Dec 23, 2010

Weak Brethren I

Are the "weak brothers" mentioned in I Corinthians 8 and Romans 14 a reference to immature, yet saved Christians, or to unsaved non-Christians? Undoubtedly, the majority interpretation has historically argued that the "weak brothers" are Christians, although still retaining "scruples" regarding paganism or polytheism. In this treatis reasons will be presented for rejecting the majority interpretation and for accepting the proposition that the "weak" are not Christians at all, or monotheists, but pagan polytheists. It will be shown that there is no reason, contextually, for identifying "the weak ones" with Christians and believers.

Gaining The Weak

"To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." (I Cor. 9: 22)

How anyone can read this passage and affirm that the "weak" are saved people is incredible. Paul says that the weak are they who have not been "gained" or "saved." This verse alone ought to put interpreters on the right track for identifying who is meant by the "weak."

Now, one can, of course, follow the commentators, who avow that the "weak" are saved Christian people. But, accepting the majority view of commentators is not a reliable criterion for establishing truth. Oftentimes, the minority holds the correct view.

In the commentary of Jamieson, Faussett, and Brown, the authors refer to Greek scholar, Henry "Dean" Alford, who affirmed that "the 'weak' are not Christians at all, for these have been already 'won'; but those outside the Church, who are yet "without strength" to believe (Rom. 5:6)."

Alford, like some other commentators, was willing to affirm that the "weak" of I Cor. 9: 22 were lost people, or non-Christian, yet inconsistently affirmed that the "weak" of I Corinthians chapter eight were Christian. Such commentators do not see "the weak" of chapter nine as being the same as "the weak" of chapter eight. There is no contextual reason, however, for differentiating "the weak" of each chapter.

Some commentators are more consistent and affirm that "the weak" of chapter nine is the same group as "the weak" of chapter eight, and that in both cases, reference is to those Christians who are not yet fully established in Christian monotheism or in the singular lordship of Christ. These commentators do not believe that the "gaining" of the weak is a reference to the initial conversion or salvation of the weak, but to a post salvation "gaining" of them, a gaining or saving of them to further or confirmed knowledge. They are "saved" from their doubts, or from their "scruples."

John Gill, in his commentary, states that "the weak" are "weak Christians, who were weak in faith, and had not such clear knowledge of Gospel liberty," and then says that the "gaining" of the weak referred to "promoting their edification and welfare," a keeping them from "falling from" or "deserting the faith of the Gospel." Thus, "gaining" the "weak" is not a reference to conversion, or to an initial "saving" of the weak, according to Gill. However, when Paul speaks of "gaining" the Jews, or lawless Gentiles, Gill thinks there is a reference to the conversion and initial salvation of these groups. This is inconsistent and contradictory. Paul does not equivocate on the significance of "gaining" or "saving" in the passage.

"For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some." (19-22)

All these terms denote lost people, people who are not Christian, who are not believers in Jesus. The terms are 1) "men" and "all men" who have not been "gained" and, 2) "the Jews" who have not been "gained" and, 3) "those under the law" who have not been "gained," and, 4) "the weak" who have not been "gained." To affirm that the term "the weak" represents saved people, while the other terms represent unsaved people, is gross misinterpretation. To affirm that the "gaining" of Jews, lawless ones, yea, of all men, denotes initial conversion and salvation, but the "gaining" of the "weak" is not so, but a post conversion gaining, is gross misinterpretation.

The Impotent

The Greek word for "weak" is "asthenes" and means "weak, infirm, feeble." It is sometimes translated as "impotent." In Romans 5: 6 it is translated (KJV) as "without strength" and is applied to those who are "ungodly," to unsaved "sinners." This is further evidence that the class of people denoted by the term "the weak" is not the class of Christians.

