A commentary on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians
Chapter 11 from “Enthusiasm” by Msgr Ronald Knox
This Book is still available and should be seen as Spiritual Warfare between Paul and the Mystery religions in the early Catholic Church.
THE CORINTHIANS' LETTER TO ST. PAUL
It is a common assumption, bred in our minds by pious literature and frequent pulpit denunciations that the first age of the Church was in every respect a golden age. So it has appeared, especially to the leader of later enthusiastic* movements. Your (Prayer leader or prophet) prophet who passes for an innovator in the eyes of his contemporaries does not admit the charge; he claims, rather, to be restoring the godly discipline which flourished in apostolic times, now overgrown with neglect. We shall find abundant instances of this claim being made in the chapters, which follow; we shall see religious types, so antipathetic to one another as the medieval Lollard and the seventeenth-century Jansenist, agreed on one point, that antiquity is the mirror of Christian perfection. It may be worth our while, then, to consider, on the very threshold of this inquiry, whether the actual records, which have come down to us, even from the apostolic ages does justify this rose-coloured estimate. Do we really find perfect harmony, severe moral standards, unquestioned loyalty to the apostolic teaching, evinced everywhere among the rank and file of Christendom? Is there not rather reason to suspect that in those early days, error followed hard on the heels of truth, and liberty would not have been slow, but for incessant vigilance, to degenerate into licence?
Among all the New Testament documents, none gives me more strongly this impression of perilous currents flowing in early Christianity than St. Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians. And at the same time, none is more germane to our present subject. (the Pentecostal Movement)For they are the same currents, If I have not altogether misunderstood their nature, which have brought several of the enthusiastic movements in later history close to the verge of shipwreck. It is not always easy to reconstruct the lost side of a correspondence, especially when the surviving half of it expresses a mind so full of afterthoughts and half expressed qualifications as St. Paul's did. But, in this one instance he has been at pains to docket his subject-headings in orderly fashion, telling us where he is replying to a direct question sent to him from Corinth, where he is deriving his information from hearsay evidence. Nor do we often complain, as we do in reading the other epistles; that the scent of his argument has got crossed. You picture him, for once, not in a hurry.
What are the lessons he finds it necessary to read to his friends at Corinth? He tells them (1) that they ought to be ashamed of being divided up into parties, as holding by Apollos, or Paul, or Peter (chs. 1-4.) (2) That when a member of their congregation contracts an incestuous alliance, they ought to excommunicate him instead of manifesting pride over what has happened (ch. 5). (3) That they must live uncontaminated by the heathen society around them, instead of having quarrels which they fight out at law, and relapsing into habits of fornication (ch. 6). (4) That virginity is not a precept, but a counsel of perfection, with other advice about marriage and widowhood (ch. 7). (5) That, for fear of scandal and of relapse into heathenism, it is wrong to join in the sacrificial feasts of their heathen neighbours. (chs. 8-11). (6) That women should have their heads veiled in church; that the love-feast which precedes the celebration of the Divine Mysteries ought to be a real manifestation of unity (ch. 11). (7) That the use of preternatural spiritual gifts ought to be regulated and rationed, and that charity is the greatest gift of all (chs. 12-14). The fifteenth chapter, which deals with a denial, by some converts, of the Resurrection, and the concluding chapter, which reminds his readers of the collection to be made for the church at Jerusalem, and adds a series of personal messages, do not belong to our subject.
Now, who in the world were the people who needed to be told all this? Our New Testament commentators, faithful followers in one another's footsteps, will tell you that St. Paul's influence at Corinth was in danger of being undermined by 'Judaizing' teachers. For this statement they adduce no kind of proof; meanwhile, the evidence is all the other way. Would Judaizers encourage incest? Would they discountenance marriage, or the use of marriage? Would they tolerate the eating of meat offered to idols? Would they welcome the sight of women prophesying in public? Surely, if anything, it is a 'Gentilizing' influence that St. Paul here sets out to combat. Some of the rival teachers may have been Jews by birth; 2 it does not follow that they made propaganda for Judaism. To judge it by its external manifestations, the spirit which had got abroad at Corinth betrays, not a Judaistic, but a Marcionite tendency. It foreshadowed the Marcionite heresy that was to arise two generations afterwards, very much as the angel-worship which threatened the faith of Christians at Colossae foreshadowed the coming of Gnosticism.
