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An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary

By B Ward Powers

A consideration of some views ancient and modern in the light of a verse-by-verse look at what the text actually says - a somewhat traditional interpretation plus contemporary application.

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This book is one of Paul’s major writings, not only because of its length but because of its subject matter. Indeed we can note that every major doctrine in the New Testament is given its most thorough consideration and exposition in either this Epistle or Romans (or both). And Romans was written from Corinth only about two years after 1 Corinthians.

There are, then, dozens of commentaries available on 1 Corinthians. Go into any Christian bookshop, and look at them all, large and small, older ones still in demand and recent ones just out. Why add another to the collection?

There are basically two reasons for writing this commentary. First, because on numerous issues some of the great writers and exegetes of the past have shown wisdom and insight in their understanding of Paul’s message in this Epistle, while many modern commentators have gone in a different direction. In quite a few of these cases, relating to numerous passages of this Epistle, I believe we need to recapture some of this wisdom and insight which may be in danger now of being lost or overlooked. In this commentary I wish to remind readers - students and scholars alike - of these “traditional” views, and draw attention to the basis and the reasons for them.

Additionally, though, it seems to me that there are also places in this Epistle where some further reflection upon the text is warranted. Translational traditions have grown up which result in each new translation that is published following the same approach to a passage, when that approach and interpretation may validly be open to question. Related to this, there are places where most of the mainstream versions (or a significant number of them) have a very “interpretational” approach to the translation of a passage, and I do not consider this interpretation to be quite so settled. Or at least the translation should be made more neutral where the Greek leaves the meaning more open, or certainly the issue should be aired and readers alerted to the fact that the matter is not as clear cut and definite as some versions imply - that in fact it warrants further consideration.

We can for example see numerous instances along these lines in a comparison of recent “committee” translations such as the ESV, NIV, NKJV, REB, and NRSV with other and more “independent” translations like J B Phillips and Richmond Lattimore and those of particular scholars in their commentaries. (And I mention these in their appropriate contexts.)

Then in commentaries themselves, it is salutory to compare a major “new” commentary on 1 Corinthians such as that by David Garland, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary series on the New Testament (published 2003) with an older “traditional” commentary like that of Charles Hodge, first published in 1857, but still in print. (It is, I think, instructive that Garland does not refer to Hodge at all, though he cites a very considerable number of other commentaries.)

When seeking to understand Paul’s teaching, and ascertain his meaning, it is of course crucial to consider each passage in terms of what he wrote in Greek. Where interpretations differ, we must weigh the arguments for each position, and how they line up with what is found in the Greek. The aim will be to adopt that interpretation of the passage which we can see to be - to the best of our knowledge - most faithful to what the Greek text, as Paul wrote it, actually says. I therefore refer regularly to Greek words and expressions, but the transliteration and translation is given in each instance, so that a reader without Greek will be able to follow the discussion and see what is at issue, and how it points this way or that.

A comparison of any two commentaries, chosen pretty well at random, will show examples of the differing ways in which 1 Corinthians can be interpreted. And where we do not feel that the evidence clearly supports one view rather than another, then we must hold our own view with a measure of caution and tentativity, ready to change if subsequently we receive more light upon the problem.

An awareness of this will encourage us to keep an open mind and to avoid becoming overdogmatic about our chosen interpretation of a particular passage. On the other hand, we must come to some conclusion, on the basis of the evidence, to the best of our respective abilities in understanding it. My goal has been to give more careful consideration to those passages where Christians differ in their viewpoints, drawing attention to those issues which seem significant for our understanding, so that readers will have a more informed basis for coming to their own conclusions in these matters.

The treatment of the biblical material in this commentary will focus primarily upon the meaning of the text, including its exegesis and practical and pastoral application for life in today’s world - the commentary on a chapter therefore concludes with a section of reflection upon these considerations.

At controversial points, where differing views are held in the churches, I will aim to tell you about them and to explain fully my reasons for coming to my particular conclusions about the meaning of the text.


Does this Commentary take a traditionalist approach in interpretation? Well, yes and no. In a word: frequently. I am not intentionally seeking to adopt a traditionalist line in my approach to the Epistle, but rather to study it carefully on its own terms to understand what Paul means by what he says. But then, in comparing the outcome of my own examination of the text with that of others, I have found that frequently I have come to the same understanding of Paul’s meaning as that of early church commentators. Of course there are many sections of the Epistle in which they did not seem especially interested or which they pass over lightly, saying no more than can be seen from a surface reading of the text, whereas current issues in our present century would cause us to examine more closely the meaning and application of Paul’s teaching. On the other hand, on numbers of matters of contemporary relevance they do show views which are significant.

One of these in particular is the meaning of “tongues” in chapters 12 to 14, where this term is taken by early church fathers as referring to human languages as in Acts 2 - this is also the view of Calvin, Wesley, Hodge, and numbers of other commentators. I have come to the same conclusion: what Paul says in this section of the Epistle makes a great deal more sense and is self-consistent when seen in this way.

But there are other times when I would dissent from the views of the early commentators. This is especially so in relation to their views on sex and marriage and attendant issues ranging from virginity to divorce (chapters 6 and 7). As will be seen in the discussion of these chapters, there was in the early church a widespread negative attitude towards sex (which was frequently regarded as a necessary evil for the purpose of procreation, and not to be enjoyed), and marriage (which was considered much inferior to virginity and which prevented one from being fully devoted to the Lord). In my book Marriage and Divorce - the New Testament Teaching I have traced in some detail how and when this negative view of sex and marriage came to enter the church, and how its origins are Manicheanism and Platonism and not from Paul; in my discussion (below) of chapters 6 and 7 of the Epistle I present the case for seeing that the early church commentators missed Paul’s meaning in relation to these issues.

