Jan 3, 2011

Weak Brethren V

“Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.” (Verses 7, 8)

In properly interpreting these next verses, it is most important to first determine who is meant by "every man" ("everyone"). Does he mean "not in everyone in the church at Corinth," or "not in everyone in the world"? If the former, then Paul would be affirming that there were some members of the church in Corinth who did not have "that knowledge," did not know that there was "one God, the Father, from whom are all things," and did not know that there was "one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things." But, clearly this cannot be the case, for one cannot be baptized, cannot be a Christian, a member of the church, who does not know, believe, and confess the creed given by Paul in verses 4-6. Clearly Paul means "there is not in everyone in the world that (Christian) knowledge..." Only some in the world possess the knowledge expressed in the given creed, and conversely, some do not. It is special, particular, knowledge.

There is no doubt that there are many people who hear Christian teaching but who never believe it or become converted to it. Sunday schools, bible classes, and regular church worship services, contain such people. These are learners, and disciples, but are not yet converted, not yet Christians. Some of them, in some respects, are "initiates," people who are "not far from the kingdom" (Mark 12: 34), but who have not yet entered.

The church at Corinth, like all Christian assemblies, had many non-Christians who attended Christian meetings and heard the teaching and saw the activities of Christians. Paul alluded to these visitors in his letter to the Corinthians. He asked the members of the church - "how shall he that occupieth the room of the unlearned say Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he understandeth not what thou sayest?" (14: 16) The "unlearned" in the Christian faith are "weak brothers," though they are not Christians, not yet "gained," not yet "saved."

"For some with conscience of the idol..."

Who are these "some"? Some in the church, or some in the world? This is a most important question in properly identifying whether the weak are saved or lost, Christian or non-Christian. No one disputes that the "some" mentioned by the apostle are "the weak brothers." The dispute concerns whether they are Christians, converts to the creed given by the apostle, and whether these "some" are weak members of the church at Corinth. Does Paul mean "some born again Christians"? Is he contrasting two kinds of saved Christians or two kinds of people, saved and lost, Christian and non-Christian?

Clearly, these "some" are the same as that group who do not possess "that knowledge," that Christian or salvation knowledge, and are therefore unsaved, ungained, unconverted. Here is precisely where the majority view begins to err in interpretation. It identifies these "some" as "some in the church at Corinth," rather than "some in the world." They teach this, without any contextual reason, and rather, against the context, and they are then stuck with the repugnant conclusion that affirms that one can be Christian without possessing "that knowledge." But, how can one be a Christian, or convert, and yet still have what are called "scruples" about paganism and idolatry? Just how "weak" is such a "Christian"? Is he a "convert" who, nevertheless, is in serious doubt about his monotheism and about the person of Christ? Full conviction of the creed of verses 4-6 is not necessary for membership in the church of Christ? Apparently not, if the majority view is correct. The work of commentators dealing with the logical consequences of their interpretation draws attention.

Some err in properly defining what is meant by having a "conscience of the idol." Those who want to designate "the weak" as genuinely saved Christians will describe them, however, as a class of semi-converted Christians, who only partly believe the creed of the apostle, who have weak convictions for the creed. These interpreters will affirm that the word "conscience," as first used in the verse, ought to be translated differently than how it is translated when used in the second instance in the verse.

The Greek word for "conscience" is "syneidēsis" and simply means a "joint knowledge" (Thayer) and is uniformly translated in the KJV as "conscience." It involves being "conscious" in mind and thought, being aware of one's awareness, knowing that one knows, particularly as it relates to being responsible for being and doing, to ethics and morality. "Conscience" represents either 1) the faculty of discerning right from wrong, or 2) the actual discerning of right and wrong.

The NIV translates "some with conscience of the idol" as "some people are still so accustomed to idols." The NIV translators felt compelled, for some reason, to translate the Greek word, not by the word "conscience," as they did in the latter part of this verse, but by the words "still so accustomed to." That is a bad, and biased, translation. It is a biased translation, given in order to affirm that "the weak" are converted members of the church at Corinth. But, this definition makes no sense, especially if we apply it to the second time the word "conscience" is used in the verse. Paul says "since their conscience is weak." Does he mean their customary practice, or habit, is weak? That is nonsense. Conscience involves knowledge and recognition, a moral or spiritual awareness. There is the further idea of "participation" in the knowledge peculiar to "conscience." When interpreters give two different definitions of a single word in the same sentence, something is truly amiss.

"Some with conscience of the idol eat it (religious food) as a thing sacrificed to idols..." Is this not a clear description of a polytheist and an idol worshipper? How can anyone think that Paul is describing a Christian in these words? Paul is surely describing the pagan worshipper in Corinth. The idols and "the gods" were accepted as real deities and daily life reflected this belief system of the pagan conscience. These pagans, who possess a "consciousness" regarding gods and idols, "unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol..." These weak ones, pagan brothers and neighbors to the Corinthian Christians, says Paul, are still practicing regularly their heathen religion, saying "unto this hour." Such language is not suitable to be applied to the so-called weak Christian, the one who supposedly still has "scruples" about his former pagan religion, for these, as is acknowledged by all, would only occasionally backslide into such a former way of thinking, and participate, therefore, in offering a sacrifice to an idol judged as real. But, the idolater Paul refers to is one who is continuing regular practice of his paganism. He says they "until this hour eat it as a thing sacrificed to idols." Does this not mean that the weak one eats it with a faith and conscience in the reality of the idol? How can this person be said to be a Christian?