Marcionism, however, lies outside our orbit. What I would call attention to here is the appearance, in first-century Corinth, of a set of symptoms which we (the Church)have decided to group under the title of enthusiasm. The supernatural germ of life planted in them so recently is in danger of running to seed, and producing a harvest of ultra-supernaturalism. The thing strikes us, at first hearing, as incredible; was it possible so to misinterpret the mind of Paul, when he had been but a few years absent? Yet it is to be remembered that the mind of Paul has been misunderstood all down the centuries; there is no aberration of Christianity which does not point to him as the source of its inspiration, found, as a rule, in his epistle to the Romans. Corinth, after all, was a city well known in a world of sufficiently lax standards as the paradise of the prostitute. The sudden conversion, accompanied by violent emotional experiences, of souls hitherto sunk in debilitating vice might give rise, without difficulty, to a kind of enthusiasm, which would need regulation by an expert in the discerning of spirits. In Corinth, perhaps more than elsewhere, St. Paul's preaching stood out against a background of unconverted Judaism; it appeared, therefore, as a gospel of revolt. It would not be surprising if, when his presence was withdrawn, the more indiscreet among his converts should exaggerate the spirit of revolt into sheer antinomianism. We shall find these exaggerations among the immediate disciples of Fox, of Wesley, and of many other teachers. There is no ground in tradition or in common sense, for supposing that the inerrancy of the apostles in their teaching was at once communicated to all who heard them.
By way of justifying this reconstruction of the Corinthian picture, it will be well to consider, more in detail, the seven main divisions of the letter as I have outlined them above. When we have contemplated the difficulties of the Church in her cradle years, we shall be better fortified against the shock which might be caused to our notions of probability by later developments in 'her history.
The Birth of Sectarianism
St. Augustine, commenting on the expulsion of the traders from the Temple, enlivens the story by identifying them with the leaders of those various factions into which Donatism had broken up since its foundation. 'There is Primianus at Carthage, he has one stall; Maximian, he has another; Rogatus in Mauretania another; there is another in Numidia, sect after sect, now past our powers even to name.' In the same way, ]ansenism in its eighteenth-century phase has already produced a crop of Vaillantistes, Augustinistes, Margouillistes, and so on, all disowned by the official party itself. Schism breeds; for a time the influence of one dominating personality may hold it together, but death or failing powers will diminish that influence, and rival disciples will become the eponymous heroes of fresh disunion. In the first days of Christianity, when the needs of a world waiting to be evangelized made discipline precarious, and encouraged the activities of doubtfully qualified teachers, the Church herself was at the mercy of similar perils. 'Each one of you has a cry of his own, I am for Paul, I am for Apollos, I am for Cephas, I am for Christ'
The commentators are at odds, whether we should understand this phrase as referring to the existence of four different factions, or only three. For myself, on the principle that entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem, I have never felt certain there were more than two. St. Paul had preached at Corinth; after he left, Apollos, who had been in contact with his friends but not with the apostle himself, visited the city, and must have made a great impression by the eloquence of his preaching. If Apollos, whose instruction in the faith had been recent, and perhaps a little hurried, left on the minds of these immature converts an impression slightly different from that made by the founder of their organization, was it wonderful that this should lead to controversy, when the teaching given by the two missionaries was compared in retrospect? Apollos, it must be confessed, is an enigmatic figure in history; we hear no more of him, after his refusal to revisit Corinth (16. 12); he has found no niche, I think, in any of the martyrologies. It seems quite possible, in spite of the charity which forbids any personal attack on him, that St. Paul regarded him as responsible for the divisions of opinion which reigned at Corinth. The tribute which St. Luke pays to the eloquence of the Alexandrian may, perhaps, explain the apostle's eager protest chat he was not sent to preach the Gospel with an orator's cleverness; and even his following it up with the quotation 'I will abolish the wisdom of wise men' (1. 17, 19). But if he did intend to give that impression, he quickly found means to efface it. 'All this, brethren, I have applied to myself and Apollos, but it is meant for you' (4. 6). All we know is that there were rival schools of thought at Corinth, one of which used the name of Apollos as its rallying-cry.
