Wilson on 1 Corinthians
I enjoyed reading The Warning-Assurance Relationship in 1 Corinthians. It is an academic work so readers shouldn’t expect quite the normal Wilson style; but even in academic voice there is a panache and zip about Andrew’s writing that means this is not nearly so dry as is the case with most academic material. The question the book tangles with is essentially this: how on earth are we meant to make sense of the apparently contradictory statements of warning and assurance that Paul issues to the Corinthians? How can it possibly be true that (to cite one example), “He will keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless” (1 Cor 1:8) but the warning “Do not grumble, as some of them did – and were killed by the destroying angel” (1 Cor 10:10) is genuine?
Andrew examines the various attempts that have been made to reconcile these apparent contradictions: that the assurances are conditional; that the assurances are rhetorical; that the warnings do not concern true believers; that the warnings do not concern salvation – and demonstrates how they are all faulty. Throughout, the exegesis is superb, and for anyone planning on preaching through 1 Corinthians it would certainly be worth having a copy of this alongside the normal weighty commentaries. (Unsurprisingly, some of what is contained in Warning-Assurance has appeared in different form on Think over the years. For example, here on idol food and here on whether Israel was baptised in the Spirit.)
So, what answer *spoiler alert* does Dr Wilson propose to the Warning-Assurance conundrum? It is this: that there is a “significant tension” between the warnings and assurances of 1 Corinthians, but this is resolved when we understand that,
Paul believes that his apostolic warnings are themselves a means by which the Corinthians will be preserved by God for future glory. Paul believes that, as a result of God’s faithfulness, grounded in the Corinthians’ participation in Christ, and through the agency of divine grace at work within them by the Spirit, his urgent warnings will somehow be efficacious.
Andrew provides examples from outside Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians which reflect similar tensions. For example, Paul’s exhortation to the Philippians that they work out their own salvation – while it is Christ who works salvation in them; and the case of the shipwreck in Acts 27 in which Paul is recorded as saying both, “There will be no loss of life among you,” and, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.”
It is fascinating that, “This theological explanation, which neither removes the warning-assurance tension nor puts it down to incoherence in Paul’s thought, has never been explored or defended in the scholarship of 1 Corinthians” – although it has been hinted at and taught by various Reformed and Puritan authors. Fascinating not least because pastorally I’m sure this is how many of us approach the warning-assurance tension found throughout scripture. Personally, I know that in preaching through both 1 Corinthians and Hebrews pushing the logic of the warning-assurance tension would have ended up being tied in knots, while pastorally I could say with all confidence: these warnings are real and deadly serious – listen to them! – but, Jesus will keep us to the end!
So one of the things I enjoyed about Andrew’s academic exploration of 1 Corinthians was the reminder that Paul was a pastor, not an academic. As Andrew notes,
Paul leaves warnings and assurances in tension. But rather than the mark of a careless thinker, this is the mark of a careful pastor, whose concern for his converts is matched only by his confidence in the trustworthiness, power and grace of God.
It is somewhat ironic that it takes an academic study to demonstrate that.
Back to my opening question then: should you spend £80 on a copy of this? If you are an academic working on 1 Corinthians you will need to read this; and if you are a pastor wanting to teach 1 Corinthians to a local church you will want to read this. So you might decide to buy it – but you could just use a library. But more than that, reading Warning-Assurance made me grateful once again for my academic-pastor friend. Well done Andrew!