One modern commentator, Dr. Mark Nanos, has written against the traditional view. Published in 2008, Dr. Nanos wrote "The Polytheist Identity of the 'Weak,' And Paul's Strategy to 'Gain' Them: A New Reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1—11:1." Dr. Nanos takes the same view as this treatise. His writing is available on the internet here

Wrote Dr. Nanos (emphasis mine):

"When it comes to identifying those Paul describes as asthenes in 1 Corinthians 8— usually translated "weak"— there are many interpretations on offer. But when it comes to the question of their identity as Christbelievers, there is only one. That they are Christbelievers is apparently so obvious that interpreters often proceed without discussion. However, I propose that the consensus is likely mistaken, that the asthenes are "polytheists" who do not believe in the message of good in Jesus Christ that Paul proclaims, and in which his recipients believe. From Paul's perspective, the Corinthians need to recognize that the adelphos are also adelphoi (brothers/sisters) on behalf of whom Christ died. They should thus be sincerely concerned with the harmful impact that their proposed eating of idol food as if merely ordinary food would have upon these 'unbelievers.'"

Dr. Nanos prefers the term "impaired" for the Greek word "asthenes." He does not wholly favor using the term "pagan" in reference to them. He writes:

"I will employ the translation "impaired" to refer to the asthenes. Impaired highlights that they are being objectified by Paul (if not already by his audience as well) to be unable to function in the way that he expects of those with properly working sensibilities, lacking the proper sense of what is true about the divine.

The term "polytheist" is adopted to denote those who are neither Jews nor Christ-believers, even though some Greco-Roman philosophers might not be helpfully described as polytheists either, but continued reference to them as "non-Christ-believing-non-Jews," or something similar, is cumbersome.

"Greeks" is misleading, since most Jews and Christ-believers are likely also Greeks in Corinth, and a similar problem applies to using Romans; "idolaters" could be confusing, because many interpreters understand the Corinthians to be Christ-believers who are still in some sense idolaters; "pagan" is anachronistic, although it could have also been adopted, with similar caveats."

In this treatise the term "pagan" has been selected as best for describing the class of "weak ones," but the term "polytheist" is also used. It is agreed that this class represents, as Dr. Nanos said, "non-Christ-believing-non-Jews."

Under the sub-heading "The Prevailing Views for the Identity of the Impaired," Dr. Nanos wrote:

"The 'impaired' are generally perceived to be Christ-believers insecure about the implications of their newly found faith. They are unable to eat food dedicated to idols as if religiously meaningless, having been 'until now accustomed to eating idol food as if [sanctified] to idols' (8:7). If they were to see the knowledgeable ones 'reclining at an idol's temple,' they might 'be strengthened to eat food sacrificed to idols' (8:10), against their own sense of what is right, which has not yet adjusted to Christ-believing ideals.

The consensus view that the impaired ones are specifically Christ-believers appears to be based on several factors. Although often not discussed, the primary reason is probably that Paul refers to the impaired ones as adelphoi/ (brothers/sisters) of his 'knowledgeable' audience, who have the ability to trip up and thus harm the impaired if they continue to eat idol food in their presence. Also, Paul refers to Christ having died on behalf of the impaired brothers/sisters, so that sinning against them is sinning against Christ (8:11-12)."

In opposition to the "consensus view," the view of the majority of interpreters, Dr. Nanos then wrote in favor of the view that "the weak ones" were not Christians under the sub-heading "A New Proposal: The Impaired as non-Christ-believing Polytheists."

He wrote:

"In spite of several reasons to identify the impaired ones to be Christ-believers, which have been discussed, the consensus view is nevertheless far from certain, and I do not think that it is probable. I am neither convinced that from Paul's perspective the impaired ones are insecure in their faith, specifically, that they are troubled by eating idol food, nor that he fears they will revert to idolatry if the knowledgeable behave against their sensibilities. Rather, I propose that the impaired are polytheist idolaters with whom the Christ-believers in Corinth interact, even those to whom they are proclaiming the gospel message. The impaired are not resistant to eating idol food; rather, the impaired have always eaten idol food as an act of religious significance. After all, is it not more logical to suppose that Christ-believers "know" the truth about idols now, by definition, being Christ-believers? In what sense have they become Christ-believers if not by confessing the truth of the One, thus turning from the truth they had supposed before about idols and other gods and lords?"

