Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 39: Corinthians, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
FIRST EPISTLE TO THE
The advantages of this Epistle are various and manifold; for it contains many special topics, 28 the handling of which successively in their order, will show how necessary they are to be known. Nay, it will appear in part from the argument itself, in the recital of which I shall study to be brief, yet in such a way as to take in the whole, without omitting any of the leading points.
Corinth, as every one knows, was a wealthy and celebrated city of Achaia. While it was destroyed by L. Mummius for no other reason than that the advantageousness of its situation excited his suspicions, posterity afterwards rebuilt it for the same reason that Mummius had for destroying it. 29 The convenience of the situation, too, occasioned its being restored again in a short time. For as it had the Aegean Sea contiguous on the one side, and the Ionian on the other, and as it was a thoroughfare between Attica and the Peloponnesus, it was very conveniently situated for imports and exports. Paul, after teaching there for a year and a half, as Luke mentions in the Acts, constrained at length by the wickedness of the Jews, sailed thence into Syria (Acts 18:11, 18.) During Paul’s absence false apostles had crept in, not, in my opinion, to disturb the Church openly with wicked doctrines, or designedly to undermine sound doctrine; but, priding themselves in the splendor and magnificence of their address, or rather, being puffed up with an empty loftiness of speech, they looked upon Paul’s simplicity, and even the Gospel itself, with contempt. They afterwards, by their ambition, gave occasion for the Church being split into various parties; and, last of all, reckless as to every thing, provided only they were themselves held in estimation, made it their aim to promote their own honor, rather than Christ’s kingdom and the people’s welfare.
On the other hand, as those vices prevailed at Corinth with which mercantile cities are wont to be particularly infested, — luxury, pride, vanity, effeminacy, insatiable covetousness, and ambition; so they had found their way even into the Church itself, so that discipline was greatly relaxed. Nay more, purity of doctrine had already begun to decline, so that the main article of religion — the resurrection of the dead — was called in question. Yet amidst this great corruption in every department, they were satisfied with themselves, equally as though every thing had been on the best possible footing. Such are Satan’s usual artifices. If he cannot prevent the progress of doctrine, he creeps forward secretly to make an attack upon it: if he cannot by direct falsehoods suppress it, so as to prevent it from coming forth to light, he digs secret mines for its overthrow; and in fine, if he cannot alienate men’s minds from it, he leads them by little and little to deviate from it.
As to those worthless persons, however, who had disturbed the Corinthian Church, it is not without good ground that I conclude that they were not open enemies of the truth. We see that Paul nowhere else spares false doctrines. The Epistles to the Galatians, to the Colossians, to the Philippians, and to Timothy, are short; yet in all of them he does not merely censure the false apostles, but also points out at the same time in what respects they injured the Church. Nor is it without good reason; for believers must not merely be admonished as to the persons whom they ought to shun, they must also be shown the evil against which they should be on their guard. I cannot therefore believe that, in this comparatively long Epistle, he was prepared to pass over in silence what he carefully insists upon in others that are much shorter. In addition to this, he makes mention of many faults of the Corinthians, and even some that are apparently trivial, so that he appears to have had no intention of passing over any thing in them that was deserving of reproof. Besides, he must, in any other view, be regarded as wasting many words in disputing against those absurd teachers and prating orators. 30 He censures their ambition; he reproves them for transforming the gospel into human philosophy; he shows that they are destitute of the efficacy of the Spirit, inasmuch as they are taken up with mere ornaments of speech, and seek after a mere dead letter; but not a word is there as to a single false doctrine. Hence I conclude that they were persons who did not openly take away any thing from the substance of the gospel, but, as they burned with a misdirected eagerness for distinction, I am of opinion that, with the view of making themselves admired, they contrived a new method of teaching, at variance with the simplicity of Christ. This must necessarily be the case with all that have not as yet thrown off self, that they may engage unreservedly in the Lord’s work. The first step towards serving Christ is to lose sight of ourselves, and think only of the Lord’s glory and the salvation of men. Farther, no one will ever be qualified for teaching that has not first himself tasted the influence of the gospel, so as to speak not so much with the mouth, as with the dispositions of the heart. Hence, those that are not regenerated by the Spirit of God — not having felt inwardly the influence of the gospel, and know not what is meant when it is said that we must become new creatures, (Joh 3:7) have a dead preaching, whereas it ought to be lively and efficacious; and, with the view of playing off their part, they disfigure the gospel by painting it over, so as to make it a sort of worldly philosophy.
