First Corinthians 6--The Error of Sophistry
Mar 21, 2017
According to Ferrar Fenton, 1 Corinthians 6:12-14 is a mini-debate that Paul sets up with the Sophists, one of the many forms of Greek philosophy. Sophistry differed from other philosophies in that it was not a centralized “school.” The first sophist was a man named Protagoras, who lived in the fourth century before Christ.
Here is how Fenton translates 1 Corinthians 6:12-14:
An Exposure of Sophistry
(Sophist.) “Everything is allowable to me.”
(Paul.) “But everything does not benefit.”
(Sophist.) “Everything is permissible to me.”
(Paul.) “But I will not be deluded by any.”
(Sophist.) “The foods for the stomach, and the stomach for the foods.”
(Paul.) “But God can abolish both it and them.”
The Emphatic Diaglott agrees with Fenton by putting the Sophist’s argument in quotation marks. But the translator (Benjamin Wilson) does not attempt to identify the specific philosophy that Paul was quoting. Nonetheless, he recognizes that the statements in quotations are not from Paul himself, but are being refuted by Paul. This is very important, for many have thought that the statement which says, “all things are lawful unto me,” (KJV) was Paul’s own teaching to the church when, in fact, he was refuting this view.
It may be that Chloe herself had mentioned this in her letter. She may have discerned this false philosophy in the church. She may have written something like this: “Some are still influenced by Sophistry, saying all things are lawful unto me. They think they have the right to legislate their own moral laws.” Unfortunately, Chloe’s letter has been lost, so we know only how Paul answered her letter.
Protagoras was the first relativist, teaching that right and wrong was not fixed in stone (as with the Ten Commandments). In his book entitled Truth, his opening statement or thesis was this:
“Man is the measure of all things, of the things that are that they are and of the things that are not that they are not.”
In other words, things are good or bad according to how a man perceives it. The way things appear to an individual is the way they are in fact for that individual. Socrates argued with him, saying that what an individual might think as being right or wrong might contradict that of the “experts” (the rulers and judges). He gives the example of infanticide, where an individual might think killing babies is wrong, but because experts have given parents the right to kill their babies and allow it by customs and laws, then a contradictory view by the individual is wrong.
Thus, the laws of society determined the fact of right and wrong, making the individual right only if he agreed with the established laws. Paul, of course, rejects both sides of that debate, because to him, God alone establishes laws, and while these have to be interpreted and applied to individual situations, His laws are not relativistic. He agreed with Socrates that established law must take precedence over individual beliefs, and that individuals do not have the right to legislate their own morality. However, man must be subject to God’s law. When the laws of men contradict those given by God, the divine law is the measure of all morality.
Protagoras and his successors also debated whether the laws (nomos) and social norms of the day were grounded in nature and reality (phusis). Some argued that morality was a human invention and that principles of right and wrong should be dictated by nature itself—that is, whether or not it was good for the perpetuation of the species. Laws were viewed with suspicion, as if they were made by the weak and those of inferior intelligence in order to inhibit the strong and intelligent ones from taking their rightful place as leaders of society.
Their idea placed nature over nomos, which, if nomos means man’s laws, would have fit well with Paul’s theology. God’s law IS the law of nature, and Scripture contrasts God’s laws with the laws (traditions) of men.
But Sophism seemed to think that the tyranny of the strong and intelligent was natural and therefore right. In other words, he who is strongest has the right to be the king of the jungle. Scripture would dispute this, saying that he who is called by God has the right to be king, and such a called one is not necessarily the one that men think is the fittest. King Saul would have been backed by the Sophists.
Sophistry, then, says, “all things are lawful for me” (1 Corinthians 6:12 NASB). Paul corrects this and essentially refutes it by countering: “but not all things are profitable.” The Greek word translated “profitable” is symphero, “to bring together, advantageous, profitable, expedient.”
In other words, Protagoras would have argued that since man is the measure of all things, he has the right to legislate his own laws and to apply them as he wishes. Paul says that such a relativistic view of morality does not lead to any long-term resolution of the human problem of injustice.
Paul repeats the Sophist assertion and refutes it in another way, saying, “but I will not be mastered by anything.” The Greek word which the NASB translates “be mastered” is exousiazo, “to be placed under authority or mastery.” Fenton translates it “deluded,” implying that Paul did not want to be placed under the authority of, or deluded by, any tradition of men. Hence, “all things are lawful to me” is refuted as a tradition of men that invalidates the word (law) of God ((Matthew 15:3, 6).
The Sophist assertion that “food is for the stomach, and the stomach is for food” in 1 Corinthians 6:13 does not refer to food that we eat, but to teachings that we assimilate. In other words, the Sophist says, “Truth is what I say it is, according to my taste and whatever I can stomach.” But Paul refutes this, saying, “God will do away with both of them,” that is, both the teaching (food) and the inner food processor—man’s presumed right to decide right from wrong.
Jesus—the Measure of All Things
Paul then ties this discussion to the present issue of immorality in the Corinthian church, for it is apparent that some in the church had been influenced by the moral relativism of Sophism. They needed to root out such philosophies of men and to return to the law of God. 1 Corinthians 6:13, 14 continues,
13 … Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and the Lord is for the body. 14 Now God has not only raised the Lord, but will also raise us up through His power.
While men’s philosophies may permit immorality, God’s law does not give men that right. Man, in his current state of corruption and mortality, is not the measure of all things. The Lord Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead, is the measure of all things. Further, He will also “raise us up through His power,” so that in the end, we will attain the same measure. So Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:11-13 that God gave the five-fold ministry as gifts to men…
13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
This is part 25 of a series titled "Studies in First Corinthians." To view all parts, click the link below.