One was for Paul, one was for Apollos; did no appeal lie beyond those names? It is surely probable that the adherents of St. Paul, who had visited the city when fresh from his triumph over the Judaizing party at Jerusalem, alleged in defence of his orthodoxy the fact that he was in full agreement with, and in some sense commissioned by, the Apostolic College. Hence 'I am for Cephas'; if you held with Paul, you held with that apostle who was the most representative figure in Christendom. What reply was the faction of Apollos to make? It devised an expedient which has been imitated by sectaries more than once in later times; appealed behind the Apostolic College itself to him from whom the Apostolic College derived its dignity; 'I am for Christ'. There is no mistaking the importance of this first, blundering effort to drive a wedge between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of the Church. It meant that you were appealing, away from ecclesiastical authority to the validity of a private revelation; and later chapters abundantly prove that private 'revelations were no rarity in Corinth'. Once you have done that, you have set your feet on the perilous slopes of disunion. Nobody can fail to be struck by the insistence with which St. Paul, in both his epistles to the Corinthians, dwells on his own personal authority. The reason is not hard to seek. He was arguing with men to whom the maxim 'quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus', made no appeal. Only a superior revelation would convince them chat they were on the wrong tack.!
(2) Liberty and Licence
For the sake of clearness, I have distinguished above between the argument of chapter 5 and that of chapter 6; it will be simpler, here, to consider them together. The first eleven verses of chapter 6 are probably a digression; St. Paul has been pointing out that the jurisdiction of the Church does not extend to unbelievers, and he takes a sudden look, as his habit was, the other side of the picture. If only Christians really believed in their solidarity as Christians, no occasion would arise on which it was necessary for unbelievers to have jurisdiction over the Church. In this parenthesis, it must be admitted, St. Paul is not rebuking his converts for drawing too sharp a line between the natural and the supernatural; it is the other way about; they are not drawing the line sharply enough. At the same time, he is probably thinking of the scandal, which lawsuits between Christians give to their watching neighbours. The fear of scandal, in all this early part of his epistle, is never far from his mind.
He had good reason for his apprehensions. 'There are reports of incontinence among you, and such incontinence as is not practised even among the heathen; a man taking to himself his father's wife. And you, it seems, have been proud of it, instead of deploring it, and shutting out the man who has been guilty of such a deed from your company.' To do the Corinthians tardy justice, we may remark that the verb, which is always rendered 'you have been puffed up' has, in Pauline usage, the sense 'you have been contumacious'; they had defied the warnings of authority. It was not that they actually boasted of the enormity. Even so, we rub our eyes at the intimation that Christians of the golden age could defend, even if they did not applaud, such a neglect of primary decencies. To put the offence at its lowest (we hear nothing of the details) marriage with a widowed stepmother was forbidden alike by Jewish and by Roman law. And it is difficult to conjecture what ground can have been alleged for condoning the offence, unless it were that on St. Paul's own principles the Mosaic law must be held to have been abolished, and therefore a breach of the law of affinity was no crime; rather, it was a splendid assertion of gospel liberty. So narrow is the border-line between the supernatural and the ultra-supernatural way of looking at things.
It is unlikely, however, that the urgent warning against fornication at the end of chapter 6 (reiterated in 2 Cor. 12. 21) had reference only to a single incident. Relapse into the habits of low life would seem to have been common among the believers at Corinth; and there was worse behind it than mere weakness of frail human wills. It seems clear that there were those at Corinth who adopted the antinomian attitude; who claimed that sexual purity was a Mosaic scruple, which had disappeared with the other Mosaic scruples. Christian life was a life of the spirit, not of the body; the Christian, therefore, should be above these materialistic taboos. That the apostles had to use their influence to combat such notions, in a world pagan till yesterday, is clear from the decree promulgated at Jerusalem, which included 'abstaining from fornication' among the precepts of the Mosaic law that were to remain in vigour. And the argument on which• those notions were based is fully illustrated by the passage which lies before us (6. 12_20) St. Paul explicitly repeats, what was perhaps a favorite maxim of his own, 'all things are lawful to me', in inverted commas, it is clear, as an argument used by his opponents. It did not apply here; it only applied to ceremonial ordinances, like that of abstaining from certain kinds of meat, no longer binding Wlder the new dispensation. But (he continues in 5. 13) the law of purity is not to be reckoned among these transitory regulations; it has another and a deeper meaning. The body, no less than the spirit, has to be dedicated to Christ. Such reasoning could only be necessary. where there was an antinomian doctrine to be crushed. And the need for it reappears, as we shall see, at frequent intervals in the history of enthusiasm, down to the beginning of last century, if not beyond.
