On Living in Two Worlds at Once and On Paul's Inconsistencies. (I Corinthians 2-3)
NOTE: Over the years, I've learned that when my friend David tells me to read something, I should read it. He's one of those people who seems to have a knack for suggesting books that scratch an itch. A few days ago, he urged his friends to reread the book of I Corinthians because its teaching fits the needs of our American church, so I hopped on it. Today I'm continuing yesterday's post, working through this epistle. If you want to read along with me, I'll be posting on this topic for the next few days.
ON LIVING IN TWO WORLDS AT ONCE
When people on the internet disagree, they usually fight by calling their opponents “stupid," but Paul doesn’t do that. In fact, he does the opposite. He admits that there are different systems of wisdom, and that it’s possible for someone to be brilliant in one of those other systems.
When Paul critiques his opponents, he critiques them by speaking teleologically— a word which looks at the purpose or end of a thing. To critique the telos of another worldview is to ask: “Let’s look at where this alternate system of wisdom is going to end up?”
In making this distinction between God’s wisdom and the world’s, Paul writes: “...we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God...”
In other words, it is possible for a system of wisdom to look brilliant on earth, but that doesn’t mean (the telos) of that system is going to end up being beneficial or pleasant. (Need an anology? Compare this to a dating relationship that looked so promising during the first month but made you miserable after six.)
My two favorite Christian apologists are Ravi Zacharias and Tim Keller, in part because they tend to get this one rhetorical skill right. They don’t attempt to elevate Christianity by taking nervous pot shots at secularists. When they see logical errors, they address those with humor and respect. But they only engage after taking the time understand and speak accurately about the world’s systems. They aren’t haphazard in calling other systems foolish; they address them in light of their telos — their ultimate end. (They operate like a wise parent who says to a teenager, “You can try that. But let’s talk through where this is going to land.”)
If we get this right, we will still be deeply offensive to many secular thinkers. Why? Because there’s a diagnostic built into God's system that violates the strongest values of the godless world.
The secular world believes that all truth can be found through the power of the human mind and the reliability of the natural world. Any eternal truth that requires more than these two elements feels unfair to the pure materialist.
But God didn't guarantee that all important knowledge could be obtained this way. In fact, he set up the world up so that people who are only willing to embrace the secular currency of wisdom will be blind to the spiritual realm.
I can see why this dynamic would feel unjust to anyone who thinks the world’s system of knowledge should be reliable enough to find God. But that sense of injustice is a natural consequence of misplaced trust. If we insist on worshipping our own minds and our own ability to analyze the world, we're going to end up with the limitations of those two gods.
Imagine a community of people living in a little biosphere, people who can’t imagine anything beyond the tiny world in which they exist. Or go back to Plato’s Analogy of the Cave, a tiny underworld in which lifelong captives of darkness can’t imagine an outside realm full of sunlight and greenery.
If we choose the small gods of our own minds and perceptions, we can insist that all we have ever known and valued is all that is fair and good to know. But our confidence doesn’t make our assumption right.
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ON DIFFERENT TYPES OF PAULING TEACHING
Several times over the years, I’ve been frustrated with Paul because some of his teachings of seem contradictory. It wasn’t until I realized that Paul openly admitted teaching different sorts of truths to different sorts of believers that the pieces began to fall into place.
Paul writes: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh.”
In other words, Paul didn’t teach all Christians the same things. And he did that intentionally.
We do this sort of thing with our kids, right? When our children are young, we give them less freedom and different types of instructions than we do when they are grown in trust, intellect, and character. As their maturity develops, we begin to trust them to be heart-driven instead of task-driven.
When we read Scripture, we tend to do read it flatly, as if there were no topography to the thing. But that’s just not how the text itself claims to work. The books of the Bible, and especially the epistles of the New Testament, were written to specific people, and understanding the original audience matters.
It takes effort to be a thoughtful reader and to unpack the levels of instruction included in the Bible. But I don't know why anybody would ever think that studying the Bible should be easy. And this is the sort of effort that can protect us from making serious errors in interpretation.
I wish I had more time right now to make a huge chart, delineating the various maturity levels of the audiences Paul addresses and then listing the sorts of instructions he gives accordingly.
But as far as I can tell, the bottom line is this: maturity boils down to union with Christ-in-us. Once we really learn to walk in the Spirit, a lot of the rules that are essential in our early days of faith become unnecessary because we cannot carry out the deeds of the flesh if we are abiding in Christ.
However, it takes a long time for some of us to let go of our fleshly efforts to try be “Christian.” Like Paul, many of us will have to go through humiliating experiences with failure before we finally become willing to depend on an indwelling Lord.
A young believer may need more rules, not just to protect him, but to show him that he doesn’t have the ability to keep them without Christ. Eventually, we will learn what Paul say here,“...no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” But different believers need different sorts of instruction along the way to arrive at that conclusion. Those nuances not only appear in the teachings of Paul, but I think also in the teachings of Jesus.
Ultimately, after years of being aggravated at Paul (and Jesus) for teaching what seemed like contradictory instruction, I’ve come to see this section of I Corinthians as a key that unlocks most of the New Testament. (Tim Keller actually addresses this principle in his sermons “The Inside-Out Kingdom” and “The Upside Down Kingdom.” These two messages are definitely worth a listen, if you haven’t heard them yet.)