Dr. Nanos speaks about one of the dangers of the majority view when he indicates that the majority view is forced to redefine what it means to be a Christian. Non-Christians are "by definition" those who do not know the truth about idols, do not know that there is one God and one Lord. Doubtless this consequence has been felt by those holding the "consensus view." On one internet web site, where this issue was being discussed, the writer said:

"...some of those who do not recognize there is only one God were weak Christians. Am I missing something or is this saying some of these early Christians still believed the gods behind the idols were real? Did they just agree that Jehovah was the supreme God? Could polytheists be Christians as long as they did not honor those other “gods”? Help me out on this one."

In response to this query, a commenter wrote:

"Isn’t Paul teaching the Christians here to be patient with these new and weak brethren as they would be taught out of their polytheism?"

These bible students, though following the "consensus view," nevertheless realized the implications of it. They saw that the consensus view forced them to affirm that one could still hold to polytheistic beliefs and be called Christian. Yet, they were reluctant to do so. Why? Is it not because, "by definition," a "Christian" is one who has wholly rejected polytheism?

Another commenter said:

"Good thoughts on necessary inference! I had not thought of this passage as an example of it before now.

To me, the lack of knowledge that some brethren in Corinth had is defined in vs. 7 – they “eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol, and their conscience being weak is defiled.” Those pagans who were converted had been taught that the idol is nothing, and acceptance of this point was a key part in their conversion to Christ. Consider Paul’s Mars Hill sermon, which must have been preached in Corinth as well. He taught that they, “ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man,” and then commanded repentance (Acts 17:29-30). So the fact that “polytheism is false” was known even to the new converts."

See here

Again, it is obvious to those who have been taught, and even embraced the majority view, that the "consensus view" presents theological problems. On the one hand, the scriptures define a Christian as one who has come to certain knowledge about the falsity of idols and polytheism, yet the consensus view regarding "the weak ones" forces one to deny this defining aspect of what it means to be Christian.

On another internet web site, Richard Oster ("1 Corinthians") says (emphasis mine):

"By his statement here that not everyone knows this, Paul is making it explicit that not all the believers in the church of God at Corinth totally accepted the Christian monotheistic position that he and certain other believers embraced.

While it may sound surprising at first to hear Paul acknowledging that there are believers in Corinth who do not embrace monotheism fully, this should really come as no surprise to the modern interpreter. As has been pointed out before, many of those Christians at Corinth who received this letter had been Christians for less than forty-eight months. It is not surprising, therefore, that certain ones from a pagan idolatrous background would in some cases continue to have pagan polytheistic baggage with them in their Christian walk.

It is indeed "surprising" that any Christian bible commentator or teacher should affirm that a person could be a "believer" or "Christian" and yet still retain convictions regarding polytheism. The writer then attempts to dispel this surprising phenomenon by affirming that it really ought not to be surprising after all. Oster thinks that it was to be expected that new converts from paganism would not be fully convinced of Christian monotheism.

Oster then says:

"Some modern (Western World) interpreters find it hard to conceive that certain believers could truly still be having difficulty with tensions concerning idols and monotheistic convictions."

Not only should "modern interpreters" of the "Western World" seem reluctant, or "find it hard" to think of Christians as "still having difficulty concerning idols and monotheistic convictions," but so should every bible believer. There is no scripture anywhere that would define a believer or a Christian as someone who only half-heartedly believes in one God and one Lord Jesus Christ.

Oster writes:

"Gordon Fee, likewise, does not want any of these weak Corinthian believers to still embrace polytheism. To be certain, Paul is not accusing these believers of being guilty of blatant and cavalier idolatry. Nevertheless, since the issues discussed in this chapter are in terms of what individual believers "know" or "do not know," it does seem to be the case that this issue of monotheism versus polytheism is at the center."

Obviously those who accept the "consensus view" perceive the difficulties with affirming that the "weak ones" are Christians. It seems the problem lies in students of the word relying too heavily on what the majority of commentators believe.

Oster then writes:

"Their defilement is a result of the fact that they do not with full spiritual conviction possess monotheistic loyalty to the one God. Consequently, because of their lack of a robust monotheism and because they are still partially caught in the web of polytheism, their conscience is defiled."

