Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, May 26th, 2024
Trinity Sunday
We are taking food to Ukrainians still living near the front lines. You can help by getting your church involved.
Click to donate today!

Bible Dictionaries
Corinthians, First and Second, Theology of

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology

Search for…
Prev Entry
Convert, Conversion
Next Entry
Resource Toolbox

Many modern interpreters believe that eschatology, the doctrine of the endtimes, is the center of the apostle Paul's thought, beginning with his presupposition of the two-age structure. According to early Judaism, time is divided into two consecutive periods: this age and the age to come. The former is characterized by sin and suffering, due to Adam's fall. The latter will be implemented when the Messiah comes and, with him, righteousness and peace. In effect, the age to come is synonymous with the kingdom of God. But according to early Christianity, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ marked a paradigmatic shift resulting in the overlapping of the two ages. The age to come of the kingdom of God was inaugurated within this present age. In other words, the two ages are now coterminous, and the Christian lives in the intersection of the two. This idea is commonly referred to as the "already/not yet" eschatological tension. That is, the age to come has already dawned because of the first coming of Christ but it is not yet complete; completion awaits the second coming of Christ.

The rather common occurrence of aeon (age ) terminology in Paul's writings indicates that this teaching provided the foundation for his theology. It can be demonstrated that such an idea — the overlapping of the two ages is the key to understanding 1,2Corinthians as well. In short, eschatology is the overarching theme through which these letters should be interpreted.

In tandem with the aforementioned eschatological frame of reference is another matter that contributes to the theology of 1,2Corinthians: the nature of Paul's opposition at Corinth. The Corinthian church, while loved by Paul, nevertheless provided a constant source of frustration to his ministry. The Corinthians' infatuation with themselves undoubtedly originated from some sort of overrealized eschatology. The Corinthians apparently believed that the kingdom of God had fully come and that they, as saints, were already reigning and judging in it (4:5,8). Viewing their possession of the Spirit and his attendant charismatic gifts to them as proof of the arrival of the eschaton (chaps. 12-14), nothing remained for them to do but to enjoy the blessings of freedom (cf. their eating of meat offered to idols [chaps. 8,10]) and liberation from the body (manifested in such diverse aberrant behavior as libertinism [chaps. 5-6] and asceticism [chap. 7]). They probably believed that baptism magically associated them with Christ and the Spirit, and that the Lord's Supper protected them from all physical harm (chaps. 10-11). In essence, the Corinthians thought they had attained the status of the angels (hence their claim to speak in angelic language [chap. 13] their sexual abstinence in marriage [chap. 7 cf. Luke 20:34 ]; the egalitarian attitudes toward males and females [cf. chaps. 11,14 and the equal role of women in the worship services] etc. ).

By the time Paul wrote 2Corinthians, the plot had thickened in his relationship with the Corinthian congregation. Whereas in 1Corinthians Paul was dealing with basically an in-house problem, he now had to respond to his audience's demands to supply proof of his apostolic call (no doubt fueled by outside intruders who denied Paul's ministerial credentials). The primary criticism that Paul felt constrained to ward off in that letter was his opponents' denial of his apostleship because he lacked outward power and glory (see 2 Corinthians 3:1-7:16; 10:13 ). They judged that his afflictions disqualified him from being a true apostle. In essence, Paul's opponents mistakenly believed that the age to come, with its visible glory and power, had fully arrived, leaving no place in their theology for the harsh reality of this present age. Second Corinthians seeks to correct that imbalance by holding the concept of the two ages together in dynamic tension.

Therefore, it can be argued that the overlapping of the two ages colors the major theological categories that occur in the Corinthian correspondences: theology, Christology, soteriology, pneumatology, and ecclesiology. The ensuing remarks address these five areas relative to the Pauline eschatological tension.

Theology (Proper) . With regard to theology proper (the study of God) in 1,2Corinthians, one of the major themes developed therein is the kingdom of God. The term "kingdom" (basileia [4:20; 6:9-10 [twice]; 15:24,50). The concept was dear to Jewish apocalyptic writers, believing as they did that this age could be remedied only by the kingdom of God or the age to come (see Isaiah 40-66; Daniel 2:44; 1 Enoch 6-36,83-90; Sib Oracles 3:652-56; 2Baruch 39-40; 4Ezra 7; etc.). For Paul, the kingdom of God has already been inaugurated (1 Corinthians 4:20; 15:24 ) by virtue of the cross and resurrection of Jesus (1:18-2:5; 15:1-22), but it is not yet complete (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 15:50 ). The idea of the kingdom of God in 1,2Corinthians transcends the terminology. Paul speaks of two basic results of the inbreaking of God's kingdom into this age: (1) the formation of God's people; (2) the defeat of the enemies of God. Both of these consequences are stamped by the already/not yet eschatology tension.