Paul does not speak in the second person when speaking of those who offer sacrifices to idols from having a conscience of the idol, but in the third person. If Paul thought the weak ones were members of the church of Corinth, he would speak to them in the second person. Paul did not say "but some of you, with conscience of the idol, eat it unto this day with an awareness of the idols."

Some who argue for the majority interpretation, regarding the identity of the "weak brothers," will seek to speak of how the weak Christian does not have "the same degree" of knowledge as the more mature, well-grounded, Christian. But, Paul does not speak of degrees of Christian knowledge in these verses, as if contrasting saved people, but in opposites. Paul never uses the words "weaker" or "stronger," comparative words, but always uses opposite words, as "weak" versus "strong."

"and his conscience, being weak, is defiled." The Greek structure shows that the word "weak" is not an adjective for "conscience." Paul is not saying - "and his weak conscience is defiled." The conscience is what is defiled. But, whose conscience? The conscience of the "weak one." His conscience is weak because he is weak in his nature. The weakness of the idol worshipper reveals itself in weak knowledge and conscience, and in its defilement. Notice again how Paul continues to speak to the church of Corinth in the second person but of the weak ones in the third person.

Further, Paul does not mean to say that the idolatrous act was a single act of defilement, as if a temporary mistake of an unstable Christian, when he says "their conscience is defiled," but means "once again their conscience is defiled," for the conscience of the pagan is defiled further every time he offers sacrifice.

Wrote Dr. Nanos (emphasis mine):

"It is the impaired ones' sense of what is right that is ironically "strengthened" to continue to perceive things incorrectly (v. 10), to continue without the knowledge that could keep them from destroying themselves (vv. 7, 11).

And while he addresses his instructions to the knowledgeable, it is less clear that he addresses the impaired, that they are even part of the encoded or the actual audience Paul envisages will hear the letter read; rather, he writes about the impaired, and the impact of the behavior of the knowledgeable upon them.

If the impaired are simply the polytheist idolaters of Corinth, then they will be impacted by the consequences of the behavior of the knowledgeable if the knowledgeable heed Paul's letter, as well as if they do not. But Paul's language does not require that the impaired are being addressed, or even among the knowledgeable when they meet to hear this letter read. The constant third person references to them suggest that they are not."

Dr. Nanos points out how "the weak" are "the knowledgeable" while those who are "strong" are those "without knowledge." He also shows how Paul addresses the church as composed only of those who are strong and knowledgeable, and not as a mixture of weak and strong, of those who have Christian knowledge and those who do not. The ones who know, who are not weak, are addressed in the second person, but those who do not know, who are impotent and lacking Christian knowledge, he addresses in the third person.

Dr. Nanos writes:

"Their "impaired" sense of what is right will ironically be "built up," that is, they will be "edified" or "strengthened" to continue the course on which they have spent their whole lives, instead of challenged by the fact that Christ-believers are willing to abandon even the pretense of worshipping their many gods and lords (v. 10). They are brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, but they would not be reached with that message if the Christbelievers lived according to the rights they suppose themselves to have, regardless of the consequences for those who do not share their knowledge."

Dr. Nanos correctly observes how the distinction is between those who have Christian knowledge and those who do not have it. It is not a distinction between Christians who know in great degree and Christians who know in less degree. He also correctly observes that the behavior of Christians, who possess the knowledge of "one God, the Father," and of "one Lord, Jesus Christ," may keep a "weak brother" from abandoning his paganism. It is not that the Corinthian believers keep a brother Christian from reverting back into paganism.

Dr. Nanos wrote:

"What is significant is that the "impaired ones" are so labeled because they do not share in the "knowledge" of Christ-believers that there is no god but the One; hence, their "sense of what is right" is "impaired."

However, Paul's comment here need not mean that the impaired were not already doing the harmful thing at issue, which most interpreters understand to be implied. Building up need not signify the same thing as starting from scratch. The point is that they are strengthened in resolve to do it."

The context of Paul's words are clear and it is bewildering how most commentators miss this.

Wrote Dr. Nanos:

"What is the "ruin" Paul fears will result for the impaired if they witness Christbelievers eating idol food? Although the "ruin" or "destruction" is self inflicted by the impaired one in 8:11 ("he will cause himself to be ruined"), it is the knowledgeable who "strengthen" them to choose that course for themselves, who thus cause them to "stumble" in the direction of self-destruction, who "sin" against them, who "wound" their "sense of what is right" (vv. 9-13). At least several possibilities can be imagined to describe what Paul envisages:

1) Idolaters may fail to understand that Christ-faith makes exclusivistic claims for the One God and Christ over against the claims of any other gods, since it appears to incorporate eating of food offered to other gods. Hence, the message of good in Christ is not being proclaimed as it should be, and cannot effect the changes Paul believes should result from proclamation of this news (cf. 14:22-25). The knowledge of the One that can save the impaired is being obstructed by the very ones who have themselves already benefited from understanding that message.