A Hint of Rigorism
The seventh chapter, on marriage and virginity, is what we like to make of it. With the loss of the Corinthians' letter, we have lost the clue to St. Paul's reply. I do not mean merely that some of the situations envisaged are defined in vague terms. I mean that the whole emphasis of the chapter varies, according as you understand it to be answering the question? Is marriage ever allowable? or the question, Is celibacy a Christian ideal at all? The commentators are mostly agreed. and on the whole the tone of the chapter justifies them in assuming, that the Corinthians had expressed the former of these doubts. As later at Ephesus, there were those who forbade marriage, or the use of marriage at any rate. We need feel no surprise at finding traces of such a tendency in a Church prone to the errors we have just been considering; indeed, a reading oflater history will make it appear quite possible that the libertines of chapter vi were actually the rigorists of chapter 7. The same ultra-supernaturalist point of view which looks upon bodily impurity as a mere imperfection among the elect, because it is only something carnal, will, in other moods, condemn the whole institution of marriage as a carnal institution. Some of the Corinthians may have held the doctrine attributed to Molinos, that sins committed in the body could not defile those who were living in the spirit; others, with Ann Lee, may have tried to make celibacy a condition of Church membership.
It would be out of place here to consider all the intricate theology of this chapter, and the debates that have arisen over it. What concerns us is only to point out that this mention of 'forbidding to marry' need not imply a tendency towards Gnosticism. There is no reason to detect, here, those adumbrations of it which clouded the dawn of Christianity at Colossae. For the Gnostic, and for the Manichean, the functions of sex are something which belongs to matter, and is consequently evil. For the enthusiast, they are something which belongs to nature, and is consequently, for better or worse, irrelevant. Gnosticism is an Asiatic phenomenon, obscurely allied with the non-Christian thought of the East. Enthusiasm is a recurring Christian phenomenon, and might easily make a home for itself in first-century Corinth.
(iv) The Antinomian**as Idolater
The chapters on meat sacrificed to idols call for close reading; the argument does not lie on the surface. The apostolic injunction, reported in Acts 15. 29, was plain in its condemnation of any such communicatio in sacris. But that injunction was addressed, specifically, to the Christians of Syria and Cilicia; the Corinthians, naturally, had been taught the same doctrine when St. Paul visited them, but in the absence of any local controversy they may have followed his teaching about such points with languid interest. After all, you bought a piece of meat in the market; who was to know whether it had done duty in temple worship or not (10. 25)? At any rate, some of them were attempting to solve the difficulty on highly ingenious reflex principles, which St. Paul admits as principles, while he denies their application. It is convenient to speak of false gods as if they were something that exist in competition (so to speak) with the true God; but we know that such false gods have no existence outside men's minds. What has been sacrificed to Venus of the Isthmus has been sacrificed only to an. imagination, sacrificed, therefore, only in imagination; it is common meat like any other. We know that, and therefore we can sit in a pagan temple and eat what we will. It is the heathen who does not know, who thinks the gods of his false worship really exist, that sins mortally in eating.
