Friday, May 22, 2009

The Corinthian Problem

The disarray, foolishness and sin that St. Paul addressed, when writing his first extant Epistle to the Church in Corinth, has been turned to our benefit inasmuch as it gave rise to teaching in the Scriptures that has been needed throughout the subsequent history of the Church, and that we need today. As the selling of Joseph into Egypt was used by God to save Israel from famine, God can use anything for good. This is one aspect of Providence. So, the sins and foolishness of the Church in Corinth give us more words of Holy Scripture.

Nonetheless, it takes effort to understand this Epistle. The difficulty we have in seeing what St. Paul addressed in the Epistle comes from the familiarity we have with some of the external issues affected by the Corinthian foolishness, and in other cases their supernatural and mystical gifts, the manifestation of which were equally affected. This puzzles the modern mind: How can what is good and holy be so sinfully practiced?

Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; That in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge; Even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: So that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.

This opening comes across as out of place with everything that follows.

The essential problem in Corinth is, for many, difficult to discern, even by intense reading of the Epistle, for one major reason. We have a bias in our time that blinds us to the reality that the same people who "come behind in no gift" (which means equally that they possess every grace), of the Holy Spirit can be, at the same time, "carnal, babes in Christ." The same people who have the gifts to work miracles and to prophesy, can, at the same time, be guilty of creating and perpetuating sinful divisions within the Body of Christ. The same people who truly discern spirits, able to test and know which spirits are not of God, can at the same time be proud to have a notorious fornicator among them, allowing him to receive the Communion of Christ's Body and Blood along with all of the rest. The alarming fact we must glean from the Epistle is that neither mystical and supernatural gifts nor orthodox doctrine are enough to keep people from being carnal, childish, divisive and utterly selfish. And, indeed, selfishness is the most apparent symptom of their carnality, addressed over and over again in several places. And, in terms of Providence, it is that very selfishness that gave the occasion for St. Paul to write his most famous passage, the chapter on charity (chapter 13).

Before proceeding, it is necessary to define the term charisma (χάρισμα). The word can be translated "gifts" or "graces." When I read the words of Bishop Iverach, that he considers the charismata to be essential to our ongoing mission, I assumed he used the word charismata in its larger sense. For, indeed, that word encompasses more than simply the "spectacular" gifts (as some term them), and includes all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Scripture, including the Sacraments themselves. That means that the word charismata includes the "Institutional gifts" mentioned in the Pastoral Epistles of Paul to Titus and Timothy, which includes the sacramental gifts that work in Holy Orders and that come to the rest of the Church through Holy Orders. Therefore, we see in those Pastoral Epistles that Apostolic Succession is the pattern set forth in Holy Scripture, and regard that as both a matter of order and the continuation of charismata unique to the episcopal office.

It is necessary also to consider that within that larger grouping of gifts are all of the things given that name by St. Paul in his Epistles, along with scenes described by St. Luke in the Book of Acts. The words of Christ himself teach us that no gift, no matter how impressive it may appear to be, is an indication that the minister of that gift is holy.

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Matt. 7:21-23

Therefore, the words of Article XXVI apply:

XXVI. Of the unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometime the evil have chief authority in the ministration of the word and sacraments; yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by His commission and authority, we may use their ministry both in hearing the word of God and in the receiving of the sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the sacraments ministered unto them, which be effectual because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

This was always understood within the Catholic Tradition of the Church, and rejection of this teaching was an element essential to the heresy of the Donatists. More than twenty years ago, when I was serving as a church organist, a curate who was very popular in that congregation was arrested, and eventually convicted, of notorious crimes involving young boys. Several people there were concerned about the baptism of their children, wanting to know if it had been valid; others, if they had really received Communion from his hand over the years. To an informed mind, aware of the teaching of the Church, those questions would not have arisen.

This fact is indeed relevant to solving the apparent mystery: The apparently less spectacular gifts of the charismata, such as the regular administration of Holy Communion, do not indicate that the minister is truly a holy and godly man. Gifts of the Holy Spirit, whether "spectacular" or "institutional," whether astounding or seemingly normal, say nothing about the minister's character. Eventually the false prophet might teach error, or perhaps he may never teach error. He may be able to say all of those things our Lord has predicted, and more. He may be among those who say, quite truly, "have we not prophesied in thy name?" But, this will not save him. The sheep's clothing will have come off, exposing the wolf beneath.

Although the Corinthians were not accused of being wolves, that is false prophets, they were corrected sternly for being carnal, selfish and chaotic. Nonetheless, St. Paul had told them that they come behind in no gift, and that each of them was called to sainthood. This is not self-contradictory at all. It demonstrates two things: 1) God's work does not depend on man's worthiness, and 2) it is right and the practice of hope to place before the eyes of carnal people their calling to become holy.

