The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians
by Victor Paul Furnish
New Testament Theology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999. 167 pp. $49.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-521-35252-5.
In this book Furnish reflects on the theology of St. Paul ’s epistle to the Corinthians (i.e., 1 Corinthians) in order to caution the notion that this epistle is “less” theological than Romans or Galatians. The reason why this letter in particular is of utter importance to our understanding of St. Paul ’s theological thought is that here we find the missionary, apostle, and theologian at work. In 1 Corinthians we see how St. Paul’s understanding of Christ – the Gospel – is played out in everyday situations.
In the preface Furnish already cautions us though that 1 Corinthians (and Scripture en general) must not be seen “as theological documents” but Pauline writings need to “be approached first of all as apostolic letters” (xiii; emphasis original). That is, they are written not as academic theological reflections, but as responses to situations and struggles among the churches he is writing to. Because St. Paul saw himself first and foremost as apostle “he was devoted to thinking through, and to helping others think through, the truth and significance of the gospel” – thus we find in 1 Corinthians what Furnish calls “theological reflection” (xv) in the sense of everyday life.
In the introductory letter, Furnish sets the beginning stage of the letter. Here he writes about the historical, social, and religious circumstances of the Corinthian church, the occasion and aims of the apostolic writing, genre, structure, and style and so forth. Worthwhile mentioning is the structure of the letter, since Furnish divides his theological endeavor in accordance to such. He divides 1 Corinthians in the following way (16-18):
1. 1:10-4:21 issue of the unity of the church
2. 5:1-11:1 “the church’s struggle to be the church in a world to which it does not finally belong” (16).
3. 11:2-14:40 issues of conduct within the church
4. 15 issue with the doctrine of resurrection
Though having this structure Furnish reminds us that “the gospel… is the primary subject of St. Paul ‘s theological reflection and exposition in I Corinthians” (25) as we have noted above.
The main thrust of the letter, seen especially in the “authentically theological discourses” (i.e., the passages of 1:18-2:16; 12:12-13:13; 15:1-58; p.26; emphasis original), is oriented along the theological references to: Soteriology, Christology, Eschatology, and Ecclesiology (26). Yet, we do have to note that St. Paul did not have a systematic theology in mind (nor the categories for such) and that the there is much (immense!) overlap between those categories and how they are fleshed out in St. Paul’s understanding of a Christian life and that of the church.
For today we only want to briefly look at chapter two of Furnish’s book: Knowing God, belonging to Christ
In this chapter Furnish sets out to introduce the theology of St. Paul – especially seen in the first four chapters of the letter. One aspect of these chapters is that the word for God (θεός, theos) appears “almost as frequent…as in all of the remaining twelve chapters” (28; 49 times in chs. 1-4 and 54 times in the remainder of the epistle).
St. Paul’s vocational identity is closely tied (if not defined!) by the proclamation of the Gospel. His stewardship of God’s mysteries (4:1) is to proclaim the Jewish Messiah – the Savior of the world – and him crucified (1:17-18; 2:2).
Furnish then goes on to explain the difficulties faced by the Corinthian church (more accurately, “the church of God which resides at Corinth”!) which seem to stem from and are “manifested most clearly” (30) in the division of the church as to whom to follow (cf. e.g. 1:12; 3:4-6). This division has a lot to do with the culture (i.e., the Greco-Roman world) the Corinthian church finds itself in. The society of Corinth is most concerned with status, because status brings “honor, influence, and power” (30). Over and over, the apostle reminds the believers that they are God’s. They are “God’s church” (1:2) “called by God” (1:26) and all they have are graciously given by Him (cf. 1:4; 4:7).
Coming from the subheading of “God’s wisdom and the world’s” (38-40), Furnish proceeds with the presentation of God’s saving power in St. Paul’s thought. There are the aspects to his understanding of God’s power for salvation:
(1) It is God’s free gift and is “proper to God’s own being” (41)
(2) In order for humanity to have true life it needs to “know God” (42)
(3) It is eschatological in its aspect – “the consummation of salvation is a knowledge of God that will be granted only in God’s own future” (46)
Just in these few remarks about Furnish’s book we gain immense insight into St. Paul’s understanding of the Gospel and are challenged to read St. Paul’s own words more closely. The Gospel-centered preaching and writing of the apostle also challenges us to look more closely into our God-given ministries and what emphasis we find therein.