The Formation of God's People . One of the clear-cut signs that the kingdom of God has come to earth is the formation of the church, the new people of God (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1 ). This group is identified by Paul, among other things, as the "saints" (1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Corinthians 1:1 ). Both names, "church" and "saints, " recall the nomenclature of the Old Testament people of God, the Jews, and signify that New Testament believers represented the reconstruction of spiritual Israel (cf. Romans 2:28-29; Galatians 6:16; 1 Peter 2:9-10; etc. ). Christians are indeed a kingdom of priests unto God. Furthermore, believers have been called into fellowship with God through his Son, Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:9; 15:23-28; cf. Colossians 1:12-13; etc. ), undoubtedly a reference reflecting Paul's belief that Jesus' resurrection began the long-awaited messianic kingdom. In fact, Christians have already begun to reign in Christ's spiritual kingdom, and therefore should act accordingly (1 Corinthians 6:2-3 ). Moreover, the formation of God's new covenant people in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:1-18 ) is nothing less than a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17 ).

However, the new people of God are not yet complete; their perfection awaits the return of Christ. Their present struggle with sin attests to that stark reality (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ) as does the futurity of their resurrection bodies (1 Corinthians 15:50 ).

The Defeat of God's Enemies . The second basic result of the inbreaking of God's kingdom into this age by the Christ-event is the defeat of the divine enemies. Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writers believed that the arrival of God's rule on earth would be marked by the defeat of the anti-God forces (see Ezekiel 38-39; Daniel 7; 2 Thessalonians 2; Revelation 20; etc.). According to the Corinthian letters, that demise was initiated with the first advent of Christ. With his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave, the wisdom of this age, with its propensity to disobey God, has begun to pass away (1 Corinthians 1:29; 7:29-30 ). The same is the case for the rulers of this age (1 Corinthians 2:6 ), however one may define those misinformed culprits (as demons, rulers, or, more likely, both; the former energizing the latter). As a result, Christ, through his servants like Paul, is leading the enemies of God as captives, parading their collapse (2 Corinthians 2:14-18; cf. Colossians 2:15 ) and destroying their spiritual stronghold by the word of his power (2 Corinthians 10:3-6 ).

But it would be a tragic mistake to assume that the enemies of God are a banished foe. According to Paul, they are still alive and operative in the affairs of humans, blinding the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:3-4 ) and, if possible, even Christians (1 Corinthians 10:20-21; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 11:13-14 ). And still the greatest of God's enemiesdeathremains at large (1 Corinthians 15:25-27,53-56 ). Nevertheless, the evil triumvirate (sin, the devil, death) is a conquered foe, whose fate is secure. The cross and resurrection of Christ spelled their defeat; the parousia (the second coming of Christ) will seal their doom. The former was like D-Day, the latter will be V-Day.

Christology . Perhaps the dominant christological perspective operative in 1,2Corinthians is that Jesus the Messiah, by his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave, has effected the shift of the two ages. The first coming of Christ inaugurated the age to come. This is the "already" side of the Pauline eschatological tension. However, the age to come is "not yet" culminated; it exists within the context of this present age, which will be consummated only at the parousia. We delineate that twofold motif by taking note of the following pertinent passages.

According to 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 , the cross was the turning point of the ages. Jesus' death, and subsequent resurrection, was the means by which God began the process of dismantling this present age (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6-8 ). Although the crucifixion of Jesus is nonsense and the epitome of weakness to the non-Christian, it is the wisdom and power of God to those who are being saved.

First Corinthians 10:11 continues the thought that Christ's death and resurrection inaugurated the age to come when it describes Christians as the ones "on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come." The catalyst for this inbreaking of the age to come was the sacrificial death of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16; 5:7; 11:23-25; 2 Corinthians 8:9 ). Paul expands on this theme in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 which, in the context of the chapter, attests to the truth that Christ's death and resurrection have brought about several endtime blessings for Christians: (1) The general resurrection of the endtime has been projected back into the present period in the resurrection of Christ, the firstfruits of the dead (15:12-22). (2) The future messianic kingdom in which Jews expected to reign over their enemies on earth is now being actualized through Christ's heavenly session and shared by believers (vv. 23-28). (3) The hope for eschatological glory now resides in the Christian's heart which is proleptic of heavenly existence (vv. 41-57). (4) The promise of the bestowal of the Spirit on all God's people in the age to come ( Ezekiel 36:25-28; Joel 2:28-32; etc. ) is currently being dispensed through Christ, the "life-giving Spirit, " who is the "last" (eschaton [ 1 Corinthians 15:11-22,42-49 ), who now must spread that message to others.