Recently, we had a long discussion about chapters 12-14 as they relate to the charismata. Different people are sure they see that long text accurately, but they disagree. Those who actually have allowed various charismatic expression into the context of liturgy have long treated chapter 14 as a kind of Robert's Rules of Order regarding how and when to exercise these gifts, while others are sure that Paul was contemptuous of the very gifts he himself had identified as coming from the Holy Spirit (an impossibility). But, the overall text of the Epistle shows that his words about the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not centered on the gifts themselves, but rather on the same problem he was addressing from the very first chapter on.

I will glean from places in this Epistle that seem to repeat a very noticeable refrain.

Although Paul places before the Church in Corinth, at the start of his letter, his high estimation of their gifts, their knowledge and understanding, and of their faith, stating his confidence that God will hold them by his grace and sanctify them according to the common vocation of all Christians ("called saints"), he quickly changes his tone. He admonishes them, chastises and rebukes them, for being divided. Somehow, they had developed into parties, and had claimed to be followers of various apostles.

Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name.

Interestingly, those who said "I am of Christ" are rebuked with the others. Their pretense to moral and spiritual superiority did not fool the Apostle: They too were just as partisan, just as carnal, and perhaps a little worse as they might have thanked God that they were not as other men are. And, despite this outward display of chaos and division, these same people came behind in no gift, but were enriched by God in all utterance and all knowledge. They were both orthodox and learned. Indeed, the problem in Corinth was not scriptural illiteracy, theological ignorance or false doctrine. They were very knowledgeable.

Indeed, look at chapter 8:

Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.

Yes, they knew the right doctrine about idols. Their knowledge and orthodoxy was not questioned by the Apostle. However, their lack of charity was rebuked in the clearest of terms. Why, for such learned people, should it have been necessary to write these words in the same chapter?

But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak...And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend.

How, in their knowledge so enriched, with their utterances so gifted, did they miss this obvious point? How could they have been so blind to the simple rule of putting the needs of their brothers and sisters ahead of their own desires? They were orthodox. They were learned. They were gifted. They were also carnal.

Look too at how they approached the Supper of the Lord:

When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.

The evidence from this text is that the Agape feast was connected somehow to the Eucharist in this very early period, perhaps even coming before in imitation of the Last Supper. How correctly or not we may be able to sort out the facts of history, it is clear that even as they approached the Body and Blood of Christ, they were selfish. Their actions indicated that even in this they were carnal.

It is this same theme, that of selfishness, that truly dominates the most "Charismatic" portions of chapters 12-14. Their treatment of the Lord's Supper, each one looking after himself and no one else, came from the same selfishness we see here as they treat various gifts of the Holy Spirit in a completely self-indulgent manner, with no regard for each other's needs. In Chapter 12 Paul has mentioned various gifts known to operate among them, all of which he affirms.

Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal.

In this Trinitarian passage he identifies the working of the Spirit, of the Lord and of God. He never even hints that any of these manifestations might have come from any lower source.

But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.

Rather, he goes on to explain to them that these gifts have been given so that each member of the Body of Christ may help others in the same Body. The text is not about tongues, or prophecy or miracles. It is about the Body of Christ, and the care each member should have for all the rest, and that the rest should have for even one member who suffers. He mentions the gifts as another way of saying to them the same thing he has been saying all along. He speaks to them about unity that ought to overcome partisanship, and care for others that, as in the 8th chapter, should be placed ahead of their own desires, even their own perceived needs.

This is why he writes about tongues and prophecy in the 14th chapter.

Follow after charity, and desire spiritual gifts, but rather that ye may prophesy. For he that speaketh in an unknown tongue speaketh not unto men, but unto God: for no man understandeth him; howbeit in the spirit he speaketh mysteries. But he that prophesieth speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort. He that speaketh in an unknown tongue edifieth himself; but he that prophesieth edifieth the church. I would that ye all spake with tongues, but rather that ye prophesied: for greater is he that prophesieth than he that speaketh with tongues, except he interpret, that the church may receive edifying.

Already, back in chapter 12, he has identified both tongues and prophecy as coming from "the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will." Here, however, he appears to exalt one of these above the other. But, it is not that the gift of prophecy is exalted above that of tongues; it is that serving the needs of others is placed above serving one's own needs. He is teaching them not to be selfish anymore, and simply using this example as yet another way to say it. The beautiful chapter 13, about charity, has come between these chapters as part of the same long text extending back deeper into this letter. That beautiful chapter was a rebuke, meant not to inspire but to correct. It was written not to move with poetic sublimity, but to admonish with prophetic indignation. It was a fire lit to melt their frozen unloving, selfish hearts. Those hearts had taken good and holy things, the very gifts of God, and used them for selfish ends.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.

These words were not addressed to holy men and women crowned with the virtues, but to carnal, selfish, partisan, squabbling babes. They teach what should have been clear and obvious, especially to those who come behind in no gift, those who are in every thing enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge.

The Corinthian problem was simple: They possessed all things richly, but had not charity. When I consider this I must confess that Christ came to save Corinthians, of whom I am chief.


Fr. D. said...