St. Paul's reply is based, in the first instance, on the consideration of scandal. This superior knowledge of which the Corinthians boast is leading to a defiance of authority; if they would only learn to boast about; charity instead!. Charity edifies; recognizes that it has a duty to the souls of others. They are not sinning against their own consciences; but, by their co-operation, they are leading their half converted or unconverted friends into demonstrable sin. In the first twenty-two verses of chapter ix he develops this point, referring to his own carefulness to avoid the imputation of scandal, even pharisaical scandal. He is at liberty to take alms from the faithful, to support his own needs, and, for that matter, the needs of some faithful woman attendant; other apostles have no scruple about doing this. He prefers to work with his own hands, leaving no room for the enemies of the Gospel to accuse him of feathering his own nest. Is it too much to expect, from the Corinthians, respect for the consciences of other people?
It may be worthwhile drawing attention here to a curious philological point. The word scandal, in the sense we have just been giving it, belongs to our Catholic vocabulary; the ordinary Englishman is unfamiliar with it; to him, 'scandal' means uncharitable gossip. Nor has he any equivalent for the word in his own vocabulary. In point off act, he realizes the duty of 'setting a good example' to other people, and he is careful to avoid 'shocking' them, so that his practise is often beyond reproof. But it is as a moralist, not precisely as a Christian, that he makes these allowances for the spiritual existence of his neighbour; as a Christian, he is apt to mistrust the idea of edifying your neighbour, as perilously akin to hypocrisy. How are we to explain this abandonment, by the post-Reformation world, of a theological notion, which St. Paul valued so highly? (Like the two chapters we are considering here, Romans xiv is full of it.) The answer, as I see it, is a curious one. Enthusiasm never managed to take over the direction of the Reformation movement; but the theology of enthusiasm influenced profoundly the Reformation attitude towards life. And for the enthusiast the vocabulary of scandal does not exist. He is so sure of being in the right, that he would hold it an infidelity to countenance the scruples of those who disagree with him. If they are shocked by what he does, he can reply 'Honi soit qui mal y pense'; he is acting under the direct inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and to criticize him is to betray a 'carnal' mind. Anabaptist and early Quaker might 'go naked for a sigll'; the Convulsionist might gesticulate, head over heels, and the Perfectionist throw down the gauntlet, even more decidedly, to common standards of decency-you were not to interfere; it was God's work.
The argument used by the Corinthians was probably much the same. 'We know' -it was a claim, not to worldly wisdom, but to direct spiritual enlightenment. (That is the sense in which St. Paul regularly uses the word 'gnosis'; one which, later, the Gnostics borrowed from him.) That the gospel liberty, the gospel wisdom which he had preached to them should be thus distorted by his converts and pressed into the service of idolatry, was already an ominous , development. But he seems to have detected the currency of a still more dangerous error, which is fatally entwined with the history of enthusiasm. The Corinthians, if they have not already asserted, are already in danger of asserting the indefectibility of grace. It cannot be with any other error in view that St. Paul, at the end of chapter ix, compares the position of Christians with that of competitors in a race, some of whom will be baulked of their prize; adding that he himself, with all that hope of final perseverance which he elsewhere expresses so confidently, is at pains to buffet his own body, and make it his slave, is fearful that he, who .has preached to others, may himself be rejected as worthless. At the beginning of chapter x he resumes the same point, even more forcibly; drawing out a characteristically Pauline parallel between the Christian pilgrimage and the journey of Israel through the wilderness. We Christians have said good-bye to the world, by common consent, just as Israel went out of Egypt, to all appearances a single people with a single common destiny. We have all been mystically enlightened, mystically buried in the tomb of Christ, when we were baptized; just as the Israelites were all 'baptized' in the cloud that illumined them, the sea which engulfed them. We are made one people through the Body and Blood of Christ, as the Israelites were made one people, mystically houselled with the manna from heaven, the water from the riven . Rock. Yet so many Israelites fell away, through idolatry, through impurity, through love of faction; might not the same thing happen at Corinth? Was grace indefectible***? No; anyone who thinks he stands firmly, should beware of a fall'.
