Monday, May 19, 2008

A Commentary Review: David J. Lull's 1 Corinthians

For the last two quarters I have served as the teaching assistant (TA) for two classes on 1 Corinthians at Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, CA with Dr. David Downs. The first was an exegesis class in which the English text was used and the second was the same class but with Greek. Previous to TAing these two courses, the only work I had done in 1 Corinthians had been in preparation for sermons or Sunday School lessons and in introductory courses on the New Testament. In other words, I had not previously spent much time looking at 1 Corinthians critically or academically. As is normal for me, to prepare for my TA duties I spent quite a bit of time examining commentaries on 1 Corinthians, including the standard ones by Hays, Thiselton, Fee, Garland, and Talbert. However, a smaller commentary that espoused a radically different perspective from me caught my attention -- 1 Corinthians by David J. Lull, which was published by Chalice Press in 2007 as a part of their series called Chalice Commentaries for Today.

According to the series preface, this commentary is aimed "to help pastors, seminary students, and educated laity who are open to contemporary scholarship" (viii) and in Lull's preface he quotes William Beardslee (1916-2001), whose 1994 commentary on 1 Corinthians is revised and expanded here, as stating that his commentary was "written for the general reader" (ix). At the same time this work is also aimed at making sense of 1 Corinthians for today in an understandable way, both in content (non-technical language) and form (few footnotes). Thus, this commentary joins the swelling ranks of commentaries intended for wide readership, as opposed to the technical commentaries to which seminarians and scholars might be more accustomed. I, for one, see this as an admiral undertaking and will always applaud any effort to make the Bible more understandable for "general readers."

As far as the perspective that is different than mine with regard to this book, Lull claims that Beardslee's commentary was "from the perspective of 'process thought'" and that he hopes to "be consistent" with this interpretive matrix (ix). However, he never explicitly describes what he means by "process thought" to his readers, though the series preface does describe the purpose of this series in the language of process theology without actually naming it as such. So what is "process thought"? It has its roots in the philosophy of British thinker Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and was brought into prominence in Christian theology by John Cobb, Jr., who serves as on of the editors of this commentary series and has co-written several books with Lull. Following Whitehead, Cobb and other process thinkers generally agree that God is not unaffected by the world, that God works through persuasion not coercion, and that it is better to view God as a co-sufferer with the world rather than as an omnipotent being standing over against the world (see Grenz and Olson, 20th-Century Theology 130-44). These ideas are affirmed by the series preface in Lull's commentary: "Although the various authors manifest a variety of interests and theological perspectives, they share a vision of God as a relational being who is passionately involved in the life of the world, whose primary feature is love, and who both affects and is affected by the world" (viii). Since the series preface does not name this as process theology (and who, besides a reviewer or a nerd, reads the series preface?!) and since Lull does not explain his perspective in any descriptive way, a little more clarity and straightforwardness would have been beneficial to the reader.

As you might imagine, this theological system (process theology) is a challenge to and critique of traditional systems, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. Also, process thinkers tend to think of traditional categories of Christian thought in different ways. One example from Lull is his view of inspiration. After claiming that the reader of 1 Corinthians should not be quick to judge the Corinthians with whom Paul seems to disagree at points, Lulls writes that "[t]he idea that Paul was always right comes from the theological assumption that inspiration works within the individual biblical author. Most scholars now think of scriptural inspiration as arising in the interaction of people in the community" (emphasis original, 2).

A few things should be said here about Lull's position on inspiration. Most scholars that I know of do not view inspiration in this way. Maybe I do not read the same authors that he does but attributing this position to "most scholars" is misleading since I can think of no other commentator who shares this position as he has stated it (perhaps besides those who have contributed to this series). To be sure, there has been a rising tide of interpreters who insist that readers of the Bible must interpret it together inside their communities of faith (Stephen Fowl and Markus Bockmuehl come to mind immediately) but that is not the same as what Lull has claimed about inspiration. Also, virtually everyone, except perhaps the extremely conservative, would agree that the situation at Corinth influenced and even dictated the choice of content and the direction of 1 Corinthians. Even still, virtually everyone would further affirm that Paul's self understanding was that he was writing to the Corinthians to correct, amend, challenge, and encourage the beliefs and behaviors of the Corinthians. The very fact that Paul does so in this letter is evidence of this truth. We may not be comfortable with this authoritarian position and we may wish to explain it away for modern ears, but I believe that in so doing we have not allowed Paul's letter to be read the way it was intended. Paul speaks to the Corinthians as a spiritual authority and I believe that Lull's view of inspiration hampers the reader's appreciation of this fact.