For those who augment the Daily Offices using the "Anglican Breviary" may find the Homily by St. Gregory the Pope for the Saturday within the octave of the Ascension of interest regarding certain gifts. (Eadem Homilia 29)
Eminently qualified whereas he is included as one of the four great Doctors by both East and West.

"My brethren, these signs do not follow us". and "We have a deeper matter of thought concerning signs and mighty works."

Unfortunately I do nat have a scanner nor could I find the Homily on the web, but if any possess the Breviary do check it out.
Fr. D.

Sandra McColl said...

Indeed, Fr D, it jumped out at me, too.

"My brethren, these signs do not follow us. Do we, then, not believe? Nay, the truth is, these things were needful when the Church was young. That she might grow by the increase of the faithful, she needed to be nourished with miracles. … Hence Paul saith of tongues: Tongues are for a sign, not to them that believe, but to them that believe not.

We hae a deeper matter of thought concerning signs and mighty works. It is the work of the holy Church to do every day spiritually that which the Apostles then did in a bodily manner. When her priests, armed with hej power of absolution, do stretch forth their hands unto believers, and forbid evil spirits to dwell any longer in their souls, what is it they do but cast out devilw? When Christ's faithful people themselves give up the language of their old life, and speak the wonderful works of God, the glory and power of their Maker, telling of them with all their strength, what is it they do then, but speak with new tongues? When any Christian by his exhortation charmeth the wickedness out of his neighbour's heart, what is it that he then doeth but take up serpents? …

And indeed, such miracles as these are the greatest miracles just because they are spiritual; the greatest, for they bring health, not to the dying body, but to the immortal soul."

Hope I included the bits you would have wanted to share.

Sandra McColl said...

Himmel! The veriword is 'bless'. Perhaps the veriword generator doesn't realise that it's actually a word.

Fr. Robert Hart said...

(Sandra, we thought we had your e-mail address. Please e-mail one of the three of us. My e-mail address is in my profile)

"My brethren, these signs do not follow us..." As long as we do not make a doctrine out of anyone's historical observation, or observation of what was to them current events. Even in the Book of Acts some of "these signs" (obviously Gregory was drawing from Mark) do not follow most of the believers in the young Church. They followed the Apostles and a few others, like Philip. The Catholic Tradition has never made a doctrine about when, where and how God may act.

The lesson from I Corinthians is to make sure our motivation leads outward: "Follow after charity." With charity everything becomes safe, with or without any signs. Without charity nothing is safe, with or without any signs.

poetreader said...

Thanks, Sandra.
I asked a friend to scan the page for me, since I also couldn't locate the text, but you beat him to it.

Gregory's statement is a wonderful one if it be not so taken as to cover all situations. He himself did not do so, as he himself testified in other places to having witnessed miracles of healing. I'd agree with Fr. Hart that this passage is not a dogmatic statement that signs and wonders could no longer occur, but it is a powerful testiminy that they are not necessary for there to be powerful faith, as the faith itself is a yet greater miracle.

Amen and amen!


Sandra McColl said...

I think this sermon might be the marker of the point in Church history where miraculous healings, etc, stopped being 'the norm'. He who told me this (the historical point) reads this blog and might (or might not) want to put in his own twopenny worth.

Of course, creation was a miracle, and so is the continual preservation of all life and all things (which, if you take a timeless view of God, is every bit as much 'creation' as the original bringing of all things into being).

Fr. Steve said...

I think this whole thing can be summed up in one sentence.

Do everything out of Love (charity).

poetreader said...

Amen Deacon Steve!

What was said awhile back and raised some hackles about the charismata being "normal", on consideration leads me to consider the dofference between "normal" and "normative". What is "normative" is expected to be present and its absence is considered abnormal or deficient. Of the Spiritual gifts, St. Paul asks repeatedly. "Do all ...?" expecting a negative response.

On the other hand, what is "normal" is simply that which falls within the expected range of unsurprising happenings. Perhaps Sandra hit upon it in noting a transitional point in perception -- from a time when the miraculous was seen as normative, and the time when it was seen as merely normal. The insistence upon "sign gifts" as marking the reality of the Faith had passed and should nor be resurrected, but miracles have never been outside the realm of possibilities to those who trust in God, and, indeed, have never been lacking in the life of the Church. I could testify to miracleS I have witnessed, including one now ongoing. Such things cannot be demanded or insisted upon, neither should they cause an undue degree of surprise. God has not ceased to use His creative power, has not withheld His gifts, has not hidden His presence -- but, truly, we need none of that to know Him as real.


Fr Matthew Kirby said...

St Symeon the New Theologian, also a great Doctor of the Church, went in almost the opposite direction, if I remember correctly. He seemed to think that the relative lack of signs was in fact due to insufficient faith and fervour, but that the gifts had not properly ceased anyway, and could not during the Church Age. He rejected the idea of religion without conscious personal experience of God as well.

For an intersting overview of various Eastern Orthodox perspectives see:


Unknown said...

Thank you for these links, Fr. Kirby, which are most helpful. I am especially gratified to read some of the writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian.

Fr. Robert Whitaker