The word of the day is “opinion.” Scripture is inspired and timeless. Yet, it is written in human terms, at specific times, and in particular places. Thus, the form of the message shapes its meaning. Today we find that Paul distinguished between the inspiration of the Spirit and his personal opinion in response to the social context of his day.
In today’s reading of 1 Corinthians 7:24-35 we find that Paul is struggling to answer the questions that the Corinthians have asked about some practical matters of the Christian life. Paul has already addressed questions of marital relationships (1 Corinthians 7:2-23). Now in today’s reading, he addresses the question of the relative merits of celibacy and marriage. In reading these answers, Paul sometimes refers to the commandment of the Lord. For example, in Chapter 7:10. He says that “I command, yet not I, but the Lord…”. But in other places, he says, “I, not the Lord say…” (1 Cor. 7:10), and at the beginning of our reading, he says “Now concerning virgins, I have no commandment from the Lord, yet I give my judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy” (1 Cor. 7:25). The Greek word “judgment” refers to what is personally known. That is, Paul is saying that he is giving his “personal opinion” as one whose counsel is reliable.
Paul Lived in the First Century Roman World
Our discovery of personal opinion in the scriptures might surprise us, even when it comes from the mega-saint and apostle Paul. But it reminds us that Paul was an historical person who lived and worked in the Roman world of the first century.
In this case, we are overhearing how St. Paul dealt with problems and concerns in his congregation at Corinth. Several factors of the historical context of the letter help us interpret it. First, Corinth was a prosperous city in the Roman Empire and site of the famous Temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of carnal love and pleasure. Consequently, the town was known for its sexual immorality. The questions of the Corinthians reflect this pagan setting: matters of sexuality, idol worship, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, the belief in the resurrection of the dead, etc. These were not just idle questions but matters of critical concern for the faith and its application to life in the empire.
Paul’s Belief in the Return of Christ Explains His Counsel on Marriage
Second, Paul and the faithful at that time believed that the Lord would soon return in his Second Coming. That would be an immediate and abrupt end to the affairs of this world (1 Cor. 7:29). In the light of this belief, getting married would be a distraction if not complication (1 Cor. 7:32-33, 34-35.)
Third, St. Paul refers to “the present distress” (OSB vs. 26). What is the crisis that St. Paul is speaking about? That is not clear. The word “present” can be translated “at hand” or “impending” (Strong’s #2001, 89) . Accordingly, The Orthodox Study Bible comments that the apostle is speaking about “the tribulations of the ‘end time’ that would happen before the Lord’s return” (OSB footnote of 7:26). The understanding of this pagan setting and the belief that the “form of the world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31) helps clarify what St. Paul is saying about remaining in the (social) place in which one was called. It also explains his bias for celibacy (1 Cor. 7:7) though he also honors marriage (1 Cor. 7:38).
We also read the scriptures in our own time and place. Therefore, like Paul, we must strive to distinguish between genuine inspiration and our own opinion. To do this, we must read the scriptures in the spirit in which they were written. Above all, that means that we read it prayerfully, reverently, and expectantly. But understanding the scriptures with the mind as well as the heart takes a historical mindset. That historical sense frees us from the confines of the ways of thinking of our time, and it place our thoughts into a different worldview.
Reading the Scriptures in Their Historical Context
For example, reading the scriptures in their past context helps us comprehend how Paul’s belief in the imminent Second Coming of Christ shaped and motivated His preaching of the Gospel and His counsel on living the Christian life. As we do, we realize that the belief that Christ will appear as Judge of the world at the moment we least expect (Luke 12:40) is essential to our faith as well as the early Christians. The Lord repeatedly warned us to be prepared for His return (Matthew 24:44, Mark 13:32, Luke 12:40). And the New Testament resounds with the message that the coming of the Lord is near.[i]
Nowhere is the Orthodox faith in the Second Coming of Christ and the necessity of watchfulness expressed more beautifully than the “Bridegroom Matins.” This service is sung on the first four weekdays of Holy Week. Its primary Troparion states: “Behold! The Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless. Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death, and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom. But rouse yourself..” (Lazor and Garrett). The hymn teaches us how to live in vigilant expectation of seeing the Lord in His glory as He comes to judge the world
How to Develop An Historical Mindset
How then can we develop this historical mindset? The study of the scriptures and their vocabulary and thought as we are doing is helpful. Then too, the study of the church fathers and especially commentators on scripture such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory of Nyssa are also necessary. As we pray, read, and study, our aim should be to live and breathe the spirit of the scriptures. In this way, the holy writing will become for us the “words of eternal life” in their testimony to Christ our Lord (John 6:68, John 20:31).
Lazor, Paul, and Paul Garrett. “The Bridegroom Services of Holy Week “. http://dce.oca.org/assets/files/resources/42.pdf.
[i] Rom. 8:19-25, 1 Cor. 1:7, Phil. 4:5, Jude 21, James, 5:8, Rev. 1:3, 22:1