If anyone is inclined to ask how the Corinthians, raw novices though they might be in the study of theology, could reconcile this antinomian, perfectionist attitude with the teaching of St. Paul, let him reflect that St. Paul himself was accused by his enemies of teaching it. Let him reflect that all the many enthusiasts down the ages who have fallen into this error have quoted St. Paul, and especially his epistle to the Romans, in their defence. How easily his contrast, in the seventh chapter of that epistle, between the law of the flesh and the law of the mind lends itself to the purposes of a John of Leyden, a Molinos, a Henry Prince! They hear in it the echoes of that madman's logic which seems to them incontrovertible. Trust in God means believing we are predestined to heaven; the predestined cannot sin; but we do perform actions which, in a heathen, would be described as sinful; therefore 'sinful' actions on the part of the predestined are not sin. Somehow or other, they are not true actions; it is the lower self that is responsible for them, and the lower self does not count .... So they argue, never thinking to check the data of Romans by the data of Corinthians; if they would do that, their argument would be arrested in mid-course by the picture of those innumerable bones, bleaching in the wilderness of Arabia.
(5) The Decencies of Public Worship
The eleventh chapter begins with a word of congratulation to the Corinthians on the loyalty with which they adhere to the traditions handed on to them. This is St. Paul's characteristic intimation that he is going to find fault with them for their neglect of tradition. Enthusiasts in the making, they are out of sympathy with all the institutionalist side of religion; rules are meant for the herd, not for the elect. St. Paul selects two instances of this exaggerated free and easiness; he may have had others, too, in mind.
The section which insists on women keeping their heads veiled in church is full of exegetical difficulties. Perhaps the most obvious question that presents itself to the reader's mind is the question why, in this context, the apostle objects to women prophesying with their heads uncovered, whereas at the end of chapter 14 he objects to women prophesying in church at all. No solution really meets the difficulty except the obvious solution-that if women wore thick veils over their faces they had the choice of a strict alternative, to remove their veils or not to prophesy. That devout women, in this as in every other age, were sometimes granted revelations in the course of their private devotions, cannot be doubted; we have the evidence of Acts 21. 9. It was a different matter, whether they were free to communicate these revelations to others at times of public worship. From the Montanist movement onwards, the history of enthusiasm is largely a history of female emancipation, and it is not a reassuring one. Martha Simmonds escorting Nayler into Bristol with cries of Hosanna, Madame Guyon training up her director in the way he should go, the convulsionary priestesses going through the motions of saying Mass at St. Medard-the sturdiest champion of women's rights will hardly deny that the unfettered exercise of the prophetic ministry by the more devout sex can threaten the ordinary decencies of ecclesiastical order. With the arguments which St. Paul adduces we are not here concerned; they are a problem for the exegete. What more concerns us is the appeal with which he closures the discussion, in xi. 16 and again in 14. 36. It is an appeal from local to universal custom, from the liberty of the spirit to ecclesiastical authority. Not even the qualified enthusiasm of a Donatist or a Port-Royalist should have been able to contemplate that appeal without searchings of heart.
The second half of chapter 11 deals with a very different type of religious disorders. Our notions of the primitive Agape are derived, in the main, from the passage before us; we have little in the way of collateral evidence. In Corinth, whatever may have happened elsewhere, it seems clear that the love-feast for which the Christians met before the celebration of the Divine Mysteries took the form of an eranos (pot luck); everyone who came contributed to the meal, no doubt with the implied intention that the rich should supplement the needs of the poor. For whatever reason, the rich Corinthians had formed the habit of coming as early as possible, and eating the food they themselves had brought without waiting for the beneficiaries of the scheme to arrive. Thus the Agape, no longer a bond of unity, had become a source of scandal. By the time the Eucharist was celebrated, 'one man goes, hungry, while another has drunk deep'. Unlike what we mean by Christian worship nowadays-so much more what we should expect (if the whole truth must be told) from some country-side Bethel at the height of a welsh revival. Corinth may have been more highly blessed in this respect than other churches; we can hardly suspect irony, but we can perhaps trace a faint note of surprise, in the congratulation which St. Paul expresses in his opening salutation at the full measure of the spiritual endowments it had received (1. 7). But at the best it will only have been a difference of degree; it was not (as we shall see) till the second century that such manifestations grew rare, and were viewed with misgiving by those in authority.
