The Warning-Assurance Tension in 1 Corinthians Reviewed in RBL
The aim of this study, which originated as Wilson’s doctoral thesis at King’s College, London, is to determine whether Paul’s assurances of ultimate salvation stand in tension with his warnings to persevere in faith lest that salvation be forfeited. Because Wilson ends up affirming that such a tension does exist, he also briefly addresses the question whether it makes any kind of sense. Attention is focused on 1 Corinthians because in this letter assurances and warnings are especially frequent and their relationship is often complicated. Accordingly, the approach is “almost entirely exegetical” (14). Two introductory chapters are followed by seven chapters devoted to exegetical studies of specific passages, and two closing chapters present, respectively, the author’s conclusions and his thoughts about implications and further research.
In chapter 1, “The Scholarly Context of this Study,” Wilson identifies four different and, in his judgment, unsatisfactory attempts to explain how Paul could have issued both assurances and warnings about ultimate (eschatological) salvation: (1) the “Wesleyan” view that the assurances are in fact conditional upon obedience, perseverance, or repentance; (2) the conclusion of B. J. Oropeza (with whose work Wilson is frequently in dialogue) that the assurances are rhetorical and not to be taken literally; (3) the argument of Judith Gundry Volf (whose work is also frequently engaged) that the warnings are directed not to believers but only to those who appear to be; and (4) a proposal by Craig Blomberg that the warnings are about the possibility of punishments or loss of rewards during one’s present life, not about the possible forfeiture of ultimate salvation.
In chapter 2, “Selected Introductory Issues in 1 Corinthians,” Wilson indicates why he accepts the literary integrity of the letter, argues that the problems in the Corinthian congregation stemmed not from an “over-realized eschatology” but from values and conduct carried over from the converts’ past lives as unbelievers, and identifies the issues that influenced the structure of the letter: divisions within the congregation, immorality, idolatry, and the resurrection.
The first two exegetical studies (in chs. 3 and 4) are of 1 Cor 1:1–9 and 3:5–17. These passages offer examples, respectively, of Paul’s assurances and warnings, and taken together they exhibit the tension that is the object of this study. With most interpreters, Wilson views the assurances in the thanksgiving paragraph as reflecting confidence that God’s faithfulness (1:9) will overcome human faithlessness and enable one to stand blameless “on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8). On his reading, because these assurances are neither “entirely conditional” nor “entirely rhetorical” (39), they do in fact stand in tension with the warning in 3:16–17, that “if anyone … destroys God’s church, they will forfeit final salvation” (56).
In a brief chapter on Paul’s directive that the Corinthians expel a certain immoral man from their assemblies (ch. 5: “1 Corinthians 5:1–13”), Wilson offers two reasons why he considers this passage of little importance for his topic. First, Paul’s directive is issued primarily to save the congregation from moral indifference and arrogance, not to warn the offender that he may be excluded from salvation. Second, in rare agreement with Gundry Volf, Wilson holds that “Paul almost certainly does not regard the man as a genuine believer” (62) but as one of the so-called brothers and sisters (v. 11) whom believers should avoid (63–64). Subsequently, however (ch. 6: “1 Corinthians 6:1–20”), Wilson effectively challenges Gundry Volf’s conclusion that the warnings conveyed in 6:9–10 are also addressed only to so-called believers. He concludes that here, as at other points in the letter, Paul is warning actual believers that engaging in (or reverting to) certain types of conduct could jeopardize their final salvation.
The apostle’s response to the controversy in Corinth about eating food that has been sacrificed to idols is particularly important for Wilson’s topic and is examined in considerable detail (ch. 7: “1 Corinthians 8:1–11:1”). He deals, in turn, with 8:1–13, agreeing with most interpreters that Paul is concerned that the “weak” who follow those with so-called knowledge in partaking of idol food may risk “eternal destruction” (89); 9:1–27, arguing that Paul’s image of believers as athletes who must train for a race in order to win the prize “suggests that he did not view eschatological salvation as such an automatic result of being in Christ that it required no response of human effort” (96); 10:1–13, which he finds to be a “deliberate paradox”—believers must heed Israel’s experience, “avoiding idolatry and being careful lest they fall…, while God, ultimately, will assure that the trials they face are never too great for them to endure” (117); and 10:14–11:1, in which, because the admonitions are clearly addressed to actual believers, he sees confirmation of his conclusion that believers were also the subjects of the warning in 10:1–13.