However, it will only be at the second coming of Christ that the age to come will be finalized. At that time the present, invisible glorious reign of Christ in heaven will be made visible on earth (1 Corinthians 11:26; 16:22 ); such an event will cause the invisible glory within Christians to shine forth, transfiguring their earthly bodies (1 Corinthians 15:50-57; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10 ). Only at the parousia will that which is "perfect" arrive (1 Corinthians 13:10 ). Thus, even Christ himself, according to the Corinthian letters, lives in the interfacing of the two ages, between his first and second advents.

Soteriology . We encounter in 1,2Corinthians a certain amount of ambiguity concerning Paul's concept of salvation, which can be explained by the overlapping of the two ages. According to the apostle, the person who is in Christ is saved (the age to come is already present) but that salvation is not complete (the age to come is not yet consummated). Three terms, in particular, call for comment in this regard: salvation (soterios [ σωτήριον , σωτήριος ]), sanctification (hagios [ ἅγιος ]), and glory (doxa [ δόξα ]). These three words are salvific in import and impacted by the eschatological tension.

The first term, "salvation, " is scattered throughout the Corinthian epistles. In a number of occurrences its setting is patently eschatological in import. In 1Corinthians 1:18-31Paul delineates the mixed reaction Christians receive. Because they have embraced the cross of Christ they have become members of the age to come and accordingly are experiencing the blessing of salvation (cf. 7:16; 9:22; 10:33; cf. Romans 1:16 ). Since their faith is in Christ, they are divinely approved and participate in the wisdom and power of God. But, at the same time, Christians are still inhabitants of this age, and therefore their allegiance to the cross evokes the displeasure of non-Christians; to the latter the gospel is but foolishness and weakness.

The term "save" also occurs in 1 Corinthians 9:22 with reference to those who embrace Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:15 ). They are the ones upon whom the "fulfillment of the ages has come" (10:11) and yet their salvation is not finalized (1 Corinthians 9:24-10:13 ). The downward pull of this age threatens to dilute their loyalty to God and thus tempt them to repeat ancient Israel's mistakes (10:1-10). Paul, too, feels threatened by the temptations of this world (9:24-27), which are the common lot of all believers (10:12-13). Nevertheless God is faithful to deliver all who rely on him (10:13).

The already/not yet tension is at work in two other key texts on salvation in the Corinthian letters. In 1Corinthians 15:1-2Paul reminds his audience that their salvation is based on the gospel, "the gospel which you received By this gospel you are saved." However, that salvation is dependent on the Corinthians holding fast to the gospel. Otherwise their belief will be in vain. A similar statement is found in 2 Corinthians 6:2 , where Paul announces that the day of salvation has arrived. Nevertheless the Christians at Corinth can forfeit that gift by failing to receive Paul as the apostle of grace (2 Corinthians 6:1-7:2 ). On the positive side, their repentance toward God and acceptance of his servant Paul will sustain their salvation (cf. 7:10).

The second term in 1,2Corinthians possessing salvific content is "sanctification, " a word that means to set apart for holiness. On the one hand, the Corinthians (and all believers for that matter) are sanctified or set apart for God in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:2,30; 6:11; 3:16-17 ]). However, notwithstanding their exalted position as saints (1:2), the fact that the Corinthians still lived in this present age (1 Corinthians 3:18 ) embroiled them in a deep-seated struggle with sin. The result was a long list of unsanctimonious behavior on their part, including division (1 Corinthians 1:10-17 ); carnality (1 Corinthians 3:1-15 ); the approval of immorality (1 Corinthians 5:1-13 ), even to the point of engaging in it themselves (1 Corinthians 6:16-18; 7:2 ); litigation (1 Corinthians 6:1-8 ); and the improper use of Christian liberty (1 Corinthians 8:1-13 ). If the Corinthians persisted in these forbidden activities, they could jeopardize their salvation (1 Corinthians 6:9-10; cf. 2 Corinthians 13:5 ). The cure for their struggle was to glorify God in their bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ), though sin will continue to wage spiritual holy war with them (and all Christians) until the age to come is fully realized.

