Calvinism in Context: 1 Corinthians 8:11

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And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed,
the brother for whom Christ died.
— 1 Corinthians 8:11 —

When Paul confronted the Corinthians for eating meat sacrificed to idols, he warns that their carelessness threatens to “destroy” their brothers. In the context of 1 Corinthians 8, Paul uses this warning to motivate followers of Christ with greater “knowledge” (i.e., stronger consciences) to think twice before eating meat sacrificed to idols in the presence of younger believers whose consciences have not been so trained. This is the literary context. In the context of theological debates, however, this verse serves another purpose—namely that this verse proves general atonement, the belief that Christ died for all humanity without exception.

Convinced that Christ’s death effectively accomplished the salvation of his elect, a vast number beyond comprehension (see Revelation 7), I believe that it is errant to conclude 1 Corinthians 8:11 is a proof text for general or unlimited atonement. Rather, it is one of many verses that articulate a view of Christ’s death that is personally connected to a people the father gave him before the foundation of the world (cf. John 17). But instead of making a theological case, let’s consider the context of 1 Corinthians 8 to see what Paul says and how his language informs this theological debate.

1 Corinthians 8:11: A Proof Text for General Atonement?

Many advocates of general atonement cite 1 Corinthians 8:11 (and Romans 14:15) to argue that Christ has died for those who will ultimately be destroyed. For instance, Roger E. Olson assumes “this one verse destroys the doctrine of limited atonement by demonstrating that Paul did not believe in it.”[1]

He writes,

In all my reading of Calvinist and anti-Calvinist literature I have not run across any mention of 1 Corinthians 8:11, even though this single verse seems to contradict it. There Paul writes to the Christian who insists on flaunting his freedom to eat meat in a pagan temple, even in sight of Christians who have weaker consciences and might thereby ‘stumble’: ‘So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.’ Clearly, Paul is issuing a dire warning to those of ‘strong faith’ to avoid offending the consciences of their weaker brothers and sisters. . . .

Now, if limited atonement is true, Paul’s warning is an empty threat because it cannot happen. A person for whom Christ died cannot be destroyed. Christ died only for the elect, . . .[2]

He reasons further that,

The plain sense of the text is that Paul is warning Christians of stronger conscience to beware of causing the utter ruin and destruction, spiritually, of a weaker Christian or at least someone for whom Christ died. If that is so, and I am firmly convinced no other exegesis is reasonable, this one verse destroys the doctrine of limited atonement by demonstrating that Paul did not believe in it.[3]

Two Responses to General Atonement in 1 Corinthians 8:11

Despite Olson’s confidence that this verse singularly denies definite atonement and that Calvinists have failed to give “any mention of 1 Corinthians 8:11” in their writings, I believe he draws his conclusions prematurely. For starters, there are many Calvinists who have given plausible explanations for this verse.[4] For instance, Jonathan Gibson addresses the verse in his consideration of Paul’s theology of the atonement. He writes,

Opponents of definite atonement argue that the texts [Romans 14:15; 1 Corinthians 8:11] state that Christ died for some who may finally perish. The argument would appear to turn upon the meaning of ἀπόλλυμι. The term might refer to spiritual grief or self-condemnation, but when Paul uses the verb ἀπόλλυμι with a personal object it most often refers to ultimate spiritual ruin—eternal destruction (Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18; 8:11; 15:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess 2:10). [5]

For sake of argument he accepts the more severe reading (Olson’s reading) and argues that “Paul (and also other NT writers) can refer to those who may finally perish as, for a time, visibly possessing all the descriptions of genuine believers.”[6] In this approach, Gibson solves one problem (the definition of the word “destroy”) by introducing another (the mixed membership of the local church). Gibson relies on a Presbyterian and Reformed view of the church to resolve the matter, saying,

That is, at-one-time visible members of the covenant community, they are described as those purchased by Christ. But this is not to say that they were necessarily genuine, elect members of the covenant community; rather, while members in the covenant community, they are described with all the full-orbed descriptions of the elect members: in this case, those ‘obtained by his own blood.’[7]

While this is a way to resolve the problem, this Baptist is unconvinced. In fact, to assert that Christ ‘obtained by his own blood’ some in the church who will not be saved eternally introduces uncertainty into the definite nature of Christ’s atonement. This kind of definite atonement advocated by Jonathan Gibson and others is clearly not of a piece with Roger Olson and defenders of general atonement, but neither is it as ‘particular’ as Reformed Baptists who stand for a regenerate membership in the church, which stems from an understanding of the new covenant that is restricted to the elect of God.

Still, asking questions about the nature of the covenant is liable to take us off course. The question at issue is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 8:11 and in particular Paul’s use of ἀπόλλυμι. Gibson concedes the possibility that this word should be read as “eternal ruin,” but others have been more ardent to defend the view that this word does not mean eternal destruction. One such theological interpreter is George Smeaton.

While Smeaton’s ecclesiology would permit him to make the same argument as Gibson, he instead says the verse does not “denote eternal destruction.”[8] Rather, the word in question means “to hurt, to injure—the opposite of that which tends to the use of edifying.”[9] Indeed, this is the contextual argument we will expound here, but first consider his complementary line of argument,

The apostle does not mean that one man destroys another; for that is not competent to man, and is the sole prerogative of God, who can destroy soul and body. But one brother may put a stumbling block in another’s way, and by this means mar his piece, defile his conscience, and occasion weakness, trouble, and sorrow. The apostle does not mean actual perdition, as if any for whom the Saviour offered himself a surety could finally be destroyed. How could they perish finally, when Christ had offered himself an eternally valid sacrifice, expiating their sin, and satisfying all the claims of the law in their room instead? (John 6:39.) They are kept not only by power, but by the security furnished by divine justice itself, to the salvation ready to be revealed.[10]

This is Smeaton’s argument by analogia fide: man has not the power or authority to condemn another man to eternal ruin. Matthew 10:28 restricts such destruction of body and soul to God himself; therefore, a man should not fear he can actually destroy those secured by Jesus’ blood. Rather, he should fear sinning against Christ by wounding this brother’s weak conscience. This is the flow of the argument in Paul’s letter as can be seen from the immediate context:

10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:10–13)

In these verses, Paul is not making a theological point about the extent of the atonement. Rather, he is making an ethical point that those who have been redeemed by Christ’s blood ought to care for their brothers who have also been bought with Christ’s blood. May it never be that we cause harm to others by flaunting our freedoms.

Reading 1 Corinthians 8:11 as a Word of Warning to Christ’s Holy Temple

With this context in place, we can make a final observation from the book of 1 Corinthians which helps answer the question: What does Paul mean when he says “destroyed”? If you read Roger Olson’s interpretation, he immediately defines ἀπόλλυμι as “destroy, perish, die.” He posits without lexical proof, “It is unlikely, if not impossible, that the word could mean anything else especially in this context.”[11] Such a strong statement comes without any annotated support, and leaves me wondering how he can be so confident—especially, when in 1 Corinthians the language of destruction is set in the context of the local church.

Earlier in the chapter Paul says that all knowledge should lead to love which aims to “build up” (v. 1). This notion of building up goes back to chapter 3 where Paul describes ministry in terms of building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. Paul was a master builder who called upon the Corinthians (and all leaders) to build on Christ with gold, silver, and precious metals (3:10–13). In that chapter Paul likens the church to a holy temple (3:16–17), one where members are built up through the ministry of the Word.

Likewise, in chapter 12 Paul will speak of the church as living body with members who are to use their spiritual gifts for the common good of the church (v. 7). In other words, every member should seek to build up the body of Christ in love and not tear it down. The problem in Corinth was that immature believers were using their gifts to build themselves up. They were failing to love one another and in the case of meat sacrificed to idols, the strong were using their knowledge to indulge their freedoms rather than building others up.

