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Infants and Morons

The book of I Corinthians is, from first to last, a book about making sound judgements: the price and evidence of folly, the standards of wisdom, and what wisdom requires of us. It is uniquely relevant to the Christian classical school.

Two passages stood out to me this morning as I was contemplating what it means to be spiritual (pneumatikos). One, 14:37, can be translated like this: “If someone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that what I write is the instructions of the Lord.”

The other, 11:16, can be translated like this: “If someone has a reputation for being contentious, we have no such habit.”

The reason these passages stood out to me is that in the original they have the same opening: ei de tis dokei. The challenge is in that word dokei. If it is transitive, it means “thinks,” and then needs an object. But if it is intransitive, it means something like “seems, appears,” or “has a reputation.”

Because of the pattern of the two passages and because of the themes of the “book” of I Corinthians, I’m convinced that Paul intends the passages to echo each other and to be translated the same way. For this reason, I would translate both of them “If someone has a reputation…”, not “if someone thinks…”

“If someone has a reputation for being spiritual, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the instructions of the Lord.”

“If someone has a reputation for being contentious, we have no such habit, nor do the churches of God.”

Why belabor the point? Because I Corinthians is about reputations and the quest to appear wise and spiritual. In chapter 3, Paul had to rebuke the Corinthians, especially their leadership, because of their divisiveness. They thought they were pretty wise. Instead they were contentious (1:11). They were tempted by the “wisdom of the world” (1:17-29), but it only made them infants in Christ (3:1).

In 3:18 he writes, “If anyone among you seems to be wise in this age, let him become a fool.” Yes, it’s the same phrase: ei tis dokei (de is missing, but that is just a conjunction). I would translate it this way:

“If anyone among you has a reputation for being wise in this age, let him become a fool” (moros genestho – we get our word “moron” from moros).

Now we have three reputations:

  • for being wise in this age
  • for being contentious
  • for being a prophet or spiritual
But Paul is not interested ultimately in reputations or seeming. He wants to see reality. That is why he had to rebuke them. And let me say, it’s a very strong rebuke. To these people who have a reputation for being wise, he writes:
I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual (pnuematikos) but as to carnal (sarkinois*), as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal.
Maybe you have a reputation for being spiritual, he says, but I know better. You are carnal. Maybe you have a reputation for being wise in this age, but I have to speak to you as babes in Christ.
To get at the precise point of this post, go back to the first two reputations above. If you have a reputation for being spiritual, then “acknowledge that what I have written is the instructions of the Lord.” Then he adds, “But let the ignorant be ignorant.”
If you have a reputation for contention, the church has no such habit.
Paul presents us with one desirable option: to be spiritual. In these two passages, he presents two men who fall short of the spiritual: on the one hand, the ignorant. On the other, the contentious. The spiritual, he says at 2:15, judges all things, yet no one is able to judge him. If we want to become spiritual, we must learn to judge ourselves. And the first thing to look for in ourselves is a contentious spirit.
Is there envy, strife, or division among us? Then we are carnal. If we are carnal, we cannot handle the solid food. Are we ignorant of things we ought to know? Do we think we know anything? Then we do not yet know as we ought to know (8:2). Does our knowledge cause others to stumble?
Let us become fools for Christ, so we can escape this world of illusions and be wise in Him who is made for us wisdom – and more: righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, that as it is written:
He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.
* from sarx: flesh. They are fleshly, in the sense of valuing the earthly and bodily above the heavenly and spiritual. However, it is important to note that the spiritual man does not devalue the bodily, rather he brings it to perfection. The carnal cannot see the spiritual, so he doesn’t value it and has a hostile attitude toward it. The spiritual “judges all things” so he sees the value of the physical and puts it in its right place.
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