As far as the commentary proper is concerned, due to the length of Lull's book (146 pages of actual commentary), the theological perspective espoused, and the complexity of the issues that 1 Corinthians raises for today's reader, many interpretive complexities have been oversimplified. A few examples will illustrate this point. Commenting on 7.25-38, Lull simply claims that "virgins" means "females of marriageable age" (71), which would lead the uninitiated reader to believe that there are no other options besides this one, even though there have been all throughout the history of this text's interpretation.

A second example is found in Lull's comments on 11.17-34. In this passage Paul attempts to correct divisive and unfair practices regarding the Lord's Supper. Perhaps the two most interesting issues in this passage are the destructive results of eating the meal improperly (11.30) and how this passage relates to the Synoptic tradition. Lull comments on both but does so briefly and incompletely. With regard to the former he simply states that the ones not taking the meal properly are not explicitly identified with the the ones suffering, thus the destructive power of inappropriately eating the Lord's Supper "acts on the community as a whole" (101). Surely someone preaching or teaching this passage would be pulling their hair out at this point, wishing that Lull had given them more information! With regard to the latter, Lull notes that it is not likely that Paul received the words he shares here about Jesus' last meal with his disciples in the upper room "directly from Jesus" but that he probably received this tradition from others (101). He then continues by pointing out that Paul's version of this event "is the earliest witness to these traditions" (102), earlier even than the Gospels. The reader is again left wanting more -- wanting to know if Paul is more historically reliable than Matthew, Mark, and Luke, not to mention why it is that the various accounts are different. I understand that this could have taken up much space, but at least Lull could have pointed the reader to an outside source that deals with this compelling and complex issue.

It may seem at this point that I have little to say that is positive about Lull's commentary, but that is not the case. He exhibits great care and pastoral concern with regard to sticky issues, particularly homosexuality, marriage, the roles of women, and spiritual gifts. He also does a commendable job in struggling mightily to find application for 1 Corinthians, which can be a daunting task seeing how occasional it is and how influenced by Jewish and Greco-Roman culture and thought patterns it is. Despite these challenges, Lull often gives thoughtful and insightful ways to apply principles found in 1 Corinthians to today's world. Another strong point of this commentary is its author's honesty with regard to his seeming dislike for particular positions Paul takes (or for interpretations of Paul's positions that have persisted), even implying that Paul could have been wrong at points and that his arguments do not hold weight according to our understanding of the world today. Many other commentators feel these same things but do not have the courage to state these thoughts the way that Lull does.

Overall, this commentary is a good overview of 1 Corinthians but not sufficient on its own for someone hoping to teach or preach specific texts from Paul's letter. However, this book would be particularly useful to someone looking for modern-day applications who has already perused the larger more in depth commentaries mentioned earlier. Three stars out of five.

Check out my other reviews here!


Anonymous said...

"Paul speaks to the Corinthians as a spiritual authority and I believe that Lull's view of inspiration hampers the reader's appreciation of this fact."

Can you explain this a little more? It does not seem to me that Lull's notion of inspiration would automatically preclude a view of Paul as a spiritual authority. You seem to be implying that one would have to hold to the idea that Paul, the individual, was inspired in order for him to be viewed as a spiritual authority. Couldn't one understand Paul as a spiritual authority AND understand inspiration to be found in the interaction of the community?

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Thanks for your comment Chris! I guess it was the implication (which I left out of the review) of Lull's view of inspiration that I had a problem with. He goes on to say that if the Spirit was active in the interaction between Paul and the Corinthians, then we could learn from both sides of the conversation. While I agree with that in some loose way, strictly speaking, the document that we consider canonical was written by someone who considered his position on many issues with regard to the Corinthians as the right one. While I do not doubt that the Corinthians had the Spirit, we, the Church, canonized Paul's side of the argument, did we not?

So while the interaction of the community prodded Paul to write what he did, Paul wrote to them, in many instances, to correct their behavior and beliefs. I guess what it boils down to for me is this: if I had to choose between Paul's position and theirs, I'm likely to choose Paul's.

Also, as far as inspiration being found in the community, the community did not write the letter to the Corinthians, Paul did. So while they may have inspired (in the normal sense of the word) Paul to write this letter, the Spirit ultimately inspired (in the special sense of the word) Paul to write this letter. The former position is easily defended historically, but the latter requires faith, which precludes it from many peoples' lines of thinking.
However, even if we look at the content of Paul's letters, we will find the idea that he was specially inspired by God, even receiving revelation from God. Whether or not we believe him is another thing I guess...