Following comments about Paul’s warning that one must not partake of the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner (ch. 8: “1 Corinthians 11:17–34”), Wilson closely examines the apostle’s more complex and, for this study, substantially more consequential assurances in 1 Cor 15 about resurrection (ch. 9). He concludes that these are “categorical” assurances, neither conditional nor merely rhetorical. Further, “as paradoxical as it may seem to us, they aim to secure the very conviction that Paul warns the Corinthians about losing,” which is “belief in [their] future resurrection” (158). Additionally, in an important excursus on “The Question of Universalism in 15:20–28” embedded within this chapter (143–50), Wilson maintains that for Paul only those who actually believe in Christ “can be certain of their eschatological resurrection” (i.e., final salvation).
The result to which these exegetical studies have been leading is stated plainly in the title of chapter 10, “Conclusion—The Warnings and Assurances Stand in Tension.” Following a brief summary of this conclusion, Wilson reinforces it with comments on passages in Romans, Philippians, and Galatians where he discerns a similar tension between assurances and warnings. Most of this chapter, however, deals with the question, “Is the Tension Incoherent?” (167–84). He believes that the key to answering this is “how Paul conceived of divine and human agency working together, both in his own life and in the lives of his converts” (167). For Paul’s sense of this dialectic operating in his own life, Wilson points especially to 1 Cor 15:10, where the apostle views his human efforts as “the means by which [God’s] grace took effect” (169); for Paul’s belief that the same dialectic operates in the lives of his converts, Wilson points especially to 1 Cor 10:12–13, where the apostle “stresses divine activity as the means of empowering the human response” (175; cf. 114–17). For
Wilson, therefore, the tension between Paul’s assurances and warnings “is not in fact incoherent,” because the apostle “sees his warnings as the divinely appointed means by which God, who is at work in the Corinthians by his Spirit, will ensure that they continue in faith and holiness” (184). Wilson makes a strong case for his conclusion that, at least in 1 Corinthians, assurances of final salvation do not just appear to be but actually are in tension with warnings that salvation can be forfeited. Although this conclusion may seem unremarkable and the supporting exegetical studies therefore unneeded, his study effectively challenges those who have concluded otherwise (especially Gundry Volf and Oropeza). Wilson’s own exegetical judgments are informed by critical use of a broad range of previous scholarship, especially commentaries, and are in general carefully reasoned and framed. This is true even when his conclusions about specific issues are less than fully convincing (e.g., for me, those concerning 1 Cor 5 and, more consequentially, 1 Cor 15). The decision to confine the exegetical studies to the assurances and warnings in 1 Corinthians is reasonable, in that it allows one, theoretically, to take account of how they function within the overall argument of a particular letter. There are, however, important questions that Wilson leaves unexplored, including: Are the assurances and warnings about salvation equally important within the argument of 1 Corinthians? Are some more than others expressions of what is definitive of the apostle’s own thinking? Should some be accorded less weight because they reflect his indebtedness to one or another kind of tradition?
Finally, it is disappointing that Wilson has dealt so briefly with the arguably more consequential and demonstrably more difficult issue of why the “genuine tension” he finds between the assurances and warnings is nevertheless “coherent.” Quite plausibly, he bases his argument for coherence on passages where Paul’s comments reflect belief in a close and significant relationship between divine and human agency. But, to offer just one example, the conception of God’s grace that underlies these passages (e.g., 1 Cor 15:10) deserves more attention than it receives, not least because of the bearing it has on the apostle’s view of both the nature and the scope of the “salvation” that he proclaims.
—Victor Paul Furnish, Southern Methodist University