Volume 38 - Issue 1

As If Not

By D. A. Carson


I shall begin with a well-known exegetical conundrum and then branch out to a much larger issue that none of us can afford to ignore. In a context where Paul is talking about "virgins," both men and women, and delivers his judgment as to whether they should get married, he writes, "Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is" (1 Cor 7:26). To what does "the present crisis" refer? The Greek word ἀνάγκη has commonly been understood in one of two ways....

I shall begin with a well-known exegetical conundrum and then branch out to a much larger issue that none of us can afford to ignore.

In a context where Paul is talking about “virgins,” both men and women, and delivers his judgment as to whether they should get married, he writes, “Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is” (1 Cor 7:26). To what does “the present crisis” refer? The Greek word ἀνάγκη has commonly been understood in one of two ways.

First , some have taken this present “crisis” to refer to a period of major social dislocation, owing either to persecution or to famine induced by grain shortages or to some combination of both. The logic would be straightforward: Under normal circumstances it might make good sense to marry, but in times of social upheaval it might be the part of wisdom to remain single. If the church is going through a period of persecution, or is about to go through such a period, there is much to be said for celibacy. For a start, if you are single it is easier to be mobile and easier to hide. Moreover, malicious opponents cannot get at you through your spouse and family if you have no spouse and family.

Nevertheless, three things stand against this interpretation. (1) The various sources to which scholars appeal so as to justify a theory about grain shortages and the like, signaling famine, are notoriously difficult to date. (2) There is precious little evidence within 1 Corinthians itself that the church feels itself under threat of famine, social dislocation, or persecution. This seems to be a church that prides itself in its wisdom, a church that includes significant numbers of people who hold to some form or other of over-realized eschatology (which simply does not happen when the church is under attack: the tendency then is toward futurist eschatology), a church that is smugly playing various internal games of one-upmanship (party spirit, claiming to possess superior χαρίσματα, God’s grace-gifts) rather than hunkering down to face social dislocation from outside pressures. Certainly 2 Cor 8-9 presuppose that the Corinthian church, far from teetering on the edge of famine, is quite well-off, and jolly well ought share its wealth with brothers and sisters in Judea who have much less. (3) Above all, this interpretation makes little sense of the peculiar list of “as if not” phrases in 1 Cor 7:29-31. For example, those who mourn, Paul tells the Corinthians, should live “as if they did not; those who were happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep.” It is not easy to fit such judgments into the first scenario.

Second , many scholars argue that what Paul has in mind by “the present crisis” (1 Cor 7:26) is the imminence of the Lord’s return-not the theological “imminence” that means only that Jesus could return at any moment yet equally could be long delayed, but the ordinary sense of imminence: Paul believed, it is argued, that Jesus’ return in glory was impending, so close to being upon the church, that it was the part of wisdom to serve the interests of the gospel flat-out. In the light of this impending parousia, distractions such as marriage are better put aside. After all, might not 1 Thess 4:17 be understood to mean that he expected to be among the “we” who would be caught up to be with the Lord Jesus at his return?

Once again, several considerations make this an unlikely interpretation. (1) First Thessalonians 4:17 can no more be taken to mean that Paul expected to be alive at the parousia than 1 Cor 6:14 can be taken to mean that Paul expected to be dead at the parousia. (2) This interpretation inevitably means that Paul was wrong in his expectations. Any interpretation of Paul that, to be right, must presuppose that Paul is wrong, is inherently suspicious. (3) The strange list of “as if not” phrases in 1 Cor 7:29-31 does not fit this reconstruction any better than it fits the previous one.

