.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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One Response to 1 Corinthians 1 – 4: Paul’s Hermeneutics

  1. Ray Downen says:

    Paul’s appeal for US to be united IN CHRIST is timely. Jay does well to remind us what the apostle told brethren many years ago. Those truths have not changed and will not change.

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