1 Corinthians 8:4–6 (ESV) — 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
Before we dig into this verse we need to clear up two things.
(1) Paul is not denying the existence of other gods (theos/elohim).
- The ESV puts quotes around “gods” and it could mislead.
Paul understands that there exist “cosmic powers” (Ephesians 6:12) in the spiritual realm.
- He understands the implications of the Divine Council and a Deuteronomy 32 worldview.
- After all, Paul affirms the OT repeatedly, speaks of demons, and “the prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), etc.
For example, later in 1 Corinthians he says this:
- 1 Corinthians 10:21–22 (ESV) — 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
- “Demons” are elohim/theos.
The ASV is much clearer in its translation:
- “For though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or on earth; as there are gods many, and lords many “
(2) Consequently, when Paul says, “there is no God but one” it is an affirmation of the ancient Jewish monotheism we discussed a few weeks ago, not a denial of other elohim.
- In other words, Paul is saying that YHWH is the unique, incomparable God of Israel.
- The only God worthy of worship.
- The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who called Israel out of Egypt.
- The uncreated Creator God.
Or to put another way – Paul is affirming the Shema:
- Deuteronomy 6:4 (ESV) — 4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
Larry Hurtado sums up both of these points:
“In short, though Paul (with a good many other ancients) thought that there were multiple ‘divine’ beings of various sorts, he seems also to have held the one God of Jewish tradition as in something of a category of one apart from all others” – Larry Hurtado.
And this leads us back to 1 Corinthians 8:6.
- A text where Paul distinguishes the “one God, the Father” and the “one Lord, Jesus Christ” from all other elohim/theos.
We are not exploring Paul’s primary concern in this passage – eating food offered to idols.
- But we will concern ourselves with a particular idea he uses to deal with his primary concern.
- Specifically, what he says about the Father and Jesus in 8:6.
Before we do, we need to look at some OT background.
- It is deeply embedded in Paul’s messaging about the Father and Jesus.
- It will be something we need down the road as we unpack 8:6.
Just like Mark’s Gospel, Paul is deeply indebted to Isaiah for his understanding of the Father and Jesus.
- Scholar Trent Rogers tells us that in our text Paul is…
- “drawing on the idol polemic in Isaiah 40-44”.
Interestingly, Douglas Oss says the template for Paul’s use of Isaiah probably came from Jesus Himself:
“There is no doubt…that it was Christ himself who originated the approach to Isaiah that was followed by Paul. It was Christ himself who first cited Isa 61:1-2 and then proclaimed, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’ (Luke 4:18-21); and it was Christ himself who first taught the church that all the scriptures spoke of him (Luke 24:25-27, 44-45).”
Isaiah 40-44 shows us an Israel that was faltering in its allegiance to YHWH.
- They whored after other gods and fashioned idols of those gods.
It might be helpful here to clear up something about ancient idol worship.
- “Ancient people did not believe that their gods were actually images of stone or wood. We misread the biblical writers if we think that” – Michael Heiser.
What is idol worship?
“What ancient idol worshippers believed was that the objects they made were inhabited by their gods. This is why they performed ceremonies to ‘open the mouth’ of the statue. The mouth (and nostrils) had to be ritually opened for the spirit of the deity to move in and occupy, a notion inspired by the idea that one needs to breathe to live. The idol first had to be animated with the very real spiritual presence of the deity. Once that was done, the entity was localized for worship and bargaining” – Michael Heiser.
Paul Rainbow puts it this way:
- “It was generally believed in the ancient world that a divinity and its physical image interpenetrated one another and thus formed a sort of unity. The god, of course, transcended the physical object, but it was embodied in it in such a way that it could be contacted through the object.”
Much of Isaiah 40-44 is YHWH’s response, His polemic, against this behavior.
- YHWH points out the absurdity and futility of worshipping other gods and making idols.
- Something, BTW, that was declared over and over in the OT (see Deut. 4:1-40).