Part of the problem is that some of our versions render ἀνάγκη by “crisis.” The English word “crisis” conjures up a short-term supreme test or climax. By contrast, the first lexical definition provided by BDAG is “necessity or constraint as inherent in the nature of things, necessity, pressure of any kind.” None of this evokes images of crisis (such as social unrest spawned by war or famine), still less of the impending parousia. It might be less misleading to render 1 Cor 7:26, “Because of the present constraint, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is.” The “constraint” that is “inherent in the nature of things” is then the sum of difficult challenges coughed up by a world that is simultaneously, on the one hand, lost and subject to catastrophic judgment, and, on the other, the locus of the gospel, mysteriously ruled by Christ until death itself is destroyed (1 Cor 15:25-26). It covers the entire period between the first advent of Christ and his second. It is akin to some uses of “tribulation” in the NT. The time is “short” (1 Cor 15:29) in exactly the same sense that Jesus is coming “soon” (Rev 22:20): the last act of the old order is winding down, and the new order has already begun, though it has not yet broken out in consummation splendor.

If this is right, then all of the “as if not” phrases make sense. “From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not” (1 Cor 7:29): this cannot mean that they should become monks or otherwise withdraw from their spouses, for in this same chapter Paul has already made it clear that this would defraud the spouse (7:1-7). Marriage itself, like celibacy, is a gracious gift from God, a χάρισμα (7:7). Each spouse owns the body of the other, and sexual intimacy must not be withheld except under the stringent conditions that 7:5 stipulates. Paul cannot be dismissing marriage; rather, he means something subtler: marriage is not the summum bonum, but stands under God’s as if not. Because the new age has dawned and marriage itself does not continue into the resurrection existence of the new heaven and the new earth, then, as important and as wonderful as marriage is, the thoughtful Christian will not invest it with eternal significance. Similarly: “From now on . . . those who mourn, as if they did not”: our tears, however free-flowing, belong to this dying age of death. They, too, stand under God’s as if not: we sorrow, but not as those who have no hope. But exactly the same thing must be said of the inverse of mourning: “those who are happy, as if they were not” (7:30). Happiness is not banned, any more than marriage is banned or mourning is banned. Rather, the happiness that the world calls forth stands under God’s as if not. Some people find their pleasure and identity in the acquisition of things, but Paul writes, “those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep” (7:30). Exactly so. It is not that there is no place for purchasing things, any more than there is now no place for marriage. But how can we attach overweening importance to things we cannot bring with us? They all stand under God’s as if not. More generically: “those who use the things of the world, as if engrossed in them” (7:31). It is not that we do not properly interact with “the things of the world,” for this is where we live. Nevertheless they all stand under God’s as if not, so we dare not be engrossed in them. Paul puts the matter succinctly: “For this world in its present form is passing away” (7:31).

This well-known exegetical crux could be usefully discussed at much greater length. For the moment, however, I shall assume that the interpretation defended here is the most plausible one and branch out into a broader issue.

Recent years have witnessed a plethora of books and articles on the relationship between the gospel and culture, between proclamation and doing good deeds, between the gospel of Paul and the gospel of the kingdom. Some of these polarities are singularly misjudged; others are important and deserve the most patient and biblically faithful exploration. But the lesson to be learned from the passages we have been surveying in 1 Cor 7 is this: even when we are rightly developing faithful cultural expressions of art and music, even when we are digging wells in the Sahel and developing centers to help the homeless, even when we patiently and lovingly build solid marriages in line with God’s disclosure of what marriage should be, even when we connect the use of our fiscal resources to kingdom priorities, the entire fabric of our current existence stands under God’s as if not. We cannot, we must not, be entirely engrossed even in good things that God himself labels χαρίσματα, God’s gracious gifts, if those gracious gifts are tied to an order that is passing away. If we learn this lesson well, we shall better understand what it means to lay up treasures in heaven.

* * * * * * *

The extensive book review section in each fascicle of Themelios is overseen by six book review editors. We have tried to draw these capable people from various quarters of the globe. Until this issue, Daniel Santos has capably served as our Old Testament Book Review Editor. He is now stepping down owing to increased responsibilities in Sao Paulo. We thank God for his service. At the same time we warmly welcome his successor, Jerry Hwang, of Singapore Bible College, who earned his doctorate at Wheaton College. Some readers will recognize his name from the reviews he has already written for Themelios. We look forward to fruitful collaboration. Dr Hwang may be contacted at [email protected]. Soli Deo gloria.

D. A. Carson

D. A. Carson is emeritus professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and cofounder and theologian-at-large of The Gospel Coalition.

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