At .the same time, a second reading of chapters 12-15 does raise a faint doubt in our minds whether all was well, and whether St. Paul felt all was well, with the Corinthian Church. The whole tendency of these three chapters is to limit the scope, and to regularize the use, of supernatural faculties. There is to be no quarrelling over the relative importance of this or that type of manifestation; it is the same Spirit who grants them all (12. 4-11). The prophet, the healer, the speaker with tongues are contributing, severally, to the edification of the Church as a whole; we must not lose sight of unity in diversity (12. 12-27). There is, to be sure, a hierarchy in such matters, but it is not altogether the hierarchy which the Corinthians would have expected; the apostles come first, then the prophets, then (without any claim to miraculous powers) those engaged in teaching. Gifts of healing and speaking with tongues are mentioned in the same breath, to our minds somewhat incongruously, with works of mercy and the management of church fmance (12. 28-30). In a word, the Church is one body, expressing itself in a variety of organs, and it is not necessarily the most interesting of them that are the most significant.
Then follows the great chapter on charity, so familiar to us in isolation that we are apt to forget its relevance to the context. Highest in all the scale of gifts comes charity, greater than any other, indispensable to the right use of any other. We are not to think of it here as meaning the love of God, or as meaning the love of man, exclusively; Catholics are too ready to identify it with the possession of sanctifying grace, while other Christians associate it too closely with acts of kindness towards our fellow men. The main point here is surely that charity is the bond, which unifies the organic body of model to imitate. Nor has such wistful admiration of past things depended, entirely, on the illusion created by long retrospect. A bare century was to elapse before the vagaries of unregulated prophecy called for serious attention, and the Church, not without disaster to one of her most gifted sons, had to try her strength against the solvent forces of enthusiasm.
Christendom, as St. Paul has defined it in his preceding chapter. Useless to ask whether we are speaking of a supernatural quality or of a moral virtue, for it is both. What St. Paul evidently fears, is that an unwholesome preoccupation with the charismata in their more startling forms is creating an atmosphere uncongenial to the exercise of charity; it fosters pride, jealousy, backbiting, and other uncharitable emotions. History has vindicated his fears; the spiritual endowments of a Donatus or a St. Cyran will contribute directly to the Africanism of the Donatist, the aigreur (acrimoniousness) of the Jansenist.
With this danger in view, the apostle proceeds to a series of injunctions (chapter xiv) which will introduce, it may be hoped, some kind of discipline into the behavior of the Corinthians at prayer. Speaking with tongues merely for the sake of theatrical effect is to be discouraged; it is childishness (verses 1-20). A babel of conflicting voices will only confirm the unbeliever in his incredulity, as Isaias prophesied; whereas the gift of prophecy may arouse compunction in him (verses 21-25). There must be no speaking with tongues, unless they can be interpreted (verses 26-28). The prophets are to speak one at a time, giving place to one another; women are not to prophesy in public at all; the congregation must sit in judgment on the prophetic utterances (verses29-3S). Evidently it is the curb, not the spur, that is needed in first-century Corinth. Let these exuberances go unrepressed, and the state of the Church there may anticipate, before long, the scenes enacted in eighteenth-century Paris; scenes which the older and staider element in Jansenism was powerless to control.
'If it goes so hard with the tree that is still green, what will become of the tree that is already dried up?' If such formidable clouds could gather on the horizon of Christendom, when preachers were still living, who retained vivid memories of our Lord's sojourn on earth; when apostles were still endued with mysterious powers of coercing the refractory; when (above all) no schism had loosened as yet the fabric of Church unity, what would be the experience of later and more degenerate times? The same tendencies which had appeared at Corinth would reappear in varying forms under other skies; and the too-ardent souls who favored them would forget the warning tone of the apostle's tender remonstrances, would see, in that chiaroscuro of primitive Christian life, only a tradition to regret, and model to imitate. Nor has such wistful admiration of past things depended, entirely, on the illusion created by long retrospect. A bare century was to elapse before the vagaries of unregulated prophecy called for serious attention, and the Church, not without disaster to one of her most gifted sons, had to try her strength against the solvent forces of enthusiasm.
*Enthusiast.... a visionary who is a fanatic, preoccupied, overly jealous about his or her belief
**Antinomian...Faith alone saves
***Indefectible...incapable of making a mistake in theology..does not sin.