One basic issue where I totally concur with their approach is in regard to the inspiration and authority of Paul’s teaching in this Epistle. We may need to wrestle with the text and argue about its meaning, but once we have arrived at our understanding of what Paul is teaching, it is to be believed and acted upon. It is the Word of the Lord, given to us through Paul. In this Epistle it comes through very clearly that Paul had a high view of his authority, together with that of his fellow apostles. He claimed that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit, down to their very words (2:12-13). He differentiated carefully between what he could quote from the Lord’s teaching and what he was saying upon his own authority (7:10, 12, 25) - but that authority was directly from the Lord through the Spirit (7:40; 11:23; 14:37) and is not to be lightly regarded.

A second issue that is related to this: the early church commentators saw Paul’s teaching in this Epistle as being part of the inspired mosaic of God’s revelation, and they brought to bear upon a given passage the other related teachings of Scripture (from elsewhere in Paul’s writings or from anywhere else in Old Testament or New) which threw light on, or could add to, what 1 Corinthians taught.

Kovacs (in 1 Corinthians Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, pages xiv-xvi) tells us that:

“early Christian commentators believed that the Bible spoke with a single (though nuanced) voice, and they took apparent inconsistencies between biblical authors as an invitation to probe below the surface of the inspired words, that is, to penetrate the spiritual reality about which the text spoke ... When they listened to the Scripture read in divine worship or pondered its words in prayer, the early Christians heard the Word of God spoken to their communities and to their lives. [In his commentaries Origen of Alexandria] is interpreting Scripture by Scripture, an axiom accepted by all early Christian writers. ‘The entire Scripture is one book and was spoken by the one Holy Spirit,’ wrote Cyril of Alexandria, another prolific biblical commentator.”

With these two basic attitudes I am in full agreement. Paul is quite clear in his claim to inspiration and authority. We cannot reject or qualify that claim and still accept his teaching (or some of it, being selective about what we take and what we reject). Unless we are going to entirely reject the historic Christian faith, we much assent fully to the authority with which Paul writes. And if we are going to accept his teaching, how important it then is to understand correctly his meaning. This is a task and a delight to which we now set our mind and our hand.

A number of extracts from “First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary” have been put up at http://bwardpowers.blogspot.com. These extracts deal with numbers of the more controversial sections of the Epistle, which will repay the further consideration of both pastors and academics, and indeed of all readers of Scripture.

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INTRODUCTION                                                                                                                     7

CHAPTER 1                                                                                                                           23

  Fracturing and Fragmenting the Church of God                                                                33

  Athens, and The Nature of the Gospel Message                                                              35

CHAPTER 2                                                                                                                           39

  Who Is “We”?                                                                                                                         45

  The Inspiration of Scripture - and Our Response                                                              47

CHAPTER 3                                                                                                                           51

  How Many Temples Does God Have?                                                                               59

CHAPTER 4                                                                                                                           63

  The Danger of Going Beyond                                                                                              66

CHAPTER 5                                                                                                                           69

  What Are We To Make of This Offender?                                                                          79

  What Then Should We Do?                                                                                                 82

CHAPTER 6                                                                                                                           87

  Christians and Secular Courts Today                                                                              105

  Some Implications Concerning Flesh And Body                                                            107

  Paul’s Dialogue Approach in 6:9-20E                                                                             113

CHAPTER 7                                                                                                                         115

  Questions of Contraception and Birth Control (7:2-5)                                                    144

  The Significance of the Matter of Paul’s Marriage (7:8)                                                 146

  Divorce, Remarriage, and How Long To Remain (7:11)                                               148

  Popular Prejudice Against Paul: and his Actual Teaching                                             151

  To Whom Is Paul Writing in 7:25-40E?                                                                            155

  The Question of the Present Crisis/Impending Distress                                                158

CHAPTER 8                                                                                                                         171

  Some Present-day Alternatives                                                                                        184

  Operating In The “Gray Areas” Of Life                                                                              185

CHAPTER 9                                                                                                                         187

  Providing and Accepting Financial Support                                                                    202

  Christians and The Law of Christ                                                                                      204

CHAPTER 10                                                                                                                       207

  The Truth About Temptation To Sin                                                                                  220



CHAPTER 11                                                                                                                       223

  Wearing A Head Covering Today                                                                                    231

  Excursus 1: The Breaking of Bread                                                                                  233

  Excursus 2: When Did The Lord’s Supper Begin?                                                         252

  Excursus 3: The Content of The Cup                                                                                261

CHAPTER 12                                                                                                                       273

  Tourist or Team Player                                                                                                       329

CHAPTER 13                                                                                                                       333

CHAPTER 14                                                                                                                       349

  Worship Then And Now                                                                                                     378

  Weighing A Message                                                                                                        380

  What Was Going On At Corinth?                                                                                      390

  Excursus 4: Tongues-Speaking Today: A Comment                                                     395

CHAPTER 15                                                                                                                       443

  The Presentation of the Gospel                                                                                        455

  The Practical Problem of Peer Pressure                                                                         455

  The Lordship of Christ in Our Preaching                                                                          456

CHAPTER 16                                                                                                                       457

  Looking After the Finances                                                                                               460

BIBLIOGRAPHY                                                                                                                 471

GENERAL INDEX                                                                                                               475

GREEK INDEX                                                                                                                    481


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