2) Idolaters may not take the message of Christ-faith seriously, that is, on the exclusivistic and superiority terms that it claims against other gods and lords, such as the worship of the One God alone, and the message of salvation in Christ. Idolaters may conclude that even those who profess faith in Christ and the One God do not want to risk the wrath of the gods, or any of the other socio-economic, physical, and psychological consequences that polytheists might expect to result from neglect or abstention of various rites, or from opting out of the social networks within society that participation in these rites entails. That would likely lead to the a priori dismissal of the claims of the message of good in Christ. The message of good is thus being compromised, corrupted by its messengers.

3) If idolaters did understand and take their exclusivistic claims seriously, and recognized that they claimed to have something superior to that which idolaters uphold to be true, then idolaters may regard those who profess it to lack integrity: they are hypocrites, arrogant troublemakers, or simply foolish. There is little force to their confession of faith in God and Christ to be exclusive of and superior to other gods. For these Christ-believers fail to live up to the truths proclaimed when they still participate in idolatrous rites, and eat idol-related food they have otherwise renounced to be inferior. This is different than being regarded to be foolish because of believing in the message of a crucified lord, and behaving consistent with that confession in the face of resistance, which Paul expects and experiences for his faithfulness to the message. If idolaters conclude that Christ-believers are hypocrites, they will likely dismiss the message of good in Christ out of hand as lacking integrity.

4) The Christ-believers' faith might be perceived to incorporate the worship of other gods alongside faith in Christ. If any polytheists are interested in Christ-faith for themselves, they may conclude that they can add the One God and Christ to their pantheon, in keeping with the common practice in Greco-Roman culture of incorporating new gods. This would appear to be fully compatible with their polytheistic sensibilities, based on observing the behavior of those who proclaim this news. Ironically, the "superstitions" of their idolatrous family members, friends, neighbors, fellow association members, and social and political contacts, will all be confirmed, not denied. They will be caused to stumble, taking the form of merely adding God and Christ to their idolatrous way of life. The already impaired are thus rendered unable to know that which the knowledgeable know, and are being destroyed by continuing to live in idolatry. From Paul's implied point of view, if the knowledgeable eat food that idolaters (i.e., the impaired ones) regard to be sacred, it will confirm that it is indeed sacred, and the idolaters will be ruined as a result.

In each of these scenarios, the impaired can be understood to be strengthened in their misguided sense of what is right, failing to perceive "the truth" about idolatry, and thus Paul may conclude that the perpetuation of their impaired state as a result of the wrong behavior by the knowledgeable will lead the impaired to their ruin. All of these outcomes, including various combinations of them, would represent alienation from the message of good in Christ that Paul believes can be avoided if the Christ-believers refrain from eating idol food on behalf of the sensibilities of idolaters. He does not want idolaters to be "scandalized" by behavior not befitting those confessing the faith. He wants them to know the One God through Christ-faith. He wants his audience to follow his own example, for he would not even eat "meat" if the eating of any kind of "food" would cause the stumbling of some over the message of Christ (8:13); moreover, he adapts his presentation of the message to "everyone" in order that he might "gain" even "some" to be "saved" (9:19-23).

I thus conclude, in direct contrast to the consensus views, that the impaired ate idol food without any qualms; that is what idolaters do. Moreover, the knowledgeable most likely did not eat idol food, or dine at polytheist's temples, just as Christbelievers would not be expected to do. This point is accentuated all the more to the degree that we accept that these Christ-believers likely met as subgroups within the Jewish communities of Corinth. Although these former polytheists wondered if it would be acceptable to eat it, most likely for a host of the socio-economic and psychological reasons associated with remaining "in the world," in addition to the notion that it would demonstrate their faith proposition of indifference to idols, Paul herein sought to make it plain that they must not. It would perpetuate the impaired state of their idolatrous neighbors, rather than helping to bring them to faith in Christ, and it involved a relationship with evil forces that should be avoided at all costs (10:16-22). Paul reminds them what happened to Israelites who indulged in similarly mistaken logic (10:5-22, drawing on Num 25).

Paul's original audience knew what we cannot know; namely, whether there were any Christ-believers behaving in the way in which the impaired are described, or whether his descriptions and concerns naturally matched those of their polytheist families, friends, and neighbors. Are there any other clues either within or outside of chapters 8—10 that might support the notion proposed herein, that it was polytheistic brothers and sisters' sensibilities and outcomes in Corinth with whom Paul was concerned?"

Weak Brothers

1. Believe in “many gods”
2. Believe in “many lords”
3. Believe the idol is a real god
4. Believe “all things” are not “of him”
5. Believe “all things” are not “by him” (Jesus)

Strong Brothers

1. Believe in “One God” (the Father)
2. Believe in “One Lord” (Jesus)
3. Believe the “idol is nothing at all”
4. Believe “all things” are “of him”
5. Believe “all things” are “by him” (Jesus)

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