Nor was it difficult for those of whom we are now speaking to accomplish this at Corinth. For merchants are usually led away with outward disguises, and they do not merely allow themselves to be imposed upon by the empty show with which they deceive others, but in a manner take delight in this. Besides, as they have delicate ears, so that they cannot bear to be rudely taken to task, so if they meet with teachers of the milder sort, that will handle them gently, they give them, as it were, a reward in turn by caressing them. 31 It is so, I grant, everywhere; but it is more especially common in wealthy and mercantile cities. Paul, who was in other respects a god-like man, and distinguished by admirable virtues, was, nevertheless, not adorned with outward elegance, and was not puffed up with show, with the view of setting himself off to advantage. In fine, as he was inwardly replenished with the genuine excellence of the Spirit, so he had nothing of outward show. He knew not to flatter, and was not concerned to please men. (Ga 1:10.) The one object that he had in view was, that Christ might reign, himself and all others being brought under subjection to him. As the Corinthians were desirous of doctrine that was ingenious, rather than useful, the gospel had no relish for them. As they were eager for new things, Christ had now become stale. Or if they had not as yet fallen into these vices, they were, nevertheless, already of their own accord predisposed to corruptions of that nature. Such were the facilities afforded to the false apostles for adulterating the doctrine of Christ among them; for adulterated it is, when its native simplicity is stained, and in a manner painted over, so as to differ nothing from worldly philosophy. Hence, to suit the taste of the Corinthians, they seasoned their preaching in such a way that the true savor of the gospel was destroyed. We are now in possession of the design that Paul had in view in writing this Epistle. I shall now take in the sum of the argument, by noting down briefly the particular heads of discourse.
He begins with an ascription of praise, 32 that is in effect an exhortation, that they should go on as they have begun, and in this way he soothes them beforehand, that he may make them the more docile. Immediately afterwards, however, he proceeds to chide them, making mention of the dissensions with which their Church was infested. Being desirous to cure this evil, he calls upon them to exchange haughtiness for humility. For he overthrows all the wisdom of the world, that the preaching of the Cross may alone be exalted. He also at the same time abases them as individuals, in exhorting them to look around and see what class of persons chiefly the Lord has adopted as members of his flock.
In the second chapter he brings forward, by way of example, his own preaching, which, in the account of men, was base and contemptible, but had nevertheless been signalized by the influence of the Spirit. And in the meantime he unfolds at greater length the sentiment, that there is a heavenly and secret wisdom that is contained in the gospel, which cannot be apprehended by any acuteness or perspicacity of intellect, or by any perception of sense, and is not influenced by human reasonings, and needs no meretricious ornament of words or embellishment, but simply by the revelation of the Spirit comes to be known by the understandings of men, and is sealed upon their hearts. He at length comes to this conclusion, that the preaching of the gospel does not merely differ widely from the wisdom of the flesh, and consists in the abasement of the Cross, but cannot be estimated as to its true nature by the judgment of the flesh; and this he does, with the view of drawing them off from a mistaken confidence in their own judgment, by which they measured every thing amiss.
The beginning of the third chapter contains the application of this last department of the subject to their case. For Paul complains, that, being carnal, they were scarcely capable of learning the first rudiments of the gospel. He intimates in this way, that the distaste which they had contracted for the word, arose from no fault in the word itself, but from their ignorance; and at the same time he indirectly admonishes them, that they need to have their minds renewed, before they will begin to judge aright. He afterwards shows in what estimation the ministers of the gospel ought to be held — that it ought to be in such a way, that the honor given to them does not in any degree detract from the glory that is due to God — as there is one Lord, and all are his servants: all are mere instruments; he alone imparts efficacy, and from him proceeds the entire result. He shows them, at the same time, what they ought to have as their aim — to build up the Church. He takes occasion from this to point out the true and proper method of building aright. It is to have Christ alone as the foundation, and the entire structure harmonizing with the foundation. And here, having stated in passing that he is a wise master-builder, he admonishes those that come after him to make the end 33 correspond with the beginning. He exhorts also the Corinthians not to allow their souls to be desecrated by corrupt doctrines, inasmuch as they are temples of God. Here he again brings to naught proud fleshly wisdom, that the knowledge of Christ may alone be in estimation among believers.
