Being and Building a Better Church: Temple Language in Paul

buildingIn Jesus the Temple Wheaton professor and New Testament scholar, Nicholas Perrin, makes an important correction on the way we read “temple language” in the letters of Paul. He writes, “When we come to the apostle Paul, we find a corpus of literature permeated with temple imagery” (65). What Perrin observes is the way Paul’s Second Temple Judaism forms a vital backdrop for Paul’s choice of words. Instead of being an incidental metaphor, Perrin argues Paul is leaning heavily on his Jewish background and its temple theology.

Whereas modern Christians might use temple language in more abstract or metaphorical ways, Paul uses it in specific, concrete ways. After all, he writes in a day when Jews continued to worship in a physical building. Therefore, when he speaks of the church as a “temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16–17; Ephesians 2:21), “building” (1 Corinthians 3:9), or “household” (1 Timothy 3:15), when he speaks of the apostles as “pillars” (Galatians 2:9), or when he speaks of the body as a temple of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), his life as a sacrifice (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), and ethical living as ritual purity (2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1), he is not using an accessible metaphor. He is speaking concretely about the fact that the church of God, erected from the cornerstone of Christ, is the new and living temple of God.

Perrin makes his point emphatically as he comments on 1 Corinthians 3:9–10.

Although some readers suppose that Paul’s analogy between the Corinthian community and ‘God’s building’ was more or less arbitrary, as if ‘God’s building’ could just as easily have been exchanged with, say, ‘God’s pyramid,’ with limited difference in meaning, I find this approach unconvincing. After all, had any building served Paul’s analogy, he could have quite easily omitted the qualifier ‘of God,’ but obviously chose not to do so. Second, the effortless slide from ‘God’s field’ to ‘God’s building’ in v.9 is not an abrupt mixing of metaphors, but an appeal to two lines of imagery (architectural and horticultural) that in the Jewish literature finds their convergence in the temple. Third, the very fact that vv. 16–17 of the same chapter explicitly compare the Christian believers to a divinely inhabited temple — and from the Jewish point of view there was only one of these — should further disincline us to think that Paul has anything but the temple in mind here. God’s building is not any old house belonging to God; it is God’s unique temple. (67)

In truth, a brief survey of Paul’s letters shows that “temple language” shows up in a variety of places and a variety of ways. Sometimes the language speaks directly of a temple, a building, or “parts” of the edifice (e.g., foundation, pillar, etc.). Other times the temple language is more veiled, as in the metaphorical “building up.” Such language can be read without any recognition of the temple, but that’s the problem. Such a reading misses the fuller picture.

To correct our vision, let’s consider a number of these references. (Feel free to suggest others in the comments). Continue reading