In response, Paul confronted the Corinthians. Chapter 8 is the opening volley against this self-centered behavior. And one of Paul’s most profound points is that those who have been gifted with gospel knowledge and theological maturity must lead the way in building up weaker members of Christ, not destroying them with their strength. In context, Paul’s strong language does not mean the stronger Corinthians are actually leading other causing other church members to go to hell. Rather, he is using this term (“destroys”) as the polar opposite of build up. It is the church of Jesus Christ, comprised of many members, who are being torn down by the callous Corinthians. Only by reading ἀπόλλυμι in conjuction with the concept of building up in verse 1 (as Smeaton does) do we come to a proper understanding of 1 Corinthians 8:11.

To be sure, it is important we recognize how ἀπόλλυμι is used in other contexts. Often it does refer to eternal destruction (see Rom. 2:12; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15; 4:3; 2 Thess 2:10), but in 1 Corinthians 15:18 as one example Paul can speak of believers falling asleep in the Lord as “perishing.” Does this usage confer a status of eternal destruction? Certainly not. Therefore, lest we make the exegetical fallacy of forcing an external meaning on the word in 1 Corinthians 8:11 (what is known as an illegitimate totality transfer), we should read how Paul is using the word in context. And what we find is that this verse does not in any way support unlimited atonement, rather it provides ongoing support for a doctrine of definite atonement as Paul speaks of the “brother for whom Christ died.”[12]

Conclusion: Build Up the Body of Christ With Jesus’ Definite Atonement

In the end, Jesus does not die for anyone but the family members whom he is leading to glory (Hebrews 2:9–10). Thus, in 1 Corinthians 8:11 brothers and sisters in Christ should be cared for because Jesus died for them. Our Lord is maturing them in their local settings now, in order to prepare them for the day when he will return to establish his kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Accordingly, he wants to use you and I (with our strong or weak consciences) to help mature our fellow believers in the Lord.

To achieve this end requires us to seek to build others up and not to destroy them with our freedom. In truth, because this brother in 1 Corinthians 8:11 is a member of Christ’s family, we can’t destroy his salvation. But as we have all seen, too often fellow Christians can through their self-centeredness wound one another and tear down the local church. That is what Paul is hoping to prevent in Corinth. Because Christ died for our weaker brother, we must do everything in our power to build him up and not tear him down.

Until the day when we see our risen Lord face to face, may we labor to build up the body of Christ with the gospel truth that Christ secured salvation for all whom he died.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

*******************

[1] Roger Olson, Against Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 148.

[2] Ibid., 147.

[3] Ibid., 148.

[4] Strangely, Olson (Against Calvinism, 147) seems to be aware of some Calvinists who address this verse, as he says, “Believers in limited atonement raise two objections [to Olson’s argument that “destroy means eternal, spiritual destruction]. First, what does ‘destroyed’ mean; might it only mean ‘damaged’ or ‘hurt’? . . . Second, I have heard some Calvinists insist it only means ‘harm’ or ‘hurt.’” Perhaps, he has heard but not read a defense of this verse. What follows here is a thick description of 1 Corinthians 8:11, which shows how the word ἀπόλλυμι (“destroys”) should be read in contrast to the mention of edification in 1 Corinthians 8:1 (“This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up”)

[5] Jonathan Gibson, “For Whom Did Christ Die? Particularism and Universalism in the Pauline Epistles,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 322.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] George Smeaton, The Apostle’s Doctrine of the Atonement (Edinburgh, UK: T & T Clark, 1870; reprint, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1957), 202.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Olson, Against Calvinism, 147.

[12] For a defense of definite atonement see the comprehensive volume edited by David and Jonathan Gibson, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her. For a shorter treatment, see my chapter in Whomever He Wills: A Suprising Display of Sovereign Mercy (ed. Matthew Barrett and Thomas J. Nettles; Cape Coral, FL: Founders, 2012).

[photo credit: Wikimedia Commons]

One thought on “Calvinism in Context: 1 Corinthians 8:11

  1. Pingback: Loving God By Loving Others (1 Corinthians 8:7–13) | Via Emmaus

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