Generally, Isaiah 40-44 speaks of three reasons whoring after other gods was absurd and futile.
- (1) YHWH is unique and incomparable.
- (2) YHWH alone was Creator of all things (including Israel).
- (3) YHWH alone was Savior and Redeemer of Israel (and eventually the nations).
YWHW speaks of His incomparability:
- Isaiah 40:12–14 (ESV) — 12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? 13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel? 14 Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?
- Isaiah 40:18–20 (ESV) — 18 To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? 19 An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. 20 He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move.
YHWH declares He alone is Creator:
- Isaiah 40:25–26 (ESV) — 25 To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of his might, and because he is strong in power not one is missing.
- Isaiah 40:28 (ESV) — 28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
- Isaiah 44:24 (ESV) — 24 Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you from the womb: “I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself,
YHWH declares He alone is Savior:
- Isaiah 41:14 (ESV) — 14 Fear not, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel! I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord; your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
- Isaiah 43:1 (ESV) — 1 But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
- Isaiah 43:12 (ESV) — 12 I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and I am God.
- Isaiah 44:22 (ESV) — 22 I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you.
So who is Israel’s God?
- He alone is the unique and incomparable Elohim.
- He alone is the Creator of all things – including Israel.
- He alone is Redeemer of Israel (and the nations).
- He alone is to have Israel’s loyalty.
All of the above is woven into 1 Corinthians 8:4-6 in some surprising ways.
- Let’s begin to explore how.
Paul’s God and Lord:
1 Corinthians 8:5–6 (ESV) — 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
The most obvious feature of verse 6 is its relationship to verse 5.
- It serves as a stark “Isaiah-ish” contrast between gods and the one true God of Israel.
- Or as Paul puts it, between the “many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’” (vs. 5) vs. “one God, the Father…one Lord, Jesus Christ” (vs. 6).
To properly unpack this contrast we need to recognize yet another OT allusion.
- We have already noted Paul’s allusion in 1 Cor. 8:6 to the Shema found in Deut. 6:4.
- Deuteronomy 6:4 (ESV) — 4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.
But in 1 Corinthians 8:5, there is also an allusion to, “an echo” of, Deuteronomy 10:17 (G.K. Beale).
- Deuteronomy 10:17 (ESV) — 17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.
- Interestingly, “[Deut. 10:17] is the only text in the Hebrew Bible where ‘gods’ and ‘lords’ appear in the same sentence as in 1 Cor. 8:5” – G.K. Beale.
Why is all this significant?
Deuteronomy 10:17 is contrasting two wildly different species of “elohim” – beings who reside in the spiritual realm.
- The two species of elohim parsed out here are:
- (1) “LORD your God” – YHWH the God of Israel.
- (2) “gods” and “lords”.
This basic understanding of Paul’s starting point – his contrast – is where the fun begins!
- In 1 Corinthians 8:6, Paul modifies the contrast of Deut. 10:17 and the affirmation of Deut. 6:4 to include Jesus Christ.
In other words, Paul does two remarkable things:
- (1) He inserts Jesus into the ancient Jewish monotheistic formula affirmed in verse 4 – “there is no God but one”.
- (2) He places Jesus Christ on the “LORD your God” side of the Deuteronomy 10:17 contrast.
This mutation of the Shema to now include Jesus is called the “Christianized Shema”.
- There is much to be gleaned this handling of Jesus.
- Especially when we understand his Corinthian converts.
Accounting for Christ at Corinth:
The Church at Corinth presented Paul with a challenge.
- (1) It existed in the midst of open worship of various gods and their idols.
- (2) Its pagan Christian converts formerly worshipped various gods and their idols.
- (3) Its pagan Christian converts switched to the worship of the Father and Jesus…
- (4) While simultaneously affirming that “there is no God but one” – the Christianized Shema.
