This review appeared in Foundations, the online journal for Spring 2013
This volume belongs to a commentary series designed for use by pastors, Bible Study leaders and teachers. Each author is a scholar with pastoral experience. The author of this commentary on 1 Corinthians was, at the time of writing, emeritus professor of New Testament and Christian ethics at Wheaton College and Graduate School, and the combination mentioned in his title indicates that he will be competent to explain and apply this Pauline letter for living in the contemporary world. He has also written commentaries on Romans and on the Book of Revelation.
Of course, there already are fine commentaries and works on 1 Corinthians and a glance at the bibliography informs us that the author of this commentary has consulted many of them. Yet because the commentary was published almost a decade ago, there is a sense in which some of his comments may seem a bit dated. Also his constant use of American examples to illustrate his points may not always make them clear to those who do not live there.
There are several ways in which the modern church is similar to the church in Corinth at the time when Paul wrote First Corinthians. The pre-occupation with following gifted church leaders, the abuse of spiritual gifts, difficulties connected to social issues (even to the extent of despising the poorer members at the Lord's Supper), departure from what is regarded as essential doctrines (in their case the resurrection of Christ), toleration of immoral practices to an almost unbelievable extent, and the connections between the church and the surrounding culture are some of those ways. So it is not difficult to see how the message of 1 Corinthians is very relevant to the contemporary church in our society.
The introduction to the commentary details several interesting aspects of life in first-century Corinth, including the benefits of being a Roman city, a commercial centre, full of tourist attractions (the Isthmian games with musical performances and public debating as well as well as regular gladiatorial contests) and with a very diverse range of religious devotees. There is also a useful discussion outlining Paul's involvement with the church in Corinth, the style of writing used in this letter (was it rhetorical?), and its main theological emphases. The author suggests that each of the problems dealt with by Paul can be connected to a failure to practise authentic love.
Johnson divides the letter into ten sections. The first is Paul’s introduction and prayer. This is followed by a long section in which Paul deals with the problem of factions in the Corinthian church. As is commonly known, the practice of identifying with a prominent speaker and stressing his oratorical abilities was common in the ancient world and had been engaged in by many in the congregation. Johnson explains that Paul’s solution to such a worldly attitude was to focus on the cross of Christ and its implications. When that happens, believers will have a proper attitude to their leaders. Yet at times Johnson fails to stress that other criteria needs to be included. Regarding all leaders as Christ’s servants is important, but it does not mean that we should regard all so-called church leaders as his servants? Otherwise we will include those who are doctrinally suspect, which Johnson does in a list of such persons (does Benny Hinn fall into the category of church leaders we should listen to?). Nevertheless, I found Johnson’s discussion of church leaders helpful, including his references to Greek customs and terminology.
The next sections deal with (1) Paul's response to moral issues in Corinth (incest, litigation and Christians and sex in chapters 5 and 6) and (2) Paul’s comments on marriage, divorce and singleness in chapter 7. Johnson goes along with traditional interpretations of those matters. Sometimes he does not comment on issues that I would have liked further discussion, such as the role of the church in the future judgement of humans and angels. Nor does he deal with one possible deduction from Paul’s comments on litigation which is that the church is competent and indeed required to deal with offences rather than allow them to go before the world. I have never heard of a church in Britain doing this, but I would have liked some discussion about it.
The section dealing with the problems connected to offering food to idols (8:1–11:1) has much to teach us about how far we can go as Christians in engaging in cultural practices, particularly in the areas of rights and Christian liberty. As Johnson points out, our priority must always be the progress of the gospel and the maintaining of a servant heart.
Johnson explains the section on gender roles (11:2-16) from the viewpoint that accepts that the Bible allows leadership roles to men and women. This was not always his personal view and indeed he once refused to attend a church where a woman taught the adult Sunday School class. Later, however, he changed his mind. His explanation of this controversial passage assumes that the problem in Corinth with regard to headship and to hairstyles was connected to the shame-honour culture of the time, the ignoring of which had consequences both within the church at its worship services and outside the church in evangelism. He suggests that Paul wanted the church to be mindful of cultural expectations and not cause unnecessary offence. While this may have been the background, and the author admits we cannot know with certainty what it was, his attempt to deduce equality of leadership roles from this passage are not persuasive, at least to this reviewer.
There then follows a brief section on the Lord’s Supper and the way it was abused in Corinth, and after it the author considers Paul’s teaching on spiritual gifts and their contribution to body life (chs. 12–14). With regard to the latter, he again argues for full participation by both genders, but he does not explain satisfactorily Paul’s requirement that in some situations women have to be silent.
The ninth section concerns Paul’s teaching on the future resurrection (1 Corinthians 15). The author mentions various possible reasons for its denial in Corinth and provides a helpful explanation of Paul’s description of the order of events and nature of the resurrection state. He suggests that it is hard to fit a premillennial scheme into Paul’s order of events and also indicates that the Son’s voluntary submission to the Father at the resurrection should not be taken to imply that there is inferiority between the persons of the Trinity, but is instead connected to the Son’s role as the ‘second man’. The author concludes his commentary with a brief section on the various practical issues mentioned by Paul in his final chapter.
This commentary is certainly easy to read and in this matter the author is a model for those who venture to compose one. His range of background reading extends from the church fathers to authors from the late-twentieth century and I appreciated the occasions when he provided summaries of different views and who held them. As well as being explanatory, he also writes with a warm devotional style and in doing so helped maintain the interest of this reviewer. There were occasions, as I have indicated, when I disagreed with his interpretation, although as far as I could see he was fair to all viewpoints when dealing with a controversial matter.
Should one purchase this commentary? It all depends how many commentaries one wants on First Corinthians. I would be reluctant to suggest to Bible Study leaders and adult Sunday School classes that they use this book unless I was sure they would understand that others have disagreed convincingly with the views on gender roles that he advocates. But pastors would find many of his comments helpful.