It’s reading week at seminary, although, as second-year Hilmer astutely noted, it should be called writing week. This has been a remarkably busy semester, with word floating about the seminary halls that it’s the busiest anyone there has seen. I take breaks here and there, of course, if even to whip up a blog post. But those breaks are shrouded in guilt; and when I do take the odd whole night off, I do so sheepishly under the intense glare of the many thousands of words waiting to be written.
So this reading week is devoted to silencing as many of those glares as possible. I spent the last day and a half writing a paper for our New Testament Background class. In that class we study the world in which the New Testament was written, its culture, economy, politics, and society. The idea there is that by studying that world we can come to a more full understanding of the text. The paper was a fun 2800 words to write, so I’ll share a summary of it here with you.
The Corinthians were fond of a certain style of teaching that was more like an intellectual contact sport than anything else. There were no regulations and no standards whatsoever for education in the Roman empire, meaning that there were no credentialed teachers. So the way it worked was simple. If you felt like you were a teacher who deserved some students, you went to the marketplace and delivered a speech. Not just any speech, though, but a speech on a topic chosen at random by the crowd. You were given at most a day to prepare, so you had to have a well-rounded base of general knowledge. If you were impressive, then the wealthy members of the crowd would approach you for the purpose of teaching their sons, or maybe even themselves. The ability to speak well in public was seen by the Greeks as the highest art attainable, and they were willing to pay you, the teacher, substantial sums to pass your skills on to them.
But it got even better for you. Not only were those students expected to reward you, they were even more required to revere you. For your job involved more than just passing on to them public speaking skills. The entire life of the speaker had to be persuasive, an argument in itself, so you had to teach them how to lead a persuasive life. To this end, students imitated their teachers in every way, from how they spoke, to how they dressed, even to how they walked. They were fanatically loyal to their teachers. The flip side of this, however, was that they were equally fanatic in their derision of other teachers, and of students of those teachers. So we begin to understand what’s going on in 1 Corinthians 1:12, where each of the Corinthians was saying “‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or “I follow Christ.’”
Many Christians today also use the names of great teachers to describe themselves and their beliefs. We have Calvinists, and Lutherans; an Athanasian Creed and Thomistic philosophy. So it may seem that when Paul criticizes the Corinthians for saying “I follow Apollos,” that we can then take that criticism and apply it to those of us who claim to be Calvinists or Thomists. There is a place for these criticisms, no doubt. When followers of great teachers uncritically exalt them, and especially force them into ad hominem conflicts with other teachers, then indeed this text would be aptly applied. But to simply conclude from the text that no labels should be used at all, that any use of Lutheran or Athanasian is divisive and corrosive, would be to distort the text.
In fact, to apply the text that simply would lead to a conclusion that no one can accept. For the fourth teacher that Paul mentions in verse 12, after himself, Apollos, and Peter, is Christ. Paul criticizes some of the Corinthians for claiming to follow Christ. So if one were to apply the text today against those who label themselves Calvinists, he would have to be consistent and apply it also against those who label themselves Christians. But this is absurd, and no one would apply it so. Because what is being missed in such an application is the fact that when someone today says, “I follow Christ,” he means something different than when those Corinthians were saying, “I follow Christ.” What the Corinthian meant in that context, and what Paul is criticizing, was following Christ as opposed to, and over and against, following Peter, or Paul, or Apollos. It is the division and denigration that Paul speaks out against, not simply the adherence to a certain teacher. So if this text is going to be applied properly, then it must be applied to more than a simple label. It must be applied to the schismatic spirit that such labels can sometimes represent.
Those last two paragraphs were pulled straight from my paper, and illustrate the importance of understanding the cultural context of a certain book or passage of Scripture.