In the beginning of the fourth chapter he points out what is the office of a true apostle. And as it was their corrupt judgment that prevented them from recognizing him as such, putting it aside, he appeals to the day of the Lord. Farther, as he was contemptible in their view from an appearance of abasement, he teaches them that this ought to be regarded as an honor to him rather than a disgrace. He afterwards brings forward tokens, from which it might in reality appear that he had not consulted his own glory, or his own belly (Ro 16:18), but had with faithfulness devoted himself exclusively to Christ’s work. He comes at length to infer what honor is due to him from the Corinthians. In the close of the chapter he recommends Timothy to them, until he shall come to them himself; and at the same time he forewarns them that, on his coming, he will openly discover how little account he makes of those empty boastings by which the false apostles endeavored to recommend themselves.
In the fifth chapter he takes them to task, for silently tolerating an incestuous connection between a son-in-law and a mother-in-law, and instructs them that in connection with a crime of such enormity, there was good reason why they should be covered with shame, instead of being elated with pride. From this he passes on to lay down a general doctrine to this effect, that crimes of that nature ought to be punished with excommunication, that indulgence in sin may be repressed, and that the infection may not spread from one individual to the others.
The sixth chapter consists chiefly of two parts. In the first he inveighs against law-suits, with which they harassed one another, before unbelievers, to the great dishonor of the gospel. In the second he reproves indulgence in fornication, which had come to such a pitch, that it was almost looked upon as a lawful thing. He sets out with a heavy threatening, and afterwards enforces that threatening with arguments.
The seventh chapter contains a discussion in reference to virginity, marriage, and celibacy. So far as we may conjecture from Paul’s words, a superstitious notion had become prevalent among the Corinthians of this nature — that virginity was a distinguished, and in a manner angelic virtue, so that marriage was held by them in contempt, as though it had been a profane thing. With the view of removing this error, he teaches that every one must consider what his gift is, and not strive in this matter beyond his ability, inasmuch as all have not the same calling. Accordingly he shows who they are that may abstain from marriage, and what ought to be the design of abstaining from it; and on the other hand, who they are that ought to enter into the married state, and what is the true principle of Christian marriage.
In the eighth chapter he prohibits them from having fellowship with idolaters in their impure sacrifices, or giving countenance to anything of such a nature as might injure weak consciences. And as they excused themselves on this pretext, that they did not by any means connect themselves with idolaters in any corrupt sentiment, inasmuch as they acknowledged in their heart one God, and regarded idols as empty contrivances, he sets aside this excuse, on this principle that every one ought to have a regard to his brethren, and that there are many weak persons whose faith might be staggered by such dissimulation.
In the ninth chapter he shows that he requires from them nothing more than he himself practiced, that he may not be reckoned so unreasonable as to impose upon others a law that he did not himself observe. For he puts them in mind how he had voluntarily refrained from availing himself of the liberty granted him by the Lord, lest he should give occasion of offense to any one, and how he had, in things indifferent, put on as it were various appearances, with the view of accommodating himself to all, that they may learn from his example that no one should be so devoted to self as not to endeavor to accommodate himself to his brethren for their edification.
Now as the Corinthians were highly satisfied with themselves, as we said in the outset, in the beginning of the tenth chapter he admonishes them, from the example of the Jews, not to deceive themselves by a mistaken confidence; for if they are puffed up on account of outward things and gifts of God, he shows that the Jews were not without similar ground of glorying, and yet all this availed them nothing, because they abused their privileges. After alarming them by this threatening he returns immediately to the subject on which he had previously entered, and shows how unseemly it is for those who partake of the Lord’s Supper to be participants in the “table of devils,” that being a shameful and insufferable pollution. He at length draws this conclusion, that all our actions should be regulated in such a manner as not to be an occasion of offense to any one.
