Rightly Dividing the Cultural Background to 1 Corinthians 11

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The Corinth Channel

There are a lot of cultural challenges to 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, a passage that invites discussion about the trinity, gender roles, the use of head coverings, and the role of angels in public worship. Tomorrow I will preach on this passage, but today I share a number of quotations from various commentaries related to various cultural and theological challenges in this passage. These quotes provide some background to this enigmatic passage.

Dress

In the context of prayer and prophesy, it makes sense that dress would be considered. For prophets often had a particular dress. Moreover, they often symbolized in their appearance various biblical truths. So for instance, John the Baptist appearance is given as wearing “a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist” (Matthew 3:4). Importantly, this outward dress identified him as a prophet in the manner of Elijah (2 Kings 1:8: “They answered him, ‘He wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist.’ And he said, ‘It is Elijah the Tishbite.’)

Likewise Isaiah 20 records how God commanded Isaiah to walk through Israel naked for three years to indicate God’s coming judgment on Egypt and on those who trusted in that foreign power. This outward expression of God’s will fits other examples too. For instance, the high priest wore garments of beauty and glory to reflect the presence of God’s holiness with Israel (Exodus 28:2); Nazirites did not cut their hair in order to express devotion to the Lord (Numbers 6); and many grieving saints tore their clothing or wore sackclothe and ash in order to express their contrition. So, throughout Scripture, clothing and hair did play a part in expressing worship to God.

Moving from Old Testament to Greco-Roman culture, the same attention to dress is found.

The Greeks’ self-identity arose most from their speech and education, while our Roman often distinguished himself by what he wore. It was not the Greeks eschewed head apparel. Rather it was clear to them and Romans that the habitual propensity of Romans to wear head apparel in liturgical settings stood in sharp contrast to the practice of others. (R.E. Oster, “When Men Wore Veils to Worship: The Historical Context of 1 Corinthians 11.4,” NTS 34 (1988): 494; cited by Ben Witherington, Conflict and Communion in Corinth24) Continue reading

A Case for Using Commentaries Earlier Rather Than Later

In his lucid book on the doctrine of Scripture, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of GodTimothy Ward makes a helpful observation regarding the use of commentaries.

I have sometimes been encouraged by others, both as a preacher and as a Christian who reads Scripture for myself, only to turn to Bible commentaries as a very last resort, when, after much wrestling and searching for myself, I still could not make out the sense of a passage—or perhaps just to check that what I thought was its meaning was not entirely off-beat. There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find ‘the answers’, as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself. Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later.

My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by the generations of believers who have come before me. Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start. For most Christians, who lack the time, resources and perhaps also the inclination to do the research themselves, good preaching will be a crucial means by which that historic consensus on Scripture’s meaning is conveyed to individual believers. For that, of course, the preacher needs to be, as he should be, well educated in biblical, historical and systematic theology (173).

Surely, prudence must be exercised with the use of commentaries and their non-use or delayed-use.  There can be a kind of latent pride associated with not using commentaries, but as Ward points out there can also be an unhealthy over dependence.

Either way, we cannot abandon the tradition of the church.  We must learn how to glean from the past without becoming enslaved by it.  His counsel, therefore, merits consideration and frees us who labor in the Word to turn to the commentators as we need, not just after we have merited their comments.  In the end, we must give a final account for our own interpretations (2 Tim 2:15), but since the church (and its ministerial tradition) exist as a pillar and buttress of the truth, it is good and right to read the Scripture with the Reformers, the Fathers, and others who help us see what Scripture is saying.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss