A little theology can be a dangerous thing

Photo by Koos SchwanebergI can’t be sure, but I’m guessing that most of you don’t lose sleep over the matter of whether to eat food that’s been ritually sacrificed to idols.

But…maybe you have lost sleep wondering whether certain behaviors were consistent with your commitment to Christ.  Maybe you’ve watched other Christians–including those whom you admire as more knowledgeable or mature–engage in what you consider to be questionable behaviors, and have therefore doubted your own scruples.

Or maybe you’re the other person, the one people look up to as an example.  If so, you’re the one Paul wants to talk to.

As we saw in the last post, some of the Corinthians wanted to argue theology with Paul on the basis of their presumed knowledge.  The background to the disagreement seems to be this.  There were numerous places of pagan worship in Corinth, at which meat would be ritually sacrificed, then cooked and eaten in celebration; unused meat would be taken to the marketplace for sale.

Many of the Christians in Corinth would have participated regularly in such temple activities–but could they continue to do so without committing the sin of idolatry?  How much of their previous lifestyle would have to be abandoned?  Could they even buy that kind of meat with a clear conscience?

Some of the Corinthians, apparently, had been continuing to eat in pagan temples, and teaching others that this was perfectly compatible with their newfound faith.  The argument might have gone like this: Look, get your theology straight.  There is no God but one.  Idols are nothing; they aren’t real.  So don’t be such a spiritual baby.  Eat in the temples; buy sacrificed meat in the market.  Meat is just meat, nothing more.

It sounds reasonable.  But there’s a self-serving dimension in the argument.  We’ve seen it before: some were using the slogan “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” (1 Cor 6:13) as a way of justifying their sexual freedom.  The direction of the argument about meat is distorted by selfish motivations: they don’t want to give up this part of their lives.  And if the “food for the stomach” passage is any indication, some of them probably weren’t just going to the temple to eat.

Paul makes an interesting move at this point.  He doesn’t disagree with their major premises: idols are nothing; there is no God but one.  But instead of going next to a criticism of how they were using their theology in unloving ways, he pauses to give what reads almost like a creedal statement:

…there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (1 Cor 8:6, NRSV)

It’s an awe-inspiring affirmation, and a potentially dangerous one in the context of a culture in which Caesar is to be revered.  There is but one God, one Lord–the Father, and Jesus Christ.  The Father is the Creator from whom are all things, and we live for him; Jesus is the agent of creation through whom are all things, and we live through him.

It’s possible that Paul says this simply to affirm their common beliefs before moving on to correction.  But I think there’s more going on here.  He sees them as mouthing right words without right understanding, and is intentionally and ironically calling them back to their foundations: You say that you “know” that “there is no God but one.”  But if you really knew what this meant, if you really knew yourself to be standing under the lordship of this Jesus, you might be more humble in your knowledge and more willing to question what this imperial culture takes for granted.

There is no God but one, the one who creates and redeems, the one for whom and through whom we live.  That’s not to be said lightly.  Paul’s point, perhaps, is that a little theology can be a dangerous thing, when true statements are divorced from true worship.