Larry Hurtado describes the situation:
- “There was a veritable cafeteria of divine beings of various orders, attributes, and functions…peoples were rather richly supplied with deities” – Larry Hurtado.
- And the “residents of any given city were expected to participate in the worship of the civic deities, who were typically seen as protectors of the city” – Larry Hurtado.
- But, “Early Christians…typically departed from these religious customs and defined ‘God’ in a very exclusive manner in beliefs and also in religious practice. For them, there was really…only one deity worthy of worship, as Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6” – Larry Hurtado.
So given this info we need to setup an important question:
- The ex-pagan now worshipped the Father.
- The ex-pagan now worshipped the exalted Jesus Christ.
- In their pagan life, this would obviously have been the worship of two gods.
The problem Paul faced at Corinth was how to reduce a pantheon of gods down to one God.
- And do so while calling the Corinthian ex-pagan to worship both the Father and the Son.
So how is it that the ex-pagan can see the worship of the Father and Jesus as the worship/affirmation of the one God of Israel?
Unitarian John Schoenheit thinks he has the answer to this question:
- “This verse, when properly understood, is actually strong evidence that Jesus Christ is not God.”
- In other words, Christ isn’t God so there is no problem.
- He is the human-only “one Lord” – an exalted divine agent – and worship is given him at the Father’s pleasure not as “a god”.
He goes on to say:
“Polytheism was rampant in Corinth, and Scripture is clear that ‘…there is no God but one’ (1 Cor. 8:4)…[and that] there may be many gods and lords, [but] for Christians there is but one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. If the doctrine of the Trinity is correct, then this text can only be construed as confusing. Here was the perfect opportunity to say, ‘for us there is only one God made up of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost,’ or something similar, but, instead, Scripture tells us that only the Father is God. That should stand as conclusive evidence that Jesus is not God” – John Schoenheit.
There are a number of problems with this approach.
(1) The obvious one is the question begging – “Scripture tells us that only the Father is God”.
- As we have seen, Scripture affirms both explicitly and implicitly that Jesus participates in the uniqueness of YHWH, shares the divine name, and is “my Lord and my God”.
- Suggesting that these claims are better understood as only agency is one thing.
- Denying their existence all together is bogus.
Moreover, this idea that only the Father is God is not in the Bible.
- This is an idea that finds life only in a misrepresentation of ancient Jewish monotheism.
- And in the philosophical Unitarian presuppositions we discussed a few weeks ago.
(2) The second problem is that this Unitarian approach is no less “confusing” and does nothing to solve the question we raised.
- The ex-pagan worshipped Jesus Christ and the Father.
- In their context, to worship a being is to acknowledge it as god or a god.
- Something the pagan did with all kinds of “gods”.
- Simply calling one “Lord” and one “God” does nothing to alleviate the predicament of worshipping two “entities” and thus having two “gods”.
- Actually, the Trinitarian approach is the only one that makes sense of this practice.
(3) But even more of a problem than these two is:
- (A) The suggestion that when Paul uses “Lord” and “God”, only one rightly refers to YHWH.
- (B) And…that Paul’s silence on a Trinity means Jesus is not God.
Both of these ignore the fact that Paul did say, in Schoenheit’s own words, “something similar” about Jesus’ and the Father’s identity.
- And the way Paul implicitly identified Jesus with the divinity of YHWH is not obtuse.
The problem for many, it seems, is that Paul did this in the style of a 2nd Temple Jew steeped in the messaging of a high context culture.
- He didn’t do this as a 4th century Greek or Latin philosopher or 21st century analytic philosopher.
So where does Paul say “something similar” about Jesus’ and the Father’s identity?
- (1) Paul’s OT allusions in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.
- (2) The meaning behind the Greek prepositions used in verse 6.
We will unpack both of these.
- And in so doing, provide the Trinitarians answer to our question.
- So how is it that the ex-pagan can see the worship of the Father and Jesus as the worship/affirmation of the one God of Israel?