One wonders how any bible student could affirm that a person can be a Christian who lacks "full spiritual conviction" regarding the fact that there is "one God, the Father," and "one Lord, Jesus Christ." But, this position is the consequence of erroneously identifying "the weak ones" with born again Christians. See Oster's writing here

Dr. Nanos, conversely, was correct to write:

"I thus suggest that the impaired are not insecure in their faith, they do not share faith in Christ with the knowledgeable. They are not troubled by eating idol food, that is what they do and have always done as a matter of course, "until now." Thus Paul's concern is not that the impaired will revert to idolatry, but that they will never turn away from it. If they witness that even Christ-believers, who otherwise deny their convictions, nevertheless still eat idol food, they will continue to sense that idolatry is right, leading to their self-destruction, when it should be the role of the knowledgeable to live in such a way as to prevent that outcome."

One should have solid grounds for taking the minority view on any biblical subject. This treatuse will offer strong reasons why the popular interpretation is false, the view that identifies "the weak ones" as inferior Christians, or semi converts, and "the strong" as mature Christians, or the full converts.


FolloweroftheLamb said...

This is typical of most church-goers with whom I speak. While they name the name of Christ, they rarely read their Bibles and when they do, they read it superficially. The Bible is its own interpreter.
I recommend tossing commentaries in the trash, reading God's word, and praying to God for answers to tough questions in His word. I had to learn this. I was shown that relying on men's commentaries was the same as denying God's word, as God promised that He will teach us all.
My thoughts for what they are worth...

Bruce Oyen said...

This person's unfortunate view of commentaries reminded me of what C. H. Spurgeon said about such a view in his book on commenting and commentaries.
Spurgeon said: "Of course, you are not such wiseacres as to think or say that you can expound Scripture without assistance from the works of divines and learned men who have laboured before you in the field of exposition. If you are of that opinion, pray remain so, for you are not worth the trouble of conversion, and like a little coterie who think with you, would resent the attempt as an insult to your infallibility. It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others."
The rest of Spurgeon's comments on this matter are worth reading, too.

Stephen Garrett said...

Dear Follower and Bruce:

Some people go to extremes, either for or against commentary use. I use commentaries less and less as I grow older, and as I have learned more of the original languages for myself.



FolloweroftheLamb said...

I certainly do not disavow the use of commentaries. My point regarding them is simply that those who rest on commentaries for their opinions instead of the word of God are surely going to go astray. Why are there so many opinions that differ on any particular passage? Does the Holy Spirit not lead Christ's children into all truth?

Bruce Oyen said...

Here is what "Follower of he Lamb" said about commentaries: "I recommend tossing commentaries in the trash, reading God's word, and praying to God for answers to tough questions in His word. I had to learn this. I was shown that relying on men's commentaries was the same as denying God's word, as God promised that He will teach us all." If that is not disavowing the use of commentaries, I don't know what it is. But, we all sometimes say things unclearly.
No student of the Bible is its infallible interpreter, no doubt for several reasons. Only cultists claim infallibility, which I am sure "Follower Of the Lamb" does not claim. We must do the best we can to interpret the Bible correctly, with the Holy Spirit's help, of course. But even then we are not infallible.One reason for our faliibility is our fallennes. We go to the Bible as fallen and therefore fallible human beings. Only the writer's of the Bible infallibly interpreted it.The promise tht the Holy Spirit would guide into all truth had primary application only to the apostles, to whom the Lord made the statement. It has only a secondary application to the rest of us.The aposles also were told the Holy Spirit would show them things to come. Those things are in the Bible. He does not now show us things to come, though those who believe in ongoing revelation do. All the revelation we need is confined to the written Word of God, the Bible. Our problem is in trying to understand what has been revealed to us. Even 2 Peter says there are some things that are hard to understand, which is not only applicable to Paul's writings but also to other parts of the Bible.

FolloweroftheLamb said...

Yes, that is what I said; however, the point I was attempting to make in the first place is that many can parrot from commentaries while they cannot find a particular book in their own Bibles. Our primary emphasis should be to read our Bibles.

Bruce Oyen said...

I can say a hearty "Amen!" to that.