The third related soteriological term in 1,2Corinthians is "glory." For the apostle Paul, the death and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ inaugurated the glory of the age to come (1 Corinthians 15:42-49 ). This is clear from passages like 2 Corinthians 3:1-4:6,4:16 (cf. Romans 8:17-30; Colossians 3:4; etc. ). However, this glory resides in the Christian's heart (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6 ); it has not yet transformed the body. That event awaits the parousia (see 1 Corinthians 15:50-56; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 ). In the meantime, because Christians continue to live in this evil age, they will share in the sufferings of this life (2 Corinthians 1:1-22 ). Paul, too, suffers for righteousness' sake and in the service of his Lord in this present world (1 Corinthians 4:9-13; 15:30-32; 2 Corinthians 4:7-15; 6:3-10; 11:23-33; 12:7-10 ). Rather than negating Paul's credentials as an apostle, afflictions validate his call to the ministry. On the contrary, those who emphasize exterior glory and look upon suffering with chagrin, thinking that Christians are "divine men" displaying miraculous signs and wonders, are actually the false apostles (see 2 Corinthians 5:12; 11:13-15 ). But according to the apostle Paul, because believers live at the juncture of the two ages, they possess the glory in their hearts while simultaneously suffering in their bodies.

Pneumatology . Paul's teaching on the Spirit is thoroughly eschatological in perspective. According to Paul and the early church, the Spirit is the sign par excellence that the age to come has arrived. The Corinthian correspondence associates three ideas with the Spirit: wisdom, the temple of God, and spiritual gifts.

Wisdom . First Corinthians 2:1-16 intimately associates wisdom and the Spirit. The wisdom of God was understood by Jewish apocalyptic writers to be the manifestation of the divine plan to holy men of God and, as such, was related to the idea of "mystery." That disclosure of truth was itself a proleptic experience of the age to come (Daniel 9:20-12:13; 1 Enoch 63:2,32; 48:1,49; 4; Ezra 14:25,38-40; 2 Baruch 54:13; Revelation 4-22 ). Similarly for Paul, Christians, because they possess the Spirit, share in God's wisdom and understand the divine mystery of the ages (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; with Romans 11:25-36; Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:14-21; Colossians 2:9-29 ). However, the Corinthians, despite having the wisdom of the Spirit, nevertheless continue to live in this age. Consequently, they are enamored with its "wisdom, " contrary to the will of God though it is (1 Corinthians 1:20; 2:6; 3:18 ).

The Temple of God . Although God's dwelling with and among the people of Israel is a pervasive theme in the Old Testament, Israel is never identified with God's temple. Such an identification was relegated to the anticipated age to come (Isaiah 28:16; Ezekiel 40-48; Jub 1:18; 4Qflor; 1Enoch 91:13; etc.). Therefore, for Paul to announce that the Christian and the church now constitute the temple of God's Spirit was nothing short of an eschatological pronouncementthe temple of the endtimes had arrived (see 1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19-20; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18 ). A related concept to the temple of God is found in 2 Corinthians 1:22,5:5 the Spirit is the earnest of the resurrection body (cf. Romans 8:23; Ephesians 1:14 ).

Nevertheless, the Spirit is not the full payment but a reminder that the present bodies of believers, temples though they are, are frail and mortal, and therefore only the guarantee of the future, glorious resurrection. This point was one that the Corinthians needed to hear because, in their newfound enthusiasm over the Spirit, their tendency was to assume that the kingdom of God had fully arrived and that they had already received the resurrection body in this age (see 1 Corinthians 4:8; 15:12-28 ). More than that, the Corinthians' mimicking of the "spirit" of this evil age tended to belie the truth that they were the temple of God's Holy Spirit: they divided, and thereby were destroying it (1 Corinthians 3:12-17 ); they joined themselves to harlots, thereby defiling God's temple (1 Corinthians 6:15-18 ); and, in general, they subjected it to idolatry (2 Corinthians 6:14-18 ).

Spiritual Gifts . Spiritual gifts serve as visible proof that the Spirit indwells believers and, as such, are a sign that the age to come has dawned. Each of the gifts in 1,2Corinthians can be understood eschatologically. Prophecy was expected to be renewed among God's people when the Spirit comes (cf. 1 Corinthians 14 with Psalm 74:9; Lamentations 2:9; Joel 2:28-32 ). We have already noted the apocalyptic flavor of wisdom (cf. also knowledge). The gifts of teaching and preaching were also eschatologically oriented by virtue of the content of their message, which was the kerygma, the basis of which was that the age to come has dawned (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28; with Acts 2-3 ). The gift of discernment of spirits served the purpose of distinguishing truth from error in the last days (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:10,29; with 1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 4:1-5 ). Tongues and interpretation of tongues were associated by Paul and the Corinthians with the proleptic restoration of paradise, especially in the worship setting of the church. The gifts of faith (1 Corinthians 12:9; 13:2 ), miracles (1 Corinthians 12:10,28 ), and healings (1 Corinthians 12:9,28 ) continued the powerful ministry of Jesus through his church, and signaled the invasion of the earth by the messianic kingdom. Finally, the gifts of helps (1 Corinthians 12:28 ) and administration (1 Corinthians 12:28 ) provided the needed support and leadership of the people of God in the last days, respectively. However, for Paul the charismata are not an end in themselves. Gifts are only a means to the end, the end being love, the eternal ethic of the age to come.

