Editors’ note: Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to firstname.lastname@example.org along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.
Doug L. from Rockwall, Texas, asks:
How do we understand 1 Cor. 7:12, when Paul says, “To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord),” when all of Scripture is meant to be from the Lord? How do we make sense of this in light of the debates on inerrancy and authority of Scripture?
We posed this question to Dane Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College), Bible publishing director at Crossway in Wheaton, Illinois, where he lives with his wife, Stacey, and three boys. He is the author of A New Inner Relish, Defiant Grace, Zeal without Knowledge, and Mark: A 12-Week Study. Dane blogs at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology.
It’s a good question and one that most of us have been perplexed by when we read 1 Corinthians 7. I certainly have. The whole text in question reads as follows:
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called youto peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Who Is ‘the Lord’?
The first matter to clear up is what the questioner means by saying that “all of Scripture” is “from the Lord.” In one sense this is true, in another sense it is not.
Most broadly, the whole Bible is certainly from “from the Lord” if by “the Lord” we mean the triune God—the 66 books of the Bible are God’s self-testimony to a fallen world of his identity and his mighty deeds in our space-and-time history for the sake of sinners. Every word is a word from God.
But not all of Scripture is “from the Lord” if by “the Lord” we mean the Lord Jesus in his earthly teaching—and it is Jesus that Paul has in mind when he speaks of “the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 7.
When Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:10 that it is “not I, but the Lord” who declares that a husband and wife should not separate, he is drawing on the words of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 19:4-9). When Paul goes on to say that it is “I, not the Lord” who says that a believing spouse should remain with a contented unbelieving spouse, he is acknowledging that Jesus did not explicitly address such a situation, as the Corinthians are now facing.
Canon Within the Canon?
Of course, this raises a question. Is Paul saying Jesus’ words are more authoritative than his own? Have we created a canon within the canon? Are we saying that if Paul were to buy a Bible today, he’d prefer a red-letter edition?
Nope. After all, the entire Scripture is the Word of Christ, broadly conceived. We cannot hold up what Leviticus or Ecclesiastes says as less authoritative, from a whole-Bible perspective, than the Sermon on the Mount. All three cohere and play their distinctive role in giving us the cumulative message of Scripture—namely, the message of the grace of God in the Son of God for the people of God to the glory of God. At the same time, a ritual food law from Leviticus is not received today by Christians in the same way as it would have been for a Jew 3,000 years ago, because we read such a food law in light of Jesus’ words in Mark 7:14-23, in which “he declared all foods clean” (7:19).
The 66 books of the Bible are unified, but not uniform. The Bible gives us a coherent message, but every text must be read in light of the entire Bible; Leviticus must be read in light of Mark 7. Anything less would be sub-Christian. I don’t read Isaiah the way a Jew would in 50 B.C. for the same basic reason I’m not writing this article on papyrus: it’s not where we are in the Story.
How does all this relate to 1 Corinthians 7? In this way: we are to read 1 Cor. 7:12 as carrying for us the same full authority that any of the words of Jesus carry. There is no canon within the canon. As an apostle, Paul spoke on behalf of the one who sent him, Christ himself. The apostles were formally commissioned to testify to and to pass down to the next generation the authoritative teaching of Christ and the sanctioned significance of his saving work. Paul the apostle therefore speaks with full authority.
Imagine that the king of a foreign land has passed a law that every young man must enter the nation’s military force at age 18. Each man must serve for five years, after which time he is discharged and free. The king himself writes this law into existence, commissioning a given number of officials to communicate and enforce the law on his behalf, and dies shortly thereafter. His personally selected officials are then confronted with the situation, however, that foreign couples are getting married and then entering the nation and living as citizens of this nation. Should these husbands, assuming they are at least 18 years old, be conscripted into the military?
What is relevant here is simply the question of authority. The king had formally sanctioned a specific number of officials to carry out his laws. The officials therefore write a letter to the people explaining their solution. In that letter they explain that the king himself had ordered every male 18 years of age to enter the military. The officials then further explain that, although the king did not explicitly address the unusual circumstance of foreigners becoming citizens, the officials themselves speak on the king’s behalf and with his authority. The people of the land are therefore to receive the officials’ decision just as they would the king’s very words.
Distinction of Source, Not Authority
The point of this imperfect analogy is simply that even when Paul is speaking beyond the actual words of Jesus, he is speaking with apostolic authority. He acts on behalf of the King. It may sound odd, but we receive Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor. 7:12-16 as the very word of God even though it is not the very words of Jesus. 1 Cor. 7:12 is no less inerrant than 1 Cor. 7:10 (or the words of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, for that matter). For Christians today, Paul’s “I, not the Lord” is not less authoritative than his “not I, but the Lord.” It might be worth remembering also that even the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels are the true voice of Jesus but not the actual words of Jesus. He spoke in Aramaic, but our New Testament recorded those words in Greek. So even in the Gospels, we are dealing with a similar dynamic. We do not view the Greek text of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as inferior in authority to the Aramaic that Jesus would actually have uttered.
In other words, the distinction we today discern in Paul’s words in 1 Cor 7:10, 12 is a distinction of original source, not final authority. Paul is telling us that he is quoting Jesus in 7:10, but not in 7:12. But for us today, both verses have full authority. Perhaps Paul’s apostolic authority in these matters is the reason he reminds his readers that he too has the Spirit of God in the last verse of 1 Corinthians 7.
Not all of Scripture is the words of Jesus. But all of Scripture is the Word of God.