In the eleventh chapter he clears the public assemblies from certain corrupt observances, which were at variance with Christian decorum and propriety, and shows what gravity and modesty ought to be exercised when we stand in the view of God and angels. He takes them to task, however, chiefly for their corrupt administration of the Supper. He subjoins the method of correcting the abuse that had crept in, which is by calling them back to our Lord’s original institution, as the only sure rule and permanent law of right acting.
As, however, many abused spiritual gifts for purposes of ambition, he enters into a discussion, in the twelfth chapter, as to the purpose for which they are conferred by God, and also as to what is the proper and genuine use of them, which is, that by contributing mutually to each other’s advantage, we may be united together in one body, that of Christ. This doctrine he illustrates by drawing a similitude from the human body, in which, although there are different members and various faculties, there is nevertheless such a symmetry and fellow-feeling, that what has been conferred on the members severally contributes to the advantage of the whole body — and hence love is the best directress in this matter. 34
The subject he follows out at greater length, and illustrates it more fully in the thirteenth chapter. The sum is this — that all things must be viewed in relation to love. He takes occasion from this to make a digression for the purpose of commending that virtue, that he may the more strongly recommend the pursuit of it, and may encourage the Corinthians the more to cultivate it.
In the fourteenth chapter he begins to point out more particularly in what respect the Corinthians had erred in the use of spiritual gifts; and as mere show bulked so much in their estimation, he teaches them that in all things edification alone should be looked to. For this reason he prefers prophecy to all other gifts, as being more useful, while the Corinthians set a higher value on tongues, purely from empty show. In addition to this, he lays down the right order of procedure, and at the same time reproves the fault of sounding forth in unknown tongues without any advantage, while in the meantime the doctrine and exhortations, which ought ever to hold the foremost place, were left in the background. He afterwards forbids women to teach publicly, as being a thing unseemly.
In the fifteenth chapter he inveighs against a very pernicious error, which, although we can scarcely suppose it to have spread generally among the Corinthians, had nevertheless taken possession of the minds of some of them to such a degree, that it was necessary that a remedy should be openly administered. He appears, however, to have intentionally delayed mentioning this matter until the close of the Epistle, for this reason — that if he had set out with this, or had entered upon it immediately after commencing, they might have thought that they were all reckoned to be in fault. The hope of a resurrection, accordingly, he shows to be so necessary, that, if it is taken away, the whole gospel falls to pieces. Having established the doctrine itself by powerful arguments, he subjoins also the principle and manner of it. In fine, he carefully draws out a full discussion of this point.
The sixteenth chapter consists of two parts. In the first of these he exhorts them to relieve the necessity of the brethren at Jerusalem. They were at that time pinched with famine, and they were cruelly treated by the wicked. The apostles had assigned to Paul the charge of stirring up the Churches of the Gentiles to afford them help. He accordingly exhorts them to lay up in store whatever they were inclined to contribute, that it might be transmitted to Jerusalem without delay. He at length concludes the Epistle with a friendly exhortation and congratulations.
Hence we may gather, as I stated in the outset, that the Epistle is replete with most profitable doctrine, containing, as it does, a variety of discussions on many important topics.
“Bonnes matieres, et points de doctrine;” — “Good subjects and points of doctrines.”
Strabo describes Mummius as “μεγαλαφρων μαλλον ἠ φιλοτεχνος,” — “a man of magnanimity rather than a lover of the arts.” — Ed
“Ces habiles docteurs, et plaisans harangueurs;” — “Those expert teachers and pleasant orators.”
“En flattant et mignardant ces bons maistres;” — “By flattering and caressing these good master.”
“En s’esiouissant de leur avancement en l’Evangile;” — “While exulting in their profiency in the gospel.”
“De leur besongne;” — “Of their work.”
“Ainsi, il conclud, que charite nous seruira d’vne bonne regle pour nous bien gouuerner en cest endroit;” — “Thus, he concludes, that charity will furnish us with a good rule for directing us aright in this matter.”