Ecclesiology . The word used by Paul and the early Christians for the messianic community of believers is ekklesia [ ἐκκλησία ]. The term probably corresponds to the Old Testament word, qahal [ קָהַל ], with reference to the Christian community as the continuation of Israel, the people of God. The Corinthian letters affirm this fundamental perception of Paul that the church is yet another sign that the age to come has already dawned, though it is not yet complete. Five aspects of the church illustrate this truth: the metaphor for the church (the body of Christ), the sacraments of the church, the worship of the church, the offering of the church, and the status of the members of the church.

The dominant metaphor for the church in 1,2Corinthians is the body of Christ. Paul's primary usage of the metaphor is to demonstrate the interrelatedness of diversity and unity within the community of believers. If, as a number of scholars believe, the person of Adam in particular and the Hebrew concept of corporate personality in general inform the metaphor, then the eschatological nuance is thereby heightened. The body of Christ can be seen, then, to be the eschatological Adam (1 Corinthians 15:45 ), the new humanity of the endtime that has appeared in history. Yet it is obvious from Paul's comments to the Corinthian church that it continues to exist in this age. Its inconsistent behavior and incomplete growth attest to that fact.

According to 1,2Corinthians, the sacraments of the church are twofold: baptism and the Lord's Supper. The former marks the entrance into the kingdom of God and the age to come, but it does not magically prevent believers from being judged for their disobedience. The latter symbolizes the passion of Jesus and probably adumbrates the future messianic banquet. But neither does it ward off divine judgment for those whose lives disrupt the unity of the church.

The worship of the church in 1,2Corinthians, as we noted earlier, centers around the community's usage of the gifts of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12-14 ), which is a foretaste of the restoration of paradise. But the Corinthians' confusion and misuse of the spectacular gifts like tongues is a stark reminder that the age to come is not complete; the perfect has not yet come (1 Corinthians 13:9-13 ).

It may be that the church's giving also possesses eschatological significance for Paul. His collection of the Gentile offering for the purpose of ministering to the Jewish believers in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8-9; cf. Romans 15:16-33 ) may well have been intended by him to be the catalyst for initiating the nation's pilgrimage to Zion, predicted in the Old Testament and in Judaism, signaling the endtimes. Nevertheless Paul was also aware that that eventuality may be delayed (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; with 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 ).

Finally, the status of Christians as portrayed in 1,2Corinthians is also stamped by the already/not yet eschatological tension. Because the age to come has dawned, and with it the passing away of the present age (1 Corinthians 7:29-31 ), there is spiritual equality among Christians regarding gender (1 Corinthians 11:11-12 ) and social freedom (1 Corinthians 7:17-24 ). Nevertheless, because this age continues to exert its influence, there is still hierarchical structure and authority concerning male and female relationships (1 Corinthians 11:1-11; 14:34-35 ) and the roles of master and slave (1 Corinthians 7:20-24 ).

C. Marvin Pate

See also Paul the Apostle

Bibliography . F. L. Arrington, Paul's Aeon Theology in 1Corinthians; J. C. Beker, Paul the Apostle: The Triumph of God in Life and Thought; R. E. Brown, The Semitic Background of the Term "Mystery" in the New Testament; W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism; G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians; G. E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament; A. T. Lincoln, Paradise Now and Not Yet: Studies in the Role of the Heavenly Dimension in Paul's Thought with Special Reference to His Eschatology; C. M. Pate, The Glory of Adam and the Afflictions of the Righteous. Pauline Suffering in Context; H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology; A. C. Thiselton, NTS 24 (1978): 510-26; A. J. M. Wedderburn, Baptism and Resurrection. Studies in Pauline Theology Against Its Graeco-Roman Background .

Bibliography Information
Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Corinthians, First and Second, Theology of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​bed/​c/corinthians-first-and-second-theology-of.html. 1996.
Ads FreeProfile